Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Farm Boy Reflects on Compassion for Animals

by Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
July 31, 2008

In a world in which animal rights are gaining ground, barbecue season should make me feel guilty. My hunch is that in a century or two, our descendants will look back on our factory farms with uncomprehending revulsion. But in the meantime, I love a good burger.

This comes up because the most important election this November that you’ve never heard of is a referendum on animal rights in California, the vanguard state for social movements. Proposition 2 would ban factory farms from raising chickens, calves or hogs in small pens or cages.

Livestock rights are already enshrined in the law in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and here in Oregon, but California’s referendum would go further and would be a major gain for the animal rights movement. And it’s part of a broader trend. Burger King announced last year that it would give preference to suppliers that treat animals better, and when a hamburger empire expostulates tenderly about the living conditions of cattle, you know public attitudes are changing.

Harvard Law School now offers a course on animal rights. Spain’s Parliament has taken a first step in granting rights to apes, and Austrian activists are campaigning to have a chimpanzee declared a person. Among philosophers, a sophisticated literature of animals rights has emerged.

I’m a farm boy who grew up here in the hills outside Yamhill, Ore., raising sheep for my F.F.A. and 4-H projects. At various times, my family also raised modest numbers of pigs, cattle, goats, chickens and geese, although they were never tightly confined.

Our cattle, sheep, chickens and goats certainly had individual personalities, but not such interesting ones that it bothered me that they might end up in a stew. Pigs were more troubling because of their unforgettable characters and obvious intelligence. To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I’ve ever met. We raised Chinese white geese, a common breed, and they have distinctive personalities. They mate for life and adhere to family values that would shame most of those who dine on them.

While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food — and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up — but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.

Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.

We eventually grew so impressed with our geese — they had virtually become family friends — that we gave the remaining ones to a local park. (Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial thief took advantage of their friendliness by kidnapping them all — just before the next Thanksgiving.)

So, yes, I eat meat (even, hesitantly, goose). But I draw the line at animals being raised in cruel conditions. The law punishes teenage boys who tie up and abuse a stray cat. So why allow industrialists to run factory farms that keep pigs almost all their lives in tiny pens that are barely bigger than they are?

Defining what is cruel is, of course, extraordinarily difficult. But penning pigs or veal calves so tightly that they cannot turn around seems to cross that line.

More broadly, the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights, and the brutal conditions in which they are sometimes now raised will eventually be banned. Someday, vegetarianism may even be the norm.

Perhaps it seems like soggy sentimentality as well as hypocrisy to stand up for animal rights, particularly when I enjoy dining on these same animals. But my view was shaped by those days in the barn as a kid, scrambling after geese I gradually came to admire.

So I’ll enjoy the barbecues this summer, but I’ll also know that every hamburger patty has a back story, and that every tin of goose liver pâté could tell its own rich tale of love and loyalty.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Playground for Retired Tires?

by Catherine Zandonella
Green Guide
July 22, 2008

Recycled rubber is finding favor in playgrounds both because it does a good job of cushioning falls and because turning rubber into playground matting helps deal with the 290 million scrap tires generated nationwide. Although we ecologically minded types would very much like to find uses for those mounds of discarded tires, shoveling them into playgrounds is probably not the answer.

To prepare them for playground surfaces, manufacturers wash old tires, pulverize them, and use magnets to remove metals and contaminants. Then they mix the grains with a binding agent such as polyurethane and either pour the mixture directly into the playground or make it into tiles for later installation. They can also make rubber mulch (or "crumb"), which can be coated in outlandishly bright colors and is commonly spied at playgrounds headed for a toddler's open mouth.

But those ground-up tires release 49 different chemicals, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which get released when surfaces are exposed to light and heat and as they age; heavy metals, such as zinc, lead, cadmium, chromium and arsenic; and tiny bits of latex-containing tire dust small enough to lodge in the lungs. Of those 49 chemicals, seven are carcinogens.

The OEHHA surveyed all the available safety studies on these surfaces and estimated that an average three-year old who ingests a fistful (10 grams) of tire crumb would likely suffer no more than an upset tummy from ingesting too much zinc. However, several other environmental health organizations have raised concerns about the multitude of chemicals that kids inhale playing so close to the ground. The California survey didn't look at health problems posed by inhaling all those 49 chemicals, and there is evidence that new rubber surfaces, at least, can emit VOCs at unhealthy levels for up to two years.

As for their safety benefits, crumb rubber has been found to protect against falls better than wood mulch, but about two-thirds of the playgrounds sampled by the OEHHA had at least one piece of equipment without a rubber surface underneath thick enough to protect kids from falls.

When you factor in possible ecological contamination, the mats get even less appealing. Laboratory studies have found that concentrated leachate from shredded tires poses dangers to fish, frogs, plants and other aquatic life.

The recycled-rubber mats should be less of a health risk than shredded crumb given that the bonded solid mat is less likely to contain small particles that can be ingested or inhaled, but given the uncertainty surrounding the health risks of these materials, it's better to stick with pesticide-free wood chips and mulch, which don't offgas chemicals, trigger asthma, or kill fish. Just be sure the wood chips and mulch are properly installed and replenished frequently enough to offer proper protection against falls.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pesticide in Soap, Toothpaste, and Breast Milk

by Rebecca Sutton, Olga Naidenko, Natalia Chwialkowski, and Jane Houlihan
Environmental Working Group (EWG)
July 2008

With no assessment of health risks to infants, federal regulators have approved a hormone-disrupting pesticide, triclosan, for use in 140 different types of consumer products including liquid hand soap, toothpaste, undergarments and children's toys. This exposure has been allowed despite the fact that the chemical ends up in mothers' breast milk and poses potential toxicity to fetal and childhood development.

In addition to these risks, Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds no evidence that triclosan's widespread use in liquid hand soap and other products gives consumers the germ-killing benefits they are promised. The American Medical Association, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee, and dozens of academic researchers have determined that antimicrobial soap does not work any better than plain soap and water at preventing the spread of infections or reducing bacteria on the skin.

As required by law, the Environmental Protection Agency is now reviewing health and safety data for triclosan. This is a critical process that could lead to the stringent health and environmental protections needed to reduce exposure to this toxic antimicrobial agent. However, EPA's draft risk assessment of triclosan gives cause for concern: Plagued with data gaps and inconsistencies, the assessment was crafted to support the status quo.

EPA has approved triclosan for use in 20 pesticide formulations applied to consumer products from credit cards and countertops to baby bibs and blankets. In a callous and unjustified abuse of federal pesticide law, EPA failed to consider the safety of babies' and children's exposure to triclosan in breast milk, mattresses, sleepers, blankets, bibs, toys, house dust, diaper cream, and other potential sources when approving these uses.

Triclosan persists in the environment, breaks down into substances highly toxic to wildlife, pollutes the human body, and poses health risks that are barely studied and poorly understood. Because triclosan has been proven ineffective, and EPA has failed to assess its safety for children, we recommend:

* A ban on triclosan in personal care products and any other products used at home, in line with the conclusion of the American Medical Association that common antimicrobials for which resistance has been demonstrated should "be discontinued in consumer products unless data emerge that conclusively show that such resistance has no effect on public health and that such products are effective at preventing infection."
* For remaining non-consumer uses, EPA must fully assess the safety of triclosan and its breakdown products for the fetus, infant, child, and other vulnerable populations.
* Consumers should avoid the use of triclosan-laden products whenever possible.
* Manufacturers should curtail their use of this toxic, persistent chemical in consumer products, voluntarily in advance of mandatory restrictions.

Print full report here.

Copyright Environmental Working Group

Selling the Colombia Trade Pact

by Janine Jackson
FAIR Extra!
July/August 2008 issue

In an April 10 editorial headlined “Drop Dead, Colombia,” the Washington Post excoriated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding up passage of a proposed trade promotion deal with Colombia. With the hyperbole the paper seems to reserve for this issue, the Post declared, “The year 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade.”

Refusing to wave the deal through without challenge is an error of historic proportion, the Post declared, because “economically, it should be a no-brainer—especially at a time of rising U.S. joblessness.” Perhaps more significantly, the deal deserves support as “a reward to a friendly, democratic government that has made tremendous strides on human rights, despite harassment from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.”

The Post thus hit on the key points that seemed to recur in corporate media editorials on the Colombia trade pact: that the deal will indisputably create U.S. jobs while also being good for Colombia—which is doing just fine on human rights—as well as having the added benefit of being an affront to favored media target Chávez (Extra!, 11–12/06).

It might be hard to understand how any deal with an economy the size of Colombia’s—which is about 1/36th as big as the U.S.’s—could really create jobs in the U.S. on any appreciable scale, much less how turning one down would be “damaging the U.S. economy” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08). But such grandiose promotional claims dominate discussion of trade deals in elite media outlets, along with often vitriolic dismissals of anyone who raises concerns.

So the Colombia deal, eliminating most tariffs on U.S. exports to the country, would be a “win/win for the United States” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08), “good for all Americans” (Orlando Sentinel, 5/12/08) and “produce clear benefits for American businesses and their workers” (New York Times, 4/12/08). Memorably, for the Las Vegas Review-Journal (4/9/08), “This is about feeding the world, and getting paid for it.”

The deal’s opponents are “Democrats [who] pander to Big Labor, flirt with return to protectionism” (USA Today, 4/9/08) and “spit NAFTA out of their mouths as if the acronym were a synonym for the Antichrist” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/8/08). Their concerns amount to “anti-trade fervor” (Washington Post, 4/8/08) and betray their “intellectual poverty” (Washington Post, 4/20/08).

Perspectives that would complicate that picture are disappeared; in this case, that includes Colombians, many of whom have serious concerns about the deal. In 2006, a group of local Afro-Colombian groups, largely subsistence farmers, sent a letter to the U.S. Congress declaring what the deal meant to them: “Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.” AFRODES, an organization representing such groups, asserts they were not even consulted in pact negotiations, in violation of Colombian law (CounterPunch, 5/3/08).

Key to elite editorializing on the Colombia deal is the presumption that NAFTA (on which subsequent regional deals have been modeled) has been an unequivocal success. “There is no compelling reason to reopen NAFTA, or to think that the United States could do any better on second effort,” USA Today declared flatly (4/9/08), while the Washington Post (4/8/08) demanded of Senators Obama and Clinton, who were critical of the Colombia deal, “Are they each unaware of the real statistics on NAFTA’s effects?” No need to cite any of those statistics; by questioning the wondrous glory that is NAFTA, the candidates proved themselves either “misguided” or “insincere.”

Economists, as opposed to editorial writers, don’t see things that way. Even a generally positive report from the Council on Foreign Relations (“NAFTA’s Economic Impact,” 3/21/08) begins by acknowledging, “It is difficult to quantify NAFTA’s effect very precisely, given the complexities involved in assigning direct causality between NAFTA’s implementation and economic shifts.”

The obvious truth is that trade deals affect different people differently, making claims that they are “good for all Americans” specious on their face. An inclusive assessment would note that if it is true that the U.S. GDP has grown slightly, it is also true that the benefits of those gains have gone overwhelmingly to corporate profits, with (particularly non-college-educated) workers’ share of productivity gains actually declining. Whether you see that as acceptable or not depends entirely on your perspective; overwhelming majorities of Americans have said they do not. When the Washington Post declares the Colombia deal to be “manifestly in America’s interest” (4/10/08), the question being avoided is: Whose America?

But corporate media editorialists can’t afford too clear-eyed an assessment of NAFTA’s record, lest they be forced to acknowledge that their own confident claims about the pact, such as the Washington Post’s promise (5/11/93) that it would “create twice as many jobs in this country as it will threaten,” have proved wildly off-base.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nissan Brings Back the Electric Car

by Nick Bunkley
The New York Times
July 23, 2008

The electric cars that Nissan Motor plans to start selling by 2010 will have varying capabilities depending on a given country’s driving patterns, but all will be priced competitively and will generate profits, company executives said Tuesday.

Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, said that any electric car the company sold in the United States would need a range of at least 100 miles between charges to be practical, but that European drivers could make do with about half that range. Tolerance for the time it takes to recharge such a car may vary widely as well, he said.

One aspect that Mr. Ghosn said would remain constant, however, is that the cars would produce zero tailpipe emissions, unlike some vehicles being developed by rivals that have range-extending gasoline engines to power the car after its battery is depleted. Building cars powered by alternative fuels but that still use oil is “unsustainable,” he said.

“I want a pure electric car. I don’t want a range extender. I don’t want another hybrid,” Mr. Ghosn told reporters after a ceremony to dedicate Nissan’s new North American headquarters in Franklin, an affluent suburb in the hills south of Nashville. “It’s not going to be zero emissions in certain conditions. It’s going to be zero emissions.”

In May, Mr. Ghosn asserted that Nissan would, within two years, become the first automaker to sell a mass-market, zero-emission vehicle in the United States. The company plans to sell such cars globally by 2012.

But Nissan does not intend to reach those milestones merely for show, said Dominique Thormann, its senior vice president for finance in North America. In an interview, Mr. Thormann said Nissan would not sell the cars unless it could make a profit immediately, at an affordable price.

“Everything that we develop, we develop for profits,” he said. “We make money on all our cars. We do not have loss leaders.”

To help in its development of electric cars, Nissan said Tuesday that it would work with the state of Tennessee and its largest electric utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, to study and perhaps install infrastructure like charging stations. The automaker has begun similar efforts in Denmark, Israel and Portugal, but the United States presents a far greater opportunity for Nissan to market electric cars.

Separately, General Motors said Tuesday that it was working with the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, which represents more than 30 large electric utilities in North America, to encourage development of electric vehicles. G.M. is developing the Chevrolet Volt, also for introduction in 2010, which can go 40 miles on battery power before switching to its gas-powered engine.

Nissan is opening its 450,000-square-foot headquarters here in Franklin two years after it pulled up stakes in Southern California for temporary quarters in downtown Nashville. And overseas automakers in the South, particularly in Tennessee, are growing rapidly. Last week, Volkswagen of Germany selected Chattanooga as the site of its first United States car plant.

Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai also have factories in the region. Meanwhile, the Detroit automakers have been laying off thousands of workers and closing plants across the Midwest and other parts of the country.

“The arrival of the auto industry in Tennessee has transformed our lives,” Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, told Nissan employees during the dedication ceremony, which was followed by country music, tours of the energy-efficient building and a pie-baking contest. “You put the South on a path to become the new center of the American auto industry.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New York’s Gas Rush Poses Environmental Threat

by Abrahm Lustgarten
Pro Publica
July 22, 2008

On May 29 New York state's top environmental officials assured state lawmakers that plans to drill for natural gas near the watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water posed little danger.

A survey of other states had found "not one instance of drinking water contamination" from the water-intensive, horizontal drilling that would take place across New York's southern tier, the officials told lawmakers in Albany.

Reassured, the legislature quickly approved a bill to speed up the permitting process for a huge influx of wells that could bring the state upwards of $1 billion in annual revenue. Gov. David Paterson has until Wednesday to decide whether he will sign the bill, and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, says drilling permits could be approved in as little as 12 weeks.

But a joint investigation by ProPublica and New York City public radio station WNYC found that this type of drilling has caused significant environmental harm in other states and could affect the watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water.

In New Mexico, oil and gas drilling that uses waste pits comparable to those planned for New York has already caused toxic chemicals to leach into the water table at some 800 sites. Colorado has reported more than 300 spills affecting its ground water.

DEC officials told ProPublica and WNYC they were not aware of those incidents, even though some of the information could have been found through a rudimentary Internet search. The officials couldn't say for sure how New York would dispose of the millions of gallons of hazardous fluids that are byproducts of this type of drilling, and they learned only recently that the new drilling techniques would pump trace amounts of toxic chemicals into the ground. Four days after one interview, the DEC drafted a letter to the drilling companies, asking for detailed information about the type and amount of chemicals they will use.

With energy prices at record highs -- natural gas prices are twice what they were in January -- difficult-to-reach deposits of oil and gas in the United States are becoming commercially viable. At least nine companies have been locking up leases in New York, Pennsylvania and Appalachian states for drilling rights to the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock layer that dives 7,000 to 9,000 feet beneath the earth's surface. Some geologists predict it could meet the entire nation's natural gas needs for more than two years.

But the extraction of natural resources from sensitive areas creates new problems for individual states, which bear the primary responsibility for protecting their environments. Some have created, or are in the process of creating, new regulations. Others, like New York, are just coming to grips with the potential impact of the drilling boom that may be headed their way.

New York's existing laws have served it well for the most part. Since 1963 the state has permitted more than 13,000 gas wells with few problems.

"When we say we are going to protect the environment, you don't have to trust us, you don't have to believe us," said Val Washington, deputy commissioner of remediation and materials management. "But look at our track record. I think it's pretty good."

However, the Marcellus development will be far more complicated than any previous drilling operations in the state. It will involve deeper, horizontal wells, possibly thousands of them. Each could suck up, and later spit out between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water -- hundreds of times the amount used by a conventional well. That would place a significant burden on New York's watersheds, including those that feed New York City's reservoirs and farmland in Chemung, Tioga, Broome, Delaware and Sullivan Counties.

Some of the regional DEC offices that would oversee the Marcellus wells have no experience with gas drilling at all. Yet New York officials said they see little reason to update their generic 1992 environmental impact statement, which was drafted long before this form of drilling, called horizontal hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, was feasible on such a large scale.

"There is a little bit of learning curve...and that is where the concern falls," said William Kappel, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Ithaca, N.Y. "The tremendous amounts of water used for these processes -- where are you going to get it and what are you going to do with that?"

DEC officials could not answer those questions. They also acknowledge that they don't track the process drillers use to dispose of "produced water," as the gas and oil industry refers to its waste.

Read more here:

© Copyright 2008 Pro Publica Inc.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Posturing and Abdication

by The New York Times
July 13, 2008

The Bush administration made clear on Friday that it will do virtually nothing to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. With no shame and no apology, it stuck a thumb in the eye of the Supreme Court, repudiated its own scientists and exposed the hollowness of Mr. Bush’s claims to have seen the light on climate change.

That is the import of an announcement by Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, that the E.P.A. will continue to delay a decision on whether global warming threatens human health and welfare and requires regulations to address it. Mr. Johnson said his agency would seek further public comment on the matter, a process that will almost certainly stretch beyond the end of Mr. Bush’s term.

The urgent problem of global warming demands urgent action. And the Supreme Court surely expected a speedier response when — 15 months ago — it ordered the E.P.A. to determine whether greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles (and, by extension, other sources) endangers human welfare and, if so, to issue regulations to limit emissions.

Mr. Bush initially promised to comply, and last December, a task force of agency scientists concluded that emissions do indeed endanger public welfare, that the E.P.A. is required to issue regulations, and that while remedial action could cost industry billions of dollars, the public welfare and the economy as a whole will benefit.

The agency sent its findings to the White House. The details of what happened next are not clear. But investigations by Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Edward Markey have established that the White House, prodded by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, decided to ignore the findings — refusing at first to even open the e-mail containing them and then asking Mr. Johnson to devise another response that would relieve the administration of taking prompt action.

Along the way, the administration engaged in what Senator Boxer has aptly called a “master plan” to ensure that the E.P.A.’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision would be as weak as possible.

This campaign of obfuscation and intimidation included doctoring Congressional testimony on the health effects of climate change; ordering the E.P.A. to recompute its numbers to minimize the economic benefits of curbing carbon dioxide; and promoting the fiction that the modest fuel-economy improvements in last year’s energy bill would solve the problem of carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.

All this is unfortunate but not surprising. Mr. Bush spent years denying there was a climate change problem. And while he no longer denies the science, he still insists on putting the concerns of industry over the needs of the planet.

We were skeptical last week when Mr. Bush joined other world leaders in a pledge to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. We worried that without nearer-term targets there would be too little pressure on governments to act. Now we have no doubt that he was merely posturing. The next president, armed with the E.P.A.’s findings, can and must do better.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pull-out Demand Signals Final Bush Defeat in Iraq

by Gareth Porter
Inter Press Service
July 10, 2008

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a timetable for complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, confirmed Tuesday by his national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, has signaled the almost certain defeat of the George W. Bush administration's aim of establishing a long-term military presence in the country.

The official Iraqi demand for U.S. withdrawal confirms what was becoming increasingly clear in recent months -- that the Iraqi regime has decided to shed its military dependence on the United States.

The two strongly pro-Iranian Shiite factions supporting the regime in Baghdad, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and al-Maliki's own Dawa Party, were under strong pressure from both Iran and their own Shiite population and from Shiite clerics, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to demand U.S. withdrawal.

The statement by al-Rubaei came immediately after he had met with Sistani, thus confirming earlier reports that Sistani was opposed to any continuing U.S. military presence.

The Bush administration has had doubts in the past about the loyalties of those two Shiite groups and of the SIIC's Badr Corps paramilitary organisation, and it manoeuvred in 2005 and early 2006 to try to weaken their grip on the interior ministry and the police.

By 2007, however, the administration hoped that it had forged a new level of cooperation with al-Maliki aimed at weakening their common enemy, Moqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation Mahdi Army. SIIC leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was invited to the White House in December 2006 and met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November 2007.

The degree of cooperation with the al-Maliki regime against the Sadrists was so close that the Bush administration even accepted for a brief period in late 2007 the al-Maliki regime's argument that Iran was restraining the Mahdi Army by pressing Sadr to issue his August 2007 ceasefire order.

In November, Bush and al-Maliki agreed on a set of principles as the basis for negotiating agreements on stationing of U.S. forces and bilateral cooperation, including a U.S. guarantee of Iraq's security and territorial integrity. In February 2008, U.S. and Iraqi military planners were already preparing for a U.S.-British-Iraqi military operation later in the summer to squeeze the Sadrists out of Basra.

But after the U.S. draft agreement of Mar. 7 was given to the Iraqi government, the attitude of the al-Maliki government toward the U.S. military presence began to shift dramatically, just as Iran was playing a more overt role in brokering ceasefire agreements between the two warring Shiite factions.

The first indication was al-Maliki's refusal to go along with the Basra plan and his sudden decision to take over Basra immediately without U.S. troops. Petraeus later said a company of U.S. army troops was attached to some units as advisers 'just really because we were having a problem figuring where was the front line.'

That al-Maliki decision was followed by an Iranian political mediation of the intra-Shiite fighting in Basra, at the request of a delegation from the two pro-government parties. The result was that Sadr's forces gave up control of the city, even though they were far from having been defeated.

U.S. military officials were privately disgruntled at that development, which effectively cancelled the plan for a much bigger operation against the Sadrists during the summer. Weeks later, a U.S. 'defence official' would tell the New York Times, 'We may have wasted an opportunity in Basra to kill those that needed to be killed.'

In another sign of the shifting Iraqi position away from Washington, in early May, al-Maliki refused to cooperate with a Cheney-Petraeus scheme to embarrass Iran by having the Iraqi government publicly accuse it of arming anti-government Shiites in the South. The prime minister angered U.S. officials by naming a committee to investigate U.S. charges.

Even worse for the Bush administration, a delegation of Shiite officials to Tehran that was supposed to confront Iran over the arms issue instead returned with a new Iranian strategy for dealing with Sadr, according to Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times: reach a negotiated settlement with him.

The al-Maliki regime began to apply the new Iranian strategy immediately. On May 10, al-Maliki and Sadr reached an accord on Sadr City, where pitched battles were being fought between U.S. troops and the Sadrists.

The new accord prevented a major U.S. escalation of violence against the Mahdi Army stronghold and ended heavy U.S. bombing there. Seven U.S. battalions had been poised to assault Sadr City with tanks and armoured cars in a battle expected to last several weeks.

Under the new pact, Sadr allowed Iraqi troops to patrol in his stronghold, in return for the government's agreement not to arrest any Sadrist troops unless they were found with 'medium and heavy weaponry'.

The new determination to keep U.S. forces out of the intra-Shiite conflict was accompanied by a new tough line in the negotiations with the Bush administration on status of forces and cooperation agreements. In a May 21 briefing for Senate staff, Bush administration officials said Iraq was now demanding 'significant changes to the form of the agreements'.

The al-Maliki regime was rejecting the U.S. demand for access to bases with no time limit as well as for complete freedom to use them without consultation with the Iraqi government, as well as its demand for immunity for its troops and contractors. The Iraqis were asserting that these demands violated Iraqi sovereignty. By early June, Iraqi officials were openly questioning for the first time whether Iraq needs a U.S. military presence at all.

The unexpected Iraqi resistance to the U.S. demands reflected the underlying influence of Iran on the al-Maliki government as well as Sadr's recognition that he could achieve his goal of liberating Iraq from U.S. occupation through political-diplomatic means rather than through military pressures.

Iran put very strong pressure on Iraq to reject the agreement, as soon as it saw the initial U.S. draft. It could cite the fact that the draft would allow the United States to use Iraqi bases to attack Iran, which was known to be a red line in Iran-Iraq relations.

The Iranians could argue that an Iraqi Shiite regime could not depend on the United States, which was committed to a strategy of alliance with Sunni regimes in the region against the Shiite regimes.

Iran was able to exploit a deep vein of Iraqi Shiite suspicion that the U.S. might still try to overthrow the Shiite regime, using former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and some figures in the Iraqi Army. When the U.S. draft dropped an earlier U.S. commitment to defend Iraq against external aggression and pledged only to 'consult' in the event of an external threat, Iran certainly exploited the opening to push al-Maliki to reject the agreement.

The use of military bases in Iraq to project U.S. power into the region to carry out regime change in Iran and elsewhere had been an essential part of the neoconservative plan for invading Iraq from the beginning.

The Bush administration raised the objective of a long-term military presence in Iraq based on the 'Korea model' last year at the height of the U.S. celebration of the pacification of the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, which it viewed as sealing its victory in the war.

But the Iraqi demand for withdrawal makes it clear that the Bush administration was not really in control of events in Iraq, and that Shiite political opposition and Iranian diplomacy could trump U.S. military power.

Copyright © 2008 IPS North America

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Finding Alternatives to Melamine Dishware

by Alexandra Zissu
The Green Guide
July 1, 2008

Now that the bisphenol A used to make polycarbonate baby bottles has become such a health concern, parents of the bottle-feeding set are tossing out their colorful, durable plastic bottles in favor of glass and safer plastics. But what about the solid-food eaters and those cute and colorful, practically indestructible plastic dishes off of which they love to eat?

Aside from sippy cups, most kidware isn't made of polycarbonate but of durable, colorful melamine. Melamine is a questionable choice for food because it's made with formaldehyde, which has been linked to allergies, asthma and cancer. There's no evidence that formaldehyde leaches out of melamine every single time it's used, but some studies, including one by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, have shown that the chemical can migrate out of melamine and into food under certain circumstances, such as heat and when serving highly acidic foods.

Parents who continue to be devoted to plastic can find plates, cups, spoons and forks made from the better plastics (those labeled #2, #4 or #5). Unfortunately, plastics aren't always labeled, so it can take considerable work finding which type is in your child's favorite Dora the Explorer plate. One resource is The Soft Landing, a web site run by a mom/former RN who spends a tremendous amount of time emailing manufacturers to find out what plastics their products are made of. Regardless of type, it's a good idea to hand-wash all plastics, since abrasive, powdered detergents can cause them to deteriorate.

Another option, especially if a houseful of kids makes hand-washing next to impossible, is to do what I did and do: Avoid plastic altogether. My daughter eats from our own lead-free ceramic dishes. She also eats from small stainless-steel prep bowls purchased at a kitchen supply store, and even the occasional glass bowl. I know some moms and dads worry about shattering glass, but she's never broken one, despite the fact that the floor under our dining table is poured concrete (inherited from someone else's renovation). It probably helped that we have firmly explained to her over and over and over that she may not toss the things.

Unfortunately toxic chemical concerns don't stop at bowls and plates. For bibs as well as other kiddie dining items that contain too-high levels of questionable materials, log on to It's a great place to visit before shopping to learn if your desired spoon with "color change tips" (or something equally extraneous) contains lead-tainted polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or other undesirables. To avoid this sort of thing entirely, go with stainless steel cocktail spoons and forks, the perfect size for wee mouths. These are widely available, especially at kitchen supply stores. Many moms I know also use Bambu's bamboo utensils. Parents who miss the cute characters that come on plastic plates can make up for it with bibs, placemats and splashguards. Check out Mimi the Sardine, a brand of PVC-free Oeko-Tex-certified acrylic-coated cotton bibs that are as chemical-free as they are cute and colorful.

The Mimi goods are our concession to adorable dining presentation, used with sweet and subtly patterned kids' enamelware sets from Golden Rabbit (pictured above). There's some concern about lead and cadmium when it comes to enamelware in general, but Golden Rabbit happens to be manufactured by family friend and father of two, Tom Mansfield. He says all his products are free of both, "and FDA tested every time a shipment is brought into this country, so it's food safe and everything safe." Like glass, ceramic and stainless steel—and unlike certain plastics—it goes safely on the top or bottom rack of the dishwasher, worry-free.

Now that you know what's safe to serve on—and why—let the messes begin.

For sippy cups made from safer materials, see our Baby Bottles Buying Guide.
Stainless steel prep bowls:
Stainless steel cocktail forks and spoons:
Mimi the Sardine bibs and mats:
Golden Rabbit enamelware:
Mini glass bowls:

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society

Friday, July 04, 2008

Each of Us Has the Power to Make a Difference

by Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
July 3, 2008

This year’s college graduates owe their success to many factors, from hectoring parents to cherished remedies for hangovers. But one of the most remarkable of the new graduates, Beatrice Biira, credits something utterly improbable: a goat.

“I am one of the luckiest girls in the world,” Beatrice declared at her graduation party after earning her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College. Indeed, and it’s appropriate that the goat that changed her life was named Luck.

Beatrice’s story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”

The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school.

The years passed and Beatrice stayed home to help with the chores. She was on track to become one more illiterate African woman, another of the continent’s squandered human resources.

In the meantime, in Niantic, Conn., the children of the Niantic Community Church wanted to donate money for a good cause. They decided to buy goats for African villagers through Heifer International, a venerable aid group based in Arkansas that helps impoverished farming families.

A dairy goat in Heifer’s online gift catalog costs $120; a flock of chicks or ducklings costs just $20.

One of the goats bought by the Niantic church went to Beatrice’s parents and soon produced twins. When the kid goats were weaned, the children drank the goat’s milk for a nutritional boost and sold the surplus milk for extra money.

The cash from the milk accumulated, and Beatrice’s parents decided that they could now afford to send their daughter to school. She was much older than the other first graders, but she was so overjoyed that she studied diligently and rose to be the best student in the school.

An American visiting the school was impressed and wrote a children’s book, “Beatrice’s Goat,” about how the gift of a goat had enabled a bright girl to go to school. The book was published in 2000 and became a children’s best seller — but there is now room for a more remarkable sequel.

Beatrice was such an outstanding student that she won a scholarship, not only to Uganda’s best girls’ high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer International — coordinated by a retired staff member named Rosalee Sinn, who fell in love with Beatrice when she saw her at age 10 — financed the girl’s living expenses.

A few years ago, Beatrice spoke at a Heifer event attended by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist. Mr. Sachs was impressed and devised what he jokingly called the “Beatrice Theorem” of development economics: small inputs can lead to large outcomes.

Granted, foreign assistance doesn’t always work and is much harder than it looks. “I won’t lie to you. Corruption is high in Uganda,” Beatrice acknowledges.

A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Or Beatrice’s goat might have died or been stolen. Or unpasteurized milk might have sickened or killed Beatrice.

In short, millions of things could go wrong. But when there’s a good model in place, they often go right. That’s why villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.

Moreover, Africa will soon have a new asset: a well-trained professional to improve governance. Beatrice plans to earn a master’s degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group.

Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively, partly because she has seen in her own village how cash is always controlled by men. Sometimes they spent it partying with buddies at a bar, rather than educating their children. Changing that culture won’t be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done.

When people ask how they can help in the fight against poverty, there are a thousand good answers, from sponsoring a child to supporting a grass-roots organization through (I’ve listed specific suggestions on my blog,, and on

The challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, far beyond anyone’s power to resolve, and buying a farm animal for a poor family won’t solve them. But Beatrice’s giddy happiness these days is still a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference — to transform a girl’s life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog,, and join me on Facebook at

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

'The Bob Edwards Show' Wins Edward R. Murrow Award for Documentary on Homeless Children

PR Newswire
July 1, 2008

The Radio and Television News Directors' Association (RTNDA) has named "The Bob Edwards Show" as the 2008 recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for News Documentary (Radio Network), it was announced today. Given in recognition of the original XM show's critically-acclaimed radio documentary The Invisible: Children Without Homes, this marks the first time that a satellite radio broadcaster has received a Murrow Award, which have been honoring outstanding achievements in electronic journalism since 1971. Bob Edwards previously received a Murrow Award during his tenure with National Public Radio (NPR) for his "outstanding contributions to public radio." The 2008 Edward R. Murrow Awards will be presented on October 13 at the RTNDA's formal awards gala in New York.

"All of us at XM are proud of the tireless dedication put forth by the 'The Bob Edwards Show' staff. They are committed to providing listeners with thought-provoking journalism on a wide range of interests and issues facing people from all walks of life, making this first Edward R. Murrow Award for 'The Bob Edwards Show' and satellite radio well-deserved," said Eric Logan, executive vice president of programming for XM.

Bob Edwards and producer Ariana Pekary spent hours interviewing homeless men, women, teens and children -- at shelters, group homes, and on city sidewalks to report their stories. These families told of the financial hardship and violence -- verbal, physical, and sexual -- that forced them on to the streets, creating even more difficult and dangerous situations.

In addition to the Murrow Award, The Invisible: Children Without Homes has already been recognized with several other awards, including the United Nations Department of Public Information Gold Award, New York Festivals Award, Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, Harry Chapin Media Award, Livingston Award, and National Network for Youth Champions of Runaway and Homeless Youth Award.

A special encore presentation of the award-winning radio documentary will air on Friday, July 4 at 8 a.m. ET on XM Public Radio (XM 133). More information about "The Bob Edwards Show" is available online at and

Copyright © 2008 PR Newswire Association LLC.

Blogger's note: I considered Morning Edition to be the heart and soul of National Public Radio until Bob Edwards was let go by NPR. I haven't listened to Morning Edition since. Bob Edwards is still going strong.