Archive for August, 2008

How green can you go? A poop-powered kitchen

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Any tinkering addicts, basement inventors out there looking for a good project? I’ve had a vision of the eco-kitchen future, and I want you to help make it into a demonstrable reality. I don’t have the tinkering skills, or time away from the toddling kids, to work on it myself.

The vision is this: cooking and refrigeration powered by methane produced from household waste (including bodily waste). Can such a utopia be possible. You betcha! It works (in the fevered theory of my mind) like this:

When anaerobic bacteria feed on organic wastes (like poop, food scraps, paper, etc.) they produce methane as one of their waste products. This is the basis for “landfill gas,” in which the methane emerging from all the trash buried in landfills is captured and put to good use—or at least burned off. (If you can’t do anything useful with it, it’s a good idea to at least burn off methane that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. Methane is a super-strong greenhouse gas, moreso than the carbon dioxide that results from burning the methane. So burning it and converting it to carbon dioxide reduces the impact on global warming. It is still adding to global warming when you do this, just not as much as if you let the methane escape unburned.)

A biodigester is a contraption that takes advantage of these anaerobic bacteria to process wastes and capture the useable methane. The physical solids that remain can also be a good fertilizer in gardening and farming. Biodigesters can be either large or small in scale. Large scale versions are now cropping up on dairy farms to power electric generators. Here in Vermont, one of the utilities is pursuing this under the name “Cow Power.” It’s being done in Michigan as well, and probably elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in another part of the eco-universe, is the absorption refrigerator, long a sturdy workhorse for those living off-grid and who power their refrigerators with propane. Happily, these refrigerators—which are marvelously efficient—can also run on methane. Treehugger has an article describing a few that are “dual fuel” and can run on either methane or electricity. That’s a handy feature to keep in mind.

Okay, so enough background. Here’s my proposal: install a biodigester in your home, perhaps like this one designed by Robert Crosby. Route the resulting methane to your absorption refrigerator. Voila! A fossil-fuel free refrigerator! (And, as mentioned before, high quality fertilizer for your garden.)

If you have excess methane coming out of the biodigester, you could use it to preheat domestic hot water. It’s probably not a good idea to try to store any quantity of the methane as that would be a serious fire hazard, so don’t make plans to cook with it. That’s why the refrigerator is, in theory, a good use for the methane; a biodigester emits methane in a more-or-less slow-and-steady manner, and the absorption refrigerator uses its fuel in a slow-and-steady manner. They were made for each other!

But what if you don’t produce enough methane? Or if you go away on vacation and don’t add wastes to the biodigester for a week? That’s where the dual-fuel methane/electric refrigerators come in. Problem solved.

Does Crosby’s biodigester produce enough methane to power a home’s refrigerator? I emailed Bob and asked him that very question. Doing some quick calculations, he determined that they should indeed be pretty well matched up.

A quick google search looks like a typical propane refrigerator might go through about 1/4 gal of propane per day, or 91,000/3 about ~23,000 Btu/day (or ~30,000 Btu/Day in a warmer climate). At a heat value of, say, 600 Btu/Cu Ft biogas, that would be equivalent to ~ 40 Cu Ft/day. Plugging some “what-if” values into my biogas calculator <> to see what volume and type of waste would be needed to provide that amount, it looks like it could be done if fed the waste from 4 people plus maybe 5 lbs/day of leaves, veggie scraps, grass clippings etc.

Let’s summarize the benefits: 1) you are recycling your bodily and other wastes, 2) you get climate-friendly refrigeration, 3) you get high quality, home made fertilizer for your garden, and 4) you prevent methane that might otherwise be produced in a landfill or at a wastewater facility from escaping into the atmosphere, which would exacerbate climate change.

So what do you say? Any eco-conscious high-schoolers out there with really liberal parents who want to do a science project sure to win first place at the regional science fair? If you do try this out, definitely let us know so we can give you credit on the blog. And, more importantly,

be safe!

Don’t start producing methane in your house until you’ve figured out how to do it without hurting yourself or starting any fires. Seriously—for all my glib tone, I do not want to find out that I inspired some overeager yahoo to play with fire.

[Photo courtesy of NatalieMaynor]

Kunin at DNC, Day Two: Hillary Clinton, Lily Ledbetter, and Rednecks for Obama

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Former Governor of Vermont and author Madeleine Kunin (Pearls, Politics, and Power) continues her coverage of the DNC. Today Madeleine describes Hillary Clinton’s stirring call for unity in the Democratic Party, recounts the story of Lily Ledbetter of Alabama—who sued (unsuccessfully) Goodyear Tire Company, alleging twenty years of pay discrimination—and talks about her encounter with the “Rednecks for Obama” (“They were the genuine article.”).

From the Huffington Post article:

“Keep going, keep on going,” Hillary told the cheering crowd in the Pepsi Center, quoting Harriet Tubman’s words, when she made her way north on the Underground Railroad.

Her message could be taken on several levels. The obvious one was meant for the Democratic Party–we cannot stop now. We have work to do to turn this country around. On another level, she told her supporters to “keep going,” and not be discouraged because she was not the nominee.

“Keep going, keep on going,” was also a message Hillary was giving to herself. The loss of the Democratic nomination was painful, but she would continue on her journey to fight for the people she had met along the way. She was not going to give up her quest.

The point of Hillary’s speech had been made clear by the signs -the same size as those given out the night before for Michele Obama. These signs were two-sided: “Hillary” on one side, “Unity” on the other.

There had been no speculation whether she would ask the crowd to support Obama, but there was much speculation whether or not she would do so convincingly. Her first words settled the matter.” I’m proud to be the Senator from New York. I’m proud to be an American, and I am proud to support Barack Obama.”

Read the whole post here.

Food Not Lawns: Full Frontal Gardening

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

A recent article on had some illuminating things to say about the birth of the modern American lawn:

In 1841, Andrew Jackson Downing published the first landscape-gardening book aimed at an American audience.… [He] was dismayed by what he saw as the general slovenliness of rural America, where pigs and poultry were allowed to roam free, “bare and bald” houses were thrown up, and trees were planted haphazardly, if at all. (The first practice, he complained, contributed to the generally “brutal aspect of the streets.”) His “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening” urged readers to improve themselves by improving their front yards. “In the landscape garden we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” it declared.

The result of all this longing for Beauty and Perfection? A lush, verdant lawn in every front yard—neutered of its ability to sexually reproduce, robbed of regional peculiarities or interesting imperfections, and maintained with gas-guzzling, smoke-belching lawnmowers, carcinogenic pesticides and dangerous chemical fertilizers; a placid oasis of perfect, sterile conformity. Sure, your children aren’t allowed to go near it—let alone play on it—but by God is it green!

Recently, a NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense, determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing two hundred gallons of water per person, per day. According to a separate estimate, by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a third of all residential water use in the United States currently goes toward landscaping.

Chelsea Green’s own Heather Flores has been advocating the conversion of lawns to food gardens for years. Potentially, every lawn-to-garden project is a good source of cheap, fresh, organic produce. You can get your exercise, connect with your community, and rock your iconoclast cred at the same time.

Over the years, many alternatives to the lawn have been proposed. Pollan, in his book “Second Nature” (1991), suggests replacing parts—or all—of the lawn with garden. In “Noah’s Garden” (1993), Sara Stein, by contrast, advocates “ungardening”—essentially allowing the grass to revert to thicket. Sally and Andy Wasowski, in their “Requiem for a Lawnmower” (2004), recommend filling the yard with native trees and wildflowers…. In “Food Not Lawns” (2006), Heather C. Flores argues that the average yard could yield several hundred pounds of fruits and vegetables per year. (If you live in an urban area and don’t have a lawn, she suggests digging up your driveway.) “Edible Estates” (2008) is the chronicle of a project by Fritz Haeg, an architect and artist, who rips up conventional front yards in order to replace them with visually striking “edible plantings.” Haeg calls his approach “full-frontal gardening.”

Now, if only we could do something about those golf courses….

Read the full article.

DNC Day Two: Out and About

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Today I spent some time walking the streets of Denver taking in a view of the action. There are a lot of very excited people walking, biking, and driving around. I’ve put together this photo essay of the scene in Denver.

(CAUTION! Some DISTURBING images follow. No joke. If you don’t want to get sick, don’t scroll down.)

We’ll start with the nice ones…

A hybrid taxi service in sections of the city.

A solar-panel powered Humana freewheel!n free bike center.

The running tally the Humana folks are keeping at their distribution centers.

One of the anti-Obama Hummers that was circling the city. I found it peculiar that these supposed “Hillary support” vehicles were occupied entirely by young white men in pretty clothing. Young white wealthy men in Hummers doesn’t seem to me to be Hillary’s wheelhouse…. Republicans stirring up inner-party trouble? I think so.

A SWAT truck. One of many circling the streets. “Why SWAT” you ask? Likely because the following images stir people’s emotions rather negatively…. (You’ve been warned.)

Some anti-Obama Right-To-Lifers that are blanketing the city with these images. They also have megaphones.

They also have trucks.

Despite this type of horror-show, the mood in the city is civil and excited. People are friendly and quick to strike up conversation. It’s so far a great convention. Video to come….

Kunin and Day One of the DNC: “What It Means to Live in a Democracy”

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Former Governor of Vermont and author Madeleine Kunin (Pearls, Politics, and Power) encounters protestors, Michelle Obama, and Ted Kennedy. All this and more as Madeleine covers Day One of the Democratic National Convention.

From the Huffington Post article:

There are two stages at the Democratic Convention in Denver, one that is played out in streets and the other inside the Pepsi center. Both dramas portray, as no political science textbook could, what it means to live in a democracy.

Outside the convention center I walked past a dozen young people waving blue and white John McCain signs. Every few minutes they would break into a vigorous chant: “Drill here, drill now!”

Near by another group held signs that said, “Save the environment, tax meat!”

A lone man, well dressed, wearing a hat, held up a hand-made sign on a street corner. It simply said, “Stop Torture.”

The entrance to the University club, where a group of feminist pro-choice organisations held a rally, was partially blocked by an impassioned group of Right to Life protestors. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) later referred to them from the podium, noting that she was asked if she needed an escort to get by them. She retorted , “I don’t need an escort, let them look out for me.”

Read the whole post here.

Robert Kuttner at All Boats Rising: Transforming the American Economy

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Like any event here at the DNC, people are coming and going throughout the event. People are checking their blackberries, looking around, chattering quietly, clapping only on clear applause lines…except for when Kuttner speaks.

Kuttner is speaking about more than economic policy. He’s touching on inspiration. Kuttner is advocating more than just progressive economic policies–he’s asking for Obama to avoid the trap of thinking “small” and inspire us and the government to realize America’s potential for all, not only the top 1/10th of 1 percent.

The crowd quiets down, puts down their electronics, and listens to Bob speak about what everybody has come to Denver to hear: Obama can transform this country, and he must.

Obama’s Challenge sends the same message. It’s inspirational AND policy–a rare and powerful combination.

Digg this book!

DNC Day One: An Overview

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Whirlwind! Today began at the Colorado Historical Museum where the Americans for Democratic Action sponsored an event with Robert Kuttner, Representative Barney Frank, Representative Jan Schakowsky, and a few others. The event had standing-room only, and we were able to distribute a over a hundred copies of Obama’s Challenge.

Barney Frank gave a humorous talk in which he admitted that politicians “fib” (as in, “I love to campaign.”), said the “rising tide” goes up some people’s noses, and that Kuttner’s Obama’s Challenge was “absolutely right.”

Robert spoke about the need for a transformative president—one willing to rise above the status quo and meet the enormous challenges of the day. Obama, he convincingly argued, was the only candidate with the promise to do so.

Robert Kuttner and Representative Barney Frank who said, “Bob Kuttner is absolutely right.”

We continued from there to the “Big Tent” which housed the bloggers’ quarters.  The room was filled with silent drones staring at screens typing furiously away. I have no idea what they could have been typing as they were alone and far from the action of the convention. I would have taken photos but we were thrown out for inadaquate access priviledges and attempting to distribute books.

Katharine and I then traveled down to the Pepsi Center, which is where the main events are taking place. All the media outlets are set up in large white tents that they’re calling media pavilions. These tents house The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, Reuters, etc.

CNN, however, is too large and important to be housed in such humble quarters. They took the less conventional route and set up shop in a large brick building adjacent to the Pepsi Center. Across the side of the red brick they’ve obnoxiously painted “CNN = POLITICS” and other such corporate slogans.

I’ll get a better photo of it today. The news anchors are all walking around with squawking, fluttering entourages. They are seven feet tall and have makeup caked on to their faces at all times. It gives me the distinct impression that the folks we trust to tell us about our world have absolutely no idea what the world is like. Sean Hannity, from Fox, was the only anchor I saw traveling alone and most like a regular person. But, of course, he’s seven feet tall.

Notable celebrity sightings of the day: Sean Hannity, John King, Arianna Huffington, Barney Frank, Senator Jim Webb, Madeleine Kunin, and of course, Robert Kuttner.

More to come!

Hertzberg: Obama’s Challenge Is “Riveting, Brilliant, and Persuasive”

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker, recently gave Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency a glowing endorsement on his blog.

From the article:

The book’s premise is not only that Obama will be elected President but also, and mainly, that his character and talents—in combination with the manifest failures of conservative rule and the manifold crises it has created, exacerbated, or ignored—give him a fighting chance to lead the country into a deep and lasting era of positive change. (As it happens, there are signs that Obama understands this and is preparing to seize the moment.) Kuttner, in concise chapters written with great vigor and clarity, shows what the change could look like if Obama is bold enough to go for it and the gods continue to smile on him.

Read the whole article.

What Is Sustainability? A Primer

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Sure, we’re all trying our darndest to be “sustainable”1—but what does that mean, exactly?

In this Huffington Post article, part 2 in a continuing series, Chelsea Green author Mat Stein (When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency) continues to break it down for us.

From the article:

Every day we hear about topics like sustainable growth and sustainable building, but what does it really mean to be “sustainable?” The economist Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules to help define sustainability:

•For a renewable resource–soil, water, forest, fish–the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate of regeneration of its source. (Thus, for example, fish are harvested unsustainably when they are caught at a rate greater than the rate of growth of the remaining fish population.)

•For a nonrenewable resource–fossil fuel, high-grade mineral ores, fossil groundwater–the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable resource, used sustainably, can be substituted for it. (For example, an oil deposit would be used sustainably if part of the profits from it were systematically invested in wind farms, photovoltaic arrays, and tree planting, so that when the oil is gone, an equivalent stream of renewable energy is still available.)

•For a pollutant, the sustainable rate of emission can be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can be recycled, absorbed, or rendered harmless in the environment. (For example, sewage can be put into a stream or lake or underground aquifer sustainably no faster than bacteria and other organisms can absorb its nutrients without themselves overwhelming and destabilizing the aquatic ecosystem.)

Read the whole article here.

1I realize I’m making an assumption here, but given the fact that you’re on this website and reading this article, not a wholly unfounded one, I think.

Mad Sheep and Crashing the Gate on DailyKos

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Jill Richardson over at Daily Kos (also known as OrangeClouds115) had some nice things to say about Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics and Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA’s War on a Family Farm today:

What’s the one book every Kossack must read?
Is it fair to say Crashing the Gate? If we’re talking about food-related books, I’d say The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. But I think Crashing the Gate is the most relevant to all of us, even those who don’t give a rat’s ass about food, and it’s the best statement on what we’re really doing here and what direction we need to move in.

You recently took the USDA to task in a column published on AlterNet. What grade would you give the USDA under President Bush?
The USDA hasn’t gotten its own Grade A rating for many decades now. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Yes, they get a big fat F under Bush (as do most other agencies… FEMA, I’m talking to you) but that doesn’t mean they were better under Clinton. There’s a fantastic book called Mad Sheep by a woman named Linda Faillace. Under the Clinton USDA, her family worked with the government to legally import European sheep. It was a brilliant business venture because European sheep breeds can produce 10 to 25 times more milk than American ones and Americans import a lot of sheep’s milk cheese from overseas. Once her family had the sheep, the USDA got some heat about mad cow and they decided to take it out on the Faillace family, claiming their sheep had mad cow disease and needed to be destroyed. The government did over 400 negative tests for mad cow on the sheep until they were finally able to come up with a false positive or two using some year-old freezer-burned sheep brains and an invalid testing method in a later discredited lab. It was Bush’s USDA that finally took the sheep and murdered them because the fight lasted beyond the Clinton administration, but Clinton’s USDA was just as bad in that story….

And her personal blog has a great name: La Vida Locavore. Thanks for the shout-out, Jill!

Read the full Q&A here.

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