Blue Marble

Behold the Sperm Remote

| Fri Jun. 6, 2008 1:45 PM EDT

From EcoGeek via Grist comes word of a nifty new birth control method for men:

The remote control, implanted device will allow users to 'press pause' on their sperm. (although it doesn't mention whether a 'rewind' function is in the works). The device has been developed by Australian scientists, and could herald a new dawn of even more convenient contraception for men, which has the potential to keep population growth under control more effectively.

Which of course raises the age-old question: Who controls the remote?

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Dolphins Recovering From Tuna Nets at Last

| Thu Jun. 5, 2008 11:21 PM EDT

At long last the dolphins once caught in the Pacific tuna fishery seem to be recovering. Spotted and spinner dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific appear to be on the increase after severe depletion in the tuna purse-seine fishery. Between 1960 and 1990 their populations dropped by 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively, of pre-fishery levels. And though they've been (largely) spared capture and drowning in purse-seine nets since the early 1990s, due to severe restrictions on the fishery, their numbers have not rebounded. Until now. "We expected to see these populations begin their recovery years ago, because fishermen have been so successful at reducing dolphin deaths," said Tim Gerrodette of NOAA's Fisheries Service. "The new data are the first to indicate the beginning of a recovery." The news is tempered with caution though, since the numbers represent a short dataset (only the 2006 season), and since one of the four censused populations still seems to be declining. Nevertheless, it's the first glimmer of hope that maybe we didn't wait too long to take action.

On a personal note, this is the truly welcome news I've been hoping to hear for a long time. In 1990 I co-produced a documentary with Hardy Jones that included Sam LaBudde's heartbreaking footage, shot undercover, of dolphins being slaughtered in the tuna nets. We included an unusual plea at the end of the broadcast, asking viewers to send telegrams to a big-name canned tuna company to protest the dolphin kill. We aired a Western Union telephone number (yeah, that's how long ago it was). The response broke all Western Union records, and within two days, if I remember correctly, the tuna company announced it would no longer buy tuna unless it was caught with dolphin-safe methods. Others tuna companies quickly followed suit… So I for one will raise a glass in toast tonight to the people who worked so long and so hard on this issue, and who spilled a fair share of their lifetime's allotment of sweat and blood in hopes of today's good news. Thank you, ocean crusaders.

However, keep in mind, not all tuna labeled dolphin-safe really is. You can keep on top of what is and what isn't at Earth Island Institute's Approved Dolphin-Safe Importers, Distributors, Brokers, Retailers, Agents.

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

Eat Local Foods, Grow Small Farms

| Wed Jun. 4, 2008 7:58 PM EDT

461px-Fraises_1_Luc_Viatour.jpg It's not just for elites anymore. A survey of Midwesterners finds that even average food shoppers are willing to pay a premium for locally grown food. They'll pay as much as a third more if the food comes from a small local farm rather than a corporate farm. The study from Ohio State University, published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, shows that more shoppers are willing to pay for ripe local food—suggesting small farmers might be less efficient on the production side and still manage to be more profitable on the revenue side by selling at the premium price.

Shoppers were surveyed at 17 Ohio locations, including seven retail grocery stores, six on-site farm markets and four farmers' markets. They were presented with two product options. Both were baskets of strawberries, but they were presented under 80 combinations of price, freshness, farm location, and farm type. Data from 477 surveys revealed the average shopper was willing to pay 48 cents more for local strawberries. Shoppers at farm markets were willing to pay almost a third more, 92 cents above the $3 base for a quart of berries. Freshness was also important. Farm market shoppers were willing to pay 73 cents more for newly-harvested food and retail shoppers 54 cents more. The researchers tested interest in supporting small versus large farms by naming one fictional berry producer "Fred's" and the other "Berries Inc." Shoppers in grocery stores were willing to pay 17 cents extra for berries from Fred's, and farm market shoppers were willing to pay 42 cents more.

Listen up small farmers, boutique farmers, disenchanted farmers, your day may be coming (again). Many of us want fresher, tastier food grown carefully and closer to home. Rising fuel prices mean cheap cherries from Chile won't be cheap forever.

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

Top Scientists Call For Swift, Deep Carbon Cuts

| Mon Jun. 2, 2008 9:46 PM EDT

sci_econ_letter_chip.jpg In an open online letter, more than 1,700 of America's leading scientists and economists call on policymakers to legislate immediate, deep reductions in global warming emissions. The letter comes as the Senate begins to debate the Lieberman-Warner climate bill—which already fails to match the cutbacks advised in the letter. The online statement includes the signatures of six Nobel Prize winners and 31 members of the National Academy of Sciences, and marks the first time leading US scientists and economists have joined to make an appeal to policymakers. "We call on our nation's leaders to swiftly establish and implement policies to bring about deep reductions in heat-trapping emissions. The strength of the science on climate change compels us to warn the nation about the growing risk of irreversible consequences as global average temperatures continue to increase over pre-industrial levels. As temperatures rise further, the scope and severity of global warming impacts will continue to accelerate."

Nevertheless, the GOP, those Grand Old Peabrains, threaten to filibuster, while Bush, the mastermicromind, promises to veto. Think of this week's efforts by the Senate as a kind of paid rehearsal for the really big legislative battles that will supposedly consume their senatorial calories sometime in the coming years… As for those concerned that a dress rehearsal and a long debate aren't swift enough or deep enough, here are a few highlights from the many voices included the letter:

"Investing now in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies not only will create new business opportunities, but is also likely to be less expensive than a crash program to implement these solutions at a future date, when it will be more difficult to limit climate impacts"—Anthony C. Fisher, University of California Berkeley... "The future of our society depends on effectively managing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Public and private research and development support for these efforts will allow us to transition to a carbon-neutral energy system that improves both environmental quality and economic growth"—Gordon Rausser, former chief economist of the US Agency for International Development.

The letter ends almost plaintively: "A strong U.S. commitment to reduce emissions is essential to drive international climate progress. Voluntary initiatives to date have proven insufficient. We urge U.S. policy makers to put our nation onto a path today to reduce emissions on the order of 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. The first step on this path should be reductions on the order of 15-20 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, which is achievable and consistent with sound economic policy. There is no time to waste. The most risky thing we can do is nothing."

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

Q&A: Meet the Teen Science Whiz with the Plastic Bag Breakthrough

| Fri May 30, 2008 2:25 PM EDT

plastic%20bag%20in%20water.jpg

It may surprise you to learn that Daniel Burd does not consider himself an environmentalist. The Canadian teenager has become bit of an environmental hero over the past few days, as word of his potentially revolutionary science fair project has spread. In case you missed it, Burd managed to isolate the naturally occurring microbes that degrade plastic bags in landfills, cutting degradation time from lifetimes to mere months.

Maybe anyone could have done it, but no one else has. And that, says Burd, is part of what inspired him to pursue the project, which he started researching at the end of 2006. "As I began to research more and more, I found out we're not doing too much," he told me in a phone call from his home in Ontario. He is, in his words, "just a scientist trying to solve a huge problem."

"In the end, all problems come back to us," he says. "The plastic bags in the water, they don't dissolve, and they attract hydrophobic chemicals. Fish or other organisms may eat polluted plastic bags, and then we have millions of marine animals dying. If they don't die, then we may eat these fish, and then we have a statistical increase in healthcare problems directly attributable to that pollution. That's why everybody should be concerned."

"I would hope that through my project I'm able to, first of all, show a viable solution, economical and doable, and then get people more aware of it," he says. "Then we can fix it."

The Vacant Green Votes of John McCain

| Thu May 29, 2008 7:23 PM EDT

Tin_woodman_cover.jpg John McCain supports the Climate Security Act. He just isn't going to vote on it. Grist calls him the Cowardly Lion for missing the vote for the act he professes to fervently desire. "I hope it will pass, and I hope the entire Congress will join in supporting it and the President of the United States would sign it." The entire Congress except him, that is. He's not going to vote because that would blemish his spotlessly voteless record—you know, the one the League of Conservation Voters gave him a resounding, deafening 0% score on for his total absence of votes on environmental issues. Grist reports his confession and justification: "I have not been there for a number of votes. The same thing happened in the campaign of 2000. The people of Arizona understand I'm running for president."

Okay, let's get this straight. In order to practise for being president, apparently you must also learn to hone your skills at hiding out inside your plane on the runway while important legislation about the future of life on Earth is decided without you… Is McCain Cowardly Lion or Tin Man? Has anyone checked his empty chest for a heartbeat lately?

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

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Albatrosses Create Two-Mommy Families

| Thu May 29, 2008 6:27 PM EDT

laal.jpg Males in short supply? Or unreliable? Well, two mommies will do just fine. Laysan albatrosses in Hawaii employ a strategy called reciprocity, whereby unrelated females pair together and take turns raising offspring. On the island of Oahu, where 59% of the albatross population is female, fully 31% of the nests are female-female pairs. And though they raise fewer chicks than male-female pairs, given the shortage of males, fewer chicks are better than none. Plus, because albatross can raise only one chick a year, the females stay together in monogamous couples for years, allowing both females the opportunity to reproduce.

The findings, by University of Hawaii at Manoa zoology doctoral candidate Lindsay Young and coauthors BJ Zaun and EA VanderWerf, are published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, in the paper "Successful same-sex pairing in Laysan albatross."

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

Climate Change Hammering Land, Water, Farms, Biodiversity

| Wed May 28, 2008 6:50 PM EDT

395742119_89e6d6a97f.jpg Climate change is already affecting US agriculture, water resources, land resources, and biodiversity, and will continue to do so. This based on a new report—the synthesis of 13 federal research agencies and 38 authors from a variety of universities, national laboratories, non-governmental organizations, and federal services. That fact that so many government agencies are involved in this study—released by the US Department of Agriculture—is as much the news as the study itself. New Scientist quotes ecologist and author Anthony Janetos of the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland: "The fact is, we're seeing lots of effects and impacts right now. These effects appear to be happening faster than expected, and the magnitude is bigger than expected. That's a surprise."

For example, climate change has already brought forward the start of spring growing seasons by as much as two weeks, and similar changes have occurred in the timing of bird migrations. Warmer conditions have also resulted in many plants and animals extending their geographic range further northward and higher up mountains. As climate change alters precipitation patterns, much of the eastern US has already become moister, while the west has become more arid. This means less winter snowpack in western mountains, and thus less snowmelt to keep rivers running cold and full in summertime. The higher stream temperatures are likely to put added stress on aquatic ecosystems.

You can access the final report in its entirety here. The highlights:

• Grain and oilseed crops will mature more rapidly, but increasing temperatures will increase the risk of crop failures, particularly if precipitation decreases or becomes more variable.

Angry Votes Suck

| Tue May 27, 2008 7:49 PM EDT

800px-Prozac_pills.jpg The more anxious or angry you are about the political landscape the less likely you are to actually pay attention to the facts. This according to a new study in Political Psychology. While angry and anxious voters tune into the news more than more relaxed voters, they actually concentrate less effectively on the available information. Researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Texas conducted two experiments in the 2004 presidential campaigns in which people answered questions on a computer that either induced a specific emotional state or a control condition to reduce all emotional arousal. The first experiment found that anxious, angry and enthusiastic people claimed they were more interested than people in a controlled, relaxed setting, and that they would pay closer attention to the debates. However, all three emotional states led people to take less time looking for information that was available to them, with anxiety impacting attention the most. The second experiment suggested that typical campaign coverage can trigger powerful emotions which lead to hasty, uninformed decisions.

So, let's get this straight… the news runs on emotion, which leads to bad judgment, which leads to bad leaders, which pisses us off, which fuels bad news…

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

Correction: Republicans Who Know Still Care Less About Climate

| Fri May 23, 2008 10:11 PM EDT

320316230_84852ae329.jpg You might remember the perplexing study out of Texas A&M that found the more Americans know about global warming the more apathetic and less individually responsible they feel. Stranger even than normal middle-America strange. Well Jon Krosnick of Stanford University suspected the story might be more complicated than that and re-analyzed the polling data. He and colleague Ariel Malka found some intriguing differences, as reported in New Scientist. Concern about global warming was greater among people who said they knew more about the subject, and was most marked among those who identified themselves as Democrats, as well as among those who said they trusted scientists to provide reliable information on environmental issues. Republicans, as well as those who had little trust in scientists—yet still claimed to be knowledgeable—did not have any great concern:

This may reflect the different ways people get information about global warming. If your sources are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, Krosnick suggests, the relationship between knowledge and concern is likely to be different than if your main sources are skeptical advocacy groups such as the Heartland Institute, and the conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

In other words, all knowledge is not equal, particularly the ignorance-based kind.

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