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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to keep my teeth white?

toothbrush
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am trying to reduce waste (like any diligent Grist reader), and one item I can't find in a recyclable or reusable container is toothpaste. Are there any toothpastes that come in recyclable containers and aren't made by big companies and full of chemicals? I've considered making my own paste from baking soda, but then there's no fluoride. How important is that?

Rachelle G.
Menlo Park, Calif.

A. Dearest Rachelle,

We’ve come a long way since the days of cleaning our choppers with crushed twigs and bones, but that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out everything when it comes to eco-oral hygiene. Your question addresses two issues, Rachelle: the toothpaste itself, and the tube it comes in. Let’s brush up on the former first. Environmentally and healthfully speaking, what’s the best way to keep our teeth clean?

The medical establishment is pretty much unanimous on this one: You want to brush your teeth at least twice daily with an American Dental Association-approved toothpaste. The ADA conducts gold-standard testing to ensure a given goop actually follows up on its claims to protect those pearly whites -- and brands that pass muster get an ADA seal on the package. Easy, right?

Well, not so fast: An ADA seal doesn’t necessarily mean a tube is free of potentially worrisome chemical ingredients.

Read more: Living

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Why Congress needs to extend the wind energy tax credit

blowing money
Shutterstock

The wind energy production tax credit is a tougher issue than you might imagine for some good liberal wonks. On the one hand, wind power is great. On the other hand, tax credits are a market-distorting, inefficient way of making policy. They are basically spending disguised as tax cuts. Most tax credits that affect the environment -- accelerated depreciation for the fossil fuel industry, the home mortgage interest deduction -- incentivize sprawl, driving, and profligate dirty energy use. It is a rare, and tantalizing, point of agreement between good government advocates across party lines that we should throw out the whole system and operate a cleaner tax code.

So it might be tempting, when you see Tea Party-affiliated, Koch brothers-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity pushing to eliminate the wind energy tax credit, to say, “Hey, I agree!” Tempting but wrong.

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Legalize pot, save a lot of energy

marijuana plant
Shutterstock

[COUGH! COUGH!] What were we talking about? Oh right, right, right. Marijuana's continued prohibition in 48 mellow-harshing states has an unintended side effect (besides making Phish unlistenable): It narfs $6 billion in energy costs and pumps out as much greenhouse gas as 3 million cars. Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the marijuana industry is responsible for about 1 percent of all U.S. electricity usage.

The reason is simple. To evade detection, growers work indoors -- where lights, ventilation, temperature controls, and presumably industrial-grade lava lamps suck up a lot of juice. From ThinkProgress:

Read more: Uncategorized

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American Petroleum Institute poll on American energy jobs apparently outsourced to the Philippines

From an 2012 American Petroleum Institute report to convention platform committees.
ThinkProgress
From an 2012 American Petroleum Institute report to convention platform committees.

A telephone poll testing out messaging techniques on fracking and creating American jobs through expanded fossil fuel drilling and refining, apparently paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API), was interrupted Tuesday by a 5.7-magnitude earthquake shaking the outsourced calling center near Davao City in the Philippines.

Tuesday evening, I received a call from a pollster calling from a number showing up as (801) 899-4119. The woman identified herself as calling from Survey Sampling International and asked if she could ask me some questions about national issues. The questions focused almost entirely on energy policy and asked for reaction to a series of mostly pro-industry statements.

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Why Rand Paul’s plan won’t save Detroit

Rand Paul
Gage Skidmore

Rand Paul, the beacon of small-government conservatism, has an idea to save Detroit. Paul’s solution to Detroit’s poverty, shrinking population, crime, blight, and bankruptcy is the same as Paul’s solution to virtually everything else: cut taxes. Michigan news website MLive reports:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) plans to introduce a bill in Congress to create "Economic Freedom Zones" that would reduce taxes and ease government regulation in distressed areas, he announced in a speech in Detroit on Friday.

Paul said the measure would "leave over $1.3 billion in Detroit" over 10 years by slashing personal and business income tax to 5 percent, eliminating capital gains taxes and offering other incentives for people and businesses to move to designated zones that are in economic distress.

Unlike some of Paul's ideas, it's not completely wacky. Getting people to move to Detroit and start businesses must be one component of any plan to restore it to health. But there is a voodoo-economics quality to Paul’s proposal, similar to supply-side theories: If you tax something less, you will get more of it. With supply side, also known as trickle-down economics or Reaganomics, the idea is that if the federal government taxes income or investment less, the economy will grow more. The data and historical experience do not actually support that, unless you’re cutting taxes from an extremely high rate, like 90 percent, to a more optimal one. There is no evidence that a tax rate of, say, 25 percent versus 15 percent determines macroeconomic outcomes.

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Turns out community gardens are basically Fight Club

vegetable_faceoff
hojusaram

Think community gardens are sweet cooperative spaces where a neighborhood can come together to cultivate food and companionship? You poor sucker. Modern Farmer has the lowdown, and it's pretty low. Turns out those idyllic little greenspaces are actually hotbeds for theft, hard partying, vandalism, and culture clashes.

Among the horror stories ModFarm has collected:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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What kind of crazy anti-environment bills is ALEC pushing now?

shutterstock_165105542
Shutterstock

The American Legislative Exchange Council may be hemorrhaging members and grappling with a funding crisis, but that hasn't hampered its ambitions. In 2013, the conservative outfit, which specializes in generating state-level legislation, launched a multi-front jihad on green energy, with more than 77 ALEC-backed energy bills cropping up in state legislature. Among the most prominent were measures to repeal renewable energy standards and block meaningful disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. Most of these bills failed. But as state lawmakers and corporate representatives gather in Washington this week for the group's three-day policy summit, ALEC is pushing ahead with a new package of energy and environmental bills that will benefit Big Energy and polluters.

On Wednesday, The Guardian reported some details of ALEC's anti-green-energy offensive and its new policy roadmap, which began taking shape at an August gathering of the group's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force in Chicago. The newspaper focused largely on ALEC's efforts to undermine net-metering policies, which allow private citizens to sell excess power from rooftop solar panels to utilities. ("As it stands now, those direct generation customers are essentially free riders on the system," John Eick, an ALEC legislative analyst, told the Guardian.) But the group's energy task force -- which includes as members fossil fuel interests, such as Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil -- will also be peddling other pro-corporate state initiatives, some with far-reaching implications. Below is a roundup:

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Justice giant: Remembering Mandela and his fight for climate justice

nelson mandela
Reuters

Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday, is best known for his fight against South African apartheid. But his long walk to freedom also included steps toward solving this mammoth problem called climate change. He envisioned a world where all people are able to live a fully dignified life, with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink -- and where poor countries are not left with the repercussions of rich nation's dirty ways.

Six years ago, Mandela founded The Elders, a cross-cultural group of leaders from across the globe, including former President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Chief Kofi Annan, to forge human rights-based solutions to worldwide problems. One of the group's top priorities is climate justice, which is not only about reducing greenhouse gas emisssions, but also about ensuring the protection of those people and regions most vulnerable to the worst of climate change’s impacts.

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Forget Google street view — make your own 360-degree videos with this gizmo

bubl-360-camera
Bubl

Yeah, yeah, Google street view’s pretty cool -- you can see the world and catch people making out, all from the comfort of your couch. But who needs Google now that you can buy the Bublcam?

Bubl is a Toronto-based company that just raised $300,000 on Kickstarter to market its 360-degree camera. (Its technology is the same used in Google street view; this is the consumer version.) For a mere $468 -- ha! pocket change! -- you can be one of the first to take 360-degree, high-def photos and stream panoramic videos live with something the size of a baseball:

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8 scary facts about antibiotic resistance

A drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph).
Centers for Disease Control
A drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph).

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of the surprising reasons that U.S. students are so bad at math (just 26th in the world, in a recent study). Plus, Indre takes apart a highly controversial new study purporting to show that male-female gender stereotypes are rooted in different wiring of our brains.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

It's flu season. And we're all about to crisscross the country to exchange hugs, kisses, and germs. We're going to get sick. And when we do, many of us will run to our doctors and, hoping to get better, demand antibiotics.

And that's the problem: Antibiotics don't cure the flu (which is viral, not bacterial), but the overprescription of antibiotics imperils us all by driving antibiotic resistance. This threat is growing, so much so that in a recent widely read Medium articleWired science blogger and self-described "scary disease girl" Maryn McKenna painted a disturbingly plausible picture of a world in which antibiotics have become markedly less effective. That future is the focus of McKenna's interview this week on the Inquiring Minds podcast:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living