Our Daily Planet: Potty Breakthrough, Science Is Back in the House, Tables Turned in SCOTUS Mining Case, and W2O
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, November 8th, 2018

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Bill Gates Has Potty Breakthrough

This is a very serious subject so we are going to try to write up this one with a straight face!  Headlining a three-day event in China, Bill Gates, with a trusty jar of human poop on his podium, kicked off the “Reinvented Toilet” Expo.  He was there to announce that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had, after investing $200m over the course of 7 years, successfully created a toilet that breaks down pathogens in poop and destroys the germs associated with it too.  The toilets can run on solar power or power themselves, and the whole process only takes a few minutes.  At the end of it, there are three valuable commodities — water, fertilizer, and energy.  In places that don’t have plumbing and proper sanitation, pathogens in human waste cause diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid that kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year.  Gates said in his remarks, “[w]e are on the cusp of a sanitation revolution, It’s no longer a question of if we can do it. It’s a question of how quickly this new category of off-grid solutions will scale.”   According to UNICEF, more than 2 billion people worldwide lack the access to safe, readily available water at home, and 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation including here. 

Why This Matters:  All bathroom humor aside, this is an enormous breakthrough.  LOL, sorry.  On a more serious note, last year, a U.N. representative visited  Lowndes County, Alabama with Catherine Flowers, executive director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise where they witnessed the community’s sanitation failures first hand. “The way in which those in the bottom 20 percent exist is in dramatic contrast to the wealth in the country and it is being exacerbated by further trends,” said Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Now would be the perfect time to scale this toilet technology here at home.  If the President really wants to “Make America Great Again,” how about starting with providing these toilets to people in the U.S. who need them? 

To Go Deeper Into Rural Alabama’s Sanitation Problems:  click here

Watch Bill Gates Explain His Magic Toilet


Atlanta’s Piedmont Park
Georgia Land Conservation Amendment Passed in Landslide

The state of Georgia yielded one of the biggest ballot initiative successes on Tuesday — a constitutional amendment aimed at increasing funding for parks that passed with 83% of the vote.  This innovative amendment authorizes the Georgia legislature to place each year up to 80 percent of the revenue derived from the state sales and use tax collected by sporting goods stores into a trust fund to be used for the protection and preservation of conservation land.  Local environmental groups who advocated for the amendment estimate that it will provide $20m each year for the state to buy land and easements to create parks and greenspace.  

Andrew Schock, the Georgia State Director of The Conservation Fund told ODP that “[t]he key to success was collaboration and focusing the message on benefits such as clean drinking water and great spaces for children, families and outdoor enthusiasts to get outside, as well as Georgia’s economy.”  What a great win for conservation!

Why This Matters:  This is the single most successful conservation ballot measure in the U.S. this year.  Other states should take note and might want to think about putting similar measures on the ballot next time.  But there is a lesson for us in the conservation movement here as well.  Even in a very divided state (the Governor’s race was one of the most bitter in the country and no winner has been declared), it is still possible to collaborate across party and racial and other divides on conservation issues. There is little division of opinion when it comes to clean air, and clean water and green space for everyone to enjoy — a huge majority of Americans support that – so we need to emphasize those themes. But, but, but — we also have to remember that in the western states, the government already owns a huge percentage of land, so an initiative like this might have to be tailored to fit those states. 

H/T to Andrew for pointing this good news out to us!  Why didn’t this get more coverage in the MSM???  Not to worry, that’s why we’re here!

 Climate Change

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Group
Science Makes A Comeback in the House

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, as Popular Science explained, has legal oversight over federal, non-military science research and development in areas like energy, outer space, the environment, and ocean science. That includes partial or total legal jurisdiction over federal science agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Weather Service. What’s noteworthy is that for the first time since 2010, the committee will be chaired by someone who actually acknowledges climate science. Current ranking member (and first African-American on the committee) Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas will likely be the next chairwoman of HSC–she’s also a former chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital. In a brief statement Tuesday night, Johnson said that under her guidance the committee would take steps to mitigate climate change, starting by “acknowledging that it is real” and seeking to better understand the science.

In addition to the House Science Committee actually acknowledging science (!!), there will be 8 candidates with science degrees who won their elections and are headed to Congress. They include:
  • Engineer Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6) 
  • Dentist Jeff van Drew (NJ-2)
  • Nurse Lauren Underwood (Il-14)
  • Pediatrician Kim Schrier (WA-8) although as of last night the race still wasn’t called but Schrier was leading 52.9%
  • Chemical Engineer Sean Casten (Il-6)
  • Nuclear engineer Elaine Luria (VA-2)
  • Ocean engineer turned environmental lawyer Joe Cunningham (SC-1)
  • Computer scientist Jacky Rosen (Nevada Senate)
These candidates were helped to get elected by the 314 Action Fund, a political organizing group founded by a chemist with the express goal of putting more scientists in office. And as Quartz noted, it takes its name from the number pi.

Why This Matters: Nearly 40% of the members of the House and half of all senators are lawyers. This is not a knock on lawyers (I promise, Monica!) but science backgrounds and scientific problem solving are good, diverse skills to have in Congress. Scientists are trained to be objective, use evidence and make decisions based on the facts at hand, when it comes to climate change and other issues facing our lawmakers this training brings an important perspective.  


Supreme Court Considers Virginia’s Uranium Mining Prohibition

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case about whether to allow the development of a uranium mine in southern Virginia.  In 1983, the Virginia legislature passed a law prohibiting the mining of uranium even though this site in Virginia is the U.S.’s single largest untapped uranium deposit.  The current owners of the property, Virginia Uranium, seek to have the statute thrown out so they can mine the uranium which is said to be worth billions.  They argue that the state couldn’t use a ban on mining, which is within its power, as a ruse for concerns about the production of uranium and storage of radioactive waste because only the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission can regulate those activities.  The case boils down (sorry another bad pun) to the question of what was the intent of the state legislature when it passed the mining ban — was it to ban mining or to ban what happens with the uranium after that.  The lower court sided with the state of Virginia, holding that it was not up to the courts to “decipher” Virginia’s reasoning to figure out whether the state law was not proper.  Our friends at SCOTUS blog who saw the oral argument, read the tea leaves, and said that “a majority of the justices seemed unwilling to open that Pandora’s box.”  

Why This Matters:  This case could have enormous ramifications in this age when federal health, safety, and environmental laws are being rolled back by the Trump Administration, so states are beginning to step in and prohibit harmful activities like toxic pollution.  Until recently, the situation was reversed — the federal government was active in regulating industry, and states were more likely to allow for unrestrained development.  Conservative justices like those that make up a majority of the court now used to rule that states had a wide latitude and the federal government’s power to “pre-empt” a state was constrained.  With the tables now turned, the question is whether the conservative justices will want to come down on the side of federal law prevailing so as to invalidate the more onerous state regulation.  And the newest member of the Court, and one of the most conservative members, Justices Kavanaugh and Alito respectively, seemed to be looking for a way to invalidate the state law in favor of federal law.  

To Go Deeper:
  You can read the two blog entries on this case on SCOTUS blog — the preview here, and the oral argument summary here.  


Photo: Robert Boyd
Women Working for Oceans

2018 is shaping up to be this generation’s Year of the Woman and more women will make up Congress than ever before. But even outside of Washington, women are stepping up to ensure a better future for our planet and that Americans understand the importance of the natural world around them. In Massachusetts, Women Working for Oceans (W2O), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Barbara Burgess and Donna Hazard is working in partnership with the New England Aquarium to educate and inspire people to take action to protect the world’s oceans. W20 is an entirely a volunteer organization that focuses its efforts on education and advocacy and getting people to take action, as Northshore Magazine explainedThrough fun and engaging events, W2O teaches members about the issues facing oceans and encourages any action, large or small, whether it’s voting for environmentally conscious lawmakers, saying no to plastic straws in restaurants, or working to ban plastic bags in a member’s hometown. Members also partake in activities such as replanting eelgrass in Essex Bay that gets them into the heart of a struggling ecosystem and puts conservation in action. 

In addition to facilitating events like eelgrass planting, W2O also hosts a range of other events, like panel discussions and presentations from scientists at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theatre, a sunset sail in Boston Harbor to learn about the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and a recent sew-a-thon to make reusable shopping bags. All of these activities facilitate W2O’s three main advocacy pillars: addressing plastic pollution and advocating for plastic bag bans, whale conservation, and protecting the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

Why This Matters: When we asked W20 board member, Dr. Priscilla Brooks, what the organization’s plans were for the future she responded “Fueled with genuine homegrown passion and a fresh authentic voice, the volunteers of W2O are all about standing up for our ocean and demanding more effective stewardship from the resource managers and policy makers entrusted with its care.” W20 is engaging in the exact sort of advocacy we need: bringing together unlikely stakeholders and showing them how critical the health of our environment is to our own wellbeing and why the only politicians that deserve our votes are the ones who will take a stand for its protection. 


Photo: © Bowonpat Sakaew
One Cool Thing: “Single-Use” Now An Official Part of Our Vocab

In 2018 we’ve heard a lot about single-use plastics, especially straws. Their bans around the world have prompted a broad conversation about disposable plastic items so much so that “single-use” is now the Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year! Good work everyone out there fighting unnecessary plastic, you’re literally shaping our culture for the better!
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