Blue Marble - May 2009

Vietnam's Wildlife Farms a Cruel Hoax

| Fri May. 29, 2009 3:15 PM PDT

The livestock in Southeast Asia’s commercial wildlife farms are rare snakes, turtles, crocodiles, monkeys, tigers, bears, and other threatened wildlife. The "farms" are supposed to be places where rare species are bred in captivity for the purpose of producing meat and wildlife products.

Okay, even from far away, the premise smells bad.

Apparently the farms aren't alleviating pressures on wild populations only making them worse. This according to the Wildlife Conservation Society and Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department, who found commercial wildlife farms depleting wildlife and contributing to illegal trade. Worst affected are tigers and bears whose body parts or secretions are valued in traditional medicine.

About 4,000 bears in Vietnam and 7,600 in China are kept inhumanely in crush cages, their bile extracted twice a day through surgically implanted catheters. The bears moan in pain and bite their own paws. The photo tells a thousand grunts.

Why are the bears tortured like this? Because the bile is used as a traditional Chinese medicine—touted as an anti-inflammatory and fever reducer,  eyesight improver, protection for the liver and gallstone fixer. 

Can't we sell them some aspirin? Seriously, it's gotta be cheaper. Not to mention actually effective.


The farms are supposed to protect wild populations. Instead they're laundering products from animals killed in the wild. Of 78 farms surveyed in Vietnam, 42 percent were regularly bringing in animals from the wild. Half reported their founder populations were taken from the wild or produced from a combination of wild animals and farm stock. Farm owners also admitted transporting wildlife to the Chinese border for export to China. Some farm owners illegally purchase farm stock from commercial hunters and then transported and imported wildlife without a license.

The report concluded the farms don't supply food for local rural communities. Instead most of the unfortunate wildlife victims ends up as luxury items for urban consumers.

What to do about it? The WCS authors recommend prohibiting farms from holding nationally protected and globally threatened species, penalizing farm owners who violate wildlife protection laws, and requiring farm owners to document the source of the animals they keep.

I'm still favoring the aspirin trade.

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TEDTalk: Orgasm Trivia

| Fri May. 29, 2009 2:03 PM PDT

If Mary Roach's books on sex, death, and the afterlife make science writing look like the most fascinating gig on the planet, her recently released TEDTalk video proves it. Roach's talk, "10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm," is wonky, hilarious, and prurient in equal measure. Like this part, for example (video and transcript excerpt below):

Could Deforestation in Brazil Wreak Havoc in the US?

| Fri May. 29, 2009 11:20 AM PDT

The weather in the Amazon is going crazy—and the sudden climate changes could affect not only Brazil and its neighboring countries, but areas as far from the rainforest as the Mexican gulf and maybe even the southern US. That’s what Paulo Moutinho, research coordinator for the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), warns might happen if the world doesn’t cut its carbon emissions significantly over the next two years.

After two severe drought periods in 1998 and 2005, the Amazon is now in the midst of heavy flooding—the river has reached a record water level of 28 feet. The drought hurt the economy and caused healthcare costs to skyrocket, but Moutinho believes an overflow could cause equal damage by ruining plantations and causing outbreaks of sewage-related diseases.

 

Children's Health: Trusting God Over Doctor

| Fri May. 29, 2009 10:18 AM PDT

The following is a guest blog entry by Deena Guzder.

On May 20, 2009 a Wisconsin mother who followed an apocalyptic religious website said in a videotaped interview played at her trial that she did not call a doctor when her 11-year-old daughter was dying of untreated diabetes, but instead prayed for divine healing. “I just believed the Lord is going to heal her,” said Neumann. “I just felt that, you know, my faith was being tested.” During the trial, one of Neumann's surviving teenage children defended her parents’ decision to eschew medical intervention. “Because God created everyone, and how can we be more powerful than God?” the teenager said. “Why should we diss him and think a doctor would be more powerful than God or trust a doctor more than God?"

Even after her daughter was pronounced dead, Neumann told a detective, “I'm not crying and wailing right now because I know she's, I know she's, she's gonna come, she's gonna come back.” Unfortunately, there was no resurrection.

Why Soot Sucks

| Thu May. 28, 2009 6:30 PM PDT

Here's a most excellent video to illuminate my last blog post on the link between black carbon soot and the melting Arctic. How springtime burning of farm fields may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date. The good news: It's an easy 30 percent to fix. The video, from Earthjustice, tells us how in slightly more than 2 minutes. I'm impressed. We need more relevant videos with super clean message lines and good looks.

Better Bottle Deposits

| Thu May. 28, 2009 9:24 AM PDT

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is (no joke!) apparently a water bottler in addition to being an environmental activist, has a good op-ed on bottle redemption laws in Thursday's New York Times. The piece focuses on New York's law, but Kennedy's criticisms apply to similar legislation everywhere:

A good new deposit bill could encourage recycling of new classes of beverage bottles and also provide financing for curbside programs that capture other kinds of recyclable waste, like juice cartons, ketchup bottles and mayonnaise jars. These are all made from the same plastic and glass as soda, beer and water bottles, yet fewer than one in five of them are being recycled. Since such containers are not subject to deposit laws, their recycling is driven only by moral imperative or local ordinances, and these incentives function best when supported by robust curbside recycling programs or other easy recycling options.

Indeed. So what did New York's lawmakers do instead of following Kennedy's suggestions? They applied a new bottle deposit to water alone, exempting water with any sugar added, and effectively incentivizing consumers to prefer sugary drinks like Vitamin Water to good, old-fashioned H2O. Horrible idea, New York legislature!

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Sarkozy's Climate Change Skeptic

| Wed May. 27, 2009 12:11 PM PDT

The Financial Times reports environmentalists and other politicos are up in arms over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to appoint geochemist Claude Allegre—a denier of man-made climate change who called Al Gore's Nobel Prize a "political gimmick"—to France's new "super-ministry" of industry and innovation:

Mr Sarkozy wants to bring Mr Allègre, 72, a freethinking, former socialist education minister, into the government in a reshuffle after next month's European parliamentary elections. The president appears to reckon that appointing someone from outside his own centre-right party will help to counter perceptions that he is a polarising, sectarian leader who decides everything himself. Several portfolios are already held by figures from the left and centre.

Alain Juppé, the former centre-right prime minister, said the appointment would send a "terribly bad signal" ahead of international negotiations to secure a successor to the Kyoto treaty on cuts to carbon emissions.

Emphasis mine. I can understand Sarkozy wanting to look like he doesn't eschew a range of viewpoints, but this is a bit like appointing Richard Dawkins to an office of faith-based initiatives. It also doesn't help that Juppé, a member of Sarkozy's own party, thinks it's a stupid way to present yourself as an open-minded leader.

Don't Burn the Crops

| Tue May. 26, 2009 5:44 PM PDT

Want a quick recipe for reducing Arctic ice melt fast? Stop burning northern hemisphere farmlands and pasturelands.

New research finds that large-scale agricultural burning in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the US, Canada, and the Ukraine is melting Arctic ice.

The big contributor: Spring burning, when farmers torch crop residues and brush to clear new land for crops and livestock. The black carbon soot produced by these fires flows north, warms the surrounding air, and absorbs solar energy when it falls on ice and snow.

How bad is the problem? Springtime burning may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date.

The good news is there's an easy fix. Targeting these burns gets us a genuinely fast reduction in temperature over the Arctic. Plus we know how to control these pollutants right now. Just stop burning. Right now. Before the melting ice rewires the oceanic currents delivering us the climate we're used to.

The research is part of POLARCAT, an international effort to track the transport of pollutants into the Arctic from lower latitudes. Researchers were surprised to find 50 smoke plumes that analysis of satellite images revealed came from agricultural fires in Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia and from forest fires in Southern Siberia. The emissions from these fires far outweighed those from fossil fuels.

"These fires weren't part of our standard predictions, they weren't in our models," says Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard.

Although global warming is largely the result of excess accumulation of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is highly sensitive to short-lived pollutants like black carbon. Forest fires, agricultural burning, primitive cookstoves, and diesel fuel are the primary sources of black carbon.

Flu Fears

| Fri May. 22, 2009 3:24 PM PDT

Even as the story fades, the A(H1N1) flu epidemic is getting more interesting. But the plotlines are scattered so far and wide and of such relatively low impact individually that they masquerade as unalarming. Compiled, however, this drama continues to escalate:

  • It's not a new flu at all. Probably been circulating undetected in the atrocities we call pig farms for years.

 

  • World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan calls A(H1N1) a "subtle, sneaky" swine flu virus and urges developing countries to be prepared for more severe cases.

 

 

  • Meanwhile, other WHO officials admit that most developing countries can't detect or track seasonal flu let alone monitor a pandemic strain.

 

  • With regards to kids: A study from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota disputes the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending annual flu vaccinations for all kids from 0.5 to 18 years old. The inactivated TIV flu vaccine is not effective in preventing influenza-related hospitalizations in children, especially asthmatic kids. In fact, kids who get the flu vaccine are more at risk for hospitalization than those who don't. These results aren't specific to A(H1N1) but they're worth noting in light of A(H1N1).

 

  • US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledges $1 billion to develop key components for a swine flu vaccine and conduct clinical studies into its efficacy. Will they take into account the Mayo Clinic assessment of kids and vaccines?

 

  • And then we're about to spend all this money just as we learn that people 60 and older have greater immunity to A(H1N1). These are the people most likely to be targeted with a new $1-billion vaccine they may not need.

 

  • A(H1N1) is forcing health officials to rethink the way we classify epidemics and pandemics. It's acting pandemiclike—Japan's blossoming caseload, for example—yet it remains mild enough to avoid the designation. In other words, A(H1N1) is finding a clever and stealthy way to attack our preparedness.

 

So what are we going to do about those atrocious pig and chicken farms that are making our new diseases along with the bacon and buffalo wings? Farms isn't the right world, really. Can we call them concentration camps?

The Top 6 Ways to Convert Poop Into Electricity

| Fri May. 22, 2009 12:32 PM PDT

More than half of the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is processed into sludge that gets spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But sludge-based as fertilizer can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. That's why an increasing number of cities have begun to explore an alternative way to dispose of sludge: advanced poop-to-power plants. By one estimate, a single American's daily sludge output can generate enough electricity to light a 60-watt bulb for more than nine hours. Here are the six most innovative ways that human waste is being converted to watts:

Poop-Eating Bacteria
Digesters similar to brewery casks house anaerobic bacteria that eat sludge and belch out methane. This technology is the oldest, cheapest, and most proven poop-to-power method. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 6,000 public wastewater plants have the digesters; of those, just 20 percent burn the methane gas for energy (the rest simply flare it off). Flint, Michigan, and several other cities use the methane gas to fuel fleets of city buses. The problem with anaerobic digesters is that they only reduce sludge's volume by half and capture a portion of its embedded energy.

Turd Cell Smashers
Destroying the cell walls in sludge—by heating it under pressure, zapping it with ultrasonic waves, or pulsing it with electric fields—boosts its methane production by 50 percent or more in anaerobic digesters. On the downside, researchers have found that some of these processes can unleash nasty odors and even a "chemical attack" on sewage machinery.

Geological Toilets
Last summer, Los Angeles began injecting sludge into a mile-deep well, where pressure and heat are expected to release enough methane to power 1,000 homes. The well also dissolves and sequesters carbon dioxide that the sludge would normally release, removing the equivalent exhaust of about 1,000 cars per year. "This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the LA Times. "It will save money and make money."

Feces Ponds
As a cheaper green option, some 50 waste plants in 20 countries have installed versions of UC Berkeley professor William J. Oswald's Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems Technology--large open-air ponds that primarily rely on anaerobic digestion and photosynthesis to break down sludge and convert it into a fertilizer or animal feed of nitrogen-rich algae. The algae in turn can be used as a feedstock for biofuels. Rich Brown, an environmental scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sees an obstacle in the ponds' huge footprint: "For rural areas it’s great," he says. "For San Francisco it wouldn’t work so well."

Gassifiers
Sludge gasification plants are popular in Europe and especially Germany. A low-oxygen reaction transforms the solids in sludge into a carbon-rich "char" similar to BBQ briquettes. Next, the char is gasified in the presence of air to produce a syngas that can be burned for energy.

Poop Pyrotechnics
Last year, Atlanta-based EnerTech built the world's first commercial sludge "pyrolysis" plant in Southern California. Its patented SlurryCarb process converts sludge from a third of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into char pellets that replace coal at a nearby cement kiln; its ash is mixed into the cement.

One Small Poop for Man. . .
With billions in stimulus funds slated for wastewater improvements, is the time right for poop power? Such efforts, which reduce landfilling and emissions, have earned praise from some anti-sludge groups. Caroline Snyder, the founder of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, calls it a "win-win situation."

The EPA says sludge power holds promise, but it's not ready to quit pushing sludge as a wonder fertilizer. This hasn’t deterred the sewage industry, which sees a chance to get into the renewable energy business and put a stop to the stream of health complaints and costly lawsuits. "After almost 40 years of working in biosolids," a sewage industry official wrote in a recent newsletter. "I never thought I’d say this: it is an exciting time for sludge!"

H/T to the State of Science Report: Energy and Resource Recovery from Sludge, published by the Global Water Research Coalition. Photo from Flickr user gtmcknight used under creative commons license.