29 October 2009

Go Home On Time Day - 25 November

An initiative of The Australia Institute, Go Home On Time Day encourages people to sign up and get a reminder on the day that they have a 'leave' pass to go home on time! [US readers might be interested in a similar initiative, Take Back Your Time].

GHOT Day is also a page on Facebook

'We can all find it tricky to leave the office or finish work on time. That’s why this November 25th is national Go Home on Time Day. It’s your opportunity to postpone all those “one last thing” tasks, emails and late meetings, and leave work on time for a change. What you do next is up to you!

The latest research from The Australia Institute finds that Australians work more than 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime every year! Around half of all employees work more hours than they are paid for. On average, a typical employee works 49 minutes of unpaid overtime per day. For full-time workers, the average daily amount of unpaid work takes more than one hour.

Overwork can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health, your relationships with loved ones and your sense of what is important in life.'

Living Building Challenge - A Growing Idea

Excerpt from GreenBiz, 22 October 2009

'...The Living Building Challenge is...a voluntary third-party program of sustainable building certification that was launched by Cascadia in 2006. Its creators see it as the next step beyond LEED and a precursor to the kind of regenerative design ultimately needed...

Rather than scoring credits, the program requires that simple prerequisites be met. Simple, in this case, does not mean easy. For a building to qualify it would have to be a zero-net energy and water user, and introduce no new toxins from an established “red list” into the environment.

Additionally, it could not be built on undeveloped land. In all there are 16 requirements for such a building and the list includes a category for “beauty and spirit” that includes “education and sharing." All the prerequisites are mandatory, criteria are performance based, and that performance must be actual and documented rather than projected.

The program's developers freely admit that the bar has been set higher than current practices achieve, and have identified the biggest roadblocks to its wider adoption: Building codes and upfront costs. In some places, for instance, it is illegal to recycle water on site for drinking, and controlling the cost of sustainable materials is subject to market pathways that are still maturing.

On the other hand, there is wide latitude for innovation because the rating is performance driven. There are many different ways to achieve the general goals, and the CGBC does not concern itself with dictating best practices, reasoning that rigorous results will ensure good methods...

Three years on, McClennan says the challenge has four built structures that are completing the required 12-month performance review period and about 60 projects that have declared their intention to apply. Cascadia is also about to launch a 2.0 version of the Challenge that will include landscape and infrastructure, renovation and neighborhood-scale criteria.

One of the...candidates for certification is the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburg...

To reach their zero-net energy and water goals, the designers have resorted to a wide combination of techniques: passive heating and lighting design, building mass, geothermal heating and cooling, dessicant dehumidification, smart building management system, photovoltaics and solar hot water collectors, wind turbines, demand controlled ventilation, sustainable materials, green roof, native landscaping, rainwater harvesting and natural stormwater collection and treatment, and constructed wetland sanitary waste treatment.

These techniques embody some of the biomimetic concepts that I have written about in this column: substituting information for energy, in the case of demand controlled ventilation where CO2 levels from occupants trigger HVAC response and therefore prevent the heating of empty rooms; surfing for free, in the case of using geothermal, where the temperature gradient between the ground and air is used to both heat and cool the building; and substituting structure for energy, in the case of all the passive forms, from shading to trombe walls to filtration beds, that harvest light, heat or clean water without the use of power...

It remains to be seen if this will hold true for the next tier of applicants with more diverse missions, but the conventional wisdom that sustainable construction always has to cost more is being challenged with the clever ways that designers are saving money...

The importance of integrating building systems was also a shared critical component, and that integration seems, by necessity, to have been forced beyond the buildings' walls. In order to close the loop on water, for instance, one has to both capture it outside from the air and return it to the earth for filtering. Landscape architects and civil engineers were important members of these teams because of their expertise in these kinds of systems. Finally, because of this, the very forms of the buildings themselves were determined by the demands of this integration and the collaborative design process necessary to achieve it.

While some of the techniques used to achieve certification in the Challenge were clearly using biomimetic concepts, with a few exceptions, such as bio-filtration system design, most have come from a strictly engineering tradition. Nevertheless, the trend toward more bio-innovation is evident...'


From Mother Nature Network, October 2009

Himalayan Raptor Rescue offers special paragliding sessions that come complete with specially trained birds of prey companions.

28 October 2009

Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?

Both local and systemic approaches are needed, but some good points made in this piece...

Reposting in full from Worldchanging, 27 October 2009

'What can any of us do in the face of planetary catastrophe?

Staring into the ecological abyss, it's easy to feel small and unimportant. Edward Abbey wrote truly, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." But it's often hard to see how any actions we might actually take, as individuals, will have any meaningful effect, whatsoever: leaving aside the pablum about small steps and each doing our part, we all know in our hearts that taking out the recycling will not do much to slow the melting of Greenland.

The best thing, the really hopeful thing, about the Transition Town movement is that it breaks the emotional isolation privatized responsibility inflicts on us, and makes us part of a group working together towards change.

1) What are Transition Towns?

Transition Towns are communities in which some citizens have gotten together to follow a twelve-step process to make their towns more resilient despite energy shortages, climate change or economic collapse. At its best, "Transition thinking" offers participants a chance to do something direct and hopeful while the storm clouds gather on the horizon.

That volatile emotional mix of fear and hope has made it the most rapidly growing dark green movement in the world. Since we first wrote about the transition towns almost four years ago, the movement has taken off, with people in perhaps as many as 250 towns now actively taking part.

Those people are mobilizing the solutions readily available to them, from farmers' markets to skills swaps. There's just no way to see it as anything other than terrific that people are coming together, recognizing the magnitude of the problems we face, and looking for paths to more resilient prosperity. (Further explorations of transition efforts can be found in the extremely interesting Transition Initiatives Primer [PDF] and in The Transition Handbook).

2) The Limits of Transition Town Approaches

Yet, ultimately, the Transition Town approach stifles its own potential impact.

The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called "surplus powerlessness" disguised as practicality. All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse... and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.

Transition thinking seems obsessively focused on coordinating individual actions (like helping people barter their free time or connecting people who want to garden); even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).

Part of this is the legacy of the counter-culture out of which it emerged. Part of this is that Transition Towns aim to offer a way to step out of emotional paralysis by saying "just go ahead and do something, anything." Part of it is intentional: groups spread more rapidly when the demands placed on their members are minimal. However, the approach also betrays a far darker mindset.

3) The Dark Side of Transition Thinking

The movement's founder, Rob Hopkins, talks almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly. Jennifer Gray, the founder of Transition U.S. (the American wing of the movement) told a New York Times reporter that she expects “a big population die-off." Board member Richard Heinberg says that central governments will "have to self-destruct in favor of local autonomy" and that "overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease."

That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling. Worse, the strategy implicit in this vision of transitioning - that there can be local soft landings in the event of a global hard crash, that indeed the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level, and that perhaps collapse will solve some of our problems - is delusional.

Collapse is not a tool for social change. It's essentially impossible to look at history and find a case where large-scale collapse has lead to anything other than lots of destruction, hunger, disease, suffering and a decline into widespread violence and warlordism. If you want to see what happens when large numbers of urban people encounter situational collapse, look at what happened in Liberia. Anyone who thinks an energy descent plan prepared by a community group future-proofs them against people like Charles Taylor has simply taken a vacation from reality.

Local efforts can't protect against the violence of a systemic breakdown. The same thing is true of public health and epidemiology, of disaster response and trauma care, of famine protection and crop insurance, and so on and so on. To plan for the collapse of large-scale systems is to plan for widespread evil and suffering; ethical planning for the collapse is impossible: post-collapse idealism is oxymoronic.

Indeed, if anything, places that are by global standards rich and well-educated need to be preparing to be bulwarks of stability in a chaotic world, to be more deeply invested in making things work for everyone.

4) What We Need Instead: Bright Green Citizens

What we need is a movement of local efforts aimed at changing things that matter at scales that matter, based on the politics of optimism. The first step in those efforts is to stop seeing the systems we depend on as out of our control. They aren't, and that we're so convinced they are is a testament to the dedication of the powers that be to shoo us away from interfering in their profits.

Cynicism, boredom and fear are their tools. They reinforce, at every opportunity, the idea that government is broken, that civic engagement is for dupes, that real rebellion involves shutting up, making money and spending it. They craft public process to sap the will of the public to engage: as Richard White writes, bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell. They make an effort to keep us in a state of constant economic and social anxiety undermining our willingness to connect with and trust each other. Whether these tools are used consciously or unconsciously is completely beside the point - you can apply whatever degree or lack of conspiracy theory you like: the effects are observable, and well-documented.

The great secret here is that we are more powerful than any of us usually admits. While it is true that organized greed beats unorganized democracy every time, it's also true that organized, educated, passionate democracy is the most powerful political force ever seen, and we live amidst an exploding proliferation of tools for organizing our communities, sharing our knowledge and connecting our passions.

What is more, we live in a time where transparency and collaborative insight give ad hoc groups the capacity to understand the vast, complex systems we depend on, but which the powers that be have cloaked in layers of exclusionary expertise, regulation and jargon. We are not only capable of understanding the systems around us, but of imagining and inventing their replacements, and mobilizing the constituency to make that happen.

5) Designing a Movement with a Future

Transition Town efforts are engineered, like almost all modern movements, but they're engineered to solve the wrong problems.

What would it take to design a movement that actually changed what needs to be changed? How can we design a networked movement that aims to forestall and undo catastrophe, by building bright green regions and sharing innovation?

Here are a few of the larger design challenges involved:

  • Finding places where a system has been draped in complexity, and revealing it in clear, beautiful, interesting ways. How things work is of inherent interest to many people. How can we reveal the workings of the systems around them in ways that help them see the usefulness of change?
  • Making public life exciting where boredom has dampened people's enthusiasm, if not simply driven them completely out of civic involvement. How can we simultaneously reject needless process in favor of quick, transparent and measured decisions and enliven participation? Being part of democracy ought to feel exciting, and invigorating: we should view every part of it that's boring with deep mistrust.
  • Launching a counter-attack on pervasive cynicism and finding fresh ways to call it what it is: cynicism is obedience. The very origins of the word mean "like a dog." Stripping cynicism of its rebelliousness, making it looks as entirely whipped an attitude as it is, is a huge step towards reclaiming the public realm. Indeed, I think we need to deploy our full battery of humorists, satirists and artists on looking at what part of us makes us so ready to accept the idea that all is sham and we're beaten before we start.
  • Reaching out to people have been made afraid of participation, and spreading enthusiasm and a delight in civic life. How can we make civic participation more welcoming, and jam the manufactured reactionary anger that conservatives use to gum up our public processes (through tea-bagging and astroturfing)?
  • Reclaiming the media sphere by supporting local journalism that actually reveals, informs and educates. How can we develop means to support reporting, writing, filmmaking and public discussion that advances our understanding of what to do, leaving behind the tired debates of the last generation?
  • Reinventing or replacing the kinds of civic institutions - the university departments, think tanks, research labs, planning agencies - that democracies need to make informed decisions, in the wake of 40 years of work by the right wing to either destroy these institutions or overwhelm them with new, better-funded ideologically-conservative versions.
  • Diffusing innovation through our local businesses and industry groups. Unsustainable business is bad business, even in the fairly short run: sound economic strategy in times like ours is to get in the business of replacing the broken systems around us. How do we build local business cultures that support transformation as the opportunity it is?
  • Above all else, reimagining the future. Since we can't build what we can't imagine, and visions of the future dominate our ability to understand the present, how can we embrace future-making tools to redefine the possible in our communities? Because the powers that be have one gigantic weakness: they offer us no future, none at all, and every time we shift the debate to be about where we're going, we win.

We don't yet know how to do all this, but we can iterate our way into it through experimentation, exploration and innovation, consciously practicing ally etiquette to link efforts across a spectrum of systems into a collaborative whole. Indeed, since the whole thing starts with vision, simply sharing our visions for what this looks like is a huge step in the right direction.

We don't need to wait for some mythical cultural awakening, either. There are more than enough of us, already. In most cities around the world, a fraction of one percent of the citizens getting energized and turning out - using new tools to learn together, coordinate strategy and exert public pressure - would feel like a tsunami of democracy and creative engagement.

And hidden allies can be found everywhere. Public life is full of people who want to see change, but need political cover. Change agents await activation in our government agencies, businesses, schools, political parties and media. If we can begin to engage the systems in which they've been quietly laboring at the systems level, we can expect unseen helpers in unexpected places.

It's time to make ourselves into the people who can do what's needed. To fight the powers that be, we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be, building the future we want.'

27 October 2009

Sowing the Seeds of a Good Food Revolution

Image from Growing Power Inc

Excerpt from GreenBiz, 21 October 2009

'...Our nation is grappling with the daunting challenges of health care and global warming. Another change is coming as well. It's called the good food revolution.

By bringing locally grown, organic, nutritiously rich food to a table near you, the good food revolution can help us tackle these larger societal issues, and benefit us all.

We need a revolution in our food delivery system because the global $3.2 trillion processed-food industry is undermining our health and significantly contributing to our carbon footprint.

Let's take a quick look at how produce in Massachusetts makes it to our grocery store shelves. Quite likely it was picked in California's Central Valley, the mother of all breadbaskets. The produce journeyed across the country from the field to the wholesaler to a retailer and finally to your dinner table. Total travel time, about 12 to 14 days.

Have you ever wondered how much nutrition is left after that voyage? Not much. You're largely eating vacuous cellulose - even if you buy it from Whole Foods. This long journey also exposes it to multiple handlers and contaminants that create health scares - recalled meat, tomatoes, peanuts - that are regular features on the nightly news.

Have you ever wondered how many greenhouse-gas-emitting-food miles it took for that nutritionally leached meal to arrive on your plate? The answer is about 3,000 miles.
Figure you eat produce from California every day. That means 365 days a year, your food travels 3,000 miles across the country, adding almost 1.1 million food miles to your personal carbon footprint. Ouch!

If this system seems unsustainable to you, it is. It would collapse if it were not for the tremendous state and federal subsidies that big agribusiness receives.

The impact of our industrial food system takes an even greater toll on poorer inner-city residents. Redlining in these districts doesn't just apply to the banking industry. It's as hard to get a mortgage in these neighborhoods as it is to get fresh produce. Often residents have to drive miles to get to a full-scale grocery store. This nutritional wasteland is particularly devastating on children.

The good news is that we can turn this around. Already, more privileged households are increasingly buying locally grown organic foods and getting the best nutrition possible. Ten million people will or have planted food gardens this year, including one on the White House lawn.

It's time to bring this revolution to the rest of America. We need to make this a choice that more of us will be able to make regardless of our socioeconomic status.

Organizations like Growing Power, which I founded and direct, are cutting health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions by promoting programs so people can grow organic, culturally appropriate food close to economically distressed urban populations. By engaging the local community, Growing Power produces $250,000 worth of organic food in a working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee's Northwest side - less than a half-mile from the city's largest public housing project. Local residents work and volunteer at the farm, creating a stronger, more economically viable and healthier community.

This revolution is taking place in Massachusetts, too. Organizations like the Marion Institute work with urban schools to bring nutritiously rich food to city neighborhoods in the state. For example, the institute recently helped build 17 raised vegetable beds at the Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, providing children the opportunity to eat well, learn, and experience a bit of greenery on an otherwise wall-to-wall concrete campus.

The good food revolution cannot stop at farmers' markets or natural food stores in suburban or wealthier urban neighborhoods. For the revolution to be complete, people in poorer neighborhoods must have access to it, too.

Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power Inc., is an urban farmer based in Milwaukee who is transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations. His post, which appeared in the Boston Globe, is reprinted here with permission...'

Green Cities California Unveils Best Practices Website

...urban form and design are paramount [see Ecocity Builders] - these decisions 'choice edit' a lot of other sustainability considerations

Excerpt from GreenBiz, 21 October 2009

'Green Cities California, the collaborative of 10 cities and counties acknowledged as sustainability leaders, launches a website today that's to serve as a resource for other communities striving to go green.

The website, www.GreenCitiesCalifornia.org, is designed as a repository of best practices and other tools for policymakers who are trying to improve the environmental performance of their locales.

"Certain cities have already blazed a trail (toward sustainability) and it would be so much easier if that information were available to others," said David Assmann, who is the deputy director of San Francisco's Department of Environment and a member of Green Cities California's steering committee.

"There are obstacles and issues you have to look at," he said.

"In virtually every area there are stumbling blocks, and the site enables everyone to learn from each other." The site addresses seven key areas identified by the United Nations Urban Environmental Accord: energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health and water.

Say you're trying to develop a zero-waste policy for your town and you want to know what other local governments have done to wipe out waste, but you don't have a big budget for research or a lot of time to do it. The Green Cities California site summarizes zero-waste efforts in Oakland and San Jose - and provides 15 documents that can be used as templates as well as links to sites that can serve as models for your efforts.

Access to the site and downloads of its material are free. And though focused on California, the site is intended to be replicable and expandable, Assmann said.

The online resource currently has 50 best practices posted. The organization is working on the next 65, which will include some from out of state, he said.

Green Cities California was established in October 2007 with eight founding members. The group has since grown to 10 cities and counties: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Marin County, Pasadena, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara and Santa Monica. Each member has adopted a sustainability plan, the U.N. Urban Environmental Accord and the U.S. Conference of Mayors Protection Agreement. Representatives work with their governing bodies to adopt the organization's Sustainability Accord, and each member city or county pays membership dues that range from $3,000 to $11,000 a year.

The group's best practices website was about a year in the making and in active development for six months, Assmann said. The Full Circle Fund, 11th Hour Project and Blackstone Ranch Institute provided funding and technical help for the project.Earlier initiatives by the group have saved their local governments more than a $1 million and have helped avoid millions of pounds of CO2 emissions...'