Nature & Environment Archive

Pre-Release Special: Lynn Margulis!

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

“It was life—profligate, teeming life in all its weirdness—that held the magic for her, not this featherless biped with its confused aspirations. Lynn intuited and doggedly gathered evidence to show that most anything we two-leggeds take special pride in—our capacities for cogitation, conviviality, and culture—had been invented, eons before, by the microbial entities that compose us.”

David Abram, contributor, and author of Spell of the Sensuous

When scientist Lynn Margulis died last year, the world lost a true intellectual revolutionary — but her vibrant legacy lives on.

Margulis’s son and longtime collaborator Dorion Sagan collected essays from his mother’s colleagues and friends, and compiled them into a beautiful tribute. To celebrate the book’s arrival, we’re putting Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel on sale this week for 25% off.

Sagan remembered his mother in an “evolutionary eulogy”, adapted from what he told his children after Margulis’s passing.

Your grandmother was so smart, talked so fast, and about so many subjects that hardly anybody—maybe even not she herself—could always understand everything she said.

She said: “Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth. ”

She said: “The idea that we are ‘stewards of the earth’ is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body’s physical processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough to keep all its systems in operation? Can you make your kidneys function? . . . Are you conscious of the blood flow through your arteries? . . . We are unconscious of most of our body’s processes, thank goodness, because we’d screw it up if we weren’t. The human body is so complex, with so many parts. . . The idea that we are consciously caretaking such a large and mysterious system is ludicrous.”

Read the entire essay at Seven Pillars House of Wisdom.

Lynn Margulis touched the lives of many scientists and other thinkers, many of whom contributed essays to the book. James Lovelock, who first articulated the hypothesis that the Earth’s many interconnected biotic systems essentially behave as a unified organism (what came to be known as the Gaia Theory), write in the excerpt below about first meeting Margulis.

Lynn Margulis: Essay by James Lovelock

“Frankenstorm” Sandy is Coming, Are You Prepared?

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Only a little more than a year has passed since Tropical Storm Irene slammed into the Eastern Seaboard. Authorities in New York City mobilized to prepare, and people laughed when she passed over the Big Apple without event.

But people in the Hudson Valley and Vermont were not laughing, and given the storm’s original trajectory were largely unprepared for what Irene would unleash. The storm dropped huge amounts of rain, and catastrophic flooding hit the narrow river valleys of New England, collapsing roads, washing away houses and stranding entire communities for days on end.

We were lucky. Our office, and the homes of our staff were spared the worst of the damage. Vermont has rallied to repair the washed out roads, and even the wrecked covered bridges are being rebuilt.

But here comes Hurricane Sandy at more than 500 miles wide and no signs of slowing down as she barrels to make landfall Monday night.

Conditions in the Atlantic where the storm is projected to pass are “unprecedented,” with warm water temperatures and a cold front sweeping in from the west. This storm has even typically sober national weather services sounding the alarm. Sandy has been labeled a “Frankenstorm,” and, once again, the East Coast is bracing for the worst.

Which brings us to the real subject of this post: Are you prepared?

Mat Stein’s latest book, When Disaster Strikes, outlines what to gather and what to expect from a few different types of natural disaster — including hurricanes. The excerpt below, in combination with his guidelines for putting together a 72-hour grab-and-go survival kit, will help you weather the storm.

Hurricanes and Floods – An Excerpt from When Disaster Strikes

Remembering Lynn Margulis: An Evolutionary Eulogy

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

When renowned scientist Lynn Margulis died last November, she left behind a vibrant legacy. Her inspiring, innovative work on evolution touched scientists, environmentalists, and nature writers alike. This winter, Chelsea Green is publishing a book to celebrate her memory, filled with essays by her colleagues, collaborators, and other thinkers who were influenced by her work. Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, will be available in mid-October. Foreword Reviews recently wrote,

“In this thoughtful and expertly curated collection, Margulis’s son and long-time collaborator, Dorion Sagan, calls her ‘indomitable Lynn.’ A fearless and zealous advocate of her theories who could also display a loving heart, he writes, ‘[H]er threat was not to people but to the evil done to the spirit by the entrenchment of unsupported views.’

In other essays, Margulis’s complex personality beguiles, frustrates, charms, and elevates various writers, resulting in a stunning portrait that no single remembrance could have captured. Luminaries throughout the scientific world share their memories of her bulldog attitude and scientific contributions, showing that although she’s gone, her work definitely still resonates and informs evolutionary biology and other fields.”

The article below was written by her son, Dorion Sagan. For more information, click here.

Grandma Lynnie is dead. But what is life? Where do we go when we die?

It’s a funny thing: Death is the opposite of life. But so is birth. Your birth continues the life of your parents—here Zach, Jenny, Robin, and Jeremy—just as your parents’ lives continued the life of their parents.

What does this mean? It means that life and death are not so simple.  Although a body may disappear, its form—with some changes—continues. We are one of the changed forms of our parents.

Your grandmother studied an organism—it may look like a plant, but it’s a bryozoan, an animal—named Pectinatella magnifica—in this very pond. It is a funny-looking, puffy creature that looks kind of like a brain on a stick. And she made a discovery: it lives with other organisms, purple bacteria I think, that help it grow. She was still working on this when she died.

When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly it changes, and when a butterfly lays its eggs, it changes again: We say the butterfly dies when the body that lays the eggs dies, but, if you think about it, the cycle goes on. We could say that the caterpillar dies and the butterfly is born.

Focusing on this idea, we could say that her body died, but part of her—you and me—has already been born again: not in a religious sense but as your bodies and minds, which don’t know as much as her yet, but do contain some of the same thoughts and feelings.

So we should not be so sad. You are not just a grown up who is twenty or thirty or forty years old, or a kid who is 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 years old. You are part of a collection of microbes, including symbiotic bacteria that joined forces—fast ones and slow ones, oxygen breathers and those that could live in the mud, green ones and transparent ones—billions of years ago. Life on Earth is 3.8 billion years old and it has not stopped reproducing since it started. You may disappear but you may also become part of a new form—not a ghost, but a grandchild.

She and I wrote about this in What is Life?. We tried to show that life is not just a thing, a body, but a process—and that looking at it this way was not make-believe, but scientific.

“‘What is life?‘ is a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It is a material process, surfing over matter like a strange slow wave. It is a controlled artistic chaos, a set of chemical reactions so staggeringly complex that more than 4 billion years ago it began a sojourn that now, in human form, composes love letters and uses silicon computers to calculate the temperature of matter at the birth of the universe.”

Your grandmother was so smart, talked so fast, and about so many subjects that hardly anybody—maybe even not she herself—could always understand everything she said.

She said: “Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth. ”

She said: “The idea that we are ‘stewards of the earth’ is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body’s physical processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough to keep all its systems in operation? Can you make your kidneys function? . . . Are you conscious of the blood flow through your arteries? . . . We are unconscious of most of our body’s processes, thank goodness, because we’d screw it up if we weren’t. The human body is so complex, with so many parts. . . The idea that we are consciously caretaking such a large and mysterious system is ludicrous.”

She said: ‘The notion of saving the planet has nothing to do with intellectual honesty or science. The fact is that the planet was here long before us and will be here long after us. The planet is running fine. What people are talking about is saving themselves and saving their middle-class lifestyles and saving their cash flow.”

She said: “We are walking communities. . . Of all the organisms on earth, only bacteria are individuals.”

By that she meant that we are not who we think, just animals, but also bacteria, and other microbes. These bacteria help us make vitamins, they live in and on our bodies, and, though they sometimes make us sick, they also come together to make new forms of life. The amoebas and Paramecia and Pectinatella that Grandma discovered in this pond, which she swam across every day this summer, are examples of such creatures that bring together bacteria and other kinds of life in their bodies. They are connected. So are you. We are connected not only to the beings inside us, but also to the beings outside us, of which we are a part. So remember this—and when you think of grandma gone and are sad, remember also that her body is going back to the water and the ground, and that her memory is now part of you, and you are part of her, and that in a sense she is not leaving us but coming back to us in another form.

Related Links:

Image Notes: 1. Lynn Margulis on November 13, 2011, just nine days before her passing on November 22, 2011, at Uxmal Pyramids, Yucatan, Mexico. (Photo credit: Amarella Eastmond.)

Dorion Sagan is a science writer, essayist, and theorist. He is author of numerous articles and twenty-three books translated into eleven languages, including Death and Sex, and Into the Cool, coauthored with Eric D. Schneider. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, and the Skeptical Inquirer. Look for Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, an anthology of essays about the late Lynn Margulis, from scientists and philosophers around the world, due out this fall.

Article originally published by Seven Pillars Press.

Be Prepared!

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

September is Preparedness Month!

We never want bad things to happen, but they’re inevitable. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods or man-made disasters like fires, or power outages and fuel-price spikes can easily disrupt our way of life.

We want you to be ready no matter what, so in honor of Preparedness Month we’ve put select books on sale this week to help you be prepared for unexpected, short-term emergencies as well as long-term emergencies.

From survival guides to forecasts of the future and how-to guise to help communities be more self-reliant and resilient, this set of books should help you take stock and make plans to keep yourself and your family safe from harm and discomfort.

To get a sample of what author Mat Stein — whom Chris Martenson recently called a guru of self-resiliency — check out his recent interview that is posted on Martenson’s website, Peak Prosperity.

“Whether you’re concerned about the fallout from a breakdown of today’s weakened global economy, or simply want to be better able to deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster if you live in an earthquake/hurricane/flood/wildfire/tornado-prone part of the world, the personal resiliency measures Mat recommends make sense for almost everyone to consider,” writes Martenson.

Couldn’t have said it better. Enjoy this thoughtful and thorough interview (audio and a printed transcript are available) and then check out Mat’s books below.

Books are on sale for 25% off until September 19.

Reg. Price:$35.00
Sale Price:$26.25

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency

There’s never been a better time to “be prepared.” Matthew Stein’s comprehensive primer on sustainable living skills—from food and water to shelter and energy to first-aid and crisis-management skills—prepares you to embark on the path toward sustainability. But unlike any other book, Stein not only shows you how to live “green” in seemingly stable times, but to live in the face of potential disasters, lasting days or years, coming in the form of social upheaval, economic meltdown, or environmental catastrophe.


Reg. Price:$24.95
Sale Price:$18.71

When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival

In this disaster-preparedness manual, Matthew Stein outlines the materials you’ll need—from food and water, to shelter and energy, to first-aid and survival skills—to help you safely live through the worst. When Disaster Strikes covers how to find and store food, water, and clothing, as well as the basics of installing back-up power and lights. You’ll learn how to gather and sterilize water, build a fire, treat injuries in an emergency, and use alternative medical sources when conventional ones are unavailable.


Reg. Price:$24.95
Sale Price:$18.71

2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years

What does our future look like? In the book 2052, Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth, issues a progress report and makes a forecast for the next forty years. To do this, he asked dozens of experts to weigh in with their best predictions on how our economies, energy supplies, natural resources, climate, food, fisheries, militaries, political divisions, cities, psyches, and more will take shape in the coming decades.



Reg. Price:$12.00
Sale Price:$9.00

Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change

Permaculture co-originator and leading sustainability innovator David Holmgren outlines four scenarios that bring to life the likely cultural, political, agricultural, and economic implications of peak oil and climate change, and the generations-long era of “energy descent” that faces us.




Reg. Price:$17.95
Sale Price:$13.46

Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity

The first in our Community Resilience Guides series – in partnership with the Post Carbon Institute – this book explains how local investment can make for a strong economy.





New Arrival: Dreaming the Future!

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

The world is entering a period of great change. The natural environment is collapsing. Social disruption abounds. Societies across the globe are breaking down.

Out of this chaos, however, comes the opportunity to avoid complete collapse and instead foster a breakthrough: to reimagine our future, our connection to each other, and to nature.

A world where people live in harmony with nature. Sounds like a nice dream, doesn’t it? But is it possible?

Our latest book says yes. In Dreaming the Future Kenny Ausubel, award-winning social entrepreneur, author, journalist, and filmmaker, and cofounder (with his wife Nina Simons) of the Bioneers Conference, shares with readers his hope that by learning from the natural world we can change human society to something more sustainable, more just, and less destructive. Toward that end, Ausubel examines some of the biggest ideas, overarching trends, and important developments of our time.

Dreaming the Future is available now. For a preview of Ausubel’s witty and poignant prose, take a look at this excerpt, “Honey, We Shrunk the Planet.”

Honey, We Shrunk the Planet – An Excerpt from Dreaming the Future by Kenny Ausubel

Pre-Release Special: Dreaming the Future

Monday, August 27th, 2012

When Kenny Ausubel, an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, journalist, and filmmaker, and his wife Nina Simons started the Bioneers Conference in 1990, they gathered a diverse group of people who shared a dream about changing human society to make it more harmonious with nature.

In the spirit of that same dream, Ausubel’s new book is filled with inspiring thoughts about what our lives could look like — if only we try a little harder to live like good Earthlings instead of like shortsighted resource hogs with nothing to lose. In fact we have a great deal to lose — perhaps everything. It is time, argues Ausubel, to reimagine our future and our connection to each other, and to nature.

Dreaming the Future is a collection of essays by Ausubel, about the big ideas, metatrends, and game-changing developments of our time.

Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest and coauthor of Natural Capitalism, says:

“Without doubt, Kenny Ausubel has one of the most glorious minds on the planet. Herein he has crafted a dazzling treasury of essays on the destiny of humanity and its place on earth, a rosary of startling truths. His ability to describe the cataclysmic loss of living systems contrasted with the luminous and untold rise of human awakening is unique among living writers and speakers. Read this for its brilliance, but read it also to find joy in the intricate reimagination of what it means to be a human being at this parlous moment in civilization.”

To celebrate the arrival of this poetic and imaginative new book, we’re putting it on sale for 25% off this week.

Occupy World Street: The Music Video

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

This may be a first for Chelsea Green: An author who’s created a music video to promote his book.

The author is Ross Jackson, of Denmark, and the book is Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform. The book shows how the uprisings around the world stem from a similar source: A populist response to the selfish, swashbuckling behavior of global financial elites who wreck economies and then call on governments to enact punishing “austerity” measures that keep them off the hook (and out of jail), while further harming people already in distress.

The book also offers a roadmap for how several countries, banding together, could break away from the boom and bust neoliberal economic cycles and chart a new bath based on shared prosperity and sustainability.

You think he’d be satisfied with offering such a radical, but at the same time rational, view of the world. Nope. Jackson is now offering us a global sing-a-along — a protest song that we can all get behind. We’ve embedded the video below for your viewing, and singing, pleasure.

The catchy folk song — written and composed by Jackson who also appears in the video strumming a guitar and sauntering the streets — is an homage to the Occupy movement that has seen occupations spring up around the world, often fueled by the imagination and anger of the younger generation. Jackson also uses the song to offer a critique of the Euro and why it’s been so damaging to sovereign economies.

We’re posting the complete lyrics below so you can sing along to Jackson’s ditty. You can also find a downloadable lyric sheet on Jackson’s website, where he’s calling himself “The Singing Economist.”

Let’s see Paul Krugman top that. We’re waiting.

OWS The Song – Lyrics
Written by Ross Jackson, June 2012   

Well I walked downtown to Zuccotti Park.
It was 6 p.m. and getting dark
When I saw a young couple chattin’ and drinkin’ cokes.
I asked them what was going on here,
And the young lady answered loud and clear,
“We’re here to send a message to our folks.

“This land was once the land of the free,
Of justice and democracy.
Now America’s lost her way and got off track.
One man one vote was the order then.
Now our land’s been stolen by the money men
And all of us here are just trying to get it back.”

Occupy New York City
Occupy Santa Fe
Occupy Cincinnati
Occupy San José

We might be in Salt Lake City
Or in Washington D.C.
¬Speaking out for human
Rights and more equality.

The young man said his name was Bob
And recently he’d lost his job.
His firm had pulled up stakes and moved offshore.
“They say it’s cheaper in Shanghai
Where profit rates are record high
And they don’t pay much in taxes anymore”.

“The one percenters cheat and steal
And don’t produce a thing that’s real.
Asset speculation is their style.
These guys are parasites,” he said.
“They ought to get real jobs instead,
And make a contribution that’s worthwhile”.

Occupy San Francisco
Occupy Wichita
Occupy Sacramento
Occupy Omaha

Occupy Minnesota
Occupy Tennessee
Standing up for nature
And sustainability

Then I went to Europe to just check out
What the euro fuss was all about.
The youth are without jobs and that’s the key.
The young folks want their countries back
But leaders take a different tack;
Bank bailouts and more austerity.

The euro was a big mistake;
A backdoor to a Eurostate
That citizens would rather be without.
The people want a deal that’s fair
Where bankers pay their rightful share.
Until that day they’ll roam the streets and shout.

Occupy Copenhagen
Occupy Birmingham
Occupy Londonderry
Occupy Amsterdam

We are camping out in Athens
As we make a final plea:
“We’d rather leave the euro
Than have more austerity.”

We will occupy Milano
Occupy Luxembourg
Occupy Barcelona
Occupy this whole world

Now our numbers they are growing,
And we won’t accept defeat,
Time to end injustice;
Time to Occupy World Street

Time to end injustice………..

Time to Occupy World Street

Eight Ways the World Will Change by 2052

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Originally published by Fast Company.

Editor’s Note

Forty years ago, The Limits to Growth study addressed the grand question of how humans would adapt to the physical limitations of planet Earth. It predicted that during the first half of the 21st century the ongoing growth in the human ecological footprint would stop–either through catastrophic “overshoot and collapse”–or through well-managed “peak and decline.”

So, where are we now? In 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, Jorgen Randers–one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth–issues a progress report and makes a forecast for the next 40 years. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of Chelsea Green Publishing.

Let me answer some of your likely questions about the next 40 years as I expect them to unfold.

1. Will I Be Poorer?

Some of us will, others will not.

In order to give a clearer answer, the question must be asked more precisely. The question must be: Will I be poorer compared to x? And you must decide whether x should be (a) today, (b) what you would have been if humanity rose to the occasion and ran a rational world, or (c) relative to your peers.

Furthermore you must be precise about what future time you are asking about. Is it 2052? Or the halfway mark, 2032? You do remember, I hope, that the average income path to 2052 will not be a straight line. Per capita consumption in my forecast grows to a peak sometime within the next 40 years and is in decline in 2052—details depending on where you live.

If we’re willing to sacrifice some precision, though, I can provide this general answer: As long as you are not a citizen of the United States, you will be richer in 2052 than you are today. But only slightly so, unless you live in China or BRISE. I can add some detail: you will be much poorer than you would have been in 2052 if a benevolent dictator took control in 2012 and forced through the necessary investments to keep everyone employed and global warming below plus 2°C.

And I can add: Unless you do something very stupid (or very unconventional) during the next 40 years, you will be in the same position vis-à-vis your neighbors and peers as you are now. Both you and your peers will experience the same parallel development over the next 40 years. The only exception is if you are presently very affluent. Then it may be that your social rank will have declined through the processes of redistribution, which I believe will occur during the next 40 years in order to reduce some of the tension implicit in the rapid increase in inequity in the capitalist world.

Finally, I will give you a piece of uninvited advice: Yours is the wrong question. You should not ask, “Will I be poorer?” You should rather ask, “Will I be more satisfied?” Whether you are satisfied with life is more important (for you) than whether you are somewhat richer or poorer. Empirically, for some, income is the sole determinant of life satisfaction. But for the majority, a whole host of factors influence our well-being—job, health, family, community, prospects for the future—in addition to income. It is the sum total of all aspects of life that determine your well-being, both now and in the future.

So when you privately assess the implications for yourself of my global forecast, try to judge what it will mean for your well-being, not only what it will mean for your income.

2. Will There Be Enough Jobs?


Or to be slightly less flippant: there will be as many jobs in the future as there have been in the past—relative to the workforce, that is. Or to be more scientific: there is little reason to expect that underemployment will be much higher (or lower) in the future than it has been over the last generation. This means that 10% of those who would like to get a paid job won’t get it overnight. The number will be closer to 5% during business upturns and closer to 15% during downturns. In the future, like in the past.
The reason is simple. A job is absolutely crucial from the point of the individual in industrial and postindustrial urbanized society. It is the only way in which the individual can get part of the societal pie–without engaging in theft. Since a job is crucial, the individual will do his utmost to obtain one. And society–at least in the long run–will do its utmost to ensure there are jobs, typically by seeking rapid economic growth. But we know from recent history that this is a taxing task, and that politicians often fail. As a result we do experience lengthy periods of excessive unemployment, even in the advanced economies. And the task of securing full employment may become harder in the future, since I forecast lower growth rates in GDP.

But given the importance of employment for societal peace and order, and given the real fear among the elite about a reshuffling of the cards, the necessary effort will be applied–sooner or later. The reason why I am willing to state this so blatantly is that the task is solvable in principle. When the unemployment problem is not solved in the short term, it is because society is not immediately willing to use the tools that the ruling elites actually have at hand. Because these tools imply taking from the rich (those with a job) and giving to the poor (those without a job).

For in the end the rulers can print paper money and pay unemployed people to do what society needs to get done, in return for the paper money. For example, politicians can decide that society needs to build dikes to protect against rising sea levels, or remove litter from public places and highways, or paint all roofs white (in order to reflect more sunlight and reduce global warming), or create new pieces of art for public enjoyment. And they can print the necessary money to pay for this work. The new money will boost demand for everything that the workers need–food, shelter, energy, vacation–and have the traditional expansionary effect. The cost will be higher inflation, but that bothers the rich more than the poor. As long as there are underutilized resources in the economy, deficit financing of compulsory work for the state is sustainable. It is possible to lower unemployment by printing new money. But the rich will scream. Because they will see this for what it is: namely, a transfer of wealth and income from the rich to the poor.

If the elite is stupid enough not to solve the unemployment problem within reasonable time, revolution (or at least sufficient rattling of the system to get crisis work going) will result. Such disruption will lower incomes in the short term, but it will distribute the cards in new ways in the longer run and therefore provide new opportunity for the formerly unemployed. Disruption makes unemployment more bearable, and probably gets it back down into the 10% range.

So I see little reason why there should be higher levels of unemployment in the future. But that is not the same as saying there will be smooth sailing. Unemployment figures will continue to fluctuate between the barely acceptable and the totally unbearable. And all along there will be unnecessary suffering.

3. Will the Climate Problem Hurt Us?

Yes, but not critically before 2040.

My forecast shows in quantitative detail how I believe the global average temperature will increase over the next couple of generations. The average temperature will go from plus 0.8°C relative to preindustrial times in 2012 to plus 2.0°C in 2052, and a maximum of plus 2.8°C in 2080.

The forecast maximum in 2080 is above the threshold that world leaders agreed would place us in the danger zone for runaway climate change; but it is important to realize this is a politically negotiated goal. Views differed, and still differ, on what will be safe. Or in other words, what will hurt us.

There is a large body of literature about what will happen at plus 2°C. Science agrees on the broad lines–more drought in drought-prone areas, more rain in rainy areas, more extreme weather (strong winds, torrential rains, intense heat spells), more melting of glaciers and the Arctic sea ice, somewhat higher sea levels, and a more acidic ocean, in addition to the higher temperature and the higher CO2 concentration in the atmosphere that will boost food and forest growth in higher northern latitudes. Ecosystems will move poleward and uphill.

But science cannot yet predict the detailed strength and regional distribution of these impacts. Thus it is impossible to forecast what will be the effect on your surroundings over the next generation. But you can get a strong indication if you start looking slightly beyond science. By asking locals in daily contact with nature, you will get to know what has changed over the last 20 or 40 years. You can do worse than assuming that these changes will strengthen during the rest of your life.

Let me give a concrete example. The only rational reason to live in a cold, northern city like my hometown of Oslo during the dark subfreezing period from mid-November to mid-March is the great opportunity for cross-country skiing (ideally on moonlit white glades in the pine forests just north of the city) on the one meter or so of cold fluffy snow that covered the ground until the last real winter in 1986.

But over the last 25 years, the average winter temperature in Oslo has gone up by plus 2°C. This has shortened the period of stable cold weather from four to two months. Instead, we now have two months of good skiing and two months of wet, gray, and cold slush, which keeps the forest dark and makes it impossible to even go jogging there after work. One-half of the Oslo winter is gone, sacrificed on the altar of climate change. This is clearly visible in the eyes of someone who has been skiing regularly over the last fifty years. It is discernable in the snow statistics, but it is not yet an established fact in the urban public mind. And certainly not institutionalized in a strong Norwegian climate policy.

This loss of skiing is a nuisance, but not catastrophic. As is the prolongation of the dry period in the western United States, or the increased number of very hot days in Provence. But they do constitute a loss. And a longing, among the grown-ups, for the good old days. A little more problematic, to say the least, is the slow rise of the ocean level around those Pacific islands that will be submerged if the ocean actually rises by a meter—just twice the expected sea-level rise by 2052.

So if you want to find out how climate change will hurt you, ask a local elderly outdoorsman or old farmer what he believes is going on. And then try to answer the question “Will I be more satisfied?” under the conditions that he thinks are emerging. But please be aware how subjective the answers you get will be: Most Norwegian farmers living next to my moonlit skiing forest are delighted at the prospect of higher temperatures, better forest growth, and the opportunity to clear-cut more often, with less snow bothering the cutting operations.


The Looming Crisis In Mass Transit

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Article by James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train. Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post.

Over the past 50 years America made massive public investments in its highways—hundreds of billions of dollars in the interstate system alone. And largely because of that investment, cities and suburbs have grown into sprawling, disconnected clusters, largely dependent on the automobile. But America is changing, and it’s time to rethink the way we travel. “We have to change that and give people more options,” says John Robert Smith, president of Reconnecting America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that advises local leaders on transportation planning.

What’s the problem with car travel? Not to put too fine a point on it, but our current network of roads and more roads (with a piddling number of trains and buses along the margins) is not sustainable. Today, 91 percent of Americans commute to work in a car, usually alone. The daily cost of fuel for cars is a staggering $1 billion-plus. Then there is conservation: All told, American drivers burn roughly one-quarter of the world’s oil. [See also What Government Needs to Do by Jim Oberstar, former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.]

Demographic trends also reflect a country reconsidering its settlement patterns and transportation networks, particularly in light of an expected population increase of more than 100 million new citizens over the next 40 years. Much of the population—from retiring boomers and young people alike—will be closer to city centers where mass transit is available.

Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national urban planning organization in New York City, says when you look ahead a few years, better mass transit will be sorely needed. “We can’t just keep building more highways and creating more sprawl,” Todorovich says.What is essential for the success of mass transit is not just building the infrastructure itself, but connectivity. Travelers need to get from point A to point B quickly and efficiently. But for mass transit to work well, those same travelers also need to be able to switch easily from a taxi, a bus, a ferry, an airplane, or a train in a matter of a few steps to continue on to point C. In Europe, trolleys and high-speed trains run into the airports and the switch is accomplished in a short escalator ride. It’s seamless, even intuitive.

In America, not so much. “We are 30 to 40 years behind Europe and Asia,” said Smith, who adds that the big push for mass transit will have to come from state, city, and county governments and filter up to the federal level.

Despite the obstacles to rebuilding America’s mass transit system—and there are quite a few obstacles—there are also a few bright lights. A few months ago, I went to California to write a piece about the proposed bullet train that would run between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There’d been a storm of political fighting over funding—the cost of the train may exceed $50 billion—and battles over where to put the right of ways, but it appears California will start laying track in late 2012. The 220-mph train would be one of the largest public works projects ever attempted in the United States, but California has a history of doing big and gutsy infrastructure projects.

While the complete bullet train is at least a decade off, California is moving ahead on mass transit. In 10 days of traveling between its major cities, I avoided renting a car, even calling a cab. For such a supposedly car-centric state, the connectivity was remarkable. For example, beginning in Oakland, I traveled to Sacramento on the Capitol Corridor, a train operated by Amtrak but subsidized by the state.

From there, I caught another corridor train, the San Joaquin to Bakersfield where I easily stepped on an express bus to downtown L.A. On the city’s metro system, I rode the Blue Line light rail out to Long Beach, the Red Line to Hollywood, and then city buses to see friends in Wilshire and Silver Lake.

To reach San Diego, I took the Pacific Surfliner which runs hourly out of L.A.’s Union Station, and then a trolley to my hotel in Old Town. Over the next few days, I was on Sprinter, Coaster, and Metrolink—all commuter trains—and the Surfliner again. And when it was time to fly home, I caught an express FlyAway bus from Union Station to LAX.

Outstripping ridership projections, light rail systems in Houston (top) and Charlotte (bottom) also attracted millions in transit-oriented development (TOD).

Outstripping ridership projections, light rail systems in Houston (top) and Charlotte (bottom) also attracted millions in transit-oriented development (TOD).

What is happening on the West Coast is being repeated around the country. New light rail systems are being built or expanded in Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Charlotte. Cities, such as L.A., are actually restoring service where decades ago they literally ripped out street car tracks to make room for cars. But it’s not just trains. Buses operating on natural gas, hybrid engines, and even overhead electrical wires are redefining city bus service. And in rural America, counties and other entities are finding ways to bring mass transit—typically bus or van service—to people who can’t afford cars or are unable to drive.

Mass transit is very much in the public eye, which is not surprising when one considers rising gas prices, highway congestion, unsustainable suburban sprawl, and an aging population. In 2011, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation, the second-highest annual ridership since 1957.

“For a long time, most transit riders were captive riders. They couldn’t afford a car and had to use the bus,” says Todorovich. “Now we are seeing more people using it as a lifestyle choice.”

Lifestyles matter, too. Many experts see America’s embrace of handheld devices and the desire to be connected electronically as another factor favoring mass transit over driving. Drive a car and you can’t or, at least, shouldn’t text. “If you are on a train or bus, you can stay on your iPad or smartphone,” adds Todorovich. And buses and trains that are Wi-Fi equipped make connecting that much easier.

It’s a big step from wanting or needing mass transit, to actually building it. With little clear direction from the feds, the solutions will be different for different localities. Which brings us to the bus-versus-train argument. Many urban areas are choosing to build light rail—even though improved bus service can be just as effective and would be a ton cheaper, says Professor G. Scott Rutherford, director of the TransNow Regional Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. That’s because buses run on infrastructure already in place—namely roads—and they are able to easily go off that right of way into neighborhoods, such as suburbs. Building new right of ways for trains is difficult and expensive, especially when trying to retrofit rail into highly urbanized environments.

But many cities see light rail as the only way to lure people out of their cars, says Rutherford. “There’s a rail bias,” he says. “Hey, I love trains, too, but an honest analysis in many communities would show that trains are not as good as buses.”

He points out that the common image of the loud and smoky city bus is a thing of the past. Buses today are cleaner, quieter, and quite efficient compared to automobiles.

Just as important, despite my successful experiment in California, in most American cities, bus stations, train stations, and airports were not built with an eye toward connectivity. Most such travel hubs are separated by several miles—the only transport option is an expensive cab ride. Even where there are attempts at connectivity, they are often problematic. In Milwaukee, Amtrak’s commuter train stops near Mitchell Airport, but passengers have to board a shuttle bus and then be deposited at the front of the airport. At the Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) Airport, the new light rail train only gets within 1,200 feet of the baggage area. The train station is located in the parking garage.

The obstacles range from turf wars to simple lack of foresight: “You could put the bus right in the front of the terminal, but the airport doesn’t want to interfere with single passenger cars picking up passengers. And because it sells parking, it doesn’t want to sacrifice spaces to get the train closer,” Rutherford says. “A lot of problems are jurisdictional. Transit crosses regional and political boundaries and there are competing interests.”

Keep reading.

From New Composter to Poo Composter: A Green Garbage Guide

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The following article was adapted for the web from Composting: An Easy Household Guide by Nicky Scott and The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins.

There are a bewildering amount of different composting systems and bins available on the market. This article will help you choose which bin or system suits your lifestyle, your family, your house, or apartment.

Composting systems broadly fall into two types:

  • THE FIRST TYPE deals with fresh, uncooked fruit and vegetable skins and peelings, cardboard and paper, as well as green garden waste materials—prunings, hedge clippings, etc.
  • THE SECOND TYPE deals with all but can also be used for other food wastes as well, such as cooked food, meat, fish, cheese, fats, and grease.


The compost bin that most people are familiar with is the plastic ‘Dalek’-type bin. Sizes vary from 50 gallons to over 175 gallons; some have access/inspection hatches, and they come in a variety of colors. These bins are available through some sanitation departments, water companies, garden centers, and on-line.

Because uncooked fruit and vegetable waste is dense and wet, one way to deal with it is to aerate it by putting it in a tumbler. A tumbler consists of a drum mounted on a stand; they either tumble end over end, or around on their axis. They are also useful for dealing with perennial weeds and for mixing materials. However, they take up a lot of space. The coarse compost they produce can be used directly on the garden or can be placed in a covered pile in your garden to enable it to mature to a finer product.

The most common digester is the Green Cone. It consists of a basket, rather like a washing basket, which is buried in the ground with a double-skin cone, which is all that is visible above ground. This makes it difficult for rats to get in. The material breaks down and is pulled into the surrounding soil by worms. A digester is more of a waste-disposal option, since you don’t harvest the compost.

Green Cones are available on-line and at some big garden centers. See Solarcone, Inc.

As your confidence and understanding of composting increases, you will want to increase the range and amount of materials you compost. Certain materials present us with challenges, and just about anything in large quantities can be a challenge. Once you feel more confident you can move away from making compost in a plastic container and make your own compost heap, or even a ‘hot heap.’

This system gives you the opportunity to make much larger quantities of excellent compost quickly to use on your garden. It’s also fascinating and fun.

  • Option 1: No box – a pile on the ground
    Assemble as much material as you can–ideally enough to make a 4’ x 4’ roughly cube-shaped pile. You can heap the materials up as high as you can reach–it will end up being conical.

  • Option 2: Put it in a box
    You can make a cheap simple box to contain your heap out of old pallets. These can simply be tied together, and you can easily insulate them if desired.

  • Option 3: Use two boxes
    twoboxes.pngThe ’Rolls-Royce’ design for this type of heap is the New Zealand box. You can buy one ready-made, or construct your own.


When the heap is built, cover it with some old plastic sacks to keep in the water vapor that will be given off and some old carpet that will help to keep the heat in.


For those of you who want to climb to the top of the compost mountain, you will need to get there through humanure. Well…not through humanure…but by composting your—and your family’s—waste. This is the ultimate in compost creation and it has many benefits to boot. And yes, I mean more than just the poop jokes.

The Toilet

  • Option 1: A mobile bucket. Some people elect to cap an unfortunate bucket with a customized toilet seat and sealing lid. Then they simply use the bucket as their toilet. (See here.)
  • Option 2: A built-in. Some folks prefer to remove their old toilet in favor of a built-in installation of the new compost toilet. (See here.)
  • Option 3: The Hacienda. Serious humanure enthusiasts dedicate some square footage in their yard to a ‘humanure hacienda.’ This is essentially an out-house, and is most appropriate in warmer climates. (See here.)

The Humanure Pile
Composting humanure isn’t much different from the techniques above. The major difference is volume.. This means that you will need more than one (preferably three) sizable (about 5 ft tall by 4 ft square) compost bins. You should fill up each bin, each year, and then leave it to compost while you move on to the next bin. Start each bin by filling the bottom 18 inches or more with course, absorbant organic material. This will act as a biological sponge.

The humanure pile, like the contents of your toilet bucket, must always be covered with a clean organic material. On top of the clean organic top layer, you should place some sort of wire fencing to keep larger rodents out of the pile. This is especially necessary if you choose to combine your humanure and food compost.

Using the Compost
Once a compost bin is full and ready (after a year of aging), you can begin to use the compost for agricultural purposes.

References and Resources:

Happy composting!

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