Putting The Whole Earth Catalog Where It Belongs

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Stewart Brand published the final issue of the “Whole Earth Catalog” in 1971. Upon the title’s fiftieth anniversary, he reports feeling little nostalgia for the project. Photograph by Richard Drew / AP

The intersection of mammoth and passenger pigeon had a quirky ring the first time I read about it. Stewart Brand, mentioned plenty previously in our pages, is a kind of genius of quirk, and deserves more attention. Not to pin present problems on him, but to understand the legacy of his masterpiece. I count myself an admirer. But an admirer with deep concern, not unlike what I feel about this other genius. Anna Wiener’s Letter from Silicon Valley, titled The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” provides a perspective on Brand and his Catalog that captures my own concerns about the spawn of his quirk:

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Stewart Brand, in 2013. Larry Busacca

In the fall of 1968, the Portola Institute, an education nonprofit in Menlo Park, California, published the first edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog”: a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams, and educational ephemera intended for communards and other participants in the back-to-the-land movement. The catalogue’s founder, Stewart Brand––a photographer, writer, former army lieutenant, impresario, and consummate networker––had spent part of the summer driving a pickup truck to intentional communities in Colorado and New Mexico and selling camping equipment, books, tools, and supplies to the residents. Brand returned to the Portola Institute (a gathering place and incubator of sorts for computer researchers, academics, career engineers, hobbyists, and members of the counterculture), hired a teen-age artist to handle layout, and began production on the catalogue’s first edition.

At the height of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the “Whole Earth Catalog” offered a vision for a new social order—one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like “Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia,” and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator. “We are as gods and might as well get used to it” read the first catalogue’s statement of purpose. “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Continue reading

The Climate Museum’s Climate Signals

 

My only wish is to have been able to share this earlier, during the exhibition’s run. But better late than never.

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The “Ask a Scientist” event gives curious passerby the chance to pose their climate-related questions to scientists stationed around New York City. Photograph by Justin Brice Guariglia

Thanks to Carolyn Kormann for another fresh dose of creative rational thinking, with her short piece Ask a Scientist: How to Deal with a Climate-Change Skeptic:

Dan Barber On Future Food

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‘Restaurants can become these cathedrals of ideas.’ … Dan Barber chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and upstate New York. Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

Thanks to Emma Brockes for this article, another in this important Guardian series:

Dan Barber: ’20 years from now you’ll be eating fast food crickets’

In the latest from our series on biodiversity, the Blue Hill chef says we’ve got sustainable agriculture wrong. It’s not a question of sacrifice, but deliciousness

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Barber holds a staff meeting. Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

How does it taste?” says Dan Barber, regarding me expectantly in the garden of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his restaurant in the Hudson Valley just north of New York. I am gnawing the crust of a large piece of bread that has been grown from Barber Wheat, a hybrid seed developed by Barber and his partners to be nutrient dense, high in yield and – a radical thought in seed breeding, apparently – full of flavour. (Whereas clapped out old seeds might yield 30 bushels an acre, Barber Wheat will stretch to 95). The bread is simultaneously light, and dense, and intricate in flavour in such a way that I can’t think of a single word to do it justice. Barber, who at 49 has the manic energy of someone for whom no plate of food will ever live up to the ideal in his head, looks at me gloomily. “That’s the whole problem with food writing,” he says.

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‘At a restaurant you’re like a conductor in an orchestra.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

There are bigger problems in the food world. With the possible exception of “financial regulation”, there can be few more deadly phrases to the casual reader than “sustainable agriculture”, a heavy-weather issue most of us recognise as increasingly important but nonetheless killingly dull. This is where Barber, who set up his restaurant in 2004, is hugely persuasive, a charismatic leader who, if you talk to him for an hour while walking around the kitchen and bucolic surroundings of Stone Barns, will have you genuinely excited about crop rotation, and soil conditions, and the fact that the food industry is a dying behemoth reliant on low-yield, agronomically risky seeds that produce ever more tasteless and nutrition-less food.

“There’s never been a time where there’s been such a wholesale decline in frozen processed food,” he says. “Ever. The only units of those companies that are actually increasing market share are prepared vegetables that are not processed.” Which isn’t to say we are all rushing into the open arms of the nearest farmer’s market, although it is Barber’s mission, through his restaurants, to change this. Continue reading

Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower At 30

UrbFarm.jpgI have been linking to stories about urban farming more frequently, and it has been an interest since Milo first posted this during our second year living in India. A resource I have for staying attuned is the Urban Farm podcast. The most recent episode is about one of the pioneers of organic farming, and depending on your interests may be worth a listen. The images in the video above will help you decide whether listening to the podcast is a good investment of time. Click the image of the book, which he talks about in this episode, to go to the publisher’s description and click the banner immediately below to go to the farm’s website:

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OrgGrow

Eliot has over fifty years’ experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. He is the author of The New Organic GrowerFour-Season Harvest,The Winter Harvest Handbook and an instructional workshop DVD called Year-Round Vegetable Production with Eliot Coleman – all published through our friends at Chelsea Green.

Eliot and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, operate a commercial year-round market garden and run horticultural research projects at their farm called Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.

In This Podcast:

In 1988, Eliot Coleman literally wrote the book on being an organic grower and has been an invaluable resource for organic gardeners and farmers for three decades. He only started growing food because it sounded like an adventure; and he learned how through books and making friends with farmers around the world. We learn who inspired and taught him, how he uses livestock on his farm, how he virtually moved his farm 500 miles to the south for the winter, and more. Continue reading

2018, The Year Food Waste Was Finally Taken Seriously

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Americans throw away 133 billion pounds of food annually. TAZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This is the time of year, in the days prior to the USA Thanksgiving holiday, when I tend to recall the first time food waste, one of the oddest of plagues, came to my attention. Thank you Meg. And thanks to Yale e360 for reporting this heartening news:

In the first 10 months of 2018, investors poured $125 million into U.S. companies whose mission is to prevent food from going to waste, according to a new report.

ReFED, a non-profit dedicated to drastically cutting the amount of food that becomes spoiled or is wasted in the U.S., said that the investments spanned a wide variety of companies focusing on new technologies, software, and business-to-business solutions. They include Apeel Sciences, which received $70 million in private financing to produce a natural second skin to extend the life of produce; Food Maven and Full Harvest, each of which received $8.5 million to help businesses sell excess or less visually appealing produce; Spoiler Alert, which helps businesses better manage unsold food inventory; and ReGrained, which makes flour out of spent distillers grains. Continue reading

Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading

Franzen, Watching Out For Birds

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Freedom … Jonathan Franzen (left), birdwatching with Guardian writer Oliver Milman (right) at Natural Bridges Farm, Santa Cruz, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Thanks to Oliver Milman writing for the Guardian from Santa Cruz, California with someone whose concerns about the intersection of books and technology, combined with his interest in birds and the art of watching, have led to us featuring him more frequently in these pages than most other people:

Jonathan Franzen: ‘Climate change isn’t the only danger to birds’

‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers

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Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.

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 Author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen, at Natural Bridges Farm where he goes to birdwatch in Santa Cruz, California, September 30th, 2018. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

“I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

“I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’” Continue reading

When Alarmism Is Required

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An illegal logging in the Alto Turiacu indigenous territory in Brazil’s Maranhão State in 2015. FÁBIO NASCIMENTO / GREENPEACE

Trust, a kind of social glue, keeps us from having to think nonstop about worst case scenarios. We trust that those with authority, whether intellectual or political, will use it responsibly. Thinking about this recently, I have been adjusting where I have least and greatest trust that responsible environmental actions are taken. Today I have made an adjustment on the former. The USA’s political leadership has been at the forefront of my thought when it comes to least responsible, least trustworthy actions. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil, studies the consequences of deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, so his word carries scientific weight for me. He has put in perspective why I should turn my attention to Brazil:

Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon

Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian nationalist sometimes called the “tropical Trump,” has staked out an environmental agenda that would open the Amazon to widespread development, putting at risk a region that plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate.

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An indigenous woman protests against then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to ban the creation of new protected areas or indigenous territories, in Sao Paulo in October. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

For people concerned about the environment and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven to be as bad, or worse, than feared. He is in the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, continues to flatly dismiss the science of human-caused global warming, and has worked ceaselessly to undo environmental regulations and weaken environmental agencies.

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Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations. MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Now, however, a new leader has emerged on the world stage who is poised to do even more global environmental damage than Trump. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, and his extreme views on the environment, coupled with his control of nearly all the country’s levers of power, means that he is now in a position to do unprecedented harm to the Amazon and the international battle to slow climate change.

Not for nothing is Bolsonaro known as the “tropical Trump.” The parallels are many, including their embrace of the far right and their inflammatory rhetoric. And among their similarities is the way that a constant barrage of outrageous comments diverts discussion from the environmental damage that their policies portend. Continue reading

The Great Lakes And Unexpected Consequences Of Human Interventions

9780393355550_300.jpegI was not aware of this book until listening today to its author spend an hour talking about it. And that happened because of a radio program that I listened to during graduate school, which like most radio shows is now available as a podcast. The discussion was all about unintended ecological consequences of what seemed like smart decisions at the time, going back centuries and up to the present day.

It was interesting enough to search for more information about the book. In the process I found a book club that in turn led me to the book review that is just what I was looking for to complement the author interview:

In the oceanic depths of the Great Lakes, life and death swirl like coffee and cream. Growing up on the western shores of Lake Michigan, I knew this instinctively. The lake provided our drinking water and a place to cool off in the summer, but it also occasionally coughed up millions of small dead fish called alewives, which littered the shoreline, giving off an aquarial reek.

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Great Lakes vampires: Lampreys latch on to a brown trout.
 Credit James L. Amos/National Geographic, via Getty Images

As long as the town deemed the water’s bacteria count low enough, we kids would go swimming or fishing (though we weren’t allowed to eat what we caught). Our moms would sit on towels on the pebbled beach, misted with sweat, paging through magazines. “Do you go in?” they would ask one another, with widened eyes and a half-ironic cringe. Oh no, it was much too cold, or too polluted, they inevitably replied. Nevertheless, the lake served as the axis mundi of our little universe; when people gave directions, they were often oriented “toward the lake” or “away from the lake.” The name of our town had “lake” in it; the town next door did too. Both lay within Lake County. We were lake people. Continue reading

Get Your Biome On

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The Sill sells ceramic planters, watering cans, misters with arch sayings on them, fertilizer and soil mixes, totes and T-shirts. It also hosts movie nights, “sip and shop” cocktail parties and workshops (in store and online). Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Thanks to Penelope Green for brightening up our Sunday:

Meet the Plantfluencers

In a world of climate change, creating a biome of one’s own.

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Eliza Blank has conceived The Sill as a plant lifestyle company, or a global plant brand — a Glossier of plants. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Horticulture and red wine were served up the other night at the Sill, a boutique on Hester Street, as Christopher Satch, a botanist wearing a T-shirt that read, “Plants Make People Happy,” the company motto, led a workshop on carnivorous plants.

It was plant stand-up — slightly blue patter with quick takes on Linnaeus and Darwin; binomial nomenclature (note the shape of the Venus fly trap for cues to how it got its name); detailed care instructions (carnivorous plants evolved in acidic bogs, which means they need distilled water, not tap, and lots of it); and a show-and-tell of Mr. Satch’s collection of butterworts and sundews.

Plant2Among the rapt attendees were Madison Steinberg and Lindsay Reisman, both 23 and working in public relations, and Brayan Poma, also 23, who works in construction; afterward they each took home an attractive tropical pitcher plant. “I like plants, but I kill so many of them,” said Mr. Poma, who wore a green hoodie and a goatee. “Maybe that’s why I find them so alluring.”

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The Sill began when Ms. Blank was trying to brighten up her sunless, sixth-floor walk-up with a plant or two, and was turned off by the wares at Home Depot, one of the few sources for plants and containers in the city. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Mr. Poma is not the only millennial to feel that allure. Buoyed by Instagram, his generation’s obsession with houseplants is growing faster and more tenaciously than English ivy. Plant influencers, the horticultural stars of that medium, now have book deals, sponsors and hundreds of thousands of followers.Their apartment living rooms are the new urban jungles, spilling over with philodendrons, pilea (this year’s “It” plant) and bird’s nest ferns. Plant parents, as they call themselves, fuss over their plant babies with the attention once given to kimchi or coffee connoisseurship. (Such anthropomorphism — ironic though it may be — recalls the 1970s, when “The Secret Life of Plants” proposed plant sentience based on dubious science and convinced New Agers to chat up their spider ferns.)

Unlike George Orwell, these houseplant lovers see the lowly aspidistra as an aspirational totem, not a bourgeois cliché, and post money shots of their monsteras on #monsteramonday. That hashtag was propagated in 2016 by Morgan Doane, a director of analytics for an art company in Florida. Continue reading