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Discussion Divas August News Roundup

Have you been glued to the Olympics? Are you feeling a bit out of touch with the rest of the news? This month Discussion Divas breaks down trans-fats, the China controversy and the Georgia-Russia conflict.
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Georgia-Russia Conflict Explained

Although the conflict between the Republic of Georgia and its northern neighbor Russia is taking place far away, the clash is unnerving, conjuring up images of the Cold War and signaling a new Russian aggressiveness. Here’s a brief explanation of what’s happening:

The unhappy breakup—background on the conflict

With just 4.5 million people, Georgia is one of 13 countries that became independent when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It’s strategically located in the Caucasus region, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and its relations with Russia have been tense in the past. (See our “Lessons from Borat” posting on former Soviet countries.)

The current conflict arose from a region of Georgia called South Ossetia, which has long clamored for its own independence and found support from Russia.

The news

Late last week after multiple skirmishes in the region, Georgian troops launched an offensive against South Ossetian separatists. Russia quickly joined the fight on behalf of the separatists, in part to assert its power but also to spite the U.S., which supports the democratic government of Georgia. Their forces overwhelmed the Georgians and pushed out of South Ossetia into Georgia proper. Despite a cease-fire agreement reached earlier this week, Russian troops remain in Georgia and the outcome is uncertain.

Implications beyond the region—why this conflict matters

This is not your average regional spat—the conflict has major implications for the global balance of power. Georgia was loudly and proudly allied with the United States, which sponsored the tiny country for membership in NATO. This angered Russia, which is not a part of NATO (a military alliance), and considers its membership a security threat. The U.S., the Europeans and other former Soviet states such have all sided with Georgia in the current conflict, calling on Russia to withdraw.

Oil is also a big part of the story. Georgia is located near the Caspian Sea, an important oil and gas producing region that feeds Europe. The U.S. successfully backed a recently completed pipeline running through Georgia—deliberately skirting Russia—in an effort to keep Moscow from having too much control over energy resources. Once again, this angered Russia.

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China Under the Microscope

If you saw the American athletes arriving in Beijing this week donning scary-looking face masks to keep the city’s famous pollution from corroding their finely-tuned lungs, then you probably got a feel for just how political these 2008 Summer Olympics promise to be.

Of course that’s not new news—-in the run up to the Games we’ve heard plenty about China’s environmental woes and serious human rights issues. But there’s a ton more to this vast, fascinating country, and we have a brief primer for you.

The population problem

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, China is also the most populous—with 1.33 billion people it makes up about one-fifth of the world’s population. To stem its booming population, the government introduced the strict, somewhat controversial “one-child” family planning program in 1979, leading to 400 million fewer people today. However, as a result, China is also one the world’s most rapidly aging countries.

Despite many areas of intense, grinding poverty, life expectancy is 73 years (compared with 78 years in the U.S) and the literacy rate is 91%.

Religious “freedom”

You may have seen the news that President Bush will be worshiping Sunday at a “government sanctioned” Christian church. The issue here is that while China’s Communist government is officially atheist, it allows just five “registered” religions and limits how many people can join those churches. Other unregistered churches may be reportedly repressed. Surveys show tens or even hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Taoists, and lesser numbers of Catholics, Protestants and Muslims live in China.

The Asian economic tiger

China has been ruled for nearly 60 years by a Communist government but starting in late 1970s, the government instituted a series of liberal market-oriented reforms, introducing private ownership, encouraging free enterprise and opening the economy to foreign trade. The result is something of a paradox: a vibrant but tightly-controlled, capitalist economy. China’s economy has been surging at a torrid pace for years, growing more than 11% in 2007. Its economy is now the second largest in the world, behind only the United States.

Of particular note to many Americans, China also holds a lot of our debt, owning more than a half trillion dollars worth of U.S. treasury securities. This is second only to Japan.

About that pollution …

All that economic growth–-think factories and coal-fired power plants belching out smoke and fouling the waters—has led to serious, dangerous environmental issues. The World Bank says China has 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, mostly because of coal use and cars. A recent article in The New Yorker says the country adds about four coal-fired plants each month!

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Of Fat and Fuel: What is Trans Fat?

While one use of hydrogen is being widely touted as an alternative way to fuel your car, another use of it became illegal in the last week in California—trans fats.

Yes, those pesky trans fats we hear so much about, and probably know annecdotally that they are bad for us, are actually oils pumped with hydrogen to create a more flavorful, longer-lasting oil with which to cook and bake. They’re also called partially hydrogenated oils. Think Crisco. Think margarine and fast food. Think bad. (It’s okay to sigh here, wishing away things that taste good.

The problem with trans fats is that they actually lower levels of “good cholestrol” and increase levels of “bad cholesterol” and thus increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Two years ago the U.S. required they be listed on nutrition labels. They’re different from saturated fats, which come mainly from animals but also some plants (these also cause high cholesterol).

The California way

California is making an all-out assault on unhealthy food. Last Friday the state banned the use of trans fats in all restaurants and, on Wednesday, Los Angeles barred any new fast-food restaurants from opening in South L.A., a low-income area of the city. Poor people are disproportionately overweight.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—body builder turned actor turned politician—signed the state ban on trans fats, which will take effect in 2010. Interestingly, the Food and Drug Administration says the biggest source of transfats in adults comes from packaged baked sweets—cookies, cakes, pies, etc,. and says the average daily adult intake of trans fats is 5.8 grams.

New York gets in on the action

In May New York City passed a law requiring big chain fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts next to menu items. Most began complying earlier this week. The city banned trans fats at restaurants two years ago.

But obesity rates are still rising

Just recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity rates ticked up about 2% from 2005, qualifying a quarter of the U.S. population as obese. Obesity means a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. (We wrote about the difference between overweight and obese last year.) Mississippi has the highest obesity rate, while Southern states overall rated as the heaviest; Colorado ranks the leanest.

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