Blue Marble

Parting Shots: Bush Administration Reverses Rule Protecting Grand Canyon

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 8:29 PM EST

In an 11th hour move, the Bush Administration today reversed an old federal rule that would have allowed Congress to take action to protect the Grand Canyon from a rash of new uranium mining claims. Driven by renewed national interest in nuclear power, the number of uranium claims staked within five miles of the Grand Canyon has increased from 10 in 2003 to 1,181 as of this October. Rampant mining near the Canyon would threaten the water quality of the Colorado River, potentially jeopardizing the drinking water supply of millions of residents in Las Vegas and Southern California. Prompted in part by the concerns of local water agencies, in June the House Committee on Natural Resources invoked its right under the Federal Land Management and Policy Act to withdraw the mining claims. But the Bureau of Land Management refused to implement the order, and the Bush Administration's rule change today gives it official authority to thumb its nose at Congress.

Ultimately, Bush's move will probably do more to increase his radioactivity with voters than it will to heat up the tap water in Las Vegas; the Obama Administration will certainly reverse Bush's reversal. But more important, the Grand Canyon flap underscores the hopeless antiquity of the nation's mining laws. The General Mining Law of 1872, which was written by Nevada's first senator and signed into law by President Grant, enshrines mining as the "highest and best use" on 350 million acres of federal land. It also allows mining companies to cart off public minerals without paying a cent of royalties. Efforts to reform the law began almost as soon as it passed and have failed at ever turn, including this year, when a reform bill was to have been introduced in the Senate but wasn't. But with Bush-era environmental horrors fresh on the mind, and public coffers emptied, expect that to change in the coming session.

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Will a Western Gross National Happiness Index Catch On?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:42 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by Hong Kong-based journalist Don Duncan.

In Buddhist Bhutan, it is common wisdom that every creation requires destruction. That's hearteningly optimistic for the Western economists who descended on the tiny country for the international Gross National Happiness Conference last week.

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, requires that advances be made on nine key fronts in order for national progress to be achieve—education, health, culture, community vitality, living standards, psychological wellbeing, the ecology, and balanced time use. All government policy making in Bhutan is guided by these principles.

During the high capitalism of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and, more recently, free market fundamentalism, the doctrine met with incredulity and derision. Even if you can define national happiness, how on earth can you measure it?

Gore: Clean Coal Doesn't Exist. But Should It?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 1:06 PM EST

During his campaign, Obama called for clean coal technology. His website promises to "enter into public private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." But on Thursday, Al Gore tossed a bucket of cold water on so-called "clean coal."

He launched a new coalition called the Reality Campaign, a multimillion dollar ad campaign that seeks to convince the public that clean coal—at least for now—is a myth.

Gore's goal is to counter claims that coal companies and the US Department of Energy have made about "a new generation of energy processes that sharply reduce air emissions...from coal-burning power plants," as the DoE puts it. Here's a recent ad from America's Power, a company that makes electricity from coal, that maintains clean coal technology can produce lower emissions than regular coal-burning power plants do now (which the coalition says are greater than emissions from all the cars and trucks in America):

The problem is, according to the Reality Coalition, there's no such thing yet as "clean" coal. The coalition doesn't exactly say there could never be a clean way of burning coal in the future. But they do say that the myth that clean coal already exists today allows companies like Clean Coal Technologies Inc. to misrepresent their plants' impact on the environment and make a buck while doing so.

Ultimately, there might not be a major disagreement between Gore and Obama on clean coal. Obama is only for it if it can be developed, and he acknowledges it's not here yet. The Gore campaign seems to be more concerned with now rather than later and trying to make sure that people know what Obama knows. The technology to burn coal cleanly has yet to be developed and implemented. Might Gore support clean coal technology if it ever does get off the shelf? Maybe he'll tell us that in the next ad.

Brazil Changes on Climate Change

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 8:01 PM EST

The Brazilian government announced this week that it will curb Amazon deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade—an ambitious plan that will be formally presented at the UN climate change conference in Poland this week.

Home to the world's largest area of tropical woodlands, Brazil lost nearly 4,633 square miles of forest between 2007 and 2008. That's roughly the area of Connecticut. Previous efforts to limit deforestation include a recent crackdown on soy production.

Brazil's Environment Minister Carlos Minc said the plan should prevent 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted through 2018.

America, take note.

—Nikki Gloudeman

More Genetic Tests: Still Creepy

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 12:41 PM EST

There's another spit test out on the market, this one claiming to tell parents which kids have the genetics to be which kinds of athletes. I've got a bad feeling about this.

What's going to happen is that kids of privilege will be tested almost from the cradle, with their helicopter-parents frog marching them toward whichever future seems the most successful. Twenty years later. And poor kids? Kids who'll never get to find out that they'd rather teach or dance than be the Olympian weight lifter their parents drove them to be?

From Slate:

Making Iraq Fertile

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 7:42 PM EST

446px-Alleged_location_of_Eden.jpg Iraq is flushing salinity out of millions of acres of land. The process should breathe new life into dirty rivers and dying soils. The idea is to restore "fertile" to the Fertile Crescent. You remember: the swath of once-fecund land arching from the Mediterranean across Iraq and down to the Persian Gulf—aka, the Garden of Eden.

But centuries of irrigation and overuse have turned the farmlands of southern and central Iraq saline—aka, the Garden of Apocalypse. The problem derives from salt collecting in soil when farmers irrigate it with salty water or don't drain it properly. The end result is that Iraq is now so fallow the country imports virtually all its food, paying with oil profits. Much of the government's current budget is spent on food rations, reports Reuters. Making Iraq fertile suggests there might actually be a post-oil future for that nation.

The plan is to pump out subterranean groundwater. The process—which has already worked in Australia—will take years. The work begins with a pumping station in Nassiriya sidelined for decades by the war with Iran, UN sanctions, and the war with the US. The project is further challenged by an ongoing severe drought and by 55,000 miles of crumbling drainage and irrigation channels. . . Suggestion: run the pumps on solar or tidal power and minimize that other problem too. And while we're at it, why not donate the sweat equity of those short-sighted Detroit CEOs? They've been part of the problem for long enough. They could toil in the desert and meditate on their manifold sins.

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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Charge Your Cellphone By Talking

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 9:26 PM EST

112px-Cell_phone_icon.svg.png Imagine a self-powered cellphone that charges by the pressure waves formed when you talk or walk. Researchers have found a certain type of piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size (specifically 21 nanometers in thickness). This suggests that disturbances in the form of sound waves could be harvested for powering nanodevices and microdevices of the future.

Here's how it works. Piezoelectrics are (usually) crystal or ceramic materials that generate voltage when a form of mechanical stress is applied (think car cigarette lighters). It's an old technology now powering dance floors in Europe. Combine piezoelectrics with the strange, infinitessimally small nanoworld, where many materials change their properties dramatically (gold turns red, toxic, and liquid at room temperature; opaque materials like copper become transparent; insulators like silicon become conductors). Piezoelectric materials at 21-nm thick turn into power-harvesting titans.

The findings could have potentially profound effects for low-powered electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. Many contain nano-sized components (1 nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter). All need a lot of recharging. But pressure-senstitive, self-powered piezoelectrics could harness energy from the sound waves in your speech or your walk. Free of charge takes on a whole new meaning.

The research is published in Physical Review B, the scientific journal of the American Physical Society.

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.

Just Say No to Drug Czars

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 8:05 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

The "drug czar" position has never worked as intended. Originally proposed as a cabinet-level coordinator of drug policy by Joe Biden in the early 80's, it was a knee-jerk response to growing hysteria over widespread cocaine use. Ronald Reagan initially vetoed the idea as more bureaucracy, but eventually got on board, signing the relevant legislation in 1988.

The post's creation was part of a package of harmful laws that included the death penalty for "drug kingpins" and the notorious mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine that helped make an already racially-biased drug policy (.pdf) into a situation where one in ten young African American men are in prison.

Ever since, the job has been held by political operatives (William Bennett), police officers (Lee Brown) and generals (Barry McCaffrey). Never once has an academic drug policy expert, an MD, PhD, or other addiction researcher who has actually studied the subject served as drug czar. Will that change under Obama?

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.

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.