Blue Marble - August 2009

Friday Frog Blog

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 1:59 PM PDT

This week, there have been many interesting developments in the world of frog:

And most urgently:

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Green College Slideshow

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 11:30 AM PDT

Last week, I blogged about the College Sustainability Report Card (CSRC), which evaluates colleges' and universities' greenness based on criteria like energy use, building practices, recycling, and investment priorities. It's an interesting tool, but the program only looks at the 300 best-endowed schools in the US. Bummer, since little schools are often home to the most creative green initiatives.
Treehugger has a slideshow up today profiling ten green colleges, a few of which were passed over by CSRC on account of their small endowments. Warren Wilson, for example, gets props for its solar-powered streetlights and campus carts and its trash-to-treasure store. And the tiny-but-mightily-green College of the Atlantic stands out, too:

In 2006, the college announced it was the first carbon neutral college in the U.S. Not to mention, students all study one thing: human ecology, or the way humans interact with the environment. Since 1972, the school has dished up local and organic food in the cafeteria. Food is all composted or given away, meals are tray-less and meat is confinement and antibiotic-free. Dorms come with composting toilets, ultra-high insulation and heat comes from a wood burning pellet boiler: Getting back to nature and interacting with the environment, indeed.
 

Composting toilets! In a dorm! Totally doable at, say, a Harvard or a Princeton, but would the aesthetics be too icky for the Ivies?

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, August 14

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Today's environment, health, and science news from our site and others. And if you haven't read Anna Lenzer's great Fiji Water exposé "Spin the Bottle," well, let's just say there are a few things you might want to know before you reach for that pretty square bottle.

MoJo responds to fiji: That Fiji Water donates money to local kindergartens is all well and good, but it doesn't make up for pollution, tax havens, and silence on the Fijian government's human rights abuses. 

The reformers are coming! Health care reformers pretend they want to make you healthy. Really, they want to sell your organs to China. And slay your grandma. And murder cute puppies. Ruuuuuun!

Newt again: Gingrich flip-flops on advance care directives and hospice care. Somehow, we're not surprised.

Better buildings: "Commissioning" reduces building's greenhouse emissions significantly—and it's not just free, it saves money. Just one of the techniques that'll become more widespread if Waxman-Markey passes.

Philpott vs. Klein on organics: Grist's Tom Philpott believes organic foods are more nutritious; Ezra Klein doubts it. But what about the soil?

Second hottest July on record: Climate Progress on the NASA temperature data, and why it looks like we'll be seeing record global temperatures this year or next.

India's green plans: India overhauls its version of the EPA. Could this mean tougher pollution and emissions standards?

In Defense of Milk

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 6:40 PM PDT

For those of us who still drink milk and like it and have no trouble digesting it in any of its glorious guises, from butter to yoghurt... here's an intersting blog by Dave Munger at SEED on  current scientific thinking/speculation about why some of us can tolerate milk and others can't. Northern Europeans and Africans generally fare well. Southern Euros and East Asians, not so.

One analysis from a paper in PLoS ONE suggests the lactase gene evolved in Europe because there isn't enough sunlight to produce the vitamin D needed to take in calcium—so milk drinking helped meet that deficiency. In Africa the lactase gene evolved in conjunction with early milk-producing domesticated animals—helping boost protein intake.

Milk. It does some bodies good. Especially with chocolate or cookies.

Extinct Seabird Returns to Life

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 6:08 PM PDT

Well, it was never really dead. The Tasman Booby, Sula dactylatra tasmani, described from fossils on islands off the east coast of Australia, went extinct in the late 18th century—victim of hungry European sailors, reports New Scientist.

But now a team of geneticists, paleontologists, and naturalists has found the bird alive and well and living among its own fossils and on a few islands off New Zealand. DNA analysis of six Tasman Booby fossils perfectly match the living birds known as Sula dactylatra fullagari. Paper in Biology Letters.

Henceforth, the resurrected and misidentified will be known as as Sula dactylatra tasmani.

Whatever we call it, this gannetlike seabird is another, and very welcome, Lazarus taxon (read John Platt at 60-Second Science) risen from the dead—along with the Nelson's small-eared shrew rediscovered in Mexico last month and the greater dwarf cloud rat found in a Philippine forest in 2008. Plus a few I wrote about in Gone: the Wollemi pine and mahogany glider in Australia, Jerdon’s Courser in India, takahe in New Zealand, and (maybe) the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the US.
 

Millions of Burgers Wasted

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 1:25 PM PDT

The British supermarket giant Tesco is no longer sending any trash to the landfill. Impressive, considering the company's annual waste weighs as much as 75,000 double-decker buses. A company press release lists a few examples of how Tesco is making all that garbage disappear, including turning recycled carrier bags into trash bags and recycling used cardboard boxes to make new ones for the store. Then there's this:

• Re-using waste meat to generate fuel through a third-party plant which goes back into the national grid as electricity – at present, 5,000 tonnes of waste meat generate c. 2,500 mega watt hours of renewable electricity.

Huh. Over at Triple Pundit, Mary Catherine O'Connor points out that this isn't quite as sustainable as Tesco is making it sound:

OK, great, but why does Tesco generate 5,000 tons of waste meat? Assuming that’s an annual figure, each of the 2,282* Tesco stores in the UK would be trashing about 2 tons of meat each year (the largest stores would generate much more than small corner outlets). Sure, generating power is a better use of the waste meat than tossing it into landfills (where it will continue to produce methane, which may or may not be captured), but the animals that created those 5000 tons of meat took a tremendous amount of energy and water to raise and what about all the greenhouse gasses, including methane, that went into their production?

This all got me wondering exactly what kind of meat was wasted the most. Here in the US, we toss four percent of all our chicken and beef and an astonishing 12 percent of lamb/goat and 25 percent of veal. As a rule of thumb, more unusual meat means more waste, according to this report (PDF):

Retailers indicated to the Perishables Group that they feel they must offer lamb to consumers, just as they offer veal. Consumers are often unclear on how to prepare lamb and therefore decide not to buy it. Lamb is more likely than some other meats not to be sold before its expiration date.

So one way supermarkets could reduce meat waste would be to stop stocking meat people don't actually buy. Customers who want, say, an ostrich steak or goat ribs, would have to order it in advance.

Other ideas for reducing meat waste? Leave 'em in the comments.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Sludge & the White House: My Response to the NYT

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 10:53 AM PDT

Yesterday the New York Times' Home & Garden section finally addressed the story that the White House press corps has dared not bespeak: The possibility that sewage sludge fertilizer has contributed lead and other toxins to the soil in the President's vegetable garden.

A few months ago, it was the quaint Garden section that casually broke the news that the White House garden, which had been created by Michelle Obama to the delight of local and organic food advocates, contained 93 parts per million of lead--a level that is higher than natural background levels but not dangerous. The piece led me to wonder if sewage sludge fertilizer, which had been applied to the South Lawn in the past, could be one cause of the lead contamination. That post created a frenzy in the blogosphere as some people made ridiculous claims that the Obamas were poisoning themselves.

Lost in the obsession over lead levels (which the White House now says have been reduced to an extremely low 14 ppm) was much of any discussion about why people should be concerned about eating produce from land applied with sludge. So the Times deserves credit for acknowledging the issue, even if its reporting was surprisingly cursory and a bit misleading.

Taking issue with my claim that sludge was used on the White House lawn for at least a decade, the Times quoted retired White House gardener Irv Williams, who said it was applied only once, in 1985. When I originally reported on sludge, I had left multiple messages with the White House press office trying to reach Williams or anyone else with the gardening staff, but none of them were returned.  So instead, I relied on several stories about sludge and the White House from the '80s and '90s. In 1988, the Washington Post reported that ComPRO was used on the South Lawn "last August." If that's true, then Williams' memory is a bit unreliable. A decade later, the Post reported that ComPRO was being discontinued and that Williams was none too pleased about this. "Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported. "Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38 years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the South Lawn." Around the same time, an EPA official told the New Scientist: "The Clintons are walking around on poo, but it's very clean poo." In short, if sludge had long ago been discontinued at the White House, it certainly wasn't the impression being conveyed by government officials.

Why could that be? One reason could be that the EPA was very keen on using the White House example as a PR tool for the selling of sludge to home gardeners and agricultural America. So it's ironic that the spin now seems to have changed directions. In an apparent attempt to counter my message that sludge use by the government was common, the Times added, "And in 1994 President Bill Clinton sent a directive to government agencies telling them to start using environmentally friendly practices for landscaping government grounds, like reducing the use of toxic chemicals."

Really? Then how do you explain what Williams told the Post in 1999, when asked how he would replace ComPRO: "We'll do the same thing we did before we got it--use grass clippings that decompose and regular commercial fertilizer (my emphasis). More to the point, in September, 2007, the EPA adjusted its government procurement standards for the "landscaping products" category to specifically include "compost made from recovered organic materials," including "compost made from biosolids" (the EPA's term for sludge). The standards recommend that government agencies use only compost that meets this definition. 

So contrary to the impression conveyed by the Times, it's pretty safe to assume that sludge--with all of its flaws--is still in wide use by the government. At least the paper's gardening section isn't parroting the of Post's "Ornamental Gardener" column of the late '80s, which described ComPRO as "attractive, hummuslike and easy to handle" and conducive to "ideal conditions for healthy root growth." Instead, the Times reports that good sources of organic matter for gardening include "composted leaves, non-acid peat, and well-rotted manure." But sludge? Don't hold your breath.

 

Salmon Return to Paris

| Wed Aug. 12, 2009 7:44 PM PDT

It's been nearly a hundred years since Atlantic salmon swam the Seine upriver to Paris. Now they've done it on their own, without any efforts to reintroduce them. AFP reports that hundreds, maybe a thousand, swam past the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral this year.

And they aren't all. Only four species swam through Paris in 1995 when up to 500 tons of fish died upriver every year in foul pollution. Today at least 32 species inhabit the Seine, including lamprey eel, sea trout, and shad. Why? Because there have been massive clean-up efforts in the last 15 years, including construction of a new water purification plant.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Restore.
 

Hurricane Seasons Wilder

| Wed Aug. 12, 2009 6:47 PM PDT

Nature says so: the frequency and strength of Atlantic hurricanes has grown in recent decades. We're now at levels now about as high as anything in the past 1,000 years. The data come from sediment samples along the North Atlantic coast and are analyzed alongside statistical models of the past 1,500 years of hurricane activity. Interestingly, there was a peak about 1000 AD that rivals and maybe exceeds recent levels.

The study validates the theory that two factors fuel higher hurricane activity: La Niña and high surface temperatures over the ocean. If climate change continues to warm ocean waters (and how can it not?) we will likely experience more active hurricane seasons. This year's slow start is thanks to a newborn El Niño... though El Niño is changing too.
 

Bottled Waters: Our Blind Taste Test

| Wed Aug. 12, 2009 7:47 AM PDT

In the course of fact-checking Anna Lenzer's excellent piece on Fiji Water, and in writing my own sidebars to the piece, I drank a lot of water. And truthfully, I liked the taste of the stuff coming out my San Francisco tap better than the Dasani or Arrowhead I bought from the bodega. So I got to wondering: Can all these bottled waters on the shelf really taste that differently from one another? Are they better than tap? Could I even tell the difference between Volvic and Voss? To find out, I bought eight bottles of water at my local Whole Foods and had a blind taste test in the Mother Jones office with several editors, interns, fellows, and art staff. For a good measure, we also included filtered and unfiltered San Francisco tap in the test.

The results: Fiji Water, for all its claims of purity, tasted okay to our staff. One or two people out of about ten said it was their favorite. "I actually liked Fiji best," said one staffer, who will remain anonymous.