Blue Marble

UN Wants ALL Plastic Bags Banned

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 4:49 PM EDT

Quick hit: a UN environment official wants ALL the plastic bags in the world banned immediately due to the damage they cause to oceans and wildlife. Plastic bags, as we've reported before, is a problem in oceans not only because there's so much of it, but because wildlife eat it and feed it to their young, resulting in starvation. The UN official's statement was accompanied by a new UN report that shows plastic makes up 80% of all litter found in the ocean.  

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A Titanic for These Times

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 3:43 PM EDT

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at

The June issue of the Atlantic has a look at the mind-blowing Oasis of the Seas, a gargantuan ocean liner forthcoming from cruise company Royal Caribbean International. Its unprecedented scale of apparent luxury surely required feats of engineering. But any awe that inspires would seem to wash away with apprehension of the ship’s untold economic and ecological hubris.

A decade ago, a large cruise ship typically carried in the neighborhood of 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But in an industry intently focused on swelling its profits no matter the non-fiscal costs, bigger is always better. Ordered in 2006 for $1.4 billion (on the crest ahead of the economic meltdown), the Oasis leaves those old numbers far in its wake. “In November,” writes Rory Nugent, “Royal Caribbean will take delivery of a true sea monster. Now in its final phase of construction, the Oasis of the Seas will be the biggest (longest, tallest, widest, heaviest) passenger ship ever built—and the most expensive. It will dwarf Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and cast shadows dockside atop 20-story buildings. A crew of 2,165 will tend the expectations of up to 6,296 passengers.” 

This Week in Frog (Take That Domino and Inkblot)

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 6:34 PM EDT

It all started at happy hour. Most wise decisions do. With a bunch of us gathered around a twelve pack of Red Stripe and bag of stale Tostitos, Kevin Drum's cat blogging became the topic of conversation. Earlier in the day, I'd bragged that we, the latest crop of MoJo interns, could overtake Kevin's traffic, and after consuming a single screwdriver the brilliance hit me for real. What's the only thing better than a cat blog? The only thing better than the Obama dog blog? A frog blog.
Within an hour, we found ourselves at the 6th Avenue Aquarium in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond district. When we asked the clerk if there were any frogs available, he nonchalantly pointed to an empty, unmarked tank and said, "Sold out." Despair. We'd come all this way for a frog and didn't want to wait a week for another shipment to arrive. As my colleagues pondered purchasing an amphibian of a less-rhymophile friendly genus, I took one final look at the "empty" frog tank. Inside, I noticed a pair of eyes slightly protruding from below the water's surface. It was no mistake; one frog remained who’d been left for dead. When I explained the situation to the employee, he said, "Grab a net." After first removing some bettas (Siamese fighting fish) from their perch atop the frog tank, we successfully extracted the frisky little fellow from his lonely home and immediately treated him to a feast of three crickets.
After spending the night in my apartment and enjoying amenities such as my roommate's singing, man's new best friend found his way into MoJo's offices this morning after a 40 minute bus ride. (You know how guys who walk their dogs get tons of attention from women? It doesn’t apply to guys with frogs.)

So welcome to our inaugural post of Friday frog blogging. We hope that readers will pitch in to choose a name for our new friend. Balloting will close in one week, on Friday at 6am Pacific Time.  Thereafter, look for This Week In Frog.

Fatty Foods Make Us Hungry—And Fat

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 5:10 PM EDT

Here's a clue to the virulence of the obesity epidemic. New research suggests the hunger hormone ghrelin is activated by fats from the foods we eat, not those made in the body.

This natural process was designed to optimize metabolism and promote the storage of body fat. And this was useful when food was hard to come by and we had to work physically hard to get it.

Now it backfires on us in the form of fat.

Ghrelin—the hunger hormone—is believed to accumulate during periods of fasting and is found in the body in high concentrations just before meals. It's activated by a fatty acid added by an enzyme called GOAT. Originally it was assumed that the fatty acids attached to ghrelin by GOAT were produced by the body during fasting.

But the new data published in Nature Medicine suggest the fatty acids needed for ghrelin activation come directly from ingested dietary fats.

Exposed to fatty foods, mice with more GOAT gain more fat. Mice without GOAT gain less fat since their brain never receives the signal to store the fat.

Why am I worried that this will lead to a pharmaceutical fix that will allow us to continue overeating without getting fat?

What's Worse: Urban Sprawl or Twinkies?

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

Some say Americans are too fat because we eat too many Big Macs and ice cream sundaes. But according to a policy statement released this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), modern city planners join McDonald's and Dairy Queen in shouldering the blame for childhood obesity.

The statement, published in the June edition of Pediatrics Magazine, found that urban sprawl contributes to childhood obesity by forming neighborhoods that are impossible for children to navigate independently. As a result, many children grow dependent on their parent’s chauffeuring rather than their bicycles or legs to get to school or the park. In coming-of-age television show terms, the ideal neighborhood to combat childhood obesity is closer to the densely urban, San Francisco model from "Full House" than the suburban, sprawling wasteland of "The Wonder Years." Of course, sprawl is not the only cause of childhood obesity. As Mother Jones has reported, the blame has been spread among unhealthy food, heredity, and non-diet sodas, just to name a few villians.

The AAP report also notes that abandoning sprawl could decrease our insatiatable appetite for fatty foods. In addition to parks and recreation centers, current densification efforts have included community gardens that produce fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. So promoting condensed neighborhoods with amenities nearby could kill two birds with one public policy-laden stone: decrease the negative environmental effects of suburban sprawl—including vehicular air pollution—and start children on a de-facto exercise regime. If elected officials support legislation to allocate public funds to urban densification efforts, and provide parents with incentives to move their families to cities, we could see a drop in the childhood obesity rate without having to give up too many twinkies.

Congressional Climate Change Games

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 10:37 AM EDT

A couple weeks back, the Center for Public Integrity reported on the massive lobbying effort targeting the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which literally hundreds of businesses and interest groups are vying to influence. And—surprise, surprise—some congressional have responded by quietly tweaking the bill in industry friendly ways. Today, the Washington Post singles out a handful of interesting provisions slipped into the bill by Democrats on the House energy and commerce committee. Take this sly maneuver by Rep. Gene Green, the Texas Democrat:

During the final days of the drafting of a 946-page climate bill,  Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) won support for an amendment that deleted a single word and inserted two others. The words could be worth millions of dollars to U.S. oil refiners.

The Green amendment deleted the word "sources" and inserted "emission points." In the arcane world of climate legislation, that tiny bit of editing might one day give petroleum refiners valuable rights to emit carbon dioxide when it otherwise might not have been allowed. Refiners could get the extra allowances in return for cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent at a single point of a vast refinery complex instead of slashing emissions by 50 percent for the entire facility.

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Estrogen Kills Fish

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 7:48 PM EDT

Estrogen is bad for fish. In more ways than we thought.

We know that estrogen and estrogen-mimicking chemicals known as endocrine disruptors cause intersex fish—that is, males with immature female egg cells in their testes.

New research finds that fish exposed to estrogen produce less immune-related proteins, making them more susceptible to disease. This suggests why fish in the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers are simultaneously afflicted by mass kills, lesions, and intersex fish.

US Geological Survey researchers suspected that estrogens were causing fish kills and fish lesions as well as intersex fish in the two river systems. So they exposed largemouth bass to estrogen and found the fish produced less hepcidin—an iron-regulating hormone of mammals, fish, and amphibians.

Exactly what hepcidin does to boost immune systems is unclear. But it may act as an antimicrobial peptide, the first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Or it might affect the iron balance in infected vertebrates. Or both.

We do know we're loosing megatons of synthetic chemicals into waterways every year. Most are plastics additives, surfactants, birth control agents, antimicrobials, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or controls for insect, weed, and fungal populations.

But all too many wind their way from industry, livestock, irrigation, sewage, and storm run-off into lakes, ponds, oceans, marshes, streams, rivers, and groundwater—eventually into fish.

And from there into humans, perhaps accounting for the alarming rise of human male reproductive disorders in recent years, including birth defects of the penis, undescended testes, reduced sperm production, and testicular cancer.

You think that might slow down the chemical pipeline. Especially in rivers so close to Washington, DC. But apparently money is worth more than masculinity.

Chevron or Chevwrong?

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 2:21 PM EDT

If you believe Chevron's ubiquitous ad campaign, it's an icon of corporate responsibility. According to environmental and human rights groups…not so much.

Organizations including CorpWatch, Global Exchange, and EarthRights International released "The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report" last week. And not surprisingly, it tells a different story than the oil giant. To wit:

City Birds Sing Louder, Faster

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 5:54 PM EDT

Seems like big city life is faster, even for the birds. A European survey of songbirds has found that city birds sing louder than their country brethren. City birds tweeted faster, and preferred to sing songs that were shorter in duration than birds from the 'burbs. (Maybe all the urban excitement reduces their attention span?) The study also revealed that songbirds prefer to mate with birds who sing similar songs: so country birds are attracted to the slow, longer, lower-pitched songs, and city birds want a mate who can belt it out high and fast and loud. The scientists have theorized that avians in urban areas sing at a higher pitch to be heard above background noises like traffic and construction. If these street-savvy birds are pushed into the country because of changing climate, though, they may have to change their tune.

George Allen's New Macaca Moment? He's Back Online to Diss Cap & Trade

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 5:52 PM EDT

Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose 2006 "Macaca" speech turned into the most famous online gotcha video of all time, has resurfaced after a long political quiesence--and, of all places, online. In a new Web video for the American Energy Freedom Center, which he now leads, he replaces a brown-skinned menace with hints of a green one: Climate legislation. The video appears to be the first installment of what Allen describes as monthly "kitchen table talks" in which he'll "tell people the truthful story about America's energy potential."

The American Energy Freedom Center draws upon an oily pedigree. It is a partner group of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and is headed by Robert Bradley Jr., who worked as a public policy director at Enron and a speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay.

So why have these guys turned to Allen? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, before Allen lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was Congress' number 3 recepient of campaign cash from the energy sector . Over his career he raised $1 million from energy companies, including $19,400 from Exxon Mobil. He also brings strong connections to other lawmakers as a former presidential hopeful, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which plays a key role in crafting energy legislation. Moreover, as of 2006 Allen had personally invested somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in energy companies.

In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd trust to sit in my kitchen and tell me how America should "promote the clean, creative, and thoughtful utilization of American energy." But here's his pitch, complete with a nifty lapel pin: