Junto Clubs For 2018 & Beyond


The Junto Club outgrew into the American Philosophical Society.

This historical reference is not typical of posts on this platform, except for when one of our contributors was in the midst of historical coursework that led to riffs like this; and then during his archival research that led to riffs like this.

We are riffing now from a current need (to put it mildly) for better conversation, with hindsight to a widely respected man’s approach at a time full of contentions. Thanks to Andrew Marantz for this brief note, whose accompanying illustration below belies the seriousness of the situation. Click the image to the left above to go to a historical archive with more background on this Talk of the Town item below:

Benjamin Franklin Invented the Chat Room

Conversation clubs, inspired by the Founding Father, have never felt more necessary.

180409_r31846webIn 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one, he and a few friends—among them a scrivener, a joiner, and two cobblers—formed a conversation club called the Junto. They met on Friday evenings at a Philadelphia alehouse. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography. The United States was not yet the United States, but already he sensed a civility problem. His solution: structured, secular chitchat, “conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.” Continue reading




Pieces such as leaves, bushes and trees will be made entirely from plant-based plastic. Photograph: Maria Tuxen Hedegaard/Lego

Among contributors to this platform, the number of lego pieces bought over the last fifty years likely aggregates into the hundreds of thousands. And yes, we all eventually knew that the product is petroleum-based and therefore worthy of reconsideration in for the next generation. But they have remained irresistible anyhow, and so we are glad to hear the company is moving in a new direction. Rebecca Smithers, the Consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian, offers this news on where the company is going with green:

First sustainable Lego pieces to go on sale

Range including leaves, bushes and trees made entirely from plant-based plastic sourced from sugar cane will be available later this year

The first Lego pieces made from plant-based plastic sourced from sugar cane will go on sale this year, the company has announced.

The 85-year-old Danish toymaker said production has begun on a range of Lego botanical elements or pieces such as leaves, bushes and trees, made entirely from plant-based plastic. They will start appearing in Lego box sets with bricks and mini-figures later this year. Continue reading

Divesting Scales With Leadership

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 5.25.34 AMThanks to the Guardian for giving Bill McKibben the space to put the New York City decision in perspective:

Over the years, the capital of the fight against climate change has been Kyoto, or Paris – that’s where the symbolic political agreements to try and curb the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions have been negotiated and signed. But now, New York City vaulted to leadership in the battle.

On Wednesday, its leaders, at a press conference in a neighborhood damaged over five years ago by Hurricane Sandy, announced that the city was divesting its massive pension fund from fossil fuels, and added for good measure that they were suing the five biggest oil companies for damages. Our planet’s most important city was now at war with its richest industry. And overnight, the battle to save the planet shifted from largely political to largely financial. Continue reading

More Information, Thank You


Contradictory consumer demands for food labels are making some food companies re-think their alliance with the industry’s traditional lobbying group. miakievy/Getty Images

Food producers may not all, or always, appreciate how much information consumers want or need, but erring on the side of more in this case makes sense to us. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story:

For at least the past decade, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has been the unrivaled voice of a vast industry, from neighborhood grocery stores to food manufacturing giants with supply chains that span the globe. Most recently, it’s been a powerful force in fighting proposals to require information about added sugar or GMOs on food labels.

untitled-1_sq-b58cbda94a29b6944b67706c24dcb43ed57e06fb-s400-c85Today, that colossus is teetering and facing questions about its future. Over the past six months, eight of GMA’s largest members have decided to drop their membership. Each defection was quickly revealed on the news site Politico. One industry insider says that he’s seen a list of another three companies that are considering leaving the association. Continue reading

California Leading On Climate


Dairy cows in Fresno County, Calif. Some of the reductions in a state proposal to reduce emissions would come from curbing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from manure piles at dairy farms. Credit Scott Smith/Associated Press

We appreciate California’s heroic measures to take responsibility and show leadership where it can on climate change:

Over the past decade, California has passed a sweeping set of climate laws to test a contentious theory: that it’s possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions far beyond what any other state has done and still enjoy robust economic growth.

Now that theory faces its biggest test yet. Last August, the State Legislature set a goal of slashing emissions more than 40 percent below today’s levels by 2030, a far deeper cut than President Barack Obama proposed for the entire United States and deeper than most other countries have contemplated.

So how will California pull this off? Continue reading

Rare Birds, Climate Change & Dialogue


Jerry Taylor, founder of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank.

We like birds. We like rare birds. Jerry Taylor sounds worthy of attention. Thanks to Marc Gunther and Yale 360 for Climate Converts: The Conservatives Who Are Switching Sides on Warming:

It’s hardly being noticed, given the current political atmosphere in Washington. But a small yet growing number of Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians are starting to push for action on climate.

As liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans pull farther apart in the long-running, increasingly polarized debate over climate change, Jerry Taylor is a rare bird — Continue reading

Nudging In The UK


Electric cars using the bus lane (left) during morning rush hour in Oslo, Norway. Photograph: Pierre-Henry Deshayes/AFP/Getty Images

Like the little victories in wilderness conservation, which may be too little to late or maybe a bright spot on a bleak horizon, the small moves in the right direction on other environmental fronts seem promising, and therefore worthy of note. We salute Mayor Khan for his efforts to get Londoners to do their part, according to this story below. It reminds me of Richard Thaler‘s explanation of the power of nudging things along in the right direction, and wishing these nudge stories were more commonplace in the eight years since we started hearing about them:

Electric vehicles could go first at traffic lights under UK clean air zone plans

Government proposals to tackle air pollution in five UK cities could see electric vehicle drivers using bus lanes and getting priority at traffic lights

Drivers of electric vehicles could be allowed to use bus lanes in five UK cities and even go first at traffic lights, to tackle illegal levels of air pollution, the government has suggested. Continue reading

Papahānaumokuākea Quadrupled

Humuhumunukunukuāpua`a, the state fish of Hawaii (reef trigger fish) via statesymbolsusa.org

Hot on the heels of the creation of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument comes the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was designated by President George W. Bush in 2006 and became a World Heritage site four years later. This growth in the protected area quadruples the conservation monument’s size to 582,578 square miles and has been accomplished under President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act. Oliver Milman reports:

The monument, which is now double the size of Texas, stretches outward from the north-western Hawaiian islands and includes Midway Atoll, famed for its former military base and eponymous battle that was crucial in the US defeat of Japan in the second world war. The protected area is now larger than the previous largest marine reserve, situated around the Pitcairn Islands and announced by the UK last year.

Continue reading

Paris Bans Pre-1997 Cars from Roads

Good news comes from the French capital in an effort to reduce smog and carbon emissions on the streets in the city of light, but the United States is stuck trying to discourage driving in much weaker fashion, Camille von Kaenel reports for Scientific American:

Cities around the world are driving vehicles off the streets by imposing strict anti-pollution measures, but the car still rules in the United States.

This week, the city of Paris launched a ban on vehicles built before 1997 during weekday daylight hours. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been candid about her desire to expand the ban to cut back on smog from diesel cars and to “reclaim” the city for pedestrians and bikers.

Continue reading

More Good Fishery News in Arctic

Map of the area of northern Barents Sea including the waters around Svalbard where some of the world’s largest seafood and fishing companies have committed not to expand their search for cod into. Photograph: Greenpeace

We read yesterday about countries agreeing to stand against piracy in fishing, which is great, and The Guardian is continuing its optimistic reporting by sharing news on leading seafood-consuming companies have decided to source from industrial fisheries that don’t target a particularly pristine Arctic region. Jessica Aldred reports:

Fishermen and seafood suppliers struck a major deal on Wednesday that will protect a key Arctic region from industrial fishing for cod.

Companies including McDonald’s, Tesco, Birds Eye, Europe’s largest frozen fish processor, Espersen, Russian group Karat, and Fiskebåt, which represents the entire Norwegian oceangoing fishing fleet, have said their suppliers will refrain from expanding their cod fisheries further into pristine Arctic waters.

“From the 2016 season the catching sector will not expand their cod fishing activities with trawl gear into those areas where regular fishing has not taken place before,” the deal reads.

Continue reading

Reforesting the Amazon

NEW VENTURE: Deniston Mariano Dutra and his son Matheus Correia Dutra harvest cacao seeds. After giving up on cattle, the family replanted their farm with these indigenous trees. © Kevin Arnold via TNC

We care deeply about Amazonia, and Brazil is the country with the most deforestation in the river region, specifically from cattle ranching. But good news is coming from The Nature Conservancy in the April/May issue, where, as the article’s subtitle reads, “After decades of turning forests into pastures and fields, Brazilian landowners have begun reversing the trend.” Julian Smith reports for the TNC Magazine:

Lazir Soares de Castro stands amid white and gray Nelore cattle on his ranch in São Félix do Xingu, a remote and sprawling county on Brazil’s northeastern Amazon frontier. Beyond a wooden fence, high grass and scrub brush fade into sporadic trees in the distance.

Still vital at 70, Soares describes how different this area looked when he arrived in 1984, when it was all virgin rainforest. “It was the poorest area. There was no electricity, no telephone, no TV, no roads, nothing.” The military dictatorship then running the country was encouraging settlers to occupy the Amazon in the name of national security. “There was no organized environmental policy,” Soares says.

Continue reading

Don’t Go Away Mad, Just Go Away


The Koch brothers are a wondrous phenomenon. You probably knew that. What can you do (?), you might ask. We know the feeling. Well, here is something. A public service announcement from our colleagues at EcoWatch, linking to a petition effort worthy of your consideration:

The Natural History Museum just released an unprecedented letter signed by the world’s top scientists, including several Nobel laureates, calling on science and natural history museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry.

The letter comes on the heels of recent news that Smithsonian-affiliated scientist Willie Soon took $1.25 million from the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, American Petroleum Institute and other covert funders to publish junk science denying man-made climate change, and failed to disclose any funding-related conflicts of interest.

In particular, it points a finger at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (D.C.) and the American Museum of Natural History (NY), where David Koch is a member of the board, a major donor and exhibit sponsor.

Oil mogul David Koch sits on the boards of our nation’s largest and most respected natural history museums, while he bankrolls groups that deny climate science.

Sign this petition to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History: It’s time to get science deniers out of science museums. Kick Koch off the Board! Continue reading

Big Goals About Basic Things

In response to this successful project, the Gates Foundation recently approved a two-year grant to Kohler to design and fabricate five closed-loop flush toilet systems for field testing in developing world locations that do not have adequate sanitation. Kohler

Some of the things many of us take for granted in the “developed” world – access to toilets and clean drinking water among them, are daily challenges for many living in the “developing” world. India’s new prime minister set a challenge for a Clean India by 2019, which will include 100 million toilets across the country. The goals coincide well with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, and Kohler’s production of a closed loop toilet system design created by Caltech University that is already coming on line in test areas in India. Continue reading

Redefining Recycling

In the early years of this site we highlighted a concept of “the fourth r” – focusing on the restaurants and events planners who support a form of social entreprenuership by donating excess food to local shelters. On an annual basis huge amounts of prepared foods go to waste in all forms of venues, but the classic buffet-style cafeteria is a long-term culprit. But luckily creative solutions have gone hand-in-hand with awareness of the problem. At the time we used the term “recycled” when taking about the food programs. Kudos to the new voices who redefined at as “repurposed.”

Back in 2011 when I was a student at the University of Maryland in College Park I once noticed a massive pile of trash in front of a dining hall. A closer look revealed that it was mostly food — a half-eaten sandwich, a browning apple and what appeared to be the remains of the day’s lunch special.

The heap was gross, but intriguing. Turned out it was a stunt to get students thinking about how much food they throw out each day.

Nowadays, students are coming face to face with their food waste, and its environmental and social impact, a lot more often. They also have more opportunities do something about it. Continue reading

Drink the Wild Air

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” Alejandra Benavides/conCIENCIA

Working for the balance and health of nature as a conservation biologist brought me to understand the importance of nature in the balance and health of communities. The great gap between the two inspired me to establish conCIENCIA, a nature-based education design program. We build environmental identity in fishing villages across Peru through nature-based integrated learning guided by play, creativity, curiosity and the senses.
As First Mermaid in conCIENCIA, I work with an amazing group of artists and scientist, to connect coastal children to the natural wonderland, since 2010.

Lobitos has some of the most beautiful beaches on the Peruvian coast. Its world-class surfing draws hundreds of surfers from all over the planet and is known far and wide. A lesser-known fact is that it also has 153 children enrolled in its elementary school. Walking down the beach we wonder where these kids are. We walk from point to point with not one in sight. There’s no laughter or splashing on the shores. Surfers and fishermen dominate our view. No mothers and children sharing the democratic fun the beach offers: a place with more attractions than we could ever finish exploring.

In Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro it is on the beach that rich and poor meet, crossing the giant social chasm that separates them, virtually identical in their bathing suits, covered in sand, sweat and salt. Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case in many of Peru’s coastal towns. Exactly why is hard to say. Our NGO conCIENCIA helps coastal communities develop an environmental identity and engagement through outdoor science-based learning. We hope to be able to answer the question ‘why’ through surveys, conversation and appreciation.

On the surface one could say it is cultural.  Fishermen don’t bathe in the sea or lounge on the beach. This is their place of work, as for a New Yorker her office would be–of course, with greater hardships and demands. The sea is treacherous and fish stock is dwindling. Continue reading

What do a Super Bowl Hero and a Forest Biologist Have in Common?

Debresena church forest- South Gondar, Ethiopia (Picture from Google earth)

Debresena church forest- South Gondar, Ethiopia (Picture from Google earth)


“I can try to explain it to you, but unless you see it for yourself, you really can’t gasp the situation. They’re going through one of the worst droughts ever, it’s barely rained in three years. There is no water to grow vegetation, no water to drink. Everything is like desert. For people in the United States, it’s hard to wrap your mind around that.”   

Anquan Boldin, Football star for Baltimore Ravens, winner of the 2013 SuperBowl

As a nerdy scientist, I was never a SuperBowl fan. This year when Anquan Boldin, who shares my passion for building stone walls in Ethiopia, made the first touchdown of the winning Baltimore Ravens, I became one. Continue reading

A Man. A Plan. A Canal. Gujarat.

Canal solar power: Gujarat has attracted investments of Rs 9,000 crore so far on solar energy projects.

To some it might seem odd to compare Gujarat’s innovative solar canal project to Panama’s nearly 100 year old global game changer. Although there are obvious and vast differences, there is also something powerfully familiar about the ultimate impact of the two projects.

While the 48 mile (77 km) Panama Canal saved ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from taking the 8000 miles (12,875 km) journey around the southern tip of South America, the Solar Canal Project provides a duel purpose alternative energy system that both creates clean energy and conserves water. Continue reading

Biodiversity At Our Doorstep

Between the Western Ghats’ recent World Heritage Site designation and Periyar Tiger Reserve’s U.N. accolades reported here, awareness of our neighborhood is most certainly on the rise.

We’ve commented on PTR’s enlightened leadership previously, but it’s always encouraging to hear additional applause.

The Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) has won the coveted U.N.-India Biodiversity Governance award instituted by the Government of India and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the best managed protected area of the country.

Continue reading

Leading With Historical Vision

President Barack Obama shows students from Johnson College Prep in Chicago, Illinois, a model of Samuel Morse’s telegraph patent in the Oval Office last October. (The White House/Flickr)

We avoid politics, but call out the good, the bad and the ugly in the public sector when needed.  Admittedly, too much of the latter two and not enough of the good. So hail to the geek in chief of the United States of America, who followed through on his promise in one of our favorite magazines two years ago:

When I was sworn into office, I had a chance to request objects from some of America’s finest museums to put on display in the White House. One of my requests was for patent models from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History…

What’s good?  Telling your constituents you want to invest in the future through education; telling young students that innovation is the future of the economy; getting those dusty plates off the wall and celebrating the history of innovation instead. Continue reading