April 13-19, 2014 is National Environmental Education Week, and throughout April, students, educators and others around the country are taking part in learning focused on how the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, specifically engineering, can be used to solve some of today’s biggest environmental problems, leading to sustainable solutions for a healthier planet and healthier people.
So, how is engineering helping to solve some of our biggest environmental challenges?
Biomimicry: Whale Fins and Wind Turbines
Many of the environmental problems that engineers are working to solve already have hints to solutions in the natural world. Using the complex sciences of fluid dynamics and biomechanics, researchers discovered that the bumps on the front edge of humpback whale fins (called tubercles) increase lift and reduce drag for maximum efficiency as the whales move through the water. Now, a company called WhalePower is applying this bumpy-edged design to wind turbines and fans to increase efficiency – researchers have found that adding tubercles to wind turbine blades increases efficiency by 20 percent.
Designing Green Buildings: Seattle’s Bullitt Center
One of the significant challenges engineers are constantly working to improve is the sustainable use of resources. Seattle’s Bullitt Center is one of the greenest commercial buildings in the world. The building is powered by 575 solar panels and uses extremely low-flow toilets and composting toilets reduce water waste. Greywater from sinks and showers is cleaned in a constructed wetland, where plants help to remove nutrients and pollutants – the clean water eventually recharges the aquifer below. Rainwater is collected on the roof and used throughout the building. These are just a few of the features that make the Bullitt Center an innovative space to learn about green building technology.
Capturing Carbon: Artificial Trees
Researchers are developing a device called an air extractor that removes carbon dioxide from the air. The device is playfully referred to as an “artificial tree.” Sodium carbonate on the plastic “leaves” pulls carbon dioxide from the air and converts it to baking soda! The artificial “leaves” remove about one ton of carbon dioxide from the air per day. This new technology could be in large-scale use in 10-20 years.
You may not be able to install a wind turbine or an artificial tree on your property, but there are still ways you can put innovative engineering practices to use at home.
Build your own rain barrel. Use these instructions to construct a rain barrel that will capture rain water from your roof – you can use this water for gardening or washing cars and windows. (Be sure to check local regulations before installing a rain barrel, as some communities prohibit them.)
Build a rain garden. Much like the Bullitt Center’s constructed wetland, rain gardens are shallow depressions with water-tolerant plants that capture rain water and filter out pollutants before they reach our rivers, streams and aquifers. These resources will help you create a rain garden that suits your property. There’s even an app to help you get started!
Add efficient appliances to your home. Check out EPA’s WaterSense program to find low-flow toilets, faucets, showerheads and other appliances that use innovative manufacturing to save water (and money) without compromising performance.
Learn more environmental problem solving in the Engineering & Our Planet infographic.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. IEEE Spectrum. “ Biology Inspires Better Wind Power.” September 23, 2013
Biomimicry Institute. “Ask Nature: Flippers Provide Lift, Reduce Drag: Humpback Whale” ; Scientific American.
"Bumpy Whale Fins Outperform Smooth Turbines.” July 8, 2008
Bullitt Center, “Building Features,”
The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, “Artificial Trees as Carbon Capture Alternative to Geoengineering,”
EPA WaterSense Program
Sometimes life’s disappointments teach the greatest lessons of hope, and that’s exactly what happened at our homestead on a particular day in June 2007. It involves what’s probably the oldest living thing on our property, a legendary apple tree we call the “Old Man Tree.”
The fateful day was bright and clear until about 2 p.m., when sinister greenish-black clouds rolled in from the west. We don’t get tornadoes up as far north as Manitoulin Island, Canada, but this wind might as well have been one. Century-old barns came down, roads remained blocked for days because of broken trees, and entire homes were damaged as windows gave way under pressure of the wind, letting driven rain soak everything.
The storm struck in less than a minute, and after getting my kids down into our limestone root cellar, I raced around outside battening down everything that might blow away. Just as I was running for the root cellar myself I noticed a young maple tree bent over double in the wind. Just that very morning I’d removed the support stakes from this 10-year-old tree, figuring that it was now strong enough to stand on its own. I spent the rest of the storm standing next to that tree, holding it up against the wind. It was perhaps the longest 15 minutes of my life. I still remember a robin’s nest blown down next to my feet while I was holding the maple, the young ones never to survive the fall and the rain.
When things finally got quiet, I surveyed the damage and found that the Old Man Tree had suffered a seemingly fatal blow. The wind had split the trunk, and about 80 percent of it was now severed from the ground, with all but one measly branch still attached to the remaining wisp of a trunk. Our outhouse was ruined, shade trees were heavily damaged, my hay elevator had blown down and broken irreparably, and the door had blown off our chicken house. All this was bad enough, but losing the Old Man Tree was like losing family.
One of our old neighbours, a man named Ivan Bailey, was born in 1909 and had lived on the property his whole life, and even Ivan could remember picking apples from the Old Man Tree as a boy. As far as I could tell, it was a Maiden’s Blush variety, and folklore had it that a traveling salesman offered these especially hardy trees to the settlers in our township in the 1880s and '90s. It’s said that the legendary hardiness of the old Manitoulin apple trees came from being grafted onto wild ironwood root stock. I don’t know if this is even horticulturally possible, but I do know that Manitoulin Island isn’t exactly the tropics, yet these ancient apple trees thrive. They hardly have any pest damage even without spray, and they’re vigorous enough that they’ve gone wild and now populate the edges of roads and fields wherever deer drop their seeds.
As valued a member of the homestead as the Old Man Tree was, it was history now. If only I’d pruned it more heavily, perhaps the trunk could have withstood the wind. Or maybe I should have braced the trunk with threaded rods, nuts and washers, as I’d done for other trees. All this went through my mind as I was cutting up the fallen branches, laden as they were with young apples. When all that remained was to nip off the bit of trunk still standing with its one, wispy branch, I stopped for a second. It was, I see now, a pivotal moment.
My urge to be tidy and wipe away all traces of the pain of the Old Man Tree’s loss was strong, and it had control of the trigger finger on the throttle of the saw. But then, hope stepped in. Why kill what remains of this old icon of our homestead? Doesn’t an apple tree that’s borne fruit for more than 100 years deserve one last chance?
I cleaned up the downed branches and broken trunk, then let the Old Man Tree show me what it was made of. And what happened over the next few years is where the lesson of the Old Man Tree comes from.
That one wisp of a trunk with its one wisp of a branch grew and thrived like I’ve never seen any apple tree do before. Where the Old Man Tree always used to give medium-sized apples at best, now all the wisdom and power of a full root system made the fruit surge in size, twice as big as usual. The fruit was less in number, but much better in quality and sweetness. And that great old tree, seemingly destined for nothing more than the burning pile, still preserves its ember of life today, pumping out wonderful old-time apples. We’ve enjoyed countless homestead apple pies from that tree, and all the kids here know exactly how the Old Man Tree stands for much more than just the world’s best organic apples.
The biggest blessing of the Old Man Tree isn’t just fruit, but rather an idea. The thing I’ll always remember about it is this: The old, the ugly, the much-less-than perfect things in this life can, and often do, deliver the things of greatest value. So often in life it’s the stone that the builders reject that becomes the all-important cornerstone. We just need to have eyes to see, and the patience to let wisdom and age and experience have its way.
Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can learn more about Steve’s mortgage-free homestead story at his Real Rural Life blog.
Growing some of one's own food, conserving and generating the home energy supply, being part of a thriving local economy, and other moves toward self-reliance are all important, laudable goals with, as far as I can see, no ill side effects. However, in North America and Europe, there is now a strong trend among progressive thinkers and activists toward dependence on localism as the means of reversing the global ecological crisis and achieving global economic justice. That's just not going to happen.
Recently, on Al Jazeera's opinion page, I attempted to make that case: that as important as it is to improve life locally, such efforts will not work their way up through the world's economy to solve our biggest problems. I argued that retreating into a romanticized vision of the local life means latching onto one of capitalism's symptoms — the eclipsing of local economies and governments by more powerful transnational forces — and treating it as if it's the disease itself.
I cited the 2012 book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change the World by Greg Sharzer, which goes into deep detail on the disconnect between local solutions and global problems. In it, Sharzer writes, “The problem with localism is not its anti-corporate politics, but that these politics don't go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not the cause.”
Efforts to localize have tackled issues such as promotion of hometown businesses, alternative currencies or barter systems, community-based energy generation, greener transportation, and most prominently, local food systems. The more highly visible, and shallower, forms of localism have concentrated on consumption without acknowledging that it's not in the checkout line but in the workplace that the great chasm opens up between families who live paycheck to paycheck and the more affluent, more powerful business owners who today control the fate of communities.
It's not that local owners are exceptionally greedy or heartless. As Sharzer shows, they simply have no choice but to play by the rules of the regional, national, and global market. Even the most well-intentioned local owners know that if they don't squeeze the greatest productivity out of the smallest payroll, there are plenty of other, more efficient businesses ready to take their place.
Even leaders of the localist movement acknowledge that so far it has had only a very limited sociopolitical reach. Australian Ted Trainer, a leading advocate of economic de-growth, observes, “At this stage, most of these [voluntary local movements] are only implementing reforms within consumer-capitalist society.” (His view is supported by research on one such initiative, the Transition Town movement that originated in Britain and has spread worldwide.)
Less radical efforts have had even more limited impact; the more business-friendly localism advocate and Vanderbilt University sociology professor David Hess admits, “The 'buy local' movement is, at least at present, mostly an alliance of small businesspeople and middle-class shoppers. It is not a poor people's movement.”
If movements to date have faltered in their efforts to resolve local problems, it is hard to imagine how they would address crises in the wider world. Some localists are counting on a mega-disaster—most likely, they say, in the form of oil depletion or runaway climate disruption—to deliver a mortal blow to global capitalism, at which point communities that have become more self-sufficient can show the way to the rest of the world, into a grim future.
A more hopeful vision comes from Greg Sharzer and others who urge local movements to stop avoiding political struggle and trying to create idealized communities; instead, they need to “confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces.”
Needless to say, taking that course will be anything but easy. But it's our only way out, and at least it has a lot more appeal than hunkering down and waiting for global catastrophe to hit.
A cold winter and late-season snow storms in some parts of the country could mean that spring allergy season is especially rough this year. Some trees pollinate in the late winter and early spring, but cold temperatures can delay the timing of flowering and pollen release. That means that the pollen from these trees will be released around the same time that other trees and grasses release pollen later in the spring, resulting in a pollen “explosion” of sorts.
Earth Gauge Viewer Tip: So what’s an allergy sufferer to do? Limiting your exposure to pollen can help manage allergy symptoms.
Watch the weather. Weather and environmental conditions can affect the severity of your allergy symptoms. Pollen moves around less when conditions are rainy, cloudy and still, so your allergy symptoms may be better on these days. Pollen travels more readily on hot, dry and windy days, which can increase allergy symptoms. Exposure to outdoor air pollution like ozone can also increase sensitivity to allergens.
Button up. Keep windows at home and in the car closed to keep pollen from drifting into your living space.
Dry clothes indoors. Avoid hanging clothes outside to dry, where they can collect pollen.
Spend time outside after 10:00 a.m. Pollens are usually emitted in the early morning hours, from 5:00 to 10:00 a.m.
Garden carefully. Mowing and raking can stir up pollen and mold.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has more tips for dealing with outdoor allergens.
Image: American Elm pollen, courtesy of USDA.
Dennis, B. and Cha, A. E. “Allergy Alert: Tidal wave of pent-up pollen could be headed our way,” Washington Post, April 2, 2014.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). “Outdoor Allergens: Tips to Remember.”
McMillan, M. “Spring Allergy Outlook: Can Cold Weather Make Pollen Worse?” WebMD
Weir C, et al “Ambient air pollution and allergic sensitization: results from the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) 2005-2006? AAAAI 2012; Abstract 72)
Nested amongst the skyscrapers and tucked between white-powdery beaches and either the buzz of South Beach or nature preserves in Hollywood are some eco-minded hotels and restaurants offering patrons a taste of local and sustainable cuisine.
This is the final blog in a series that covers some of the highlights of my family’s ecotravel adventures in and around Miami or Fort Lauderdale. My first two posts covered some of the nature-based activities possible both in the ocean and on land.
If being in the middle of the historic Art Deco district of Miami Beach, a mere minutes’ walk from the sweeping beaches and the internationally-inspired cornucopia of restaurants, then the eco-chic Z Ocean Hotel has a luxurious guest room for you. With its soothing blue lights and modernist design, plus balconies overlooking either the pool, hopping Ocean Drive or popular Espanola Way, it’s hard to go wrong here.
Their pool features several underwater windows that send flickers of sunlight down to the lower floor and, from the lower floor looking up, a fascinating view of the swimmers above. The boutique hotel’s friendly staff are quick to point out places of interest. When prompted, they’ll confirm that the garbage is sorted and recycled off site -- a true feat (if you’re a regular to Florida, you’ll how hard it can be to recycle a can or bottle in this state). Use of LEDs and florescent lighting and a host of energy efficiency and water conservation practices take place throughout the property. I admit I wished it sported a PV array or solar thermal system on the roof, too – just to drive the point home.
Z Ocean’s spacious rooms, rare in South Beach, are a value for their price. Plus it’s easy to lose the car and walk and bike everywhere. By avoiding a car, you’ll save the $35 you’d have to spend on valet. No bikes, no problem. There are over 1,000 DecoBikes available for rent at 85 locations around town; pay with credit card, unlock a bike and pedal away.
Further up the coast, wedged in a side street of Hollywood’s North Beach is The Desoto Inn, a small eco-minded gem that offers tidy little one bedroom, studio and efficiency units that allow you to prepare your own meals, perhaps with organic ingredients from herbs you can harvest in the lush subtropical gardens right on site, or from Brother’s Farmers Market, also in Hollywood.
Tucked in a short street between the beach and the Intercoastal Waterway with a nature preserve on three sides, this restored 1950s hotel provides complimentary bikes, making a rental car a waste, both of money and fuel. Their tiki huts surrounded by gardens overflowing with native plants provide the perfect refuge after a bike ride, ocean swim or baking in the sun.
Farm- and Ocean-to-Table Feasts
Overlooking a tropical garden and small bamboo forest, Essensia Restaurant and Lounge located in the award-winning Palms Hotel and Spa in Miami fulfills its sustainability promise of delivering delicious and creative farm-to-table cuisine, “inspired by nature.”
Essensia’s Signature Chef Julie Frans tends and harvests fresh herbs, salad greens and other vegetables from her restaurant’s small organic garden on site to be used in her spectacularly creative and tasty appetizers, salads, soups, entrees and, even, their cocktails. For the rest of the produce, Chef Frans sources it from local farmers; poultry, meats and seafood come from sustainable or environmentally-certified suppliers.
As a part of the eco-experience at The Palms Hotel and Spa, weekly edible garden tours led by Chef Frans introduce guests to some of the ingredients that will find their way onto the plate during dinner that evening. Accredited by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Lodging Program, the hotel features numerous energy and water conservation initiatives as well as Aveda products used for the Spa and in-room toiletries.
To get a taste of South Beach, we savored Argentinean empanadas and Spanish croissants filled with dulce de leche while we walked and talked, weaving through the Art Deco District on Miami Culinary Tours’ guided South Beach Tour. We sat down for samples of Cuban vaca frita at Polo Norte Restaurant and Floribbean ceviche at the Columbian fusion restaurant, Bolivar. What a way to get a taste of place.
Our hands down favorite, though, was the hole-in-the-wall Blocks Pizza Deli where business partners Richard Collins and Eugenio Vittoni serve up their pizza by the slice (always fresh baked, never re-heated), calzones and vegetarian Blocks Pockets prepared with locally-sourced, seasonal, organic ingredients. Their 300-year-old recipe using their “mother dough” makes you wonder why you’d ever settle for another slice of pizza any other way. Don’t forget to leave without adding a splash of their infused extra-virgin olive oils to your slice or pocket.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
Please join MOTHER EARTH NEWS in welcoming food sovereignty and anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva to Kansas City, Mo., where she will share her presentation “Cultivating Diversity, Freedom and Hope” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 17th. Hosted by Cultivate Kansas City and the University of Missouri Kansas City, Shiva’s lecture at the Unity Temple on the Plaza will discuss the imbalance of monoculture, the necessity of social and natural diversity, and the future of seed freedom. Tickets are available at the Eventbrite ticket outlet for $15, student tickets are $5.
Vandana Shiva is a globally recognized defender of civil liberties and environmental resources. Her advocacy of locally owned and self-sufficient food distribution networks supports the progressive food systems that have been developing in the Kansas City area. The author of almost 30 books, Shiva is not only a writer for food freedom, she also established the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, the Navdanya organic seed network, and the worldwide Seed Freedom movement. Since the mid-70s, Shiva has campaigned for the rights of indigenous communities, for the equality of women, and for the sanctity of natural, organic agriculture. Look for an interview with Vandana Shiva in the forthcoming June/July 2014 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
During Shiva’s visit throughout April 17th and 18th, Cultivate KC has organized several free Kansas City events, where farmers and growers can connect, including the first gathering of the Missouri Young Farmers Coalition on Thursday night, and a Seed Savers Kansas City workshop on Friday. Go to this calendar to learn about all the Kansas City events. There is also a dinner on Friday, April 18th with Shiva at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park; tickets are $50, available at Eventbrite. If you have questions about any of these events, or want to add an event of your own, please contact Cultivate KC’s Communications and Outreach Director Ami Freeberg, at 913-944-5639 or email@example.com.
Photo by Kartikey Shiva
Thaddeus Christian is an editor with MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. Right at the moment he is up to his knees in chickens, babies, and news articles. Find him on Google+.
Although spring is here, it’s still pretty cold out there in many parts of the country. In a recent Bird Files segment on my public radio program, The Allegheny Front, Margaret Brittingham, an professor of Wildlife Resources with Penn State University, writes that Blacked-capped chickadees work extra hard to stay warm. At less than half an ounce, they’re one of the smallest birds to survive in northern areas during the winter.
These tiny birds are frequent visitors to backyard feeders. They dine on seeds, berries and occasionally fat from animal carcasses. It’s no wonder - it takes a lot of body fat to keep warm. Dr. Brittingham says that on cold nights, chickadees drop their body temperature to conserve on fuel.
“This is like you turning down the thermostat in your house at night...they lose about 10 percent of their body weight each night . If you were on the “chickadee diet," you’d go to bed weighing 130 pounds and wake up at a slim 117,” Brittingham writes.
She explains that in the morning, chickadees get back to feeding. By the end of the day, they are bulging with fat to help them make it through another night.
Attracting Chickadees to Your Backyard Bird Feeder
Chickadees are communicators. According to Brittingham, the number of “dees” in the chick-a-dee-dee call is an indication of danger.
“A predator that is not much of a threat might get a chick-a-dee-dee while a call of chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, would be a major threat. In the spring, the “Hey sweetie” song of the male chickadee establishes his territory and invites a female to share it with him,” Brittingham writes.
Her advice: “If you want to invite chickadees into your yard, trees, shrubs, and fallen logs, will provide food and nest sites. Evergreens provide winter cover.”
Photo by Minette Layne