Blue Marble - March 2009

"Tiniest of Baby Booms" A Monster

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 6:37 PM PDT

You can't miss it in today's news: US births break record, 40 percent out-of-wedlock. Frankly, my dear, who gives a shit about the wedding bands. Though that's pretty much what all the moralizing is about.

No, what's stupefying is the fact that nowhere in this much-travelled article does anyone ever talk about the real impact of more babies being born in the US in 2007 than any other year in the nation's history.

So let's talk about it. And let's start with a really interesting study just published in the journal Global Environmental Change. A couple of statisticians at Oregon State U disengaged their mechanical pencils from their pocket protectors, clicked some fresh lead onto recycled paper (we hope) and came up with this bold analysis into that sacristy of human reproduction—to have or not to have:

  • A mother and father are each responsible for one half of the emissions of their offspring and 1/4 the emissions of their grandchildren and so on forever or thereabouts
  • Therefore, under current US conditions, each child adds 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female
  • That's 5.7 times her lifetime emissions
  • Translation: one child costs nearly 6 times your own CO2 emissions
  • In the pessimistic scenario, each American child adds 12,730 metric tons to your carbon legacy
  • In comparison, under current Bangladeshi conditions, each child adds 56 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female

The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do—driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling—comes even close to simply not having that child. All those good things still add up to less than 500 metric tons of CO2 savings. Not having the kid saves between 10,000 and 13,000 metric tons of CO2.

So why are we still giving tax breaks for having kids? Why are we pretending that because they're cute they're harmless? Little monsters.

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I'm Flicking the Lights Off

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 10:20 AM PDT


Sarah Silverman did it first but this crew does it DARKER for Earth Hour: Saturday 28 March 8:30pm. You can too. Don't forget.

Madagascar's Coup d'Etat

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 10:04 AM PDT

During a college semester abroad in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, I suddenly felt compelled to write long letters to anyone who I thought might read them. Partly it was to plaster entire envelopes with the country's beautiful palette of penny stamps--everything from lemur scenes to Elvis tributes. But I also really needed to tell someone about the malnourished, 24-hour banana salesmen who slept in doorways, the giant hissing cockroaches in the outhouses, and the men who stood on the rocks alongside the coral beaches and hurled out fishing line, bending over as it unspooled off the tops of their heads.

Madagascar has never been a practical country, and I suppose that's part of its charm. The bridges are all washed out. The national highway is a soup of laterite. Rural folk live in mud-brick hovels yet spend the afterlife within palatial cement replicas of airplanes and taxi brousses--the jacked-up WWII-era troop carriers that are the only way to get around. The less intractable of these problems were, according to Fort Dauphin's students, caused by the greed and ineptness of the country's then-president, Didier Ratsirika, who clung to power only because his party rode into town before each election atop huge loads of free rice.

An island off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is in some ways even more tragic than the continent's cliches. When humans first drifted there from Africa and Indonesia beginning only about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, pygmy hippos no bigger than pigs, and elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton. Those creatures were long ago engulfed in wave of extinction that continues to this day. Among the most tenuous survivors is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat, and woodpecker. Despite Madagascar's status as a virtual mini-continent where 80 percent of species are found nowhere else, its infrastructure has been too unreliable to support what should be a thriving tourism industry.

There was once hope that politicians could turn things around. In 2002, Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy farmer, ousted Ratsirika at the polls in a wave of popular support and optimism. Of course, Madagascar was still a country where children stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to dance for the occasional driver in hopes he'd toss coins out the window; poverty ran deep. So when Andry Rajoelina, the young, charismatic disc jockey who'd become mayor of the nation's capital, Antananarivo, organized protests against rising food prices and government graft last year, Ravalomanana had him ousted. The ensuing three-month standoff ended this week when troops sympathetic to Rajeolina stormed the presidential palace and forced Ravalomanana to cede power.

"This is no clash of policies; it is a clash of personalities," the BBC opined. That doesn't mean it's any less a disaster. The Madagascar military has ended its tradition of not taking political sides. Rajoelena has refused to submit to a referendum on the presidency, paving the way for an uncertain period of dictatorship. And tourism has ground to a halt and will likely take months or years to start up again, especially in the midst of a global downturn.

As the coup clearly shows,  tourism and poverty are uneasy bedfellows. The tragedy in Madagascar is that they need not be. Though hard to reach and difficult to navigate, Madagascar is far from dangerous. It simply needs more ways for tourist money to flow to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and more tourists who won't let a few sand fleas, stomach bugs, and lost tires get in the way of seeing the most unique place on the planet.

Guilt at 35,000 Feet

| Mon Mar. 16, 2009 4:53 PM PDT
In the course of one flight from San Francisco to Tokyo I was handed 13 plastic drinking cups, a new one for every drink. When I held onto one and tried handing it back for the next fill-up, the flight attendant handled it like it was radioactive. Hmm. Northwest Airlines claims to be greening itself [pdf] but the disposable aftermath of even one in-flight meal suggests otherwise. Even assuming they might recycle some of this stuff (will they?), recycling ain't cheap. It's energetically expensive and sometimes counterproductive. Can't we just wash some dishes?

Artist Chris Jordan claims with his usual punch-in-the-gut visual impact that the airline industry in the US uses 1 million plastic cups every six hours. Not sure where he got that number but my flight alone must have squandered something like 4,000 cups.

The problem bugs me on the ground too. So here's my solution. I call it my Urban Mess Kit. It's composed of a cool Float messenger bag from Osprey made of PET plastics with a a minimum of 70-percent recycled materials, mostly recycled drink bottles. I throw in two polypropylene doggy-bag containers that came with my Chinese restaurant leftovers. They're designed for one-time-only use but in reality they'll likely outlive me. I add two sets of plastic cutlery picked up from to-go meals and then NOT thrown away. Finally, one Nalgene drink bottle that I use for hot and cold drinks.

Okay, Nalgene isn't perfect. This older bottle I have probably isn't even BPA-free like the newer stuff. It's definitely not trendy like stainless. But it's overwhelming advantage, IMO, is that I bought it used from a thrift store & so did not encourage the creation of any more plastic to clog the arteries of Planet Earth.

I use my Urban Mess Kit for most everything these days: drinks bought on the go (I hand over my bottle); food bought on the go (including deli counters); leftovers; impromptu picnics. Plus there's still room in my Osprey pack for my laptop, wallet, glasses, keys, phone, a book and more. It all nests into a small footprint, pun intended. If I was entrepreneurial, I'd build and sell these kits. But it would be friendlier to the environment if you reused some of the disposable stuff coming your way and made your own.

Oh, and as part of its Triple-R program for US customers, Osprey joins with the Mountain Fund to take back your old (still useable) pack and give it to someone somewhere in the world who needs it: women trying to break into the trekking and climbing industries in Nepal & Uganda; kids in orphanages in Kyrgyzstan who can learn to socialize on treks; city kids who need to see wilderness. In return, they'll give you 10 percent off a new Osprey bag. So if you really need a new bag, this is a good way to mitigate some of your consumption.

White House Invites Right-Wingers to Discuss Abortion Reduction

| Mon Mar. 16, 2009 3:36 PM PDT | Scheduled to publish Mon Mar. 16, 2009 3:36 PM PDT

Right Wing Watch notes the White House has invited anti-abortion representatives from the religious right to a meeting next Tuesday with Josh DuBois, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to discuss ways to reduce abortions. Among those attending will be Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council and Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.

That's the same Wendy Wright who has declared that President Obama and Congress are "more hostile to unborn children, to marriage, to religious freedom, to free speech, to protecting our country than has ever existed in our history." And when Obama lifted the ban on Federally funded stem cell research, Wright blasted the move, saying it "financially benefits those seeking to strip morality from science. It is politics at its worst."

Considering Wright's disparaging rhetoric—and similarly critical comments from other Evangelical groups—their invitation to meet with the White House puzzled me: The pro-life stance offers very little, if any, middle ground. Why, then, include pro-life hardliners in a discussion on abortion reduction?

At the very least, the move demonstrates Obama's commitment to listening to and talking with the opposition. It also further distances Obama's administration from George Bush, who never reached out similarly to representatives of groups with views as hostile toward his positions. As a spokesman for NARAL told me via email, "Unless you count getting thrown off the grounds of the FDA for trying to deliver petitions on birth-control access, then no, we were never invited to meet with the Bush administration."

We Over-Privileged Bitches Who Dare Not To Breastfeed

| Sun Mar. 15, 2009 9:29 AM PDT

My friend Hanna Rosin has such a deliciously subversive piece in the latest Atlantic that I've spent days over my witch's cauldron of a laptop diabolically trying to figure out which plums to excerpt for maximum outrage. The piece is called, (tee hee) The Case Against Breastfeeding. Pissed off yet? Good.

So, where to begin? What will most offend the tender sensibilities of MoJo's oh-so-progressive readers? How about this, the subhead?

In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it's a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting. Yet the actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates. Is breast-feeding right for every family? Or is it this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?

Wha? I never miss Hanna's work, but this time, she had me at "instrument of misery." I just hope the drool doesn't crash my keyboard. The science behind 'breast is best' is bogus, just another conspiracy to keep those of us with vaginas barefoot and topless in public? Yes, as it turns out—the science is bogus. Can't tell that from, oh, what our pediatricians and 'lactation consultants' tell us, could we?

I only breastfed both my kids off and on, the first for about six months, the second for at most four. Why? There was a minor (though, with great effort fixable) health issue. But mostly it just felt so selfish. There was my then husband and my mom, both of whom had to sit there tapping their feet with lust to get at those luscious babies who spent most of their time latched onto me like lovely little leeches.

In the beginning, I pumped just so they could have that special feeding/bonding time with those precious bundles gripping so tightly with those little fingers. Truly—breastfeeding felt selfish. Which means that more or less subconsciously, I just didn't buy that they'd grow up to be hunchbacked mental deficients without my precious boob juice. There simply had to be too many other variables at play. I'm almost 50, so you know I wasn't breastfed, and I'm pretty smart and pretty healthy, like most folks of my generation. And remember—our parents drank and smoked the whole time (though not my mom. But it wasn't because she thought it would hurt us. Booze and cigs just were never her thing.)

 

My mom couldn't help me with the breastfeeding and, with my ineptitude, the little buggers hurt the hell out of me. I dutifully visited and revisited the lactation consultant but kept peppering her with questions about why formula was so bad, and how much mixing formula with breast milk might hurt them. Finally, she laid down the law:

"Look, I'm not here to tell you it's OK not to breastfeed, Debra."

I thought about that for a minute. Then said, "Fair enough." So I pumped less and less and joined the Enfamil crowd.

As Hanna admits in her piece, feeding time didn't feel any more special to me than any of the other hours I spent dreamily nibbling their toes and pretending to make stuffed animals dance. The time that was most special to me was, after eating, when they'd happily lose consciousness and burrow into my chest. So warm, so content, so secure. That time was sublime to me, that was when I felt most maternal. Breastfeeding was a time-consuming painful chore I didn't think worth it.

And when the folks in my tony, Ivy League crowd gave me the stink-eye as I whipped out a bottle, I just shrugged it off. When you have kids, the world is full of folks telling you you're doing it all wrong. But unless they're willing to walk the floor with my kids all night when they're sick, they can just suck it. Breastfeeding just wasn't high on my list of priorities in an over-stressed life. Besides, I had to work like a dog. Breastfeeding made a difficult career even more difficult, and something simply had to give.

Which gets me to the excerpt I'll leave you with, in hopes that you'll beat feet, in high dudgeon of course, to read the piece in full:

The Bitch in the House, published in 2002, reframed The Feminine Mystique for my generation of mothers. We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal. But who were we kidding? Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. In my set, no husband tells his wife that it is her womanly duty to stay home and nurse the child. Instead, both parents together weigh the evidence and then make a rational, informed decision that she should do so. Then other, logical decisions follow: she alone fed the child, so she naturally knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child and the better nurse when the child is sick, and so on. Recently, my husband and I noticed that we had reached the age at which friends from high school and college now hold positions of serious power. When we went down the list, we had to work hard to find any women. Where had all our female friends strayed? Why had they disappeared during the years they’d had small children?
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women's lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let's say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That's nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is "free," I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It's only free if a woman's time is worth nothing.
How dare she? What an awful woman! Her children should be taken away! Or, maybe, we should all just mind our own business.

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Feministing's Courtney E. Martin Guest Blogs on "Pole Dancers"

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 8:44 PM PDT

Guest blogger Courtney E. Martin is the book editor of the feminist blog Feministing.

After Debra Dickerson caricatures young women as pole dancing, attention-starved idiots, she then quips: "Harsh, you say? Uninformed? OK. Tell me exactly what today's feminists are doing for the struggle."

Glad you asked Debra, because it's clear you haven't had the benefit of knowing a real, live, breathing, thinking young woman and you're really missing out. Indeed, some of us like to blog about the political and social issues of the day (as it appears, do you). We actually see this as part of the struggle—an effort to speak on our own behalf about issues that affect us in a corporate conglomerated media landscape that too often trades in stereotypes like yours.

You write, "Blogging about your sex lives ain't exactly what we previous generations thought feminism was. We thought it was about taking it to the streets." At feministing, we get frequent emails from young women, often in isolated parts of the country, who read about sexual politics on our blog and get the courage to speak up about their rape or incest experiences, advocate for comprehensive sex ed in their schools, or come out to their parents and friends. We think that's profoundly feminist.

Outside of our media activism and public intellectual work, we're joyfully and dedicatedly going about all sorts of action to make women's and men's lives more just, equal, and authentic:

We are providing support and shelter for former teen prostitutes. We are training to be abortion providers and midwives and social workers. We are mentoring low income girls to write about their experiences. We are falling in love with feminist men and women and having our hearts broken and doing it all over again. We are running shelters for LGBTQ youth who have fallen through the cracks of a homophobic society. We are educating one another about STIs, STDs, and reproductive justice. We are doing community organizing. We are rebuilding New Orleans. We are going dancing all night with our girls. We are, indeed, protesting in the streets. We are starting organizations to provide support for women veterans of Iraq, 15 percent of whom have been sexually assaults. We are drinking beers on Saturday nights with our friends and talking about feminism. We are donating money to causes we believe in, voting for leaders we respect, getting political and media training. We are queering gender and getting sex change operations and delighting in our sexuality on a spectrum. We are dancing burlesque downtown to demonstrate our rejection of oppressive beauty standards and explore our sexuality on our own terms. We are writing op-eds. We are painting and break dancing and making documentary films and writing on one another's Facebook walls and refusing to let our friends date assholes and reinventing or rejecting marriage all together and speaking out at Take Back the Night and deluging corporate email accounts when they use sexist advertising. We are honoring our mothers and grandmothers with our wide-eyed, creative, tenacious spirits. We are feminism.

So that's just some of what we’re doing for the so-called struggle. How about you?

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, speaker, and teacher living in Brooklyn. You can read more about her work at courtneyemartin.com

Damming the Himalayas

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 4:51 PM PDT

A recent report by International Rivers details a rash of dam building projects in the world's most rugged and scenic mountain range:

Massive plans are underway in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan to build several hundred dams in the region, with over 150,000 megawatts of additional capacity proposed in the next 20 years in the four countries. If all the planned capacity expansion materializes, the Himalayan region could possibly have the highest concentration of dams in the world.

It's almost certain that this will happen. Sometimes known as the "Third Pole," the Himalayas contain of 3,700 square kilometers of glacial ice, which is melting due to climate change and gushing down the slopes of the 14 tallest peaks in the world. South Asia's boom in population, economic output (which is surprisingly immune to the global downturn), and Western-funded carbon offset projects virtually insures that the forces of dam building will be almost as powerful as the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.

Clearly the dams will export cheap and low-carbon electricity. But they will also displace hundreds of thousands of people, import hordes of culturally disruptive migrant laborers, wreck fisheries, and, maybe worst of all, breach in the likely event of an earthquake or climate-change-induced flood, unleashing a cascade of disasters. Novelist Arundhati Roy has eloquently opined against the Narmada dam project, though to little avail. We can only hope that the scenic Himalayas will fare better in the protective embrace of their poets.

Young Feminist Does Not Equal Pole Dancer

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 4:49 PM PDT
Some of the "young chicks" over at Feministing.com and RH Reality Check got fired up about Debra Dickerson's post on abortion providers, and weren't afraid to let us know. Check out the comments here and here. In the original post, Dickerson points out a New York Times article about the declining number of abortion providers. It's asserted that young feminists (male and female) are not making abortion services a priority, and as a result, abortion access in the future is endangered.

Firstly, I always take a New York Times trend piece with a rather huge grain of salt. These are the folks, after all, who brought us the Opt-Out Revolution and Dating A Banker Anonymous. Secondly, I think where Dickerson goes astray is when she suggests that young feminists today enjoy "pole-dancing, walking around half-naked, posting drunk photos on Facebook, and blogging about your sex lives" rather than working for reproductive rights. And thirdly, not all feminists are female.

As our commenters have pointed out, young feminists actually do lots of abortion-related work, whether it's protesting on the streets or volunteering for organizations. Living in San Francisco, I know a LOT of feminists, and none of them post drunk pictures of themselves online, or pole-dance, or walk around half-naked. Or at least, none of them have let me in on it. As for myself, I'm definitely a feminist, and youngish (30). I've cold-called for NARAL, donated to NOW, and marched in rallies, but have yet to walk around half-naked unless I'm changing at the gym.

Part of what I think rankled the Feministing crowd (and tell me if I'm wrong) is that Dickerson paints young feminists with a wide, LiLo-train-wreck colored brush. There's a big difference between what young feminists do today, and what the media depicts them as doing. The media publishes stories about 16-year-olds with racy MySpace profiles and sex-positive pole-dancers because they get a response. I think the best response to Dickerson's post, aside from pointing out the many achievements of young feminists, is a little bit of humor. As my co-worker and copy editor extrordinaire Nicole McClelland told me, putting all young feminists in the category of drunken strippers is a dramatic overgeneralization at best. "I didn’t know that that’s what the current generation of feminists thinks feminism is," said Nicole. "Now that I do, though, I’m totally going to call some and ask them if they want to party."

Earth Hour Hong Kong 香 港

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 3:35 PM PDT
Yeah, right, you say, it's so 2007 and when are we going to do more than turn off the lights for one hour a year? Except it's still a novel concept in many places and one waking up the Rip-Van-Winkles sleeping with their lights on.

I'm talking about Hong Kong. The most brightly lit place on Earth apart from Las Vegas, IMO. It's a neon wet dream. Strolling the streets after dark here is, well, the lure of a sci-fi siren, deadly and gorgeous with light.

Still, Hong Kong's per capita ranking of CO2 emissions falls well below the US: Hong Kong #72; US #10. And both are far shy of #1 Qatar, The Sheikdom of Squander.

Andy Cornish, Director of Conservation WWF Hong Kong, tells me that Hong Kong has not yet officially joined the 1,429 cities and towns in 80 countries (and counting) that will go dark for one hour starting 8:30pm Saturday 28 March. [Correction: Andy tells me Hong Kong IS onboard, Macau is not... yet.] Three hundred Hong Kong companies and countless individuals are already down with the plan.

The hope? That one billion people all over Planet Earth will flip their switches this year. But, hey, use protection, please, if that's your orientation. We don't need an Earth Hour baby boom nine months from now.

As for some of the pyrotechnics lined up in the dark:

  • Sydney (where it all started): every ferry in the harbor will sound its horn at 8.30pm
  • Melbourne: people will pedal-power a concert in Federation Square
  • Athens: a circle of percussion will be held at the Acropolis, people given instruments and led by a conductor
  • Oslo: people will peddle-power light bulbs
  • Lisbon: the city will go outdoors for candlelit dining

So, yeah, it's kind of 2007. Only the hour is later and bigger and DARKER.