IBI Watch 2/24/13

24 02 2013

What’s the Beef?  //

A meat caper boils in Europe right now. Two issues emerge. First, is it OK to eat our whinnying friends? Second, if a processed meat product is labeled “beef,” isn’t that what should be inside?

This update on the bait-and-switch horsemeat scandal explains how things got mixed up. It’s a safe bet that many a burger eater across America takes comfort in the thought that nothing horsey could ever make its way into a Big Mac. Maybe. But this affair got me thinking on other meaty issues – such as health. Human and planetary.

In a case of curious timing, the horsemeat kerfuffle coincides with a grim anniversary – the deaths of several Americans in 1993, from eating fast food burgers, and in one case, simply from sharing day care space with another youngster who had. NPR ran a cover story on 2/17 updating the meat safety situation. The story goes into real improvements (including the abandonment of the “dime standard”) in the safety of the meat supply that took effect after the 1993 deaths. But problems continue, as this story of a paralyzed dancer in Minnesota from just a few years ago attests.

Taking the health picture a step further, new studies are providing more evidence that eating more than a little red meat poses serious risks. Would you like some cancer with that everyday red meat?

So eating too much meat is not good for you. And as those charts show, many seem to be getting that message.  And that’s a good thing, though the change is far short of what is needed. Why? The total impact on the planet of a single quarter-pound hamburger is a little hard to grasp. This NPR story and accompanying graphics tells the surprising tale.

It has dawned on activists and others in recent years that one of the most effective things a person can do to help slow and reverse climate change is also one of the easiest – eat less meat. And as Michael Pollan points out, this does not necessarily mean banishing meat, but rather cutting consumption and making sure what you do eat comes from sustainable sources – i.e., no factory farms.

Though I have read several of Pollan’s books – which I strongly recommend – it was another book that scared me away from factory meat for good. This one. Take in that book or its documentary follow-up or watch the better-known Supersize Me and you too can learn about how those lip-smacking modern factory burgers are made, or the manufacturing process that produces those alleged chicken nuggets.

Do one of those things and, chances are, you will join me and many others on the outside of the fast-food meat industry.  We have nothing to lose but excess fat and carbon footprints.

Preparing for the Bath

Marketplace Morning Edition host Kai Ryssdal has been railing against what is really a stupid term – “sequester.” That term of course is all over the airwaves, since the latest manufactured Washington financial crisis is about to crest. Paul Krugman sees yet another example of false equivalence – that is, it is extremists on both the Republican and Democratic side that keep common sense and compromise from solving dilemmas.

And the Nobel economist has a good point. The Republicans are demanding an “all-cuts” outcome, while Democrats are pushing a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. I say this. Remember that nearly every Republican in Congress signed a pledge of fealty to that government-despising unelected power monger known as Grover Norquist. What if he and his vassals mean what they say?

Two authors have insights that explain the context of this sequester showdown. First, Richard Wolff sees the crisis as a tool for plutocrats to widen the divide between the rich and powerful on the one hand and everybody else on the other. He appeared on Moyers and Company this week. And of course Wolff’s take brings to mind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine – a book I recommend in the strongest terms. Both authors make powerful arguments for changing our system. (If you watch the Moyers installment, be sure to stay for the short piece that follows the Wolff visit. It features the work of Saru Jayaraman, who has dedicated herself to securing a fair shake for the legions of sickeningly low-paid restaurant workers.)

Climate Paradoxes

If we could collect a dollar for every time someone declared that the latest blizzard proved that climate change was not happening, we would have a sizable fund to spend wisely – maybe on alternative energy. And in a popular, uninformed way, this line of thought seems to make sense. After all, they call this “global warming,” right?

This Yahoo news site article does a nice job explaining why that reflexive take is so wrong. It is anything but simple, and yet – this sentence sums things up nicely: a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which fuels storms year round – including snowstorms.  But overall less snow, with more frequent big snow dumps? By all means. I like this quote:  “Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature — warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Increasingly, it seems that we’re on that ragged edge.”

This article is good enough to warrant quoting at a bit more length – three bullet points in fact:

  • The United States has been walloped by twice as many of the most extreme snowstorms in the past 50 years than in the previous 60 years, according to an upcoming study on extreme weather by leading federal and university climate scientists. This also fits with a dramatic upward trend in extreme winter precipitation — both rain and snow — in the Northeastern U.S. charted by the National Climatic Data Center.
  • Yet the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University says spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has shrunk on average by 1 million square miles in the past 45 years.
  • And an upcoming study in the Journal of Climate says computer models predict annual global snowfall to shrink by more than a foot in the next 50 years. The study’s author said most people live in parts of the United States that are likely to see annual snowfall drop between 30 percent and 70 percent by the end of the century.

Climate Actions

Fortunately, more people are learning the seriousness of the climate crisis and the imperative that we enact sensible policies to move us toward sustainability. Some are in positions of power. Just look how Ed Davey, Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, describes climate deniers. Hey – maybe we can hire this guy.

And forget the conventional “wisdom” on snow and warming. Get the facts. This new site – created by Peter Carter – is full of charts that tell many angles on the story of how we are altering the atmosphere and the climate. His Climate Change Index site illustrates land temperatures, Arctic sea ice, atmospheric methane, and much more.

And finally, kudos to the 40,000 citizens who marched in Washington last weekend. I wish I had been there. Their goal – stop the approval and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline – which will accelerate the destruction of a swath of Alberta’s boreal forest and – more important – rapidly advance our transformation of the world’s climate with our greenhouse gases.

The World Still Surprises

In the run-up to President W’s invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “If you break it, you own it.” Such is our relationship with the natural world. And yet, we still have so much to learn from the parts we have not destroyed or dramatically altered. Here are three interesting stories. First – news of a newly discovered owl species in Indonesia. Hope the little guy survives the palm oil boom. Next, who could have predicted this secret about bumblebees? Too bad that zap does not seem to fight Colony Collapse Disorder. And finally – shark finning has long been a cruel practice that has pushed many of these essential predators of the ocean to the brink of extinction. A new project matching human beauty and grace to that of whale sharks is calling attention to the practice and – we hope – will lead to its end.

Mother Nature is Keeping the Focus on Climate Change

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier – http://www.boomerwarrior.org – suggests that 2013 could be a breakthrough year in public awareness and action on climate change.

“If we are going to start calling industrial corn sustainable, then we might as well say that petroleum is a renewable resource if you’re willing to wait long enough.”
Catherine Friend

Contributed links or content to this posting – Allyson Harper, Rolly Montepellier

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 2/3/13

3 02 2013

The Final Parallel, Please  //

Tobacco and fossil-fueled energy have curious parallels. Both have provided users with benefits, both got entrenched in behavior and society, both have grievous unintended consequences. But the story of one is more resolved, to a point.

Back in the day in America, virtually everyone smoked, or so it seemed. Ads that look outrageous, even hilarious today – try this “scientific” one and this endorsement by doctors – sold cigarettes as keys to the good life, even good health. And no question – there were benefits. I remember trying them as a teenager, and feeling that intense nicotine rush. (It was a brief fling.)

But even during the well-documented cover-up by tobacco companies of the health risks, the evidence was right there in the ads. Check these for examples of “protesting too much.” “Camels agree with your throat.” “Nose, throat, and accessory organs not adversely affected by smoking Chesterfields.” “Medical authorities recognize Phillip Morris proved less irritating to the smoker’s nose and throat.” Uh huh.

Fast-forward to today. Smoking bans make it harder and harder to puff in public. And the habit hits the wallet harder and harder. Check the taxes per pack by state. Makes me glad not to be a smoker, especially in my native state of New York. Though the revenue from these taxes goes to various purposes, the logic is clear – put a cost on a product which creates costs to the user and to society generally. But this is where the parallel histories of cigarettes and fossil-fueled energy diverge.

The benefits of fossil fuels are so massive they are hard to quantify. Cheap coal and natural gas have fueled the rapid growth of population and cities. Plentiful oil has powered our cars, trucks and airplanes for decades. And in ways most of us don’t realize, our entire food system is oil-powered. According to author Michael Pollan, when you tally up oil-based agricultural chemicals, plus all the fuel used in production and transport, it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce each calorie of food we consume. So you might say that our whole society is built on fossil fuel – in a real sense, we eat oil.

Just like with cigarettes, the dark side of fossil fuel burning has gradually come into view. And just as reliably, the people amassing fortunes purveying the offending products are not at all happy with the science – in this case the science of how greenhouse gases are changing the atmosphere and the climate. The predictable action – still playing our today – is to “teach the controversy” and paralyze policy supporting the common good.  Read about the whole denial-pushing cabal right here in this resourceful  Media Matters blog post. Former Vice President Al Gore also makes the tobacco/fossil fuel connection in recent comments on video here.

Higher tobacco taxes have been one factor in reducing smoking rates. And that points to the way this parallel story needs to play out, and not over decades. We have summoned the political courage to charge some of the cost of tobacco use – both to users and society.  Isn’t it time we do the same with the cost of fossil fuel use? Cap and trade has been a failure. But putting a price on carbon – either through a tax or through James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan is the only way to keep our fossil fuel addiction from ultimately becoming a suicidal pursuit.

And the discussion is proceeding – in Australia, recent site of unprecedented heat so intense they needed to add new weather map colors, at NASA meteorologist James Hansen’s blog, and even, of all places (Grover Norquist and James Inhofe aside), in the Republican Party.

As long as we continue to ignore and externalize the cost of fossil-fuel pollution, we are behaving in a way satirized brilliantly in this Saturday Night Live video.  We can and must do better. Here are two organizations working for rational carbon pollution policy – the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Carbon Tax Center.

 

Sensible Policy from the Barrel of a Gun

Why – for so many of us – does it take immediate exposure to the dangers of gun violence to build commitment to rational gun laws? Think James Brady, Ronald Reagan, Mark Kelly and now these doctors from Sandy Hook.  This past week, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords provided brave testimony in favor of gun regulation. Here is the handwritten version. And here is the video. Now watch the diversionary pro-gun propaganda delivered at the same hearing from the chief lobbyist for the gun industry, Wayne LaPierre.  He has supported enhanced school security, not necessarily a bad idea. He has also suggested that arming teachers – think Rambo at the blackboard – also can help. Here is what one prominent St. Paul teacher has to say about that on her blog.

As usual, satire cuts through the baloney. First – how different is LaPierre’s approach from this Tom Tomorrow character? Second, hats off yet again to Jon Stewart. He has once again discovered a current right-wing radical debating a more rational opponent. That is, his former less extreme self from a decade or so ago. Senator Grassley gets a howler award here as well, folks – discredit where discredit is due.

I like this mayors’ organization fighting for the cause. I also love the fact that this group – led by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg – is slated to run an ad favoring sensible gun regulation at the Super Bowl.

 

Dream On

George Carlin said “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Star Tribune columnist Bonnie Blodgett wrote a thoughtful commentary recently that packs so many issues into a short Sunday column. Pay inequity, unfettered growth, our switch to a “me first” ethos, it is all here and very thought-provoking. A fitting examination of the complicated, elusive American Dream. And the parting shot reminds us of the legacy of our creeping embrace of “every-man-for-himself.” We are in the horse race now for the most unequal society in the world. How is that for “American Exceptionalism?”

 

The Growth Affliction

A promising new book has hit my reading list. This Excerpt from Enough is Enough suggests that authors Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill will tread where few sustainability activists dare – fingering unfettered population growth as the root cause of environmental ills. This also made me think of Dave Gardner, director of an informative documentary, Growthbusters. Watch the trailer here, and read a short article by the director right here.

 

Common Sense Revolution

In this guest post, Ottawa’s Rolly Montpellier brings the wisdom of that great 18th-century thinker, Thomas Paine, to bear on our modern climate crisis. Recommended.

Rolly blogs at the Boomer Warrior.

 

Light in the Darkness

One of the things that strikes a city kid like me when spending a night far from the city is just how much you can see in the night sky. Light pollution has been growing for decades, and as a result, most city dwellers have no idea what is up there. Some speculate this reinforces our view of humans as separate from the natural world. With our ongoing destruction of natural habitats, more separation from nature is exactly what is not needed. That need to connect is behind the work of photographer Thierry Cohen. In this slide show, Cohen shows what could be seen with light pollution under control in eleven major world cities from New York to Hong Kong. Magical.

 

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

― Thomas Paine

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier, Brendan Murphy

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN