The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid

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On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.

But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE  and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.

The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”

Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).

In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.

Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?

Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?

No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.

In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.


The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.

Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions:  Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)

With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their  fall-out any less lethal.

Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?

Global earthquake activity since 1973 and nuclear power plant locations (click through to map web page)

* Addendum 3/31/11:

Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….

…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….

…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…

—”Japan nuclear crisis: evacuees turned away from shelters” / The Telegraph

Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.

Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.

The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.

One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.

The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”

“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.

Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”

MIT scientist announces first “practical” artificial leaf / Nature

Recently, Tata Group, an international conglomerate best known as India’s largest automaker, invested $9.5 million in Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix.

Follow the money. The smart money.

(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)


Additional links include:

And Now for Some Good News—Really

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At TrackerNews, we have long mulled adding a tagline to our masthead: “One Damn Thing After Another…” But every now and again, we come across stories that gives us hope. The tale of “Greenfreeze” refrigeration technology is one them: a better, more energy efficient answer to cooling and a successful environmental / industry collaboration. Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics operation in Milwaukee, is another one of our favorites—one we have been following closely for nearly a year and a half.  —Ed.

“When we ring the siren, at some point we do bring the ambulance,” says Amy Larkin, director of Greenpeace Solutions, the environmental organization’s lesser-known division that works with industry to find and implement climate-friendlier answers. We recently caught up with Larkin, and her colleague, engineer Claudette Juska, after they taped an NPR Worldview interview here in Chicago. Their focus: F-gases, a.k.a. “the worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of.”

If you have ever used a refrigerator, flicked on an air-conditioner or strolled the freezer aisle in a grocery store in the U.S., you are guilty-by-unavoidable-association of helping to warm the world through F-gas-driven cooling.

It is a very big deal. F-gases account for 17% of the world’s global warming impact, says Larkin. “That’s not annual emissions. That’s cumulative impact.” In other words, they tend to hang around in the atmosphere. The story gets even more jaw-dropping when when you learn that not only are there alternatives, but they been tested and used by hundreds of millions of people in other countries for the last 20 years.

What gives?

In 1992, F-gases called CFCs—chlorofluorocarbons—were banned by the Montreal Protocol after it was discovered that they had punched a hole on the planet’s ozone layer. The chemical industry’s alternative? HFCs—hydroflurocarbons. Although these don’t harm the ozone layer, they still have the “F”—fluorine—a potent greenhouse gas.

Never ones to sit on their hands, in 1993, Greenpeace activists in Germany set about getting a prototype refrigerator built to prove there was another way around the problem using “natural refrigerants” such as isobutane. Then they tried to drum up some interest from manufacturers. Nada. Remarkably undaunted, they then pre-sold 70,000 non-existent refrigerators. As Larkin notes, this was way before Facebook and Twitter were even a glimmer on the cyber-horizon (indeed, Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers…). Greenpeace went back to the manufacturer of the prototype, who was now happy beyond happy to ramp up a production line. The technology was open-sourced, so now all the major manufacturers make them, too.

Today, hundreds of millions of “Greenfreeze” refrigerators have been sold. Although comparable in cost to HFC models, they are much more efficient, so cheaper to run, too. Still, they remain illegal in the U.S. “The natural refrigerants do not have lobbyists,” explains Larkin. “The chemical industry does.”

But the rules may change soon, due in large part to Greenpeace-mediated industry pressure. Coca-Cola, Unilever, McDonald’s, Carlsbad Group and Pepsico banded together with Greenpeace and UNEP to form Refrigerants, Naturally!, to promote the use of climate-friendlier technologies, including regulatory and political frameworks to encourage investment.

Wal-Mart is also sold on the technology, even making improvements improvements and sharing its data. After electricity, refrigeration and cooling rank #2 on the company’s carbon footprint list. Says Larkin:

Large businesses like to have certainty, like to plan, like to see where they’re going to make a profit, like to see where they’re going to get hammered, like to see the regulation down the road and if they can, avoid a regulatory problem or a big, costly mess that they didn’t anticipate… (If they can make) a product that is more efficient, less costly in terms of energy for themselves or their customers, generally, they will be on our side.

…Part of the reason that businesses like to share this is that when all of the retailers and all of the ice-cream makers transfer their technology at the same time, you can achieve economies of scale.

The EPA and Underwriters Laboratory are currently reviewing safety issues—natural refrigerants are flammable—but given the global track record, it is possible that the first consumer Greenfreeze refrigerators will be available in the U.S. sometime in 2011. And that’s just plain cool.


Another of our favorite stories here at TrackerNews is fast becoming a favorite story with everybody: Sweet Water Organics, the Milwaukee-based aquaponics start-up inspired by Will Allen’s urban agriculture work. They were recently featured in the New York Times (“Fish Farms, with a Side of Greens”) and on NBC’s Nightly News:

Although some of the facts have gotten a bit sanded for TV—this is not yet a completely closed loop system, but getting there, which is what’s exciting—the progress over the last 16 months has been nothing short of astonishing. When we first walked into the Sweet Water warehouse, just a few blocks from the expressway on the southwest side of town, it was empty, save for three newly-dug fish “raceways,” water burbling away, waiting to be stocked and some wooden structures holding a few dozen basil plants.

Today, every surface is bursting with life. The crops—mostly lettuce—are thriving, as are fish, by the tens of thousands. Staff and volunteers bustle about, while a steady stream of visitors tour the operation, eyes wide, taking notes. The learning curve has been both steep and, delightfully, endless. Tilapia are being phased out in favor of perch, which turn out to be more in tune with Wisconsin palates. New filters and bubblers are being tested to reduce sediment levels, while keeping water a nice perch-preferred degree of murky. Hoop houses are under construction in the courtyard. New vertical planting pots are being put through their paces. Even mulch has gone artisanal in this unique workshop / lab.

There is a palpable sense that something important and potentially world-changing is happening here. It is a story we will continue to follow closely. Stay tuned…

Smoke This…

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Every so often, we come across a topic so critically urgent, it takes over the entire TrackerNews aggregator. Typically, it is a natural disaster: an earthquake, hurricane, fire or flood. Smoking, however, turns out to be an even more deadly and costly disaster. By the end of the century, as many as 1 billion people will die from tobacco-related illnesses. We felt this topic so important, we have reprinted TrackerNews tumblr overview of the link suite below. Scientists and social entrepreneurs, please note the section on a call to action. —Ed.

“Smoke This” – New suite of links on

Talk about “low hanging fruit.” Smoking ranks right up there with HIV/AIDs, malaria, TB and flu pandemics as a global public health scourge. In fact, more people die from smoking-related illnesses than HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol, car accidents, suicides and murders…combined. By some estimates, as many as a billion people—two-thirds in the developing world—will die tobacco-laced deaths by the end of this century. There are better, not to mention more merciful, ways to manage population numbers.

Yet for all the public awareness campaigns and urban smoking bans (good luck, Alexandria!), more people are smoking more cigarettes than ever. In 2002, the tally stood at 5.5. trillion, but it has gone up by at least by hundreds of billions since then.

Smoking rates have leveled off in many parts of developed world, but are exploding in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. According to a recent World Health Organization survey of adult smokers, Russia leads the cigarette pack, with 40% of the adult population puffing their lives away. Indeed, of former Soviet republics, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have shorter average life expectancies.

Recently, the Philippines made smoking headlines when a video of an addicted toddler went viral. With the help of loads of “play therapy,” the kid is now down to 15 cigarettes per day from 2 packs. But his exposure to second hand smoke will no doubt still be considerable in a country than ranks as the #2 market in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

Meanwhile, China boasts more smokers than the entire population of the United States. So keen are the Chinese on tobacco, they have become major players in its production in Africa. Fields that might otherwise be used to grow food are devoted to tobacco, both for export and use in Africa.

With 60% of the continent’s population in its teens, Africa is a particularly attractive market for tobacco companies. Start smoking young and it becomes that much harder to kick the addiction. If current trends hold, Africa’s tobacco consumption will double in 12 years.

The addiction goes beyond the smoke. Countries—especially poor ones—have also become addicted to the tax revenues cigarette sales generates. It is a stick that British American Tobacco (BAT) is currently waving in Kenya in an attempt to reverse smoking bans in public places, arguing that they “restrict trade.”

Counterfeit cigarettes are also big business, estimated at 12% of the global trade. Not only is quality control iffy (more nicotine, tar and god knows what else that combine to become the “4,000 chemicals in every puff”), but $40 billion worth of tax revenues are syphoned off as well.

Chemist Jeffrey Wigand, who famously blew the whistle on Big Tobacco’s culpability on “60 Minutes” (and went on to be played by Russell Crow in the movie, “The Insider”) called cigarettes elegant “nicotine delivery systems.” He may have given his former Big Tobacco bosses an idea…

Electronic cigarettes cut to the chase, atomizing nicotine into a vapor even more easily absorbed by the lungs. Battery-powered and comparatively pricey, e-cigarettes have become trendy, complete with Hollywood starlets purring about how safe they are, just as their grandmothers (and grandfathers) did for old-fashioned cigarettes 50 years ago.

Don’t want to lug around an addiction machine? No problem. Now you can get melt-in-your-mouth nicotine-soaked strips that even come in flavors, including chocolate and bubblegum. In a recent brief to the FDA, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which makes a gum to help smokers kick the habit, characterized the strips as health hazards. “Dissolvable smokeless tobacco-makers” fired back that the strips could help smokers quit cigarettes, so Glaxo’s concerns were more about market share than health.



One of the proposed graphic warning labels submitted for public review by the FDA



At TrackerNews, we are constantly impressed by innovations for delivering better health care, cheaply. From diagnostic “chips” made of paper and a syringe design that breaks the cold chain for vaccine delivery, to better vaccines, bioengineering malaria-proof mosquitoes and, of course, everything imaginable with a cell phone, the commitment to improving the quality of life, especially for the poorest “bottom billion,” is inspiring. It is humanity at its best. The parade of inventions at the TED, Poptech, the m-Health Summit and other conferences is impressive. But there is rarely anything on how to combat the global smoking pandemic.

Nothing comes up when you search “smoking” on the Rockefeller Foundation website. Not a single grant. Nor is it on’s radar. The Gates Foundation has a better track record, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly for public awareness campaigns and policy initiatives. Yet even that substantial contribution is dwarfed by the billions of dollars spent collectively and cumulatively by the multinational tobacco companies.

Surely, there must be some new ideas out there. Maybe some kind of nicotine vaccine that makes the chemical less addictive? Or a cell phone support network for those trying to quit. Or a campaign that targets teens not with a “this could happen to you” message, but about how they are being cynically manipulated by the over-30 set. Real rebels don’t smoke.

How about an m-banking savings plan where people are encouraged to deposit the money they would have spent on cigarettes into a special perk-filled account?  In the U.S., someone spending $5 a day for a pack could save $1,725 in a year. Now add interest.

In developing countries, such as Bangladesh—which was included in a WHO survey of 14 countries that account for more than half the world’s adult smokers—the percentage of personal income is going to be even higher. Hello Grameen! Is there a way to tie together a non-smoking incentive with microfinance?

Smoking is a manufactured scourge. The rare good news is that we can do something about it in comparatively short order. Someone who quits immediately begins to feel the benefits, as do those nearby, especially children, who no longer have to suck  in lungs-ful of second-hand smoke.

Come on all you science smarties and social entrepreneurs! Let’s nail this. Any thoughts?

Links include:

  • “Tobacco Underground” – The Center for Public Integrity’s ongoing investigative series on smuggling and counterfeiting
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

The Future? Fossil Fuels Are So…Yesterday: On Post-Oil Possiblities, TEDxOilSpill, Amory Lovins, Reinventing Fire & Small People Power

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"Burning oil on the Gulf of Mexico," from the TEDxOilSpill expedition, June, 2010, photo credit: James Duncan Davidson; For more information on June 28 event:

Despite my general rule that once a day is designated for a cause, the cause is likely lost (or at least in serious trouble), I found myself rooting mightily last Saturday for Solarday. Missed it? It is only in its second year, but with global aspirations and the power of the sun on its side.

The power of new sun that is, not the fossil kind captured by plants millions of years ago and transformed into oil, coal and gas. Old sun is best left underground, underwater, under salt seals, in mountains and far, far away from tail pipes and smokestacks. Old sun warms the Earth in all the wrong ways. New sun offers a way out of Dodge.

The “teachable moment” in the Gulf, now stretching into its third month and threatening to stretch for years, frames the debate in the starkest of terms: oils spills versus sun spills. Which one would you prefer to soak up?

We have loads of clean / cleaner energy options beyond solar (photovoltaic, water heating):

  • wind power (macro and micro)

Every week journals burst burst with news on ever-niftier applications for existing technologies (the solar light bulb) and breakthrough improvements, such as MIT professor Daniel Nocera’s efforts to biomimick photosynthesis for “personalized energy,” all the while improving water use and quality:

Energy start-up Sun Catalytix aims to scale up Nocera’s work in the lab for real-world application.


As Nocera points out, unless we get a hold of demand, energy supply is always going to be a game of catch-up – as it is for resources of every kind. Casting the issue in terms of per capita usage actually provides a perverse incentive for over-population.

Rather, the question isn’t how to most equitably divvy up a finite fossil fuel pie, but how much energy is needed for people to live happy, healthy, productive, environmentally-compatible lives.

The education of women in developing countries, which has been shown to correlate to family-planning, along with easier access to contraceptives, are key for a successful global energy strategy.

Business-as-usual means that “every three years, a new Saudi Arabia needs to be discovered and exploited just to maintain the level of output,” according to Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at British think tank, Chatham House and co-author on a new report co-produced with insurance giant Lloyd’s of London on business-smart energy strategies: Sustainable Energy Security: Strategic Risks and Opportunities for Business.

Global energy use is expected to climb a staggering 40% over the next two decades. Even if there were no risks or downsides to deep water drilling and tar sand mining, this would be a tall order to fill. “In an energy insecure world, resilience is an absolutely key function,” says Froggatt.

So how do we put more “bounce” back in the system?  Clearly not by continuing to pour money into vulnerable pipelines, pirate-friendly tanker ships, inefficient central power generation plants, “dumb” grids and top-down one-size-fits-all answers driving an ever-depressing downward spiral, greased by oil spills.

How do we transition to the dazzling variety of better technologies that are either already on the shelf or on the near-term horizon? This is a business and logistics question, not a technical question (which is not to say that substantial and steady R&D funding isn’t required – it most definitely is).

If the Chatham House report is right, things will start to get really dicey by 2013, when China’s domestic oil production is expected to peak and competition for global supplies becomes even more fierce.


Few people have been as tenaciously focused on saving the world from its fossil fuel addiction as Amory Lovins, chief scientist and cofounder of the Colorado-based “think and do tank,” Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). For over 30 years, Lovins, a geek’s geek, has relentlessly and with trademark statistic-laced cheer, shown how saving energy is almost always cheaper than generating it (“negawatts” and “negabarrels”) and how thoughtful design can translate, often immediately, to the bottom line.

When Detroit declared that cars were as efficient as they were ever going to be, Lovins set about reinventing the auto as a “Hypercar,” experimenting with carbon-composite plastics (light-weighting and saves on “paint shop” costs), LED lights, hydrogen fuel cells, better insulation to cut A/C needs and low drag design.  While the team was at it, they did away with the steering wheel in favor of joystick, too. Voila! 100 mpg.  Many of the technologies (though, so far, not the joystick) have been adopted by major manufacturers (video).

Green building design has always been a central part of the RMI’s work, starting with Lovins’ own home, The Banana Farm, nestled in the Rockies of Snowmass, CO. The most ambitious project so far: a $13.2 million retrofit of the Empire State Building, designed to save just under $4 million in energy costs per year.

As impressive as these projects are, they are the warm up for what may very well be Lovins’ masterwork: Reinventing Fire. RF, a new research initiative just getting underway,  builds on work from an earlier project, “Winning the Oil Endgame,” a business-driven road map for weaning the U.S. off oil by 2050. Lovins explains in this TED talk from 2005:

For Reinventing Fire, once again Business is targeted as the engine of change, with competitive edge as the carrot motivating Business. CO2 and pollution reduction are almost incidental benefits. Rather, RF aims to make virtuous circles possible: Do the right thing and all kinds of good things follow.

With the clear-headed cunning that comes from decades at the front lines, the RMI team has carefully chosen its battles:

In the web of interconnections spanning how energy is produced, transported, distributed and used, all the points along the way are fair game for intervention. But decades of research into how energy moves from fossil-fuel sources to uses have revealed key leverage points in four sectors: transportation, buildings, industry and electricity.

Although RF’s focus is on the U.S., the lessons can be applied anywhere and everywhere. The good news only gets better.


There is no need for the rest of us to wait on the sidelines while Business gets its profit-priorities in gear. Plenty of revolutions – maybe most – start with “the small people,” as English-as-a-second-language-challenged BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg dubbed us.

In addition to seeking out energy-smart products, insulating our homes and lobbying for more and better public transportation options, we can begin to think more about what we eat and where it comes from.

Much of what appears an America’s dinner plates took thousands of miles to get there. Calves born in Florida might be “finished” in a feedlot in Nebraska and shipped as hamburger to a grocery story in Illinois. Fresh fruits and vegetables are no longer about the bounty of season, but flight logistics. The loss of shrimping in the Gulf from the oil spill doesn’t only mean lost jobs, it means more imports from overseas.

From running farm machinery, to inputs for pesticides and herbicides and, of course, shipping, an enormous amount of fossil fuel goes into food. It is time we put a fork in it: “Small people for locally or regionally-produced food!” If we can up the percentage to just 25% of our collective plate, not only would it force a change in production logistics, but we would be healthier for our efforts. A lot of vitamins get lost in transit…

The urban agriculture movement, which puts farms in the middle of cities, shortens the loop about as much as it can be shortened. As pioneered by MacArthur fellow Will Allen at Milwaukee- based Growing Power’s flagship farm, fish can be added to the harvest through a closed loop aquaponics set up where plants filter water while fish fertilize plants (see TrackerBlog post: “The Farm Next Door”).


In a recent interview with the New York Times, the wife of a Gulf coast oil worker spoke about her conflicting feelings between the need for  jobs right now and the high environmental costs of drilling.

“I mean, eventually we might figure out a way to switch over to something else for us to use for energy,” she said. “But is it going to be affordable for everybody?

If we remain loyal to oil, it is a sure thing that it will not be affordable for all. There is simply too much global competition, too much geopolitical risk and no deadline for “eventually.”

Jon Stewart / "The Daily Show": Presidents promising energy independence...

Imagine what the present would have looked like if Nixon (!) had delivered on his promise for energy independence by 1980. Or his successors been a bit more successful pushing green alternatives. What wars might have been averted? What industries would be creating jobs? What would Nigeria look like? And what hole in the ocean floor wouldn’t be gushing?

There is no time left for “eventually.” You want that better future back? Let’s go get it.


  • TEDxOilSpill: June 28, 2010 – livestreaming from Washington D.C.

The Farm Next Door: Urban Agriculture, Biomimicry, Aquaponics, Why Worms are Priceless & How Will Allen Aims to Fix the World

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Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI

Growing Power, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Healthier food, better access for poor, landfill relief, reduced carbon footprint, off-the-shelf set up, replicable, scalable, jobs bonanza, includes fish; Can a “small food” paradigm succeed where Big Food has failed?

The next agricultural revolution will not be patented. It will not depend on genetically modified seeds or petrochemical fertilizers. It will not poison or deplete aquifers. It will not erode topsoil that took millennia to form. Nor will distance between “farm and fork” be measured in thousands of gas-guzzling miles.

The next agricultural revolution won’t even take place on the farm – at least as we know it.

It will be potted and stacked, set up in hoop houses and warehouses, sprout from rooftops, vacant lots and lawns. Worms will be celebrated, bacteria will flourish and grubs nurtured. It will be drought and flood resistant and productive all year long.

The next agricultural revolution will be street-smart and urban, yet mimic nature far more closely than agro-giant operations sprawled over hundreds or even thousands of monotonous monoculture acres.

Best of all, the next agricultural revolution is well underway, just 5 blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project, off a busy street, behind an unassuming farm-stand surrounded by sunflowers basking in the brilliant light of a mid-September afternoon. Welcome to Growing Power.


“The Big Food system hasn’t fed the world,” says Will Allen, urban farmer, MacArthur genius, share-cropper’s son, former basketball star, former corporate marketer, vermicompost evangelist and CEO of Growing Power. He is speaking to a group of environmental lawyers who have spent an hour digging a ditch after 2 hours touring Growing Power’s flagship 3-acre farm. They are flushed and sweaty and hang on every word. Here at last is a genuine answer that could just turn things around, no legal briefs required.

According to UN statistics, over a billion people do not have enough to eat, with tens of millions more added to the tally each year. Even in the  U.S., an estimated 1 in 6 children – more than 12 million – are “food insecure.” A global recession, a series of increasingly severe droughts and floods (at least some likely driven or amplified by climate change), and competition for land between food and fuel crops have sent those living near the edge straight over it. Every 6 seconds, a child somewhere in the world dies from hunger or related causes.

Micronutrient malnutrition affects an estimated 2 billion people. One third of children in the developing world are vitamin A deficient, putting them at risk for blindness. Anemia from iron deficiency during pregnancy is linked to over 100,000 maternal deaths.

In the developed world, malnutrition is often masked by obesity. A diet of high-calorie, high-fat, fast food laced with high fructose corn syrup  is not only a nutritional catastrophe, but also ups the odds for developing diabetes, heart disease and other assorted ills. Cheap food comes at a high cost that the poor, more than anyone else, have had to pay.

Fast food joints and liquor stores dot the neighborhood around Growing Power, but  the nearest full-service grocery is several miles away. For all practical purposes, the neighborhood is a healthy food desert. American cities are rife with them.

Allen’s mission is to fill the gap: to bring fresh, healthy, affordable food to the urban poor, to green food deserts with greens…and eggs, honey, chickens, turkeys, ducks and fish. Lots of fish.


The Growing Power greenhouse - intensive all-season farming generates between $5 and $30 per square foot   (photo: Growing Power)

The Growing Power greenhouse - intensive all-season farming generates between $5 and $30 per square foot (photo: Growing Power)

Walk through the door of  the small shabby-neat one-room  store – where a video of Allen extolling the wonders of worms plays on an old television perched on some equally vintage coolers stocked with a few cartons of eggs and miscellaneous produce – into the Growing Power greenhouses and you enter a world that makes such sense, the relief is palpable. It fairly hums with purpose.

Bounty beyond imagining bursts from a substrate of plywood, 2 x 4s, waterproof liners, pumps (some solar powered), pvc pipe, fluorescent grow lights and tens of thousands of plastic pots and seed trays. There is an order to the chaos, a rhythm and logic to the intertwining series of elegantly balanced ecosystems that together support over 150 varieties of vegetables, edible plants, poultry, a few goats and tens of thousands of fish.

So intensively is space used, each square foot generates between $5 and $30. That translates per acre between roughly $218,000 and a little more than $1.3 million, which is astonishing. By contrast, corn currently sells for about $3 per bushel. If you figure 200 bushels per acre – a bumper crop – that ‘s only $600. Comparing commodity grain crops to vegetables isn’t entirely fair: corn and wheat aren’t greenhouse-friendly. Still, this gives you some idea just how distorted and subsidy-addled the Big Food system has become. Factor in the cost of seed, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, machinery, land and labor and what’s really being raised is a bumper crop of debt.

Allen’s harvest is also healthier because it is fresher, with fewer nutrients literally lost in transit. Tomatoes, produced year-round at Growing Power, sell when naturally ripe. Supermarket tomatoes, however, are often picked green, then exposed to ethylene gas to make them ripen in time for delivery, which usually involves a long-haul truck or an international flight.

In a rather poetic twist, fewer greenhouse gases are emitted from Allen’s greenhouse food because delivery is local. Continue reading

The Other Change You Can Believe In: Higher Temps, Melting Glaciers, Nepali Tsunamis, The Northeast Passage and Roadside Hippos

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Even the Himalayas Have Stopped Smiling

Oxfam report summary: "Even the Himalayas Have Stopped Smiling"

If no other statistic about climate change gives you pause, this one should: 1/4 of the world’s population – an estimated 1.4 billion people – rely on water from rivers that source in the Himalayas. As glaciers retreat, snow packs shrink and spring thaws occur earlier and earlier, the precious gift of a well-timed water supply is disappearing before our eyes. Instead, flooding torrents race down mountain streams too early in the spring for crops to use, followed by months of drought when the flows of once reliably mighty rivers slow to a trickle. If that weren’t misery enough, alpine lakes swollen from glacial melt threaten to break their banks, unleashing “Nepali tsunamis” officially called “GLOFs” (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) that threaten to drown villages and fields and scour away topsoil.

Women, who do most of the water-fetching and firewood-gathering, are forced to walk further and further for essentials each day. Crop failures mean hunger and malnutrition.

Temperatures, like a seasoned sherpa hiking up Mount Everest, climb fast at higher elevations – as much as 8 times faster in the Himalayas than elsewhere on the planet over the last three decades. With warmer weather comes a raft of vector-borne diseases for which these cold-adapted communities have no defense.

Weak, sick, hungry, thirsty. So much for Shangri-La.


Downstream, as Newsweek’s Sharon Begley notes, “A special place in climate hell is being reserved for India and China.” Already, 20% of China has turned to desert. And the water table beneath India’s irrigation-dependent “breadbasket” has been so depleted, NASA satellites have been able to detect a change in earth’s gravitational field over the region.

It isn’t just the breadth of the water disaster that is so confounding, but the fact that it is accelerating. As worthy as the efforts by organizations and projects such as charity: water and Ripple Effect may be, it is hard to believe they can possibly make a dent when need is growing both exponentially and quickly. There is a great big climate change hole-in-the-bucket. Continue reading

Trees for Trees: How Saving the Urban Forest Could Help Save the Rain Forest and Save Us All

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The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

The Central Park Conservancy faces months of clean-up and hundreds of thousands of dollars in clean-up costs to repair the damage caused by an unusually fierce storm on August 18. Donations welcome. (photo: Tony Yang)

Making a right from two wrongs; For the love of a park; Inspiration from Aldo Leopold, MLB-branded grass & Neopets; Cyber-seedlings & fundraising; “You had me at orangutan”

By all accounts the storm that hit New York’s Central Park last week didn’t last very long, but the devastation was breathtaking. In a matter of minutes, winds approaching hurricane-strength flattened hundreds of old beloved trees and damaged hundreds more. With roots in the air and limbs askew, and the dead and wounded strewn everywhere, the soft green heart of this hard gray city had taken a direct hit. The days that followed were filled with the cracking of ripped timber, the whine of power saws and the relentless buzz of wood-chippers. Grass will grow where giants once stood. Sunlight will filter down to the urban forest floor for the first time in years. New trees will be planted. And in a few decades, incredibly, no one will be the wiser.

Central Park, after all, was never the forest primeval. Still, there is something sacred about old trees – even if their age is measured in decades rather than centuries, and their arrangement determined by a landscape architect. They grew up with us, or we with them. In a place of constant change they are, simply, constant. If trees can be so easily uprooted, what chance have we? It is unnerving to see how shallow and vulnerable a tall tree’s roots really are.


Although I live in Chicago, I visit New York several times a year and have come to know the Park well enough to have my favorite places. I know Spring has finally arrived when flocks of birders at the Ramble start comparing notes on who’s returned and set up nests, while flocks of Japanese brides/grooms/photographers start flitting to scenic spots to set up Wedding Pictures. In  summer, it’s bicycles, drumming circles, reading on a shady rock, serenaded by an old man playing un-hummable but delicious melodies on a one-stringed Chinese instrument. Fall is filled with the smell and crunch of leaves, walking down the promenade near the statue of Christopher Columbus. And Winter – if I am lucky enough to be marooned by a LaGuardia-closing blizzard – is a trip to the Museum of Natural History for some fossils and stars, followed by a few quick snow angels in the Park.

Always, there are the trees. Budding, shady, raining seeds, etched with a white filigree sparkle.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the tab for clean up and replanting will easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (donations welcome). The true cost —  lost views, lost homes (nests & burrows) and lost familiarity — is incalculable.