Tagsustainability

An Open Source Kit for Growing Edible Insects

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My latest for Wired:

The world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, according to a World Resources Institute report published last year, and that means we’ll need to increase food production about 60 percent in the coming decades — a task made all the more difficult by expected shortages in water, fuel, fertilizer, and arable land. One solution could be entomophagy. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that insects could be an increasingly important and sustainable food source in the future, and Imrie-Situnayake agrees. Insects are high in protein. They require little space to raise. And they don’t produce much methane or other greenhouse gases.

Two million people around the world already eat insects on a regular basis, and many consider them a delicacy. But here in the West, the situation is very different. Entomophagy is largely taboo, and our culture just isn’t geared towards finding and raising insects for food. That’s why Imrie-Situnayake and Tiny Farms have created what they call Open Bug Farm — a high-tech kit for raising your own edible insects. They’re trying to hack the Western agriculture world, and in true hacker fashion, they plan on open sourcing the kit’s basic design, so that anyone can build their own for free.

Full Story: Wired: Out in the Open: Raise Your Own Edible Insects With This Free Kit

NASA Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for Collapse

Nafeez Ahmed writes:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

Full Story: The Guardian: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

(via Eleanor)

I haven’t had a look at the study yet, but will be published here. It sounds a lot like Peter Turchin’s Cliodynamics research.

See also: Ahmed on peak soil.

Prada Revolutionaries: Confessions of a Recovering Solutionist

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This essay is part of 5 Viridian Years, a series of reflections on the Viridian Design movement.

Revolution is depressing.

The U.S. turned deep red after the 2002 mid-term elections. Any hope of a Democratic rebound after George W. Bush’s contentious inauguration vanished. Not that the Democrats were any better. Only one senator had voted against the Patriot Act, and in 2003 congress approved the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest — some of the biggest in history. Meanwhile, poverty was on the rise and the Kyoto Protocol was going nowhere.

On a personal level, the a local homeless shelter was on the verge of being pushed out of downtown Olympia, WA out to the outskirts of town. The campaign to save it, which I had volunteered for, was going badly.

It was hard to take the idea of meaningful political change seriously. Things were fucked up at every level of government. Nor could I take seriously the right-wing punk, “fuck-up the system from the inside” idea. Writer Grant Morrison put it this way: “For every McDonald’s you blow up, ‘they’ will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock.”

Sounds nice in theory. But I knew corporations were more resilient than that. Sabotaging the system from inside was as much a pipe dream as changing it through politics and protest.

Outnumbered and out-gunned, armed insurrection seemed pointless. The only viable solution seemed to be outsmarting the enemy.

In early 2003, not long after the start of the Iraq War, I read The Headmap Manifesto, a document written by Ben Russell and first published in 1999. Russell described a future filled with location aware mobile internet devices, augmented reality, reputation systems and digital payment systems. He anticipated nearly every major mobile and geolocative innovation of the following decade, but the heart of the text was a vision of a new society that these technologies could bring about. He called the social economic system that would emerge from these technologies “augmented capitalism.” Today we might call it the “sharing economy.”

I started reading more blogs about mobile technology, social software and design. Back then we talked about designers like they were rock stars — sort of the way we talk about developers and startup people today. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and Lenny Kravitz dabbled in design. Bruce Sterling declared that design magazine Metropolis was the new Wired. It was the thing at the time, so I started reading lots of design blogs, and started following people like Dan Hill, Matt Jones, Adam Greenfield, Josh Ellis and Abe Burmeister. All smart people who continue to do good work.

Most importantly, I discovered Margin Walker, a now defunct web community founded by Adam and Josh and featured contributions by many of the designers I was already following. Metafilter heralded its launch with the headline “The revolutionaries will wear Prada,” because of the community’s peculiar obsession with that brand. Topics ranged from dead malls to micropayments to nomadism.

A few months later the green tech and social enterprise blog WorldChanging launched with the mission of spreading the message of the “bright green” movement, a design movement closely aligned with Sterling’s Viridian Design concept. “The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green,” Sterling announced in the movement’s manifesto. “A Viridian Green, if you will. The best chance for progress is to convince the twenty-first century that the twentieth century’s industrial base was crass, gauche, and filthy.”

In other words, maybe we instead of protesting McDonalds, or joining the board, we could convince people that it was just really uncool to eat there.

Discovering Headmap, Margin Walker and WorldChanging was for me what discovering The Whole Earth Catalog or Mondo 2000 must have been like for previous generations. These were the people I was looking for, and the vision I was seeking. An alternative to both the hopeless outsiderdom of left-wing activism and the nihilism of yuppiedom. A glimmer of hope that I could spend my post-college career making money and making a difference.

Looking back it all seems hopelessly naive.

Last year I saw Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey give a talk at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Dorsey, who got his start in tech by writing taxi dispatch software just for fun and still name drops Hakim Bey, is the most “Headmap” tech executive out there. I don’t know if he lurked on Margin Walker or the Geowankers mailing list, but he would have fit right in. He was “one of us.” And there he was at this major tech conference, dressed in a Prada suit, talking about “revolution” while homeless people slept under the bridge right across the street. I guess it could have been either a dream come true or a disillusionment had those particular dreams not already rotted in my heart.

Today we have garbage continents and ocean acidification. The latest ICC report tells us that even if we do manage to gouge our emissions, we’re still in for some rough climate change. And cutting emissions still looks as unlikely as it did to me in 2003 and as it did to Sterling in 1998.

Any sane person would look at the evidence and say the Virdian/Bright Green movement failed miserably. But here’s the thing: The Viridian Design movement may have failed in its goals, but accomplished its objectives.

Green is hip. Green is sexy. And the more affluent you are the greener — and therefore hipper — you can afford to be. “The task of this avant-garde is to design a stable and sustainable physical economy in which the wealthy and powerful will prefer to live,” Sterling wrote.

Virdians eschewed politics. “CO2 emission is not centrally a political or economic problem,” Sterling wrote. “It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”

In other words, it was a “solutionist” movement, meaning that it tried to “route around” politics and provide purely technical solutions to hard problems. The term has been popularized by Evgeny Morozov in the context of tech pundits who, but its origins are, appropriately enough, in architecture.

But in a capitalist society, an aesthetic movement is ultimately a consumerist movement. That’s why punk ended up as a lifestyle you can buy at the mall. It’s why the sharing economy is anything but. And just as the personal computer business became just another consumer electronics industry and the internet became an ad network with an NSA backdoor, Bright Green became just another way to move product. Worse, it became an excuse to use consumption as an alternative to politics and self-discipline. It’s the forfeiture of environmentalism to the market.

This bastardized version of Virdian was best stated by Arnold Vinick, told the world the fictional presidential candidate on The West Wing: “In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems.”

But as it turns out, 15 years on, that the environment is political problem after all. We need global emissions treaties. We need federal funding for research. We need to adjust our lifestyles and expectations, but we don’t want to. Down shifting is for “hair shirts.” Bright Green has become the left’s version of right-wing transhumanism: an excuse to not solve today’s problems, because tomorrow’s technology will fix them for us.

That’s not to say many of the people involved in those communities didn’t end up doing important work. And to be fair, Margin Walker was always more political and more skeptical than certain other “social responsible design” communities (if that’s even what Margin Walker was). And of course this green washed consumerism isn’t what Sterling, Alex Steffan and company had in mind in the early days. But even the political strains of that era — the so-called “emergent democracy” movement — have been co-opted by commercial forces.

Hopefully there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the next generation of activists, designers and social entrepreneurs. Don’t give up on the political, and don’t be so smug as to think you can route around it.

Photo by japanese_craft_construction

Scandanavian Cities Importing Garbage to Burn as Fuel

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The New York Times on Oslo, Norway’s garbage problem:

This is a city that imports garbage. Some comes from England, some from Ireland. Some is from neighboring Sweden. It even has designs on the American market.

“I’d like to take some from the United States,” said Pal Mikkelsen, in his office at a huge plant on the edge of town that turns garbage into heat and electricity. “Sea transport is cheap.”

Oslo, a recycling-friendly place where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage — household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests — has a problem: it has literally run out of garbage to burn.

The problem is not unique to Oslo, a city of 1.4 million people. Across Northern Europe, where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades, demand for trash far outstrips supply. “Northern Europe has a huge generating capacity,” said Mr. Mikkelsen, 50, a mechanical engineer who for the last year has been the managing director of Oslo’s waste-to-energy agency.

Full Story: The New York Times: A City That Turns Garbage Into Energy Copes With a Shortage

Some cities in Sweden are selling garbage to Oslo, but Sweden is also importing garbage from Norway.

(via Metafilter)

Eco-Friendly Burials: Human Composting

About 2.5 million people die every year in the U.S. alone. Disposing of human remains creates a serious ecological challenge. Traditional burials involve treating a body with formaldehyde and other chemicals then burying it in a wooden casket where it takes years to decompose. Cremation burns a lot of fossil fuel.

One possible alternative: a process is called promession, invented Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak.

Mother Nature Network explains:

The breakthrough process takes only about six to 12 months to transform a dead body into high-nutrient compost. Here’s how it works: A corpse is first frozen to -18°C (0°F) and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. Then the frozen, brittle corpse is gently bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. That powder is then sent through a vacuum chamber that evaporates all the water.

Since water makes up about 70 percent of an adult human body, the mass of the powdery corpse becomes greatly decreased. Also, if the powder is kept dry, it will not decompose. This erases the need for a speedy burial or funeral service, and it preserves the corpse without the need for any unnatural chemicals like embalming fluids.

When it does come time for a burial, the powder can then be placed in a box of biodegradable material like corn starch and buried in a shallow grave. The mixture will create nutritious, fertile soil, perfect for planting a tree, bush or garden, depending on the desires of the next of kin.

Full Story: Mother Nature Network: Green burial: How to turn a human body into compost

The Local has more on the company, and of course you can check out the official site.

(Thanks Beef!)

First Algae Powered Building Goes Up In Germany

world's first algae powered building

From the press release:

A 15-unit apartment building has been constructed in the German city of Hamburg that has 129 algae filled louvered tanks hanging over the exterior of the south-east and south-west sides of the building—making it the first in the world to be powered exclusively by algae. Designed by Arup, SSC Strategic Science Consultants and Splitterwerk Architects, and named the Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) House, the building demonstrates the ability to use algae as a way to heat and cool large buildings.

Full Story: PhysOrg: First Algae Powered Building Goes Up In Hamburg

See also: Are Algae the DIY Answer to Fuel & Food Crises?

Ancient Fungi Could Help Fuel Our Future

The "white rot" mushroom Trametes versicolor, also known as "Turkey Tails"

The "brown rot" mushroom Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as "Sulphur Shelf"

From my local paper:

A study released today in the journal Science identifies how a group of fungi prevalent in Oregon evolved to digest wood, properties that today hold promise for biofuels and even to clean up environmental contamination. [...]

Cellulosic ethanol is a plant-based biofuel. Much like brewing beer, yeast converts a carbohydrate called cellulose into alcohol. But the yeast can’t access the cellulose if it’s trapped by lignin, says Dr. Christine Kelly of OSU, who was not involved in the study. Plants use lignin to prevent the exact sort of microbial attack used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Current techniques to separate lignin from cellulose usually involve chemical extraction or heat, but each has drawbacks.

That’s where white rot comes in.

Scientists may be able to harvest enzymes or perhaps create better ones to break down lignin. In the rapidly evolving biofuels industry, more efficient techniques to remove lignin from cellulose could be a big advance.

Full Story: Oregon Live: Oregon’s forests filled with fungus that offer promise for fuels, eating contamination

The study is here, behind a paywall alas.

Kardashians Get 40 Times More News Coverage Than Ocean Acidification

Carbon dioxide emissions are not just warming up our atmosphere, they’re also changing the chemistry of our oceans. This phenomenon is known as ocean acidification, or sometimes as global warming’s “evil twin” or the “osteoporosis of the sea.” Scientists have warned that it poses a serious threat to ocean life. Yet major American
news outlets covered the Kardashians over 40 times more often than ocean acidification over the past year and a half. [...]
Despite a boom of recent scientific research documenting this threat, there has been a blackout on the topic at most media outlets. Since the end of 2010, ABC, NBC, and Fox News have completely ignored ocean acidification, and the Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, CNN, and CBS have barely mentioned it at all.

Full Story: Media Matters: Kardashians Get 40 Times More News Coverage Than Ocean Acidification

However, some of those outlets may have included newswire stories. From Media Matters: “The study included articles in all sections of the newspapers, but did not include any newswire reports that were run in the paper.” That means that there was little original reporting by those papers, but that there may have been slightly more coverage published. That coverage was still likely dwarfed by celebrity coverage, however.

For my part, I’ve only linked to ocean acidification here once, but I’ve covered Alan Moore many many times.

See also:

Welcome to the Acid Age

The effect of ocean acidification on oyster farming

Global ocean acidification monitoring network to launch at Rio summit

Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2012 (Highlights Part 1)

It’s that time of year again. Some good stuff this year. Sterling starts off talking about what he sees as the key drivers of global change:

I’ve tended to emphasize climate change, urbanization and demographics. Those are big and significant changes in the world, but also pretty easy to measure and quantify. That’s like hunting for futurity under the street-lights where it’s nice and bright.

So I often tell people that the mid-century will be about “old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.” I think that’s a pretty useful, common-sense, plausible assessment. You may not hear it said much, but it’s how things are turning out.

Sterling then runs through the futurism of various localities, including fringe groups, including:

Chemtrails. These guys are pitiable loons, but they’re interesting harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly afraid of the sky. It’s interesting that we have cults of people who walk outside and read the sky like a teacup. I’ve got a soft spot for chemtrail people, they’re really just sort of cool, and much more interesting than UFO cultists, who are all basically Christians. Jesus is always the number one Saucer Brother in UFO contactee cults. It’s incredible how little imagination the saucer people have.

Sterling’s bit on the mud machine of Italy could apply almost equally in the U.S:

The “Mud Machine.” This is the Berlusconi media empire, which engages in the unique practice of suppressing dissent by suggesting that everybody in Italy equally useless and crooked, so why even bother. After all, everybody in Italy would have orgies involving underage illegal-alien Moslem prostitutes if they had the chance, so why get all worked up; mind your own business. The Mud Machine works because Italians enjoy being cynical about themselves. Nobody wants to be seen as the chump, so everybody ends up being victimized.

Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2012

For an important angle on urbanization check out this Grist interview with professor of urbanism Witold Rybczynski.

Also, the Grinders are running their own state of the world style conversation. You can submit questions for them on Formspring.

Cold Fusion Device Tested, Rossi Claims Sale Was Made

According to Wired UK:

Today is set to be the start of a new era of cheap power, as a new type of low-cost nuclear reactor goes live in front of an audience of scientists and media representatives in Bologna. Once the mystery customer who commissioned the device has confirmed that it really is producing one megawatt, they’ll pay the developer, Andrea Rossi.

Unless, of course, it all goes horribly wrong. [...]

And that’s the important thing about the 28 October test: for the first time it will be carried out by the customer’s consultants, not by Rossi himself. The customer, apparently a large US company which has declined to be identified, will be measuring for itself whether the E-Cat does what it says before it will pay for it. Rossi has claimed that the device will output six times as much energy as it consumes. If it fails to perform, Rossi will not get paid and the customer will doubtless remain anonymous to avoid the inevitable bad publicity. If it succeeds, the customer might reveal itself to take credit for financing the biggest breakthrough in energy production of the modern era.

Wired UK: Cold Fusion: Future of physics or phoney?

You can find notes and video from the test here. The Pure Energy Systems Twitter account claims the same was made to the customer:

Q&A just finished; reading of results; 470 kW maintained continuously during self-sustain; customer satisfied; sale made; more later.

See also: Laser Fusion Closer to Becoming a Practical Reality

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