Blue Marble - July 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, July 22

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Looking for more health, science, and environment news today? Look no further:

Wary of Waxman-Markey? Kevin Drum on why carbon cap-and-trade is not just another subprime debacle waiting to happen.

Sketchy green jobs skeptic: An ExxonMobil-funded Spanish economist claims that for every green job created, 20 jobs are lost. Turns out he has it backwards.

The hard sell: How do you convince Americans who already have health insurance to support healthcare reform? Scare them with the facts.

Cell phone driving data, finally: The government has known since 2003 that at least 1,000 people die on the road every year because a driver was talking on a cell phone (and hands-free devices don't help). So why are they only telling the public now?

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Report Finds Huge Potential for Conservation to End California's Water Crisis

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 1:11 AM EDT | Scheduled to publish Wed Jul. 22, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

 A report released today by California's Pacific Institute estimates that reasonable water conservation improvements on the state's farms could save a huge amount of water--far more than what farmers have been forced to relinquish to protect fish habitat during the state's ongoing drought. The amount that could be saved, 1.8 trillion gallons annually, is more than 15 times the size of the municipal supply of San Francisco. 

The report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future, provides considerable ammunition to environmentalists in their fight with farmers over the West's dwindling water resources. In the midst of the third year of drought in California, growers are blaming endangered species laws for crimping their water supply and contributing to $1 billion in lost revenue this season. Though they've used their plight to call for weakening environmental regulations and building more dams and reservoirs, the report suggests their efforts are misplaced. Smarter conservation has allowed some growers "to increase their income, crop yields, and production, even during drought," says Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick. "Such success stories offer the state a vision of what a healthy agricultural future might look like."

The water conservation methods that the Gleick studied are already in use in the state, though many farmers cling to older practices. For example, 60 percent of crops in California are still irrigated by flooding the field, even though drip irrigation methods can easily halve water use. The report also suggests that farmers apply less water to crops during drought-tolerant growth stages and use sensors that can detect when soil is dry. 

These ideas can seem far-removed from our lives until we realize that the products we consume account for more than 90 percent of our daily water use, far more than what comes out of our taps. I explore this idea in "What's Your Water Footprint," a piece in the current issue.  The Pacific Institute and other environmental groups eventually hope the concept of a water footprint will catch on much as carbon footprints have. The idea could be used to reward farmers who do the right thing, either with tax breaks, loans, or a premium for the products they sell. 

The case for looking at carbon footprints and water footprints together is stronger than ever. A new study from the University of Colorado found that climate change creates a 50 percent chance that the reservoirs supplied by the Colorado River, the West's main water source, could run dry by 2057. And a study released today by UC Davis found that California's $10 billion fruit and nut industry is under threat from higher temperatues, which could make it impossible to grow walnuts, pistacios, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries almost everywhere in the Central Valley. If that happens, all the water conservation technology in the world probably won't save us.

Mom Eats For Two Forever

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 5:01 PM EDT

A series of reports from the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction reinforce the growing notion that our health is affected by the actions and choices of our forefathers—or foremothers.

It's all about epigenetic inheritance: the nongenetic variations acquired during the life of an organism that can be passed on to offspring.

We already know—and I've already written—that fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes down at least 13 generations. And that people malnourished in adolescence transmit higher rates of heart disease and diabetes to their children and even their grandchildren.

Now the following studies demonstrate how maternal nutrition, protein intake, and fat in the diet cause epigenetic changes in developing fetuses, with long-term health consequences. Some changes occur before pregnancy, some during—some don't manifest for a long time:

  • Mouse studies suggest that subtle differences in maternal metabolism have long-lasting effects. When embryos were transferred from a diabetic mouse to a nondiabetic mouse, all kinds of birth defects ensued (neural tube defects, heart defects, limb deformities, and growth defects in offspring)—suggesting we need to redirect ideas about maternal health to prior to pregnancy.
  • Maternal nutrition at the time of conception alters fetal development. Sheep and rodent studies reveal that offspring of mothers with vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies are fatter, become insulin resistant, and have higher blood pressure by the time they reach middle-age—proving that early molecular changes may not manifest for many years.
  • Low protein levels in female mice during the first few moments of conception caused abnormal growth, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and jumpy behavior in their offspring. They also grew bigger, extracting as many nutrients as they could to compensate for poor nutrition in the womb.
  • According to epigenetic theory, changes in the genome can happen at any time through the impact of environmental factors on the expression of genes over time. One of the most critical periods is early life when epigenetic memories are created that may impact a person's susceptibility to disease later in life. These "memories" may lie dormant until an environmental trigger brings them to the surface and modifies disease risk.

 

Bright Green Idea: Trash Track

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

Ever wonder what happens to your trash after you toss it? If you live in New York City or Seattle, you may soon get the chance to find out.

The cities are hosting Trash Track, an MIT project enlisting volunteers to trace their waste's odyssey via electronic tags. By forcing people to confront how their garbage impacts the environment, program directors hope to inspire more recycling. Come September, the project will culminate with an exhibit at the Architectural League in New York City and the Seattle Public Library.

Any cool, eco-friendly ideas you've heard about recently? Post in the comments section below.

Pesticides Worse For Kids

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 4:13 PM EDT

Scientists have suspected for a while that like many substances, pesticides affect children and adults differently. It stands to reason: Kids have less mass to absorb chemicals, and their organs are still developing. But it's hard to figure out exactly how toxins interact with children's bodies—or how dangerous they are.

Some encouraging news: A team of U.C. Berkeley researchers  pinpointed an enzyme—called paraoxonase—that helps the body break down organophosphate pesticides. They found that until children reach age seven, they don't have nearly as much of the enzyme as adults do:

Although it has been known that newborns have low levels of the paraoxonase enzyme, it was previously believed that paraoxonase concentrations reached adult levels by 2 years of age.

This assumption was based on one earlier study of 9 children. Now a new study of 458 children followed from birth to age 7 shows that paraoxonase levels continue to increase steadily until age 7. At age 7, the average paraoxonase level in children was similar to, but still lower than, adult levels.

The bad news: Organophosphates are cheap, and this mosquito season, an inexpensive pesticide will look awfully appealing to financially strapped cities.


 

 

VIDEO: Hard Times Hit Zoos

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 1:32 PM EDT

 July has been a month of tough choices for everybody:  summer unemployment is soaring and several states are still struggling to balance their budgets. But even amid the chaos, at least one oft-overlooked element of society is suffering more than usual. As it turns out, July has been especially rough for the nation's zoo animals. 

The Los Angeles Zoo (home of Gracie the great escaping ape and Ruby, the elephant whose retirement home is nicer than your Nana's) paid out $3,281 to the USDA in wrongful death settlements involving Gita the elephant and Judeo the chimpanzee, who both died under mysterious circumstances while in the zoo's care, it was reported Tuesday. The Zoo said both cases were freak accidents (Judeo died after being bitten by a rattlesnake) and paid the fine without admitting wrongdoing. 

 

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Senate Hearing: Jobs & the Climate Bill

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 9:24 AM EDT

A hearing is getting underway before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works: "Climate-Related Policies and Economic Growth - State and Local Views." You can watch it live, here.

Panel 1 is governors; panel 2 is mostly mayors. For a list of panel members, see here.

First comments: Bernie Sanders (I-VT) calls for an energy revolution.

For detailed coverage of one important aspect of this hearing -- the reappearance and slapdown of the Spanish Prisoner -- click here.

 

Cute Endangered Animal: Pygmy Rabbit

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 6:01 AM EDT

This week's cute endangered animal is the pygmy rabbit, which hails from my home state of Oregon, as well as Washington and Idaho. The pygmy rabbit is the smallest in the US, weighing just 1 pound. It's also one of two wild rabbit species in North America that digs its own burrows, and communicates vocally with squeaks, squeals, and chuckles.

Despite the stereotype of rabbits breeding like, well, rabbits, the pygmy rabbit is quite close to extinction due to increasing agriculture, and possibly disease. The rabbits live pretty much on just one food source: sagebrush. Now you might think sagebrush is epic in the West: Is there a Western that's complete without a tangle of sagebrush rolling through the dusty streets right before a shootout? But in reality, sagebrush is becoming less and less common in Oregon since the damming of the Columbia River created more arable land. As a result, dense sagebrush habitat is hard to find in the rabbit's range, and pockets of it serve to isolate populations.

Until a few years ago, there were two sub-populations of pygmy rabbits: Columbia Basin and Idaho. As of 2002, researchers could only find 16 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in the wild, and in 2008, the entire sub-population went extinct when in 2008 the last known purebred Columbia Basin rabbit died in captivity. Since then, conservationists have mulled switching funds from the Columbia Basin preservation program to the Idaho program, since that sub-population is much healthier. Currently, the Oregon Zoo and other organizations are feverishly trying to breed the rabbits in captivity to create species biodiversity.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday July 21

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 5:51 AM EDT

News on healthcare, the environment, wildlife, and energy from our other blogs.

Green Cheese: Pondering why it's easier to put a man on the moon than to pass a freakin' healthcare bill.

USA v. Europe: Kevin Drum debates the European approach to healthcare.

Full Court Press: Will Obama be able to push healthcare through fast?

Pregnancy Mental Health Break: Let's Panic!

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 8:16 PM EDT

Babycenter and Parenting are great for pregnancy deets, but the advice jiujitsu of Let's Panic is satire of the most necessary kind.

Like these pregnancy sections:

Non-Pregnancy-Related Trivia You Can Discuss with Your Non-Pregnant Friends: Apparently those jerks want to talk about something that's not the miracle growing inside you.
What to Look For in a Pediatrician: Will you choose the attachment-parenting advocate, or the attachment-loathing automaton?
Who's Going to Catch That Baby?: Wait—do you even have a birth philosophy?

Or their "Surviving Bed Rest" advice:

You can still be a productive member of society even flat on your back in a dark, stuffy room surrounded by dirty teacups. Where your body has failed you, your mind can now develop new paranoias you never knew existed!
Try to figure out what you did to deserve this: Think back. Was it the time you laughed at your mom's varicose veins? You definitely did something and the Universe waited until now to punish you.
Chat up telemarketers: After they insist that they cannot ship you any diseased carcasses via the postal service, you can get to talking about more personal matters. Like, "Wouldn't you haul slabs of limestone to your friend's bedside? You wouldn't think that was too much to ask, would you, Shonda?"
Knit all of your baby’s clothing for the next fifteen years: For years, every time your child dresses it will be a reminder of how much you sacrificed so that he might be born. Just let him try and complain that his woolen swim trunks bunch up during pool time at camp. LET HIM TRY.
Build a bed-fort.

Anyway, made me laugh today. Pass it on to your pregnant/new parent friends—especially the ones you wish would lighten up a little.

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.