Earth Day: Thinking Big

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day! For my Earth Day, I’m attending a seminar on Google Earth (totally hot interactive kmz documents await you, lovely readers) and thinking about the environmental effects of racism, socioeconomic interest, and partisan politics here on the US-Mexican border.

The new ever-so-impermeable border fence will definitely stop endangered bighorn sheep and desert frogs in their tracks, though it probably won’t do much about people desperate to feed their families. Though it’s good to recycle and cut down on plastic bags, the really big problems are going to need really big cooperative solutions.

Check out National Geographic’s photos of life along the border fence. Here’s my favorite – a juvenile mountain lion in southern Arizona.


On hotness and blogging while female

March 25, 2009

I confess I’ve been alienated by a lot of the “Female scientists ARE SO totally hot!” action. I’ve never cared much for performing femininity, as the humanities kids say. And being more…shall we say…Bette Midler than Bette Davis makes for a  very different experience, both on the internet and in real life. But the foolishness that’s been going around science blog land lately is ridiculous.

Lisa from Sociological Images (one of my very favorite blogs ever) has insight from an unusual source. A while back, she posted this cover from Vogue Magazine in which Judd Apatow’s chubby actors lounge about in body suits. It’s funny because it’s a parody of another Vogue cover with naked ladies, only the guys get to wear clothes. As Lisa says:

I think we would be unlikely to see a similar cover featuring women, even women comedians, because women are allowed to be rich, nice, or funny but they must ALSO be good-looking and fit.  A cover featuring chubby women would JUST be gross.  It wouldn’t be gross and funny.

Being good-looking and fit is ONE way for men to be admire in our society.  Being good-looking and fit is a REQUIREMENT for women to be admired, no matter what else she brings to the table.

So women MUST be attractive – no matter what else they bring to the table. And if a woman is attractive, that is just as important as whatever she’s actually doing or saying. (Hi, Sarah Palin.) Consider the backlash against Gail Trimble, who dominated UK quiz show University Challenge. Nobody could figure out how to talk about a smart woman, so everyone just argued about whether she was sexy or not, or bitchy or not.

But this could not possibly be true in science, right? Except that a brief examination of scientists on TV bears this out. Are there any women on TV with the slightly pudgy, schlubby looks of the Mythbusters guys? I flipped through Discovery Channel’s shows and couldn’t find any, though to be frank it was a tiny sample size since there were barely any women at all. Anyone have a counter example?

This dialogue over sexiness in science makes me think of female choices in Halloween costumes. Little girls can be a cowgirl or a detective or a “Kimono Kutie” (ewwww) but all of the choices are pink.  Women can be a police officer, a referee, or a detective but all of the choices are sexy. The message for women is “You can be anything (even smart!) as long as you’re feminine and cute! Looking good is THE most important thing for a girl or woman.” Frankly, that is also the message that I get from Danica McKellar’s math book and Dora’s makeover.

I think too much emphasis on “smart is sexy” overlooks the ubiquitous societal message that “sexy is everything if you’re female.” That’s why commenters feel they have the right to ogle female bloggers – why should they pay attention to what she is actually saying when everything that society says is important is right there in her picture? When women in the public eye are free to be funny or butch or dorky or even (shock! horror! omg the world is ending!) fat, then Totally Hot will just be another way for female scientists to be.


What stops population growth?

March 17, 2009

I’ve written before about why I think discussing population control became a taboo, but I’m glad to say I have never heard anyone arguing that poor children should just die. Disgusting.

But in case you have heard that argument, Hans Rosling is here to explain why it’s wrong. And he also explains why he thinks that a permanent world population of 9 billion is inevitable.

Via Anna and Think or Thwim


Newsy Bit: Science nominees held up by Congress

March 4, 2009

The Intersection and Questionable Authority report that the confirmations of Jane Lubchenco (to lead NOAA) and John Holdren (to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) have been held up in Congress by multiple anonymous holds.

John P. Holdren, nominated to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, picked for undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, had been expected to receive a quick floor vote. They received an amicable confirmation hearing Feb. 12 and plaudits from the science community otherwise.

But Holdren, a Harvard University physicist, and Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, may have to undergo an extra round of review, Senate style.

Multiple senators have placed anonymous holds on the science advisers’ nominations, according to John D. Rockefeller IV , D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nominations.

“It’s infuriating,” said Rockefeller, who backs Holdren and Lubchenco’s hiring. “They’re brilliant scientists.”

This is bad because there’s $21.5 billion dedicated to science in the economic recovery package, and these people need to be in place to funnel it to the right sources. Questionable Authority has details on what you can do to get Congress to stop playing politics with critical science funding.


Speak out on overpopulation, but know the history first

February 12, 2009

Is talking about overpopulation and the environment really a taboo? Both Emmett Duffy and Rick MacPherson posted yesterday on the population control “elephant in the room.” Rick in particular wrote about his struggle to broach this topic in the context of coral reef conservation.

I think that this topic is so hard to discuss because it is inextricably entwined with racism and coercion. In a more extensive post a couple months ago, I outlined the unpleasant history of population control movements and detailed how they have fallen disproportionately on poor women of color. Historically, white women have had to fight for the right to limit their fertility, while women of color have had to fight for the right to be fertile.

Read the rest of this entry »


Let the lost NJ dolphins die – and focus on what really matters

January 27, 2009

Yesterday, in an article with the spectacularly dull headline “Officials and Scientists Debate the Criteria for Rescuing Animals,” the Washington Post summarized the debate over NOAA’s decision not to rescue a group of 16 dolphins in a NJ river. The dolphins swam up the river in the summer, but didn’t leave when the water iced over and the fish left. Three died and the rest have disappeared, either making it back to the ocean or drowning under the ice.

I understand that’s neat to see wild dolphins in the Jersey ‘burbs, and that it’s tough to watch a sympathetic and charismatic animal slowly die. But the natural world isn’t Seaworld with happy Shamu doing happy jumps for happy kids – adorable animals die all the time. Sometime they starve to death because the parents have two chicks and only ever intend to feed one. Sometimes they get swiftly decapitated. Sometimes they get their tongues ripped out by other cute and charismatic animals, and die a slow and horrible death while their helpless mother watches.  If animals die for natural reasons, like if they swam up a river and didn’t leave even though they could have, then that’s the way it goes.

I find it especially insane that David DeGrazia, the chair of George Washington University’s philosophy department, is quote in the WaPo article as saying:

“We should regard them to having the same moral entitlements as we have,” DeGrazia said. “Even if they’re not human, we’re talking about individuals who matter a great deal, who are in distress.”

Seriously? So will we start prosecuting male dolphins for kidnapping and rape? Or defending harbor porpoises from being beaten to death by rampaging dolphin mobs?

If you care about dolphins – and I admit that while I profess a distaste for charismatic megafauna, I squeal like, well, a dolphin when they surf our bow wave – you should stop wasting your time yelling at NOAA about its eminently sane marine mammal rescue policy. (NOAA will indeed rescue them if they’re endangered or if the danger is human-caused). I also think that getting tied up in Western imperialist knots over that gory Japanese dolphin hunt is a waste of time – while a couple thousand dolphins are killed every year, bottlenose dolphins are not endangered and it’s just one hunt once a year in one place. That single hunt is hardly going to prompt McDonald’s to start selling Filet-O-Flipper.

Instead, here’s some massive worldwide problems that threaten dolphins everywhere – not just 16 in New Jersey and 2,500 in Japan:

  • Extinction. The Yangtze river dolphin is extinct, and the vaquita (a tiny coastal porpoise in the Gulf of California) will be next – unless efforts to keep them from drowning in fishing nets succeed.
  • Pollution. Mercury levels in dolphin flesh are so high that the Japanese dolphin hunt might end itself. That’s  good for those particular dolphins in the short term, but mercury threatens their long-health of marine mammals everywhere. Fight against coal power plants and for renewable energy.
  • Entanglement with fishing gear. According to the National Marine Fishery Service, this is the most common way that small marine mammals are killed by humans. Advocate for controlling & eliminating gill nets and drift nets, and for more responsibility in controlling ghost nets.

Of course, these are hard – way harder than helicoptering some soon-to-die dolphins out to sea – and probably wouldn’t make a good movie at Sundance. Such is life. So let those misguided 16 dolphins perish as nature intended, and let’s focus on saving millions more.

Related: The Southern Fried Scientist has a sense of porpoise.


The sordid history of population control

November 3, 2008

I consider population control to be the albatross of the environment movement. It usually stinks, but we just can’t get rid of it. Recently, the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is attempting to de-stank discussions of population control and the environment. The premise of the GPSO is:

What if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on population all at once? The strength of numbers might help weaken the taboo and bring population to a more prominent position in the global discussion.

Oh, good, let’s talk about it! Too bad that the GPSO webpage utterly fails to acknowledge the nasty history of population control.  Read the rest of this entry »


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