Blue Marble

Buying Green: Bad for Your Credit?

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 11:33 AM EDT

Till today, I couldn't find too many reasons not to shop at the Salvation Army: Thrift-stores are cheaper, better for the planet, and usually more interesting than the mall. But turns out my fondness for weird old mugs could land me in financial hot water. Treehugger has a great little post today about green consumer habits that some credit companies consider "red flags:"

Credit companies take note, for instance, if you charge services like tire retreading and shoe repair to your card. Or if you're shopping at thrift stores like the Salvation Army.

The message: Buying used things and repairing broken ones instead of buying new means you're struggling financially, and can't be trusted to pay back a loan. That's awfully backwards. Little do the credit companies know how much poorer I'd be if I didn't shop at the Salvation Army.

For other credit company red flags, check out this Concord Monitor piece.

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Cute Endangered Animal: Kangaroo Rat

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 6:40 AM EDT

This week's cute endangered animal is the kangaroo rat. Now you might not think that any animal with "rat" in its name would be cute, or in danger of disappearing, but both are true for several species of kangaroo rats here in the U.S. Despite its name, the kangaroo rat is not actually a rat, but rather a relation the gopher family. Currently, six species of kangaroo rats (genus Dipodomys) are facing extinction. They all live in the Western half of the US, starting in the Dakotas and extending West to California and Nevada, preferring desert habitats. The tiny animals measure just 2" at the shoulder, and like to get around by hopping like kangaroos (as much as 6" a leap!). Kangaroo rats are known for their love of dust baths, for cramming an incredible amount of food into their cheek pouches and, on occassion, for hiding under the crotches of hapless biologists.

The native kangaroo rat was thriving until the 1950s, when a two-tiered threat of agriculture and human development hit them: the farmers carried out pest-control campaigns against the rats (who found newly-tilled soil perfect for burrows), and new roads made it hard for rats to find new habitat. More recently, oil and natural gas exploration has been painted as a possible culprit in a number of rat deaths. Also, given that the rats relate their mating status and territory by thumping their long hind legs on the ground, one can only imagine that development also hinders intra-species communication.

The kangaroo rats' survival is important to environmentalists because the animals are a "keystone species" in their environments. With kidneys four times as strong as humans', kangaroo rats get most of their daily moisture from their food: seeds and nuts. By eating plants with the largest seeds, they allow plants with smaller seeds to flourish, which in turn effects the surrounding insect and bird populations.

Despite their importance to the ecosystem, the federal government has not been pro-active in protecting the kangaroo rat. Just last year, US Fish & Wildlife proposed cutting a California kangaroo rat's protected habitat by about 2/3. Conservation groups said they were going to sue the department, and Fish & Wildlife relented by changing the planned habitat reduction. Scientists said last year that they will use an Israeli satellite to take pictures of the rats habitat which will help them get an accurate population count. Though just how accurate the satellites will be remains unknown. "It's fairly rare for something so small to be a keystone species," UC Berkeley's Tim Bean told USA Today. "It's easier to track, say, bison."

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday July 15

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 6:11 AM EDT

Curious what you might have missed yesterday? Here's a list of Blue Marblish stories from our other blogs.

Dept. of CYA: What does the new House committee healthcare report mean for you?

Dept. of IDK: When thinking about healthcare, should we factor in how it could be used for... evil? What if we get another Cheney in office? What then

Dept. of GITMO: DC Bureau Chief David Corn talks torture on NPR.

Dept. of TCB: Elvis wanted to work as a drug enforcement agent for Nixon.


Welcome! 15 Baby Chinese Alligators

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 7:01 PM EDT

Very good news today from a place you might least expect it—the mouth of the Yangtze River: third longest river in the world, most economically important waterway in China, home to massive industrial development and the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.

Despite these obstacles, 15 critically endangered Chinese alligators—the most endangered of all crocodilians—hatched at the mouth of the Yangtze. They are the offspring of the first captive-born parents to successfully breed in the wild.

The hatchlings represent 10 years of work by the Wildlife Conservation Society and China's Department of Wildlife Conservation and Management of the State Forestry Administration, among others.

The efforts began after a 1999 survey of the only remaining wild home for Chinese alligators found fewer than 130 animals in a shrinking population.

Subsequently recommendations were made to reintroduce a group of captive-bred animals into the wild. Three alligators bred in China were released in 2003. A dozen more followed from North America, including some from the Bronx Zoo.

By 2008, three of the North American alligators released into the wild in China had successfully hibernated, paired up, and laid eggs... fueling hope the Chinese alligator might outswim extinction longer than the Three Gorges Dam—that killer (in part) of the near-extinct Yangtze river dolphin and destroyer of habitat of the critically endangered Siberian Crane. Short may this dam live.

But, hey, good job alligators and all those who are helping them.


Interior Secretary Salazar: Mining Reform = Better Beer

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

Who says the arcane job of rewriting the laws that govern hard-rock mining isn't of interest to Joe Sixpack? Certainly not Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who in testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources today, deftly linked the reform of the nation's mining laws to the production of better beer. "Relative to the water that was used for Coors beer," the former Colorado Senator said, "we know that Clear Creek comes off the headwaters. . .where we have thousands of abandoned mines."

Salazar was testifying in support of two senate bills that would end the giveaway of minerals on federal land--a federal law from 1872 still allows companies to extract gold and other minerals royalty-free--and use the money to finance the cleanup of mining sites.  An estimated 500,000 abandoned mines have contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of the West's streams. Cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion.

For Salazar, citing Coors' iconic Clear Creek was a tip of the cowboy hat to Republican brewery scion Pete Coors, whom Salazar narrowly defeated in a 2004 Senate race. For decades, the Coors family has been a major donor to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and John Birch Society and target of environmentalists. On several occasions, the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado, dumped thousands of gallons of beer into Clear Creek, at one point killing up to 50,000 fish (perhaps they at least died happy). But starting in the early 1990s, Coors also began paying more attention to preserving its watershed. It joined forces with state agencies to clean up an abandoned mine along the creek and cap, grade, and replant the site.

The mining reform bill would bankroll those cleanups by requiring new mines to pay into a fund. But Salazar would like to see it go further by creating new incentives for companies such as Coors to clean up mines on their own. In 2006, he sponsored a "Good Samaritan" bill that would have allowed private interests to mop up contaminated sites without fear of being held liable for the pollutants found there. For example, in the 1990s, the State of Colorado and Coors had planned to stanch the flow from a mine tunnel that was leaching ten pounds of heavy metals into Clear Creek each day, but the state killed the project for fear of lawsuits.

Salazar's plea for better beer through mining reform was a big hit with freshman Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has replaced him on the committee. "Your comments about Coors are particularly relevant to me, since Colorado is the number one producer of beer on a state-to-state basis," he said. "It's an important industry in Colorado and it's important to all of us."

Then the microphone was passed to Senator James Risch (R-ID), who was none too impressed. "Colorado may brew it," he said, "but Idaho grows the barley and the hops."

Palin on the Porch: I Can See the Past From Here!

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 3:33 PM EDT

The view from Sarah Palin's porch remains as bizarre as it was when she said she could see Russia from there. Having conquered the limits of space, Palin's eyes now vaniquish time.

"American prosperity," the soon-to-be-former Governor of Alaska writes in today's WaPo, "has always been driven by the steady supply of abundant, affordable energy."

As Palin makes clear further on, the only energy sources that meet her All-American standards are fossil fuels. (Nuclear power is OK, but from an economic POV, it's something of a dinosaur, too.)

Coal. Natural gas. And, of course, the precious crude oil that gave rise to her battle cry, "Drill, baby, drill!"

The energy future Palin sees from her porch is, in fact, the past.

Palin's 20th Century obession with fossil fuels is not unique. On Monday, Wonkette took a swipe at the National Endowment for Democracy for hosting a conference on fostering democracy in oil rich countries. (Still?! Again?!)

According to a piece in today's HuffPo, even Exxon is experimenting with biofuels, investing half a billion dollars in algae-based program. (I think their dabble is doomed to failure, but that's a different post. Or, if you can't wait, check out what Greenbiz had to say on this subject last week.)

A more likely future was presented in a study released yesterday by the University of California: "Electric Vehicles in the United States."

The report forecast that electric vehicles (EVs) will account for up to 86% of all new car sales in the US in just two decades. What's interesting about the study is not its wildly optimistic viewpoint -- it's the business model they say will usher in that future.

Here’s the concept: You pay for the electric vehicle (like the Renault-Nissan Rogue shown above).

The company, Better Place, pays for (and owns) the $11,000 battery. And the network of charging stations. And the switching stations where customers can swap their nearly empty battery for a full one on long trips, at no fee. Under this scenario, you’ll buy the car in the usual way. But all the costs associated with powering the vehicle will come in the form of a pay-per-mile contract.

The concept is familiar to anyone who has a pay-per-minute cell phone contract. The cost to the consumer pencils out at a point well below what gasoline-powered drivers currently pay. The savings increase with the inevitable rise in oil prices.

The UC study found that “separating the purchase of the battery from the car and incorporating its financing into a service contract that pays for the electricity and charging infrastructure radically changes the pricing possibilities for electric vehicles.”

According to the study, other key benefits of adopting EVs at this scale include:

  • A decrease in oil imports of between 18-38%.
  • A reduction of the US trade deficit by a third.
  • A net increase of as many as 350,000 new jobs.
  • Health care saving of between $105-$210 million based on lower levels of airborne pollutants.
  • A 69% decline in CO2 emissions — if the electricity to charge the batteries comes from renewable, clean sources such as solar or wind.

To those who think this will never happen: it's already begun. With the aid of $45 million from the state of Hawaii, Better Place is installing charging stations in key areas on the islands. The company also plans on building a billion dollar charging infrastructure throughout the San Francisco Bay area. And the Japanese company, A123, has announced plans to build a $2 billion plant in Michigan to produce batteries for these cars.

The Sarah Palins of the world don't see any of this, of course. She and her followers are too busy marching backwards into the past and thinking they're gaining ground.

As all progressives know, looking forward is so much more fun.


Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. He edited The Climate Bill: A Field Guide. For more of his stories, click here.


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Apples to Orgasms

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

An odd tidbit from our British friends across the pond:

A National Health Service leaflet is advising school pupils that they have a "right" to an enjoyable sex life and that regular intercourse can be good for their cardiovascular health.

The advice appears in guidance circulated to parents, teachers and youth workers, and is intended to update sex education by telling pupils about the benefits of sexual pleasure. For too long, say its authors, experts have concentrated on the need for “safe sex” and loving relationships while ignoring the main reason that many people have sex, that is, for enjoyment.

The document, called Pleasure, has been drawn up by NHS Sheffield, although it is also being circulated outside the city.

Alongside the slogan "an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away", it says: "Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?"

Very interesting. But could such a sexually enlightened controversial program ever work here in the United States?

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, July 14

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Tuesday news of the Blue Marble variety, from around our site:

Trip down memory lane: Or lack thereof. Check out our drug-war timeline.

Is there a computer in the house? Sure, digitizing medical records will make doctors' jobs a lot easier. But is the Obama administration doing it all wrong?

Cheese, please: Domino's Pizza's new sidewalk ad campaign: Green or grotesque?

Boringest babysitter ever: GOP House reps say never mind a bill that would support new parents, why not just park the kids in front of a Baby Einstein DVD?

Doha drag: Likelihood of progress on agricultural issues in trade talks, given the reluctance of rich countries to reduce subsidies on farmed products? Not great, says Kevin Drum.


NOAA Says No to Krill Fishing

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 5:13 PM EDT

Good news today. NOAA published a final rule that will go into effect 12 August prohibiting the harvesting of the shrimplike invertebrates known as krill off California, Oregon, and Washington.

The states themselves already have regulations prohibiting a krill harvest within three miles of their coasts. But, until now, no federal restriction protected the Exclusive Economic Zone—between three and 200 miles out.

Interestingly, there is no commercial fishery for krill in these waters. Today's rule is a rare instance of foresight in fisheries management, designed to preserve the foundation of a healthy marine foodweb in the California Current ecosystem, including its five National Marine Sanctuaries.

Krill are vitally important as primary consumers in this ecosystem, feeding on the primary producers:the microscopic phytoplankton that use the energy of sunlight to make life from nonlife.

Numerous commercially important fish feed on krill, including salmon, rockfish, squid, sardine, mackerel and flatfish. Many endangered and threatened species forage on krill, including blue whales, humpback whales, and a variety of seabirds, including Sooty Shearwaters, Marbled Murrelets, and Common Murres.

This krill ban was originally proposed by the National Marine Sanctuary Program and grew from there to include all West Coast waters. The plan is to prevent a commercial krill fishery like the ones that have already taken root in Antarctica, Japan, and off Canada's Pacific coast. The idea being that fishing the primary consumers of the foodweb is like eating your seed corn.

Most wild krill fished in foodwebs elsewhere in the world are used to feed aquacultured marine life and terrestrial livestock, as fish bait, and for pet foods.

That's like feeding your seed corn to your milk cow. Or your goldfish.

Sustainable Farming is Being Destroyed to Eradicate E. Coli

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 12:40 PM EDT

From the San Francisco Chronicle today comes a great story about how major produce buyers are imposing secret scorched-earth measures on hundreds of thousands of acres where spinach and leafy greens are grown. Trees are being bulldozed, frogs and rodents are being killed, and farmers are creating wide crop buffers of bare dirt, all in a misguided attempt to prevent another outbreak of E. Coli. The changes are taking a heavy toll on the Salinas Valley, the nation's "salad bowl," which is incredibly biodiverse and traditionally a hotbed of sustainable agriculture. By eliminating the natural checks and balances on the agricultural ecosystem, the measures might be doing more harm than good. There has never been an E. Coli outbreak on small-scale farms---farms that are integrated with the local ecosystem and sell to the region's farmers markets.