The Daily Grist: March 8

Hy Jinx
Hybrids Gaining Ground Among Celebs, But Still Pricey for the Rest of Us

Thanks to lobbying by intrepid enviro group Global Green USA, several high-profile celebrities arrived at the Academy Awards this year not in stretch limos, but in diminutive hybrid Toyota Priuses. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Robin Williams, and Sting all pulled up to the red carpet in loaner hybrids, leading some culture wags to speculate that tank-size, nine-mile-per-gallon Hummers are losing the cachet battle to their leaner, more efficient rivals. But consumer advocates warn that the penny-pinching hoi polloi might want to pause before jumping on the hybrid bandwagon. As a purely economic matter, hybrids don't come out in the black. While their superior gas mileage does save on ever-rising gasoline costs, the mileage claims from Toyota and Honda are rarely matched in actual performance, and since hybrids still cost considerably more than their conventional counterparts, it would take many years to recoup the price difference.

Not OK Computer
U.N. Study Highlights Computers' Environmental Hazards

A U.N. study released today highlights the environmental hazards posed by the worldwide popularity of personal computers. Manufacturing the average PC requires 10 times the product's weight in fossil fuels, says the study -- compared to twice the product's weight for cars and refrigerators. Computer manufacturing also entails heavy use of toxic chemicals. To make matters worse, the lifespan of a PC is short and getting shorter, while sales continue to boom, making for a massive disposal problem. Discarded computers are often shipped to poorly managed facilities in developing countries to be recycled, leading to toxic waste and health risks for workers. The study calls on computer manufacturers to make their products easier to upgrade and U.N. member states to encourage citizens to purchase used PCs and use them longer. Thirteen countries, mostly in Europe, have passed legislation on computer recycling. The U.S., the world's largest PC producer, has made no moves in this direction.

To the Victor Goes the Right to Spoil
How the Energy Industry Won the Battle for Influence in the Bush Admin.

It's a fable for our times: When the Bush administration took office in 2001, a battle over energy policy began. On one side was the U.S. EPA, with its team of long-time career employees and its moderate new head, Christie Whitman. On the other side was Vice President Dick Cheney, the Energy Department under Spencer Abraham, and the energy industry, eventually organized by lobbyist (and ex-GOP party chair) Haley Barbour into the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, with a helping hand from lobbyist (and future GOP party chair) Marc Racicot. Memos flew. Secret meetings were held. Bureaucratic infighting ensued. Three years later, the battle is all but over: The EPA has seen a rash of high-level resignations, including Whitman's; members of the ERCC have donated more than $7 million to Republicans; and the energy industry is getting an awful lot of the changes it has been pushing for, much to the dismay of enviros and officials concerned about public health.

Sea Whirled
Gene Study of Sargasso Sea Sample Yields Surprising Results

Gene sequencing conducted on a small sample of water from the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda has revealed some 1,800 new species and led to questions about our basic knowledge of ocean biology. A group of scientists led by Craig Venter -- the famed gene researcher and developer of a method for accelerating the sequencing of the human genome -- found 800 new genes for light-gathering photoreceptors, an astonishing haul given that only 150 such genes had previously been identified in all known species. The researchers speculated that in the nutrient-barren Sargasso, bacteria had evolved to gather energy from sunlight as a substitute; scientists are eager to find ways of using such bacteria to harvest energy for human use. Said Venter, "It is estimated that over 99 percent of species remain to be discovered. Our work in the Sargasso Sea, an area thought to have low diversity of species, has shown that there is much that we do not yet understand about the ocean and its inhabitants."

For more environmental news and humor go to Grist Magazine.

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