Blue Marble

Bus Economy Booming

| Tue Nov. 25, 2008 11:29 PM EST

800px-Leyland_double_decker_bus.JPG Intercity bus service in the US jumped nearly 10 percent in the last year. In fact, the rate of growth was the highest in more than 40 years. Rising fuel prices played a role. But so did the revival of downtown districts and a growing acceptance of bus travel among younger travelers. Because of them, the atmosphere was spared roughly 36,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

Thank you bus riders.

Meanwhile air travel in the same period declined 8 percent. Travel by private vehicle was down 3.3 percent. Train ridership increased about 3.3 percent.

Thank you train riders.

Much of the growth was driven by two companies, Megabus and Boltbus, a joint venture of the Greyhound and Peter Pan bus companies. Both started kerbside pick-up service in northeastern states in spring 2007. The two companies offer high-frequency service between major US cities and wireless Internet service on board.

Thanks to the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago for the new study.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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All-Expenses-Paid India Vacation, Courtesy of Your Health Insurer

| Mon Nov. 24, 2008 4:09 PM EST

tajmahal.jpgYou know your healthcare system has a problem when your insurance company starts offering to fly you halfway across the world for medical care.

Indiana-based health insurer WellPoint, Inc. has begun testing a program that allows patients to undergo elective surgeries in India instead of the US.

The program is currently available only to employees of a Wisconsin-based printing company whose employees WellPoint insures. And even though flights cost roughly $2,000 per person, round trip (according to Orbitz), it's still more cost-effective for WellPoint to send patients to India than it is to airlift them down to Milwaukee. Want your knee fixed up? Knee surgery typically costs $70,000-80,000 in the US; in India, it's a tenth that price.

Even more incredible is the fact that, at least according to the insurers, patients are actually more likely to receive high-quality, transparent care in India than they are here. An insurance-company medical officer quoted in the article says there's "a lot more willingness to share data about complication rates, the total number of procedures and the outcomes."

Now, I'm all for people receiving the best possible care at the lowest possible cost. But the fact that sending a patient to the other side of the world and back is less expensive than putting him up at a local hospital should send a strong signal to our policymakers (President-elect Obama, are you listening?) that our current system is beyond repair.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from betta design.

Obesity Linked To Grandparent's Diet

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 10:12 PM EST

600px-Lab_mouse_mg_3135.jpg At least in mice. So far. Nature reports on research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Mice fed on a high-fat diet during pregnancy and lactation had larger-than-normal offspring. Those offspring also went on to have larger-than-normal offspring.

The 1st-generation offspring also tended to overeat, whether they were fed a high-fat or normal diet. Plus they were insulin-insensitive, a feature of diabetes that often leads to obesity. The 2nd-generation offspring did not overeat, but were large and insulin-insensitive too. Male pups born to mothers on a high-fat diet also transmitted the traits to their own offspring.

The U of Pennsylvania team wants to know which genes were involved in passing on these traits. So far they've found epigenetic changes in the hypothalamus, which controls feeding behaviour. Epigenetic changes are biochemical modifications that affect how DNA functions without actually altering its nucleotide sequence. Epigenetic changes can be induced by environmental and/or genetic factors.

Brodner's Cartoon du Jour: Red, NY and Blue

Fri Nov. 21, 2008 8:17 PM EST

Here's an Election Day comic about a political junkie who leaves his apartment to vote only to find he can't see straight anymore. This was a project brought to me by Bob Mankoff with very smart art direction by Bob, Chris Curry, and Caroline Mailhot, who suggested I draw this while looking in the mirror. Oy. Hope tomorrow's a lot easier than this.

Rainforest Woes? Blame Cocaine.

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 6:09 PM EST

Cocaine1.jpgThere's a new tactic to target casual drug users: Convince them drugs are polluting the planet. On Tuesday, according to the Guardian, Francisco Santos Calderón, the vice-president of Colombia, told a conference of British senior police officers:

If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4m square of rainforest and that rainforest is not just Colombian—it belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it. Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of FARC, of illegal groups that plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business.

As the Guardian explained, Santos wanted to persuade casual British users, the "social user who drove a hybrid car and was concerned about the environment" to eschew the drug because of its environmental impact. As Gawker asked sardonically, "You might not stop for the sake of your money, your police record, or your septum, but would you give up blow if you knew that every eight ball cost ten square meters of precious rainforest habitat, you Whole Foods junkie?"

While Santos didn't cite any evidence to prove his point (or his 4m square statistic), what he is saying sort of makes sense. The coca plant is a cash crop and Columbia is a tropical country; growing cocaine—like oranges, mandarins, or coffee—obliges farmers to cut down some of the rainforest. Still, something about this seems a little suspicious. Are casual users of cocaine really responsible for pervasive environmental destruction?

While it's true that in the last five years, production of cocaine in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru has increased almost 20 percent, the truth is that the destruction of the rainforest is not due to increased demand from wealthy British cocaine users. In fact, it makes more sense to wonder if inept efforts to eradicate the coca plant don't cause most of the destruction of the rainforest. Farmers grow coca because it's a lucrative cash crop; then drug control agents spray the plants with poison. As Mother Jones explained back in March 2007, this causes farmers to, sensibly, push further into the rainforest.

So yes, it is technically true that the cocaine industry is destroying the Columbian rainforest. But while casual drug use certainly doesn't help, it's not the main cause of environmental destruction; that award goes to Plan Columbia (.pdf). It looks like Santos can't see the rainforest for the coke.

—Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user Jungle_Boy

Dog Helps Orca

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 10:00 PM EST

Tucker.jpg

Photo copyright Fred Felleman

It's been a bad year for the southern resident population of orcas in Puget Sound. Seven have gone missing and are presumed dead. Including the nearly 100-year-old matriarch of K Pod, along with two reproductive-age females vital to the future of the whales. One female, L-67 showed clear signs of emaciation before she disappeared in September. That leaves only 83 animals in this culturally-unique population of orca.

It's been a bad year for salmon too—the primary prey of southern resident orca. Researchers suspect the missing whales may have starved. Now researchers at the U of Washington Center for Conservation Biology are trying to answer that question using a specially trained dog. The Seattle Times reports how Tucker, a black Lab, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track orca scat from the bow of a research boat.

Analysis of hormone levels in the scat suggest mortality among the orca was highest when their thyroid hormone levels were lowest. This means they're malnourished. Katherine Ayres, a UW graduate student working on the study says: "It is interesting and sad. We have a link to what scientists have been saying for a long time."

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New DNA Tech May Allow Cloning, Re-Creating Mammoths

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 9:00 PM EST

600px-Mammoth_mg_2805.jpgHave scientists learned nothing from Jurassic Park? A group of genomicists from Pennsylvania State University published research on their experimental procedure that's decoded "a large fraction of the mammoth genome," reports the New York Times. The procedure uses two $500,000 machines to extract genome information from mammoth hair.

Pioneering Stem Cell Surgery Replaces Woman's Windpipe

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 11:07 AM EST

Ah, the wonders of science. Check out this story from the NY Times.

A Spanish woman was hospitalized in March with a windpipe so badly damaged by tuberculosis that she was unable to breathe after walking more than a few steps at a time. The only conventional treatment that doctors saw was the removal of her left lung, a dangerous procedure with a high mortality rate.

Instead, a coalition of doctors and scientists from three European countries decided to try a ground-breaking stem cell procedure. They took a three-inch segment of trachea from an organ donor who had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Over a six-week period, the trachea was stripped of donor cells, which were replaced by stem cells taken from the Spanish woman's bone marrow. After just four days of "seeding" the trachea with these cells, the trachea was used to replace the woman's damaged wind pipe.

Two months after the surgery, tests shows that the woman's lungs and wind pipe are functioning like normal. Her body has not rejected the new organ or reacted negatively in any way.

What's great about the procedure is that it was done using the patient's own stem cells, not embryonic stem cells. Thus, it skirts the controversies about life that commonly surround stem cell work in the United States. With President-elect Obama poised to eliminate many Bush Administration restrictions on stem cell research, pioneering procedures like this one may soon happen in America, and we will all live to be 150.

Green Collar Jobs Coming To A State Near You

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 6:07 PM EST

400px-Sweet_Chestnut_Forest.jpg Climate problems are spawning climate solutions. And each climate solution will ripple throughout the economy in the form of new jobs and new materials. This according to a report that says the US economy is poised to grow big-time in a low-carbon world. Manufacturing Climate Solutions names where the jobs are—a first.

The report comes from Duke University's Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness and assesses five carbon-reducing technologies: LED lighting, high-performance windows, auxiliary power units for long-haul trucks, concentrating solar power, and Super Soil Systems (a new method for treating hog wastes).

The conclusion: Many hidden economic opportunities exist within the supply chains providing parts and labor for all five industries. States that stand to benefit most include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. The report also includes detailed breakdown of supply chains, with maps highlighting the location of companies best positioned to support green jobs.

In Congo Conflict, Endangered Gorillas Are Pawns

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 5:00 PM EST

gorilla150.jpg This is a truly heartbreaking story. The New York Times reports on yet another facet of the bloodshed in the Congo: Endangered mountain gorillas are among the rebels' targets:

Congo's gorillas happen to live in one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa. Their home, Virunga National Park, is high ground — with mist-shrouded mountains and pointy volcanoes — along the porous Congo-Rwanda border, where rebels are suspected of smuggling in weapons from Rwanda. Last year in Virunga, 10 gorillas were killed, some shot in the back of the head, execution style, park officials said.

According to this AP story, the rebels often eat the slaughtered gorillas. But it's unlikely that the militias are killing them solely for their meat. The reason? Read on after the jump.