Category Archives: Environment

Knoll Organic Farm

Took the day off work to chaperone school trip to Knoll Organic Farm with sixth graders. All about biodiversity. First image shows apricots, figs, rosemary, barley and 20 others all growing in the same space – they get more than 3x more yield per acre than conventional farms by growing like nature does, where everything is entangled with everything else. Second image shows biodynamic soup – rainwater, molasses, figs, whatever else, left to stew until almost kombucha, then trickled into the irrigation system like homeopathy for soil. Third image: half-walnut as pig-nose.

Amazing: “When we have snails, someone from Chez Panisse drives out here to pick them up.”

Glorious afternoon!

Inside the Black Box (Metamorphosis)

Metamorphosis_by_Almacan You learned in grade school that a caterpillar metamorphoses into a moth or butterfly. But what would you find if you were to cut open a chrysalis during that transformational stage? Would you find a half-caterpillar/half-butterfly hybrid? It’s a black box — you don’t know. Caterpillar goes in, butterfly comes out. We don’t ask what happens in between.

But we should.

What you would actually find would be little more than snot – a milky white mucous, with a few dark specs floating in it. The caterpillar dissolves itself into goo, and the cells of the goo reconstitute themselves into a moth or butterfly.

So what happens to the “personhood” of the being inside? Does one creature die while another is reborn, growing out of the mulch of its former self? Does the butterfly have any “memory” of the caterpillar it was? Here’s the really mind-blowing part: Scientists have figured out how to train a caterpillar (via subtle electric shocks) to turn and walk the opposite direction when a certain smell is introduced into their environment. When they later tested for the same learned ability in metamorphosed butterflies and moths, they found a 70% memory retention rate, which had lasted right through the goo phase. Turns out those little specks in the goo are clusters of brain cells, which save memories and then reproduce in the new being.

Monarch_chrysalis1 The biological weirdness continues: If we peel off the skin of a dead caterpillar, we find proto wings, laying in wait. They never emerge on the caterpillar itself, but when the rest of the insect dissolves to goo, the proto-wings cling to the walls of the chrysalis, and then attach themselves to the newly formed butterfly and continue their evolution. The caterpillar starts them, the butterfly finishes them.

The whole process is as spiritual as it is philosophical as it is scientific. Is there anything stranger or more magical in nature? (rhetorical question). Over dinner, as our family discussed this process, we wondered why it isn’t taught in grade school. Why do we just get the black box (input –> output) version? Always look behind the curtain.

Image above: Metamorphosis by Almacan

Inspired by this week’s “Black Box” episode of the always amazing Radiolab.

The Nuke Dilemma

I have gone back and forth between polar extremes on this question over the past decade. On the one hand, nuclear accidents and waste disposal problems pose risks so great we shouldn’t even contemplate them, not even for a moment. On the other hand, continuing to burn fossils sets us on a course toward continued environmental destruction and unchecked climate change.

Recently a group of environmental scientists delivered a public letter encouraging environmentalists to start taking nuclear seriously.

energy

The reality is that renewables (wind and solar) can’t begin to scale to match the amount of energy we are using / will need in the future. And:

“Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.”

Fukushima freaks us out, as it should. But Fukushima also represents a completely antiquated mode of nuke plant construction. Future plants will operate very differently, with a native tendency to shut down, not melt down.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t?

Live Power Community Farm

So Miles just spent four days with his class at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo – camping out in 30-degree weather (at night), milking cows at the break of dawn, shoveling poop and plowing the earth and sorting vegetables. No electronics, no toys, no media – just kids experiencing life at its messy, organic best. During the breaks, they swam in the river and put on talent shows for each other. The kids worked hard but had a great time – all returned exhausted but recharged.

Corn

The farm gets its name from the fact they try, where possible, not to use powered machinery – everything is powered by animal and human effort. Blood, sweat and tears… and the rewards that come from that. Of course, everyone jokes about how it’s powered by child labor, but that’s not fair – the kids are there not as indentured servants but because their grownups see the work done on the farm as character building and healthy — everyone needs to spend time in and around real live dirt, and everyone needs to have milked a real live cow at least once in their lives.

Miles drives a plow

I often lament that it seems to be so hard to provide kids with anything like the environment I (we) grew up in. The combination of our technology-heavy environment and the fact that kids don’t just “go play outside” anymore means something crucial is being lost. I do my best to get him out into nature as often as possible, but big picture, it’s a drop in the bucket. So grateful he was able to get a real taste of dirt this week.

He took a ton of photos on the trip, and I helped him to select a few of the best and create his first web slideshow – check it out.

Living with Nest

There’s one element of the home over which even the most design-minded homeowner has traditionally had  little control – the ugly beige  thermostat that comes bundled  with most heating/air-conditioning systems. There it is, plunked in the middle of an otherwise beautiful wall – a nondescript blob of plastic with a crummy little LCD display and Shinola for brains. But this is 2012, the age of the iPhone. We can do better!

A month ago, I was invited to become a beta tester for the amazing Nest Learning Thermostat (would love to share the access, but don’t ask – I can’t get you in :). The premise is so simple you have to wonder why no other company has tackled this niche: Make a thermostat that’s as gorgeous and intuitive to use as a smartphone, tie into the sensor revolution, build in WiFi so you can control it remotely, give it the intelligence to learn your schedule so it can optimize your energy consumption, and treat it more like a small computer (with remotely update-able software) than a piece of uninteresting functional hardware .

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Is the electric car really so green?

Fascinating: Is the electric car really so green? Maybe not – there’s a lot more to the story:

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Tesla SUV with wings or not, we should kill the electric car – CSMonitor.com
Environmental groups are cheering: Tesla unveiled its newest fleet of electric vehicles this weekend, and California recently tightened its emissions standards. I was once enthusiastic about electric …

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