Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
1/6/2012 3:51:30 PM
Lots of people think that farming has gotten too industrialized. But there are others who believe it’s not nearly industrialized enough—such as the Iowa inventor who envisions armies of robots growing our food in the future.
Discovery News reports on David Dourhout’s new Prospero, a six-legged farm robot that works in teams to plant and fertilize crops. Scuttling across the land like oversized, high-tech crabs, the group of intercommunicating robots resemble an alien invasion more than a farm crew. Watch them at work in this video:
Dourhout, who based his Prospero design in part on the swarming behaviors of insects, birds and fish, believes that robotic farming will help ramp up food production for a heavily populated planet. He “hopes the next step will be to create more advanced robots that can weed, fertilize and harvest the crop,” writes Eric Niller at Discovery News.
Count me among those who are skeptical that large-scale robotic farming is the answer to our pressing food-supply needs. While I understand that not every tomato and strawberry can be lovingly hand-picked by an organic farmer in a bucolic setting, it seems equally a stretch to think that complete robotic automation is the future of farming.
The popular science press seems perpetually entranced by the prospect of a heavily roboticized future, to the point where my own response to such stories has become automated. When asked “Should robots grow our food?” I have the same answer as I do to the question recently posed on the cover of Discover: “Should robots run airport security?”
Source: Discovery News, Discover
11/23/2011 11:45:30 AM
The decay of present-day Detroit has been well chronicled, and the new documentary film Urban Roots in its first minutes treads familiar ground as it unspools a now-familiar montage of crumbling warehouses and gutted bungalows in the ailing Motor City. But before you can hurl charges of “ruin porn,” the film shifts to its real focus: The gardeners who are turning the vacant lots of Detroit into fields of abundance. Let others focus on what’s dead and dying; this movie is about what’s growing here.
“Resilient” only begins to describe the determined, resourceful Detroiters who have seen jobs and neighbors disappear as the city depopulates. Instead of fleeing, they’ve stayed and begun growing vegetables. Lots of them. You may have heard or read about Detroit’s urban farmers, but Urban Roots really brings the movement alive by getting right down in the furrows with them.
The film, whose production team includes the producer of the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted green doc The 11th Hour, introduces us to the guys at Brother Nature Produce, who have carved out a small farm that supplies farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation. It shows us the Field of Dreams Mobile Market, which delivers fresh, local produce to sick or elderly people. A rap artist turned pepper picker finds “something positive” in his community garden work, and proud kids mug for the camera not with bling but with vegetables.
Yeah, Urban Roots is a feel-good movie, but in the best kind of way: The positive vibe is, to use the appropriate metaphors, organic instead of artificial, homegrown instead of Hollywood.
The only discordant note for me—and it’s a small one—is a futuristic illustrated montage at the film’s end showing skyscraping “vertical farms” and some ridiculous high-tech floating monstrosity called a “boat farm.” I understand the filmmakers are trying to think big here, but the basic economics of vertical farming are highly questionable at best, and anyway, this sort of large-infrastructure techno-fix is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself spirit exemplified by the citizen-farmers we’ve just met. They didn’t sit around hoping for some eco-designer to build them a 10-story steel-and-glass farm. They just went to the vacant lot next door and started digging. As one of the farmers says, “It’s an act of self-determination.”
Source: Urban Roots
Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.
11/17/2011 4:52:27 PM
It’s time to confront our long-held, deeply ingrained belief that water should be forever free, Cynthia Barnett contends in her new book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, which recently came out on Beacon Press.
“The tradition of free water has been fundamental since ancient times—as absolute as free air, or the right to take in mountain vistas,” she writes. But this notion has finally run up against finite supplies and a hard reality: free water encourages waste, in part because, well, it’s free. Agriculture, businesses, governments, and individuals alike have little incentive to cut down on their use. Barnett suggests that “it’s time to at least listen to what the economists have to say,” but don’t expect politicians to lead the charge:
Politicians steer clear of economists … because their answer to water woes is usually “Raise prices,” which voters don’t want to hear. … There is another group of people who don’t like what economists have to say. The idea of putting a price on water is anathema to many environmentalists and human rights activists who feel strongly that water should be free.
Barnett suggests that international water advocates who bring water access to the poor are doing important work, but that U.S. water activists could stand to branch out in their targets in helping to create a new “water ethic”:
American water activists, for the past several years, have locked their sights on bottled water. They decry bottlemania for commercializing our freshwater resources at the rate of some 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. But federal and state governments have handed public water to private interests since the Swamp Land Act of 1850. Challenging America’s water giveaways in twelve-ounce servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone. … A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers and their unique water trade. Thermoelectric power pulls in 201 billion gallons of water a day. Agricultural irrigation diverts 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion; mining, 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for public supply—44 billion gallons a day. Free and cheap water in America has cost our freshwater ecosystems—and us—too much.
Look for a review of Blue Revolution in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 Utne Reader.
Source: Blue Revolution
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11/4/2011 3:48:25 PM
Two California vintners want to cut down 2,000 acres of redwood trees and replace them with vineyards in the largest woodland-to-vineyard conversion in California’s history. Do I need to explain what conservationists think of this?
Under the proposal, reported by the Los Angeles Times and later tipped by High Country News, two Sonoma County pinot noir growers, Premier Pacific Vineyards and Artesa Vineyards, want to expand their growing operations by slicing into forestlands of Douglas firs and the state’s iconic redwoods. Premier also wants to develop 60 high-end estates—for members of the 1 percent, I assume—on adjacent lands that it already owns on the ironically named Preservation Ranch.
“In exchange,” reports the Times, “the developers promise to restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.”
But environmental advocates aren’t appeased by these offers:
“I don’t see a need for more deforestation to have a great wine economy, because there is a lot of cleared land already available,” said Adina Merelender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist.
“The big issue for us,” added Jay Holcomb of the Sierra Club, “is that redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”
A Sierra Club website that has detailed information about Preservation Ranch suggests that its moniker was a greenwash from the get-go:
The project was named “Preservation Ranch” by its proponents to disguise its essential nature as a speculative for-profit venture which targets the steep, undeveloped redwood and oak woodlands of coastal Sonoma County.
A county official acknowledges that the proposal is “controversial from beginning to end,” so approval is by no means certain. One thing is sure, though: If the deal goes down, the resulting pinot noir, regardless of its flavor profile, will most certainly have a bitter, acrid finish.
UPDATE 11/9/2012: Premier Pacific Vineyards has been terminated as the manager of the vineyard investment portfolio held by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, according to North Bay Business Journal and Wine Industry Insight. It’s unclear how this affects the company’s proposed vineyard expansion in Sonoma County.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, High Country News, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter
Tim Pearce, Los Gatos
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11/2/2011 2:49:23 PM
Mongolia has an outsized reputation for vast emptiness, but in fact there are plenty of creatures living there, including 2.7 million people and the 35 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels that they keep. All those pasturing animals leave a large ecological hoofprint, reports Ronnie Vernooy in Solutions Journal, and climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that sustain the country’s many nomadic herders.
A new program, though, is pointing the way toward a more sustainable future, using the concept of the commons as a way to share resources—in this case, those seemingly endless pasturelands. Writes Vernooy:
The government has begun to respond to the threat to herders and their way of life. In a number of regions across the country, herders, in collaboration with local governments and researchers, and supported by a number of new policy measures and laws, are practicing comanagement, a form of adaptive management that builds community resilience.
The concept has been popularized by the academic and activist H. Ykhanbai. … Ykhanbai was uniquely suited to the task: raised in a herder family in the far-away Altai Mountains, he attended the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied Garrett Hardin on the “tragedy of the commons” and Elinor Ostrom on collective action. Ykhanbai understood that pastures in Mongolia are a common pool resource shared by many users, while private ownership of livestock allows herders to become real managers of their own businesses. Sustainable management of herds therefore depends on the carrying capacity of pastures and on the interactions between neighboring herders who rely on the same resources.
The Mongolians herders’ tactics include reducing herd size to prevent pasture degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing; moving camps at different times to adapt to weather shifts; diversifying their income; and growing their own potatoes and vegetables. Comanagement pilot projects have been launched in several areas of the country with promising results, and boosters hope the practices may be adapted to neighboring Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstanand Kazakhstan. And, Vernooy suggests, “China could learn a lesson or two.”
Source: Solutions Journal
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10/14/2011 11:14:34 AM
Bisphenol A and two other chemicals have been linked to infertility in several recent studies, reports Environmental Health News, adding new environmental concerns to couples trying to conceive.
Researchers looked at the chemicals’ effect on the success of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in which an egg is removed from a woman’s uterus, grown to an embryo in a petri dish, then implanted back into the uterus.
In one study, Lindsey Konkel reports, women with higher concentrations of bisphenol A, or BPA, had lower peak levels of estradiol, a form of estrogen that helps eggs develop. In another, researchers found a link between blood concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the rate at which embryos attached to the uterine wall. Finally, in a third study, women with the highest hexachlorobenzene (HCB) levels in their blood were more likely to experience a failed embryo implantation than those with the lowest levels.
The interesting, and rather alarming, thing here is that two of the chemicals have been banned in the United States for years. HCB, a pesticide, has been banned here since1984, though it is still used in some other countries and may be created as an impurity in the making of other pesticides and chemicals. PCBs, a class of industrial fluids used mostly in electrical equipment, have been banned since 1979, but their persistence in the environment means they still show up in the blood of more than 95 percent of Americans older than 12.
Environmental Health News points out that “causes of infertility are numerous, ranging from hormonal imbalances, to defects of the uterus, to misshapen sperm, low sperm count or low sperm motility in men.” But these new findings are worth considering given what we’ve learned in recent years:
Some scientists now theorize that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment also can reduce fertility. Endocrine disruptors are a class of more than 1,200 chemicals that can mimic or block hormones, including estrogen, the primary female sex hormone involved in pregnancy.
“These chemicals may affect the way hormones regulate many aspects of our bodies, potentially even the ability to get pregnant,” said Laura Vandenberg, a reproductive scientist at Tufts University.
It’s unclear yet whether these findings are unique to the IVF community, or if we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of a problem that extends beyond this population,” said Tracey Woodruff, a reproductive health scientist in the division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center who was not involved in the studies.
There’s not much any of us can do to limit exposure to PCBs or HCB; they’re basically everywhere. But it’s clear that avoiding BPA as much as possible is still good policy for any woman who may one day bear children—and, in my view, for those of us who will never bear children as well. If it’s toxic enough to torpedo a pregnancy, I certainly don’t want it in my blood, either. See the Environmental Working Group’s tips on the best ways to avoid BPA in your life.
Sources: Environmental Health News, Environmental Working Group
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9/19/2011 4:10:38 PM
We’ve learned, time and time again, that damming rivers causes all sorts of problems for both nature and society—and yet we keep building dams all over the world. World Rivers Review, the quarterly magazine of the advocacy group International Rivers, reports on the state of the world’s free-flowing rivers—those that remain, that is:
Of the world’s 177 largest rivers, only one-third are free flowing, and just 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers retain a direct connection to the sea. Damming has led to species extinctions, loss of prime farmland and forests, social upheaval, loss of clean water supplies, dessicated wetlands, destroyed fisheries and more. …
Unfortunately, the nations building the most dams—India, China, and Brazil—do not have legislation to protect the free-flowing status of their rivers, and are not using the laws they do have to protect important rivers.
Writer Parineeta Dandekar singles out for praise Canada’s Heritage Rivers System, Australia’s Wild Rivers Act, Sweden’s National Rivers program, and the United States’ Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, suggesting that river advocates in other nations emulate these examples to keep their remaining rivers undammed and undeveloped:
Free-flowing rivers have become so rare that they would be classified as an endangered species if they were considered living things rather than merely support systems for all living things.
Here in the United States, we’ve learned a few lessons the hard way—our favorite method, it seems—and have been dismantling some particularly destructive dams in recent years. In fact, the largest dam removal in U.S. history has begun on the Elwha River in Washington state. High Country News reports on the Elwha restoration in its brand-new issue, and the Los Angeles Times offers a cool interactive visualization of the deliberately slow process of taking down the Glines Canyon dam.
Sources: World Rivers Review, High Country News
(story available only to subscribers),Los Angeles Times
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