Fracked Over for Natural Gas

Research makes it increasingly clear that along with drilling for oil and mining coal, extracting natural gas from deep underground causes serious damage to the environment and to public health. On The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg examines the contamination that may result from dumping fracking wastewater into disposal wells, writing “about 1,000 different chemicals are used in the fracking industry, with more than 100 being known or suspected endocrine disruptors.” Researchers collected water samples downstream from wells in West Virginia, and after “exposing both female and male mammalian sex hormones to the water, researchers found that the water blocked the hormones’ normal processes.” In another study, researchers found “fracking wastewater disposal wells in southern Texas are disproportionately permitted in areas with higher proportions of people of color and people living in poverty.” Meanwhile, air pollution around fracking sites may contribute to skin conditions and respiratory disease. While the science surrounding pollution from hydraulic fracturing is far from settled, many fingers point in the same direction: fracking is bad news for communities and for the planet.

At The Nation, Bill McKibben reports that unbeknownst to the EPA, “US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent” between 2002 and 2014. The culprit? Leaky natural gas infrastructure. Although methane lingers in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, it traps heat much more efficiently. McKibben says the true extent of methane leaked from fracking means that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions during the Obama administration has been higher than previously estimated, and could actually be increasing. Fracking is also a technology that the U.S. has pushed worldwide, and we can expect to see both its local and planetary effects multiplied many times over. As McKibben concludes, “we need to stop the fracking industry in its tracks, here and abroad.”


Well-Manicured Wastelands

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers doesn’t just want cut your grass—he wants to tear it out by the roots and leave it to rot in the sun. He quotes J. Crumpler on The Roaming Ecologist, who calls lawns “sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments […] that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.” To make matters worse, lawnmower use adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while beautiful bermuda grass requires a lot of H2O in a world that is increasingly insecure about water. During the depths of California’s drought—which has seen some relief from El Niño this year—many residents took a hard look at their lawns. On Significant Figures, Mathew Heberger writes, “many Californians could reduce their outdoor water use by 70% or more by landscaping with low water-use plants.” It’s not as if the alternative is a dirt patch in front of your house; there are a wide variety of plants you can grow with nutritional, ecological, and aesthetic value, that will be less of a middle finger to the planet.

Keeping Hillary off the Half Dollar

In January, Hillary Clinton still possessed the benefit of the doubt. Memories of her and Bill snarling at Barack Obama in 2008 had faded, and despite her long and dreadful record, it’s always possible to turn over a new leaf. But Clinton’s ongoing response to Bernie Sanders shows why she is unfit for the presidency. Even as the frontrunner, Hillary shows no leadership ability; she, too, follows Sanders, trailing him to the left as he takes meaningful positions on issues like income inequality and campaign finance reform. Her saccharine smile says “I can do that too!” but truly she should be inspired by competition, not forced to shift uncomfortably because of it. Her recent anger at being asked about money from the fossil fuel industry illustrates her shortcomings perfectly. Confronted with a fair election, faced with her own record, she becomes defensive instead of inspired. She says something that isn’t true to blunt the inappropriateness of her rage. She enjoys the benefits of Citizens United just as they were meant to be enjoyed: as a carte blanche that allows her and other mainstream candidates to deny the corrupting influence of big money even as millions of industry dollars are spent on her behalf.

But Clinton has never shown interest in a fair contest; she moved to New York in 2000 because it was the only state in the union that might elect her to the Senate. In her 2008 bid for the White House she carried herself as though presidential candidates are anointed by the Democratic National Committee, a private organization having no constitutional roots. She dismissed the possibility of nominating Obama just as she has dismissed Sanders. She and her jolly encampment harp on her inevitability; one of their favorite terms for her is “our next president.” Having every superdelegate in your pantsuit pocket is one thing, but insulting Americans by saying they have no choice is just asking to get burned.

Clinton seems to think her sex, along with her inimitable résumé, is a golden halo; although she is a lackluster feminist, she yearns to set a historical precedent as the first female president, and casts aspersions on anyone who would deny her the opportunity. Look at her inane campaign slogan: “I’m With Her.” But do you remember Gloria Steinem, advocating for Hillary, saying girls who support Bernie are only doing it to impress the boys? Do you remember the Clintons throwing Monica Lewinsky under the bus after Bill had thoroughly exploited her in the Oval Office? According to CNN, Hillary called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon,” which is at least somewhat ironic. And do you remember Hillary deliberately praising Nancy Reagan for her crusade against AIDS last month, either out of sheer ignorance or else to saint the memory of an arch-conservative? Do you remember how until 2013 she advocated against gay marriage and now she thinks it’s great? Hillary Clinton is not a feminist, she’s simply a woman, and if that’s her strongest claim to the White House, it’s not enough. Her posturing is sexist in and of itself.

Meanwhile Clinton and her handlers and her campaign staff and the last godforsaken newspapers in this country have worked tirelessly to influence public perception with rhetoric and omission rather than take a stand on important issues. Outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times have seriously undermined their credibility by covering this race not as a democratic contest, but as a victory march beset by ungrateful and even dangerous support for Bernie Sanders. First they say “Sanders can’t win” and then they say “Unite! Or Trump will take over in November” and now they say “Bernie is fighting dirty!”

But let’s think about Donald Trump for a minute. Like Hillary, Trump has a long public record, and along with the fact that he used to be very liberal, we all know he’s a world-class hustler and con artist. One thing Trump repeats throughout his fascist babblings is true: he’s a really smart guy. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But do we? Even if he becomes more centrist and “presidential” in the coming months he’ll never win back women and minority voters. But everything he says riles up the GOP’s most steadfast supporters, which is why he can’t be denied their nomination without the whole party going down in flames. Trump’s campaign has been carefully calculated to disrupt and even destroy the GOP. Should he win their nomination, he should be an easy target for the democratic coalition and sensible independents and Republicans.

There are two things that matter to the future of the United States in 2016: income inequality and climate change. Not surprisingly, they are directly related. They both result from an economic system that gives corporations free rein. Like King George III in the colonial era, corporations exploit us with no intent of letting us gain independence. They are designed to pay laborers as little as possible, tell sell the fruits of labor for as much as possible, and to keep all the profit for themselves. As a result the middle class becomes steadily less rich and more people slip into poverty, where some resort to crime. The U.S. compensates for the criminality it engenders by imprisoning more people than any other nation on Earth, and the truly sickening part of it is, many U.S. prisons are now privately owned and for-profit. They want more human beings within their walls, for longer periods of time. Corporations control the media through advertising dollars, and control the government through campaign contributions and even “speaking fees.” They control you and me. This is not how America is supposed to work.

The image at the top of this post shows two cents: the so-called Indian Head and the Lincoln. The Native American figure is not just anyone; she’s a woman, she’s a symbol, and she has a name: Columbia. She appeared on the cent for 116 years; Lincoln has been on it for 107. While the tradition of a noble women conferring respectability on a country’s coinage predates the United States, Columbia once provided to us a beautiful symbol of ourselves, long before she briefly appropriated the ceremonial headdress. In 1909, Abraham Lincoln was the first historical figure to appear on a United States coin, and now our pockets and purses are full of mens’ heads. Even the heraldic eagle has been removed from the quarter in favor of honorary dioramas. This is the best ideal we aspire to now: fame, or at least enough influence to leave a mark and thus be remembered. We used to aspire to something greater: justice for all. Despite the fact that he’s a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders offers a return to our foundational roots, the chance to re-assert our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rather than the right to liberalism, and the pursuit of security. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, probably wants her profile on the half dollar.

The global ecosystems that nurtured us as a species are withering all around us; climate change is not only raising sea levels, it’s precipitating mass extinction that will likely lead to our own. Even if some of us survive, we won’t be human anymore, we will evolve into something else—hopefully something that can metabolize ash and plastic. Our pollinators are dying, the last big animals on Earth will no longer be wild, and ocean acidification may wipe out the food chain.  There will be so many of us and our new smartphones that we will starve, or else live on bread and jellyfish and soylent whatever. Capitalism has played a valuable role in the development of our economies; but the hard truth is that our economies must not be developed any more, they must be stabilized, streamlined, and even diminished. Democratic socialism is the future, and it is also the present, as some European countries exemplify. Personally I like being human, and I think every human being has the right to be grateful for their existence, and that is why I will vote for Bernie Sanders. I encourage everyone who still has a say in this primary to do the same. It is time to demand that our policies are determined by science and not by for-profit interests.

I understand that you make think of Hillary as your ally, I understand that many in Congress and the executive branch have worked with her and respect her, I understand that she herself is friends with many on Wall Street and around New York; she and her family have made connections everywhere. I don’t think Clinton is a bad person. But I know she has never been a leader.

This election is the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s about more than personal loyalty. Bernie Sanders has offered America the possibility of a political revolution. Without it, we will run the risk of a real one. That’s my two cents.

Refusing Healthy Communities via Vaccine Exemptions

A new review of the scientific literature confirms the truth about vaccine exemptions; they endanger everyone. On The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg outlines the horrible realities of vaccine-preventable disease, and writes that vaccine refusal has “accelerated the resurgence of whooping cough and measles here in the U.S.” On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “the MMR [vaccine] is very effective against measles, over 90%, but not 100%.” Meanwhile, with whooping cough, vaccine-induced immunity wears down over time.

These windows of opportunity for infection would be inconsequential in a fully vaccinated population, but with a certain percentage of kids running around unvaccinated due to the religious or ‘philosophical’ objections of their parents, an outbreak of these diseases can easily spread. As Orac writes, “Despite what antivaccine parents claim, their choice not to vaccinate does impact more than just their children and themselves. It impacts the entire community in which they live negatively.” On Aetiology, Tara C Smith says: “this is, again, one of my biggest problems with those who refuse vaccines. They frame the issue as solely ‘my child, my choice.’ Which is fine, until you put that child in with the rest of society via school, or daycare, or even trips to McDonald’s.”

New Research Sheds Light on Zika

Scientists working to understand the implications of Zika’s new prevalence in the Americas have found strong evidence that infection with the virus can cause fetal abnormalities and even miscarriage in pregnant women. On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski examines a series of studies conducted on Zika, including one which found the virus infected “most of the cortical neuron progenitors, which form the brain’s cortex” more quickly than other types of stem cell. This may be how the virus causes microcephaly, a birth defect resulting from abnormal brain development in the womb. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter leads a hunt for potential drugs against Zika by looking at the molecular level, comparing known drugs to the protein structures of the virus. And on Respectful Insolence, Orac questions whether DDT could play a role in fighting the outbreak.

Zootopia: Unscientific, Racist Family Fun

Would it surprise you to learn that the top movie at the North American box office, a computer-animated family film made for children, is a nakedly racist allegory, a celebration of the urban police state, and an insult to the entire animal kingdom and the natural world at large?

The premise of Zootopia is simple: a country bunny named Judy (yes, she’s a rabbit) leaves her parents and her hundreds of siblings behind for a life in the big city. The difference between rural and urban living is the first ugly dichotomy the film establishes: farming carrots with your family is framed as a dead-end for losers, while going to the Big Apple to “follow your dreams” is a heroic aspiration. And what does our sweet, fluffy, young dreamer aspire to be? A cop, of course.

Rabbits aren’t the only critters anthropomorphized in the film; most mammals make an appearance playing various social roles. The different species serve as a proxy for old American clichés about race. When Judy is still a schoolchild, there is that one fox kid in town who always harasses her. Worried about the bigger population of foxes in the city, Judy’s parents offer her some pepper spray to ward off potential attackers. They acknowledge that they shouldn’t be afraid of foxes anymore; in this world, predator species no longer eat prey species; they have been properly assimilated (or whatever) so that all species can coexist in harmony. But it’s obvious that despite their lip service, the rabbits are still very afraid of foxes, and Judy takes the spray.

If you pay attention to this scene, it’s clear that the script is joking about rural white people fearing urban black people under the guise of rabbits fearing foxes. Although there are almost no foxes (or other predators) living in the country, we’re told that there are more in the city—but they’re still minorities, making up only 10% of Zootopia’s population. The fact that Judy ends up partnered with a fox (and overcoming her prejudice against foxes by working with him) only proves that the narrative foundation of Zootopia is a black-and-white buddy cop movie, regurgitating outdated stereotypes with a wink to the grown-ups, coating everything in sugar and candy colors for the kids. While the fox (a street hustler) is voiced by the whitest dude in Hollywood, and the film plays on racial jokes outside of a strict rabbit/fox dichotomy (you should never touch a sheep’s wool without asking!), Zootopia still depends on a basic, deeply problematic association: herbivores are like white people, and predators are like racial minorities.

Even worse: once Judy gets to the city, she discovers that some predators have mysteriously reverted to their “savage” ways (a word the film uses repeatedly), becoming mindless, snarling killing machines who are a menace to public safety. So, um, what the fuck is going on here, Disney? You can’t tell me this is really a story about socioeconomic differences or psychological types when the characters know who has the potential for violence (and who doesn’t) based solely on physical attributes. You can’t tell me this film isn’t really about race just because it also portrays bankers as lemmings, or DMV workers as sloths, or the Corleones from The Godfather as shrews.

Aside from the fact that Zootopia is racist, it’s also a massive disservice to the truth about biodiversity, evolution, and the natural world at large. Species that humans are driving to extinction for sport, meat, and money are depicted in the movie as happy, multicultural city dwellers. Not surprisingly, we never see an animal in this movie eat lunch, presumably because even the lions are vegan and dependent on the carrot crop from the rubes upstate. In the real world, if a lion doesn’t eat meat, it starves to death (unless a dentist shoots it first). In the real world, sloths are one of the coolest mammals around, and they move so slowly because their metabolism runs on tree leaves. In the real world, most humans eat cows, chickens, and/or pigs, which is probably why there aren’t any farm animals shown in this movie. Only zoo animals can live together in harmony, and we’ll pretend they’re like human beings in a city. But would you want to live in a zoo?

Yes it’s a kids’ movie, and it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, but no child will learn anything from Zootopia except that urban living is morally superior, the police state is the highest ideal, and even if your neighbors look different from you and they used to be savages, it’s OK because they’ve changed their ways—unless they’re on drugs (spoiler alert!), in which case they go violently insane. Devin Faraci, writing a more in-depth review of the movie’s racial messaging, describes what happens when the predators are drugged: “they no longer walk on two legs, they lose their intelligence and they start trying to kill tiny fluffy little prey animals. Believe it or not this is all an allegory for the crack epidemic.” Super predators, anyone?

But as usual, our hero can fix everything. Judy, despite being so situated in the mainstream, also defies stereotypes in the role of a minority, as the first little bunny on the police force. Her barrier-breaking is really coded feminism, which is fine, but it only detracts from the dilemma of predators living amongst herbivores, and the mixed metaphors lose their meaning. But make no mistake: Judy is the hero of the film, she’s a female hero, and she’s a white hero.

Ultimately, this movie is either saying: different animal species are like different groups of humans, they just need to get along. Or it’s saying different groups of humans are like different animal species, they have intrinsically different biology. Neither of these analogies is true (or acceptable for children). I hope this isn’t news to anyone, but unlike different species with different biochemical needs, people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds are actually all the same.

Yet according to Rotten Tomatoes, “the brilliantly well-rounded Zootopia offers a thoughtful, inclusive message that’s as rich and timely as its sumptuously state-of-the-art animation.”

[Update 11/21/2016: they should have named this film Dystopizoo.]

General Relativity, Still Making Waves

In a validation of Albert Einstein’s genius, the power of new technology, and the relevance of the scientific method (even if it takes a century), scientists working on a project called LIGO have witnessed ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by gravitational waves. First predicted by Einstein in 1916 on the basis of general relativity, gravitational waves are cosmic shock waves that can result from the interactions of massive objects like black holes and neutron stars. Unlike electromagnetic waves, which pass through space, gravitational waves change the shape of space itself. Extremely perceptive observers would find themselves in a funhouse as gravitational waves passed through, watching objects and distances get bigger and smaller without actually moving a micron: seeing solid matter jiggle like jello.

LIGO’s results are the most sensational in physics since the observation of the Higgs boson in 2013. Ethan Siegel puts the discovery into perspective on Forbes, writing “we’ve just detected two merging black holes for the first time, tested their physics, found a tremendous agreement with Einstein, and seen evidence that this happens over a billion light years away across the Universe.” Meanwhile Greg Laden says “the gravity of this situation” deserves a newton of skepticism until scientists can repeat their result. And on Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson shares videos from the LIGO team to help everyone understand the project.