California Drought by xkcd 0

California Drought by xkcd.

California Drought by xkcd.

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xkcd is the webcomic creation of Randall Munroe, an extraordinarily popular web presence whom we feature regularly on EarthDesk. He draws on science themes often and has been nominated for a Hugo Award twice, thanks to his loyal science fiction fan base. He enjoys creating different ways of looking at our planet. But you know that by now.

The xkcd website is here.

Read more about Randall in this New York Times feature. More

Gestation Crates in New Jersey: Take Gov. Christie at His Word; He Doesn’t Care. 0

On November 28, Governor Chris Christie vetoed New Jersey Senate bill S998 that would have banned the use of pig gestation crates in New Jersey, calling the proposed law “a solution in search of a problem.”

Undercover at Smithfield via the Humane Society.

A gestation crate immobilizes a pig in a metal cage barely larger than its body where the animal is repeatedly impregnated for the duration of its life. According to the Humane Society, “These pigs’ suffering is among the worst of all factory-farmed animals.” New Jersey farming operations contain 9,000 pigs, according to the USDA.

Critics say Christie vetoed the measure with an eye toward the Iowa presidential caucuses. claims that its state is “the number one pork producing state in the U.S.” and home to  “approximately 20 million pigs.” The Iowa pork industry pressured Christie to veto the measure as did Iowa governor Terry Barnstad, who called Christie “to tell him how bad I thought it would be and how the people that are involved in pork production, that really understand this, feel this would be very bad,” according to the Associated Press.

The bill earned widespread support nationally from animal welfare organizations, and throughout New Jersey, including 93% of citizens polled, the New Jersey Veterinarian’s Association and the state’s major newspapers. Last January, Smithfield and Tyson two of the nation’s largest pork producers, announced they are encouraging their suppliers to phase out the use of gestation crates in favor of group pens, citing increased criticism over the inhumane and unhealthy practice. Even Iowa pork suppliers will be “less likely” to have their contracts renewed, said Smithfield.

According to the Humane Society:

Nine U.S. states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island—have passed laws to prohibit the use of gestation crates.

Some of the world’s largest food companies have announced that they will eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains. Those companies include McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, SUBWAY, Oscar Mayer, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Denny’s, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Sodexo, Sysco, ARAMARK, Compass Group, Heinz, Campbell Soup, Baja Fresh, Wienerschnitzel, and Harris Teeter.

In his veto message, Christie wrote that the gestation crate ban was an attempt by the legislature to “replace the judgment of the state’s farming experts with its own” in order to please “misguided partisans and special interest groups.” It wouldn’t be a Christie message without mud slinging.

While acknowledging his presidential ambitions, we should also take Governor Christie at his word. Despite undeniable evidence to the contrary, and even the trend of the food service and pork industries, he maintains gestation crates are in keeping with “the humane raising, keeping, care and treatment” of livestock. Put another way, he simply doesn’t care.

War On Science by Adam Zyglis 0

War on Science by ADam Zyglis. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

War on Science by Adam Zyglis. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

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Adam Zyglis is the staff editorial cartoonist for The Buffalo News, his hometown daily newspaper. He accepted the position fresh out of college, after winning 3 national awards as a college cartoonist. In 2004, he graduated summa cum laude from Canisius College with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics.

His work is internationally syndicated through Cagle Cartoons and has appeared in publications such as USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and MAD Magazine. After 2 years as a professional he won 3rd Place in the 2007 National Headliner Awards. Learn more about Adam at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. See more of his work at Cagle Cartoons. More

Jim Cronin, MBE, Nov. 15, 1951 – Mar. 17, 2007 0

Jim and Alison Cronin at Monkey World, Dorset, England.

Jim and Alison Cronin at Monkey World, Dorset, England.

Each year, on my younger brother Jim’s birthday, I reflect on lessons from his brief stay on the planet. Two always come to mind:

He was terrified of growing old; he died unexpectedly at 55.

From a young age, he was enthralled with monkeys; despite being a college dropout he gained worldwide recognition for the rescue and care of abused primates.

On Sundays, when we were little, an organ grinder and his capuchin monkey played in the alley beneath our apartment in Yonkers, NY. My mother wrapped a quarter in a napkin and let my brother drop it the three stories to the pair below. Jim was imprinted. His fascination with the animal never ceased. Relatives took to calling him “monkey.”

Four decades later, from a deserted pig farm in Dorset, England, Jim created Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, now the second most popular zoo in the UK. But this happy playground for formerly tortured, drug and tobacco-addicted, experimented-upon monkeys and apes belies the drama behind it. His New York Times obituary captured a small slice of the courageous, often frightening, worldwide crusade he conducted with his wife Allison:

Starting in 1996, the Cronins made dozens of trips to Africa, Southeast Asia and Turkey — posing as potential buyers, secretively taking photographs, recording addresses and then leading the local police in raids against animal smugglers. In 1998, for instance, they coordinated simultaneous raids on a pet shop and a street booth at a spice market in Istanbul where baby chimpanzees were being sold.

“We were each given police escorts with machine guns,” Mrs. Cronin said in an telephone interview yesterday. “Still, the people were drawing their fingers across their throats.”

In 2006, Queen Elizabeth II inducted Jim and Alison as Members of the Order of the British Empire

The video below, from the Animal Planet series Monkey Life, is a glimpse into the joyful home Jim and Alison created at Monkey World for the hundreds of abused and tormented primates they rescued. Unrelenting brutality at the hands of humans left these chimpanzees, orangutans, marmosets, gibbons, monkeys, lemurs, and macaques unfit for re-introduction into the wild.

But Jim’s brief life gave these beautiful misfits a longer life when there seemed chance of none. Alison, who holds a doctorate in biological anthropology from Cambridge, continues the campaign.

To learn more about Monkey World Ape Rescue Center, Jim and Alison, and their primate wards, follow this link.

Carl Sagan, Nov. 9, 1934 – Dec. 20, 1996 0

Today, November 9, 2014, Carl Sagan would have turned 80, no longer a surprising age. Instead, he died at a relatively young 62, a victim of myelodysplasia. An accomplished astronomer, science popularizer, and Pulitzer Prize winner, he was, and is, a hero of mine. On YouTube, there is a small cottage industry of video accompaniments to the beautiful narration taken from his book, Pale Blue Dot. Below is mine. The voice is Dr. Sagan’s.

Dr. Sagan was a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, which tells you almost nothing.  He was an effective advocate for planetary study and the monitoring of space for extraterrestrial life who had a profound impact on NASA programs. He was best known for co-writing and hosting Cosmos, the most watched series in public television history. The follow-up book of the same name stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks. Ann Druyan, his wife and collaborator, wrote me in April 2009, “The Carl you admire was absolutely authentic. Up close, he was infinitely greater.”

More on Dr. Sagan here.

Undergoing Maintenance (Again) 0

Environmental Destruction by Arend van Dam 0

Environmental Destruction by Arend van Dam. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

Environmental Destruction by Arend van Dam. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

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Arend van Dam is a Dutch political cartoonist whose work has appeared in Reformed Netherlands, Central Weekly, Time, the Financial Times, and the Agrarian Dagblad among others. In addition to his cartoon work, he is also a book illustrator. He sometimes works under the pseudonym Zetbe.

Arend has won a number of international awards, including the Golden Palm at the 1972 Salone Internazionale dell’Umorismo in Bordighera, Italy, and the prize of the Ministry of Rijkswaterstaat at the ninth Eindhoven Dutch Cartoon Festival. In addition to his work as a political cartoonist, he lectures on organizational psychology.

View more of Arend’s work at

The Green Patriarch: A Voice for the Environment and Humanity 0

“At the heart of the relationship between man and environment is the relationship between human beings.” ~ Patriarch Bartholomew

By Andreas Euripides Christou

Andreas Euripides Christou is a student clinician who serves on the Community Energy Team of Pace Academy’s Environmental Policy Clinic.

In the 2009 documentary The Green Patriarch, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, said:


Patriarch Bartholomew celebrates the Liturgy. Source: Ohrid Archbishopric [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin; for human beings to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for human beings to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, all of these are sins.

As Patriarch of the world’s second-largest Christian Church, Bartholomew has gained an international reputation as a prominent environmentalist and humanitarian. He has used his position to lend the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the “Vatican” of the Orthodox Church) to many international causes, and has received numerous awards for his leadership, among them, the Congressional Gold Medal.

From his early days in office, the Ecumenical Patriarch has made care for the environment one of his top priorities. His strategy has been “connecting people who have the power to save the environment with people who have the knowledge.”

This leader of 300 million faithful has brought together religious leaders of multiple faiths, including Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, with scientists, government officials, media representatives, environmental activists, and ordinary citizens — uniquely in a series of shipboard symposiums, such as one convened aboard a passenger ship off Greenland. These symposiums host briefings and debates utilizing the combined expertise of interests who historically have not gotten along to arrive at possible solutions.

Commenting for the documentary,  Dr. Ravi Ravinda, a professor of physics and comparative religion said:

What is interesting about the Orthodox Church’s environmental initiative is that, as far as I am aware, this is the only group where the initiative is being actually taken by, or at least involves, the very highest church authority.

An active supporter of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), Patriarch Bartholomew has worked to explore collaborative efforts between the ICSD and the Orthodox Church and participated in multiple ICSD conferences regarding ecological sustainability. He has also committed the Orthodox Church to participate in the United Planet Faith and Science Initiative, a group of ecological advocates that use science and religious leaders to promote public awareness, political will, policy, and action.

For more than a decade, Patriarch Bartholomew has held international ecological seminars every summer at the Theological School of Halki, an island near Istanbul. These seminars are sponsored by the Patriarch and Prince Philip, the founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). Following the Patriarch’s lead, numerous Orthodox monasteries and churches in Eastern Europe and the United States have switched to solar energy in recent years.

In 2012, reports of record melting of the earth’s ice sheets and extreme droughts gave increased support to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s messages about the degradation of the natural world. In an encyclical the same year, Bartholomew boldly stated that “biodiversity was not granted to humanity for its unruly control; by the same token, dominion over the earth and its environs implies rational use and enjoyment of its benefits, and not destructive acquisition of its resources out of a sense of greed.”

In his tireless efforts to bring attention to both environmental rights and human obligations, Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly criticized over-consumption of natural resources by first world countries and the lack of justice that causes growing inequality in developing nations.

The Ecumenical Patriarch has also spoken on World Oceans Day, highlighting their ecological benefits and the fact that the world’s oceans and seas are quite threatened, and outlining the massive pollution and human ignorance.

During an address to an environmental symposium at Saint Barbara, California, in 1997, Patriarch Bartholomew said:

We believe that our first task is to raise the consciousness of adults who most use the resources and gifts of the planet. Ultimately, it is for our children that we must perceive our every action in the world as having a direct effect upon the future of the environment. At the heart of the relationship between man and environment is the relationship between human beings. More

Oil Industry and Climate Change by Patrick Chappatte 0

Oil industry and climate change_sm

Oil Industry and Climate Change by Patrick Chappate. Via Cagle Cartoons. Used with permission.

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chappatte-headshot-articleInlinePatrick Chappatte is an editorial cartoonist for The International New York Times, formerly known as the International Herald Tribune, which has published his work since 2001. His cartoons have been featured in five books published by the newspaper. The latest collection, “Stress Test,” was released in 2012.He is also a regular contributor to the European newspapers Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Le Temps. Earlier in his career, he contributed to The New York Times Book Review and created a comic strip for Newsweek International called “Rob the Cybernaut.”

Mr. Chappatte has collaborated with editorial cartoonists in conflict-ridden countries with the goal of promoting dialogue through cartooning. These projects focused on Serbia, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Kenya and Guatemala. He described the work in a TED talk in 2010.

Patrick’s full bio at The International New York Times.

Ebola Isn’t About Bodily Fluids; It’s About Poverty, Lack of Infrastructure and Environmental Destruction 0

Doctors Without Borders staff at Ebola management center in Monrovia, Liberia. By Caitlin Ryan, Via MSF.   Follow this link to donate to Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders staff at Ebola management center in Monrovia, Liberia. By Caitlin Ryan, Via MSF. Follow this link to donate to Doctors Without Borders.

The Ebola story has much in common with global environmental catastrophes such as the water crisis, food insecurity, and deforestation — “the terrorism of poverty,” is how Harvard Professor Paul Farmer characterized the crisis in a recent Washington Post article.

“There’s a reason the case fatality rate is 80 percent in rural Africa and 0 percent in Americans and Europeans who get out in time and get proper medical care,” Farmer said.

He said the world needs to bridge the “know-do gap,” the disconnect between what gets planned in conferences among elite global health leaders and what actually is happening on the front lines of medical care.

While many news accounts would have us believe the spread of Ebola is caused by the exchange of bodily fluids with West Africans, the current Esquire offers a more informed view from evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald of the University of Louisville:

Look at where it’s spreading, it’s in a place where they don’t have good infrastructure and health care.  It’s in a place where they don’t have the basics of isolation and infection control.  And so even though it has a very low infection rate, the conditions are so bad that it keeps smoldering along.

Last August, Voice of America reported on a conversation with Tulane University virus expert Dr. Daniel Bausch who explained Ebola’s causal relationship with poverty, deforestation and hunger:

Like the health systems, many people in Ebola-stricken regions lack the resources to get by. And that puts them at risk.

As they cut down forests for charcoal and to grow food, Bausch says they are driving the bats thought to carry the virus out into the open.

“With deforestation, bats that ordinarily would be foraging for fruit within fairly remote areas inside the forest now are forced to come out and look for fruit, for example, mango trees that may be in the proximity of humans and bring them closer to humans and have more of a chance of introduction of the virus,” said Bausch.

And poverty is also driving people deeper into the forest in search of food, including so-called “bushmeat,” which is known to carry the virus.

David Quamen, author of Ebola: The Natural and Human History, told National Geographic, “The primary factor is poverty”:

The severity of this outbreak in West Africa reflects not only the transmissibility of the disease, but also the sad circumstances of poverty and the chronic lack of medical care, infrastructure, and supplies. That’s really what this is telling us: that we need to try harder to imagine just what it’s like to be poor in Africa. One of the consequences of being poor in Africa, especially in a country like Liberia or Sierra Leone, which have gone through a lot of political turmoil and have weak governance and a shortage of medical resources, is that the current outbreak could turn into an epidemic.

As with environmental issues in the developing world, such as the childhood diarrhea epidemic caused by widespread water contamination, only direct intervention can prevent a downward spiral of poverty and public health. David Quamen:

It’s not just the toll directly from Ebola that is the tragedy. It’s the indirect toll too—the destruction of the economy and education, as well as the health care system. People are dying more of malaria and pneumonia and childhood diarrheal diseases because the health care system has been overwhelmed with Ebola.