Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Solstice Everyone!

Special Announcement: Solar is Now Cheaper than Coal

Yes, that's right. The race has been on for the company who could break the United States of their coal addiction, with even Google jumping in to get it started. A Silicon Valley start-up called Nanosolar has cracked the code and developed what the blog Solve Climate is calling "the iTunes of solar." They shipped their first solar panels at $1 a piece. How did they manage to make solar panels so cheap? They focused on the manufacturing process instead of working on the technology, as so many others who are trying to lower the cost. Nanosolar had developed a way to speed up the manufacturing process, by printing solar cells on sheets of aluminum. Bot only does this breakthrough speed up the process by a hundred fold, it also reduces the amount of material by as much. Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen is reserving the first three commercially-viable panels. One is staying on display at company HQ; one has been donated to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation. And the other is on sale at eBay, according to the article.
Check out the original story in Solve Climate, and have a chuckle at how much people are willing to pay on eBay for the limited edition release of the $1 solar panel.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Value of a Tree

I asked in the last article the question "How much is a tree really worth?"
A few weeks ago I found myself asking that very same question while working on a project just west of Yosemite, in Tuolomne county. I have been working as the ecological consultant and landscape designer on a 5 building college facility, nestled beneath a mature oak forest. We've been designing what we hope will be the coolest Child Care Facility ever, where kids will have a connection to nature and a desire to protect it and other natural places when they get older.
We're shooting for LEED certification on this, and the oaks are a key aspect of the 'greenness' of the project. In fact without them, our goal of eliminating the need for summer air-conditioning and reducing our cost to build and maintain the facilities would never be possible.
These are amazing trees, most sporting trunk diameters of three feet of more, and canopies that stretch out as far as 50 feet! Many of the trees are spaced so closely together that they have combined their shapes to form single arching canopies, their roots just as surely entwined with one another. With summer temperatures reaching sometimes in the hundreds for days at a time, these oaks will provide much needed shade for the buildings.
Building a structure in a mature forest is no easy task. It is well known that oaks trees suffer greatly form the impacts of development, from damage to their roots to alteration of the way water moved on the land they have grown up on. There are many different professionals who work as a team when planning any building project, and this one has the added responsibility of ensuring the health of these oaks. Normal projects involve altering the land dramatically, as when trenching to lay utilities, grading to make flat surfaces for foundations and handicap accessibility. Here we are not able to do any of that without first considering the effect on the oaks. Our buildings will be unique and attuned to their habitat, with special features such as piers over roots, which I like to think of as buildings on their tiptoes, that allow the buildings to rest on the land without altering it.
We are now in the process of awaiting permitting, and eventually the plans will go for public bid. It is an unfortunate fact that in the contracting world, the low bidders are the ones who get the contracts. This often means cutting corners wherever possible, including 'accidentally' losing trees to reduce the labor time needed to move materials and equipment carefully on a site. With all this special design put into preserving trees, the architect and I decided to write into the specifications penalties that would make construction think twice about causing our mascots any harm. I found I was crouched over my specifications asking myself, "How much are these trees worth if we had to replace one?"
I started reviewing the tree protection specification from other LEED buildings. Not much help there, this is a quiet revolution we're waging with this project. The numbers I came up with, when applied to my project, gave the average value of their cooling services at about $25,000 each, a negligible loss considering the value of the project itself. Then I factored in the service of providing the key element in the landscape and what that would take to replace. Then the value of keeping the campus lake free of soil runoff by stabilizing the hillsides. I got some figures on replacement of the trees, and was astounded to find the price of a mature oak at half the size would cost $36,000. This is just the price of tree and installation, without any of the administrative costs factored in.
In the end, the architects and I decided on a number that would make each tree worth around $100,000, though this value is by no means complete. I wince to think of any value attached to an organism that has taken so long to reach this size. I think of the Miwok Indians who must have planted these trees and then nursed them to maturity, knowing that future generations would be able to harvest the acorns, an essential part of their traditional diet.
Evaluating ecosystems services is a great technique to preserving functioning, intact ecosystems because it helps people realize their monetary value in this profit-driven economy. A growing body of economic and scientific evidence shows that humans simply cannot design systems that perform these core services better, be it filtering our air and water, providing the necessary pollination for more than 2/3 of our food supply, or even growing the natural products we get from the forests and oceans. This is another important tool in our arsenal when we as designers and scientists wage the quiet revolution.

Monday, December 17, 2007

How Much is a Tree Worth?

As an ecologist I never thought I'd be in such high demand!
Today while perusing my blogs I found this short piece on Costa Rica and their new program to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by the year 2021. An ambitious plan for a country that has lost more than a dozen amphibians due to habitat loss.
Costa Rica is a land known for its natural beauty, rainforests, and 5% of the world's species. Ecotourism is one of the leading industries in this tiny country, but one must not forget that the main economic force guiding this country is agriculture.
According to the article in Treehugger, "Just days ago, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias planted the 5 millionth tree of the year near his office in the capital San Jose...By the end of 2007, Costa Rica will have planted nearly 6.5 million trees, which should absorb 111,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year."
While this may be a wonderful idea, one must ask: What kind of trees are they planting, and how could they possibly take place of all the trees felled each year to make way for soybeans and other crops?
"Costa Rica is facing a wood shortage and must now import wood from other countries to meet domestic demand. And currently, there are no incentives for allowing abandoned agricultural land to regrow naturally into forest, so farmers are either shifting their agricultural land use to or planting native or exotic tree species for reforestation incentives," according to rainforest advocates at
And just how much carbon can a new tree absorb in comparison to a mature forest? The EPA, who I trust as the right arm of the Bush administration (yes there is some sarcasm here), claims, "
Carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil type, regional climate, topography and management practice. In the U.S., fairly well-established values for carbon sequestration rates are available for most tree species. Soil carbon sequestration rates vary by soil type and cropping practice and are less well documented but information and research in this area is growing rapidly. Pine plantations in the Southeast (US) can accumulate almost 100 metric tons of carbon per acre after 90 years, (Do we have 90 more years?) or roughly one metric ton of carbon per acre per year," and they go as far as to say that carbon sequestration capabilities are reduced as a forest matures, as if to say plantations are better than natural forests. Costa Rica and the US aren't the only countries with faulty logic.

Officials from the Indonesian ministry of agriculture and the palm oil industry have been touting that palm plantations sequester more carbon than native rainforests.
Not so, according to Mongabay.
" As is the case with any plant, oil palm trees do sequester carbon sequester carbon as they grow -- carbon is a basic building block of plant tissue. Nevertheless, the process of clearing forest in order to establish a plantation releases more carbon than will be sequestered by the growing oil palms. So while a new oil palm plantation may grow faster -- and sequester carbon at a higher annual rate -- than a naturally regenerating forest, in the end the oil plantation will still store less carbon (50-90 percent less over 20 years) than the original forest cover."

Not to mention that fact that these trees planted will not match the loss of habitat due to clear cutting of the rainforests.
Nice try, Costa Rica, but you still have a long way to go, including fair analysis of the full range of ecosystem services an intact forest provides- from clean air and water, to biodiversity and products from the forest. How much is a tree really worth?

For the abbreviated article on Costa Rica in TreeHugger

Saturday, October 13, 2007

DNA increases LED power

Andrew Steckl has revealed an intriguing new piece of evidence that nature has more power than humans have yet to imagine. His work on photonics at the University of Cincinnati has focuses on intensifying the light produced by LEDs with biological material.
“Biological materials have many technologically important qualities — electronic, optical, structural, magnetic,” says Steckl. “DNA has certain optical properties that make it unique. It allows improvements in one to two orders of magnitude in terms of efficiency, light, brightness — because we can trap electrons longer.”
His big idea- using salmon sperm. His main focus is on creating products that are more environmentally sustainable. This material is a readily available bi-product of the fishing industry, and is thrown away by the ton.
Steckl believes that the use of biological materials has the potential to improve all our current electronic technologies, plus close the loop between industry and waste.
For the original article link here
For the hype at Tree Hugger and ignorant comments from the peanut gallery link here

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fungus Reveals New Forms of Energy Production

A surprising discovery published back in May reveals that some fungi can create energy with the help of melanin, a pigment also found in human skin. The fungi was first discovered within the contaminated chambers of the Chernobyl reactor, where the flourishing black masses were first observed by scientists Ekaterina Dadachova and her colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City.
In laboratory conditions, it was found that the fungi Cryptococcus neoformans, when exposed to radiation, uses this energy as a plants would use light, to produce growth. Scientists have long known certain fungi can digest plastics, oils and asbestos. Now they are hopeful that this breakthrough could provide insight as to how to deal with nuclear waste and produce food in conditions with high radiation levels. But this discovery is also important in that so far it was thought that only plants could make food through photosynthesis.
And what does this mean for the melanin in our bodies- is it possible that this plays some unknown role in humans?
Dadachova pointed out to Technology Review that "The mechanism of this process needs to be established. It took at least two decades and the work of several research groups to determine the mechanism of photosynthesis."

For the abstract in
Check out the interview with Dadachova in Technology Review

Monday, September 17, 2007

Nuclear Energy Revisited

Friday I attended a lecture on Nuclear Energy as a green power source, hosted by the Long Now Foundation. Nuclear energy is green? So say the experts, Dr Gwyneth Cravens and Dr. Richard Anderson.
Coal is the largest source of energy in our country, accounting for 51% of the total production. Nuclear is at 20%, hydor is 7%, and alternatives make up the rest of the whole. Hydro is currently maxed out, and coal accounts for an estimated 24,000 deaths in the United States per year, in addition to the damage atmospherically.
According to the experts, when comparing the environmental advantages of nuclear energy over coal, there is no doubt that nuclear energy is a safe and viable alternative. Uranium is plentiful and readily available. The size of the power plants is extremely small compared to the vastness of coal plants. Nuclear can provide the base load required of power plants, the available power so when demands spike, there is enough power to meet immediate demands. Unfortunately, wind and solar cannot provide the base loads. And nuclear energy creates virtually no atmospheric pollution, in fact, it creates hardly any waste at all. The amount of spent energy left over if a person received their power from nuclear their entire life could fill one coke can. With coal, a person would fill nine train cars full of waste in their lifetime. Now multiply that by the number of people out there. Where will we put all that waste?
One of the big concerns about nukes is their potential to expose people to radiation. The lecturer said she had her fears, and researched this possibility quite extensively. The Three Mile Island accident resulted in successful containment and cleanup, and injured no one. The nuclear plants she visited emit approximately .09 millarems per year (millarems is a factor that calculated human safety). She pointed out an interesting fact- there are .1 millarems in a banana. In some urban areas in the United States, the Bay Area for example, people are exposed to thousand times more millarems per year, from naturally occurring radiation.
Cigarettes expose humans to astounding amounts of radiation, and the lecturer claimed that most nuclear scientists would recommend quitting smoking as the number one way to reduce your radiation exposure.
Chernobyl seems to be the best example of a bad accident involving nuclear power. Indeed, Chernobyl is not a good example of potential accidents, as it was built without any containment fields, without the proper subterranean design found elsewhere, built from inferior materials, and without the proper safety features. It was the worst of the worst, and when the reactor began to malfunction, workers who were not properly trained interrupted the only safety measure that would have prevented the meltdown- they turned off the water.
The threat of terrorism is negligible, according to the experts. They pointed out the incredible safety meausres at plants, the building construction that would stop any air attack, and the fact that stealing the enriched fuel for making bombs would be impossible to accomplish, as the sheer weight of the material and the immediate personal danger alone are too gargantuan.
Its not life someone can slip a piece of enriched uranium in their pocket and sneak off with it.
The last point of the lecture was the disposal of nuclear waste. First off, nuclear engery is now 98% efficient when spent fuels are reprocessed. This means that previously disposed materials could be reclaimed and reused. That technology is always improving. A new storage facility in New Mexico, located in a salt deposit thousands of feet below the earth's surface has been created by the military, and the only thing stopping us from safely storing material here is politics.
It seems the biggest obstacle to creating more power plants and reducing the effects of coal and global warming are public opinion and the fact that we are producing no young nuclear physicists. We simply cannot ramp up quickly enough to slow global warming.
While I must admit I was surprised, and still hold some skepticism about the safety of storing spent nuclear waste, I found myself imagining a world where the power was nuclear. It seems like something we greenies should definitely start looking into, instead of immediately rejecting the idea, as I did once.
For a link to the Long Now Lecture Series
For the Wiki on Three Mile Island

Monday, August 20, 2007

Animals Can Smell CO2

There are folks out there who swear that ticks are some of the most fascinating creature on the planet in terms of their specialized adaptations and cool body gadgets, but I'm starting to have a real appreciation for mice these days.
This article in today from Nature features a group of scientists who have discovered that mice can smell Carbon Dioxide as keenly as humans smell sulpher gas. In experiments where mice could make choices on where to run, they chose those areas with lower concentrations of CO2, and when exposed to extreme levels, actually exhibited distressed and aggressive behavior as a result.
Though the article doesn't say exactly why mice detect CO2, they do say that the sensitivity is great enough to be able to detect the carbon in human exhalation. I imagine these stealthy little creatures actually seeking out the dwellings of people in search of food.
There aren't any plans in the making yet for using the CO2 mouse detection in any practical application, but this is nonetheless an important discovery.
For the original article in Nature (get it while it's still available!)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Can an Event Like Burning Man Go Green?

Ok, so I've been bad lately, leaving my readers hanging and not writing. But I have a good excuse: I'm working too hard in preparation for going to Burning Man!
I hope you all have heard about it by now, since I seem to be the last BM virgin on the planet here in the Bay Area. Now why would a sensible woman like me go to a crazy pagan orgy with tons of people, drugs and art in the desert, you ask? It's not just the party that intices me, you can be sure of that!
I've written in the past about the new urban revolution going on, with folks who believe we can revitalise our cities, making them walkable communities with less impact on the environment. It seems the cities of history benefited from the lack of planning and architects, growing slowly over time and organically, making them better places to live.
It may sound crazy, but this is my reason for being interested in Burning Man and Black Rock City, the ultimate temporary city. I'm curious as to how a place can be built in a week with little planning and permitting, a place that is filled with 40k people, yet still walkable, with a central meeting place and organized events. It sounds like a blast, and what better way to test the limits of new urbanism?
So I'm headed east in 10 days, with plenty of water and costumes. I've borrowed all I can in an attempt to curb my consumption, and I'll be decorating my bike with crepe paper instead of fake fur. I'll recycle everything I can, of course, and offset the carbon from my trip through TerraPass. I've made arrangements with a photographer friend of mine, and the two of us are going to document the event. More to come on that later....
In the meantime, for all you Burners out there, check out the official BM Environmental Blog, with tips on how to make your experience more eco-friendly.
If you're going, I will be camping with a group at 6:30 and B, with a big shiny Airstream trailer in the corner of our site. My name is June Bug on the Playa, so come look me up, and we can talk ecology.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Frito Lays and Chip Carbon Count

Frito Lays sells under the name Walkers in the UK, where chips are called crisps. The biggest difference you'll find these days between the two names is the carbon rating on the Walker's bag, letting consumers know the amount of carbon created in producing the snack.
According to Terra Pass, "Walkers have been working with a government-funded organization called The Carbon Trust to calculate the carbon emissions caused by one bag of chips. It is the first company to begin carbon-labeling as part of a pilot scheme to label products with their environmental impact."
The shocking news is that to produce a 34.5 gram bag of chips, 75 grams of carbon are produced.
Check out the rest of the article for more statistics and pretty charts.
TerraPass newsletter link here

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fish Populations Controlled by Sex Changes

Florida has been inundated with invasive species. Since the 60's, Florida's rivers have been slowly filling with an Aquatic plants called Hydrilla. To combat the invader, Tilapia fish were brought in, along with two species of snail. Unfortunately, these exotics preferred the native species of vegetation over the Hydrilla, sending the biodiversity of Florida's rivers into further turmoil.
Now Juan Gutierrez, a bio-mathematician at Florida State University, thinks he can solve the problem. Gutierrez has developed a mathematical model of a population in which males carry two different sex chromosomes (XY) and females are XX. Unlike humans, the sex of a fish can be changed by exposure to different sex hormones. According to this week's Nature,
"By exposing genetic males to female hormones, or vice versa, it is therefore possible to create a male that is genetically XX, or a female that is XY or even YY. Such individuals, with the genetics of one sex but the physical characteristics of the other, are referred to as carriers of 'Trojan sex chromosomes'."
After simulated generations with the model, it was shown that when there was an introduction of YY females, the subsequent offspring were predominantly male, and that this male dominance only strenghtened with each new cycle. Eventually there were only males left in the population.
Gutierrez stresses that this only a model, and further study will have to be made to determine if this technique would truly work in a real environment. However, the potential could be the final solution to the problem, as this is not introducing genetically modified organsims or new potentially invasive exotics into the rivers.
I wonder if any thought has been given to whether introducing these altered fish runs the risk of increasing their fertility rates and creating a population explosion.
For the article in its entirety in news@Nature

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Latest Online Interactive Craze

I stumbled on this old article today from April, but I think many of you would still find the info relevant. Craig Newman of Craiglsist and researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Texas A&M have developed a technology in hopes of attracting gamers and nature- enthusiasts, one in a series of webcam projects planned around the globe. Craig has set up a webcam from his window out to Sutro Forest in San Francisco. Users can operate the camera to watch for birds. They're hoping that online viewers will help him spot the elusive Ivory Billed Woodpecker, and that in the future other web cam projects will help conservation efforts and allow people to view nature from their homes.
I found this post while trying to sync my iPhone browsers to my laptop. Remote control webcams, laptops, and iPhones, desk-surfing wildlife videos- what next?
Wired Article

Installation Uses Free Energy

Love it! A small group of artists calling themselves Thoughtbarn have created another work of art that is both beautiful to look at and environmentally conscientious. The piece is called CO2LED, and features solar powered lights and recycled plastic bottles that illuminate an otherwise boring median strip in Arlington Virginia. The installation was one of the temporary art pieces for the 2007 Planet Arlington World Music Festival.
On their website are a few pdfs documenting the proposal process, fundraising and installation, for all of you struggling artists out there!
The CO2LED website and slide show

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Energy Debate is Heating Up

As I perused through my greenblogs and news mags this morning, I kept seeing a theme emerging among the articles- the power play. How are we going to create the energy to meet our demands without contributing to global warming? Once again, the nuclear debate is floating to the surface.
As a Gen-Xer (hey, how come nobody uses that phrase any more?) I was taught that nuclear energy was bad stuff. Dangerous, expensive, and most importantly, bad for the environment. Californians agreed, and put a moratorium on new nuclear plants some decades ago. Countries around the world and especially Europe banned new plants or completely blocked the use of nuclear power after the Chernobyl incident.
Last year I attended a debate on nuclear energy here in San Francisco. The two speakers were Peter Schwartz and Ralph Cavanaugh, old friends who considered themselves on the same side in the fight against global warming, but differed in their opinions on how to fuel the future.
I entered the debate with a strong feeling about nuclear energy as evil, and left thinking that it may be a possible option. How could this be? Now, before any of you out there rip my blog from your bookmarks folder, hear me out.
Remember that nuclear energy is a technology. Technology is defined as a development that changes over time, improving as it progesses. Look at computers and how they've developed over the years. We banned the technology in California because at the time it was dangerous and inefficient, but since then nuclear technology has made significant improvements in the amount of energy extracted from the process, in reducing the waste left over, and in safety. When you look at the amount of raw material required to generate the power, it out performs any other sources of energy except the sun.
I'm not the only one reexamining nukes.
Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University in New York recently wrote an article claiming that renewable energy will further degrade the environment. "Nuclear energy is green," he claims, "Considered in Watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors." He sites proportions of scale as a big reason wind farms and biofuels simply won't work.
The Long Now Foundation has a lecture on the cue for September 14th with Gwyneth Cravens and Rip Anderson to discuss the nuclear power debate.
And while they aren't necessarily pointing directly towards nukes, many environmentalists like myself are starting to get uneasy about the potential disasters we may face when our depleted agricultural lands are put into overdrive with the growing biofuel demands.
I haven't yet satisfied my desire for clarity before I make any proclamation to be pro-nuclear. But I encourage you all to get yourselves up to date on the issue if you haven't looked at it recently, so you can make informed decisions in the subject. (Even if I can't get off the fence.)
Places to start:
Wikipedia, of course! Nuclear Power
The Long Now and Nuclear Power, Climate Change and the Next 10,000 Years
The CSM looks at nuclear power in light of recent earthquakes near power plants
The Sydney Morning Herald looks at the hazards of coal plants
And check out my previous articles on the subject of alternative energy for more links
May 14th, More Warnings on the Push for Biofuels
May 5th, Wind Power and its Effects...
April 30th, Why Care About the Farm Bill?

Friday, July 20, 2007

And the Largest Crop in the United States is...

Turf grass.
When Christie Milesi moved from Italy to the United States, she was immediately smitten with our lawns. She loved the way the green grass of our urban lawns stayed defiantly lush, long past the browning hillsides of native Montana prairie. While finishing her PhD, she enrolled in a business class, where students were expected to come up with viable business ideas. Her idea was to create a service that monitored rain and let people know when and how much to water their lawns. That was when she made an important discovery- the total amount of lawn in the United States was unknown.
So she submitted a research proposal to NASA Earth System Science Fellowship Program to produce a national estimate of lawn area and the impact of those lawns on ecological factors like the carbon and water cycles.
What she found was astounding. When most people think of fertilizer and irrigation, do they think of agriculture or our landscapes? It turns out that there is more lawn than corn grown in the US, a crop that creates no food, yet uses untold amounts of water, fertilizer and other resources.
Check out the story at the NASA Earth Observatory website. Then zoom around a little- this is a great source for cool info.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Geothermal Energy Explained

I'm working on a LEED certified Science Center at a community college, and one of this buildings' features is geothermal energy to supply the huge amount of energy required to power the laboratory ventilation systems. I didn't know much about geothermal when I started the project, and today I found an article that may help to explain some of the mysteries of this renewable energy source.
There are two main types of systems for geothermal energy.
The first is geothermal exchange, a low cost solution that can reduce the heating and cooling costs of a building by 70%. This is basically a large coil that winds its way below the surface of the soil and then makes its way into the foundation of a house, and uses the constant thermal mass of the earth to either heat a home in winter or cool it in the summer.
The second is enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), and involves drilling to utilize the heat of the earth's core, several kilometers down with temperatures of over 465 degrees fahrenheit. This extreme temperature drives steam to turbines to produce energy.
According to the article, "In 2003, this type of geothermal power supplied just 0.416 percent of the world's energy, reports the International Energy Agency (IEA), indicating tremendous potential for expansion... Last year, an MIT study evaluated the potential for EGS in the United States, concluding it could supply a substantial portion of the country's future electricity, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. With an investment of $1 billion over the next fifteen years, geothermal could provide at least 10 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050, says the expert panel behind the report."
The initial costs of geothermal systems can be expensive, but these systems are not subject to fluctuating fuel costs. The potential for geothermal to replace many of our current power supply systems is huge.
For years a friend of mine has been telling me about the little town of Klamath Falls and its use of geothermal to heat city buildings and even keep the streets and sidewalks free of snow in the winter. I finally googled the place, and found a cool site with schematics on the systems.
Check out Klamath Falls, yo.
For the original geothermal article at ENN

Friday, July 13, 2007

Green Walls at Home

I'm fascinated with the idea of having green walls in my house, but loath the idea of bring all that dirt in intentionally. These guys have packaged the concept and made it look tidy, too.
Check out this cute little website!
ELT Living Walls Company

Billboard Uses Sun for Effect

Check out this youtube video of a billboard that uses the sun to talk about global warming. Pretty clever.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Environmental Consulting Agency Bans Employees from Biking

Jacobs Babtie is an authority on sustainable transportation, bicycling, and traffic engineering projects in the UK. One of their biggest clients is Transport for London (TfL), a group whose goal is to promote bike transportation, hosting the opening races for the Tour de France last weekend. On its website, Jacobs states: “In the area of cycling, we can offer expert resources at every stage from cycle policy and promotion through to the detailed design and implementation of cycle schemes.”
In a memo posted to all employees at their 36 offices across Britain, Jacobs Babtie banned staff from riding their bikes to work due to safety issues.
The memo reads, “It’s patently obvious that if you are struck by a wayward vehicle when you are on a bicycle or motorbike you are going to be more severely affected than if you were in a car. The reason for this policy is to protect our employees from other vehicles on the road. There will be a few limited exceptions when employees will be permitted to travel by bicycle, but that would be when that mode of transport is required to undertake the job, for example, carrying out surveys along river banks and tow paths.”
The memo goes on to acknowledge that this new policy “could be construed as being at odds with our environmental policy and the requirement to be environmentally responsible”.
Many staff at the company are avid cyclists, and have been riding their bikes to work for years without incident. They believe this ban is partially due to a new company insurance policy.
This new policy has come under scrutiny by many officials, including the Green Transportation Office of the Mayor of London, who issued this statement, “It is hypocritical to offer advice on promoting cycling but at the same time ban your staff from using bikes. If Jacobs does not understand how important cycling is to TfL, we need to ask whether they are the right sort of company to work with.”
A TfL spokesman said: “We find the attitude of Jacobs bizarre and we will be urging them to rethink this decision. TfL is committed to encouraging Londoners to get on their bikes whenever and wherever possible. Our serious investment in growing cycling has seen journeys by bike on soar by 83 per cent since 2000. The number of number of cyclists killed or seriously injured has fallen by 28 per cent since the mid to late 1990s.”
Kevin Mayne, the director of the Cyclists Touring Club, said: “Banning cycling on health and safety grounds is ironic; forcing people off their bikes and into cars just reduces their fitness and increases the danger they pose to other road users. Jacobs’ policy shows a complete lack of understanding of transport risk assessment. For TfL and local authorities to pay a company which bans cycling for advice on sustainable transport is like asking the lunatics to help run the asylum.”
TfL paid Jacobs Babtie £6 million in 2006 to monitor the impact on traffic problems in urban cneters and measuring the health issues surrounding different modes of travel. This is one of the statistics they developed:

Deaths per billion km

Motorcycle 113
Walking 49
Bicycle 38
Car 2.8
Train 0.4
Bus 0.3

For the Original Article at TimesOnline

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Banning the Bottle

Last night I attended the first meeting of a new landscape design group, and on my way I stopped at a supermarket to buy goodies to bring to the meeting. The woman at the checkout immediately put my one item in a plastic grocery bag, and I found myself cringing yet again over the plastic bag issue.
"I don't need a bag, thanks. I don't want to throw away the plastic." I say as nicely as I can muster.
She says to me, a little defensively, "I know what you mean. But they're great for lining small garbage cans. "
"Unfortunately, they're also great for lining the streets," I say, wishing that all cities everywhere would ban the plastic and follow San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome's lead.
I'm please to say that Newsome is at it again, and this time it's single serving bottled water.
I hear a lot lately about the folly of bottled water. I once drank Calistoga by the case, reassuring myself that I was doing the right thing by sticking with a California-based water company. Less transport, local, and staying away from a large soda manufacturing company, all the warm fuzzies. But then I read the label carefully and did a little research, and found that Calistoga is nothing more than tap water.
It turns out many of our bottled water is merely tap water with minerals and bubbles added. Did you know there is a serious water shortage in FIJI? Then where did that water come from? And San Pelligrino sparkling has the gas added.
There's all that plastic for the bottles, and questions about whether or not that PET plastic is safe for consumption. Now think of all that tap water being trucked all over the world, and the amount of energy that must take. Why not just drink water from the tap?
I know it's a hard sell for those of you who love the taste of your favorite brand, but the cons are stacking up.
Mayor Gavin Newsome has an interview in Newsweek from last week outlining his new plan to ban the bottle, and why. Love him!
And when you're finished reading that, check out another article I serendipitously received ten minutes ago from a friend on the dirty secrets of bottled water.
Newsweek and Newsome
Message in a Bottle with Fast Company .com

Monday, July 2, 2007

Waste Equals Food

In the Cradle to Cradle concept, where all of life operates on the basis of cyclical processes, we hear the phrase "waste equals food". Everything we create should in turn fuel the next cycle, and in this equation there is no end product, no grave.
Ecological engineer Bara Bihari Jana and his colleagues at the University of Kalyani, India, have discovered a new use for a waste we have in abundance- human urine. Commercial fisheries grow enormous amounts of Moina micrura, a zooplankton species commonly fed to hatchling fish in fisheries. The most common diet for these zooplankton is chemical fertilizers. But these fertilizers are expensive and not readily available in all countries. Jana initially tested poultry and cow dung for potential alternatives, and these showed promise. But when these microorganisms were fed a diet of human urine, they reproduced more quickly, lived longer and reproduced more offspring.
Because human urine starts out in solution and is stable in its original form, this makes it a very cheap alternative for the fish industry. This method could prove a viable means of treating our waste products without chemicals, and in turn return that product back into the food cycle.
Humans waste has so far not been readily used as an agricultural product, due to residual antibiotics and risk of disease transfer. "New and alternative uses for wastes and wastewater like this need to be identified," says Stephen Smith, an environmental biochemist at Imperial College London. "My only potential concern would be that the urine is from healthy individuals not taking medication or antibiotics as these could be excreted in the urine."
Jana and his colleagues are very aware of the risks of contamination by human waste, but so far have not encountered any of those problems with their zooplankton in their early lab tests.
For the original article in Nature

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Long Now Foundation Events

The Long Now Foundation is hosting one of their famous lectures tonight with speaker Frank Fukuyama, "'The End of History Revisited". Fukuyama's geopolitical writing influenced government policy during the 1990's, and tonight he revisits those ideas and examines them in the light of their results. Apparently he has crossed over from the dark side of the neo-cons and has started looking at the political world through a different light.
Come join us and get smarter!
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, TONIGHT, Thursday, June 28. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is always welcome, not required).

Check out the Long Now Foundation

77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno

This weekend is sensory wizard Brian Eno's show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. If you don't know who Brian Eno is, then this is a great time to get to know this veteran "visual musician". If you know who he is, I need say no more. This installation combines visual art and audio pleasure on a 45 foot projection wall. The event starts at 8 and lasts until the wee hours 2 am and features a full bar, so come party with us!
The show is Friday and Saturday nights for the public, and Sunday night for LNF members. All proceeds will go to my favorite foundation, The folks at Long Now, and will fund projects that foster the future.
The Show at Yerba Buena
The 77 Million Paintings tour details
Check out Eno's Wikipedia page

Order of Magnitude

This link was sent to me by a friend this week, the headline she posted it under was "Madness" and I couldn't agree more. How many cigarettes does it take to hook young teens? How many plastic bottles are used every five minutes in the US? Artist Chris Jordan shows a portrait of America from statistics, and creates visual images that are both beautiful and terrible all at once. His current show is called Running the Numbers- An American Self-Portrait, and will be exhibited at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York from June 14th to the end of July. But you can check it out online if you click on this (LINK).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hans Rosling Makes Statistics Fun

I'm not joking when I say this is the coolest way I've ever seen to create graphics from data. Edward Tufte would be impressed. I know I usually keep my articles focused on environmental issues, but I have to stray this time. Hans Rosling gives a demonstration of his software Gapminder (now owned by Google) using data comparing third world statistics with those of the developed world. Often times the data on regions like Africa are lumped into one group on a visual scale, and Rosling shows that when split into more distinct countries, the similarities become less and less. What this means for the world, he explains, the that the policy for one country in need of aid should be based on the real information, not just generalized ideas about the region.
Not like any power point presentation I've ever seen. I imagine this kind of tool coulld be a great means of providing data for all sorts of projects. See for yourself, the possibilities for this tool are endless.
TED video with Hans Rosling, the world's first statics sports caster.
For the link to check out gapminder data visualization for yourself

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Solutions and Abundance

When I post these articles for everyone to read, my intention is to empower and to send a message of hope. There is too much sadness in the world for those of us who know we're responsible for global warming, too much fear of the future.
I've always been a nature girl, from my very first memories as a child. When I was ten years old I read about the greenhouse effect theory, and it seemed like science fiction. Back then we were in the throes of the Regan Administration, and all the efforts from the previous years to curb pollution, protect endangered species, and save for the future had been thrown out the window in favor of boosting the economy. I didn't know the politics at the time, of course. But I remember there being this sort of stigma against people who wanted to protect the environment. It was the uncool thing to do, even amongst my young classmates.
Now times have changed, and I'm able to count myself among the cool people all of the sudden. My business is so happening it's almost running away with me. People are waking up and realizing that we really have to do something to save the planet, and there is a renewed sense that the natural environment is sacred.
And then they despair. There is so much work we have to do to make that difference, and so many other people out there to convince that everything has to change. We humans are not so good at changing the way we think. We like the latest inventions and the coolest new toys. But the thought of the changes to our environment, like the loss of all the megafauna we love, the polar bears and whales, is heartbreaking.
I hope that my message to you all out there is clear, that we need not despair. Change is always happening, and there will be surprises out there to balance the losses we face. Solutions will come from unexpected places. There is fear we may lose our favorite faces from the arctic, and there may some day be no tigers left in the world. I hope to never see this, and that we can prevent so much loss. But I believe that for every lost creature comes the opportunity for another new one to emerge to takes its place, and some day there will be an explosion of beautiful new organisms we never dreamed possible. When there is too much of something on the planet we call it abundance. Nature flourishes on abundance, and finds a way to use it. It part of the natural checks and balances of the planet. Global warming is, to put it quite simply, an abundance of CO2. It's a matter of time before we figure out how to use this, and we will find an answer. It will take courage and perserverance, but the world will recover.

Melting Icebergs are Party Central for Ocean Life

Icebergs are breaking from Antarctica at an ever increasing rate, and every day there are new images and startling revelations about the loss of habitat for our South Pole flora and fauna. But what happens to the ice when it breaks away and floats to the ocean? Scientists from the Monterey Bay Research Center set out to find out what effect these frozen travellers have on the waters they occupy.
Anecdotal reports suggested an increase in seabird activity around these icebergs, but no one knew just why. It turns out that these melting ice masses are carrying organic and mineral debris stored from millennia, and releasing them into the cold waters off South America. These ocean waters are normally low in essential nutrients, like iron. As the icebergs melt, they act as a timed release fertilizer, increasing ocean life around them, such as algae. Organisms that take particular delight in the new food source are krill, the tiny shrimplike creatures that occupy the bottom of the food chain for marine mammals, even providing a direct source for many whales. When an iceberg breaks off and drifts, it creates a new habitat for opportunists, and increases biodiversity for a distance of up to 2 1/2 miles from the edge of the drift.
Not only is the afterlife of an iceberg spectacular, but this new life in turn is able to absorb enormous amounts of the CO2 that created the melting in the first place, in a sort of feedback loop. "One important consequence of the increased biological productivity is that free-floating icebergs can serve as a route for carbon dioxide drawdown and sequestration of particulate carbon as it sinks into the deep sea," said project leader Kenneth Smith Jr. "While the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is contributing to rising sea levels and other climate change dynamics in complex ways, this additional role of removing carbon from the atmosphere may have implications for global climate models that need to be further studied."
Is this the silver lining? We'll have to find out.
for the article at ENN
for the scoop on Antarctica, including stories abut its natural and human history

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Organic Coffee Plantations Offer Protection for Climate Displaced Animals

It seems there are more reasons to support organic coffee than just the health benefits. I must admit, I've never read a story quite like this one before. One of the commonly held ideas about global warming is that the animals effected by change will migrate long distances to find areas more suitable. But how are they supposed to migrate when their passage is blocked by roads, development and cities?
Costa Rica enjoys a vast biological diversity, with over 20% of the world's species hiding in the remnants of rainforest scattered across the country. Yet it is broken by freeways and human activity into little parcels. You can't displace the people to create passage for the animals, but activitists and farmers are starting to understand that organic coffee plantations can provide the shelter needed, while still providing a livelihood for people.
The same could be said for organic farms all over the world. Much of our farmland here in the United States is occupied by animals regardless of the health of the land. As a child I walked the rows of soy and corn in search of killdeer, pheasants and all sorts of animals, not knowing that these animals depend on farmland for their lives.
This was a great article that made me look at the issue a little differently. (And feel a little less guilty for my coffee drinking) Check it out!
Christian Science Monitor 'Creating Escape Routes for Wildlife'

Friday, June 22, 2007

China Claims to have Stopped the Gobi Desert from Expanding

China has built another wall to keep out an invasion, but this time the marauder isn't wild hordes of lawless nomads, but the Gobi desert and its sea of sand. At one time Mongolia was 90% grassland, but over the centuries the sand has been slowly moving, and now covers nearly 30% of the lands there. Beijing may soon be at risk, poised just 120 miles from the edge of the desert.
This narrow strip of vegetation has been playfully referred to as The Green Wall of China, and according to Chinese officials has already stopped terrible sandstorms this year, no small feat when looking at 2001, when the storms numbered 18 for the year.

"We are pretty confident it will be effective," Hu Cun, Inner Mongolia's vice director of forestry, told some 30 journalists invited from Beijing to inspect the work ahead of World Environment Day."

But other reports say that Beijing alone has suffered from four sandstorms this year. Basically, trees have been planted along the deserts edge and grass seed has been dropped from planes onto the edges. People along the sensitive desert borders have been moved, and cattle are banned from these areas. But experts say this isn't enough. "Overpopulation and unsustainable development, has not been addressed by a narrow corridor of grass and trees."

It appears China has once again mislead the public, and this time some say its all part of an elaborate ruse to give the illusion that Beijing Olympic Games will be the greenest Olympics ever held.
"Jiang Gaoming, of the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Science, said that 60 billion yuan (7.6 billion dollars) spent on projects to control sandstorms hitting Beijing had been largely wasted."

for the original article on Seed mag
Wikepedia's Great Wall article is pretty neat

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Biomimicry Course in New York

The AIA New York Chapter will host Biomimicry Institute's own Dayna Baumeister and a team of biologists for a two day course, June 27 and June 28. The second day the course will be held at Interface flor, a company the Biomimicry Guild has worked with quite extensively.
This is the course where I first met with architects and worked on projects using my knowledge of ecology to design, here in SF. It was a great class, so if you're on the East Coast, be sure to check it out!
for more information from AIA NY

China Surpasses US in Carbon Emmissions

In case you haven't read the news lately and didn't see this on the front page of all the reports, China has surpassed the US in coal burning CO2 emissions, according to the Guardian. I won't go into the nasty details, you'll have to read the story for yourself this time.

China overtakes US as world's biggest CO2 emitter

John Vidal and David Adam
Tuesday June 19, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Chinese Pollution
Cyclists pass a factory in Yutian in China's north-west Hebei province. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP

China has overtaken the United States as the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, figures released today show.

The surprising announcement will increase anxiety about China's growing role in driving man-made global warming and will pile pressure onto world politicians to agree a new global agreement on climate change that includes the booming Chinese economy. China's emissions had not been expected to overtake those from the US, formerly the world's biggest polluter, for several years, although some reports predicted it could happen as early as next year.

But according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, soaring demand for coal to generate electricity and a surge in cement production have helped to push China's recorded emissions for 2006 beyond those from the US already. It says China produced 6,200m tonnes of CO2 last year, compared with 5,800m tonnes from the US. Britain produced about 600m tonnes.

Jos Olivier, a senior scientist at the government agency who compiled the figures, said: "There will still be some uncertainty about the exact numbers, but this is the best and most up to date estimate available. China relies very heavily on coal and all of the recent trends show their emissions going up very quickly." China's emissions were 2% below those of the US in 2005. Per head of population, China's pollution remains relatively low - about a quarter of that in the US and half that of the UK.

The new figures only include carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production. They do not include sources of other greenhouse gases, such as methane from agriculture and nitrous oxide from industrial processes. And they exclude other sources of carbon dioxide, such as from the aviation and shipping industries, as well as from deforestation, gas flaring and underground coal fires.

Dr Olivier said it was hard to find up to date and reliable estimates for such emissions, particularly from countries in the developing world. But he said including them would be unlikely to topple China from top spot. "Since China passed the US by 8% [in 2006] it will be pretty hard to compensate for that with other sources of emissions."

To work out the emissions figures, Dr Oliver used data issued by the oil company BP earlier this month on the consumption of oil, gas and coal across the world during 2006, as well as information on cement production published by the US Geological Survey. Cement production, which requires huge amounts of energy, accounts for about 4% of global CO2 production from fuel use and industrial sources. China's cement industry, which has rapidly expanded in recent years and now produces about 44% of world supply, contributes almost 9% of the country's CO2 emissions. Dr Olivier calculated carbon dioxide emissions from each country's use of oil, gas and coal using UN conversion factors. China's surge beyond the US was helped by a 1.4% fall in the latter's CO2 emissions during 2006, which analysts say is down to a slowing US economy.

The announcement comes as international negotiations to produce a new climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012 are delicately poised. The US refused to ratify Kyoto partly because it made no demands on China, and one major sticking point of the new negotiations has been finding a way to include both nations, as well as other rapidly developing economies such as India and Brazil. Tony Blair believes the best approach is to develop national markets to cap and trade carbon, which could then be linked.

Earlier this month, China unveiled its first national plan on climate change after two years of preparation by 17 government ministries. Rather than setting a direct target for the reduction or avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions, it now aims to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 20% by 2010 and to increase the share of renewable energy to some 10%, as well as to cover roughly 20% of the nation's land with forest.

But it stressed that technology and costs are major barriers to achieving energy efficiency in China, and that it will be hard to alter the nation's dependency on coal in the short term. What China needs, said a government spokesman, is international cooperation in helping China move toward a low-carbon economy. Chinese industries have been hesitant to embrace unproven clean coal and carbon capture technologies that are still in their infancy in developed countries.

China has overtaken the United States as the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, figures released today show.

The surprising announcement will increase anxiety about China's growing role in driving man-made global warming and will pile pressure onto world politicians to agree a new global agreement on climate change that includes the booming Chinese economy. China's emissions had not been expected to overtake those from the US, formerly the world's biggest polluter, for several years, although some reports predicted it could happen as early as next year."

this article was originally printed in Guardian Unlimited June19, 2007

Ghost Towns of 2100

I picked up this story from New Scientist's Environment Blog on the predicted ghost towns of this century. The slideshow was originally run on and features cities on the brink of disappearing. Cities like Detroit, Venice, and (gulp) San Francisco. The causes range from natural forces like desertification to rising water levels, and human factors such as political instability and economic collapse. It's a fascinating little slide. When you finish that one, check out another slide they produced on the world's megacities.
Check them both out at
for the NewScientist Blog

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jet Stream Provides Energy

Scientists at Stanford, along with researchers from Canada and Australia, are teaming up to look at the earth's most powerful form of power, and its not the sun. It's the Jet Stream. They believe that tapping only 1% of the jet stream will provide enough energy to power the entire earth. The question is, how do we harness all that power?

"There is a remarkable variety of designs for high-flying wind machines, some of which resemble blimps or futuristic helicopters. Others look like Alexander Calder-style mobile sculptures. An early, 240-kilowatt prototype of a wind machine could weigh 1,140 pounds and have four rotors, each of which might be 35 feet wide from tip to tip and would spin up to five times per second."

So far only lab prototypes have been tested, but some of the members of the team are optimistic that the technology will be available in the next 15 years. Others, like atmospheric scientist at Stanford Ken Caldeira believe it will take a little longer, "In the 19th century, it took 25 years for oil to replace 1 percent of the coal market. The energy infrastructure tends to evolve slowly.The challenge is developing a device that can withstand the extreme forces in the jet stream such as light exposure, then sendiing that energy back and converting it to a form we can use."

Other issues will be safety for air travel, birds, and efficiency issues.

for the full article in SF Chronicle

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nature Knows What to Do with Carbon Dioxide

Two articles caught my eye recently, and both have to do with carbon levels in the atmosphere. Forgive me if this seems a little redundant, but I must say again that carbon is the basic building block of life on earth. Many plants and animals depend on atmospheric carbon for their survival. Today's article features two champions of this sequestration: Boreal Forests and Phytoplankton.
The first is an article from Nature describing the effects of humans on the ability of a boreal forests to sequester carbon. Scientists have known for many years that plants gather carbon from the atmosphere and combine it with nitrogen to make plant tissues. What they didn't know was how nitrogen levels effect the ability of plants to gather that carbon. This information is key to understanding human effects on the forest through nitrogen runoff from nearby farms and human activity. What they found was that our inadvertent fertilizing increase the ability of plants to absorb atmospheric carbon.
"Through our forests, fertilization by nitrogen deposition is to some degree offsetting our carbon dioxide emissions - at least right now," said Beverly Law, Professor of Forest Science at Oregon State University, co-author of the study and director of the AmeriFlux monitoring network.
The second article is about the phytoplankton Phaeocystis globosa. It appears this tiny marvel is able to change from a single celled organism to a colony and vice-versa in response to pressure from predators. When encountering predators such as the shrimp-like copepods that can eat colonies, the Phaeocystis take on the single cell, free-swimming form. When predators of the single celled forms are detected, the Phaeocystis form into colonies. They do this through chemical detection. This information is quite valuable to science in that these Phaeocystis absorb enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon, and when eaten by larger animals, that carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean in the from of fecal matter. That means if scientists can induce more colonial forms of the organism, more carbon can be sequestered.
Nature knows what to do with Carbon Dioxide, and it's just a matter of time before we figure it out for ourselves.
for Boreal Forest Article in TerraDaily
for the article on Phytoplankton at ScienceDaily

Friday, June 15, 2007

Plant Migration in the Arctic

New genetic tests on species of arctic plants from Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole reveal parents from many different northern zones, even as far away as Russia and Canada. Scientist aren't yet positive how seeds from these places were transported hundreds of miles to rest on this land still 60% covered in ice. Many believe the scenario to be wind across frozen channels over the thousands of years of cooling between the warmer trends.
One thing for certain though, is that these tough alpine plants tolerate warmer climates than previously expected. This is good news, as Svalbard is rapidly losing its ice mass. Scientists expect these plants, like avens, will survive by moving into new melt territory. Efforts to preserve seeds are also being made, as global temperature may eventually reduce their territory to sheer memory.
for the whole article in Scientific American

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Animals are Invading Our Cities!

Last night I read a cute article in the NY Times about animals loose in Manhattan. First, a hawk fledgling made its way from nest to city streets. A couple of hours later, a young kestrel fell from the nest. Later, a sheep was sighted roaming the streets.
A sheep? Well, that's hardly a wild animal, so we'll just say she escaped the meat market and was rescued and named.
But the birds of prey are of great interest. Last spring when I visited Central Park there were t-shirts and a bird cam featuring a nesting pair of peregrine falcons on a high-rise apartment building overlooking the park. It seems that areas of high human density are also home to the pigeons, sparrows, and rats that these winged predators hunt for food.
These predatory animals aren't alone in their ability to live near human dwellings, even seek them out. Last night I walked through the shipping district of my neighborhood in Sausalito, 3 miles North of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was just getting dark when I spotted my coyote friend. A coyote, in Sausalito? Yes, indeed. Last time I saw it I thought it must be lost. But this time I followed it from a distance, and watched it slink through the gaps in fences like a kid in its own neighborhood.
Herons are other predators that seem to thrive here along the Bay, despite the industry and human density. Both the coyotes and the herons are here because they eat the small animals that in turn live here because of humans. Coyotes are known to eat rodents, cats and even small dogs if the opportunity strikes them. Herons love the rats, and have been known to eat small kittens and anything else that will fit down their throats.
And so another food web has already begun, right under our urban noses.
Who says you have to leave the city to find wildlife?
for the article in NY Times

Researchers Look to Nature to Improve the Healing Properties of Artificial Surfaces

Scientists at the University of Illinois have developed a polymer skin that heals itself when damaged. Their model for the technique: Mother Nature.
Nancy Sottos tells Nature Materials, 'Healing in biological systems is accomplished by a pervasive vascular network that supplies the necessary biochemical components. A cut in the skin triggers blood flow from the capillary network in the dermal layer to the wound site rapidly forming a clot... minor damage to the same area can be healed repeatedly.'
This sort of self-healing has been seen before in artificial membranes, but what differs with this new technology is that damaged areas can heal more than once. Previous systems healed because they contained unreacted polymer capsules that when broken reacted to form a seal. But this technology takes healing one step further.
'After damage occurs at the coating, healing agent wicks from the microchannels into the crack(s) through capillary action,' the researchers report in Nature Materials. 'Once in the crack plane the healing agent interacts with the catalyst particles in the coating to initiate polymerisation, rebonding the crack faces autonomically. After a sufficient time period the cracks are healed and the structural integrity of the coating restored. As cracks reopen under subsequent loading the healing cycle is repeated.'
This new system will be invaluable to materials science, and its possibilities will be endless.
While the technology of self healing polymers mimics natural systems, one thing it lacks is its ability to break down to be reused in the system. Let's hope in the future we look to nature to figure out how to create polymers that last so long as we need them, and as the flower that has been pollinated returns to the soil to provide future resources, our products will also return to futher the cycle.
for the article in RSC
My friend Robyn at Biomimicry Institute found this video of the polymer healing

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nader Khalili Creates Homes from Natural Elements

Nader Khalili is looking to tradition for clues on how to produce ecologically friendly buildings. He is following what many peoples of pre-industrial age used, materials that were readily available, local, and free.
"To me it's obvious to use earth as a building block," says Khalili in an interview with AFP, "I don't consider that I have invented anything at all. All the Mediterranean civilizations used earth or natural materials in their architecture."
Nader Khalili came to th US in 1971, bringing with him ideas about architecture from his homeland of Iran. Traditionally in the Middle East, primitive houses were not only made of the abundant materials of the earth, but they were shaped differently. They used a shape from nature- the sphere. Like an egg that is strong when pressure is applied in equal amounts over its surface, the simple properties of physics in a dome shaped structure increase its strength. In our modern day of steel and braces, timber in mass production we began making our homes like cookie cutter productions. Khalili has shown us that domes lack the inherent flaws of cubes, making them resistant to wind, rains, and even earthquakes.
Its a simple concept, to fill bags with earth, stack them, and cover them with clay. The dome is fired, and the finishing touches put in. Khalili teaches these principles at CalEarth Institute in California. His students are able to build a beautiful home built for less than $4,000, safe to live in and good for the environment. They use natural light, passive heating and cooling, and are easy to build.
I learned about Khalil a few years ago and bought his book to check out how he does it. Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture turned out to be a wonderfully comprehensive manual on how to build an earth dome, so detailed he even included instructions on how to make clay temperature gages for the firing process.
Khalil's latest project is to build domes on the moon for NASA.

for the original article in Yahoo News

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Paul Hawken Gathers Largest Social Movement in the History of Mankind

"We are not alone."
I went to another great lecture by the folks at the Long Now Foundation last night. Paul Hawken spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the latest social group of over 100 million people and growing- the environmental and social justice movement.
I could rave on, but I'll let my pal Stewart Brand sum it up, since he's been doing this since before I (and my mother) were born:

"The title of Paul Hawken's talk, "The New Great Transformation," has two referents, he explained. Economist Karl Polanyi's 1944 book, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, said that the "market society" and modern nation state emerged together in Europe after 1700 and divided society in ways that have yet to be healed.

Karen Armstrong's 2006 book, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, explores "the Axial Age" between 800 and 200 BC when the world's great religions and philosophies first took shape. They were all initially social movements, she says, acting on revulsion against the violence and injustice of their times.

Both books describe conditions in which "the future is stolen and sold to the present," said Hawken--- a situation we are having to deal with yet again.

His new book, BLESSED UNREST, was inspired by the countless business cards that earnest environmentalists would hand him after his lectures all over the world. After a while he had 7,000, and he wondered, "How many environmental groups are there in the world?" He began actively building a now-public database,, which includes social justice and indigenous rights organizations because he found they indivisibly overlap in their values and activities.

The database now has 105,000 such organizations. The still-emerging taxonomy of their "areas of focus" has 414 categories, amounting to a "curriculum of the 21st century"--- Acid Rain, Living Wages, Tropical Moist Forests, Peacemaking, Democratic Reform, Sustainable Cities, Environmental Toxicology, Watershed Management, Human Trafficking, Mountaintop Removal, Pesticides, Climate Change, Refugees, Women's Safety, Eco-villages, Fair Trade... Extrapolating from carefully inventoried regions to those yet to be tallied, he estimates there are over 1,000,000 such organizations in the world, adding up to the largest and fastest growing Movement in history.

The phenomenon has been overlooked because it lacks the customary hallmarks of a movement--- no charismatic leaders, no grand theory or ideology, no "ism," no defining events. The new activist groups are about dispersing power rather than aggregating power. Their focus is on ideas rather than ideology--- ideologies are clung to, but ideas can be tried and tossed or improved. The point is to solve problems, usually from the bottom up. The movement can never be divided because it is already atomized.

What's going on? Hawken wondered if humanity might have some collective intelligence that we don't yet understand. The metaphor he finds most useful is the immune system, which is the most complex system in our body--- more complex than the entire Internet--- massive, distributed, subtle, ingenious, and effective. The opposite of a hierarchical army, its power is in the density of its network. It deals with problems not through frontal attack but complex negotiation and rapprochement.

Much of the new movement, Hawken said, was inspired, at root, by the slavery abolitionists and by the Transcendentalists Emerson and his student Thoreau. Emerson declared that "everything is connected," and Thoreau wound up going to jail (and making it cool) by taking that idea seriously in social-justice terms.

Now, as in the Axial Age, activism comes from acting on the realization that "all life is sacred."

My favorite part of the lecture was when Paul linked the different movements through time. He started out with Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and his lecture on Nature at Harvard. A young Henry David Thoreau was in attendance, and after graduation, Thoreau attached himself like a barnacle to the Emersons. Ralph's advice to David: write a journal. He did, and later his protest against unjust governance was published as a book titled "Civil Disobedience". It was that book which Mahatma Ghandi carried with him when he made his march for his people in India. Later, during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. it was Rosa Parks who stood up to abuse as she rode the bus to classes on Civil Disobedience, where she and others like Dr. Martin Luther King JR. read about past agitators.
And it goes on and on. to where you and I are, right now.
It was great to sit there and feel connected to all the other people out there, all working towards one ideal- to look after future generations.

This lecture will be available soon for download, so check out the Long Now Website!

Visit Paul Hawken's website WiserEarth to check out our people, and register your organization!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Antibacterial Soap is a Sham

According to Scientific American, antibacterial soaps aren't just unnecessary- they're dangerous.
"Tuberculosis, food poisoning, cholera, pneumonia, strep throat and meningitis: these are just a few of the unsavory diseases caused by bacteria. Hygiene—keeping both home and body clean—is one of the best ways to curb the spread of bacterial infections..."
But are we going too far in our worry over bacteria? Yes, says SCIAM.
These days you can find antibacterial agents in cosmetics, soaps, bedding and household cleaners, and many other products. Most of these just aren't necessary, as normal washing with hot water and soap will not only bacteria, but a whole slew of microbes that can effect our health. But there's more.
With antibacterials, there is a residue left over after bacteria are killed. The most resistant bacteria are able to use this low dose to build up resistance, sort of like the flu virus builds up resistance to vaccinations by mutation. The same happens when we use these antibacterials- in fact, we are inadvertently creating 'super bugs'. The healthiest, most resistant bacteria are not killed by the products, but in fact are made stronger. These same compounds are found in over 60% of US drinking water, making the potential for serious disease more of a risk than before there were antibacterials used in the first place.
Strange but True, read the article at Scientific American

Goats as Herbicide Alternative

The battle against kudzu vine is on in Tennessee, where county management programs are using goats to tackle this pervasive pest. Oh, sure, there are jokes about it. But these little eating machines are serious, and have allowed the reclaimation of lands and promotion of native species organically, without the use of herbicides.
for article in New York Times