August 31, 2005
Plan B: I Quit
The Director of Women's Health at the Food and Drug Administration, Susan Wood, resigned today in protest over the agency's delay on a decision to approve the emergency contraceptive "morning after" pill, sometimes called Plan B, for over-the-counter use. Late Friday afternoon, the FDA stated that they would neither approve or reject an application to allow women over 17 to get Plan B without a prescription, citing "unresolved regulatory issues." In response, Wood cited unwarranted interference in agency decision-making in her choice to leave.
The FDA science staff has overwhelmingly favored approval of improving access to Plan B, but the agency has twice delayed the approval, and stated this time around that a formal and "possibly time-consuming" rule making process would be needed for approval. It seems that in what should be a science-based process, the FDA may be bowing to political pressure from the Bush administration and anti-abortion activists to keep the drug off the market with endless delays.
Seven states have already approved over-the-counter access to Plan B, including Washington, and all Canadian pharmacies now offer emergency contraception without a prescription. As we've written about here, and here, universalizing one-stop access to emergency contraception at pharmacies is one of the best public policy options toward reducing the number of unintended pregnancies—perhaps by as much as half. Children conceived intentionally receive better prenatal care and have lower infant mortality rates. Approving better access to Plan B sounds like a good plan for women's health, it's no wonder that Wood said that her employer's actions were "contrary to my core commitment to improving and advancing women's health."
Last Chance to Comment
The public comment period for our discussion of sustainability fundamentals will soon come to a close. For all of you who have already left your comments, thank you! The discussion has been fascinating so far.
If you have an interest in the broad question of how NEW should define sustainability for itself, and how we should focus our messages about values and principles, please head on over to our parallel blog and read our proposed language and the comments it has inspired. And, by all means, add to the string!
Sometime soon, we will close the blog, make some changes based on the feedback we received, and begin a new phase in the testing of these ideas with specific audiences. If you have strong ideas about the direction we take, this may be your last chance to speak up...
When you head over to the other blog, you'll find some introductory background information and more detailed language around these three values:
- Strong Communities
- Thriving Nature [or "Thriving Commons"]
- Free and Fair Markets
And these five principles:
- Measure what matters
- Grow up, not out [or “Build great places”]
- Make prices tell the truth
- Ensure every child is wanted
- Prove safety first
Don't leave your comments here, though. Navigate to the fundamentals blog and comment to your heart's content there! Thanks.
Here's some feel-good news for today: US atmospheric scientists say that the ozone layer has stopped shrinking. The international effort to stop producing ozone-depleting chemicals seems to have worked. That raises my hopes for saving the world. Of course, the ozone layer is still very thin in places and may not be healed within our lifetimes, but score one success for global cooperation. Now, on to global warming.
August 30, 2005
Last West-Coast Clean Car Domino Falls
Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski just tipped over the last clean car domino on the west coast: he's directed his Department of Ecology to draft regulations for adopting California's clean-car standards.
This is a major step. Washington State had opted for California's standards, provided that Oregon adopted them too. Because Canada has adopted similar standards, Oregon's move has created a clean car corridor stretching from San Diego through northern British Columbia. Together, between California, Canada, and the northwest and northeastern states that have followed their lead, about 40 percent of the North American new car market will soon be cleaner and, if all goes well, more fuel efficient to boot. (There's a pretty good chronology of all the political action on the car standards here, if you scroll down through our blog posts.)
The Washington Post reports today that the US poverty rate rose for the fourth consecutive year last year, to 12.7 percent. That is, one out of eight Americans now lives in poverty.
At the same time, median incomes stagnated in 2004, and the number of people nationwide who have no health insurance grew by 800,000.
Without any apparent irony, the Post reports that...
[t]he increase in poverty came despite strong economic growth
So what, exactly, does "strong economic growth" mean if poverty increases, middle-income folks see their incomes stagnate, and more people end the year uninsured. Yes, I do know the answer to this -- GDP grew, the economy added jobs, and so forth. But if the Census data are any indication, these trends did little or nothing for those at the bottom half of the economic ladder -- those who were most in need of economic boost. It seems like these trends -- poverty, median incomes, and the like -- are far more important to people's lives than accounting conventions like GDP.
Just by way of comparison, the poverty rate in Washington and Oregon has averaged 11.7 percent over the past 3 years; in Idaho it's been 10.5 percent; in Montana, 14.3 percent; and California, 13.2 percent. We'll be looking more closely at Northwest trendlines as soon as updated data becomes available on the Census website.
Update: Some similar thoughts on the subject from The Washington Monthly weblog.
August 29, 2005
Chain of Evidence
From CNN, a story suggesting that Oregon's emphasis on pedestrian and bike-friendly cities has helped it keep obesity in check.
According to a study released Tuesday by the Washington, D.C.-based Trust for America's Health, the percentage of overweight Oregonians held steady at 21 percent last year, a sharp contrast to Alabama, where the rate of obesity increased 1.5 percentage points to 27.7 percent.
What makes Oregon different is its emphasis on urban design, which encourages outdoor activities like biking to work, the study's authors said.
Now, obviously, only a small share of Oregon residents walk or bike to work; and many people who do so have farily short commutes. But that's exactly the point: when it comes to obesity, even a little bit of exercise can make a big difference. On average, adults put on a pound or two a year -- but a pound of extra weight per year averages out to just 10 calories per day. That's less than a teaspoon of sugar, or a daily stroll of about a tenth of a mile. So even though Oregon cities' neighborhood design may have only a small effect on walking and biking, that effect could very well have been enough to keep Oregonians from putting on as much weight as Alabamans. And by curtailing the growth of obesity, Oregon may have helped keep its citizens healthy, while stemming health care costs--which now account for about one out of every eight dollars Oregonians earn. Which is one way of responding to people who question whether sidewalks and bike lanes are really worth the cost.
Pillaging National Parks
If you're feeling insufficiently dismayed about conservation politics, consider reading today's editorial in the New York Times, headlined "Destroying the National Parks." It details a draft revision of the National Park Service's governing documents. These revisions, crafted by Paul Hoffman, an Interior Department official with no Park Service experience, had been kept secret but recently came to light.
The NY Times editorial board alleges that:
Mr. Hoffman's rewrite would open up nearly every park in the nation to off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and Jet Skis. According to his revision, the use of such vehicles would become one of the parks' purposes.
Further, according to the editorial:
He does everything possible to strip away a scientific basis for park management. His rules would essentially require park superintendents to subordinate the management of their parks to local and state agendas. He also envisions a much wider range of commercial activity within the parks.
Katrina and the Waves
As a side-note to all the excitement in New Orleans today, Hurricane Katrina has been making waves in the energy markets. Oil hit $70 per barrel in overnight trading last night. Gasoline futures topped $2 per gallon. Natural gas prices spiked as well; at about this time last year, they were at about $5.50 per million BTU, but today they're over twice that high.
Prices may well decline in the aftermath of the storm, as the damage is assessed. But pump prices throughout the US may well be affected going into Labor Day weekend -- especially if Gulf Coast refineries sustain any damage.
It seems I never get tired of saying this: the Northwest's dependence on fossil fuels -- particularly oil and natural gas -- shackles our economy to forces over which we have absolutely no control. The Pacific Northwest's oil comes mostly from Alaska; much of it is refined in Washington and BC. Still, we're part of a global energy market, and price jumps anywhere else have ripple effects here. Which means that a single hurricane, political shock, or terrorist incident in any major energy producing or refining part of the world now has the potential to siphon millions of dollars out of the region's economy. It's high time we recognize that fact -- and long past time for us to do something about reducing our economy's vulnerability to, say, freak storms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Update: This Seattle P-I article says much the same thing.
Get On Our Bike And Ride
Via Wired Magazine, a nifty idea from Lyon, France: a rent-a-bike program that lets subscribers borrow a bike for just over a dollar an hour. The first half hour is free -- which makes the service ideal for people who want to make short jaunts downtown, but don't want to lug their bicycles with them wherever they go. Impressively, the service attracted 15,000 subscribers within the first 3 months.
As the article notes, the service was costly to set up, largely because the billing system and anti-theft provisions are pretty high-tech. But those things were important. Free bike sharing programs (including ones in Amsterdam and Portland, Oregon) had run into problems -- not enough money, or too many "free riders" abusing the system by hoarding the nice bikes. The French system seems to have safeguards in place to prevent those problems; if you don't return your borrowed bike within 24 hours, the service keeps your $180 deposit.
The Northwest already has car-sharing programs (such as FlexCar in Seattle and Portland, and the Cooperative Auto Network in BC) that work on the same basic principle. But it seems that there are only a handful of neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest in which a commercial bike sharing service makes much sense; since much of our urbanized area consists of fairly low-density sprawl with minimal bike-friendly infrastructure, demand is probably too low to justify the startup costs. Still, it's worth keeping in mind, for two reasons. First, it may work well in particular neighborhoods in or around our major cities, particularly as they attract new residents. And second, it's a nifty example of how new technology can turn a previously unworkable idea into a practical one -- a lesson that applies well to other kinds of innovations (did someone say "congestion pricing"?)
August 25, 2005
True Crime Stores
Is it possible that I'm taking time out of a busy day to praise, of all things, today's USAToday cover story on child sex offense trends?
Ok, this is sort of off topic for this blog. But I think the USAToday story raises a crucial point -- that, despite the increasing level of media attention that gets paid to a few high-profile child sex offense cases, the actual trends are going quite dramatically in the right direction. According to the article, child sexual assault rates fell by 79% from 1993 through 2003. (This may be cherry-picking the years, but the long-term trends seem perfectly legit, and agree with other crime trends.)
Of course, you wouldn't be able to tell discern this trend from most of the media coverage on the topic -- including from USAToday itself. If you just watched the headlines, you might be convinced that sex offenses against children were soaring. So in some ways, this story represents a rare admission from the press that you really can't gauge what's really happening in the world based on trends in media coverage. In the end, actual data is far more important than a string of anecdotes, no matter how compelling they may be.
Now, obviously, the fact that sex offenses are on the decline overall doesn't take away from the horror experienced by victims and their families, and doesn't mean we should slacken our efforts to stop this sort of crime from happening. And the media attention on a few high profile child sex offender cases may actually have been helpful in raising public awareness, and political action, around the issue.
But still, I think the story is a useful admission that newspaper headlines can mislead just as much as they can illuminate.