Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Missing in Action

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

As some of you have noticed, I’ve been consumed with consulting work for the past several weeks and unable to blog. But there have been interesting developments on vertical farming, green walls, and “Meatless Mondays” as a carbon-reduction strategy, to name just a few. I’ll try to catch up on some of these things in the next few days.

Carbon Consciousness

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

These days, as part of my semi-nomadic life as a program planning and interpretation consultant for public gardens and nature centers, I’ve been offsetting a lot of travel-related carbon emissions. Like this week. I just got back from one of those places that seem to engender periodic bursts of human creativity. Call it karma or happy coincidence, these places suddenly  become magnets for artists, oddballs, and other rebellious types who, through a critical mass of their collective contrarian consciousness, change the course of history. Like Florence in the 15th century, or Baraboo in the 20th century. Baraboo??

Baraboo is a small city in south central Wisconsin with a population of less than 12,000. The surrounding Baraboo Ranges are all that remain of one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America, composed of Baraboo Quartzite, a metamorphosed form of sandstone that originated about 1.85 billion years ago in what geologists call the Early Proterozoic Eon. The Baraboo area is also the terminal moraine of the Wisconsinan, the place where this final glacier of the last Ice Age dumped its debris, creating impressive sights like Devil’s Lake Gorge, where quartzite blocks crunched up by the ice sheet cling tenuously to steep slopes.

It was in Baraboo in 1884 that the Ringling Brothers began their circus, a band of oddballs if there ever was one. Over six seasons, the circus expanded from a wagon show to a railroad show with 225 employees, touring cities across the United States each summer. Baraboo remained the circus’s headquarters and wintering grounds until 1918.

A few years later, in 1924, Aldo Leopold arrived in nearby Madison, and in the early 1930s he purchased a dilapidated chicken coop and a few hundred acres of Dust Bowl-ravaged land near Baraboo as a weekend retreat for his family. At the shack, as it was called, Leopold was inspired to write conservation classics like A Sand County Almanac, launching the fields of restoration ecology and land ethics. 

The Baraboo Ranges continue to work their magic. A couple of years ago, about a mile down the road from the shack, the Aldo Leopold Foundation built the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. The second highest-rated LEED Platinum facility to date, the Legacy Center also meets the 2030 Challenge, which aims to rapidly transform the U.S. and global building sectors from the biggest single contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate crisis by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed. 

The Legacy Center also happens to be the first carbon-neutral building certified by LEED. The initial carbon budget for the facility was based on projected emissions from combustion (including stationary sources such as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, vehicles driven by employees to and from and at work, and estimated visitor vehicle use); on-site electricity generation from photovoltaic cells; wind-generated electricity purchased at night and on days when the solar array does not meet building demand; and carbon sequestered by the Foundation’s 500 acres of forested land. You can find out more about how the Center reduces and offsets its carbon emissions here.

The beautiful facility is located on the land where Leopold perished in 1948 while fighting a brush fire on what was then a neighbor’s property.

Travels With Harley

Friday, April 24th, 2009

(And Donnie and Merle.) Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn I’m off on a retro-style road trip to the Great Plains with my hubby and our two collies to watch the redbuds bloom. Internet access may be unreliable, so my apologies if you don’t hear from me. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Regenerative Design: The Next Big Environmental Thing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Earth Week” is as good a time as any to reflect on the environmental movement and how it’s evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back in those days, the toxic smog spewed from chemical factories that lined the New Jersey Turnpike was so thick you could barely get from New York to Delaware without a gas mask. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Paul Ehrlich predicted that exploding human population growth would lead to mass famines and planetary disaster. In its report Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome said people were devouring natural resources, particularly oil, so fast that the days of economic growth were numbered. The old Sierra Club motto that people who enter natural areas should “take only pictures, leave only footprints” captured the prevailing environmental view that humans are “unnatural,” ecological outlaws, predators on a planetary scale.

Early environmentalism resulted in some landmark laws and considerable environmental clean-up. But twenty years later, ecosystems were still declining rapidly, and we still were faced with climate chaos, not to mention a mass extinction episode that could rival anything in the three and a half billion years of life on earth, including the demise of the dinosaurs. As a public relations strategy, gloom and doom got old real fast, and in the past decade or so, a more positive approach has become environmentalism’s mainstream face—the quest for sustainability. As a guiding philosophy, sustainable development certainly beats misanthropy and apocalypse. But LEED Platinum buildings and Priuses can get you only so far, and sustainable design, at least as currently conceived, won’t lead to true sustainability anytime soon. By settling for a higher recycling rate, more fuel-efficient cars, or less water consumption, we’re just making things less worse.

Five years ago, in an influential presentation, David Schaller, sustainable development coordinator in the EPA’s Denver office, called this a “cruel, zero-sum game that we are destined to lose in the end.”  No wonder there’s still talk about austerity and apocalypse, he said: “There is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination. All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature. I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.”

Any gardener who has contemplated the act of photosynthesis knows that life on earth is no zero-sum game. Plants are able to pluck sunlight out of thin air and transform its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Through photosynthesis, plants are constantly renewing the planet. The business of nature is quite the opposite of scarcity and limits. It’s the creation of diversity and complexity, and also increasing consciousness. Although it’s been interrupted on a handful of occasions by episodes of mass extinction, the increase in the diversity and complexity—and consciousness—of species since life began is astonishing. Okay, so we humans have been misguided. But we are as capable of evolving and growing as the rest of nature. In fact, as the quintessential self-conscious species, we have a key role to play in the future of the earth.

The number of people in the world long ago overwhelmed what nature could accomplish via the plodding, incremental, and unconscious process of biological evolution encoded in our genes. Human thought and imagination, by means of cultural change, are now subsuming the far slower process of biological evolution. And in the past few years, a new way of thinking called regenerative design has been bubbling up into our collective consciousness. While the highest aim of sustainable development is creating things that do no harm, regenerative design recognizes that people can be a positive ecological force—that we have the potential to create more diversity and abundance on the planet than would be possible without us.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that we humans, who are almost singlehandedly responsible for climate change and the current extinction crisis, could ever become promoters of biodiversity and abundance. But as a gardener I know that from one single species of wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean we’ve created not only a multitude of cultivated cabbages but also a multitude of cauliflowers, and broccolis, and kohlrabis, and kales, and Brussels sprouts, and collards, and more. And in some ways we’re producing ever more diversity, ever faster. It took centuries for us to create the many vegetable varieties from that single species of wild cabbage. But in a matter of decades, we’ve developed enough new daffodil varieties to support an entire garden industry.

Of course, under our influence there’s also been a rapid evolution of invasive weeds. We need to learn how to distinguish between horticultural practices—and other practices—that enhance diversity and abundance and those that degrade and destroy them. We can do this by studying the natural patterns and processes that over the millennia have transformed the planet from a barren hunk of rock, to a green globe cloaked with lush ferns and giant conifers, to the world of multicolored floral ebullience we know today. That is what the native landscaping movement has been about. And permaculture. There are also glimmers of regenerative design in the Living Building Challenge, which is poised to surpass LEED as the gold standard for ecological building. In the words of the Cascadia Green Building Council, where the Challenge originated, a living building “is as elegant and efficient as a flower.” It doesn’t just use less energy, water, and other resources but rather generates more energy from renewable sources than it uses, captures more rainwater than it needs, and actually adds to the abundance and beauty of a place.

Heck, regenerative design already has its own Wikipedia stub. You’ll be hearing more about it.

Don’t Flush Ancient Forests Down the Toilet

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Speaking of paper, Greenpeace has produced a handy downloadable, wallet-size guide to tissue and toilet paper products. It ranks each brand according to three criteria: Is it made of 100 percent recycled content? Is 50 percent of this recycled content post-consumer? And has it been bleached without chlorine compounds? 

Beyond Recycled Paper

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

For years, buying paper with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content has been the be all and end all for publishers and other intensive paper users looking to go green. But research done by U.S. News & World Report for its April issue, the “Energy and Environment Guide,”  points the way to a more effective standard. All of the issue’s body stock will be on carbon-neutral paper with fiber that has been certified as being sourced from sustainably managed forests, and U.S. News will pay a small premium to offset the relatively minor greenhouse gas emissions produced during manufacturing. You can find the details here.

Kiss Proteas Goodbye?

Friday, January 30th, 2009

In all the coverage of the study published a few days ago suggesting that the effects of climate change will be “irreversible” for 1,000 years, and that several parts of the world will suffer “dust bowl-like” conditions due to decreasing rainfall, I haven’t seen anyone point out that the affected regions include some of the “hottest” of the Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, the so-called mediterranean-climate regions.

The regions mentioned in the paper include southern Europe, South Africa, southwestern North America, and western Australia,  meaning big trouble for at least four of the five mediterranean-climate regions, which cover just one to two percent of the land surface but harbor about 20 percent of the plant species on the planet. The most distinctive plant communities that have evolved in the cool, wet winters, warm to hot, dry summers, and poor soils of these areas are shrublands—the fynbos of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, maquis and garrigue in the Mediterranean Basin, Australian mallee, and Californian chaparral, as well as Chilean matorral.

Among the unique plants found in these regions are proteas, the signature plants of the Cape Floral Kingdom, whose spectacular, often large blooms, with vase-shaped bracts surrounding cone-like clusters of slender, curving, tube-shaped flowers, are critical to the worldwide floral trade. Proteas are named for the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his form at will. But many of the plants won’t be able to change fast enough to cope with anticipated climate change. More than half of all protea species are already threatened with extinction. Habitat loss alone is decimating protea populations, and when climate change is factored in, the situation is all the more dire.

Arugula vs. Moose Meat

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

So far in this year’s presidential campaign we’ve heard about sexism, ageism, racism, and other social ills. Well, what about phytoism?  How come it’s socially acceptable to put down plants? Why is it elitist to eat arugula (or frequent “fern bars,” or drink beverages made from coffee beans), but not elitist to dine on a trophy animal? As one of my favorite bloggers pointed out today, arugula is available at any local McDonalds, but there isn’t even a website that sells moose meat, which all of a sudden is considered as American as Thanksgiving turkey.

California Plants and Climate Change — Even Worse Than we Thought?

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

KQED radio has produced an interesting follow-up to the recent Plos One paper predicting that climate change will have a dire impact on redwoods and other plants that are endemic to California, America’s biodiversity hotspot — plants found nowhere else in the world. (My blog on the paper is here.) A KQED reporter interviews the authors and finds they’re even more pessimistic than they were when they wrote the paper. One sobering prediction: Most of California’s endemic plants will die if global warming continues at its present pace. At the end of the century, redwoods could still be growing in California because adult trees are so long-lived. But since no seedlings will be able to survive, these adults will be the last redwoods on earth, a forest of the “living dead.”

On the KQED website you’ll also find an interesting slide show based on the radio interview.