Blue Marble

Scientists Protest Twisted Interpretation Of Endangered Species Act

| Wed May 2, 2007 7:39 PM EDT

More than three dozen scientists have signed a letter to protest a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Associated Press reports their concerns that the twisted read jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

The proposed changes would "have real and profoundly detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the habitat upon which they depend," said the letter, signed by 38 prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists. It was being sent this week to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees that oversee the department. The scientists also fear the new policy would prevent new additions to the list, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

Maybe someone should tell David Bernhardt how his miserly existence depends on a wealth of species on this Earth--and what'll happen to him and his kin when they're GONE. . . --JULIA WHITTY

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Efficiency Boost Should Make Solar Cheaper

| Wed May 2, 2007 7:20 PM EDT

Solar energy could become more affordable following a technological breakthrough. Scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales have boosted the efficiency of solar cell technology, potentially dropping the price of an installed solar system for an average house from around $16,500 to $12,000. (Tax breaks and other incentives would reduce it further.) Currently, up to 45 percent of the cost of solar cell technology is due to the high cost of the silicon used to convert sunlight to electricity.

Now, researchers at UNSW's ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, led by PhD student Supriya Pillai report a 16-fold enhancement in light absorption in 1.25-micron thin-film cells for light with a wavelength of 1050 nm. They also report a seven-fold enhancement in light absorption in the more expensive wafer type cells light wavelengths of 1200 nm. The breakthrough is reported in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

May it come to market faster than catastrophe.--JULIA WHITTY

Climate Change Messes With Fish

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 3:30 PM EDT

Climate change is leading to bigger fish in shallow water. But it's also making littler fish in deeper water, reports The Mercury, in Hobart, Tasmania. The study involved scientists examining 555 fish earbones aged two to 128 years, which show similar characteristics to tree-growth rings. These data were correlated with water temperature records taken over 60 years from the waters around Tasmania. The findings prove that water temperature has been a primary factor in determining juvenile growth rates in the species examined. --Julia Whitty

Biofuels Threaten Endangered Species

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 3:15 PM EDT

European Union green fuel targets will accelerate the destruction of rainforests in South-East Asia. Loss of habitat will threaten endangered species like the orangutan, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. In March, EU leaders set a target that biofuel (energy sources made from plant material) comprise 10 per cent of all Europe's transport fuels by 2020. Yet the European Commission admits that the effort to cut CO2 emissions may have the unintended result of speeding up the depletion of tropical rainforests and peatlands in South-East Asia. This would further increase, not reduce, global warming. If the target is met, European consumption of plant-based fuels will soar from about 3 million tons at present to more than 30 million tons in 2010, driving a boom in imports of cheap biofuels... How about using less? Of everything? Instead. --Julia Whitty

True Heroes

| Fri Apr. 27, 2007 5:20 PM EDT

They get no recording contracts, but $125,000, good publicity, and a trip to San Francisco.
These folks are seriously idol-worthy:

2007 Goldman Prizewinners
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From left, front row: Julio Cusurichi Palacios secured a rainforest reserve in Peru. Sophia Rabliauskas halted logging in Canada. Tsetsegee Munkhbayar shut down mines polluting waterways in Mongolia.
From left, back row: Hammerskjoeld Simwinga curbed elephant poaching in Zambia. Willie Corduff stopped a Shell Oil pipeline in Ireland. Orri Vigfússon slowed salmon overfishing in Iceland.

What's at Stake in the Farm Bill

| Fri Apr. 27, 2007 5:06 PM EDT

Americans, their media, even most of their legislators, ignore the farm bill. But what's at stake is much more than farms and farmers. It's everything from obesity to immigration, with clean water and land-use in between. The farm bill subsidizes overproduction of soy and corn, but does nothing to promote fresh produce. It makes the most unhealthy foods the cheapest. It has pushed millions of Mexican farmers off their land. It determines what happens on nearly half the private land in America. This story by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine is a good read.

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Illegal Drugs Making a Legal Comeback

| Thu Apr. 26, 2007 11:41 PM EDT

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This is trippy. Time Magazine asks, "Was Timothy Leary right?" LSD and Ecstasy are making a comeback in high-level psychiatric research.

Last year two top journals, the Archives of General Psychiatry and the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, published papers showing clear benefits from the use of psychedelics to treat mental illness. Both were small studies, just 27 subjects total. But the Archives paper--whose lead author, Dr. Carlos Zarate Jr., is chief of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Unit at NIMH--found "robust and rapid antidepressant effects" that remained for a week after depressed subjects were given ketamine (colloquial name: Special K or usually just k). In the other study, a team led by Dr. Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona gave psilocybin (the merrymaking chemical in psychedelic mushrooms) to obsessive-compulsive-disorder patients, most of whom later showed "acute reductions in core OCD symptoms." Now researchers at Harvard are studying how Ecstasy might help alleviate anxiety disorders, and the Beckley Foundation, a British trust, has received approval to begin what will be the first human studies with LSD since the 1970s.

Legal, clinical studies, that is. People never stopped "studying" LSD at home. The intersection of illegal drugs and prescription medicine is fascinating, because the difference between them is not material. It's one of authority. What's illegal about most narcotics, of course, is not taking them, specifically, but taking them unsupervised. So many now-illegal drugs got a head start in the mental health field, including LSD, Ecstasy, and cocaine. While elementary schools in recent years have legally forced parents to make their children take Ritalin, adults have been legally prosecuted for crumbling up and snorting it.

Here's a story about a girl forced to take drugs. And here's a story about a medicine people are denied.

Ecuador Wants Us to Pay for the Amazon

| Thu Apr. 26, 2007 4:51 PM EDT

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This dilemma cuts to the core of environmentalism today. Ecuador is asking for international compensation to leave alone a major oilfield in the heart of the Amazon. Ecuador's president says he will wait up to one year for a response before drilling. At stake are not only plant and animal species, but also the homeland of several tribes living in voluntary isolation. These tribes are among the fiercest on Earth, renowned for giant spears.

"Ecuador doesn't ask for charity," said President Rafael Correa, "but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground." That could come out to about $350 million per year.

Environmental groups are in disagreement. To pay or not to pay?

Arguments against: 1) Biodiversity is priceless. Destroying this part of the Amazon is evil. But paying for abstention would implicitly legitimize its exploitation. 2) Ecuador might be ethical enough to leave it alone anyway. If we pay, who else will come out of the woodwork to demand compensation what they might have left alone? There's no money pot to pay for everything. 3) Paying for what should be a given might exacerbate the situation. A slightly-related case: When well-meaning Christian groups bought modern-day slaves in Africa in order to set them free a few years ago, they put enough cash into the system to promote more slave raids, after the market would have died on its own. Talk about a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Argument for: 1) For environmentalism to work, we need to integrate it into the economy, not just morality and law. 2) With $4,500 income per capita, Ecuador is among the poorest half of nations. Oil is its biggest source of income. 3) Again, biodiversity is priceless. Ecologists and economists have estimated that the value of all natural ecosystems across the world--in terms of their services to humanity--is about 30 trillion dollars a year. That's more than the GNP of all nations combined. But in this case Ecuador is making it easy for us by asking for just half of potential oil revenue. So the question becomes, who would pay, and how?

Next American Species To Go Extinct May Be Two Hawaiian Birds, Global Warming Amplifies Threats

| Wed Apr. 25, 2007 9:12 PM EDT

There's been a dramatic drop in sightings of the Akekee and the Akikiki. These two birds from the Hawaiian Island of Kauai may be on the brink of extinction, according to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Hawaii leads the U.S. in the total number of endangered and threatened species (329), and in extinctions, with over 1,000 plants and animals having disappeared since humans colonized the islands. Several Hawaiian bird species, the Poouli and the Ou are assumed to have recently gone extinct before captive-breeding or other protection measures could be implemented.

David Kuhn and Doug Pratt who lead birding tours on Kauai recently alerted scientists, state officials, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to their concerns about the drop in sightings. "I and others paying attention to Kauai's endangered endemics have supposed that the Akikiki would be the next species to disappear--now it is more like a race to the finish," said Kuhn. "While the Akikiki depopulation and range contraction has been linear and relatively slow, Akekee is suddenly crashing." Doug Pratt says the Akekee "was common when I was last here in fall of 2004, and has apparently crashed drastically in the last three years."

The Akikiki is a small bicolored bird from the wet montane forests in central Kauai, with less than 1,500 remaining individuals occupying less than 10% of its former range, the population declining 64% due to habitat loss and alteration, the introduction of invasive species, mosquito-born diseases such as avian malaria and pox, and the impacts of hurricanes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2005 that the Akikiki should be officially designated an endangered species, but declined to move forward with the listing for budgetary reasons, reports the ABC.

The Akekee, a small yellow and green bird that lives in the high-elevation rainforests of Kauai, was until recently thought to have a stable population, estimated at 20,000 individuals. It's also threatened by habitat loss, invasive species and disease. Evidence suggests that rising average temperatures could allow mosquitoes to survive at higher, elevations, exposing the birds to deadly diseases. Researchers for the U.S. Geological Survey conclude that even a small increase in temperatures in Hawaii's forests will eliminate much of the mosquito-free safe zone that once existed for Kauai's birds.

Read gone, and why many biologist consider the sixth great extinction underway a more dangerous threat to life on Earth than even global warming. --Julia Whitty

Good News In Uganda, Mountain Gorillas Increase In Number

| Wed Apr. 25, 2007 8:33 PM EDT

The most recent census of mountain gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park finds the population has increased by 6 percent since 2002. ScienceDaily reports Bwindi's gorilla population now numbers 340 individual gorillas, up from 320 in 2002, and 300 in 1997. Bwindi is one of only two places in the world where the rare gorillas exist. "This is great news for all of the organizations that have worked to protect Bwindi and its gorilla population," said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Dr. Alastair McNeilage, who is also the director of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation in Bwindi. "There are very few cases in this world where a small population of a endangered primates is actually increasing."

Reading this makes me realize how rare good news is in this trade and what a strange, alien feeling hope is. May there be more of it.

For more on the sixth great extinction underway and the fate of at least half of all lifeforms on Earth, read MoJo's latest cover piece. --Julia Whitty