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[1THING] Blog: Archive for May, 2016

[ Making the best of bags ]

Despite growing media attention–(and too-accurate for comfort episodes of Portlandia), we still use plastic bags by the billions (102.1 billion to be exact).  But, a little ways around the world, two South African textile designers have found a way to turn this problem into a solution, for children and for the environment. Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane are the people behind Repurposean organization that turns used plastic bags into solar-powered backpacks for school children in need.

These backpacks don’t just haul books however; they’re reflective to help keep children safer when they walk to and from school in the dark and they’re equipped with solar panels that charge while the child walks and convert into a solar lantern, providing up to 12 hours of study light. Plus, they’re cute! Read more here.


[ Map shows the wildest land linking protected areas of the U.S. ]


[ Finally You Can See How Much Added Sugar Is Hidden in Your Food ]


After years of delay, the Food and Drug Administration finalized new nutrition facts labels on Friday. The label you’re used to seeing on processed foods was more than 20 years old; the government says the new one reflects updated scientific information and “will make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices.”

The changes include a magnified calorie count and the addition of a line showing added sugar (highlighted below).

Food and Drug Administration

It’s a big deal that companies will now have to identify the added sugar in their food. Once corn-syrup-filled sodas and cheap processed snacks started overtaking our supermarkets in the 1960s, added sweeteners infiltrated nearly every corner of the American diet. As I’ve written in the past:

Naturally occurring sugars (the kind in fruit, for example) come with fiber, which helps us regulate the absorption of food. Without fiber, sugar can overwhelm your system, eventually leading to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.

Given these risks, experts have warned that no more than ten percent of your daily calorie intake should come from added sugar, or around 12 teaspoons a day; Americans wolf down 30 teaspoons on average by some estimates. It doesn’t help that three-quarters of processed snacks include such added sweeteners. But until now, consumers had no real way of knowing how much of the sugar in their food was naturally occurring, and how much was added in manufacturing. Adding to shoppers’ confusion is how tricky it can be to determine whether sugar is an ingredient in a food: it goes by at least 57 names.

With the new labels, manufacturers will have to reveal more about how they use this ubiquitous ingredient. Time will tell whether the transparency spurs big food companies to look past adding sugar and find new ways to make their food palatable.


[ The Federal Coal Program, Then and Now ]

May 27, 2016

The Federal Coal Program, Then and Now (CO)



[ How climate change affects the monarch butterfly, and what we can do about it ]

An iconic American species is on the brink of extinction, but it’s not too late to reverse course.


[ Floating solar panels are a perfect fit for drought-stricken states. Here’s why. ]

This innovation is a win-win for dry and sunny states that need clean energy and ways to cope with severe droughts.


[ Why a safer, healthier world is at hand ]

As Congress gets ready to pass a historic chemical safety bill, EDF Executive Director Diane Regas reflects on the birth of her first grandchild, and on raising three boys while trying to rid the United States of dangerous toxins.


[ New BLM 2.0 Planning Process Allows Public More Say in Local Land Use Decisions ]

The agency decides how an array of uses and resources–ranging from grazing to energy development, wildlife habitat to wilderness, hunting to off-roading–occur on these lands.


[ We want to see “Every Kid in a Park” in 2016! ]


[ 20 Percent of Plant Species Could Go Extinct ]


One out of every five plant species on Earth is now threatened with extinction. That’s the disturbing conclusion of a major report released this week by scientists at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The planet’s vegetation—from grasslands to deserts to tropical rainforests—is being hit hard by human activity. And deforestation, pollution, agriculture, and climate change are all playing a role.

The sliver of good news, though, is that some researchers are hopeful that people will be able to act in time to avert the worst of the impending crisis. “I am reasonably optimistic,” said Kathy Willis, Kew’s science director, in an interview with our partners at the Guardian. “Once you know [about a problem], you can do something about it. The biggest problem is not knowing.”

But others take a darker view. “Regardless of what humans do to the climate, there will still be a rock orbiting the sun,” said University of Hawaii scientist Hope Jahren in a recent interview with Indre Viskotas on the Inquiring Minds podcast. Jahren is a geobiologist—she studies how the earth (“geo”) and life (“bio”) come together to shape our world. “I’m interested in how the parts of the planet that aren’t alive—rocks and rivers and rain and clouds—turn into the…parts of the world that are alive: leaves and moss and the things that eat those things,” she explains. And what she’s seeing isn’t good. “We are already seeing extinctions,” she says. “We’re already seeing the balance of who can thrive and who can’t thrive in…the plant world radically shifted. In a lot of ways, I think that train has passed.” You can listen to her full interview below:

Jahren, who is the author of a new book called Lab Girl, was recently included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. She’s also an outspoken voice for gender equality and the fight against sexual harassment and assault in the scientific community.

Part of Jahren’s work has focused on reconstructing the climate of the Eocene, the geologic epoch that lasted from about 56 million years ago to about 34 million years ago. In the middle of that period, about 45 million years ago, the world was so warm that massive deciduous forests were growing above the Arctic Circle—despite the fact that, as Jahren points out, the region saw little-to-no sunshine for part of the year. Jahren and her colleagues study fossilized plant tissues left over from these ancient forests in order to understand how the climatic factors of the time—light levels, atmospheric composition, water, etc.—combined to “make possible this life in the darkness.” She compares her work to investigating a crime scene. “Almost anything you come upon could have information in it,” she says.

Jahren’s description of a lush Arctic full of plants and animals is striking. Imagining that world, she says, is “a really neat thing to do when you’re…juxtaposing that image against that fact that you’re near the North Pole, and there’s not a soul in sight for thousands of miles, and there’s not a green thing in sight for hundreds of miles.” That may be one of the reasons why she speaks so passionately about environmental destruction in the present day. “The world breaks a little bit every time we cut down a tree,” she says. “It’s so much easier to cut one down than to grow one. And so it’s worth interrogating every time we do it.”

In the end, though, Jahren isn’t sure that science will lead humanity to make better decisions about the planet. Instead, she says, “I think my job is to leave some evidence for future generations that there was somebody who cared while we were destroying everything.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.