Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 1:14 PM
Couples have more options than ever when choosing the right contraception for their relationship: There are pills and patches, IUDs and surgeries, shots, diaphragms, and sponges. Recently, researchers have even made significant advances in the development of male contraception. All of the choices make the latex condom seem rather, well, old-fashioned—which is good reason for prophylactic pushers to give the condom a 21st century makeover.
Sir Richard’s, a condom startup whose slogan is “Doing good never felt better,” donates one condom for every condom bought on the shelf. The company has a clever ad campaign, to boot. Sir Richard’s, reports Fast Company’s Cliff Kuang, “is advertsing its wares not by promises of hair-pulling, nail-scratching pleasure, but rather economics. Simply put, it costs so much to have a damn kid that you better not have one by accident.” “Suggested Retail” stickers on the product packaging remind shoppers that a child's diapers cost more than $1,000 per year and that a Bugaboo stroller retails nearly $900. The company’s street advertisements mention the cost per year of sending a kid to college; in a stark font, the posters are inscribed with reminders like “The Dalton School - $35,300 per child/per year.” Ouch.
New York City recently unveiled a smart phone application called “NYC Condom Finder,” which uses your phone’s GPS to locate the nearest free-condom dispensary. “Considering that there are 3,000 such venues throughout the city,” writes Good’s Cord Jefferson, “it’s unlikely a person would ever be very far from a gratis prophylactic.”
One legitimate concern, applicable to both Sir Richard’s and the New York City Department of Health initiative, is that these marketing tricks may only resonate with affluent consumers, ostensibly those who’ve already received plenty of sex education and can afford smart phones. “[W]e’re seriously doubting that many unexpected parents end up with Bugaboos and tuition bills from Chapin,” writes Kuang. “Smart as the [Sir Richard's] campaign is, it probably needs more than a little of the everyman touch to truly be relevant. After all, having a kid is expensive, no matter if it’s a silver spoon or a tin spoon in their mouths.” In an ad campaign from a few years back, Trojan took that everyman approach and reminded men that if you’re not serious about contraception, you’ll get thrown into the pig pen.
Sources: Fast Company, Good
Image courtesy of Sir Richard's.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 3:15 PM
Last week, a few alternative and environmental news outlets drew attention to a newly published science book that put the cumulative death toll of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident at more than a million—a story that had particular resonance on the 24th anniversary of the reactor meltdown, the book’s publication date. But the story did not bleed out into the mainstream media, and even the progressive website Alternet seemed suspicious, calling the 1 million estimate an “astounding allegation” in its headline.
The number is dramatically higher than the estimate of 4,000 deaths presented in a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program—a figure that has often been criticized as being far too low and influenced by the IAEA’s pro-nuclear agenda.
Where is the truth here? It’s an awfully long way from 4,000 to one million—996,000, in fact. If the truth is somewhere in between the two figures, neither one is of much help to people who are trying to decide whether new nuclear plants—such as those President Obama has proposed—are a safe energy source.
The book that raised eyebrows last week was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a well respected, almost 200-year-old scientific society, so it carried a whiff of academic rigor. But just six days after the book’s publication, NYAS issued an online statement in which it downplayed the currency of the information and distanced itself from it. The statement notes that the book was based on a report originally published online in November 2009, which itself was the translation of a 2007 publication:
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences. The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own. Although the New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide an open forum for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums.
The messages I take away from this not-very-deeply-coded missive are threefold: 1) The information isn’t all that new, so move along; 2) We’re not backing up the scientists, so caveat emptor; and 3) Corporate partners and foundation heavyweights, please don’t cut our funding because you think we’re anti-nuke.
While both studies appear to have credibility problems, the larger question is this: If the United States is going to enter a new era of nuclear power, as a host of observers have predicted, we’re going to have to get a firmer handle on its potential downside in a worst-case scenario. Techno-optimists who believe in the awesome power of science should create a panel of independent medical and public health experts—outside the IAEA—to arrive at a Chernobyl death estimate that both pro- and anti-nuclear forces can trust. Until then, potential supporters of both camps have 996,000 reasons to doubt what they’re told.
Sources: New York Academy of Sciences, Alternet, IAEA
Friday, December 11, 2009 2:27 PM
A helmet protects your noggin while bicycling, but helmet laws can make cycling more dangerous, according to Next American City. Safety in numbers explains the paradox: “One of the biggest determining factors of bicycle safety is not protective wear, but the number of other cyclists out on the road,” Justin Glick writes. Helmet laws—because they imply cycling is dangerous—tend to depress ridership, sometimes dramatically.
“Advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has strongly opposed mandatory helmet laws in New York City on multiple occasions for just this reason,” Glick writes. “Their spokesperson . . . explains how it’s an issue when cycling morphs from a ‘spontaneous activity, as commonplace as going for a walk,’ into something seen as ‘more cumbersome, less safe.’ ” Yet studies have shown that cycling is no more dangerous than driving or going for a walk.
Source: Next American City
Image by Dan4th, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 10, 2009 8:49 AM
You’ve used a toilet today. We both know it. You did your business, flushed, washed your hands, and forgot about it. And why not? Your waste has been whisked away to who-cares-where, and so long as you don’t have to see or smell it, there’s no second thought to think.
The distance we’re able to maintain from our feces allows us the luxury of forgetting, but four in ten people—that’s 2.6 billion—have no sanitation, not even an outhouse or a pit. There is no choice but to squat in fields, alongside roads, or near doorsteps, a practice known as “open defecation.” This lack of access forces those affected not only to see, smell and walk amongst their own feces, but also to face the health consequences wrought by contaminated food and water. According to Rose George, journalist and author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste (Metropolitan), one gram of human feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs. Community sanitation advocate Kamal Kar estimates that those living in places where open defecation is common inadvertently ingest more than ten grams of fecal matter every day, and the consequences are clear. Children face the greatest risk; playing in the mud can lead to deadly disease. George highlights statistics that are difficult to stomach: A child dies every 15 seconds as a result of diarrhea—90 percent of which can be attributed to fecal contamination—and the number of children who’ve died of it in the past decade exceeds the number of people killed in armed conflict since World War II.
For those who survive childhood, issues of dignity and risk to personal safety compound the health risks—especially for women and girls with no access to sanitation. The New Internationalist has reported that in the name of modesty, women in India often wait until darkness falls to venture to the fields and forests, risking snake bites, scorpion stings, and sexual assault. Daylight hours are spent holding it in, leading to an increased risk of urinary tract infections and chronic constipation. George writes that the education of young girls in South Africa is severely limited by the capacity of schools to provide privacy and clean toilets. When menstruation begins, educations often end.
These sobering facts are perfect fodder for celebrity advocacy and fundraising—so why isn’t Bono hawking Project(brown) totes and baby tees? An initial investment of $95 billion could achieve universal sanitation by 2015, George writes, and would save $660 billion in averted health costs and increased productivity. George believes a celebrity advocate would do wonders for global sanitation and has hope that Matt Damon will lead the charge. “Damon has started to talk about school latrines, which is great news,” George told Salon. "It’s inevitable because he does a lot of great work on clean water.”
The truth is, governments and NGOs can install shiny new taps in village squares all they like, but access to clean water is temporary at best without effective sanitation. The United Nations dedicated 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation, but it was also the International Year of the Potato. This kind of thing will never be enough, and due in no small part to the broad swath of cultures affected by the problem, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t be enough either—solutions will have to be tailor made. Stanford reports on a research project in Tanzania that aims to determine the most effective ways to convince people to alter their hygiene habits. With expenses like food, clothing, and cell phones to contend with, health considerations alone are not enough to compel those with limited incomes to invest in latrines. “When you ask people about the importance of [water] treatment,” says researcher Agnes Lwitiko, “they say they know, but it’s expensive and my grandfather and grandmother didn’t do it that way.”
Sanitation may be short of snappy phrases fit for bumper stickers, but if we want to save lives, we must break the silence on shit. Somebody get Matt Damon on the phone.
Sources: New Internationalist, Salon, Stanford
, licensed under
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 3:30 PM
Here’s a lesson: Going to school (and especially graduating) does a body good. In the recent issue of Governing, Penelope Lemov reports that “the higher your degree, the healthier you are.” Statistics show that as people climb the academic ladder their reported level of health increases significantly. This assessment comes from research findings analyzed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which looked at education and health statistics in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. There are staggering health differences among those who do or don't graduate from high school and those who have dropped out or finished college—which is great news for those with college diplomas, but quite troubling for those without. Lemov writes:
The most discouraging part of the report is its implication for children. Undereducated parents tend to be poor and to rear their children in households with limited access to grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables; to live in less safe housing; to have insufficient access to safe places to exercise—all of which affect a family’s health. “For the first time in our history, we are raising a generation of children that may live shorter, sicker lives than their parents,” says Dennis Rivera, a commissioner of RWJF’s Commission to Build a Healthier America.
Sources: Governing, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Image by Herkie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 09, 2009 5:51 PM
In a move certain to irritate uncompromising libertarians, oil executives, and muscle-car enthusiasts, New York City has made it illegal to let your vehicle engine idle for more than a minute in a school zone. With the new ordinance, the city joins several other cities and states in going after idling engines as a pollution source and health hazard.
Minneapolis, the home of Utne Reader’s editorial offices, is among the enlightened cities with recently passed or amended anti-idling ordinances on the books. The city even has a printable mock ticket/informational brochure on its website that vigilant citizens can use to remind violators of the law.
How bad is idling, and how unnecessary is it? Let us count the ways:
It spews greenhouse gases. In Sierra magazine’s March-April issue, advice peddler Mr. Green fields a question about the global-warming impact of that American institution, the drive-through. Crunching the numbers, Mr. Green concludes that idling cars and trucks emit about 58 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, and U.S. fast-food drive-throughs cause customers to burn an extra 50 million gallons of gas annually. At Sustainablog, Robin Shreves notes that you don’t even have to give up drive-throughs to green up your act: Just shut off your engine when you’re in line at the bank or the burger joint.
It’s a health threat. As Minneapolis’ ticket/brochure points out, “Exhaust is hazardous to human health, especially children’s; studies have linked air pollution to increased rates of cancer, heart and lung disease, asthma and allergies.” If you have any doubts, go suck on a tailpipe. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that children, the elderly and those with asthma and other chronic health problems are especially vulnerable to the health dangers of exhaust.
Your car doesn’t need it. If you think you need to warm up your car before driving to avoid mechanical problems, think again. Slate’s own advice columnist, the Green Lantern, tackled several engine-idling myths last May and concluded that for modern fuel-injected engines, there’s simply no good mechanical reason to warm up a car for more than 30 seconds. (For those who see Car Talk’s Click and Clack as the final word on auto advice, they concur.) As a Minnesotan, I’ll add just one caveat to the discussion: When it’s really cold—and I’m talking near or below zero—make sure your defroster is warm enough to clear the windshield before traveling at highway speed, or the glass might cloud up.
You don’t need it. Now that you know your mechanical explanation doesn’t cut it, you might have to address a touchier subject: your personal comfort. In cold weather, I can attest that many Minnesotans like to get their automobile microclimate nice ’n’ toasty before climbing inside, so as not to shock their gentle derrieres. I have several neighbors who dash out to their cars 10, 20, even 30 (!) minutes before actually departing for work to warm up their vehicles. (One guy even turns his headlights on for extra measure.) I’m a daily, year-round bike commuter who avoids using my personal virtue as a cudgel, but I’ve got to tell you, people: Toughen up or find a less wasteful way to warm your bum, whether it’s long johns or a thermal cushion. That’s me out there on the street, huffing your unoccupied car’s exhaust cloud as I ride past. Know how I warm up my vehicle? I get on and start pedaling. Neighbors, your tickets are on their way!
Sources: City of Minneapolis, Sierra, Sustainablog, Environmental Defense Fund, Slate, Car Talk
Friday, December 05, 2008 4:41 PM
Leave aside the fever-pitched bickering about gun control—all the condescending talk of hicks clinging to guns and the machismo stubbornness of prying a pistol from somebody’s cold dead hands. Instead, imagine a new approach: What if illegal guns were treated like pollution and gun violence like a public health problem?
The Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine spotlights this tack, launched by the university’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, in its fall 2008 issue:
When a community knows that its water and land are being poisoned by effluent from a chemical factory, or its air is being rendered foul by smokestacks, it goes after those polluters to protect the health of its people. The approach taken by the epidemiologists, public health experts and lawyers at the Center for Gun Policy and Research is the same: “Where are these guns coming from? It’s not like they spontaneously generated in the forest—‘Oh look, a baby gun!’” says Stephen Teret, [the center’s founder]. “The loading docks of the gun manufacturers are the point sources of this pollution.”
The center uses a mixed staff of lawyers, epidemiologists, researchers, and policy experts to deploy a battery of strategies ranging from legal challenges to legislative advocacy to hardcore data-sifting to working with state and local officials to track illegal gun dealers.
You can learn more about the center at its website. Also check out a handy sidebar to the magazine’s main article on how to build a safer gun.
Friday, November 28, 2008 10:33 AM
It’s no news that pesticides pose health risks, particularly to children. So why are they being sprayed liberally on school grounds?
Concerned parents in California have been asking that question for some time, according to the Sacramento News and Review. And while they’ve made significant headway—curbing pesticide use at some schools, getting spraying to be done during off hours, and making schools’ use of weed killers much more transparent—pesticide applications at most schools persist.
The News and Review highlights the recent efforts of parents at one Sacramento school, where students tend their own organic garden, to rid the campus of pesticides, and also points to the work of Utne visionary Robina Suwol. Suwol’s work helped prompt the Los Angeles Unified School District to approve the strictest rules restricting pesticide use in the country, which in turn ushered through passage of California’s Healthy Schools Act, giving parents the right-to-know about pesticide use at their children’s schools.
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