can’t see the forest

Cultures at the far edge of the world

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BlueBear, at his EcoBlog, posted a link back in March to this spellbinding 2003 TED talk by NatGeo anthropologist and explorer-in-residence Wade Davis on “cultures at the far edge of the world.” Davis details a few of his experiences among indigenous peoples in various corners of the planet and makes some interesting points about what these cultures can teach us—apparently sometimes against our will—about the relationship between us and our environment. Davis truly walks the walk, and his storytelling is, if sometimes a little frantically paced, nonetheless unequivocally engaging. The photography is likewise amazing.

Indigenous people are neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia.There’s not a lot of room for either in the malarial swamps of the Asmat or the chilling winds of Tibet. But they have, nevertheless, through time and ritual, forged a traditional mystique of the Earth that is based not on the idea of being self-consciously ‘close’ to it, but on a far subtler intuition: the idea that the Earth itself can only exist because it is breathed into being by human consciousness. Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who is raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource, or that place, than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s an abode of spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant; what’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world.

I will have more thoughts on this relationship between person and planet—which is at the core of human ecology, socioteleology, and personal development—very soon. In my view, few topics are as important and far-reaching, and as neglected in the modern Western/industrial worldview.

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In a hole in the ground there lived an eco-warrior.

Posted in architecture, conservation, ecology, energy, Environment, family, Home, Lifestyle, UK, UK news by Curtis on 12/6/08

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dale-house-exterior1A UK man, his dad, and some friends and passersby have built, for around US$5,000, an ultra-low impact family home in Wales. They say you can do it, too.

Simon Dale and his wife work in the surrounding terrain doing forest management, something Dale says wouldn’t be possible if they had to mortgage a brick home somewhere. Using mainly a chainsaw and a hammer, taking their timber from fallen trees in the environs, and garnering everything from plumbing and wiring to windows from piles of discarded junk, Dale—a self-described first-time architect—has exhibited amazing resourcefulness in creating an ecologically responsible and downright cozy-looking abode.

Why has Dale done this?

Our society is almost entirely dependent on the availability of increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy. This has brought us to the point at which our supplies are dwindling and our planet is in ecological catastrophe. We have no viable alternative energy source and no choice but to reduce our energy consumption. The sooner this change can be begun, the more comfortable it will be.

For our energy consumption to decrease we must reduce consumption and dramatically increase the productivity of our land. This will require developing infrastructure and skills to enable locally self-reliant living. The simplest, sustainable solutions involve small-scale permaculture type land management systems centred around individual or small groups of dwellings. There is significant and growing energy at the grass-roots to start implementing these low impact developments. This enthusiasm comes from a combination of intellectual concern and the innate appeal of living closer to nature. The major obstacle is access to land. The price of land with residential planning permission is not commensurate with the income from this type of living. This will change, but these projects need time to develop and reach productivity. A few people are taking direct action but the numbers are far short of the critical mass that could be realised. If allowances can be made within the planning system to grant access to land, and the right to live on it, to those wishing to live this life, we can allow a grass-roots tide of people to make real progress towards a sustainable society.

The house uses a few solar panels to provide enough electricity for night light and computing. Water comes by gravity from a nearby spring, and heat is provided through a fireplace specially designed to capture and radiate the maximum amount of thermal energy.

CSTF salutes Mr. Dale and wishes him all the best. If there were more of him in the world, it’d be a happier planet.

dale-house-interior

Songs in Blue and Green

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Deputy Dog, working from a variety of sources, put together earlier this month a collection of 11 breathtaking photos of the Earth from space. My favorite happens to be this one, a capture of the transit of the moon’s shadow across our planet during the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, taken from the space station Mir:

Eclipse_from_Mir

It could rightly be said that, in this modern age, our civilization is struggling to come to grips with the achievements of science and the exponential growth of our species in ways personal and societal, in terms of today and of the outlook for the decades and centuries which expand before us in our imaginings of the tapestry of forever. These are disorienting times. It is good for us, then, I think, to spend whiles with images such as these. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s apt commentary from a 1994 Cornell lecture, which he paired with the following photo, then (and probably still) the most distant photograph of Earth, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of four billion miles:

Long Way Home

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Those are severely illuminating words from one of the greatest of modern minds.

UN Publishes ‘GEO 4’ Report

Posted in ecology, economy, Environment, Politics, sustainability, UN, World News by Curtis on 10/28/07

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The United Nations has published its Global Environmental Outlook Report, a 572-page document detailing the states of various facets of the natural world and human civilization’s relationship to it.

Far more than just a treatment of the problems of climate change, which has been the focus of recent publications of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and for which it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Jr.), the Geo-4 discusses issues with the Earth’s water supply, overfishing, deforestation, and a host of other subjects. The document’s overall tone is soberly propositional.

The BBC’s Richard Black writes:

There could be no clearer example of a society engaged in unsustainable development; a society that is “meeting the needs of the present”, but in doing so is very definitely “compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Humans might be living longer and richer lives now, this implies; but environmental degradation must at some point curb or even reverse the trend.

To use the jargon, the world’s store of financial capital is rising at the expense of its natural capital, the bits of nature that humans rely on to provide food and water and to re-process our waste…

…Without major changes in direction, we had better hope that the people who believe that human ingenuity, technology and economic growth will always solve our future problems turn out to be right.

Austin, TX to Require Zero-Energy Homes by 2015

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Jetson Green writes on an Austin, Texas city initiative that will ramp up energy efficiency standards through 2015. The big surprise? It may actually save money in the long run:

Austin

The City of Austin, after a year of serious research by the Zero Energy Capable Homes Task Force, announced a huge initiative towards requiring all new single-family homes to be zero-energy capably by 2015. Here’s how it works. Today, the city adopted the first in a series of code amendments and a road map of code amendments that will be implemented through 2015. Due to this first series of changes, roughly 6500 new homes built in Austin will be about 20% more efficient. Through 2015, as the code changes ratchet up the efficiency baseline, homes will end up using about 65% less energy than those built today. Then, owners will have the option of adding solar or some other clean tech to get the home to zero energy status.

Speaking of the Zero Energy Homes Initiative, Mayor Will Wynn said, “We’re taking action today that will lower the cost of utility bills, make housing more affordable, help improve air quality and take critical steps in the fight against global warming.

I’m always a bit startled by the phrase “fight against global warming.” I suppose it is more politically neutral than the “fight against industrial excess.”

British University: Oceans Soaking Up Less CO2

Posted in climate change, ecology, Environment, Global Warming, oceans, Science, UK news by Curtis on 10/21/07

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From the BBC News:

The amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the world’s oceans has reduced, scientists have said.

University of East Anglia researchers gauged CO2 absorption through more than 90,000 measurements from merchant ships equipped with automatic instruments.

Results of their 10-year study in the North Atlantic show CO2 uptake halved between the mid-90s and 2000 to 2005.

Scientists believe global warming might get worse if the oceans soak up less of the greenhouse gas.

Researchers said the findings, published in a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research, were surprising and worrying because there were grounds for believing that, in time, the ocean might become saturated with our emissions.

The world’s oceans, like the terrestrial biomes taken as a whole, provide an important carbon ‘sink’ through which atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are regulated. Algal blooms that feed on carbon dioxide are one of the main mechanisms through which the ocean participates in the carbon cycle, but, as far as we know, there is only so much that they can handle before saturation begins to occur.

Mounting evidence has suggested to many scientists that the ocean’s regulation of CO2 is a finely-tuned process capable of maintaining an equilibrium in all but the most extreme circumstances. The very real concern of these scientists is that, after over a century of virtually unfettered human industrial emissions, such an extreme circumstance may be here or presently on its way.

Just Put it on my Tab

Posted in Birds, Crime, ecology, humor, ornithology, urban life, video by Curtis on 9/27/07

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Urban shopkeepers have to keep a constant watch for shoplifters, of course. Usually, though, the thieves don’t have wings.

“Sam” the seagull, of Aberdeen, Scotland, has become something of an Internet celebrity because of his daily habit of stealing a bag of Tangy Cheese Doritos from a city shop.

Now, that’s urban ecology. No charges have as yet been filed.