Blue Marble - July 2011

Art Annoys Wyoming Coal Industry

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

A sculpture highlighting the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels has righteously pissed off fossil fuel interests in Wyoming. British artist Chris Drury is at work on a piece that depicting a climate-change-caused onslaught of mountain pine beetles, which are destroying the region's forests. It has been commissioned for the University of Wyoming campus in Cheyenne. The Billings Gazette reports that the sulpture, "Carbon Sink," will feature a "flat whirlpool of beetle-killed logs spiraling into a vortex of charred, black wood and studded with large lumps of Wyoming coal."

Wyoming's coal industry, however, is nonplussed, and one industry representative has suggested this slight could impact donations to the university:

Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said it's "really disappointing" that UW decided to build the sculpture. He pointed out that the mining industry has "been a stalwart supporter" of the university for years, giving the school millions of dollars in donations for projects such as the new School of Energy Resources.
"They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry," Loomis said. "I understand academic freedom, and we're very supportive of it, but it's still disappointing."
Loomis said it's "hard to tell" whether the sculpture would affect the mining industry’s donations to UW in the future.

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Art + Corals + Conservation = Awesome

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 5:06 AM EDT

This is one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time. I don't particularly enjoy snorkeling (too claustrophobic) but I'd try it again just to see this amazing underwater installation. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor is a former scuba instructor who's found a novel way to reduce tourists' footprints on Caribbean coral reefs: create a new reef. Using marine-grade cement designed to foster coral growth, deCaires Taylor sculpted more than 400 life-size human figures and submerged them 30 feet underwater. The sculpture installation—strategically located near the popular resort city of Cancún, Mexico—has already been colonized by corals and more than 1000 different types of fish plus lobsters and other creatures. As an added benefit, tourists who opt to go see deCaires Taylor's growing reef take some of the ecological burden off of the older, more delicate reefs nearby.

 

Wildlife get a bonus too: new reefs mean that fish have a new home, and smaller animals can dart down to the sculpture's feet when they see a predator swimming above. Eventually, according to National Geographic, the sculptures would cover around 4,250 square feet, making it one of the largest underwater art installations in the world.

DeCaires Taylor's project definitely has an ecological impact, and an aesthetic one as well. The figures look extremely eerie in the fluctuating light, despite being only 30 feet below the sunny surface of the ocean. The faces growing algae evoke victims of shipwrecks, and like human bodies, their decomposition feeds other creatures. There's something intriguing about the continually changing and developing nature of this art: it's definitely "alive" in the most literal sense, but it's also an artificial, human-made structure that's been plunked down in the ocean. It may not be for every art-lover, but the fish sure seem to love it. More cool images from the exhibition in the video below.

Jason DeCaires Taylor Underwater Sculpture from Christian Sandino-Taylor on Vimeo.

Which Is Better: Hybrid or Fuel-Efficient Conventional?

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

After five car-free years, I am finally considering buying a vehicle. But which kind of car is best for the planet?

Yeah, yeah, I am well aware of the fact that the most environmentally sound decision would be to not buy any car at all. But there are some things that bikes just can't do. They can't haul big stuff (though I've schlepped some impressive-sized things on my bike). And the bike can't get me to North Carolina or New Jersey, the respective native lands of my partner and me, unless we plan a few extra days of travel. And while I like living in Washington, DC, I do occasionally want to get out and see a tree or two.

I've gotten conflicting reports about whether it's better to invest in a hybrid or opt for an extremely fuel-efficient conventional auto instead. It's not an easy question to answer, since much depends on your driving habits, where you live, and what kind of money you have. The sticker price of most hybrids is still a major barrier—I work at a nonprofit magazine and my partner is an academic, so a $10,000-plus difference is significant to us. And most of our car trips are longer ones, meaning we wouldn't see quite as much advantage from a hybrid as people who use it to commute daily in a relatively small area.

The upfront cost of a new Prius is still pretty high: The average price ranges from $25,000 to $35,000 for the 2011 model. Because of the high demand for them, even a used Prius is still pretty expensive, with one of the highest resale values. (I've even heard stories about people reselling them for more than they spent in the first place.) There are, of course, other types of hybrids: On the US News & World Report ranking, the hybrid Ford Fusion places pretty high up there at a cost only slightly higher than the Prius, as do the Honda CR-Z, Toyota's Camry hybrid, and the Hyundai Sonata hybrid.

The fact of the matter, though, is that if I get a Prius, I wouldn't be taking advantage of its hybrid abilities all that much. My trips would be too long, and its electric capacity is really better suited for short trips or stop-and-go traffic. So rather than go for a hybrid just because it sounds like a better option, I should look at the overall fuel economy for both city and highway driving. "In the end, mileage is mileage," says Jim Motavalli, a writer whose car coverage is regularly featured in the New York Times. His book on plug-ins, High Voltage, is coming out in November. "The fact that a car is a hybrid does not in and of itself make it cleaner."

Motavalli drives a 2007 Honda Fit that gets about 35 miles per gallon, which he says he's found to be among the best options out there. The 2011 models start at $15,100, which certainly puts it closer to my price range. The Hyundai Elantra and Ford Fiesta also get a similar miles-per-gallon rating in that price range, and you can see the EPA's detailed ranking of fuel economy for others.

Looking at the side-by-side comparison of cars and prices and thinking about my driving habits, I was pretty sure I wanted to go with one of the highly-efficient small cars on the market. But there's another factor that I hadn't really considered: My purchasing habits do have effects beyond the amount that I personally drive. If I buy a hybrid, in my own small way I am sending a signal to the market that people want more hybrids. This drives carmakers' decisions to produce more and different hybrid options. And as more people drive hybrids, the sticker price will eventually go down, making them cheaper upfront. And there's the other, harder-to-measure consideration, which is that the more people who drive hybrids, the more they'll be seen as "cooler" or even, at some point, just "normal."

"The success of any product is based on consumers buying it," says Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Auto Alliance, the trade group representing US automakers. "[Car companies] put a portfolio out there and see what the consumer chooses."

Hybrids have certainly grown in popularity in recent years. In 2010, there were 30 different types of hybrids on the market, says Newton.* But manufacturers have only sold 2 million hybrids in the past 11 years, and with 246 million cars on the road across the US, that means hybrids are only 0.8 percent of the fleet. So my buying one could actually have some impact in the market.

I'm still pondering what to make of this exercise. In the meantime, we'll continue using ZipCar for our short trips and renting cars for our longer ones, which has served us pretty well for the past five years. If you have thoughts on the best solution, weigh in below.

*This figure has been corrected since this article was orginally posted.

VIDEO: Is Overpopulation Really a Problem?

| Sat Jul. 16, 2011 4:46 PM EDT

A few years back, in "The Last Taboo," MoJo's Julia Whitty wrote about the thorny issue of overpopulation—and the "conspiracy of silence" that surrounds it. The topic has become so controversial that hardly anyone (not the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, or even scientists) is willing to talk about it. But not everyone believes that the world has too many people. Last week, Julia was on PBS Need to Know facing off with Phillip Longman, author of the book The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What To Do About It. Longman argues that not only have we solved the problem, we're actually in the midst of a precipitous population decline. Here's the segment:

 

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Gem of the Week: Forget 8 Glasses of Water a Day

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 6:26 PM EDT

For many years, people have been told they should drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day. That's 64 ounces, or nearly 2 liters. This week,  Scottish practitioner Margaret McCartney is calling it "thoroughly debunked nonsense" in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

McCartney took on medical claims disseminated by Hydration for Health, a water-pushing health organization created by the company that owns Volvic and Evian. McCartney wrote that she did not see any high-quality scientific literature provided by Hydration for Health proving drinking so much water was essential. In fact, she found evidence that mental performance suffers when people drink more water than they're thirsty for. "In other words, there is still no evidence that we need to drink more than we naturally want, and there may be unintended harms from an enforcement to drink more water," McCartney wrote.

While McCartney didn't see evidence backing up the 2-liter-a-day rule, she did see bottled water companies pushing the "water=health" idea to sell more of their products. As McCartney wrote on her blog: "The bottled water industry is pushing the idea that we should drink more than we normally would with the promise of health benefits, and I don’t think there are any. That's all. And I would recommend tap rather than bottled water: cheaper, and far better for environment." The bottled water companies were not happy with McCartney's attitude. In response, the European Federation of Bottled Waters wrote a letter to BMJ about McCartney's article and cited a recommendation that "at least two liters of water should be consumed per day."

The British National Health Service still recommends that everyone drink "six to eight glasses" a day, but in the US, the Mayo Clinic's site says that the eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day "isn't really supported by scientific evidence" and that "if you drink enough fluid so that you rarely feel thirsty" and produce enough clear or light yellow urine a day, you should be fine.

A Top 10 from BBC Earth

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 8:03 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

In 2010, BBC Earth opened its arms (and eyes) to the online community. Since the website's launch, it was never expected that we would discover the extent to which natural history can inspire people.

Through our Facebook page, we have realized that the mankind's relationship with nature is alive and well, something that is overlooked with half of the world's population now living in urban environments.

The incredible fact is that not only is there an interest to see amazing wildlife, incredible locations and the very best of natural history film-making, but also there's a desire to give back!

The talent and commitment shown through the photo submissions to the BBC Earth page has grown from birds in back yards, to incredible captures of the natural world at large. So to celebrate these wonderful contributions and say thank you we've decided to share it with the wider world.

There have been some incredible submissions, and here is just a small selection of our favorites. And to see the full collection of remarkable images, or to join in yourself, dive in here.

Thank you again to everyone who has participated, supported or has simply "liked" an image. We are proud to have such an inspiring community and we look forward to what your future pictures hold.

Photographs by: Johanna Vehkanen, Kasia Kaliszewska, Kay Blunt-Clayden, Kelly Heinz, Nancy Hutton, Sam Huang, Shirley Ng, Tatiana Roberti, Terry Bridges and Whispering Mists.

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Bill McKibben Avoids the Fetal Position

| Thu Jul. 14, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Bill McKibben

When we talk about global warming, much of the debate centers on separating facts from fluff, and environmental activist and Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben wants to set the record straight. The Global Warming Reader, a book edited by McKibben and out this month from OR Books, pulls together seminal texts of the climate change debate with the goal of creating a complete picture of what we know about global warming. Selections range from a 19th-century treatise to images from Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and include a few unexpected gems like Senate floor statements from climate change denier James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

I spoke to McKibben about his history with climate change literature, his ongoing battle against ExxonMobil, and, in the face of dismal environmental realities, how he avoids the temptation to curl up in a little ball on the floor.

Mother Jones: Why'd you put this book together?

Florida Tea Party Worries About Government's Secret Manatee Conspiracy

| Wed Jul. 13, 2011 11:59 AM EDT

After propelling Republican Rick Scott into the governor's office last fall, Florida tea partiers have found a new target: manatees.

My friend Craig Pittman of the St. Petersburg Times, a manatee reporter extraordinaire, writes today about how the endangered species has joined the list of tea-party targets, along with taxes, high-speed rail, and socialized medicine. From the story:

A Citrus County tea party group has announced that it's fighting new restrictions on boating and other human activities in Kings Bay that have been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We cannot elevate nature above people," explained Edna Mattos, 63, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots, in an interview. "That's against the Bible and the Bill of Rights."

Federal officials "want to restrict the entire bay," she contended. "They don't want people here."

Areas of Kings Bay, which is in Citrus County, have been designated as a federal wildlife refuge since 1980. Jacques Cousteau's 1972 documentary Forgotten Mermaids featured the manatees of Kings Bay, and it's one of the only places where humans can actually swim with the giant mammals. As Pittman notes, the number of manatees in the bay has increased from 100 when the protections were put in place to more than 550 today. They are a major tourist draw to the area, but there has been an uptick in manatee deaths from boating accidents in the past ten years.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service expanded the refuge to include all of the bay last month, citing a need to protect the animals:

"The number of manatees using Kings Bay throughout the year has simply outgrown the capacity of existing protected areas," said Dave Hankla, the Service's North Florida Ecological Services Office supervisor, adding, "and human use of the bay has increased beyond the impacts originally considered when the existing protections were created."

But the local tea-partiers see a broader, more sinister effort at play:

"We believe that (federal regulators') aim is to control the fish and wildlife, in addition to the use of the land that surrounds this area, and the people that live here and visit. … As most of us know, this all ties in to the United Nations' Agenda 21 and Sustainability."

Ah, that! Our own Stephanie Mencimer has covered the UN-related conspiracy theories that a number of tea partiers and Glenn Beck fans believe underlie all sustainability-related initiatives. The Citrus County group's website warns that that Agenda 21 is "designed to make humans into livestock." Surely a one-world government run by manatees must be part of the agenda, too.

Mountain Sight: Rediscovered

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 6:21 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

High up in the mountains of Nepal, life seems idyllic. Rising up from lush cloud forests at lower altitudes, to bare summits that literally take your breath away. Yet living at altitudes of over 13,000 feet, the proximity to nature is so close, that the mountain people who live there are being affected by a factor that only ever seems beneficial: light.

Human Planet’s "Mountains" episode, the BBC Earth team trekked up high into the impressive landscape to document the work of two doctors who were literally changing people's lives in just 24 hours.

This event was key to the Human Planet series, because it exemplified how humans are "Without a doubt, the most ingenious, clever species on the planet," says series producer Dale Templar.

However, it also led to another fantastic event. Since airing in February 2011, and subsequently journeying all over the world, the program brought light and attention to the outreach teams' work that had never been witnessed by a worldwide audience before. E-mails of compassion quickly began making their way to Drs. Ruit and Tabin, and before they knew it, they were flooded with support.

If not for the work of two men, who made it their personal goal to eradicate as much unnecessary blindness in their lifetimes as possible. That caught the attention of a BBC Earth team, who in turn opened the eyes of millions of viewers.

Not what you'd expect from a natural history documentary, but you should expect nothing less from BBC Earth. An excellent outcome, and most definitely a reason to celebrate human life on planet Earth.

Big Coal: Inbreeding, Not Mining, to Blame for Birth Defects

| Tue Jul. 12, 2011 4:02 PM EDT

Last month, when coal execs read the report linking birth defects to mountaintop removal mining, they weren't exactly thrilled. One rebuttal, penned by four attorneys with the firm Crowell & Moring, which represents the National Mining Association, accused the study's authors of using cherry-picked and misleading data. But that apparently wasn't convincing enough, so they went a step further and employed a discredited stereotype about inbreeding in West Virginia.

"The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects," the attorneys' statement said. It then went on to advertise the firm's services to coal companies looking to "counter unfounded claims of injury or disease" from potential lawsuits sparked by the study.

The statement, which had been on the firm's website for more than a week, was quickly removed yesterday after Charleston Gazette blogger Ken Ward Jr. pointed out its insinuation that inbreeding hicks, not mountaintop mining, were to blame for spikes in the rate of birth defects, which it also said didn't exist in the first place. Wrap your head around that one. (Thanks to Ward, you can still read the statement here.)

Ward asked one of the study's co-authors, West Virginia University's Michael Hendryx, to weigh in. His response:

The criticisms raised are to be expected. I disagree that we overstated our findings. I think we’ve been appropriately cautious in what we say about limitations of the study and conclusions. This paper can’t be considered in isolation but should be taken with the more than dozen other studies that continue to document serious health problems related to mining.

The four lawyers didn't get back to Ward, but a spokeswoman from the National Mining Association did, telling him that she didn't think anyone was really implying that a failure to look at inbreeding rates discredited the study. Maybe not, but the incident certainly won't sit well with opponents of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.