Blue Marble

The Real Problem With the Digital TV Switchover

| Tue Feb. 3, 2009 1:14 PM EST

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On February 17th, the government-mandated switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting is expected to spur a rush on electronics stores, as thousands of clueless Americans suddenly realize that their old TVs will no longer work. Worried that too many people aren't ready for the change, Congressional Democrats tried and failed to delay the switchover another four months. But their fear that Joe Sixpack might miss a few episodes of CSI is misplaced. The bigger concern should be what we'll do with millions of obsolete boob tubes with innards full of toxic heavy metals. Although electronics stores and manufacturers have started take-back programs, the only real way to keep TVs out of landfills and environmentally devastating Chinese scrap yards is to make it illegal to put them there. And unfortunately, only six states (California, Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Maine) enforce laws governing environmentally-responsible disposal of electronic waste. Long before making the TV switch, Congress should have passed a national electronics recycling law. But I guess they were too busy doing other things. Like watching CSI.

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The Groundhog Who Bit Bloomberg Got It Wrong

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 6:52 PM EST

Writing on this blog, Josh Harkinson has fun at the expense of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose hand was bitten by a Staten Island groundhog:

Maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was [the groundhog's] way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

Actually, Bloomberg, who made his fortune not by swindling anyone but by providing a media service for which there was much demand, has done more to save the world than your average, TARP-sucking plutocrat. From a recent The New York Times story:

New York City Mayor Bitten by Groundhog

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 3:47 PM EST

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Today Staten Island's famous groundhog emerged from his hole and bit New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the hand, drawing blood. How to divine the meaning? Three more months of winter, or imminent spring? My guess is that the groundhog, like the rest of us, has been more preoccupied with the long economic winter. Perhaps he didn't receive a fat bonus this year. Or maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was his way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

UPDATE: In response to David Corn's post, I'd like to clarify that I don't equate Bloomberg with the average "TARP-sucking plutocrat." He has been a good mayor overall, and is responding to the meltdown in brave ways, like calling for higher taxes. But as the founder of the Bloomberg news service, he created a corps of financial reporters who blew the biggest story on their beat. If they'd all been more like the rebellious groundhog and done some digging, or some Wall Street hand-biting (would Bloomberg have let them?), we might not be in this mess.

Image used with a Creative Commons license from israellycool.com

Upshot of Boy Scouts' Anti-Gay Policy: Logging Their Forests

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 1:57 PM EST

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From the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The Boy Scouts had to suffer the consequences for sticking by their moral values," said Eugene Grant, president of the Portland, Ore., Cascade Pacific Council's board of directors. "There's no question" that the Scouts' anti-gay, anti-atheist stance has cost the organization money, he said. As a result, he said, "every council has looked at ways to generate funds. . .and logging is one of them."

According to an investigation by the Chronicle and four other Hearst papers:

  • Scout councils have ordered the logging of more than 34,000 acres of forests--perhaps far more as forestry records nationwide are incomplete.
  • More than 100 scout groups--one third of all Boy Scouts councils nationwide--have conducted timber harvests.
  • Councils logged in or near protected wildlife habitat at least 53 times.
  • Councils have authorized at least 60 clear-cutting operations and 35 salvage harvests, logging practices that some experts say harm the environment but maximize profits.

I was a Scout as a kid, and this is not the Boy Scouts that I used to know. It's sad that an obsession with what should be an irrelevant social issue has sabotaged their core principles. We've seen the same thing happen with other organs of the Religious Right as churches that should be doing good works have become obsessed with gay marriage and abortion. But while many evangelicals have begun moving back toward the center--look at Creation Care--the Boy Scouts are inexplicably going the other way. Let's just hope their vast land holdings aren't destroyed as they they slowly implode.

What do Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Have Against Canada Anyway, Eh?

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 1:51 PM EST

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, WinCo, and Houston's restaurants are just a few of the 5,000 establishments pledging to boycott Canadian seafood.

Why, eh? We thought you'd ask. The ban is a part of the Humane Society's ProtectSeals campaign to curb commercial seal hunting in the Great White North—the world's largest massacre of marine mammals.

Says Whole Foods: "(We're) suspending any purchase of seafood from the areas where the brutal killing of baby seals is taking place until the fishermen commit to stopping this practice."

According to HSUS's countdown clock, 2009's hunt is due to commence in a mere two months. Last year, seal hunters promised a more humane approach—but as Mother Jones' Julia Whitty noted, it was far from humane.

If you too care about protecting the seals, you can sign a pledge not to buy Canadian seafood, urge your local grocer to join the boycott, or purchase products like this adorable T-shirt:

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—Nikki Gloudeman

Wind Employs More Americans Than Coal

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 8:33 PM EST

wind.jpgThe wind energy industry is growing quickly and now employs more people than the coal industry. A report released this week by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) finds that 85,000 people work in wind, up from 50,000 a year ago. Todd Woody at Fortune's Green Wombat points out that 81,000 people work in the coal industry and notes, "Those figures are from a 2007 U.S. Department of Energy report but coal employment has remained steady in recent years though it's down by nearly 50% since 1986."

While there is growing demand for wind as an alternative energy source, and the industry is responding in kind—wind power generating capacity increased by 50% in 2008—it is not insulated from the broader economic slowdown. The AWEA reports that by the end of 2008 "financing for new projects and orders for turbine components slowed to a trickle and layoffs began to hit the wind turbine manufacturing sector." Notes AWEA CEO Denise Bode, granted with a vested interest:

"The U.S. wind energy industry's performance in 2008 confirms that wind is an economic and job creation dynamo, ready to deliver on the President's call to double renewable energy production in three years. At the same time, it is clear that the economic and financial downturn have begun to take a serious toll on new wind development. We are already seeing layoffs in the area where wind's promise is greatest for our economy: the wind power manufacturing sector. Quick action in the stimulus bill is vital to restore the industry's momentum and create jobs as we help make our country more secure and leave a more stable climate for our children."

So it's probably good for the wind industry that the House just passed Obama's stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which, as the Congressional Quarterly noted, "includes $20 billion for the renewable-energy sector, including a three-year extension of the tax credit for producing electricity from wind." Needless to say, the investors are watching.

 

[Update: As commenters have pointed out, it seems I've fallen pray to a bit of an apples/oranges comparison here: The job figures for the coal sector only counted miners, while those for wind were all-inclusive. However, the trajectory for each industry remains clear: Coal is shedding jobs while wind is growing quickly.]

[Late update: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar—"Windmills off the East Coast could generate enough electricity to replace most, if not all, the coal-fired power plants in the United States."]


Photo used under Creative Commons license

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Reversing Itself, GM Will Source Volt Engines Abroad

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 1:37 PM EST

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So much for GM's Green Revolution. Reuters reports that General Motors has suspended work on its $370 million Chevy Volt engine plant in Flint, Michigan and will source the engines from abroad until it figures out how to cut costs and restructure. Given that the Volt's batteries will come from Korea, it's unclear at this point what part of GM's electric car is actually going to be American. Before the automaker was pledged $13.4 billion in government loans, we heard a lot about how it would reinvent itself through clean tech. Could that just be more hot carbon dioxide?

The FDA's Poison Lunch Box

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 6:20 PM EST

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If I didn't know better, I'd say the FDA was engaged in a plot to kill schoolkids by poisoning them with peanut butter and honey sandwiches and a side of Yoplait. This popular lunchbox meal's virulent mix of salmonella, illegal antibiotics, and mercury is made possible, respectively, by the FDA's lax oversight of a peanut butter factory in Georgia and honey imports from China combined with its failure to care that a common method of creating high fructose corn syrup produces mercury (a fact it appears to have known since 2005). The only upside to this food pyramid of death is that it might scare parents into feeding their kids healthier foods. Spinach anyone?

Photo used under a creative commons license from Faces of Death

Are Pro Football Players Brain Damaged?

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:26 PM EST

From CNN:

Until recently, the best medical definition for concussion was a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been considered an invisible injury, impossible to test—no MRI, no CT scan can detect it.

But today, using tissue from retired NFL athletes culled posthumously, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) is shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain. The findings are stunning. Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE has thus far been found in the brains of five out of five former NFL players..."What's been surprising is that it's so extensive," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

McKee, who also studies Alzheimer's disease, says the tangles closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia.

These former jocks also suffer long term anger and sleep disorders: "The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells." Many former jocks find themselves bankrupt, divorced, and cut off from society, all without a clue as to why.

Perhaps, and I'm not being sarcastic, the damage begins quickly enough to explain some of the inexplicable problems we see among pro athletes (though basketball and baseball don't seem to offer the same out for its misbehaving players).

Needless to say, young men will still kill themselves to make it to the NFL; they're young and much fussed over. Also needless to say, the NFL denies that football causes brain damage.

The NFL is planning its own independent medical study of retired NFL players on the long-term effects of concussion.

Methinks some unemployed former Big Tobacco lobbyists and "scientists" will find themselves working again. I pray my son opts for swimming or soccer.

Mining Reform

| Tue Jan. 27, 2009 2:11 PM EST

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Today, Nick Rahall (D-WVA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is expected to introduce a bill to end the last big giveaway of the West's public property: the General Mining Law of 1872. Passed during the Grant Administration, the law allows mining companies to remove gold, copper and other hard-rock minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. Rahall's bill will be at least the 15th time that Congress has tried to add a leasing or royalty provision to the law, but the search for government revenue in the midst of the financial crisis, combined with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, gives the effort a fighting chance of passing this year.

So how much money is at stake? The Pew Campaign for Responsible mining today released a report estimating that outdated mining rules will cost the treasury $1.6 billion over the next decade. But I've looked at the numbers myself, and that figure seems like a gross underestimate. Past studies have shown that royalties on hard-rock minerals would be worth $100 to $200 million a year. Then there's the depletion allowance, a tax loophole that allows mining companies to deduct up to a fifth of their gross revenues. In 2001 the Clinton Administration valued the depletion allowance at $265 million on public lands alone, and in 1980 the government valued it on all mining lands at $1.75 billion. None of these figures are adjusted for inflation. So conservatively, the 10-year loss to the Treasury from outdated mining policies is more like $7 billion. Though that still might not seem like much in the bailout era, it adds up. The total losses due to the depletion allowance and the 137-year-old mining law are probably on the order of $100 billion--easily worth a bank bailout or two.