Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Worst Way of Farming

by The New York Times
May 31, 2008

In the past month, two new reports have examined how farm animals are raised in this country. The report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts calls the prevailing system “industrial farm animal production.” The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists prefers the term “confined animal feeding operations.”

No matter what you call it, it adds up to the same thing. Millions of animals are crowded together in inhumane conditions, causing significant environmental threats and unacceptable health risks for workers, their neighbors and all the rest of us.

The astonishing increase in the number and size of confined animal operations has been spawned largely by the very structure of American farm supports, which always has been skewed in a way that concentrates farming in fewer and fewer hands. As both of these reports make clear, the so-called efficiency of industrial animal production is an illusion, made possible by cheap grain, cheap water and prisonlike confinement systems.

In short, animal husbandry has been turned into animal abuse. Manure — traditionally a source of fertilizer — has been turned into toxic waste that fouls the air and adjacent water bodies. Crowding creates health problems, resulting in the chronic overuse of antibiotics.

And, because the modest profits in confinement operations require the lowest possible labor costs, including automated feeding, watering and manure-handling systems, these operations have helped empty and impoverish rural America.

The Pew report recommends new laws regulating pollution from industrial farms as rigorously as pollution from other industries, a phasing-out of confinement systems that restricts “natural movement and normal behavior,” a ban on antibiotics used only to promote animal growth and the application of antitrust laws to encourage more competition and less concentration.

These are all useful guideposts for the next Congress and a new administration.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Another Bullet Ends Dream in a Dangerous Land

by Robert Gavin, Cathleen F. Crowley, and Jordan Carleo-Evan Gel
Albany Times Union
May 31, 2008

Last week, Kathina Thomas attended Sunday school for the first time at Blessed Hope Worship Center on Central Avenue. She liked it so much she stayed for the 11 a.m. service.

It was in the church that the 10-year-old girl began the last 24 hours of her life, at a women's night on Wednesday alongside Roxanne Fraser, a friend from her family's native Guyana in South America.

Had Fraser known what lay ahead, she said she would have made sure Kathina came to church Thursday, too. That night, a stray .45 caliber bullet tore through the child's back as she played in front of her First Street home.

"She said 'Mommy, I got shot in my back.' She fell toward me and I held her," Kathina's devastated mother, Shondell McAllister, said Friday, speaking from her mother's steps on Clinton Avenue.

Calm, yet still struggling to speak about her daughter, a fourth-grader at Sheridan Preparatory Academy, McCallister said she was too scared to return home to First Street. She called for help when her daughter was shot, but said no one on the street offered any.

Sixteen months ago, Kathina's family moved from Guyana to Albany in part because of the opportunities an American education would give her.

But the child died at Albany Medical Center Hospital shortly after the 8:20 p.m. shooting.

"There's more opportunity over here," said her 18-year-old brother, George Yhap. "But it's more dangerous, too. This place is so big. ... You know your neighbor and stuff in Guyana, but over here you don't even know your neighbor."

Read more here.

Copyright 2008 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

Friday, May 30, 2008

McClellan Confessions Spark Media Denial

May 30, 2008

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's forthcoming book has caused a political firestorm by offering unusually blunt criticisms of the Bush White House. But McClellan has also aimed his fire at the news media, accusing mainstream reporters of being "deferential, complicit enablers" instead of challenging the White House's case for the Iraq War. The reaction from many in the elite media demonstrates that the White House is not the only institution that resents being held accountable.

During a joint appearance on NBC's Today show (5/28/08), network anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric offered their assessments of the media's performance. While Couric conceded that the press could have done more in the face of various pressures, calling McClellan's critique "fairly accurate," NBC's Williams offered a somewhat incoherent defense of the media:
I've always put it this way. In Katrina, the evidence was right next to us. Sadly, we saw fellow Americans, in some cases, floating past face down. We knew what had just happened. We weren't allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors. I was in Kuwait for the buildup of the war. And yes, we heard from the Pentagon on my cell phone the minute they heard us report something that they didn't like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.
Given that the inspections process was well-documented by the United Nations--and well-covered by reporters who were interested in independent reporting (Extra!, 3-4/06)-- Williams' point is difficult to follow. It was no less obscure when ABC's Gibson made the same point on the CBS Early Show (5/28/08): "I think that the media did a pretty good job of focusing and asking the questions. We were not given access to get into the country... to go along with the inspectors."

This notion that there was no way of countering official claims is false. As FAIR pointed out shortly after Colin Powell's United Nations presentation ("A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage," 2/10/03), there was plenty of information on the record that questioned Powell's claims. Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley, for example, reported two weeks prior to the Powell speech (1/18/03) that weapons inspectors were finding nothing incriminating at the sites identified by the U.S. and Britain: "In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. arms monitors have inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies as major 'facilities of concern,' and reported no signs of revived weapons building."

ABC's Gibson also made a more direct defense of the media (NBC, 5/28/08):
I think the questions were asked.... You know, you go back to the Powell speech. There was a lot of skepticism raised about that. I can remember getting in trouble with administration officials because asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable with. I think the questions were asked. There was just a drumbeat of support from the administration, and it is not our job to debate them.
As FAIR pointed out at the time (Press Release, 2/10/03), the overall coverage of Powell was overwhelmingly credulous. And Gibson's objection to the idea that the media should "debate" the White House is a straw man; the real issue is how badly the media covered the very active debate that was going on before the war. A FAIR study of network news coverage of that period (1/30/03-2/12/03) found a remarkable tilt towards the White House's side:
More than two-thirds (267 out of 393) of the guests featured were from the United States. Of the U.S. guests, a striking 75 percent (199) were either current or former government or military officials. Only one of the official U.S. sources-- Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.)-- expressed skepticism or opposition to the war.
The study also found that "of all 393 sources, only three (less than 1 percent) were identified with organized protests or anti-war groups." And while some have suggested that the whole country was swept up in a post-9/11 fever for war, FAIR noted that a majority of the U.S. public favored more time for weapons inspections—a position advanced by few of the people quoted by the network newscasts.

On CNN (5/28/08), Wolf Blitzer also offered up a defense of his network's reporting:
I think we were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we could have done an even better job. There were a lot of things missing in our coverage that obviously, you know, ex post facto, after the fact. Certainly we raised the important questions. I can't tell you how many times we had Scott Ritter and Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, on my shows, and a lot of the other shows on CNN, where they suggested, you know what, they don't see the evidence about the weapons of mass destruction. They're not convinced.
Given that Blix and ElBaradei were both overseeing the weapons inspections process, it's hard to give a news outlet too much credit for reporting their views. As for the prevalence of former inspector Scott Ritter, he was on CNN with Blitzer a handful of times in the weeks leading up to the war. But CNN's treatment of Ritter in those appearances hardly provides evidence to back up Blitzer's depiction of CNN as a strong, independent news source. As FAIR pointed out (Extra!, 3-4/06):
Appearing on CNN's Sunday Morning (9/8/02), CNN news executive Eason Jordan told Catherine Callaway: “Well, Scott Ritter's chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a lot of people.... U.S. officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility.” When Paula Zahn interviewed Ritter (CNN American Morning, 9/13/02), she suggested he was in league with Saddam Hussein: "People out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam’s Kool-Aid."
Blitzer was similarly unimpressed when interviewing anti-war activist Dr. Helen Caldicott (11/2/02). When she blamed a dramatic rise in birth defects in southern Iraq on the U.S. use of depleted uranium in the Gulf War, Blitzer defended the Pentagon. He did the same when Caldicott brought up the effect of sanctions on Iraq, saying that "the Iraqi regime itself is to blame for all of these problems." Blitzer goes on to argue that Caldicott's questioning of U.S. policy is tantamount to "defending the Iraqi regime."

Blitzer wasn't the only journalist with a self-serving recollection of his own work. MSNBC host Chris Matthews seemed to congratulate his own program's record (5/28/08):
For months and years now, Hardball told the two-part story of how the Iraq war was sold under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein posed a nuclear threat to the United States, and the people in the Bush administration sought to destroy those who unmasked the plotting.
While Matthews might wish to recall his performance that way, the actual record isn't so flattering. On April 9, 2003, Matthews gushed over the news that a Saddam Hussein statue fell in Baghdad:

--"Why don't the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today."
--"What's he [DNC Chair Howard Dean] going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it's over? I mean, don't these things sort of lose their--Isn't there a fresh date on some of these debate points?"
--"We're all neo-cons now."

And when Bush delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech (5/1/03), Matthews gushed:
We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits.
It should be noted that some reporters echoed McClellan's charge. CNN's Jessica Yellin, who previously worked at ABC and MSNBC, had this exchange with CNN host Anderson Cooper (5/28/08):
I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president....

They wouldn't say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive.
But many journalists seemed to express bewilderment, if not contempt, at McClellan's switch from water-carrier to whistleblower. Current CNN reporter Ed Henry (5/28/08) asked:
So, you do have to wonder... just who is the real Scott McClellan, the one who was constantly pushing back on the media back then, and doing a lot of the White House talking points, or the one who now thinks that those talking points were not true?
Boy, that's a puzzler: Was McClellan expressing his real views when he was paid to represent the Bush administration, or when he wrote a book under his own name? Posing the question at all seems to suggest an unfamiliarity with what press secretaries do, which is repeat their bosses' talking points, true or not. Reporters are supposed to treat such talking points with skepticism, as one would any official government source. The fact that some reporters seem confused by this is a significant concern—-evidence that this White House, or any other, will have little trouble misleading the corporate press.

Above all, exercising a vigilant form of skepticism in the run-up to the Iraq War should have been the obvious position for the media to take—whatever one made of the supposed intelligence on Iraq's weapons. As FAIR pointed out on February 10, 2003:
Journalists should always be wary of implying unquestioning faith in official assertions; recent history is full of official claims based on satellite and other intelligence data that later turned out to be false or dubious.
The day before Powell's presentation, FAIR noted that "the media's intensive coverage of the U.N. inspections has repeatedly glided from reporting the allegation that Iraq is hiding banned weapons materials to repeating it as a statement of fact." The Media Advisory ("Iraq's Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact," 2/4/03) went on:
Through constant repetition of phrases like "the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the media convey to the public the impression that the alleged banned weapons on which the Bush administration rests its case for war are known to exist and that the question is simply whether inspectors are skillful enough to find them. In fact, whether or not Iraq possesses banned weapons is very much an open question, one which no publicly available evidence can answer one way or the other.
As former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw put it on May 29, "All wars are based on propaganda." If every journalist took that lesson to heart, reporting on the drive to war would have looked very different.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Woman Dies After Spending 58 Years Confined in an Iron Lung

by Woody Baird
The Associated Press
May 28, 2008

A woman who defied medical odds and spent nearly 60 years in an iron lung after being diagnosed with polio as a child died Wednesday after a power failure shut down the machine that kept her breathing, her family said.

Dianne Odell, 61, had been confined to the 7-foot-long metal tube since she was stricken by polio at 3 years old.

Family members were unable to get an emergency generator working after a power failure knocked out electricity to the Odell family's residence near Jackson, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, brother-in-law Will Beyer said.

"We did everything we could do but we couldn't keep her breathing," Beyer said. "Dianne had gotten a lot weaker over the past several months and she just didn't have the strength to keep going."

Capt. Jerry Elston of the Madison County Sheriff's Department said emergency crews could do little to help. The local power company reported spotty power outages in the area because of a tree that fell on a power line.

Odell was afflicted with "bulbo-spinal" polio three years before a polio vaccine was discovered and largely stopped the spread of the crippling childhood disease.

She spent her life in the iron lung, cared for by her parents, other family members and aides provided by a nonprofit foundation. Though confined inside the 750-pound apparatus, Odell managed to get a high school diploma, take college courses and write a children's book about a "wishing star" named Blinky.

"Dianne was one of the kindest and most considerate people you could meet. She was always concerned about others and their well-being," said Frank McMeen, president of the West Tennessee Health Care Foundation which helped raise money for equipment and nursing assistance for Odell.

Odell accepted her life with grace, McMeen said.

"Everyone she encountered came to her because they cared about her," he said, "so she grew up in her 61 years thinking every person is good."

Odell's iron lung, similar to those used during the U.S. polio epidemics that peaked in the 1950s, was a cylindrical chamber with a seal at the neck. She lay on her back with only her head exposed and made eye contact with visitors through an angled mirror. She operated a television set with a small blow tube and wrote on a voice-activated computer.

The positive and negative pressures produced by the machine forced air into her lungs and then expelled it.

Iron lungs were largely replaced by positive-pressure airway ventilators in the late 1950s that give users much more freedom of movement. But a spinal deformity from the polio kept Odell from wearing a more modern, portable breathing device.

Joan Headley of Post-Polio Health International in St. Louis said about 30 people in the United States still rely on iron lungs but few users are confined to them all the time. No one keeps records, she said, on the longest confinement.

Caregivers could slide Odell's bedding out of her iron lung for basic nursing care but only briefly, McMeen said.

Though Odell could not leave the iron lung, she was able to be moved in the machine out of her home. For Odell's 60th birthday, in February 2007, friends and family held a party for her, with about 200 guests, at a downtown hotel in Jackson, a town of about 50,000 residents.

"She had a 9-foot birthday cake and she had letters from well-wishes from people all over the country," McMeen said.

In a 2001 interview with The Associated Press, Odell said she wrote her children's book to show youngsters, especially those with physical disabilities, that they should never give up.

"It's amazing what you can accomplish if you see someone do the same thing," she said.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

New Studies Link Lead to Childhood Brain Damage and Criminal Behavior in Inner City Neighborhoods

by Frank D. Roylance
The Baltimore Sun
May 28, 2008

Two new studies of young adults who grew up in poor, inner-city neighborhoods in Cincinnati have found that childhood exposure to lead is linked to a significant loss of critical brain matter and to an increased risk of criminal behavior.

Researchers followed hundreds of children from the womb into their 20s and found an average loss of 1.2 percent in the volume of gray matter in the brain by the time they reached adulthood.

That sounds minor, but researchers at the University of Cincinnati said the losses were concentrated in brain regions responsible for critical "executive" functions, such as impulse control, emotional regulation, judgment and the anticipation of consequences. That squares with previous research linking childhood lead exposure to behavioral problems. The research found that the losses were greater - 1.7 percent - among males.

A second study of the same young adults found evidence that such brain damage might also have grave consequences for society. The higher their blood lead concentrations during childhood, the study found, the more likely the subjects were to be arrested during adulthood, especially for violent offenses. The correlations held even when the data were controlled for such factors as the mother's IQ, education and socioeconomic status.

Taken together, the two studies provide powerful evidence for the potentially devastating consequences of childhood lead exposure, said Ellen K. Silbergeld, professor of health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath. Silbergeld has studied Baltimore's similar lead poisoning problem but was not involved in either Cincinnati study.

Because researchers followed the same group into adulthood and controlled for so many other factors, "we have … a fair degree of confidence that these findings are very likely to be related specifically to lead and are not explainable by other possible exposures these adults could have had," she said.

Silbergeld said the findings also suggest that the Bush administration's recent refusal to lower key lead safety levels to standards recommended by many scientists was inconsistent with the latest research. These two studies "strongly challenge these recent decisions, and in the minds of many of us indicates there was very little scientific justification for these decisions," she said.

Both studies were published yesterday by the online journal PLoS, sponsored by the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit organization founded to provide free and immediate access to peer-reviewed studies.

The first, led by Kim M. Cecil, an imaging scientist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, conducted MRI scans of the brains of 157 people. All had been part of the Cincinnati Lead Study since infancy.

The scans broke each of the participants' brain images into millions of volume elements and compared them to one other. Those data were then compared with blood lead levels measured every three months until the participants were 5 years old, every six months until they were 6 or 7 years old, and several more times during their teen years.

There was strong statistical evidence that those who had the highest lead exposures as children had significantly smaller brain volumes. And the deficits were focused mainly in areas of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, associated with judgment, attention, decision-making, and impulse control.

That "corresponds nicely," Cecil said, with previous epidemiological and psychological studies that have found those kinds of behavioral problems among children exposed to lead.

And because they had a wealth of other data gathered during their subjects' childhood, the researchers were able to sort through potential factors that might explain the brain losses, such as birth weight, smoking, alcohol or drug use by mothers or children as they grew up.

The fact that nearly all of the subjects were black and grew up in inner-city poverty eliminated other socioeconomic variables that might obscure the links between lead and brain loss.

In the second study, researchers led by Kim N. Dietrich, also at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, followed the same subjects and measured their blood lead exposure against their arrests at age 18 and older.

Although previous studies have found correlations between lead exposure in urban settings and crime rates, this is the first to measure lead exposure in specific children and track their criminal behavior as adults.

While 45 percent of the subjects had no arrest record, Dietrich's team found that for every increase of 5 micrograms per deciliter in a child's blood lead level, there was a 30 percent increase in arrest rate for violent offenses.

Although children now generally have lower lead exposure than those in the 1980s, when these Cincinnati youths grew up, Dietrich said, "we have seen effects of lead below 5 micrograms [per deciliter]." They include attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and conduct and cognition disorders. The federal "action" standard for medical concern remains 10 micrograms.

Copyright © 2008 The Baltimore Sun

Human Rights Report Assails U.S.

by Alan Cowell
The New York Times
May 29, 2008

Sixty years after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments in scores of countries still torture or mistreat their people, Amnesty International said Wednesday in a report that again urged the United States to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

In its annual report, the London-based human rights watchdog said “flashpoints” in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Gaza, Iraq and Myanmar “demand immediate action.”

“World leaders are in a state of denial but their failure to act has a high cost,” Irene Khan, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement accompanying the report. “As Iraq and Afghanistan show, human rights problems are not isolated tragedies, but are like viruses than can infect and spread rapidly, endangering all of us.”

The report singled out China, the United States, and Russia and accused the European Union of complicity in the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects. The European Union it said, must “set the same bar on human rights for its own members as it does for other countries.”

It urged Washington to close down the Guantánamo facility and other ‘’secret detention centers, prosecute the detainees under fair trial standards or release them and unequivocally reject the use of torture and ill-treatment.”

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment on the Amnesty International allegations, which followed an exhaustive report earlier this month by the Justice Department inspector general in Washington. That review provided the fullest account to date of internal dissent and confusion within the Bush administration over the use of harsh interrogation tactics by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Pentagon noted that a Defense Department investigation in 2005 found no evidence of torture but called some interrogation tactics degrading and abusive. A spokesman for the C.I.A. said its harsh methods were “found lawful by the Department of Justice itself” and “were employed only when traditional means of questioning — things like rapport-building — were ineffective.”

Criticizing other countries, Amnesty International urged China to ‘’live up to the human rights promises it made around the Olympic Games” and said Russia should ‘’show greater tolerance doe political dissent, and none for immunity on human rights abuses in Chechnya.”

The annual report said people “are still tortured or ill-treated in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 countries and are not allowed to speak freely in at least 77 countries.”

Faced with that tally, the report said, western governments had proven “impotent” to redress human rights abuses while “emerging powers” had shown themselves to be ambivalent or reluctant to “tackle some of the world’s worst human rights crises, ranging from entrenched conflicts to growing equalities which are leaving millions of people behind.”

The report assailed the moral leadership of the United States, saying that, as “the world’s most powerful state” it “sets the standard for government behavior globally.” But, Amnesty International said, the United States had “distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Peak Everything: Eight Things We Are Running Out Of And Why

by Lloyd Alter
May 27, 2008

Why is everything running out at the same time? We did a series on Planet Green where we looked at why those basic things that we take for granted, like water, food and fuel are getting expensive and scarce, all at once.

Peak Corn

Blame Earl Butz. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford's Secretary of Agriculture brought in the Farm Bill that dramatically increased the amount of corn produced in America. He encouraged farmers to "get big or get out," and to plant crops like corn "from fence row to fence row." Further billions in subsidies to farmers encouraged production, and soon America was awash in cheap grain, and with it cheap meat. Food costs as a portion of the American diet dropped to the lowest level in history; we became corn. Michael Pollan writes: "If you eat industrially, you are made of corn. It holds together your McNuggets, it sweetens your soda pop, it fattens your meat, it is everywhere. It is fed to us in many forms, because it is cheap- a dollar buys you 875 calories in soda pop but only 170 in fruit juice. A McDonalds meal was analyzed as almost entirely corn." ::More

Peak Oil

In 1956, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert calculated that the rate of production of fossil fuels would peak in the United States in about 1970 and then start declining. He was laughed out of the conference room. However, ultimately he was proven correct; now we are probably at the worldwide Hubbert's Peak. A hundred years ago you just stuck a pipe in the ground and the oil rushed out; now it is not so easy, and America's oil comes from deep under the ocean, is cooked out of rocks in Alberta, or is purchased from nations with security issues. Now the United States, Canada, Norway, and the United Kingdom are well past their peak, while Saudi Arabia and Russia are approaching it. Oil is still being found (there was a recent big hit in Brazil, and there are thought to be big reserves in the Arctic.) but it harder to get at and a lot more expensive. ::More

Peak Dirt

Really, Peak Dirt- the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe tells us that dirt is complicated stuff, made from sand or silt, then years of plants adding nutrition, bugs and worms adding their excrement, dying and rotting.

"The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil does not wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimeters of topsoil, about 6 inches' worth." ::more

Peak Gas

The headline in our local paper today: Natural gas bills to soar by 20 per cent. What is going on?

Blame the price of oil. Everyone knows that the price of oil is way up, but it is an international commodity. Natural gas, on the other hand, usually is subject to more local rules of supply and demand in North America alone. However it does follow the market. Director of Energy Policy Malini Giridhar of Enbridge Gas told the Star: "Oil trades between 6 to 12 times the price of natural gas,The price ratio is now 11 times, which is close to the upper end of the range." Commodities markets are pushing up natural gas in reaction to higher oil prices, she said, rather than to gas supply and demand. ::More

Peak Water

We have lots of water in the States, so much that we can let it just flow over Niagara Falls, right? How did it get to the point where there are such problems in Georgia and the Southwest?

Blame Willis Carrier. Before he invented air conditioning,not many people lived in the American Southwest, it was just too hot for much of the year. It was only after World War II, when air conditioning became common and affordable, that the mass migration of people and industry could happen from cooler Northern states to California, Nevada and Arizona. Without AC, Atlanta and Florida are almost uninhabitable. ::More

Peak Electricity

It was a cool summer in 2003; it wasn't until the middle of August that we got a serious heat wave. By then, all of the air conditioners were pumping full blast and the electrical grid was running at almost full capacity. On August 14, a branch fell on a power line near Cleveland, Ohio. A software bug failed to trigger alarms, and power started surging through other lines, causing a cascading failure that shut down 100 power plants across the Northeastern United States and Canada. In some parts of the affected area, it took almost a week before things were back to normal.

Has the system been improved since then? Do we have additional generating capacity and more transmission lines? No, we still have what Bill Richardson called "a superpower with a third-world electricity grid." ::More

Peak Rice

They are rationing rice in Costco and Wal-Mart; People have started panic buying and hoarding. In Manila, they post armed guards around it. The price of rice has trebled, and the World Bank says 33 countries are facing civil unrest. What is going on?

Blame rats. First of all, most of the rice in America is sold to Asians for whom it is a staple; it really doesn't take much of a panic to run out of Basmati rice over here. Most rice is eaten in the country where it is grown, and only 6 percent of the rice crop is traded around the world. In some countries, as much as 17 percent of the crop is eaten by rats; so good secure rice storage might be the first place to start. ::More

Peak Metal

When my dad was a teenager, his first job at the in-law's family auto parts company was to retrieve the batteries from cars that they bought before they were stolen for their lead content. A generation later, you had to pay an extra tax to the government to get rid of the batteries. Now, we are back to a time my late father would recognize- that metals are too scarce and too valuable to just leave around unprotected.

They just built a new soccer stadium in Toronto, Canada, with lovely aluminum bleachers; before the stadium even opened, someone unbolted the seats and carried them away. In Scotland, the "Great Drain Robbery" involves shipping manhole covers to China. In India, eight people have died, falling into open manholes after their covers were stolen. In Baltimore, thieves cut down and carted away 136 aluminum lamp posts. In California thieves can remove a platinum-filled catalytic converter in ninety seconds. Copper? Stealing it is a growth industry all over the world, as it hits four bucks a pound- two years ago it was a buck and a quarter. ::More

© 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

by Leslie Kaufman
The New York Times
May 25, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center when she experienced nirvana.

But she did it by having a stroke.

On Dec. 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor, then 37, woke up in her apartment near Boston with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which was just published by Viking.

After experiencing intense pain, she said, her body disconnected from her mind. “I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle,” she wrote in her book. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”

While her spirit soared, her body struggled to live. She had a clot the size of a golf ball in her head, and without the use of her left hemisphere she lost basic analytical functions like her ability to speak, to understand numbers or letters, and even, at first, to recognize her mother. A friend took her to the hospital. Surgery and eight years of recovery followed.

Her desire to teach others about nirvana, Dr. Taylor said, strongly motivated her to squeeze her spirit back into her body and to get well.

This story is not typical of stroke victims. Left-brain injuries don’t necessarily lead to blissful enlightenment; people sometimes sink into a helplessly moody state: their emotions run riot. Dr. Taylor was also helped because her left hemisphere was not destroyed, and that probably explains how she was able to recover fully.

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To her it is not faith, but science. She brings a deep personal understanding to something she long studied: that the two lobes of the brain have very different personalities. Generally, the left brain gives us context, ego, time, logic. The right brain gives us creativity and empathy. For most English-speakers, the left brain, which processes language, is dominant. Dr. Taylor’s insight is that it doesn’t have to be so.

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.

In February, Dr. Taylor spoke at the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference (known as TED), the annual forum for presenting innovative scientific ideas. The result was electric. After her 18-minute address was posted as a video on TED’s Web site, she become a mini-celebrity. More than two million viewers have watched her talk, and about 20,000 more a day continue to do so. An interview with her was also posted on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, and she was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2008.

She also receives more than 100 e-mail messages a day from fans. Some are brain scientists, who are fascinated that one of their own has had a stroke and can now come back and translate the experience in terms they can use. Some are stroke victims or their caregivers who want to share their stories and thank her for her openness.

But many reaching out are spiritual seekers, particularly Buddhists and meditation practitioners, who say her experience confirms their belief that there is an attainable state of joy.

“People are so taken with it,” said Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the Insight Mediation Society in Barre, Mass. “I keep getting that video in e-mail. I must have 100 copies.”

She is excited by Dr. Taylor’s speech because it uses the language of science to describe an occurrence that is normally ethereal. Dr. Taylor shows the less mystically inclined, she said, that this experience of deep contentment “is part of the capacity of the human mind.”

Since the stroke, Dr. Taylor has moved to Bloomington, Ind., an hour from where she was raised in Terre Haute and where her mother, Gladys Gillman Taylor, who nursed her back to health, still lives.

Originally, Dr. Taylor became a brain scientist — she has a Ph.D. in life sciences with a specialty in neuroanatomy — because she has a mentally ill brother who suffers from delusions that he is in direct contact with Jesus. And for her old research lab at Harvard, she continues to speak on behalf of the mentally ill.

But otherwise, she has dialed back her once loaded work schedule. Her house is on a leafy cul-de-sac minutes from Indiana University, which she attended as an undergraduate and where she now teaches at the medical school.

Her foyer is painted a vibrant purple. She greets a stranger at the door with a warm hug. When she talks, her pale blue eyes make extended contact.

Never married, she lives with her dog and two cats. She unselfconsciously calls her mother, 82, her best friend.

She seems bemused but not at all put off by the hundreds who have reached out to her on a spiritual level. Religious ecstatics who claim to see angels have asked her to appear on their radio and television programs.

She has declined these offers. Although her father is an Episcopal minister and she was raised in his church, she cannot be counted among the traditionally faithful. “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said.

Still, Dr. Taylor says, “nirvana exists right now.”

“There is no doubt that it is a beautiful state and that we can get there,” she said.

Read more here.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

See the video of Dr. Taylor's TED speech of February 2008 here. TED features 18-minute talks by the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers.

Where Breathing Is Deadly

by Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
May 25, 2008

China’s biggest health disaster isn’t the terrible Sichuan earthquake this month. It’s the air.

The quake killed at least 60,000 people, generating a response that has been heartwarming and inspiring, with even schoolchildren in China donating to the victims. Yet with little notice, somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 Chinese die prematurely every year from the effects of outdoor air pollution, according to studies by Chinese and international agencies alike.

In short, roughly as many Chinese die every two months from the air as were killed in the earthquake. And the problem is becoming international: just as Californians can find Chinese-made shoes in their stores, they can now find Chinese-made haze in their skies.

This summer’s Beijing Olympics will showcase the most remarkable economic explosion in history, and also some of the world’s thickest pollution in both air and water. So I’ve returned to the Yellow River in western China’s Gansu Province to an isolated village that has haunted me since I saw it a decade ago.

Badui is known locally as the “village of dunces.” That’s because of the large number of mentally retarded people here — as well as the profusion of birth defects, skin rashes and physical deformities. Residents are sure that the problems result from a nearby fertilizer factory dumping effluent that taints their drinking water.

“Even if you’re afraid, you have to drink,” said Zhou Genger, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is mentally retarded and has a hunchback. The girl, Kong Dongmei, mumbled unintelligibly, and Ms. Zhou said she had never been able to speak clearly.

Ms. Zhou pulled up the back of her daughter’s shirt, revealing a twisted, disfiguring mass of bones.

A 10-year-old neighbor girl named Hong Xia watched, her eyes filled with wonder at my camera. The neighbors say she, too, is retarded.

None of this is surprising: rural China is full of “cancer villages” caused by pollution from factories. Beijing’s air sometimes has a particulate concentration that is four times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Scientists have tracked clouds of Chinese pollution as they drift over the Pacific and descend on America’s West Coast. The impact on American health is uncertain.

In fairness, China has been better than most other countries in curbing pollution, paying attention to the environment at a much earlier stage of development than the United States, Europe or Japan. Most impressive, in 2004, China embraced tighter fuel economy standards than the Bush administration was willing to accept at the time.

The city of Shanghai charges up to $7,000 for a license plate, thus reducing the number of new vehicles, and China has planted millions of trees and hugely expanded the use of natural gas to reduce emissions. If you look at what China’s leaders are doing, you wish that President Bush were half as green.

But then you peer into the Chinese haze — and despair. The economic boom is raising living standards hugely in many ways, but the toll of the resulting pollution can be brutal. The filth is prompting public protests, but the government has tightly curbed the civil society organizations that could help monitor pollution and keep it in check.

An environmental activist named Wu Lihong warned for years that Lake Tai, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, was endangered by chemical factories along its banks. Mr. Wu was proved right when the lake filled with toxins last summer — shortly after the authorities had sentenced him to three years in prison.

Here in Badui, the picture is as complex as China’s development itself. The government has taken action since my previous visit: the factory supposedly is no longer dumping pollutants, and the villages have been supplied with water that, in theory, is pure. The villagers don’t entirely believe this, but they acknowledge that their health problems have diminished.

Moreover, economic development has reached Badui. It is still poor, with a per-capita income of $100 a year, but there is now a rough dirt road to the village. On my last visit, there was only a footpath.

The road has increased economic opportunities. Farmers have dug ponds to raise fish that are trucked to the markets, but the fish are raised in water taken from the Yellow River just below the fertilizer factory. When I looked in one pond, the first thing I saw was a dead fish.

“We eat the fish ourselves,” said the village leader, Li Yuntang. “We worry about the chemicals, but we have to eat.” He said that as far as he knew, the fish had never been inspected for safety.

Now those fish from this dubious water are sold to unsuspecting residents in the city of Lanzhou. And the complexities and ambiguities about that progress offer a window into the shadings of China’s economic boom.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Friday, May 23, 2008

Budget Hero

by American Public Media

"If you ever wanted to control where your tax dollars go, here's your chance to decide."

©2008 American Public Media

Sunday, May 18, 2008

New Research Shows Additional Benefits of Vitamin D

by CBC News
May 16, 2008

Imagine incorporating an inexpensive, single supplement into your life that forces you to get a little sunshine and promises to strengthen your bones, thwart different forms of cancer, stave off multiple sclerosis and autoimmune disorders and fight infections.

New research into the preventive benefits of vitamin D has raised hopes that the sunshine vitamin, which is produced naturally in the body through exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays, could extend and improve people's lives.

In September 2007, an analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials involving people over the age of 50 found that people who took at least 500 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily had a seven per cent lower risk of death compared with those given a placebo.

Lead researcher Dr. Philippe Autier said it was not clear how the supplements lowered risks of mortality, but he suggested that Vitamin D may block cancer cell proliferation or improve blood vessel and immune system functions. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, reviewed research involving 57,311 participants.

The new findings are part of a growing body of research regarding vitamin D's benefits. In June 2007, the Canadian Cancer Society said that based on current research adults should consider increasing their daily dosage of vitamin D. The society said Canadians should now consume 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily during the fall and winter months, in consultation with a health-care provider.

The society noted, however, that more research on appropriate dosage levels is needed and said it would update its recommendations as new studies are released.

In making its recommendations, the society referred to new research including a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha found a 60 to 77 per cent decrease in cancer rates in postmenopausal women who took a daily dose of 1,100 IU of vitamin D combined with calcium over women who were given a placebo or calcium alone. The double-blind clinical study, conducted over four years, tested healthy women over the age of 55 living in rural Nebraska. Critics of the study cautioned that a larger study would have yielded more reliable and conclusive results.

But Reinhold Vieth, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto, said the new study is the last piece of evidence for which many in the field have been waiting. Vieth said that many cells in the body use vitamin D to produce a signaling molecule that allows the cells to communicate with each other.

"Those signals do things like helping cells to differentiate to recognize what kind of cell they should be becoming or they can signal cells to stop proliferating and those are good things in terms of cancer, you want differentiation so they become good well-behaved cells and you don't want them to keep replicating all the time," he said.

Other researchers have begun studying how the sunshine vitamin affects other forms of cancer. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, suggested in the March 2007 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily along with 10 to 15 minutes in the sun and a healthy diet could reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer by two-thirds. The same authors found that breast cancer rates were 50 per cent lower in people with high levels of vitamin D in their blood, and suggested that the average person could maintain those levels by taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily and spending 10 to 15 minutes in the sun.

Similarly, a December 2006 study in more than seven million people found that white members of the U.S. military who had high blood levels of vitamin D were 62 per cent less likely to develop multiple sclerosis than those with the lowest levels of the vitamin. Researchers noted the findings were still too preliminary to suggest that a lack of vitamin D could trigger the nerve disorder.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on May 28, 2007, suggested that women who consume higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D may have a lower risk of developing breast cancer before menopause. The study followed more than 31,000 women aged 45 and older for 10 years. It found that intake of calcium and vitamin D was moderately associated with a lower risk of breast cancer before — but not after — menopause.

Yet another study — released on May 15, 2008 — found that women with low levels of vitamin D may have a poorer prognosis than those with sufficient vitamin D. The study by Toronto researchers also found that women with too little of the vitamin had a greater chance of recurrence and lower overall survival rates than those with healthier amounts.

The study involved 512 women, aged 35 to 69, who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1989 and 1996. Their health was followed until 2007, on average for almost 12 years. The researchers found that 37.5 per cent of the patients were vitamin D deficient and 38.5 per cent had levels that were considered insufficient for good bone health. Only 24 per cent had sufficient levels of vitamin D in their blood.

The researchers say their study shows there is an association between vitamin D levels and breast cancer outcome. They say it's too early to tell whether vitamin D deficiency can cause the disease.

In 2004, researcher Kenneth Saag of the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggested that Vitamin D might quell the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in older women. His preliminary study found that women who had a dietary intake of 290 IU daily were 28 per cent less likely to develop the disease.

Dr. John Cannell, the executive director of the U.S. Vitamin D Council, in 2006 published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Infection suggesting among other things that children who are exposed regularly to sunlight are less likely to catch colds and respiratory infections. A separate 2006 study published in the journal Science suggested that Vitamin D might boost the body's production of naturally occurring antibiotics.

Bolstered by the benefits the sunshine vitamin offers, public health officials are encouraging people to include vitamin D in their diets as researchers continue to investigate how it helps the body.

Read more here.

Copyright © CBC 2008

Not Much Help for the Polar Bear

by The New York Times
May 18, 2008

Boxed into a corner by the courts and its own scientists, the Bush administration agreed last week to place the polar bear under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The decision was the clearest official acknowledgment that the bear, its hunting grounds diminished by shrinking summer ice, is seriously at risk.

It was a victory for conservationists and for the Interior Department’s scientists whose findings have often been twisted or ignored by the administration.

It is not clear that the decision is much of a victory for the bears. The listing appears to offer only modest new protections. United States law already bars the killing of bears. The listing will also prohibit the importing of hides or other trophies from bears killed in Canada.

It does nothing to address the gravest threats to the bears’ survival: oil and gas drilling and global warming. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the act — as he interprets it — in no way inhibits oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat like the Chukchi Sea, where the department recently opened up 30 million acres to exploratory drilling.

He also said the listing could not be used as leverage to force power plants and other carbon dioxide sources to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases, even though those gases are heavily responsible for the ice’s melting. Mr. Kempthorne did not dispute that the bear’s habitat is shrinking or that in time the bear could face extinction. But using the Endangered Species Act to shape climate policy, he said, would be “wholly inappropriate.”

The act — designed to protect specific animals from chain saws, bulldozers and, yes, oil rigs — probably should not have to carry the burden of solving global warming. But President Bush has denied the problem for so long, refusing to offer serious remedies, it is little wonder that people are tempted to grab at any lever.

This leaves the polar bear much as before: living precariously in a changing world, and facing the added stresses of exploratory drilling with no real protection.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pedaling Toward a Green Way

by Alison Raphael
May 13, 2008

What single silver bullet can simultaneously reduce air pollution and oil dependency, roll back urban congestion, and fight obesity?

It's not a pill, nor a complicated formula concocted by the World Bank. People around the world are turning to bicycles by the millions, as governments rush to create incentives for the low-tech transport alternative to gas-glugging, smog-making, traffic jam-producing automobiles.

Some 130 million bikes were produced worldwide in 2007 -- more than double the number of cars rolling off assembly lines (52 million). Bike production took off in the 1970s, and after a brief dip, has been soaring since 2001, according to an ''Eco-Economy Indicators'' report issued Monday by the Earth Policy Institute.

Although more than 80 percent of all bicycles produced today are made in China, rising wealth led many Chinese to set aside their bicycles in favor of cars. But in the face of rising urban pollution and congestion, Chinese authorities are insisting that bike lanes be re-established in major cities. In Beijing, bike rentals are being strongly promoted.

China is following a growing trend in Europe and developing country smog centers such as Mexico City, Bogota, and Seoul, South Korea. The latest master plan for New Delhi, India, for example, calls for fully segregated bicycle lanes on all main roads to reduce growth in fossil fuel consumption.

Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and the German city of Freiburg are all investing millions in infrastructure to encourage more people to bike to work. In Amsterdam more than 55 percent of those who travel five miles or less to work already ride bikes. The government plans to spend $160 million by 2010 on bicycle paths, parking, and safety, according to the Earth Policy report.

Paris now has some 20,000 bikes available for rental by credit card, scattered around the city at strategic sites. Six million people used the new rental program during the first three months after it was launched last year.

The United States lags far behind this emerging trend, with less than 1 percent of workers commuting by bicycle. Overall, bike ridership has dropped by 32 percent since the early 1990s.

But, the report notes, there are positive signs as well: "Aided by $900 million a year in federal funding for promotion of biking and walking for 2005 to 2009, the installation of bicycle facilities -- including parking, bike-friendly roads, and designated lanes -- is proceeding at a record pace" in the United States.

Several large cities, including New York, plan to double bike and pedestrian routes by 2030. Washington, DC is set to begin a bike-sharing program like that in Paris, and even hilly San Francisco is considering a similar program, according to the Worldwatch Institute, and environmental think tank.

Bicycle advocacy groups are expanding, and a "Complete Streets" movement has blossomed in recent years, bringing together a broad coalition of citizen and environmental groups demanding more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly roads. Six states and more than 50 cities, counties, and metro regions have now enacted some form of Complete Streets legislation.

With more than half of the world's population now living in cities, and given the steep health and economic costs of continuing reliance on oil-fueled cars, many analysts expect the lowly two-wheeler to continue to become more and more fashionable.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Hillary's Gift to Women

by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Huffington Post
May 12, 2008

In Friday's New York Times, Susan Faludi rejoiced over Hillary Clinton's destruction of the myth of female prissiness and innate moral superiority, hailing Clinton's "no-holds-barred pugnacity" and her media reputation as "nasty" and "ruthless." Future female presidential candidates will owe a lot to the race of 2008, Faludi wrote, "when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys."

I share Faludi's glee -- up to a point. Surely no one will ever dare argue that women lack the temperament for political combat. But by running a racially-tinged campaign, lying about her foreign policy experience, and repeatedly seeming to favor McCain over her Democratic opponent, Clinton didn't just break through the "glass floor," she set a new low for floors in general, and would, if she could have got within arm's reach, have rubbed the broken glass into Obama's face.

A mere decade ago Francis Fukuyama fretted in Foreign Affairs that the world was too dangerous for the West to be entrusted to graying female leaders, whose aversion to violence was, as he established with numerous examples from chimpanzee society, "rooted in biology." The counter-example of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the first of head of state to start a war for the sole purpose of pumping up her approval ratings, led him to concede that "biology is not destiny." But it was still a good reason to vote for a prehistoric-style club-wielding male.

Not to worry though, Francis. Far from being the stereotypical feminist-pacifist of your imagination, the woman to get closest to the Oval Office has promised to "obliterate" the toddlers of Tehran -- along, of course, with the bomb-builders and Hezbollah supporters. Earlier on, Clinton foreswore even talking to presumptive bad guys, although women are supposed to be the talk addicts of the species. Watch out -- was her distinctly unladylike message to Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-Il, and the rest of them -- or I'll rip you a new one.

There's a reason why it's been so easy for men to overlook women's capacity for aggression. As every student of Women's Studies 101 knows, what's called aggression in men is usually trivialized as "bitchiness" in women: Men get angry; women suffer from bouts of inexplicable, hormonally-driven, hostility. So give Clinton credit for defying the belittling stereotype: She's been visibly angry for months, if not decades, and it can't all have been PMS.

But did we really need another lesson in the female capacity for ruthless aggression? Any illusions I had about the innate moral superiority of women ended four years ago with Abu Ghraib. Recall that three out of the five prison guards prosecuted for the torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners were women. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski, and the top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. Not to mention that the U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation of Iraq at the time was Condoleezza Rice.

Whatever violent and evil things men can do, women can do too, and if the capacity for cruelty is a criterion for leadership, as Fukuyama suggested, then Lynndie England should consider following up her stint in the brig with a run for the Senate.

It's important -- even kind of exhilarating -- for women to embrace their inner bitch, but the point should be to expand our sense of human possibility, not to enshrine aggression as a virtue. Women can behave like the warrior queen Boadicea, credited with slaughtering 70,000, many of them civilians, or like Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to dismantle the British welfare state. Men, for their part, are free to take as their role models the pacifist leaders Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Biology conditions us in all kinds of ways we might not even be aware of yet. But virtue is always a choice.

Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority. We didn't really need her racial innuendos and free-floating bellicosity to establish that women aren't wimps. As a generation of young feminists realizes, the values once thought to be uniquely and genetically female -- such as compassion and an aversion to violence -- can be found in either sex, and sometimes it's a man who best upholds them.

Copyright © 2008, Inc.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Small Farms More Productive, But At a Disadvantage

by Dan Barber
The New York Times
May 11, 2008

Cooking, like farming, for all its down-home community spirit, is essentially a solitary craft. But lately it’s feeling more like a lonely burden. Finding guilt-free food for our menus — food that’s clean, green and humane — is about as easy as securing a housing loan. And we’re suddenly paying more — 75 percent more in the last six years — to stock our pantries. Around the world, from Cairo to Port-au-Prince, increases in food prices have governments facing riots born of shortages and hunger. It’s enough to make you want to toss in the toque.

But here’s the good news: if you’re a chef, or an eater who cares about where your food comes from (and there are a lot of you out there), we can have a hand in making food for the future downright delicious.

Farming has the potential to go through the greatest upheaval since the Green Revolution, bringing harvests that are more healthful, sustainable and, yes, even more flavorful. The change is being pushed along by market forces that influence how our farmers farm.

Until now, food production has been controlled by Big Agriculture, with its macho fixation on “average tonnage” and “record harvests.” But there’s a cost to its breadbasket-to-the-world bragging rights. Like those big Industrial Age factories that once billowed black smoke, American agriculture is mired in a mind-set that relies on capital, chemistry and machines. Food production is dependent on oil, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, in the distances produce travels from farm to plate and in the energy it takes to process it.

For decades, environmentalists and small farmers have claimed that this is several kinds of madness. But industrial agriculture has simply responded that if we’re feeding more people more cheaply using less land, how terrible can our food system be?

Now that argument no longer holds true. With the price of oil at more than $120 a barrel (up from less than $30 for most of the last 50 years), small and midsize nonpolluting farms, the ones growing the healthiest and best-tasting food, are gaining a competitive advantage. They aren’t as reliant on oil, because they use fewer large machines and less pesticide and fertilizer.

In fact, small farms are the most productive on earth. A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more than $4 per gallon in many locations, it’s no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it’s grown.

The high cost of oil alone will not be enough to reform American agriculture, however. As long as agricultural companies exploit the poor and extract labor from them at slave wages, and as long as they aren’t required to pay the price for the pollution they so brazenly produce, their system will stay afloat. If financially pinched Americans opt for the cheapest (and the least healthful) foods rather than cook their own, the food industry will continue to reach for the lowest common denominator.

But it is possible to nudge the revolution along — for instance, by changing how we measure the value of food. If we stop calculating the cost per quantity and begin considering the cost per nutrient value, the demand for higher-quality food would rise.

Organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much C.L.A. (conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain.

Where good nutrition goes, flavor tends to follow. Chefs are the first to admit that an impossibly sweet, flavor-filled carrot has nothing to do with our work. It has to do with growing the right seed in healthy, nutrient-rich soil.

Increasingly we can see the wisdom of diversified farming operations, where there are built-in relationships among plants and animals. A dairy farm can provide manure for a neighboring potato farm, for example, which can in turn offer potato scraps as extra feed for the herd. When crops and livestock are judiciously mixed, agriculture wisely mimics nature.

To encourage small, diversified farms is not to make a nostalgic bid to revert to the agrarian ways of our ancestors. It is to look toward the future, leapfrogging past the age of heavy machinery and pollution, to farms that take advantage of the sun’s free energy and use the waste of one species as food for another.

Chefs can help move our food system into the future by continuing to demand the most flavorful food. Our support of the local food movement is an important example of this approach, but it’s not enough. As demand for fresh, local food rises, we cannot continue to rely entirely on farmers’ markets. Asking every farmer to plant, harvest, drive his pickup truck to a market and sell his goods there is like asking me to cook, take reservations, serve and wash the dishes.

We now need to support a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow. Farmers organized into marketing networks that can promote their common brands (like the Organic Valley Family of Farms in the Midwest) can ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation. They can also distribute their products to new markets, including poor communities that have relied mainly on food from convenience stores.

Similar networks could also operate in the countries that are now experiencing food shortages. For years, the United States has flooded the world with food exports, displacing small farmers and disrupting domestic markets. As escalating food prices threaten an additional 100 million people with hunger, a new concept of humanitarian aid is required. Local farming efforts focused on conserving natural resources and biodiversity are essential to improving food security in developing countries, as a report just published by the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development has concluded. We must build on these tenets, providing financial and technical assistance to small farmers across the world.

But regional systems will work only if there is enough small-scale farming going on to make them viable. With a less energy-intensive food system in place, we will need more muscle power devoted to food production, and more people on the farm. (The need is especially urgent when you consider that the average age of today’s American farmer is over 55.) In order to move gracefully into a post-industrial agriculture economy, we also need to rethink how we educate the people who will grow our food. Land-grant universities and agricultural schools, dependent on financing from agribusiness, focus on maximum extraction from the land — take more, sell more, waste more.

Leave our agricultural future to chefs and anyone who takes food and cooking seriously. We never bought into the “bigger is better” mantra, not because it left us too dependent on oil, but because it never produced anything really good to eat. Truly great cooking — not faddish 1.5-pound rib-eye steaks with butter sauce, but food that has evolved from the world’s thriving peasant cuisines — is based on the correspondence of good farming to a healthy environment and good nutrition. It’s never been any other way, and we should be grateful. The future belongs to the gourmet.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Friday, May 09, 2008

US Consumers Ranked Last in Making Green Choices

by Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
May 7, 2008

A new global survey reveals which country's citizens have the most environmentally friendly lifestyles by examining the impact of individual consumer behavior.

The National Geographic Society and the international polling firm GlobeScan today unveiled "Greendex 2008: Consumer Choice and the Environment—A Worldwide Tracking Survey."

"The Greendex gives us an unprecedented, meaningful look at how consumers across the globe are behaving," said Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president of mission programs.

Consumers in Brazil and India tied as most "green," while those in the United States scored lowest, or most wasteful.

To create the survey, GlobeScan conducted Internet surveys of consumers in 14 countries, which together represent more than half of the world's population and use about 75 percent of its energy.

Rather than measuring each nation's environmental impact, the Greendex compares the behaviors of individuals in four key areas: housing, transportation, food, and consumer goods.

Brazilians and Indians each scored 60 on the sustainable-consumption scale. Citizens of other nations scored as follows: China (56.1); Mexico (54.3); Hungary (53.2); Russia (52.4); Great Britain, Germany and Australia (each at 50.2); Spain (50); Japan (49.1); France (48.7); Canada (48.5); and the U.S. (44.9).

Face-to-face studies were conducted in Egypt and Nigeria, because limited Internet penetration there did not allow for a full representation of national demographics, according to the survey organizers. These countries were not scored because of the differing methodology.

Greendex scores were based on responses to questions about 65 sustainable-development variables. The variables were determined after consultation with input 27 independent environmental consultants.

Housing factors included dwelling size; energy use for heating, cooling, and appliances; and water needs. Brazilians topped this category because they typically have smaller homes, rarely use air conditioning or heating, and rely heavily on on-demand, tankless water-heating systems.

Transportation behaviors measured included ownership rates and average usage of motorized vehicles, length of daily commutes, and utilization of public transport. Chinese scored highest on transportation, because, at least for now, most rely on bicycles or walking and drive few motorized vehicles per capita.

The foods category polled consumers on their consumption of locally produced foods, as well as their relative consumption of bottled water, meat, and seafood—products that typically have high environmental impact. Indians had the greenest food habits because they consume little meat and eat many fruits and vegetables.

The goods category looked at the items that people typically buy, reuse, and discard—including both day-to-day purchases and larger items such as televisions. Consumer preference for environmentally friendly products and packaging, as well as overall levels of personal consumption, were also considered.

Greendex also surveyed environmental attitudes in each of the 14 nations. Though these results were not included in the scoring system, the survey found that the nations who displayed the most environmentally conscious attitudes also tended to score higher on the Greendex.

Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), welcomed the index results.

"It is certainly illuminating and perhaps overturns the common perception that it is only consumers in the rich countries who are environmentally aware and eco-active on the High Street and in their purchasing habits," he said.

The Greendex also found that people in developing nations felt more responsible for environmental problems and worried more about the impacts of global warming.

Lloyd Hetherington of GlobeScan explained that the new index measured both discretionary and essential consumption.

"Essential consumption is sometimes dictated by geography," he explained. "If you live in a very cold climate, you have to heat your house. The discretionary part is how you do that—what fuel you choose and how you decide where to set the thermostat."

One inescapable result of the Greendex survey is the discrepancy in scores between developing and industrialized nations.

"The biggest concern I have is that [it appears to be] a kind of inverse poverty scale. When you look at the map you can see that the poorest countries are ranked the best, and the richest are ranked the worst," said environmental consultant Michael Brower, co-author of the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The poorest people in the poorest countries would love to consume more."

Greendex authors acknowledged that consumers living in developing nations are more likely to live in small residences, use few electricity-driven appliances, make shorter commutes, and use human-powered and public transport—often out of necessity rather than choice.

Those in developed nations, on the other hand, have larger homes, use energy for heat and air-conditioning, and own and drive cars.

"The average consumer [in the developing world] has a lifestyle that is more environmentally sustainable," said National Geographic's Garcia. "But these same consumers express a desire for increased consumption and believe that people in all nations should have the opportunity to live the lifestyles of the wealthiest nations."

The Greendex's "Market Basket" component, which includes national macroeconomic indicators of consumption gathered by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research organization run by Economist magazine, also shows a very high correlation between Greendex scores and energy use per capita.

"Regardless of why consumers behave in an environmentally friendly way, because of their climate, income, or more conscious decisions, the fact is that on average consumers in developing countries have less environmental impact than the average consumers in industrialized countries," added Eric Whan of GlobeScan.

"And in this sense it doesn't really matter why they do."

The survey organizers say the results will serve as a baseline for future reports that will track changes in consumer environmental impact.

The low scores for many industrialized nations show that they have a lot of work to do on environmental attitudes, while the booming economies of the developing world provide serious concerns, the researchers say.

Growing nations like China and India are already undergoing serious lifestyle changes, including more cars, larger homes, increased heating and air conditioning, and shifts towards more resource-intensive diets.

The UN's Nuttall hopes the survey can help spur governments to develop in less wasteful and more environmentally conscious ways.

"Thus there is an urgent need to ensure that this economic growth does not echo the 20th century growth of North America, Europe, and Japan and that developing economies are given the technologies and the creative financing needed to avoid the mistakes of the past."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Connection Found Between Air Pollution and Baldness

by David Wilkes
Daily Mail
May 5, 2008

To the follicly-challenged who've tried gels, drugs and even a transplant with little joy, the research will come as a breath of fresh air.

A study suggests men living in polluted areas are more likely to go bald than those who enjoy a cleaner atmosphere.

The discovery raises the prospect that yet more treatments for the often confidence-sapping condition could be developed.

Academics at the University of London linked the onset of male pattern baldness to environmental factors, such as air pollution and smoking.

They believe toxins and carcinogens found in polluted air can stop hair growing by blocking mechanisms that produce the protein from which hair is made.

Baldness is known to be hereditary but the research suggests environmental factors could exacerbate hair loss.

Male-pattern baldness, which affects two-thirds of men, usually develops gradually, typically starting with the appearance of a bald spot in the crown and thinning of the temples.

Although it can strike at any time, many men first become aware of it as they approach their 30s.

The study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, involved removing hair follicles from balding men and then studying the samples in laboratories.

Mike Philpott, from the school of medicine at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "We think any pollutant that can get into the bloodstream or into the skin and into the hair follicle could cause some stress to it and impair the ability of the hair to make a fibre.

"There are a whole host of carcinogens and toxins in the environment that could trigger this.

"It suggests that if you stop smoking or live in an area with less air pollution, you may be less predisposed to hair loss.

"There is an inherited basis to hair loss, but we are have now identified environmental factors that are important too."

The research raises the hope that scientists may be able to develop treatments for balding men such as creams that are able to combat the effects of pollution on hair follicles.

The team plans to conduct further tests to pinpoint precise factors which may cause baldness, including trying to grow hair in different environments that are rich in nicotine and other pollutants found in air.

©2008 Associated Newspapers Ltd

Virgin Claims a Bit of Green, But Airlines Overwhelmingly Give Earth a Black Eye

by Jennifer Conlin
The New York Times
May 4, 2008

In February, on a chilly, clear Sunday morning, Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, along with the co-sponsors Boeing and GE Aviation, lured more than 200 journalists to a hangar at Heathrow Airport near London to witness what they said was airline history. Over flutes of Champagne and plates of mini-bagels filled with salmon, everyone’s eyes were fixed on a 747 as it took off on the world’s first biofuel demonstration flight.

Never mind that only one of the plane’s engines used biofuel, and that was about 25 percent mixed with standard kerosene jet fuel. It was still significant, given that air travel is the fastest-growing source of global greenhouse gases, and the race to find an alternative to kerosene is now crucial. The biofuel used — a combination of coconut and babassu (a Brazilian tree) oil, which Mr. Branson pretended to drink that day like an island cocktail from a coconut shell — worked in this very small test. But even its developers, Imperium Renewables, are aware it could never become a substitute for what John Plaza, president and chief executive of Imperium, another sponsor, says is the 87 billion gallons of fuel needed each year to fly the world’s airline fleet.

“This is just a first-generation product,” Mr. Plaza said. “But the test was meaningful in that it showed that a biofuel was viable with the infrastructure in a commercial jet.” Imperium created the fuel from oils harvested from existing plantations, but Mr. Plaza said he believed that algae was the fuel of the future. “You would only need the landmass of West Virginia,” he said, “to make enough fuel to replace aviation’s demand for kerosene.”

Still, the environmental group Friends of the Earth was quick to criticize the Virgin event as a public relations stunt, restating its view that carbon savings from biofuels are negligible, and the now well-publicized position that growing crops for alternative fuels cuts into the land available to grow food. “There is a finite amount of land for food,” said Kate Horner, a climate and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, “and using it for the expanded production of fuel is driving deforestation, which accounts for one-fourth to one-third of our global emissions.”

In recent weeks such arguments have gained credibility worldwide, threatening the very core of the biofuel movement. On April 11, in a Washington meeting of global finance ministers to address rising food costs, some ministers from poorer countries suggested the West rethink alternative fuel policies in light of a growing food shortage. On the same day, a European environmental advisory panel asked the European Union to consider scrapping its plan to have at least 10 percent of transportation fuel come from biofuels by the year 2020.

Mr. Plaza said the biofuel industry was receiving too much blame for the food crisis. “There are many factors, like drought, that are causing the problem,” he said. “And for those of us looking for funding to develop future biofuels that do not rely on feed stocks, it makes it very hard given all the negative press.”

Few in the transportation world dispute that solutions must be found. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, more than 2.2 billion people flew last year, and though commercial flights account for only 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently stated its concerns that aerosols in jet engine exhaust may be depleting the ozone at two to four times the rate of ground-level carbon dioxide. Add to that Boeing’s prediction that by 2025 the global fleet will have doubled to 36,000 planes, and the need to find answers seems unquestionable.

There is also a growing public awareness that could begin to affect the airline industry as a whole. A British survey last year showed that 54 percent of the British population felt guilty about flying — a figure that may have risen since, a British online travel site, began comparing flight emissions to domestic energy use to get people to carbon-offset their journeys. A round-trip flight to New York from London, for instance, is according to the site’s calculations the equivalent of leaving a TV and games console running for three years.

In a news statement from the second International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism, the United Nations World Tourism Organization said, “With transport as one of the most visible contributors to global warming, increased awareness regarding climate change might induce tourists to switch from long-haul to short-haul destinations.”

Indeed, carbon-offsetting companies like the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which sells Green Tags (certificates that finance wind and solar power projects) to replace traditional polluting sources of electricity, have seen a surge in business. “In the last three years we have seen a 100 percent year-to-year increase in individual’s carbon offsetting,” said Patrick Nye, vice president for sales.

To that end, Travelport, one of the world’s largest travel conglomerates (it owns 48 percent of Orbitz and operates in 145 countries), has just announced a new reporting tool, the Carbon Tracker.

According to Gordon Wilson, Travelport GDS’s chief executive, customers can find out carbon emissions data on flights (as well as car, bus and rail routes) so travel plans can be adjusted (for instance, a travel company may design a more carbon-friendly 10-day trip to Egypt for its clients).

Many government leaders and environmental groups would prefer to see more regulatory action taken, such as an international pact to stem global aircraft emissions. Last September a petition was filed with the United States Environmental Protection Agency asking it to address the effects of global warming from the world’s aircraft fleet.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company