Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Supreme Court Cuts Damages Award in Valdez Case

So essentially Exxon is rewarded for not paying up for nearly 20 years. Their waiting until an oil president and an oil court were in charge worked.

Exxon's profits for 2007 were $40 billion. It's not like they couldn't have afforded it. Not much consequence in fining companies so little that they don't have to notice it.

From the New York Times

The Supreme Court on Wednesday slashed the $2.5 billion punitive damages award in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to $500 million.

The court ruled that victims of the worst oil spill in U.S. history may collect punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp., but not as much as a federal appeals court determined.

Justice David Souter wrote for the court that punitive damages may not exceed what the company already paid to compensate victims for economic losses, about $500 million compensation.

Souter said a penalty should be ''reasonably predictable'' in its severity.

Exxon asked the high court to reject the punitive damages judgment, saying it already has spent $3.4 billion in response to the accident that fouled 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline.

A jury decided Exxon should pay $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut that verdict in half in 1994.

The Supreme Court divided on its decision, 5-3, with Justice Samuel Alito taking no part in the case because he owns Exxon stock.

Exxon has fought vigorously to reduce or erase the punitive damages verdict by a jury in Alaska four years ago for the accident that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The environmental disaster led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

Nearly 33,000 Alaskans are in line to share in the award, about $15,000 a person. They would have collected $75,000 each under the $2.5 billion judgment...

A jury decided that the company should pay $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut that verdict in half.

The problem for the people, businesses and governments who waged the lengthy legal fight against Exxon is that the Supreme Court in recent years has become more receptive to limiting punitive damages awards. The Exxon Valdez case differs from the others in that it involves issues peculiar to laws governing accidents on the water.

Overall, Exxon has paid $3.4 billion in fines, penalties, cleanup costs, claims and other expenses resulting from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The commercial fishermen, Native Alaskans, landowners, businesses and local governments involved in the lawsuit have each received about $15,000 so far ''for having their lives and livelihood destroyed and haven't received a dime of emotional-distress damages,'' their Supreme Court lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher, said when the court heard arguments in February.

"CEOs of fossil energy companies... should be tried for high crimes...

By Dr. James Hansen posted at ""

Today I testified to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my June 23, 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb....Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals...

My conclusions in 1988 were built on a wide range of inputs from basic physics, planetary studies, observations of on-going changes, and climate models. The evidence was strong enough that I could say it was time to "stop waffling." I was sure that time would bring the scientific community to a similar consensus, as it has.

While international recognition of global warming was swift, actions have faltered. The U.S. refused to place limits on its emissions, and developing countries such as China and India rapidly increased their emissions.

What is at stake? Warming so far, about two degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, seems almost innocuous, being less than day-to-day weather fluctuations. But more warming is already "in the pipeline," delayed only by the great inertia of the world ocean.

...The shocking conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world's leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million), and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Shocking corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.

These conclusions are based on paleoclimate data showing how the Earth responded to past levels of greenhouse gases and on observations showing how the world is responding to today's carbon dioxide amount. The consequences of continued increase of greenhouse gases extend far beyond extermination of species and future sea level rise.

Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa. Forest fires and drying-up of lakes will increase further unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed.

Mountain glaciers are the source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people. These glaciers are receding world-wide, in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains. They will disappear, leaving their rivers as trickles in late summer and fall, unless the growth of carbon dioxide is reversed.

Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home to one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide. Ocean life dependent on carbonate shells and skeletons is threatened by dissolution as the ocean becomes more acid.

Such phenomena, including the instability of Arctic sea ice and the great ice sheets at today's carbon dioxide amount, show that we have already gone too far.

....Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and "succeed" in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials.

Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet.

If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They provide continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy solution.

Moving from fossil fuels to clean energy is challenging, yet transformative in ways that will be welcomed. Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits. We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public.

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual's bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible....

The next president must make a national low-loss electric grid an imperative. It will allow dispersed renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels for power generation. Technology exists for direct-current high-voltage buried transmission lines. Trunk lines can be completed in less than a decade and expanded analogous to interstate highways.

Government must also change utility regulations so that profits do not depend on selling ever more energy, but instead increase with efficiency. Building code and vehicle efficiency requirements must be improved and put on a path toward carbon neutrality.

The fossil-industry maintains its stranglehold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success. If necessary, import duties on products from uncooperative countries can level the playing field, with the import tax added to the dividend pool.

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.

White House Refused to Open Email about Greenhouse Gas Pollutants

Hear no evil, see no evil, refuse to acknowledge their own evil, blind on purpose. Won't acknowledge the good that regulating motor vehicle emissions would do economically - presumably because it would hurt the oil industry ???!!! aarrrgghhhh!!!!!!!!

From the New York Times

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

The document, which ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status, was the E.P.A.’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment, the officials said.

This week, more than six months later, the E.P.A. is set to respond to that order by releasing a watered-down version of the original proposal that offers no conclusion. Instead, the document reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.

Over the past five days, the officials said, the White House successfully put pressure on the E.P.A. to eliminate large sections of the original analysis that supported regulation, including a finding that tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Both documents, as prepared by the E.P.A., “showed that the Clean Air Act can work for certain sectors of the economy, to reduce greenhouse gases,” one of the senior E.P.A. officials said. “That’s not what the administration wants to show. They want to show that the Clean Air Act can’t work.”

The Bush administration’s climate-change policies have been evolving over the past two years. It now accepts the work of government scientists studying global warming, such as last week’s review forecasting more drenching rains, parching droughts and intense hurricanes as global temperatures warm (

But no administration decisions have supported the regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act or other environmental laws...

The new document, a road map laying out the issues involved in regulation, is to be signed by Stephen L. Johnson, the agency’s administrator, and published as early as Wednesday.

The derailment of the original E.P.A. report was first made known in March by Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The refusal to open the e-mail has not been made public.

In early December, the E.P.A.’s draft finding that greenhouse gases endanger the environment used Energy Department data from 2007 to conclude that it would be cost effective to require the nation’s motor vehicle fleet to average 37.7 miles per gallon in 2018, according to government officials familiar with the document.

About 10 days after the finding was left unopened by officials at the Office of Management and Budget, Congress passed and President Bush signed a new energy bill mandating an increase in average fuel-economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The day the law was signed, the E.P.A. administrator rejected the unanimous recommendation of his staff and denied California a waiver needed to regulate vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases in the state, saying the new law’s approach was preferable and climate change required global, not regional, solutions.

California’s regulations would have imposed tougher standards...

White House pressure to ignore or edit the E.P.A.’s climate-change findings led to the resignation of one agency official earlier this month: Jason Burnett, the associate deputy administrator. Mr. Burnett, a political appointee with broad authority over climate-change regulations, said in an interview that he had resigned because “no more constructive work could be done” on the agency’s response to the Supreme Court.

He added, “The next administration will have to face what this one did not.”

...Simultaneously, Mr. Waxman’s committee is weighing its response to the White House’s refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents relating to the E.P.A.’s handling of recent climate-change and air-pollution decisions. The White House, which has turned over other material to the committee, last week asserted a claim of executive privilege over the remaining documents.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mediterranean Resorts Battling Jellyfish

Next week Cannes, the French town famous for its film festival, will erect booms and nets to try and protect bathers from the nasty, but rarely fatal, sting of the invaders.

Spanish authorities recently deployed a fleet of 40 fishing boats to catch the jellyfish, which despite their name are a kind of giant plankton, before they reach beaches on the popular Balearic Islands. Each boat is being paid about £480 pounds a day to protect swimmers from 'banks' of Pelagia noctiluca.

Last June, lifeguards in San Antonio, Ibiza, dealt with 152 cases of jellyfish stings. Josep-Maria Gili, research professor at Barcelona's Institute of Marine Sciences, predicts this summer will see another serious invasion.

"Conditions in recent years have been ideal - very mild and with little rain and with unusually warm sea temperatures," he said. "People have been really enjoying it, but these are perfect conditions for jellyfish."

Scientists believe the rise in jellyfish is proof of a radical, and possibly irreversible, change in the ecology of the Mediterranean. In the past, large plagues of jellyfish only appeared once every 10 or 12 years and stayed for about four years, but vast plagues of jellyfish have been in the area for the last eight years.

Some experts think the change is due to a rise in sea temperatures linked to global warming, while others blame overfishing of natural predators like bluefin tuna and turtles.

And some people (like me) figure that it's from both global warming and overfishing of predators...

Related article from June 13th:

"EU bluefin tuna fishing ban for Mediterranean"

"The New Trophy Home, Small and Ecological"

From the New York Times

For the high-profile crowd that turned out to celebrate a new home in Venice, Calif., the attraction wasn’t just the company and the architectural detail. The house boasted the builders’ equivalent of a three-star Michelin rating: a LEED platinum certificate.

The actors John Cusack and Pierce Brosnan, with his wife, Keely Shaye Smith, a journalist, came last fall to see a house that the builders promised would “emit no harmful gases into the atmosphere,” “produce its own energy” and incorporate recycled materials, from concrete to countertops.

Behind the scenes were Tom Schey, a homebuilder in Santa Monica, and his business partner, Kelly Meyer, an environmentalist whose husband, Ron, is the president of Universal Studios. Ms. Meyer said their goal was to show that something energy-conscious “doesn’t have to look as if you got it off the bottom shelf of a health-food store.”

“It doesn’t have to smell like hemp,” she said.

That was probably a good thing. The four-bedroom house was for sale, with a $2.8 million asking price.

Its rating was built into that price. LEED — an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the hot designer label, and platinum is the badge of honor — the top classification given by the U.S. Green Building Council. “There’s kind of a green pride, like driving a Prius,” said Brenden McEneaney, a green building adviser to the city of Santa Monica, adding, “It’s spreading all over the place.”

Devised eight years ago for the commercial arena, the ratings now cover many things, including schools and retail interiors. But homes are the new frontier.

While other ratings are widely recognized, like the federal Energy Star for appliances, the LEED brand stands apart because of its four-level rankings — certified, silver, gold and platinum — and third-party verification. So far this year, 10,250 new home projects have registered for the council’s consideration, compared with 3,100 in 2006, the first year of the pilot home-rating system. Custom-built homes dominate the first batch of certified dwellings. Today, dinner-party bragging rights are likely to include: “Let me tell you about my tankless hot water heater.” Or “what’s the R value of your insulation?”

But if a platinum ranking is a Prada label for some, for others, it is a prickly hair shirt. Try asking buyers used to conspicuous consumption (a 12,000-square-foot house) to embrace conspicuous nonconsumption (say, 2,400 square feet for a small family). Or to earn points by recycling and weighing all their construction debris (be warned: a bathroom scale probably won’t cut it). The imperatives of comfort and eco-friendliness are not always in sync...

And “LEED-accredited professional” is a new occupational status.

Worries about climate change and rising energy costs are part of the equation: roughly 21 percent of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions come from homes; nearly 40 percent come from residential and commercial structures combined. As energy prices rise, the long-range economic value and short-range social cachet of green building are converging...

One requirement for getting a home certified is hiring an on-site inspector approved by the council to test the new systems and help fill out the huge amount of paperwork, which is reviewed by the nonprofit council. The organization charges from $400 for a home to $22,500 for the largest buildings to register and certify costs.

Joel McKellar, a researcher with LS3P Associates, an architecture firm in Charleston, S.C., said that to earn credit for adequate natural light, “you have to calculate the area of the room, the area of the windows, how much visible transmittance of light there is.”

Michael Lehrer, who designed the platinum-rated Water + Life Museum complex in Hemet, outside Los Angeles, said, “They have mundane things in there that are pretty nonsensical and others things that are pretty profound.” He added, “At a time when everybody and their sister and brother are saying ‘We are green,’ it’s very important that these things be vetted in a credible way.”

To cope with the growing appetite for accreditation, the council this spring asked other agencies to help make LEED certifications. A new code, which addresses some of the criticisms, is at

Frances Anderton, a KCRW radio host and Los Angeles editor of Dwell magazine, longs for the day when LEED recognition is irrelevant. “Architects should be offering a green building service,” Ms. Anderton said, “without needing a badge of pride.”

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Oil Trading's Powerful "Dark Markets""

From CBS News

As gas prices skyrocket, attention has turned to public "pits," where brokers trade "oil futures" - the right to buy or sell crude oil at a specific price, on a future date.

But far away from the hue and cry, hundreds of millions of barrels of oil futures contracts are traded electronically every day, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports.

More than 30 percent, experts say, exchanged in so-called "dark markets," the exact size and scope unknown to U.S. regulators.

"If you can trade out of the sight of U.S. regulators, you can manipulate these markets," said Michael Greenberger, a former top staffer at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC, which regulates the trading of commodities like oil in this country.

He recently told Congress that speculation is placing a huge premium on the price of oil.

"How much per barrel?" Keteyian asked.

"Well, there have been various estimates - anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent," Greenberger said.

"People can actually corner the market and drive up the price," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "When there is no policeman on the beat, you know that crime can go up."

More and more fingers are pointing at one of the least-known but most powerful foreign exchanges - the InterContinental Exchange, or ICE.

By the end of 2007, the all-electronic exchange accounted for nearly a 50 percent market share of all global oil futures contracts, a total of 138.5 million contracts - up 49 percent from 2006.

Today it boasts more than 2,100 individual traders representing virtually all of the major players in oil - banks, hedge funds, energy companies, investment giants.

And according to a securities filing, two of those giants, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, were founding partners of ICE.

"The fact that they started this shows the intent of where they wanted to go," Greenberger said. "Which was to trade crude oil and energy products without any police in the United States supervising it."

That's because it's considered a foreign exchange. Taking advantage of a loophole created by the CFTC, the company says its "energy futures business" is conducted in London, it is not subject to U.S. laws. Over strong criticism, the CFTC agreed.

All this despite the fact ICE headquarters are on the fifth floor of a building in Atlanta, it's primary data center in Chicago, and nearly all its trades settled in U.S. dollars.

"It is a charade, and ... it defies explanation," Greenberger said.

In a statement, ICE CEO Jeffrey Sprecher told CBS News that ICE is committed to providing "the same visibility in our oil markets that exists for U.S. Exchanges," and that ICE Futures Europe is "fully regulated" by the British government.

But British financial authorities are notoriously lax.

Now Congress and others are asking just how much of the crude oil futures market is being manipulated by either excessive buying designed to drive up the price, or phony transactions that imply a supply problem that does not exist.

Today, under pressure, ICE finally agreed to impose stricter limits on certain trading, shedding some much needed light on the dark side of oil.

"Union of Concerned Scientists Position on Nuclear Power and Global Warming"

To address global warming, we need a profound transformation of the ways in which we generate and consume energy. The urgency of this situation demands that we be willing to consider all possible options for coping with climate change. In examining each option we must take into account its impact on public health, safety, and security, the time required for large scale deployment, and its costs.

While there are currently some global warming emissions associated with the nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction, when nuclear plants operate they do not produce carbon dioxide. This fact is used to support proposals for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power both in the United States and around the world.

It must be borne in mind that a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming. These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-U.S.—nuclear power system. Expansion of nuclear power would also produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pose a serious hazard as long as there remain no facilities for safe long-term disposal.

In this context, the Union of Concerned Scientists contends that:

1. Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.

2. Nuclear power is not the silver bullet for "solving" the global warming problem. Many other technologies will be needed to address global warming even if a major expansion of nuclear power were to occur.

3. A major expansion of nuclear power in the United States is not feasible in the near term. Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades.

4. Until long-standing problems regarding the security of nuclear plants—from accidents and acts of terrorism—are fixed, the potential of nuclear power to play a significant role in addressing global warming will be held hostage to the industry's worst performers.

5. An expansion of nuclear power under effective regulations and an appropriate level of oversight should be considered as a longer-term option if other climate-neutral means for producing electricity prove inadequate. Nuclear energy research and development (R&D) should therefore continue, with a focus on enhancing safety, security, and waste disposal.

"Bangladesh set to disappear under the waves by the end of the century"

This spring, I took a month-long road trip across a country that we – you, me and everyone we know – are killing.

One day, not long into my journey, I travelled over tiny ridges and groaning bridges on the back of a motorbike to reach the remote village of Munshigonj. The surviving villagers – gaunt, creased people – were sitting by a stagnant pond. They told me, slowly, what we have done to them.

Ten years ago, the village began to die. First, many of the trees turned a strange brownish-yellow colour and rotted. Then the rice paddies stopped growing and festered in the water. Then the fish floated to the surface of the rivers, gasping. Then many of the animals began to die. Then many of the children began to die.

The waters flowing through Munshigonj – which had once been sweet and clear and teeming with life – had turned salty and dead.

Arita Rani, a 25-year-old, sat looking at the salt water, swaddled in a blue sari and her grief. "We couldn't drink the water from the river, because it was suddenly full of salt and made us sick," she said. "So I had to give my children water from this pond. I knew it was a bad idea. People wash in this pond. It's dirty. So we all got dysentery." She keeps staring at its surface. "I have had it for 10 years now. You feel weak all the time, and you have terrible stomach pains. You need to run to the toilet 10 times a day. My boy Shupria was seven and he had this for his whole life. He was so weak, and kept getting coughs and fevers. And then one morning..."

Her mother interrupted the trailing silence. "He died," she said. Now Arita's surviving three-year-old, Ashik, is sick, too. He is sprawled on his back on the floor. He keeps collapsing; his eyes are watery and distant. His distended stomach feels like a balloon pumped full of water. "Why did this happen?" Arita asked.

It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this. Bangladesh is a flat, low-lying land made of silt, squeezed in between the melting mountains of the Himalayas and the rising seas of the Bay of Bengal. As the world warms, the sea is swelling – and wiping Bangladesh off the map.

Deep below the ground of Munshigonj and thousands of villages like it, salt water is swelling up. It is this process – called "saline inundation" – that killed their trees and their fields and contaminated their drinking water. Some farmers have shifted from growing rice to farming shrimp – but that employs less than a quarter of the people, and it makes them dependent on a fickle export market. The scientific evidence shows that unless we change now, this salt water will keep rising and rising, until everything here is ocean....

What happens to a country's mind as it drowns? Professor Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University believes he can glimpse the answer: "The connection between climate change and religious violence is not tenuous," he says. "In fact, there's a historical indicator of how it could unfold: the Little Ice Age."

Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the northern hemisphere went through a natural phase of global warming. The harvests lasted longer – so there were more crops, and more leisure. Universities and the arts began to flower. But then in the late 13th century, the Little Ice Age struck. Crop production fell, and pack ice formed in the oceans, wrecking trade routes. People began to starve.

"In this climate of death and horror, people cast about for scapegoats, even before the Black Death struck," he says. Tolerance withered with the climate shocks: the Church declared witchcraft a heresy; the Jews began to be expelled from Britain. There was, he says, "a very close correlation between the cooling and a region-wide heightening of violent intolerance."

This time, there will be no need for imaginary scapegoats. The people responsible are on every TV screen, revving up their engines....

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Jellyfish outbreaks a sign of nature out of sync"

Of course this is what I've been saying.... in so many words....

PARIS (AFP) - The dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world, driven by overfishing and climate change, is a sure sign of ecosystems out of kilter, warn experts.

"Jellyfish are an excellent bellwether for the environment," explains Jacqueline Goy, of the Oceanographic Institute of Paris. "The more jellyfish, the stronger the signal that something has changed."

Brainless creatures composed almost entirely of water, the primitive animals have quietly filled a vacuum created by the voracious human appetite for fish.

Dislodging them will be difficult, marine biologists say.

"Jellyfish have come to occupy the place of many other species," notes Ricardo Aguilar, research director for Oceana, a international conservation organisation.

Nowhere is the sting of these poorly understood invertebrates felt more sharply than the Mediterranean basin, where their exploding numbers have devastated native marine species and threaten seaside tourism.

And while much about the lampshade-like creatures remains unknown, scientists are in agreement: Pelagia noctiluca -- whose tentacles can paralyse prey and cause burning rashes in humans -- will once again besiege Mediterranean coastal waters this summer.

That, in itself, is not unusual. It is the frequency and persistence of these appearances that worry scientists.

Two centuries worth of data shows that jellyfish populations naturally swell every 12 years, remain stable four or six years, and then subside.

2008, however, will be the eighth consecutive year that medusae, as they are also known, will be present in massive numbers.

The over-exploitation of ocean resources by man has helped create a near-perfect environment in which these most primitive of ocean creatures can multiply unchecked, scientists say.

"When vertebrates, such as fish, disappear, then invertebrates -- especially jellyfish -- appear," says Aguilar.

The collapse of fish populations boost this process in two important ways, he added. When predators such as tuna, sharks, and turtles vanish, not only do fewer jellyfish get eaten, they have less competition for food.

Jellyfish feed on small fish and zooplankton that get caught up in their dangling tentacles.

"Jellyfish both compete with fish for plankton food, and predate directly on fish," explains Andrew Brierley from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "It is hard, therefore, to see a way back for fish once jellyfish have become established, even if commercial fishing is reduced."

Which is why Brierley and other experts were not surprised to find a huge surge in the number of jellyfish off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic, one of the most intensely fished oceans in the world.

Climate change has also been a boon to these domed gelatinous creatures in so far as warmer waters prolong their reproductive cycles.

But just how many millions, or billions, of jellyfish roam the seas is nearly impossible to know, said scientists.

For one things, the boneless, translucent animals -- even big ones grouped in large swarms -- are hard to spot in satellite images or sonar soundings, unlike schools of fish.

They are also resist study in captivity, which means a relative paucity of academic studies.

"There are only 20 percent of species of jellyfish for which we know the life cycle," said Goy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"How to Enter the Global Green Economy"

by Jonathan Rynn

When New York City wanted to make the biggest purchase of subway cars in U.S. history in the late 1990s, more than 3 billion dollars worth, the only companies that were able to bid on the contract were foreign. The same problem applies to high-speed rail today: only European or Japanese companies could build any of the proposed rail networks in the United States. The U.S. has also ceded the high ground to Europe and Japan in a broad range of other sustainable technologies. For instance, 11 companies produce 96% of medium to large wind turbines; only one, GE, is based in the United States, with a 16% share of the global market. The differences in market penetration come down to two factors: European and Japanese companies have become more competent producers for these markets, and their governments have helped them to develop both this competence and the markets themselves.

Let’s take Germany as an example. Even though the sun is not so shiny in that part of Europe, Germany has put up 88% of the PV photovoltaics for solar power in Europe. Partly, this was the result of a feed-in tariff (FIT); that is, Germany guarantees that it will pay about .10 Euro per kilowatt/hour of electricity to whoever produces wind or solar electricity. The average for electricity that is paid for nonrenewable sources is about .05 Euro per kwh, so Germany is effectively paying double for its renewable electricity in a successful effort to encourage its production. Every year, the guaranteed price is lowered, so that the renewable sector can eventually compete on its own, having gotten over the “hump” of introducing new technology.

But Germany’s other advantage is that it is a world leader in manufacturing renewable technology equipment. 32% of the solar equipment manufacturers in the world are located in Germany. In addition, almost 30% of global wind turbine manufacturing capacity is German.

In Denmark we can see the advantages of good policy plus competence in building machinery. The world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, is Danish. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “Denmark’s 3,100 megawatts of wind capacity meet 20 percent of its electricity needs, the largest share in any country.” The Danes have created a fascinating experiment in democracy by building most of their wind turbines through the agency of wind cooperatives, which may be joined by individuals and families.

Spain has undertaken one of the most ambitious programs in wind, solar, and high-speed trains. The Gamesa Corporation is the second largest wind turbine manufacturer, and Acciona Energy is the largest wind-park developer. The Spanish government has very ambitious plans for wind production, and occasionally wind power provides as much as 30% of the country’s electrical power.

Spain is also the world’s fourth largest producer of solar energy equipment, and is a leader in the development of concentrated solar power (CSP). CSP is a form of solar power obtained by using a very large quantity of mirrors, typically, to concentrate solar rays onto a tower that produces steam, which then turns a turbine, generating electricity. They are often built in deserts, and can be spread over several acres. These new solar technologies will probably result in lower cost electricity for long-distance applications than photovoltaics.

Asia is an important producer of renewable energy and train equipment as well. As of 2006 Japan produced about 39% of the solar cells in the world, and has encouraged solar energy in Japan with subsidies for purchasing the equipment as well as generous research budgets. Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network covers much of the country. China is set to take off as one of the world’s biggest solar and wind equipment producers, owing to its rise as a manufacturing nation.

But Europe and Japan’s dominance in renewable technologies is really based in a broader domain of competitive competence. They dominate the most fundamental sector of the economy, namely the production of machinery for manufacturing industries in general (often referred to as the mechanical engineering sector). According to statistics compiled by the European Union (EU), the EU produces almost twice as much industrial equipment overall as the United States; Japan produces almost as much as the US, with about half the population. The split among the EU, US, and Japan, which together produce most of the world’s machinery, is 52%, 27%, and 21%, respectively...

The different “niches” of an economic ecosystem, such as the various machinery and equipment sectors, thrive as a self-reinforcing web of engineers, high-skill production workers, operational managers and factories. As of 2003, Europe’s manufacturing sector made up 32% of its nonfinancial economy, while the manufacturing sector of the United States comprised only 13% of its nonfinancial sectors. The decline of American machinery and manufacturing sectors, in conjunction with the on-again/off-again nature of American renewable energy policy, explains why Europe and Japan are so far ahead of the United States in the transition to a more sustainable economy.

And America’s decline can be traced to one overriding factor: a military budget that comprises nearly half of the world’s military spending. For decades, as the late Professor Seymour Melman showed in many books (such as After Capitalism) and in numerous articles, the Pentagon has been draining, not just money, but also the engineering, scientific and business talent that Europe and Japan have been using for civilian production. As Melman often pointed out, the U.S. military budget is a capital fund, and American citizens can use that fund to help finance the construction of the trains, wind and solar power, and other green technologies that will help us to avoid economic and environmental collapse.

That economic collapse, if it comes, will be caused by two major factors: the end of the era of cheap oil, coal and natural gas; and the decline of the manufacturing and machinery base of the economy. Both problems can be addressed simultaneously, as Europe and Japan are showing, by moving the economy from one based on military and fossil fuel production to one based on electric transportation and the generation of renewable electricity.

"A Bounty of Midsize Planets Is Reported"

From the New York Times

About a third of all the Sun-like stars in our galaxy harbor modestly sized planets, according to a study announced Monday by a team of European astronomers.

At a meeting in Nantes, France, Michel Mayor of the Geneva Observatory and his group presented a list of 45 new planets, ranging in mass from slightly bigger than Earth to about twice as massive as Neptune, from a continuing survey of some 200 stars.

All of the planets orbit their stars in 50 days or less, well within the corresponding orbit of Mercury, which takes 88 days to go around the Sun, and well within frying distance of any lifelike creatures.

Among the bounty is a rare triple-planet system of “super-Earths” around the star HD 40307, about 42 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. The planets are roughly four, seven and nine times the mass of Earth and have orbital periods of 4, 10 and 20 days, respectively.

Dr. Mayor called the discoveries “only the tip of the iceberg” in a news release from the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

Theories of planet formation, Dr. Mayor said in an e-mail message from Nantes, hold that smaller planets like super-Earths and Neptunes should be numerous. “But evidently it was a nice surprise to see that with our instrument we have the sensitivity to detect that population,” he said.

Astronomers said the new results indicated that when their instruments got sensitive enough to detect even smaller planets, such planets would be there to be found.

Sara Seager, a planetary theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was one of the organizers of the Nantes conference, said in an e-mail message, “We’ve always been hoping that low-mass planets are common — to increase the chance for an Earth analog to exist around a nearby star.”

"Environmentalist urges green reconstruction" (in China)

From the China Daily

Renowned Chinese environmentalist Yang Xin has called for an environmentally friendly reconstruction of regions hit by the May 12 Sichuan quake and is proceeding with plans to build a nature preservation center in the province.

"In addition to scientists' suggestions, we also need anthropologists to help us rebuild the environment in quake-hit areas," Yang said.

Traditions of local communities in these areas should be respected, as their customs and daily life form part of the ecological system, Yang said.

Yang said he was deeply impressed by the province's beautiful scenery during a research trip long before the quake devastated areas.

Yang, the founder of the Suonandajie Nature Protection Station, a private nature preservation center for protecting ecological systems in Qinghai province, is planning to build a second station in Sichuan.

Established in 1997, the first station was initially designed to be a base to help Tibetan antelopes.

Yang has been selecting an area in the upper reaches of the Minjiang River in Sichuan for six years, for the second station.

"This area is outstanding in its geological, biological and cultural diversity," Yang said.

Located between the Sichuan Basin and Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the area's altitude rises from 500m to 4,500m within the 200 km distance between them.

The region's vegetation ranges from primary forest to alpine meadows, which endows the area with many kinds of plants amid mountains and waterways, while the Aba and Miyaluo areas have long been famous tourist sites.

These areas also accommodate Tibetan and Qiang ethnic people, who have unique cultures including the famous castles of the Qiang.

Flooding in China 6/2008

From the China Daily

GUANGZHOU -- Heavy rain and floods have claimed 171 lives in China's 20 regions this year, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, with the government warning of serious flooding in the Yellow River.

The worst storms and floods in decades have hit about 38.56 million people in 20 provinces, mostly in the south, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said yesterday.

About 52 people are missing and 2.2 million hectares of farmland has been inundated, the ministry said. The direct economic loss has reached 26 billion yuan ($3.3 billion).

Threat of massive floods along the 5,500-km Yellow River that runs through the north looms large, the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) warned yesterday.

Heavy rain in the next few days could "increase the destructive force of floods and make relief and rescue work even more difficult", the CMA said.

"National flood prevention and relief efforts are entering a crucial phase" because torrential rain are likely to raise the threat of floods in the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan and Shandong provinces, it said.

The Yellow River, China's longest after the Yangtze, has caused massive floods in the past but its devastating effects have not been felt in recent decades.

Weather forecasts warn fresh storms could lash parts of the Yangtze River delta and parts of provinces in the east, south and southwest too...

Heavy rain is likely to continue in Hunan and Guizhou provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region during the next couple of days, the CMA said.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wilkins Ice Shelf Breaking Up More

Wilkins Ice Shelf has experienced further break-up with an area of about 160 km² breaking off from 30 May to 31 May 2008. ESA’s Envisat satellite captured the event – the first ever-documented episode to occur in winter.

Wilkins Ice Shelf, a broad plate of floating ice south of South America on the Antarctic Peninsula, is connected to two islands, Charcot and Latady. In February 2008, an area of about 400 km² broke off from the ice shelf, narrowing the connection down to a 6 km strip; this latest event in May has further reduced the strip to just 2.7 km.

This animation, comprised of images acquired by Envisat’s Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) between 30 May and 9 June, highlights the rapidly dwindling strip of ice that is protecting thousands of kilometres of the ice shelf from further break-up...

Long-term satellite monitoring over Antarctica is important because it provides authoritative evidence of trends and allows scientists to make predictions. Ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula are important indicators for on-going climate change because they are sandwiched by extraordinarily raising surface air temperatures and a warming ocean.

The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced extraordinary warming in the past 50 years of 2.5°C, Braun and Humbert explained. In the past 20 years, seven ice shelves along the peninsula have retreated or disintegrated, including the most spectacular break-up of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002, which Envisat captured within days of its launch.

"Floods swamp Iowa town; Drinking water near gone"

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Hospital patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers were evacuated in the middle of the night as the biggest flood Cedar Rapids has ever seen swamped more than 400 blocks Friday and all but cut off the supply of clean drinking water in the city of 120,000.

As many as 10,000 townspeople driven from their homes by the rain-swollen Cedar River took shelter at schools and hotels or moved in with relatives.

About 100 miles to the west, the Des Moines River threatened to spill over the levees into downtown Des Moines, prompting officials in Iowa's biggest city to urge people in low-lying areas to clear out by Friday evening. The river was expected to crest a couple of hours later.

"We are perilously close to topping the levees," said Bill Stowe, public works director in the Iowa capital, population 190,000. He added: "It's time to step out of harm's way."

The flooding was blamed for at least two deaths in Iowa: a driver was killed in an accident on a road under water, and a farmer who went out to check his property was swept away.

Since June 6, Iowa has gotten at least 8 inches of rain. That came after a wet spring that left the ground saturated. As of Friday, nine rivers were at or above historic flood levels. More thunderstorms are possible in the Cedar Rapids area over the weekend, but next week is expected to be sunny and dry.

In Cedar Rapids, the engorged river flowed freely through downtown. At least 438 city blocks were under water, and in some neighborhoods the water was 8 feet high. Hundreds of cars were submerged, with only their antennas poking up through the water. Plastic toys bobbed in front of homes.

For decades, Cedar Rapids escaped any major, widespread flooding, even during the Midwest deluge of 1993, and many people had grown confident that rising water would pose no danger to their city. The flood this time didn't just break records; it shattered them.

The Cedar River was expected to crest Friday night at nearly 32 feet, an astonishing 12 feet higher than the old record, set in 1929.

"Bad Cow Disease"

To me - this is so logical....

By PAUL KRUGMAN from the New York Times

“Mary had a little lamb / And when she saw it sicken / She shipped it off to Packingtown / And now it’s labeled chicken.”

That little ditty famously summarized the message of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé of conditions in America’s meat-packing industry. Sinclair’s muckraking helped Theodore Roosevelt pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act — and for most of the next century, Americans trusted government inspectors to keep their food safe.

Lately, however, there always seems to be at least one food-safety crisis in the headlines — tainted spinach, poisonous peanut butter and, currently, the attack of the killer tomatoes. The declining credibility of U.S. food regulation has even led to a foreign-policy crisis: there have been mass demonstrations in South Korea protesting the pro-American prime minister’s decision to allow imports of U.S. beef, banned after mad cow disease was detected in 2003.

How did America find itself back in The Jungle?

It started with ideology. Hard-core American conservatives have long idealized the Gilded Age, regarding everything that followed — not just the New Deal, but even the Progressive Era — as a great diversion from the true path of capitalism.

Thus, when Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate, was asked about his ultimate goal, he replied that he wanted a restoration of the way America was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over. The income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.”

The late Milton Friedman agreed, calling for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. It was unnecessary, he argued: private companies would avoid taking risks with public health to safeguard their reputations and to avoid damaging class-action lawsuits. (Friedman, unlike almost every other conservative I can think of, viewed lawyers as the guardians of free-market capitalism.)

Such hard-core opponents of regulation were once part of the political fringe, but with the rise of modern movement conservatism they moved into the corridors of power. They never had enough votes to abolish the F.D.A. or eliminate meat inspections, but they could and did set about making the agencies charged with ensuring food safety ineffective.

They did this in part by simply denying these agencies enough resources to do the job. For example, the work of the F.D.A. has become vastly more complex over time thanks to the combination of scientific advances and globalization. Yet the agency has a substantially smaller work force now than it did in 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress.

Perhaps even more important, however, was the systematic appointment of foxes to guard henhouses.

Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.

When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don’t trust us. And while some of that distrust may be irrational — the beef issue has become entangled with questions of Korean national pride, which has been insulted by clumsy American diplomacy — it’s hard to blame them.

The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department’s deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring: because potential foreign buyers didn’t trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets.

But then, the same thing can be said of other cases in which the administration stood in the way of effective regulation. Most notably, the administration’s refusal to countenance any restraints on predatory lending helped prepare the ground for the subprime crisis, which has cost the financial industry far more than it ever made on overpriced loans.

The moral of this story is that failure to regulate effectively isn’t just bad for consumers, it’s bad for business.

And in the case of food, what we need to do now — for the sake of both our health and our export markets — is to go back to the way it was after Teddy Roosevelt, when the Socialists took over. It’s time to get back to the business of ensuring that American food is safe.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Foreclosed US Pools Get Mosquito-Eating Fish

PHOENIX - Authorities in Arizona are stepping up a program to put mosquito-gobbling minnows into the stagnant pools of foreclosed or abandoned homes to prevent an outbreak of West Nile virus.

Public health workers in Maricopa County, which includes the cities of the Phoenix valley, are breeding thousands of so-called mosquitofish to gobble up larvae that thrive in the green pools of abandoned homes across the county.
The tiny, silvery fish are being offered to residents and municipal authorities across the parched desert county, which has tens of thousands of swimming pools, and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the United States.

"The abandoned pools become a stagnant little swamp that breeds mosquitoes in the middle of a neighborhood," said John Townsend, Maricopa County Vector Control manager.

"It is an important public health issue to keep the mosquito population down ... and the fish are very effective at that," he added.

West Nile virus, which came to the United States from Africa in the late 1990s, is now endemic in the county. Severe cases can produce high fever, stupor, tremors and paralysis, and can prove fatal.

In the first three months of the year, 17,214 homes in Maricopa County were offered for foreclosure sales, a more than three-fold rise on the previous year, according to

In addition, an unknown number of local homes were simply abandoned as the owners skipped out on their spiraling debts, many leaving untreated backyard pools to stagnate, local authorities say.

To meet a sharp increase in reports of green pools, Townsend said the county has begun a program to breed 40,000 mosquitofish this year using tanks at Phoenix Zoo, and is making the voracious minnows available countywide.

The fish are proving an attractive alternative to chemicals or pesticides...

"Nitrates and Cancer" (& Water)

From The Ecologist

Research from China suggests that even low levels of nitrites in drinking water can cause cancer. Why is the West ignoring the evidence? asks Oliver Tickell

The possibility of a link between nitrite in drinking water and cancer was first noted in 1970. To this day the view of the western ‘scientific establishment’ remains that the effects of nitrite – and the related substance nitrate – are well understood and there’s not much for us to worry about, though it is a good idea to eat less bacon and other preserved meats.

But Chinese scientists are reaching a very different view: that nitrite in drinking water is closely linked with cancer incidence and mortality. Indeed, nitrite pollution may be responsible for up to half of all cancer deaths in developed countries – even when nitrite and nitrate levels are within legal limits.

Nitrite is a common pollutant of rivers, streams, lakes and water supplies. It is also widely used as a meat preservative, both to prevent botulism and to give the meat an attractive dark red colour. In high doses it induces a state of anoxia in the blood known as ‘blue-baby syndrome’ or methemoglobinemia – a potentially fatal but mercifully rare condition. Nitrite in high doses is also linked with cancer as it can make carcinogenic nitrosamine and N-nitroso compounds. For this reason regulators have tried to reduce nitrite levels in food, and make sure it is used with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which inhibits the formation of the carcinogens.

Nitrite and nitrate are readily interchangeable through reduction (of nitrate to nitrite) and oxidation (of nitrite to nitrate). Reducing conditions in the gut, for example, can cause nitrate to convert to nitrite, while exposure to oxygen does the reverse. Levels of both are regulated in drinking water. In the EU, drinking water may contain up to 0.5mg of nitrite per litre, and 50mg/l of nitrate. In the US, the limits are 1mg/l of nitrite and 10mg/l of nitrate. At first sight these levels seem fairly low, and after all we eat nitrate every day in ‘healthy’ fresh fruit and vegetables – so just how much is there to worry about?

In 2003, Xu Zhixiang published a summary of his research in his monograph Chemical Fertilizers, Pollution and Esophageal Cancer. Based upon his evidence, China may be divided into three zones: those of ‘low’ cancer mortality (less than 30 cases per 100,000); those of ‘high’ cancer mortality (more than 80 per 100,000) and those of ‘average’ cancer mortality in between those extremes. It turns out that the three cancer mortality areas correspond closely with areas of high, low and average levels of nitrite in drinking water...

In 1964, the Hongqi Canal was linked to the polluted Zhuozhang River, and began to supply most of Linzhou’s drinking water. Soon after, cancer mortality soared; cases of oesophageal cancer more than doubled from 83 per 100,000 in the years 1959-1963 to 171 per 100,000 in 1972-1976. In 1970, cancer specialists from Beijing went to Linzhou to investigate the problem. Although nitrite levels were not high by western standards, in the range of 0.1 to 1.0mg/l, they recommended switching the water supply to low-nitrite sources.

So deep groundwater sources with less than 0.01mg/l of nitrite were developed, oxygen-poor water storage tanks that caused the reduction of nitrate to nitrite were decommissioned and oxygenated tap water was introduced. Oesophageal cancer mortality duly declined, reaching 86 per 100,000 in 1996-2000 – roughly back to the pre-1964 level. There were exceptions: the two Linzhou townships that continued to get their drinking water from the Hongqi Canal, where cancer mortality remained high, and three townships whose drinking water came from the Qi River, where cancer mortality remained at the same relatively low incidence. Similar experiences accumulated in other parts of China.

Thanks to the increasingly convincing evidence of the contribution of nitrite to cancer mortality, China now has some of the world’s most stringent laws on nitrite pollution. In 2005, the government reduced the maximum level of nitrite (as nitrogen) in bottled water from 0.005 to 0.002mg/l, one-500th of the level allowed in drinking water in the USA, and set a limit of 0.02mg/l of nitrite for groundwater recharge – yet still failed to set any maximum for nitrite in piped drinking water for fear of depriving many cities of their water supply.

The broad-scale epidemiological findings on nitrite and cancer in China have been complemented by laboratory experiments in Russia, Japan and Taiwan. A synthesis of the experimental results carried out by Hsu and his colleague Huangpo Chaoshen in 2008 suggests that nitrite is not directly carcinogenic – that is, it does not convert healthy cells into cancer cells – but that it does stimulate the growth of cancer cells. The degree of stimulation depends upon various factors, including the concentration of nitrite and the age and type of cancer cell. And cancer cell growth stimulus operates at the low concentrations of nitrite that apply to drinking water in the EU and the USA...

"New Kits Turn Any Car Into a Plug-in Hybrid"


Soon drivers will be able to get at least double the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius hybrid, thanks to a spate of new aftermarket kits that convert any car into a plug-in electric vehicle. But they’ll have to pay upwards of $10,000 to do so.
Auto manufacturers are at least a year or two away from launching the next generation of hybrids, called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), that recharge by plugging into a wall outlet. But battery companies are ready to start selling aftermarket kits within the next few months that convert hybrids, and in some cases regular vehicles, into plug-in electric cars.

A123Systems, an automotive technology company and battery supplier based in Watertown, Mass., is now taking orders for its Hymotion L5 conversion kit, which turns a Toyota Prius into a plug-in electric car. The $10,000 kit, due this fall, works with Prius model years 2004 through 2008 and adds a special, range-extending lithium-ion battery to the Prius' existing drivetrain.

Using A123’s plug-in system, the Prius, which normally runs only short distances at slow speeds on electric power alone, will have added battery power to extend its electric-only range and boost gas mileage to more than 100 miles per gallon. The Prius normally gets an estimated 46 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

Even if electricity costs as much as 15 cents per kilowatt hour, fully charging the 5 kilowatt-hour battery to run up to 40 miles would cost less than a dollar.

In late August, Poulsen Hybrid, based in Shelton, Conn., and run by Ulrik Poulsen, CEO of Bridgeport Magnetics, plans to offer a $7,000 conversion kit that turns any conventional car into a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle by mounting small electric motors onto the rear wheels. The Poulsen system also uses a lithium-ion battery pack and will double a car's gas mileage, says Poulsen, the system's creator. The company hasn’t released data on how far the system will go on a single charge, but charging it would also cost less than a dollar, he says.

VS Composites' $4,000 Electrocharger, due in 2009, also works with any conventional car, including ones whose engines have a turbocharger or supercharger — good news for car enthusiasts, who seek out such engines for the added power and acceleration they bring. The Electrocharger improves fuel economy in city driving by almost 60 percent by replacing a vehicle’s alternator with an electric generator, says Michael Van Steenburg, of VS Composites, based in Selma, Texas. Although the Electrocharger will be cheaper upfront than the Poulsen plug-in hybrid system, it will cost from $3 to $5 to juice the Electrocharger for a 50-mile range.
Any plug-in hybrid, whether created using an aftermarket conversion kit or built by a major automaker — like General Motors’ Saturn Vue Hybrid expected for 2009, and Chevrolet Volt expected in 2010 — would cost roughly 2 cents per mile to run, compared with about 10 cents per mile for a traditional car, says Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting at research firm Global Insight...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Plants Interacting

From the New York Times

The sea rocket, researchers report, can distinguish between plants that are related to it and those that are not. And not only does this plant recognize its kin, but it also gives them preferential treatment.

If the sea rocket detects unrelated plants growing in the ground with it, the plant aggressively sprouts nutrient-grabbing roots. But if it detects family, it politely restrains itself.

The finding is a surprise, even a bit of a shock, in part because most animals have not even been shown to have the ability to recognize relatives, despite the huge advantages in doing so.

If an individual can identify kin, it can help them, an evolutionarily sensible act because relatives share some genes. The same discriminating organism could likewise ramp up nasty behavior against unrelated individuals with which it is most sensible to be in claws- or perhaps thorns-bared competition.

“I’m just amazed at what we’ve found,” said Susan A. Dudley, an evolutionary plant ecologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who carried out the study with a graduate student, Amanda L. File.

“Plants,” Dr. Dudley said, “have a secret social life.”

Since the research on sea rockets was published in August in Biology Letters, a journal of the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, Dr. Dudley and colleagues have found evidence that three other plant species can also recognize relatives.

The studies are part of an emerging picture of life among plants, one in which these organisms, long viewed as so much immobile, passive greenery, can be seen to sense all sorts of things about the plants around them and use that information to interact with them.

Plants’ social life may have remained mysterious for so long because, as researchers have seen in studies of species like sagebrush, strawberries and thornapples, the ways plants sense can be quite different from the ways in which animals do.

Some plants, for example, have been shown to sense potentially competing neighboring plants by subtle changes in light. That is because plants absorb and reflect particular wavelengths of sunlight, creating signature shifts that other plants can detect.

Scientists also find plants exhibiting ways to gather information on other plants from chemicals released into the soil and air. A parasitic weed, dodder, has been found to be particularly keen at sensing such chemicals.

Dodder is unable to grow its own roots or make its own sugars using photosynthesis, the process used by nearly all other plants. As a result, scientists knew that after sprouting from seed, the plant would fairly quickly need to begin growing on and into another plant to extract the nutrients needed to survive.

But even the scientists studying the plant were surprised at the speed and precision with which a dodder seedling could sense and hunt its victim. In time-lapse movies, scientists saw dodder sprouts moving in a circular fashion, in what they discovered was a sampling of the airborne chemicals released by nearby plants, a bit like a dog sniffing the air around a dinner buffet.

Then, using just the hint of the smells and without having touched another plant, the dodder grew toward its preferred victim. That is, the dodder reliably sensed and attacked the species of plant, from among the choices nearby, on which it would grow best...

Although a view of plants as sensing organisms is beginning to emerge, scientists have been finding hints of such capabilities and interactions for 20 years. But discoveries have continued to surprise scientists, because of what some describe as an entrenched disbelief that plants, without benefit of eyes, ears, nose, mouth or brain, can and do all they are seen to do...

At the extreme of the equality movement, but still within mainstream science, are the members of the Society of Plant Neurobiology, a new group whose Web site describes it as broadly concerned with plant sensing.

The very name of the society is enough to upset many biologists. Neurobiology is the study of nervous systems — nerves, synapses and brains — that are known just in animals. That fact, for most scientists, makes the notion of plant neurobiology a combination of impossible, misleading and infuriating....

“Plants do send electrical signals from one part of the plant to another,” said Dr. Eric D. Brenner, a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden and a member of the Society of Plant Neurobiology.

Although those signals have been known for 100 years, scientists have no idea what plants do with them.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Diet Coke is a mix of neurotoxic & carcinogenic chemicals

From The Ecologist

...Aggressive marketing like the FIFA sponsorship and clever jingles like ‘Always Coca-Cola’ keep Coke in our consciousness, but before you ‘grab a Coke and a smile’ at this year’s main event, consider just what you are putting into your body. Although Diet Coke has a strong association with sport and health, it is actually a worrying mixture of neurotoxic and potentially carcinogenic high intensity sweeteners (aspartame and acesulfame K), tooth and bone destroying acids (phosphoric acid) and DNA damaging colourings (sulphite ammonia caramel), as well as psychoaddictive caffeine and other undisclosed ‘fl avourings’.

It also contains sodium benzoate, which can be broken down into the listed carcinogen benzene in the presence of strong acids, such as the citric acid found in this product.

Soda manufacturers have been aware of this synergistic possibility since the 1990s, but without pressure from regulatory authorities to change their formula to prevent the formation of benzene, have continued to mix benzoates and acids.

Ironically, the high fructose syrups used in regular drinks seem to slow this reaction down, and the formation of benzene appears to be most problematic in diet drinks...
Aspartame - Breaks down easily in heat and during storage to its neurotoxic components phenylalanine, aspartic
acid and methyl alcohol. According to the FDA aspartame is associated with headaches, dizziness,
loss of balance, mood swings, nausea, memory loss, muscle weakness, blurred vision, fatigue,
weakness, skin rashes, joint and musculoskeletal pain. (For a full report on aspartame toxicity see the
Ecologist September 2005). The most recent evidence shows that aspartame ingested at levels that
are currently found in daily soft drink consumption raises the risk of otherwise rare brain tumours
known as lymphomas.

Acesulfame K - Causes cancer in animals. Acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, has been shown to affect the
thyroid gland in rats, rabbits, and dogs. Although it is commonly blended with aspartame to cover its bitter taste, there are no studies to show if the combination is safe or whether it produces other toxic by-products.

Phosphoric acid - Can contribute to erosion of tooth enamel; leaches calcium from bones. Children with high intake of phosphoric acid suffer from brittle bones and a higher risk of fractures that follow them throughout life. Children consuming at least six glasses (1.5 litres) of phosphoric acid-containing soft drinks daily have more than five times the risk of developing low blood levels of calcium, compared to children who don’t drink sodas.

Citric acid - On its own relatively harmless, though it can be harsh on tooth enamel. When mixed with potassium
or sodium benzoate (see below) during storage, and especially at raised temperatures, it can aid the
formation of carcinogenic benzene.

Caffeine - A stimulant, psychoactive compound that can provoke mood changes, lethargy and headache.
Caffeine is addictive and ingestion of high levels can cause miscarriage as well as contribute to peptic ulcers and heart ailments. At the levels added to soft drinks caffeine adds virtually no flavour but does, if consumed regularly, trigger caffeine addiction. Children consuming caffeine have higher incidences of illness, headaches, sleep problems and iron depletion. A 330ml bottle of cola contains about half the caffeine of a cup of coffee.

Sodium Benzoate (E211) - People who suffer from asthma, rhinitis or urticaria may find their symptoms get worse following the consumption of benzoates. In acidic solutions (such as sodas), benzoates can break down into benzene, a known carcinogen. Surveys have shown that levels in soft drinks can be up to 40 times higher than recognised ‘safe’ doses.

Sulphite ammonia caramel (E150d) - Made by heating sugar, ammonia and sulphite-containing compounds, the sugar can sometimes come from GM maize. Ammonia is toxic by all routes of exposure, and caramels made by an ammonia process may damage genes, slow down growth, cause enlargement of the intestines and kidneys and may destroy vitamin B. This colouring has never been fully evaluated for its potential carcinogenicity or reproductive toxicity.

"How Do You Like the Collapse So Far?"

Found at Global Public

[Originally written for The Ecologist.]

Take relentless population growth. Add decades of expanding per-capita resource consumption. Simmer slowly over rising global temperatures.

What do you get?

Traumatic information: that is, information that wounds us through the very act of obtaining it.

Everyone knows things are going wrong. But if you understand ecology, you know this in a way that others don’t. It’s not just that the current crop of world leaders is idiotic. It’s not just a matter of a few policies having gone awry. We’ve been on a perilous track since the dawn of agriculture, capturing more and more biosphere services for the benefit of just one species. Fossil fuels recently gave our kind an enormous economic and technological boost—but at the same time enabled us to go much further out on an ecological limb. No one knows the long-term carrying capacity of planet Earth for humans, absent cheap fossil fuels, but it’s likely a lot fewer than seven billion. The implication is not just sobering; it’s paralyzing.

So what to do with such traumatic knowledge? An argument can be made for denial. Why ruin people’s day if there’s nothing they can do, if it’s too late to unseal our fate?

But we don’t know that it’s too late.

As hard as it is to get up every day and remember, "Oh yes, that’s right, we’re headed toward systemic collapse," in fact we can’t afford to forget it, if there are in fact measures to be taken to save a species, an ecosystem, or a human community.

To be sure, some of us are better able to handle the information than others. Many fragile psyches come unhinged without constant doses of hope and assurance. And so for their sake we need continuing positive messages—about a project to make a village sustainable, or about a new coal power plant halted by protest. Some will cling to these encouraging news bits, believing that the tide has turned and we’ll be fine after all. But as time goes on, collapse becomes undeniable. Limits to growth cease to be forecasts; instead, we see daily proof that we’re hitting the wall. As this happens, those who can handle the information spend more of their time managing the fraying emotions of those around them who can’t.

Strategy shifts. We move from rehearsing "Fifty simple things you can do to save the Earth" to discussing global triage.

As the Great Unraveling proceeds, there may in fact be only one occupation worthy of our attention: that of identifying the qualities that make our species worth saving, and then celebrating and exemplifying those qualities. If we concentrate on doing that, perhaps we win no matter what. Outwardly, it will probably look a lot like what many of us are already doing: working to save a species, an ecosystem, a human community; to make a village sustainable, or to halt a new coal power plant.

Taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time.

I think that a lot of our culture - probably since the atomic bombs were dropped on people - has had a hopelessness about it. People react different ways - but denial and/or hedonism or a reverting to fundamentalism seems common. I have become part of a group of people who like to take life-affirming actions and who rejoice in nature, in living in the world. It is a good community to be a part of.

Algae: 'The ultimate in renewable energy'

Texas may be best known for "Big Oil." But the oil that could some day make a dent in the country's use of fossil fuels is small. Microscopic, in fact: algae. Literally and figuratively, this is green fuel.

Plant physiologist Glen Kertz believes algae can some day be competitive as a source for biofuel.
1 of 3

"Algae is the ultimate in renewable energy," Glen Kertz, president and CEO of Valcent Products, told CNN while conducting a tour of his algae greenhouse on the outskirts of El Paso.

Kertz, a plant physiologist and entrepreneur, holds about 20 patents. And he is psyched about the potential algae holds, both as an energy source and as a way to deal with global warming.

"We are a giant solar collecting system. We get the bulk of our energy from the sunshine," said Kertz.

Algae are among the fastest growing plants in the world, and about 50 percent of their weight is oil. That lipid oil can be used to make biodiesel for cars, trucks, and airplanes. Watch how pond scum can be turned into fuel »

Most people know algae as "pond scum." And until recently, most energy research and development projects used ponds to grow it.

But instead of ponds, Valcent uses a closed, vertical system, growing the algae in long rows of moving plastic bags. The patented system is called Vertigro, a joint venture with Canadian alternative energy company Global Green Solutions. The companies have invested about $5 million in the Texas facility.

"A pond has a limited amount of surface area for solar absorption," said Kertz.

Small Town Overthrows Corporate Giant for Control of Water

The people of Felton, California learned that they had successfully wrested control of their water from the clutches of a giant corporation on Friday, May 30, 2008.

Many of the 3,000 adult residents of the Felton Water District had been organizing for nearly six years to buy the community's water system from California American Water. Cal-Am is a subsidiary of American Water, which, despite an ongoing sell-off, remains under the ownership of German multinational energy and water titan RWE.

Surprisingly, less than a week before an eminent domain trial to decide the value of the water system, the announcement came that the San Lorenzo Valley Water District would pay Cal-Am $10.5 million in cash for the system. Of course, Cal-Am went for the deal to settle the eminent domain suit against it and avoid a jury trial, said Jim Mosher, who heads up the legal committee for Felton FLOW -- Friends of Locally Owned Water.

This is a great victory for the citizens of Felton and should inspire other communities to challenge private water utilities that are extorting huge, unjustified rate increases and failing to protect sensitive watershed properties. The SLV Water District has done an excellent job representing us and we look forward to having them manage the Felton water system."
In addition, the agreement states that Cal-Am will donate the 250 acres of forested watershed land in hopes of getting a tax break. Mosher questions whether the land transfer is a donation, however, since it appears to be an integral part of the deal and the price....

Cheaper Solar on the Horizon?

The solar power business is bracing itself for a collapse in prices that could lead to a shake-out in one of the most promising areas of the renewable energy sector.

However, a price slump could hasten the take-up of the technology which would help boost the overall volume of future activity, even as margins fall, industry analysts and officials add.

Expectations of falling prices have been partly sparked by a surge in the level of manufacturing capacity for solar panels. This is likely to lead to demand outstripping supply for the first time in years.

Another factor driving prices is uncertainty over the degree of government subsidies in some key markets for the technology.

According to Dean Cooper, analyst at Ambrian, the global capacity for solar module production is set to increase “dramatically”, from 3 gigawatts last year to 15 to 20 gigawatts of production in 2010. Much of the growth is coming from China.

Prices for solar components would drop from about $3.80 per watt to about $1.40 a watt by 2010, he said.

That could prompt consolidation in the sector within the next six months, with smaller players falling prey to longer established companies.

But Mr Cooper argues that lower prices could deliver benefits, since the high cost of making solar components has hitherto been a major impediment to growth in sales. A supply shortage of silicon in recent years has compounded the problem.

Lux Research is forecasting that revenues in the sector will more than triple in the next five years, to $71bn in 2012, while margins will fall.

NOAA Confirms Caribbean Monk Seal Extinct

After a five year review, NOAA’s Fisheries Service has determined that the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen for more than 50 years, has gone extinct—the first type of seal to go extinct from human causes.

Monk seals became easy targets for hunters while resting, birthing, or nursing their pups on the beach. Overhunting by humans led to these seals’ demise, according to NOAA biologists.

The last confirmed sighting of the seal was in 1952 in the Caribbean Sea at Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and the Yucatán Peninsula. This was the only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

"Humans left the Caribbean monk seal population unsustainable after overhunting them in the wild," said Kyle Baker, biologist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast region. "Unfortunately, this lead to their demise and labels the species as the only seal to go extinct from human causes."...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

You can't get here from there...

Highway 37 through Martinsville-

Paragon was "90%" flooded (along with Hwy 67)-

Spencer flooding - to get worse as river rises-

Interstate 65 near Columbus-

A series of storms last week brought much flooding to the area last week. In Spencer, it is expected to go from bad to worse as the White River rises.

We went to a graduation party in western Monroe county yesterday - but a lot of people couldn't get there or much of anywhere. People on high ground found that roads (like highway 46) were closed to their east and west and they were stuck.

Some people were told to stay in their homes - later needing to be rescued because the water got too high. (I live on high ground).

Our access West - Spencer and beyond was closed; North - 231 was closed (Interstate 70 was closed at 231) - 67 was closed at various points (esp. Paragon) - 37 was closed (at Martinsville); East - 46 was closed in Brown County; South - Hwy 43 which would take us South was closed yesterday, parts of Greene County were flooded. I think we could have gone over 46 east to 37 South through Bedford and over to 50 and South on 65 - but not North. (Update: According the State Police - travel on 37 south of Bloomington is "questionable." )

Reporter-Times of Martinsville and Morgan County, Indiana

Water was nearly everywhere Saturday morning, as heavy rains flooded major roads and made many rural areas impassable. Relay for Life was canceled Friday night, and participants were evacuated as storms moved into the area. Water rescue teams and emergency personnel evacuated hundreds of people from their homes in the Martinsville and Paragon areas...

All the major roadways in the southern part of the county were closed. Ind. 37 just north of Martinsville was closed in both directions at Teeters Road from about 8 a.m. on. By 1:45 p.m., the water at the intersection of Ind. 37 and Ohio Street was so deep, officials began to shut off all traffic on Ind. 37 both north and south into the city.

For several hours, no one could get in or out of the city by way of Ind. 37.

Ind. 67 north of Paragon was closed due to high water, complicating the efforts of rescue workers to bring in boats to the area to rescue residents from their homes.

Earlier in the morning, Ind. 67 south of Centerton was shut for about 90 minutes by mudslides that carried trees and earth across the southbound lanes...

Ind. 252 near Eastview Christian Church was closed due to high water, and the intersection of Ind. 42 and Ind. 39 was closed due to high water.

Ind. 144 one mile east of Mooresville was closed after a culvert washed out.

In Martinsville, officials cut power to the whole city to prevent people from being electrocuted.

More and stronger storms were predicted as a consequence of global warming - we seem to be reaping the consequences.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"Strategic Spending on Organic Foods"

The Environmental Working Group tested dozens of fruits and vegetables to determine which foods are the worst offenders in terms of pesticide exposure. Some fruits and vegetables grown with conventional farming methods simply don’t absorb the pesticides. Some examples of vegetables and fruits with very low pesticide residues are onions, mangoes, asparagus, broccoli and eggplant. So whether you pick them up from the regular produce section or the organic aisle, your pesticide exposure is going to be low.

So if you are on a budget, focus your organic dollars where it counts — on foods that suck in a lot of pesticides when grown using conventional farming methods. Foods that typically have high levels of pesticide residue include peaches, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, celery and lettuce.

Environmental Working Group Fruit & Veggie Pesticide Guide

The Full List: 43 Fruits & Veggies




1 (worst)


100 (highest pesticide load)





Sweet Bell Peppers


















Grapes - Imported















Green Beans



Hot Peppers

































Honeydew Melon






Winter Squash






Sweet Potatoes






























Sweet Peas-Frozen









Sweet Corn-Frozen





45 (best)


1 (lowest pesticide load)

"Governor Declares Drought in California"

New York Times

Its reservoir levels receding and its grounds parched, California has fallen officially into drought, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday, warning that the state might be forced to ration water to cities and regions if conservation efforts did not improve.

The drought declaration — the first for the state since 1991 — includes orders to transfer water from less dry areas to those that are dangerously dry. Mr. Schwarzenegger also said he would ask the federal government for aid to farmers and press water districts, cities and local water agencies to accelerate conservation. Drought conditions have hampered farming, increased water rates throughout California and created potentially dangerous conditions in areas prone to wildfires.

The declaration comes after the driest California spring in 88 years, with runoff in river basins that feed most reservoirs at 41 percent of average levels. It stops short of a water emergency, which would probably include mandatory rationing.

Efforts to capture water have also been hampered by evaporation of some mountain snowpacks that provide water, an effect, state officials say, of global climate change.

A survey this year found that the state’s snowpack water content was 67 percent of average, and the Colorado River Basin, from which California draws some water, is coming off a record eight-year drought, contributing to the drop in reservoir storage...

A bill to require Californians to cut water use 20 percent recently passed the Assembly. The bill, which requires Senate approval, puts most of the onus on residents, and little on the agriculture industry, underscoring tension over conservation between city dwellers and farmers, who consume most of the state’s water.

Across the state, many districts and municipalities are instituting or considering recycling, rationing and higher fees for excessive use. For instance, Los Angeles officials recently announced their intentions to begin using heavily cleansed sewage to increase drinking water supplies.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District and the Long Beach Water Department, serving districts at opposite ends of the state, have made water rationing mandatory.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"Women's Rights, Healthy Planet Go Hand-in-Hand"

This should be a known fact by now - but it doesn't hurt to repeat every now and then.

From NPR.

How do population, natural resources and women's rights all intersect? Robert Engelman explains in a new book how allowing women to control their reproduction can lead to a more sustainable planet. He argues that personal issues such as the availability of contraception are inextricably tied to much larger issues ... such as climate change.

Engelman says that he doesn't like to use the word overpopulation — "with its implication that some of us already here should not be" — but, he writes, "the reality remains that what most people call overpopulation is more evident, in more places, than ever."

Engelman talks with guest host Richard Harris about population and reproduction through the ages and its connection to environmental issues past and present. Engelman's book is titled More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want.

Book excerpt:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently urged his fellow New Yorkers to "face up to the fact" that overcrowding undermines environmental stability. Members of Rwanda's nearly half-female parliament considered a national drive to achieve three-child families in the land-short African country, in the hopes that slower growth might prevent a repeat of its genocidal 1994 civil war. China, its 1.3 billion people clambering up the lower rungs of the consumption ladder, reached to Brazil for livestock feed, to the west coast of Africa for fish, and to Ethiopia for oil, where nine Chinese oil workers were killed by Somali insurgents. And as for the gorillas of Bwindi, they are far from the only apes that may miss the train to the twenty-second century. The 373,000 human babies born on the day you read these words will outnumber all the world's existing gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, our closest animal relatives.

The most-covered story in the "population news" category, however, is one in which population received few mentions: final public acceptance that by using the atmosphere as a dump for waste gases, human beings are heating up the planet. Even as we have awakened to the scientific reality that human-induced climate change is real and happening now, we still pull up the covers and roll over in bed at the thought that this has any important connection to how many of us there are. In April 2007, Time magazine offered "51 things we can do to save the environment"; not one had anything to do with population. A report from the environmental group U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) called The Carbon Boom detailed state by state the rising emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2004 in the United States. The word population did not appear in the report, even though the country's carbon dioxide emissions grew a hair less than did its population over the period, 18 versus 18.1 percent. As I neared completion of this book, serious talk began about the need to slash global and U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 80 percent within decades—with no discussions of how different population scenarios will affect our chances for achieving such a staggeringly challenging objective.

Why so much silence on something so firmly entrenched in the foundations of the environmental economic, and social challenges the world faces? Some resistance stems from the "impersonal reduction of humans to quantity," in the words of English historical demographer Peter Biller. Who wants to be reduced to a number, or go out for a beer with one? Partly, population is just a sensitive topic. Any discussion of population growth quickly taps into an edgy confusion of feelings most of us harbor about contraception and abortion, about childbearing and family size, gender relations, immigration, race and ethnicity, and—not least—the intense longing, the pleasure, and the risks we can't avoid as sexual beings. Sexual taboos are getting harder to confront as a wave of religious fundamentalism grows in apparent response to the same chaotic global complexity to which population growth itself contributes...