Blue Marble - September 2009

Giddyup America: Hummer Drivers Claim Moral High Ground

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 9:02 PM EDT

Hummer drivers believe they're defending America's frontier lifestyle against anti-American critics.

You know, the suburban frontier.

We know that Hummers symbolize American greed and wastefulness to many. But to Hummer drivers they are the 4-wheeled Marlboro-Man galloping across the tarmac prairie, six-shooters drawn in defense of the distressed maiden, America.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 (okay, small sample) American-born-and-raised Hummer owners and found they employ the ideology of American foundational myths like "rugged individual" and "boundless frontier." Shored up with these heady mythologies, Hummer owners construct themselves as moral protagonists: a bastion against anti-American criticism.

The study published in the Journal of Consumer Research is all part of broader research into anti-consumption sentiments expressed by people who oppose chains like Starbucks and shun consumerism. Hummers occupy the epicenter of this moral viewpoint, where rugged individualism is ruggedly expressed with the middle finger.

But in the course of researching the anti-Hummerites the team came upon the moral beliefs of the pro-Hummerites and found similar justifications coming from diametrically opposed viewpoints.

"Our analysis of the underlying American identity discourses revealed that being under siege by (moral) critics is an historically established feature of being an American," write the authors.

I too feel morally superior in my mass-produced moving vehicle with highish MPG driven by hundreds of thousands of likeminded rugged individualists.
 

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Newly Discovered: Enormous Fish

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 3:53 PM EDT

Brazilian turtle researchers recently encountered a 6-foot long fish never before seen by humans. Check out National Geographic's video.

The Yes Men Strike Again

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

The Yes Men are back. Early this morning, the pair of pranksters and their henchpeople hit the streets of Manhattan to hand out copies of a climate change-themed New York Post spoof with the blaring headline: "WE'RE SCREWED." The cover story explains, "It’s official. It’s getting hot down here. And if we don’t stop burning oil and coal, the Big Apple will be cooked." Imagining what would happen if a tabloid took the fate of the planet as seriously as terrorist plots and celebrity murder trials is clever, and will no doubt get some New Yorkers thinking about how climate change affects them, but is it funny? Not really, but that's the point. (Actually, there's some dark humor buried on the comics page and the ads for low-impact products such as Sex and Tap Water are amusing.) The eco-freakout Post is packed with facts and real quotes—unlike the Yes Men's previous fantasy newspaper, a New York Times special edition that announced the end of the Iraq War. "This could be, and should be, a real New York Post," says Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum. No joke.

(And if you want some real climate change humor, the Onion provides: "Melting Ice Caps Expose Hundreds Of Secret Arctic Lairs.")

Eco-News Roundup: Monday September 21

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 7:23 AM EDT

News from our other blogs and around the web on health and the environment you might have missed:

Bipartisan Blip: Wait, both parties have problems with Baucus's reform? Kevin Drum opines.

Sinking Climate: With cap-and-trade sinking, US may want to delay Copenhagen.

Tax Relief: Largest oil subsidies in US go to help pay for foreign production, study finds. [ScienceDaily]

Baucus and Boomers: Jim Ridgeway on why the Baucus plan is bad for the over-50 crowd.

Pregnancy Testing: A reggaeton video graphicly teaches kids about sexual positions. NSFW.

Fuel Restrictions: Brazil introduces a plan to limit planting sugarcane in the Amazon. [MongaBay]

 

Econundrum: Kindles vs. Books

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Q: Should I ditch my books for an e-reader?

A: My friends rave about their Amazon Kindles, but as a bookstore junkie, I’m wary. I’m pretty sure old-fashioned books are aesthetically superior—they look, feel, and smell a whole lot better than an LCD screen. But last year, the book and newspaper publishing industries used 125 million trees, creating as much carbon 7.3 million cars did in the same amount of time. A recent report from the environmental consulting firm Cleantech Group found that the Kindle’s lifecycle impact is much less: In its first year, it offsets the emissions created by its manufacture, and over its lifecycle, its carbon savings even out to about 370 pounds of CO2, or the equivalent of about 22.5 books per year. So what’s a book aesthete to do?

One (admittedly retro) option: a library card. Let’s imagine you buy 20 books a year. According to Cleantech Group, that’s about 331 pounds of carbon. Now say you’re willing to buy only five books a year—new releases that you just can’t wait for—and get the other 15 from the library. The San Francisco library bought 78,445 books in 2008. Let’s assume each of the library’s 2,265,209 visitors borrowed two books. Of course, they’re not all borrowing newly purchased books. But if all those patrons are shouldering the carbon burden of the new books, that evens out to about 0.3 pounds of CO2 per patron. You’ve reduced your reading emissions to 42 pounds of CO2, nearly an eighth of what they would be if you bought all your books new.


Another way to think about it: The carbon impact of reading—either on paper or via e-reader—is dwarfed by that of TV: A typical 34-37-inch LCD-display television creates about 474 pounds of carbon a year—significantly more than the 370 pounds of carbon emitted in a year of reading a Kindle or books—and that’s not even counting the carbon created by your TV’s manufacture.

The bottom line:
Borrow more books than you buy—but whether or not you decide to join the Kindle-wielding masses, reading is always better for the planet than turning on the boob tube.

 

Arctic Geese Skip Migration

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 7:38 PM EDT

Tens of thousands of geese known as brant aren't migrating south anymore. Seduced by warmer weather, they're choosing to overwinter in western Alaska instead.

Big change. Usually Brant stream south along the Pacific flyway each fall. They're a familiar site off the West Coast, long lines riding on tailwinds above the surfline at speeds over 60 mph.

Their destination is a series of shallow lagoons in Baja California, where California gray whales  breed, and where the birds feed on eelgrass.

But whereas once nearly the entire population of Pacific brant overwintered in Mexico and fewer than 3,000 were known to overwinter in Alaska, now 40,000 birds, or 30 percent of the population, are opting for Alaska instead.

The change coincides with a general warming of temperatures in the North Pacific and Bering Sea and its well-documented effect on the abundance and distribution of numerous marine species, including walleye pollock, Pacific cod, northern fur seals, and thick-billed murres.

The effects on species restricted to estuarine ecosystems had not been investigated. But David Ward of the USGS and lead author of the study appearing in Arctic has been investigating brants for 30 years.

The shift in migratory patterns appears related to changes in the availability and abundance of eelgrass. Coastal sea ice isn't forming or is less extensive, and so more nutrient-rich eelgrass is accessible to the geese year round. Ward and his coauthors suspect that Pacific brant numbers will continue to increase in Alaska during winter, given climate predictions.

But there's a big risk in this new scenario, and it was previewed in the winter of 1991-92, when mild temperatures were punctuated by an extended period of cold weather and the formation of extensive shoreline ice. This scenario could become more common as climatic variability increases. Nowadays, sudden, severe cold bouts would put more of the entire brant population at risk.

Changing winds are also affecting the migration of the geese. Traditionally the birds wait for a storm system to come down through the Aleutians so they can catch the tailwinds south. (I wrote about godwits doing the same thing in Diet For A Warm Planet.) But the storm track is changing and there are fewer days each fall with favorable tailwinds to assist the geese on their 3,000 mile-long migration to Mexico.

In other words, the brant may not be opting to stay so as much as they're grounded.

Ward and his colleagues found  the increase in the number of brant overwintering in Alaska was clearly linked to fewer number of days with favorable southward winds.
 

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Is Buying Green a Moral Offset?

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 5:54 PM EDT

While consumers can restore their eco-ego through carbon offset programs after buying an SUV or plane ticket, new research suggests that buying green products functions as a type of "moral offset."

Researchers at the University of Toronto questioned the assumption that the "green consumer" is also socially responsible and a humanitarian. The study found that making environmentally responsible consumer choices leads people to make unethical decisions (or at least not as nice ones) later on:

"the halo associated with green consumerism has to be taken with reservations. While mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors."

The researchers conducted three experiments in which students were asked to purchase or evaluate green products, or buy conventional ones, and then participate in an "unrelated" task. In each experiment, students who didn't buy green products acted more altruistically and honestly in the second task than those who did. In the words of the researchers, "people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products." However, if you consider that 98 percent of so-called "green products" are based on misleading claims, then that moral high ground is even shakier.

So are Prius drivers and folks who drink organic, fairly traded coffee not as nice as those driving a conventional sedan and drinking Starbucks? Seems like a question to ask the Girl Scouts and Salvation Army: Are people more generous in front of Safeway or Whole Foods?

Solar Power's Drinking Problem

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 3:29 PM EDT

When basking in the warm moral glow of solar power, it's good to remember one of Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology. Commoner is one of the founders of the environmental movement -- although, for some reason, he's never received the credit he deserves.

The Commoner Law to keep in mind is: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

With solar power, I'd just expand Commoner's language to ensure that it includes the drinks.

Flying the Carbon Neutral Skies?

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 1:15 PM EDT

In a world of new checked baggage fees, intrusive airport security and dwindling airline services, here's some airport news to feel good about. The San Francisco airport will install Climate Passport kiosks so that passengers can calculate their trip's carbon emissions and pay to offset their portion of the damage. Funds raised will benefit a reforestation project in California's Mendocino County. David Knowles explains the benefits and risks of this news:

One-way from SF to Boston produces 1,999 pounds of CO2. The computer suggests a dollar amount for passengers to donate to Bay Area projects that specifically target carbon emissions (and there are quite a few of them here). For that ride to Boston, for instance, the touch-screen kindly suggests you donate $12.24. You can even check out Climate Passport website before your trip, and see how much carbon dioxide hypothetical itineraries might use.

Of course, the timing of this idea is both crucial and unfortunate. Crucial because we need to offset carbon emissions more than ever. Today, NOAA reported that the average ocean temperature in August hit an all time 20th Century high this year. But unfortunate because who in this economy is going to shell out even more travel money to support projects that they have to give the benefit of the doubt to?

Of course, the success of the program will depend on the number of passengers who actually pay for the offsets and whether other airports embrace this option. But let's hope that airlines don't use the new policy as an excuse to punt on other important aspects of environmental efficiency.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, September 18

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

A Friday sampling of health, science, and environment news:

No health care for C-section moms: Many insurers won't cover women who have given birth through Cesarean section. Also, women who have suffered domestic abuse.

New CAFE fuel standards: The rules governing fuel economy and carbon emissions for cars are changing. Kevin Drum explains with a handy chart.

Climate bill outlook cloudy: What did the White House have to say for itself about delaying the climate bill? Not much.

Cruisin' for a planetary bruisin': Friends of the Earth graded major cruise lines on their greenness. Are you surprised that none got an A? Now if they were to be graded on weirdness... [Seattle Times]

First lady hits the first farmers' market: Michelle Obama, who for some reason chose to wear a lei to the first White House farmers' market, appears to be perusing the potatoes. [Grist]