Emerging Ideas Roundup

Signs of the End Times

What kind of sign would scare people away from a biohazard-in
the year 12006, when people and machines are likely to be
communicating in (or with) a different tongue? That’s the conundrum
facing the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a New Mexico salt
mine earmarked to house nuclear weapons waste that must be
safeguarded for 10,000 years. According to New Scientist
(Sept. 9, 2006), it’s been determined that facial expressions are
both universally understood and capable of withstanding time. One
of the ideas ‘reverse archaeologists’ at WIPP came up with: a face
modeled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

E-Waste Eradication

With Americans ditching more than 100 million computers,
monitors, and TVs each year, e-waste is now the fastest-growing
garbage pile in the industrialized world. The United States has
been slow to tackle the issue, though, leaving it to China-where 90
percent of those old high-tech gadgets end up-and the European
Union to create tighter restrictions on the toxic substances used
in electronics. According to OnEarth (Fall 2006), these evolving
standards include state-sponsored product testing; more prominent
labeling; and full disclosure regarding elements, like lead and
mercury, that are used, as well as their potential dangers.

Sewage Dump

Every day, the city of Victoria, British Columbia, dumps more
than 34 million gallons of raw sewage into the ecologically fragile
Strait of Juan de Fuca. Environmental groups have unsuccessfully
tried lobbying, campaigning, and suing, but politicians have
delayed any meaningful action.

Enter Mr. Floatie. A brainchild of the group People Opposed to
Outfall Pollution, this walking, talking, seven-foot turd was
designed to publicly embarrass even the most jaded elected
official. And he may just have succeeded: Last summer, the BC
Ministry of the Environment ordered the city to clean up its act
and stop dumping raw sewage by June 2007.

By Mitchell Anderson, reprinted from Seed (Nov. 2006);

A Fair Share of Fair Trade

Caf? Femenino protects female coffee farmers’ profits and

By Thea Lim, from Shameless

Caffeine addicts have embraced the fair trade coffee market as a
way to minimize consumer guilt while maximizing coffee intake. But
while fair trade certification boards ensure that the money you
spend on your fair trade latte gets to the farmers’ cooperatives
that produced the beans, they can’t follow the money home to see
how it’s distributed among families. In communities where men
control the economy, this can mean that revenue from socially
conscious coffee doesn’t reach women and children.

A group of women in the northern Peruvian Andes have come up
with a surprisingly simple but bold solution. Since 2004 they’ve
been selling their harvests through a women-only collective called
Caf? Femenino. More than 750 women from 50 communities are involved
in the project. They control the cash and management of the fields
and have been using their profits in ways different from how men
might spend them. Many women have used earnings to send their kids
to school and improve the condition of their homes. This has
created profound change in an environment where, according to the
collective’s export manager, Isabel Uriarte Latorre, featured in
the short documentary Caf? Femenino, Worth Celebrating (Praxis
Productions, 2006), ‘women are not supposed to give their opinions
with the family. They are like furniture.’

Latorre says that the goal of Caf? Femenino isn’t just to sell
coffee. Women living in isolated rural areas are hit hard by global
poverty. They have little access to education and face a 70 percent
chance of being sexually assaulted. Caf? Femenino has created an
empowering network for these women and reached out to others by
supporting women’s initiatives elsewhere in the world. That’s made
the collective not just a source of high-quality coffee, but also a
source of inspiration.

Reprinted from Shameless (Summer 2006), a magazine
‘for girls who get it,’ blogging at
www.shamelessmag.com. To learn more about Caf?
Femenino, visit www.cafefemeninofoundation.org.

Parenting at Protests

Baby Bloc, a
Vancouver-based group, not only encourages parents to take their
kids along when they’re protesting the Man-they also want to make
it easier for them. Broken Pencil (Issue 32) lauds
the idea of raising socially aware children but asks a critical
question: Is it right for parents to potentially endanger their
children? After all, it only takes a moment for a peace march to
turn into a tear-gas-infused melee. Baby Bloc cofounder Bruce
Triggs tells Utne Reader that that’s exactly the point,
which is why he’s hoping to create safe areas at protest sites
where the wee ones can munch on snacks and watch a puppet show
while mom and dad get their chant on. It’s not about turning babies
into ‘protest props,’ Triggs says, but about allowing politically
active parents to stay active.

Culturally Embedded Abuse

In Cameroon, some mothers heat wooden pestles or coconut shells
over a fire, then use them to pound and iron the budding breasts of
their pubescent daughters. BBC News (June 23,
2006) reports that a quarter of girls in the country undergo the
practice of ‘breast ironing,’ which mothers believe protects their
daughters from unwanted sexual advances-which in turn could lead to
early marriage and prevent them from completing school. Not only is
the pain excruciating, physicians say the practice damages the
girls’ still-developing bodies. Experts suggest that parents simply
talk plainly with their daughters about sex. The Association of
Aunties, a group of teenage girls, has created a television
campaign to oppose the practice.

[word watch]

noun: The co-opting of street art for corporate advertising.

A recent case, Punk Planet (March/April 2006)
reports, was Sony’s street art ad campaign for the PlayStation
Portable, which splashed neighborhood walls with cartoon-style
paintings of doe-eyed youths playing with the gadgets. Some
graffiti artists, set on protesting corporate creep and
gentrification, attacked the big business by renaming the company
‘Fony’ or covering the images in red paint. Ironically, Sony
wouldn’t stand for vandalism of its vandalism and speedily sent out
clean-up crews to erase the defacements.

I Wanna Talk Like You

It has long been anticipated that America’s regional dialects
would simply die off, a side effect of the ubiquity of the mass
media. Smithsonian (Oct. 2006) reports that
despite our increasingly cookie-cutter society, however, our
language idiosyncrasies are here to stay. In fact, the Atlas of
North American English, which plots speech patterns in the
continental United States and Canada, found that dialects are more
pronounced than ever. It seems that we don’t really model our
speech on radio and television-we just want to sound like our

Power Walking

Consider for a moment that every footstep generates six to eight
watts of energy-energy that simply scatters into the ether.

Researchers are trying to find a way to capture that ambient
force and turn it into a workable power source. Originally, it was
a military idea aimed at lightening soldiers’ gear, reports
OnEarth (Fall 2006). To eliminate the need to
carry a rechargeable battery for communication devices, researchers
created a type of generator that can be embedded in soldiers’ boots
and translate kinetic energy into electrical current.

Now, reports Fast Company (Sept. 2006), the
British firm Facility Architects is working to develop
vibration-harvesting sensors that could be set into train stations,
bridges, factories, and other buildings that rumble with energy
from pedestrians, cars, or machinery. The sensors, which could save
$200 billion a year in the United States alone, will capture the
buzz and convert it into electricity that could be stored in a
battery. The company plans to start testing prototypes in early

A variety of scientists are exploring similar ideas, from cell
phone-charging shoes to wearable computers. ‘The idea of harvesting
otherwise wasted energy isn’t new,’ reports the
Guardian (Sept. 28, 2006), ‘but it’s beginning to
gain traction.’

Solar Sandstorm

Polysilicon, a key ingredient in the solar cells that convert
photons into electricity, is made from sand, one of the world’s
most common materials. Due to a lack of capacity to refine sand
into polysilicon, however, there’s not enough of the material to
meet the growing demand for solar power, reports Plenty (Oct./Nov.
2006). While some environmentalists might see a ray of hope in this
lack of supply-more people actually want alternative energy-it will
be a while before the solar industry sees sunny days again. Though
polysilicon producers are bolstering their infrastructure, the
impact won’t be felt until at least 2008.

The Real Cost of Crime

It’s no great surprise that the neighborhoods that produce the
largest number of prisoners are also the poorest-and the most in
need of social services. Yet people rarely connect the data points.
To hammer home the correlation, researchers are using Geographic
Information System (GIS) technology to map the amount of money the
penal system is spending on individual prisoners, based on their
home addresses. The results, reports Clamor
(Spring 2006), are stunning: In some cases, there are so many
prisoners from a given area that the cost per city block is more
than a million dollars. With the maps already available in 10
states, the visual impact may push state and local governments to
spend less on prisons and more on education, housing, health care,
and jobs.

Reach Out and Rip Someone Off

More than half of mothers in state prisons have never been
visited by their children, in part because prisoners are often
incarcerated far from home-which is why low-cost telephone service
is crucial for inmates who want to sustain relationships with their
families. But in New York state, according to Dollars &
(May/June 2006), those who accept charges on calls
made from prisons pay six times the national average. And the state
directly benefits from the overage, collecting 57.5 percent of the
booty-a whopping $175 million since 1996. The Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR) has sued New York’s Department of
Correctional Services, arguing that the kickback is an illegal
unlegislated tax and an unconstitutional impediment to freedom of
speech and association. CCR has also joined with other groups to
form the New
York Campaign for Telephone Justice
, which is mobilizing family
members, raising public awareness, and lobbying to get fairer phone
service for the state’s prisoners.

The Rainbow Beat

In 1998 only two hate crimes were reported in Washington, D.C.
In 2006 it was closer to a hundred-an increase that D.C.
Metropolitan Police Sergeant Brett Parson sees as the good
news. It’s not that the streets have become more dangerous, he
stresses, but that victims-especially GLBT victims-are more apt to
call the cops. Parson is the commanding officer of the 16-member
Gay and Lesbian Liaison
, which was launched in 2000 to build trust with the GLBT
community. What makes the unit unique, he says, is that it’s not
just a touchy-feely attempt at diversity training and outreach. The
squad investigates crimes involving gays and lesbians-with an 85
percent closure rate in homicide cases involving the gay community.
‘We’re getting people to report victimization who otherwise would
not,’ Parson says. The success is garnering attention: From Atlanta
to Australia, the D.C. unit is serving as a model for similar

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