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Protein: The lay of the lamb

This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

Photo by Martin Pettitt.

When it comes to carbon emissions, lamb is said to be the worst possible thing to eat. It’s the tall, scary skyscraper in the carbon emissions bar graph (see below), and for good reason. They’re small, gassy animals that spend most of their lives on pasture. Wait, what’s that last part? Yes, some of the animals who seem to spend the least time in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) -- a good thing, as far as I’m concerned -- also have the largest carbon hoofprints.

It’s a given that eating any meat at all has a larger environmental impact than choosing not to. But, for committed omnivores, choosing a comparatively green option has become increasingly complex. And precisely because lamb has gotten such a bad rap in carbon-centric circles, I thought it might be worth another look.

First the bad news: Sheep are big burpers and, like cows, they release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. Although their production “lifecycle” has around the same climate impact as that of cattle, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that “lamb meat tends to have higher net GHG emissions because lambs produce less meat in relation to live weight than cows.”

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food


Standing to reason: Do non-believers need temples, too?

Alain de Botton's proposed atheist temple. (Image by Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson.)

Fundamentalism and magical thinking are all the rage these days. Rational scientific thinking is out, especially when it comes to climate change, and atheists are really unpopular.

But what if non-believers grabbed a few ideas from the religious set? Writer Alain de Botton, whose most recent book is called Religion for Atheists, has come up with a plan to build an enormous atheist temple in the city of London. On his website, de Botton asks “Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

De Botton doesn’t see an atheist temple as a contradiction in terms. Here’s what he told The Guardian:

Read more: Cities, Climate Skeptics


Keystone XL opponents need a jobs program

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are taking a well-deserved victory lap. The Obama administration’s decision to reject TransCanada’s pipeline proposal -- at least for now -- represents an historic win for the environmental movement, and reveals the potency of the emerging alignment between the environmental, anti-corporate, Occupy, and other movements.

Real strides were also made to bridge the divide between environmental groups and unions. While Republicans relentlessly attacked environmentalists as “job killers,” groups like, Sierra Club, and NRDC reached out to unions early and often, and as a result, six labor unions came out in support of President Obama's decision to oppose the permit. Not since the “Battle in Seattle” have we seen such diverse and robust coalitions.

But the Keystone campaign also exposed the perennial Achilles' heel of those who are fighting against climate change: We are often painted by our opponents and perceived by the public as caring more about the environment than about jobs. In a press release titled “U.S. Chamber Calls Politically-Charged Decision to Deny Keystone a Job Killer,” the Chamber of Commerce said President Obama’s denial of the KXL permit was “sacrificing tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs in the short term, and many more than that in the long term.” And its messaging worked, with the media repeating the jobs vs. environment frame again and again. NPR’s headline was typical of many: "Pipeline Decision Pits Jobs Against Environment."


A bill of goods: With their latest transportation bill, GOP sides with the suburbs

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled their version of a national transportation bill this week. This is the legislation that doles out billions of dollars annually to highways, train lines, and -- at least in the past -- to bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and a program called Safe Routes to School that helps kids get to home room each morning without being flattened by a passing car.

The last few would seem like a populist no-brainers, but if House Republicans have their way, even Safe Routes to School will get no more love from Washington.

I mean, really. Is nothing sacred?


Killer tale: Lessons from a lonely orca

Luna craved human contact. (Photo by Mountainside Films.)

When husband-and-wife journalists Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm first heard about a lone orca whale hanging out in Nootka Sound, a rugged inlet along Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s west coast, they thought attempts to reunite the creature with its pod would make “a very sweet, small story.” But as they spent the summer of 2004 learning how this young male (nicknamed Luna) showed up suddenly and mysteriously after getting separated from his pod three years before, they found themselves sucked into the action. By the time Parfit’s Smithsonian article about Luna came out in November of that year, attempts to move the whale out of Nootka Sound had failed, his future was uncertain, and Parfit and Chisholm knew they couldn’t let go of Luna or his story yet.

Last September, the couple released The Whale, a feature-length documentary narrated by Ryan Reynolds (a B.C. native) and produced by Scarlett Johansson. The buzzworthy film chronicles the controversy surrounding Luna, who captivated locals with his desire for social interaction and attention, but concerned scientists who worried that such contact would ultimately prove dangerous for both human and whale. To the Mowachaht-Muchalaht people living near Nootka Sound, Luna had special importance: They saw him as the incarnation of a past tribal leader, and made bold moves to block attempts to capture the whale and remove him from the area.

Beyond the narrative drama of The Whale’s plot, what so affected those involved in the story (and now touches viewers) is the evidence of an incredible interspecies bond that developed between Luna and those who knew him. It’s an experience that defies what we think we know about the potential of human-animal communication. We caught up with Parfit to talk more about The Whale and the fascinating issues it brings up.

Read more: Animals


Newly discovered fungus eats plastic

A group of Yale students, poking around in the jungles of Ecuador, has unearthed a type of fungus that digests otherwise-unkillable plastics

Read more: Cleantech


‘Gasland’ director arrested for filming in Congress

Image from the office of Rep. Paul Tonko, via Politico

This is probably not the way for the U.S. to regain our recent huge losses on the Press Freedom Index. Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated (and Emmy-winning) documentary Gasland, was arrested this morning for trying to film a committee meeting about fracking.

Read more: Politics


Inside New York City’s defunct quarantine hospital

Photographer Ian Ference had to get special dispensation from the New York City parks department to visit North Brother Island, the site of a forced-quarantine hospital that closed down 50 years ago. The island, right off the coast of the Bronx, used to house people suffering from contagious diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox -- including the notorious Typhoid Mary, who was confined to the island's Riverside Hospital for more than 20 years. (There was also a small leper colony, at least until the leprosy sufferers all walked away and the Board of Health decided their disease wasn't contagious enough to let them come back.) 

Read more: Cities


Chicken farm crates are basically never cleaned

If a bite of food falls on the ground, often we pick it up and eat it. Five second rule, right? But if it falls in something gross or we haven't cleaned the floor in awhile, we don't eat it. Because that's gross. Especially if your floor is covered in chicken shit.

It's unclear, then, why we are okay with eating chickens that have been transported in crates that are never, ever cleaned. Never. By 80 percent of poultry growers, at least. Which means that there's a 4 in 5 chance that your chicken dinner was rolling around in something far nastier than a little floor dust.

Read more: Factory Farms


Julianne Moore wants clean air for kids

Did you guys know Julianne Moore wrote a children's book? This is apparently the thing celebrities do when they're over 25 (under 25, they start a perfume line). It's about the heartbreak of being a ginger, and not about environmental stuff at all, but that isn't stopping Moore from plugging it in her video for the Moms Clean Air Force. (It's a little labored -- something about polluters being bullies.)

Read more: Clean Air