Blue Marble - June 2009

Fatty Foods Make Us Hungry—And Fat

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 4:10 PM EDT

Here's a clue to the virulence of the obesity epidemic. New research suggests the hunger hormone ghrelin is activated by fats from the foods we eat, not those made in the body.

This natural process was designed to optimize metabolism and promote the storage of body fat. And this was useful when food was hard to come by and we had to work physically hard to get it.

Now it backfires on us in the form of fat.

Ghrelin—the hunger hormone—is believed to accumulate during periods of fasting and is found in the body in high concentrations just before meals. It's activated by a fatty acid added by an enzyme called GOAT. Originally it was assumed that the fatty acids attached to ghrelin by GOAT were produced by the body during fasting.

But the new data published in Nature Medicine suggest the fatty acids needed for ghrelin activation come directly from ingested dietary fats.

Exposed to fatty foods, mice with more GOAT gain more fat. Mice without GOAT gain less fat since their brain never receives the signal to store the fat.

Why am I worried that this will lead to a pharmaceutical fix that will allow us to continue overeating without getting fat?
 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What's Worse: Urban Sprawl or Twinkies?

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Some say Americans are too fat because we eat too many Big Macs and ice cream sundaes. But according to a policy statement released this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), modern city planners join McDonald's and Dairy Queen in shouldering the blame for childhood obesity.

The statement, published in the June edition of Pediatrics Magazine, found that urban sprawl contributes to childhood obesity by forming neighborhoods that are impossible for children to navigate independently. As a result, many children grow dependent on their parent’s chauffeuring rather than their bicycles or legs to get to school or the park. In coming-of-age television show terms, the ideal neighborhood to combat childhood obesity is closer to the densely urban, San Francisco model from "Full House" than the suburban, sprawling wasteland of "The Wonder Years." Of course, sprawl is not the only cause of childhood obesity. As Mother Jones has reported, the blame has been spread among unhealthy food, heredity, and non-diet sodas, just to name a few villians.

The AAP report also notes that abandoning sprawl could decrease our insatiatable appetite for fatty foods. In addition to parks and recreation centers, current densification efforts have included community gardens that produce fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. So promoting condensed neighborhoods with amenities nearby could kill two birds with one public policy-laden stone: decrease the negative environmental effects of suburban sprawl—including vehicular air pollution—and start children on a de-facto exercise regime. If elected officials support legislation to allocate public funds to urban densification efforts, and provide parents with incentives to move their families to cities, we could see a drop in the childhood obesity rate without having to give up too many twinkies.

Congressional Climate Change Games

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 9:37 AM EDT

A couple weeks back, the Center for Public Integrity reported on the massive lobbying effort targeting the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which literally hundreds of businesses and interest groups are vying to influence. And—surprise, surprise—some congressional have responded by quietly tweaking the bill in industry friendly ways. Today, the Washington Post singles out a handful of interesting provisions slipped into the bill by Democrats on the House energy and commerce committee. Take this sly maneuver by Rep. Gene Green, the Texas Democrat:

During the final days of the drafting of a 946-page climate bill,  Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) won support for an amendment that deleted a single word and inserted two others. The words could be worth millions of dollars to U.S. oil refiners.

The Green amendment deleted the word "sources" and inserted "emission points." In the arcane world of climate legislation, that tiny bit of editing might one day give petroleum refiners valuable rights to emit carbon dioxide when it otherwise might not have been allowed. Refiners could get the extra allowances in return for cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent at a single point of a vast refinery complex instead of slashing emissions by 50 percent for the entire facility.

Estrogen Kills Fish

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 6:48 PM EDT

Estrogen is bad for fish. In more ways than we thought.

We know that estrogen and estrogen-mimicking chemicals known as endocrine disruptors cause intersex fish—that is, males with immature female egg cells in their testes.

New research finds that fish exposed to estrogen produce less immune-related proteins, making them more susceptible to disease. This suggests why fish in the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers are simultaneously afflicted by mass kills, lesions, and intersex fish.

US Geological Survey researchers suspected that estrogens were causing fish kills and fish lesions as well as intersex fish in the two river systems. So they exposed largemouth bass to estrogen and found the fish produced less hepcidin—an iron-regulating hormone of mammals, fish, and amphibians.

Exactly what hepcidin does to boost immune systems is unclear. But it may act as an antimicrobial peptide, the first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Or it might affect the iron balance in infected vertebrates. Or both.

We do know we're loosing megatons of synthetic chemicals into waterways every year. Most are plastics additives, surfactants, birth control agents, antimicrobials, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or controls for insect, weed, and fungal populations.

But all too many wind their way from industry, livestock, irrigation, sewage, and storm run-off into lakes, ponds, oceans, marshes, streams, rivers, and groundwater—eventually into fish.

And from there into humans, perhaps accounting for the alarming rise of human male reproductive disorders in recent years, including birth defects of the penis, undescended testes, reduced sperm production, and testicular cancer.

You think that might slow down the chemical pipeline. Especially in rivers so close to Washington, DC. But apparently money is worth more than masculinity.
 

Chevron or Chevwrong?

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 1:21 PM EDT

If you believe Chevron's ubiquitous ad campaign, it's an icon of corporate responsibility. According to environmental and human rights groups…not so much.

Organizations including CorpWatch, Global Exchange, and EarthRights International released "The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report" last week. And not surprisingly, it tells a different story than the oil giant. To wit:

City Birds Sing Louder, Faster

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

Seems like big city life is faster, even for the birds. A European survey of songbirds has found that city birds sing louder than their country brethren. City birds tweeted faster, and preferred to sing songs that were shorter in duration than birds from the 'burbs. (Maybe all the urban excitement reduces their attention span?) The study also revealed that songbirds prefer to mate with birds who sing similar songs: so country birds are attracted to the slow, longer, lower-pitched songs, and city birds want a mate who can belt it out high and fast and loud. The scientists have theorized that avians in urban areas sing at a higher pitch to be heard above background noises like traffic and construction. If these street-savvy birds are pushed into the country because of changing climate, though, they may have to change their tune.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

George Allen's New Macaca Moment? He's Back Online to Diss Cap & Trade

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:52 PM EDT

Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose 2006 "Macaca" speech turned into the most famous online gotcha video of all time, has resurfaced after a long political quiesence--and, of all places, online. In a new Web video for the American Energy Freedom Center, which he now leads, he replaces a brown-skinned menace with hints of a green one: Climate legislation. The video appears to be the first installment of what Allen describes as monthly "kitchen table talks" in which he'll "tell people the truthful story about America's energy potential."

The American Energy Freedom Center draws upon an oily pedigree. It is a partner group of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and is headed by Robert Bradley Jr., who worked as a public policy director at Enron and a speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay.

So why have these guys turned to Allen? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, before Allen lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was Congress' number 3 recepient of campaign cash from the energy sector . Over his career he raised $1 million from energy companies, including $19,400 from Exxon Mobil. He also brings strong connections to other lawmakers as a former presidential hopeful, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which plays a key role in crafting energy legislation. Moreover, as of 2006 Allen had personally invested somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in energy companies.

In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd trust to sit in my kitchen and tell me how America should "promote the clean, creative, and thoughtful utilization of American energy." But here's his pitch, complete with a nifty lapel pin:

 

Despite Economic Crisis, Clean Energy Emerging, Developing Countries Take the Lead

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 8:39 AM EDT

Investments in clean energy companies and projects worldwide reached $155 billion in 2008. Not including large hydro (which may be clean but is hardly green). However, investment in the second half of 2008 was down 17% on the first half and down 23% on the final six months of 2007, a trend continuing in 2009.

Nevertheless, UNEP reports $13.5 billion of new private investment in companies developing and scaling-up new technologies. Plus $117 billion of investment in renewable energy projects from geothermal, wind, solar and biofuels.

Altogether, 2008 saw more than four times the investment of 2004. The breakdown, according to Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2009:

  • $105 billion to developing 40 GW of power-generating capacity from wind, solar, small-hydro, biomass and geothermal sources
  • $35 billion to developing 25 GW of large hydropower
  • Renewables currently account for the majority of investment and over 40% of actual power generation capacity additions last year
  • China became the 2nd second largest wind market in terms of new capacity
  • China became the  biggest photovoltaic manufacturer
  • Rises in geothermal energy getting underway in Australia, Japan and Kenya
  • Wind attracted the most new investment: 51.8 billion, 1% growth on 2007
  • Solar made largest gains: $33.5 billion, 49% growth
  • Biofuels dropped: $16.9 billion, 9% decrease
  • The price of solar photovoltaic modules is predicted to fall by more than 43% in 2009
  • Carbon markets grew 87% during 2008, reaching a total of $120 billion


Regionally, investment in Europe rose 2% in 2008 to $49.7 billion. Investment in North America fell 8% to $30.1 billion, due to financing shutdowns—thanks, Wall Street—and the fact that tax-credit driven markets are ineffective in a downturn. Yet developing countries surged forward 27% over 2007 to $36.6 billion, accounting for nearly one third of global investments:

  • China led new investment in Asia with an 18% increase over 2007 to $15.6 billion, mostly in new wind and some biomass plants
  • Investment in India grew 12% to $4.1 billion in 2008
  • Brazil accounted for almost all renewable energy investment in Latin America in 2008, with ethanol receiving $10.8 billion, up 76% from 2007
  • Africa achieved a modest increase, with investments up 10% to approximately $1.1 billion


Although private sector investment stalled in late 2008, governments appear ready to take up some slack in 2009. Sustainable energy investments are a core part of key government fiscal stimulus packages announced in recent months, accounting for an estimated $183 billion of commitments to date.

  • The US and China remain the leaders, each devoting roughly $67 billion
  • Yet South Korea's package is the greenest with 20% devoted to clean energy—illustrating the political will of an increasing number of governments to secure future growth through greener economic development, according to the report

Religious Teens Have More Abortions

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 8:53 PM EDT

Unwed teens and 20s who attend or have graduated from private religious schools are more likely to obtain abortions than their peers from public schools.

New research suggests that while religiosity (defined as religious involvement, frequency of prayer, and perception of the importance of religion) influences the attitudes of young women towards abortion, it does not affect their actual behavior.

In other words, even religious women, if unmarried and pregnant, resort to abortion—particularly women in their teens. This according to new research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Hypocrisy sucks.
 

Kansas Abortion Stories and George Tiller Video

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

If you've never known a family who made the gutwrenching decision to abort or bring to term a fetus with physical anomalies "incompatible with life," you need to read the first person accounts on the website A Heartbreaking Choice. These are the kinds of pregnancies Kansas doctor George Tiller ended before he was murdered at church on Sunday.

I in no way mean to denigrate women who choose to carry to term babies who won't live long outside the womb. But I have to wonder, can Bill O'Reilly and his fellow anti-abortion hate mongers seriously read the passage below by an Andrew Sullivan reader and tell me this is the only option women should have?