Blue Marble

Sundance Channel's Green Living Show Debuts Tonight

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 1:38 PM EDT

If you're going to use electricity tonight, you may as well do it watching Sundance Channel's new green living show, "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" (9 p.m. E/P).

In true Sundance tradition, "Big Ideas" is a series of short documentaries. But they're not the drab, depressing kind. Instead, they feature cutting-edge technologies and brilliant inventors bent on saving the earth.

Each episode has a theme, and tonight's is alternative fuels. You'll meet a couple who'll retrofit your gas-guzzling vintage ride into a clean machine, see an Indy 500 driver get better torque and pull using ethanol, and feel the rush with a monster trucker who fries chicken and then uses the grease as gas. These are people who don't just "talk the talk" about being green; they "drive the drive," as one quips. (That this first episode is about alternative fuels and a later one is about green vehicles is probably no coincidence: the show is "sponsored by Lexus," who has a new hybrid SUV on the market.)

The series doesn't end when you click off the TV. "Big Ideas" is just part of a larger line of programming, web features, and blogs called "The Green." Viewers can check out easy tips for green living, watch video clips, or learn more about environmental issues on "The Green" section of Sundance Channel's site, for which TreeHugger provided much of the content.

But lest you think Sundance the only cable channel targeting green viewers, the Discovery Channel is launching an entire network devoted to everyday green living next year.

—Jen Phillips

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FDA Sued For Politicizing Women's Health

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 12:39 PM EDT

Here's a new one: The Family Research Council is accusing the FDA of "politicizing women's health." Because before Plan B came around a woman's body was her own business? Right.

Yesterday a coalition of groups including the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America filed a lawsuit against the FDA for its decision to approve the nonprescription sales of Plan B, Barr Laboratories' emergency contraceptive. Among its litany of complaints, the lawsuit accuses the FDA of violating the law by allowing the same drug to be distributed simultaneously by prescription and over the counter (uh, what about that "all-day non-drowsy relief"?), and it also names names, charging that the decision was made after "improper pressure" from Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Patty Murray.

"There are a lot of concerns," a spokesperson for the FRC told the Washington Times. This despite the fact that Barr has taken unprecedented steps to ensure the drug does not get into the hands of those under 18 and the uninformed. The company has agreed to send "anonymous shoppers" into pharmacies to test compliance with the age restriction, to distribute with the drug a booklet about its proper use, and to exclude gas stations and convenience stores from selling Plan B at all.

The improper pressure mentioned in the suit refers to Clinton and Murray putting a hold on the confirmation of current commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach until the FDA acted on the recommendation to approve OTC status. FRC said the decision to approve Barr's application is "very clearly caught up in political dynamics, and I would go so far as to say there is electoral politics involved here." Susan Wood, former director of FDA's Office of Women's Health, points out that the senators simply urged the agency to make a decision one way or the other, after months of stalling, and "didn't say what the decision should be."

Coed Half-Naked Hunting

| Thu Apr. 12, 2007 10:22 PM EDT

Some archaeologists say the image of caveman as macho big-game hunter is just a figment of our 20th Century imagination. Then what were Neanderthal gender roles? Faye Flam asks in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Did primitive peoples form relationships, the males playing father to sons and daughters, or did we act more like our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins--promiscuous, violent, with males fighting over the females?"

Most likely, fathers took more care of their kids as males and females approached the same body size. Human men and women are closer in body size than chimps. "In species with males and females closer to the same size, the sexes are more likely to work in pairs, cooperate, and share the burden of protecting their young," Flam writes. "So determining how long ago we reached our current ratio should point to when our ancestors stopped organizing themselves like apes and started acting more like people."

Speaking of prehistoric gender roles, this study is about two years old, but its absurdity is timeless: A researcher at Texas A&M University somehow demonstrated that female monkeys like playing with pots and pans. "Just like boys and girls, male monkeys like to play with toy cars whereas female monkeys prefer dolls" the Washington Post reported without irony, along with about 36 other news sources. "Males also played with balls while females fancied cooking pots." They quoted the researcher, Gerianne Alexander as saying, "The differences apparently date far back in evolutionary history to the time before humans and monkeys separated from their common ancestor some 25 million years ago."

So when in evolutionary history did monkeys learn what pots and pans are all about? Actually, that discovery launched the earliest known era of stay-at-home motherhood, by enabling moms to put dinner on the stove while their boys were out playing baseball with monkey dads. I saw it in Planet of the Apes.

A few years earlier, the same psychologist demonstrated that female monkeys like pink and male monkeys like blue. Maybe the next study will prove that monkeys associate white with weddings and black with funerals. Except for Chinese monkeys, who would, if they could, wear red to weddings and white to funerals. No doubt there are mental differences between the sexes due to hormones. One recent discovery was that men pay more attention to crotches than women, as shown in this eye-tracking study. (Scroll down). But that monkey study has such blatantly unscientific bias; it's like a university psychology department conducting research into whether or not African Americans are innately drawn to cotton.

Environmental Fact of the Day

| Thu Apr. 12, 2007 4:28 PM EDT

Americans spend, on average, 51 minutes a day commuting to and from work. The fastest growing group of commuters is "extreme commuters"—those whose one-way commute takes longer than 90 minutes. The length of one's commute is directly proportionate to how unhappy one is—meaning, the longer your commute, the more you hate life. So now you have a good reason to stop: Saving the planet for your children. Don't you think they'd prefer that to your nice big house in the exurbs?

Congolese Forests Falling In Exchange for Beer And Soap

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 8:59 PM EDT

The world's second largest forest, and one of the oldest on Earth, is being traded for bars of soap and bottles of beer. A Greenpeace report exposes international logging companies for creating social chaos and environmental havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the logging. The report also nails the World Bank, largest "donor" to the DRC, for utterly failing to stop the destruction, despite a moratorium on new logging. In fact since 2002 more than 37 million acres of rainforest have been leased to the logging industry, an area the size of Illinois, including areas vital to biodiversity. You think it doesn't matter to you? Wrong. We all need these big leafy green places at the equator. --Julia Whitty

The Deep Freeze Is Thawing. So's The Crap We Put There

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 8:27 PM EDT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts wide-ranging thawing of the Arctic permafrost. This is likely to have significant implications for infrastructure including houses, buildings, roads, railways and pipelines. A combination of reduced sea ice, thawing permafrost and storm surges also threatens erosion of Arctic coastlines with impacts on coastal communities, culturally important sites and industrial facilities. One study suggests that a three degree C increase in average summer air temperatures could increase erosion rates in the eastern Siberia Arctic by up to 15 feet a year. But you've heard all this, right? What's worse is that in some parts of the Arctic, toxic and radioactive materials are stored and contained in frozen ground. Thawing will release these substances in the local and wider environment with risks to humans and wildlife. The report predicts significant clean-up costs. How optimistic. I predict no clean-up at all. Only a Super-Duper Fund. --Julia Whitty

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Using Niacin To Foil Drug-Screening Tests? Don't. Bad Medical Juju Follows

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 8:13 PM EDT

Taking excessive doses of niacin (vitamin B3) in an attempt to defeat drug screening tests could send you to the hospital. Or worse. Researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania reported that two adults and two adolescents suffered toxic side effects from taking large amounts of niacin. Both adults suffered skin irritation. Both adolescents suffered potentially life-threatening reactions, including liver toxicity and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), along with nausea, vomiting and dizziness. One teen also had disrupted heart rhythms. All four recovered after treatment in emergency rooms. The report appeared online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.--Julia Whitty

Say Good-By to Arctic Foxes?

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 7:52 PM EDT

Arctic foxes failed to retreat to cooler climes when global temperatures rose in the past. A new study dampens hope that species will be able to adapt to climate change by moving towards the poles this time around, reports Nature. Comparing DNA from living arctic foxes with DNA extracted from fossils indicates that, at the end of the last ice age, foxes that lived in mid-latitude Europe simply died out rather than move north. The same could be happening now. Today, Alopex lagopus, is restricted to northern tundra in Scandinavia and Siberia, while 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, it lived in what's now Belgium, Germany and southwestern Russia. So will Arctic foxes join polar bears and half of all Earth's species threatened by the mass global extinction already underway, and hugely amplified by global warming? Maybe, says the latest installment of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Will our species ever do one righteous thing about it? --Julia Whitty

Environmental Fact of the Day

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 3:14 PM EDT

Still unconvinced that your driving habits contribute to global warming? Americans consume more than a quarter of the world's oil but make up less than five percent of its population. Transportation accounts for more than 70 percent of the United States' oil consumption. Trucking accounts for a big chunk of that number, but non-essential individual trips do, too.

Clear Need for Integrated Climate/Human Behavior Models

| Mon Apr. 9, 2007 10:41 PM EDT

Adapting to global climate change will require humans to develop new tools. (Our specialty, right?) The new tools will need to integrate climate models with analysis of human behavior, reports the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, an international network of environmental scientists. "We need to continue discovering how the Earth system works in order to evaluate the numerous ways that humans can adapt to climate change," says Kevin Noone, executive director of the IGBP.

Human adaptation to a changing climate can take many forms, and can have both positive and negative environmental impacts. Small-scale, adaptation measures—for better or worse—might include more air conditioning, architectural changes for more efficient heating and cooling, better forecasting and warning systems for extreme events, and increased water usage. Large-scale adaptations might include switching to renewable energy sources or attempts at "geoengineering." Furthermore the large-scale migrations of refugees from frakked-up areas ruined by global warming and other environmental and socioeconomic stresses will also be a form of adaptation.

"The science needed to support decision making about adaptation requires a sophisticated understanding about how the Earth system works, but goes well beyond just that. We need new tools to help us develop robust 'what if' scenarios for different potential adaptation schemes, and their consequences," says Noone. He describes the new tools as new types of models that couple together active, predictive descriptions of human behaviour and choice with the kinds of models used to predict future climate. --Julia Whitty