Monday, July 16, 2012


If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.


Diseases have always come out of the woods and wildlife and found their way into human populations — the plague and malaria are two examples. But emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease “hot spots” around the globe, mostly in tropical regions. And with modern air travel and a robust market in wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in large population centers is enormous.


IT’S not just the invasion of intact tropical landscapes that can cause disease. The West Nile virus came to the United States from Africa but spread here because one of its favored hosts is the American robin, which thrives in a world of lawns and agricultural fields. And mosquitoes, which spread the disease, find robins especially appealing. “The virus has had an important impact on human health in the United States because it took advantage of species that do well around people,” says Marm Kilpatrick, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The pivotal role of the robin in West Nile has earned it the title “super spreader.”

And Lyme disease, the East Coast scourge, is very much a product of human changes to the environment: the reduction and fragmentation of large contiguous forests. Development chased off predators — wolves, foxes, owls and hawks. That has resulted in a fivefold increase in white-footed mice, which are great “reservoirs” for the Lyme bacteria, probably because they have poor immune systems. And they are terrible groomers. When possums or gray squirrels groom, they remove 90 percent of the larval ticks that spread the disease, while mice kill just half. “So mice are producing huge numbers of infected nymphs,” says the Lyme disease researcher Richard Ostfeld.

“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role,” Dr. Ostfeld told me. “There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play reservoir roles.”

Conservative economist Ed Glaeser thinks we need to move away from extracting wealth from unsustainable means like extractive industries, and should instead move towards notions of growth and well-being based on knowledge and human capital:
America became great because it transformed its vast natural resources -- Iowa farmland, Mesabi iron, Texas crude -- into human capital, equipped with skills to succeed in the Information Age.

Now, when human capital is king, some look toward Texas and North Dakota and see natural-resource extraction as a path to economic rejuvenation. But if we look at Australia, the model of a major mineral producer, we see that widespread prosperity comes not from the stuff beneath the ground but from the stuff between our ears.


A recent paper I co-wrote with William Kerr and Sari Pekkala Kerr examined the long-run impact of mining across the U.S. Fifty years ago, the economist Benjamin Chinitz noted that New York appeared even then to be more resilient than Pittsburgh. He argued that New York’s garment industry, with its small setup costs, had engendered a culture of entrepreneurship that spilled over into new industries. Pittsburgh, because of its coal mines, had the huge U.S. Steel Corp. (X), which trained company men with neither the ability nor the inclination to start some new venture. A body of healthy literature now documents the connection between economic success and measures of local entrepreneurship, such as the share of employment in startups and an abundance of smaller companies.

Our new paper documents Chinitz’s insight that mineral wealth historically led to big companies, not entrepreneurial clusters. In Australia, iron ore and coal are mined by giant corporations such as Rio Tinto Plc and BHP Billiton Ltd., and giant enterprises typically work best with other big companies. Across U.S. metropolitan areas, we found that historical mining cities had fewer small companies and fewer startups, even today in sectors unrelated to mining or manufacturing, and even in the Sunbelt. These mining cities were also experiencing less new economic activity.


It is a fiction that U.S. economic woes could be solved if only the nation adopted a “drill, baby, drill” attitude toward natural resources. Less than 0.6 percent of American jobs are in natural-resource extraction. Even a vast increase in drilling employment would have a trivial impact on U.S. jobs. Oil prices are set in the world market, so American production can do little to radically decrease the global price of petroleum.

The wealth that comes out of the ground is a short-term windfall, not a long-term source of economic growth. The U.S. and Australia should both recognize that their futures depend on training smart, innovative entrepreneurs and reducing the barriers that limit their success.
Though he's much too conservative to throw around hippie words like sustainability, that's really precisely what he's talking about. His language is actually something folks like me can learn from — rather than talking about limits and unsustainable growth, the issue should be one of reframing what we mean by growth and well-being and focus on things like mining human capital, rather than destroying natural capital for our generation of wealth.

Tourism can exacerbate water scarcity:
The disproportionate use of fresh water by tourists in developing world destinations is causing local conflict, exacerbating poverty and helping to spread disease, says a report to be published next week by the charity Tourism Concern.

The report examined five coastal destinations popular with international tourists – the Gambia, Bali in Indonesia, the islands of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania, and Goa and Kerala in India. Researchers claim to have uncovered huge inequalities in consumption and access to water supplies between tourists and the local populations.

"While hotels may have the money and resources to ensure their guests enjoy several showers a day, swimming pools, a round of golf, and lush landscaped gardens, neighbouring households, small businesses and agricultural producers can regularly endure severe water scarcity," says the report.

In the resort villages of Kiwengwa and Nungwi in Zanzibar, Tourism Concern's researchers found that, on average, tourists were using 16 times more fresh water a day per head than locals. The researchers found that locals used, on average, 93.2 litres of water per day, whereas in the five-star hotels the average daily consumption per room was 3,195 litres. In less luxurious tourist "guesthouses", the consumption rate fell to 686 litres per day.

The water crisis has led some Zanzibar hotels to employ security guards to protect the water pipes leading into their walled complexes following sabotage attempts by angry locals who claim they are facing extreme shortages as a result of the area's falling water table. "Hoteliers were taking much water and communities decided to demonstrate and destroy the water system to the hotels," one Nungwi villager told a Tourism Concern researcher.

Sure, there's political polarization, but one party's far more responsible for the widening gap than the other — it's asymmetric polarization:
The parties have not become equally ideologically homogenous or moved equally far toward their extremes. They do not behave in the same way or share the same attitude toward established social and political norms. Republicans have moved farther right than Democrats have left.


[O]ver the 32 years leading up to 2004, the mean Dem moved six points to the left and the mean Republican moved 22 points to the right. Much farther! And second, there is virtually no overlap left between the parties. The humps have almost entirely separated. In short, the chart shows asymmetrical polarization.


Today, the national Democratic Party contains everything from the center-right to the far-left. Economically its proposals tend to be center to center-right. Socially, its proposals tend to be center to center-left. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built an epistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.

Corporations aren't people; they're much more awesome — that's why they can get away with murder, right?:
Imagine you’re the closest living relative of a child who just inherited $100 million after her parents died in a car crash. You’re a distant cousin, but if something happened to her, you’d be next in line.

She has juvenile diabetes. So you “adjust” her insulin prescription a bit yourself, doubling the dose. When that doesn’t work, you tell her a different drug works just as well, and when she’s reluctant, you offer her a trip to Disney World.

What would happen if you got caught? You’d probably be convicted of attempted murder and spend several years in prison.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced a settlement with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. The company had, among a host of criminal actions, helped publish falsified data in a medical journal, failed to report the dangers of a drug and used “favors” like trips to Jamaica to persuade doctors to use its medications for unapproved — and unproven — purposes on children.

These two fact patterns have a lot in common, except that instead of endangering the life of one child, the company endangered the lives of many, and instead of anyone receiving prison time, the company agreed to pay a fine — which it will no doubt pass on to its customers and shareholders — that is, to us.

This isn’t an exception. Several other pharmaceutical companies, The New York Times reported, have recently agreed to similar settlements.
Robert Reich is not at all impressed with the GSK settlement:
Now $3 billion may sound like a lot of money, but during the years covered under the settlement, Glaxo is reported to have made nearly $30 billion on these three anti-depressants alone.

But to the extent the penalty will affect Glaxo's profits and share price, the wrong people will be feeling the financial pain. Most of today's Glaxo shareholders bought into the company after the ill-gotten profits were already built into the price they paid for their shares.

The only way to get a big company like this to change its ways is by making individual executives feel the heat. But not a single executive has been charged. Glaxo has agreed to reclaim the bonuses of any executives who engaged in or supervised improper behavior. But without legal charges against the executives involved, it's impossible to know whether Glaxo will follow through.

An even more basic issue is why the advertising and marketing of prescription drugs is allowed at all, when consumers can't buy them and shouldn't be influencing doctors' decisions anyway. Before 1997, the Food and Drug Administration banned such advertising on TV and radio. That ban should be resurrected.

Finally, there's no good reason why doctors should be allowed to accept any perks at all from companies whose drugs they write prescriptions for. Codes of ethics that are supposed to limit such gifts obviously don't work. All perks should be banned, and doctors that accept them should be subject to potential loss of their license to practice. It's an inherent conflict of interest.
Just what all bullshit did GSK engage in?

Two points that bear constant repeating: (1) the GOP doesn't care about the uninsured, (2) the GOP has no credible response to Obamacare:
Fifty million uninsured Americans would be the immediate casualties of the GOP’s “let them eat the emergency room” mentality. But all of us would be at risk. In America — alone among wealthy nations — everyone is a pink slip or job change or new illness away from finding they have lost coverage or are uninsurable.

This is the shameful reality behind the GOP’s rhetoric on health care. Republicans don’t want to spend a penny to insure the uninsured.


You may have noticed that Republicans have been struggling to come up with a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act once they repeal it. Why is it so hard? Because Obamacare WAS the Republican alternative. It was the conservative-designed mandate and subsidy approach. Republicans are in such an intellectual cul-de-sac on this issue that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) actually blasted Obamacare for being a sop to the president’s “cronies” in the insurance industry. Oy!

I feel like a broken record, but some truths bear repeating. Only in America could a Democratic president pass Mitt Romney’s health plan and fund it partly through John McCain’s best idea from the last campaign (taxing some employer-provided plans) and be branded a “socialist.”

In every other advanced nation, the idea that government has a central role in assuring basic health security was settled decades ago — a consensus that conservatives abroad embrace. Always remember: conservative icon Margaret Thatcher would have been chased from office if she had proposed anything as radically conservative as Obamacare — which relies on private docs to deliver the medicine, after all, and still leaves 20 million people uncovered.
The GOP's healthcare plan: You have cancer? Sucks to be you.

John Feinstein calls on colleges to stop paying so much attention to sports programs:
[N]o college coach should be placed on the pedestal that Paterno was put on at Penn State. That pedestal is what prevented then-President Graham Spanier from stepping up in 2001, when a graduate assistant coach told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky in a university shower sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy. Instead of ruling that the only option was to notify authorities, Spanier and the university’s athletic director allowed Paterno to dictate the school’s course of action — which was no action at all.


College presidents love to talk about the importance of academics and refer to football and basketball players as “student-athletes.” They set themselves up as bastions of righteousness even as they let coaches run amok in the name of winning games and making money.

This is an opportunity for presidents to do something other than preen. They should take steps to ensure that no coach can ever again have the absolute power Paterno wielded. They should stop giving coaches multimillion-dollar contracts. They should stop building statues and naming stadiums, arenas and basketball courts for them — especially while the coaches are still active. They should also stop asking them to raise funds. Tell them to coach their teams and try to see to it that their players graduate. Period.

Carbon emissions as ignored fossil fuel subsidy.

Turns out that despite what the frackers had been telling us for years, fluids from the Marcellus Shale layer can, in fact, migrate upwards and into groundwater.

The market speaks: Nationwide Insurance refuses to offer policies covering damages that result from fracking.

How to make corn more sustainable? Plant less corn. And then move towards more “hardier, more nutritious and more efficient” crops.

[T]ransit fails to connect most employers with a majority of their metropolitan labor pool. Instead, the average employer can reach only 27 percent of the metropolitan labor pool via transit in 90 minutes.”

The Dead Zone isn't getting any better.

Global warming means more heat waves.

Al Jazeera English airs a well-done, 25-minute piece on climate change and extreme weather:

The American public is beginning to recognize climate change.

It's not just coastal infrastructure that's at risk with climate change.

The EPA moves to deal with poor air quality at national parks; the right, as expected, throws a fit.

Water rich vs. water poor.

Public lands, Private profits, a series of three short video documentaries from the Center for American progress and the Sierra Club.

You can add what to organic foods?

The Amazon's extinction debt.

Though I don't think environmental guilt is a particularly useful response, it's interesting nonetheless to see that those with the least environmental impact have the most guilt, and those with the greatest impact have the least guilt. More interesting to me, though, is that it's the guilt-free consumption class that feels “they could have a positive impact on the environment.” (h/t/ Wifey)

The US ranks #9 (of 12) in energy efficiency.

[O]ne more in a litany of broken promises from Shell when it comes to drilling in the Arctic.”

Climate change and salmon evolution.

Helping women who've been raped? Pshaw. That's a distraction from the real public health issues.

Providing contraception would make a huge dent in cutting maternal deaths.

Let's just cut the crap: the only explanation for this is nothing but racism. It's true that people filter information that conflicts with their pre-exisiting beliefs. But the only justification for the belief that Obama wasn't born in the US is racism, pure and simple.

Increasing political polarization — especially over the need for environmental regulations and the social safety net.

How the GOP abandoned the center — and Richard Posner.

This is the worst Congress ever.

States' rights if it means more power to corporations, the ability to discriminate against minorities and other powerless group, and the right to torture animals. But it's a full-on embrace of the Commerce Clause if corporate rights are under attack or some states want to grant greater rights to the oppressed.

Yup, Wall Street execs are as despicable as you thought.

Well, prosecute the Banksters.

The shareholder value myth.

Alabama's debtors prison.

How many cellphones are cops tracking?

It's time to recognize your phone for what it is: a tracking device.

And it's time to amend privacy laws to keep up with new technologies and protect consumers.

ProPublica rounds up the best reporting on rendition and detention under Obama.

NYPD has stopped all the terrorism ever.

I am sorry, we don’t sell to Persians.”

Don't feel guilty about taking vacation. However, do agitate for the rights of all workers to have such benefits.

The FDA spied on its own scientists because they had the gall to suggest “that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.”

Stop disrespecting the social sciences.

How to make STEM disciplines more woman-friendly.

Women, STEM, and the stereotype threat.

Don't get sick in July.

Antibiotic overuse in chickens just gave you that bladder infection.

Doctors cash in by playing the role of pharmacist.

What can you eat across the world if you're living at the poverty line? (h/t Peter via Katelyn)

Beautiful storm clouds.

Olympic venues as “ruin porn.”

Woody at 100.

Damn right, he was a fascist-hating commie. Get over it.

New Mountain Goats on the way!

John Hodgman is excited about the new Mountain Goats album. That is all.

Harry Reid, n. ˈhærɪ rēde “A sexual position where you climb on top and then do absolutely nothing.”

I’m a Steely Dan fan so naturally I wanted to read the book they thought compelling enough to name their band after an element of” and other great one-star Amazon reviews of great books.

What happened with the Pulitzer's fiction prize this year? (h/t Wifey)

Penis bones.

No, it wasn't funny when Daniel Tosh made a rape "joke", but The Onion just told the greatest rape joke ever.

A trailer for the new film from funnyman Mike Birbiglia:

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