Sierra Daily: August 2012
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18 posts from August 2012

Aug 15, 2012

Better Living Through Bug-Eating

GR_NBTilloNobody likes ants at a picnic. But what if the ants are the picnic? A growing number of scientists argue that the only way to feed all of the planet's 7 billion people is to start eating lower on the food chain--way lower. They advocate entomophagy, i.e., eating bugs.

Bugs were once a normal part of the human diet, and in many places, they still are. Ancient Romans were fond of larvae, and the Torah notes that locusts are kosher. Japan, Thailand, Australia, and many African countries still have thriving insect-eating traditions.

At Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Professors Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis have been advocating insect consumption since the 1990s, noting in the Wall Street Journal that bugs are "high in protein, B vitamins, and minerals like iron and zinc, and they're low in fat." Economical too: A pound of feed produces at least five times more cricket protein than beef protein, and while you can eat only about half of a cow, you can eat almost all of a bug.

More pluses: Insect-ranching requires little land or water and involves no steaming piles of excrement. And while meat eaters typically limit themselves to a handful of species, insectivores can pick from more than 1,000 edible options, among them wasps, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, termites, beetle grubs, and ant larvae.

"People who refuse to eat bugs are basically finicky eaters," says Dave Gracer, who promotes entomophagy through his company Smallstock Food Strategies and calls insects "the shrimp of the land." Still, he knows bugs are a tough sell--witness the backlash when customers learned that Starbucks used dye derived from cochineal beetles in its strawberry Frappuccinos. (The dye is also used in yogurts, artificial crab, cosmetics, and other products.) But with almost a fifth of the planet's greenhouse gases coming from livestock production, it may be time to get over such squeamishness. In the food world, Gracer says, "cows and pigs are the SUVs and bugs are the bicycles."

Illustration by iStockphoto/simonox

--Dashka Slater

Aug 14, 2012

Giant Snakes in Florida Become Ginormous

Python_necropsy01 (1)You read back in 2010 ("Snakes on Plains") about the danger of pet-store castoff snakes populating Florida's Everglades, including the reticulated python, "the snake most associated with unprovoked human fatalities in the wild." You've seen the picture of the 13-foot Burmese python in South Florida that expired as it tried to eat an alligator. The latest image fueling Floridians' nightmares is of the 17-foot-7-inch Burmese python captured by researchers at the University of Florida. Weighing in at 164.5 pounds, the snake smashes the previous record of 16.8 feet.

"They were here 25 years ago, but in very low numbers and it was difficult to find one because of their cryptic behavior," [Florida Museum herpetology collection manager Kenneth] Krysko said. "Now, you can go out to the Everglades nearly any day of the week and find a Burmese python. We've found 14 in a single day."

Pythons have no natural predators in the Everglades, but plenty of prey, including native birds, bobcats, deer, even alligators. Notes Krysko: "A 17.5-foot snake could eat anything it wants." And the scariest data point of all: This enormous serpent was pregnant, carrying a total of 87 eggs the size of goose eggs. As Samuel Jackson would say: "Enough is ENOUGH!"

Image by Kristen Grace, Florida Museum.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber


Aug 10, 2012

So Long, Periodic Table?

Metals recyc ermingut iStock_000017214926XSmallYour discarded paper, plastics, and compostable materials are ready at the curb, and your depleted batteries and compact fluorescent bulbs are tucked away, waiting for a special recycling drop-off day. All is well in the world of recycling, right? Not if you look at metals recycling. Scientific American’s David Biello takes a look at a study recently published in Science which concluded that “metals are infinitely recyclable in principle, but in practice, recycling is often inefficient or essentially nonexistent.”

“Altogether, we are talking about 60 metals that we have in the periodic table,” says study co-author Barbara Reck. “We are right now recycling maybe 20 of them, and 30 to 40 of these specialty metals are not at all recycled.” (Biello’s more provocative take: “Humans are ready to trash the periodic table.”)

While almost all the world’s lead is strictly regulated and recycled, Biello notes, aluminum, copper, nickel, steel, and zinc barely top fifty percent in recycling rates. Yet “mining and recycling can require as much as 20 times the amount of energy as recycling a given material.” Beck's study also notes that nearly 16,000 metric tons of the rare-earth metal neodymium were used in 2007, mainly for magnets in products such as hybrid cars to wind turbines. “Little to none of that material is currently being recycled,” conclude the authors.

Image by iStock/ermingut

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.  He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s  Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Aug 09, 2012

The Kardashians and Me


Anyone familiar with my wardrobe will assure you that as far as Keeping Up With the Kardashians goes, I do not. Until now! A press release from TOTO Global Group--famous for their line of super low-flow toilets--informs us that

its stylish, technologically advanced plumbing fixtures are featured this season on The Kardashians trend-setting reality series. A storyline follows style maven Kourtney Kardashian as she selects TOTO products to make a sophisticated, contemporary design statement in her bath spaces.

Hey, me too! In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that in this instance, Kourtney Kardashian is laboring to keep up with me, because I bought my TOTO toilet some years ago. It was not, I admit, in the interest of making a sophisticated, contemporary design statement so much as being a tightwad:

I recently replaced an old toilet with a new, low-flush model. Other things being equal, the payback time in my area is 12.5 years--long enough to convince many folks to suffice with a couple of bricks in the tank. To make the upgrade worth my while, my utility kicked in a $150 rebate, reducing the payback period to a very reasonable six years. After that I'm making money, not to mention cutting my water use by about 15 percent. The water savings, of course, start immediately, which is why my utility in drought-stricken California is willing to write me a check for a change.

Whether for cheapness or style, with three quarters of the United States now in a drought and the world using 3.5 times the available groundwater resources, we'd all better be keeping up with Kourtney soon.

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

Aug 08, 2012

Succumbing to the Heat

Drought aluxum iStock_000016202405XSmallJuly was officially the hottest month on record for the contiguous United States, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And we’d better get used to seeing more summer records melt. A study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by NASA climatologist James Hansen, the “godfather of global warming,” says that the odds of extreme heat waves, rarer than 1 in 300 from the 1950s through the 1980s, are now closer to 1 in 10. “This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened,” Hansen writes in the Washington Post. “Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

Image by iStock/aluxum

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.  He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s  Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”


Aug 07, 2012

Sex As A Patriotic Duty

BabyWith the world population surpassing 7 billion last October, most nations in the world are fighting climate change with family planning. But not everyone! Singapore, with a population of 5.18 million, a median age of 37, and the lowest fertility rate in the world at .78 children per woman, is embarking on an, er, aggressive campaign to boost its population. This Thursday, August 9, has been designated by the famously straight-laced nation as "National Night," when it is the duty of "financially secure adults in stable, committed long-term relationships" to do their demographic duty. "We gotta go all the way for Singapore, ya know what I'm sayin'?" Successful couples will be eligible for the nation's $3,000 "baby bonus" for the first and second child, $4,800 for children three and four.  

Further encouragement is offered in the video below. (Safe for work, although you might want to keep the sound down.) Thanks to James Fallows for the tip.


HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber


Aug 03, 2012

Singin’ in the Rain

Desert cardinal  iStock_000013319858XSmallBirds that live with fluctuating weather are more complex singers. That’s the conclusion of a study by researchers from Australian National University and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina, who analyzed recordings from 400 male birds representing 44 species of North American songbirds. After studying spectrograms (sound graphs) of twitter, warbles, chirps, and trills, the researchers found that the more dramatic the seasonal swings in precipitation in a given habitat, the more variable a bird’s song. The same goes for geographic variation: If a bird’s habitat includes differences in precipitation, the avians up their sound game.

When you consider that birds often arrive in their breeding grounds when vegetation is sparse, only to experience them becoming densely vegetated over a matter of weeks, it all makes charming evolutionary sense. Acoustic conditions change as vegetation changes. The “birds that have more flexibility in their songs may be better able to cope with the different acoustic environments throughout the year,” said study co-author Iliana Medina.

Desert cardinal image by iStock/Dr-Strangelove

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Aug 02, 2012

Florida Panther: Not Dead Yet!

FL pantherOne of the most exciting recent developments in wildlife conservation is the "camera trap," a remote camera triggered by a motion sensor. That's how Michael Nichols got his remarkable shot of a rare Pacific Fisher in the current issue, and how we got a glimpse of the elusive Canadian lynx using a wildlife crossing over the Trans-Canada highway in Banff National Park.

Now, via Florida Panther's lively Facebook page, comes this killer image of one of the rare cats sharpening its claws in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is too small, the panther's habitat is distressingly fragmented (see Tristram Korten's "Panther At the Crossroads,"), and collisions with cars are depressingly common (remember the "Injured Florida Panther Kitten in Rehab"?), but it's glorious for once to see this animal as master of its element, carrying on despite the obstacles we put in its way. --Paul Rauber

Image: USFWS


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