Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Green travels to developing countries

Season's greetings, all! I was traveling abroad in Malaysia and Singapore for a few weeks this December. It was a wonderful trip and I loved being there. Southeast Asia is culturally similar to East Asia in many ways, but there were refreshing differences, such as the interesting mixing of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences in the region. The food especially was amazing - I couldn't stop eating the street food, it was too delicious! That brings me to my next point - waste.

Street food in Asia used to consist of using reusable containers (glass jars for water while traveling, plastic containers for food) or compostable newspaper to wrap food with. What could be reused was and what left was thrown away, but because the material was compostable, there was little environmental impact. But with the rise of convenient and throwaway plastic bags and containers, the same habits of throwing things away created huge trash issues. During my travels in Malaysia and my past trips to China and India, I observed so many rivers clogged up with trash, city streets littered with plastic bags and bottles, and land covered with huge piles of waste.


Trash casually thrown away - my grandfather's hometown village in Guangxi province, China

At one point during my travels in China, my friend and I got so fed up with the constant plastic bagging of our street food that we decided to start reusing the old bags and chopsticks. Sometimes the hawker stall vendors would insist on giving us new bags or chopsticks. But eventually we got our way. It's a small victory to prevent one plastic bag or a pair of chopsticks from being thrown into the streets, but I hope that it gets people thinking about what they can do to prevent the waste from piling up.

Traveling to developing countries does make me realize how complicated the rise to first world status is. Environmental impact is just about the last thing the government will be thinking about when economic productivity is on the line. But I think that environmental sustainability is key to achieving first world status and it is not a luxury only to be obtained once economic success is had. Without sustainable foundations, society will be very unstable. I don't have any quick and easy answers to how to maintain that goal, especially when there are many other pressing problems to address in developing countries. But I do think that having that solid foundation will help ease the tension in the other areas.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

I just finished Jeffery Sachs' book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet and wanted to recommend it to any person interested in the environment and how it might tie into global politics, economics, and social issues.

The book includes a bit of everything - science, politics, social concerns, population demographics, economics. For those who aren't as familiar with climate change, Sachs gives a nice and easy to understand summary of the scientific evidence for global climate change and the environmental consequences that will follow. There are also chapters on population growth, poverty, and global politics.

For me, the most enlightening chapters were on US foreign policy and how these policies help solve (or more correctly fail to solve) global problems. Having traveled outside of the US, it now makes sense to me WHY everyone dislikes the US so much - the US takes the attitude of "you're with us or against us" rather than one of cooperation and neighborly conduct. The problems the world faces today are ones that everyone has a hand in causing and in resolving, and one country acting like they can just let the other countries deal with their own problems will eventually be detrimental to the world.

Another interesting section in the book was the statistics on foreign aid. I never saw the statistics on it before, but there is definitely a correlation between amount of foreign aid given to developing countries and how successful they became later. Foreign aid can help stop the poverty trap and prevent civil wars and conflicts that engulf the world from happening. Countries that have a large percentage of its population in extreme poverty are more likely to have troubled communities desperate to survive. Add on the environmental stress of climate chance, such as water scarcity and food shortage, and uncontrolled population growth, and you have a potentially explosive situation on your hands. Places where civil wars and conflicts that have occurred in the last few years have all been places where there was a high percentage of young people and where there was high environmental stress.

In short, I found the book really enlightening and I highly recommend everyone to read it, especially fellow Americans!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dirty Dozen Foods

If you're looking to buy organic, but not sure where to start, here's a list of a Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables from the Environmental Working Group that research has shown to be high in pesticide residues. It's best to buy these organic to avoid long term illness from the pesticides, especially for pregnant women and children. For those on a budget, it's also a great way to prioritize which foods to buy organic and which ones you can do without.

The list includes the following fruits and vegetables
  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines (imported to US)
  7. Grapes (imported to US)
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale
Alternatives to these fruits and vegetables include
  • Watermelon, bananas, and kiwi
  • Cabbage, asparagus, and broccoli
  • Sweet potato
  • Pineapple, papaya, and mango
  • Tangerines, oranges and grapefruit
  • Radishes and onion

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chicken raising tips

We had another great permablitz on Sunday, building a chicken coop and digging out veggie patches. One of the permablitz facilitators ran a workshop on chicken raising, so here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Chickens are social creatures. They naturally live in groups where there is a strict social hierarchy. When you first get your chickens, they'll bully one another but within a week or so, they should establish their pecking order and the bullying should stop. It's best to let them sort it out, even if the pecking gets a little rough. Chickens have a short memory though and only remember up to 25 individuals, so if you have more than 25 chickens, the social pecking order will never get established and the bullying will always happen. To avoid this and have healthier chickens, either raise less than 25 chickens in the same space or have enough room for smaller groups to form. When new chickens are introduced to the group, the bullying will continue for another week until the new pecking order is established. It might be a good idea to introduce two new chickens at once so that the bullying isn't focused on one individual.

  2. Chickens remember where home is. To get your chickens to associate home with the coop you've made for them, keep them there for the first few days and don't let them out. From then onward, your chickens should always return to their coop to rest at night. If you move homes, the chickens won't have a problem if you do the same re-association exercise with the new coop.

  3. In addition to the coop area where eggs are laid and the chicken run where your chickens roam freely, it's a good idea to have an intermediate fenced off fox-proof area/straw yard connected to the coop. This straw yard should give your chickens access to grass and water where they can do their scratching and chicken business without the risk of predators and without you opening the gate to the chicken coop every morning. It doesn't have to be too big, but it should be big enough to keep your chickens sufficiently happy and well fed/watered even if you didn't let them into the larger chicken run for several days (giving you the option of going away for the weekend without worrying about the chickens). It's also a good way of giving your chickens something to do when they get up in the morning before you come and open the latch to the chicken coop (chickens get very cranky if you don't let them out).

  4. The chicken coop should be close to the house and have an easily opened latch to collect eggs from. It should also provide a roofed area from the rain for the chickens and ideally not be drafty in the winter time so the chickens can keep warm. The chicken straw yard needs to be fox-proofed via chicken wire. Fox-proofing requires digging out and placing wire about 10 cm down and 20-30 cm out from the coop. Living in the city doesn't mean there aren't going to be foxes, so make sure the area is well secured.

  5. The chicken straw yard can also serve as a compost area. Instead of having a separate compost bin, you can layer straw on the grass/floor of the area and dispose of your kitchen scraps on top. The chickens will eat what they want from the kitchen scraps, turn over the rest (good for compost), and add their chicken droppings, which makes excellent manure. All of this can be used as fertilizer for the garden and it saves the energy of having to overturn and maintain the compost bin yourself.

  6. Make sure that your chicken straw yard and chicken run have some shaded areas. Chickens don't take to overheating too well and will spend most of their time on hot days in the shade of fruit trees or whatever shade is available. Cool water is also essential.

  7. Besides kitchen scraps, chickens love eating greens and bugs. They will scratch at the grass and any other green vegetables you might have, so be wary of including your vegetable patch in the chicken run. The chickens do make good lawn mowers though - one effective way of doing this is to create a moveable chicken run "tunnel" that can be moved from one end of the garden to the other, mowing the grass as the chickens dig up bugs. Any bugs you find from your weeding can be given to the chickens as grub. Keep in mind though that chickens can't survive on just greens and bugs - the bulk of their food comes from grains, either seed mix or pellets. Pellets can contain ambiguous oxides, but they are less messy than seeds.

  8. Chickens may dig up lead or heavy metals in the ground from their scratching and may ingest it. If you are concerned about the soil quality or have a very active chicken coop where grass is torn out faster than it can grow back, you can try several things. Rotating where your chicken run is gives a chance for grass to grow back (thus preventing soil from being dug up by the chickens as they search for bugs). You can also put a sheet of shade cloth or other material on top of the soil/grass and layer the straw and kitchen scraps on top of that to prevent the chickens from accessing the soil. Testing the soil for contaminations is also a good idea in general, if only to know what the metal concentrations are and what vegetables can be safely planted.

  9. Make sure your chickens are vaccinated, wormed, and deloused. There are a number of diseases that the chicken should be vaccinated against before purchase, including Marek's disease, fowl pox, infectious bronchitis and Newcastle disease. The two most common diseases are

    Coccidiosis: pale combs, loss of condition, blood in droppings, drooping wings. This can be treated with an appropriate coccidiostat medication.

    Respiratory problems: typical symptoms such as a runny nose, coughing, watery eyes or swollen face. Antibiotics are available.

  10. For laying hens, the best age to buy is around 6 months, otherwise known as the pullet hens, when they are just about to lay. Laying hens are most productive in their first 2-5 years. Typically, they live to 9 years, but some have been known to live to 13-15 years.

  11. There are many different breeds of chicken, all with their advantages and disadvantages, such as looks, size, ability to scratch, laying, temperament, etc. Likewise, there are many places to buy chickens. Check for local small farm/neighborhood breeders.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zero Carbon Australia Transporation Plan

A great clip featuring my housemate about the future of Australia's transportation system. Check it out!

Technical Director of the Zero Carbon Australia Transport plan Patrick Hearps joined ABC 24's The Drum program to discuss the future of Australia's transport system. Electric cars, trams, metros and High Speed Rail powered by renewable energy... Now that's a vision!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Time lapse of earth bag building

Here's a cool video of the earth bag building at the permablitz site. Check it out! I can't wait for the next opportunity to learn how to do the earth bagging.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A successful wicking bed building session!

Despite the slight rain on Sunday, we had a great permablitz! The wicking bed team was awesome and I had a great time facilitating the workshop. We finished our wicking bed building and even got time to plant some lettuce, beans, and strawberries into the new wicking bed. Thomas interviewed me on the wicking bed for his permablitz podcast, so I might be on air sometime soon!

I wish I had time to help out with the earthbagging, that technique seems really interesting and the garden beds that come out from the earthbagging are really flexible in shape and size, even though the bagging process is a little labor intensive.

Angela, one of the Permaculture Out West facilitators, was helping me with the wicking bed and she told me about this really great permaculture website called Deep Green Permaculture, which has tons of really detailed information on setting up a permaculture garden. Check it out if you're interested in starting your permaculture garden.

In the meantime, here are some photos from the permablitz on Sunday!

Flemington - before

before the wicking bed was built, removing the plants

Flemington - building frame

building the wicking bed frame

Flemington - building frame

estimating how high the bed should go

Flemington - drilling outlet

drilling the hole for the outlet

Flemington - drilling outlet

putting the outlet in

Flemington - filling bed

filling the wicking bed with scoria and soil

Flemington - finished bed

finished wicking bed with lettuce, beans, and strawberries!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

PIARN webinar on sustainable intensification of agriculture

The Primary Industries Adaptation Research Network (PIARN) is offering the second of its free, online, interactive web seminar series next Thursday, November 10 at 2:30-3:30pm Melbourne time. Registration is currently open - check it out here.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture: Producing more with less

Presented by Professor Tim Reeves and Associate Professor Richard Eckard.

Sustainable intensification of means producing more food from less land, with less water and with less reliance on increasingly expensive inputs derived from fossil fuels – whilst simultaneously protecting and enhancing natural resources and ecosystems.

Experts suggest it might be the only way to feed a rapidly growing world population without the environmental degradation typically associated with increasing agricultural production.

Professor Tim Reeves and Associate Professor Richard Eckard will help frame the challenge of creating a sustainably intensive of Australian agriculture industry, discussing the implications for food security, the research and development investment required and the sorts of transformations needed to put sustainable intensification into action.

The presentations will be followed by an open Q&A session with both presenters.


Professor Tim Reeves is Chair of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, and Director and Principal of Timothy G Reeves and Associates.

Tim has worked for 40 years in agricultural research, development and extension, focused on sustainable agriculture in Australia and overseas. His professional career includes positions in the Department of Agriculture Victoria, Foundation Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Production at the University of Adelaide and Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

Tim is a Senior Expert for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and was a member of the United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger.

Associate Professor Richard Eckard is the Acting Director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre.

Richard is a member of expert advisory panels on climate change research in agriculture for the Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom governments. He is also a consultant on the effect of climate change on animal production and health for the joint FAO/IAEA Programme on Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, and leads research programs in enteric methane, nitrous oxide and whole farm systems modelling.

Richard has published over 90 scientific publications, holds a number of national and international science leadership roles, and has been a keynote speaker at numerous industry and international science conferences over the past few years

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How to make a wicking bed

I'm part of a community group in Melbourne called Permablitz that does urban gardening and agriculture. Of the many cool things about Permablitz is the workshops they hold. I learned how to make a wicking bed system through Permablitz and next weekend, I'm going to be facilitating a wicking bed workshop at the next Permablitz. But before that, I wanted to share the notes on it.

So what is a wicker watering bed? It's essentially a raised garden bed where water is stored on the bottom. For gardens in hot weather, it's a good way to help keep water storage to the maximum and keep plants alive. The water is poured into a pipe that runs through the bottom of the bed and seeps into the scoria (volcanic rock) or sand or whatever sediment that you use for the bottom storage layer. By preventing water leakage with plastic inside the bed, water can be held. Plants can then draw up moisture from the bottom via capillary action, which is the same principle as growing seedlings on a tray of water.

You can also combine the wicking bed system with a worm farm system. This way, nutrients from the worm poop can steep into the water and the plants can take it up. A worm farm is also a great way to add in nutrients into the closed wicking bed system - since you're taking out the crops (and nutrients) from the bed, you have to add back in the nutrients somehow and the worm farm is an easy way to do this. See the last step if you want to combine the worm farm with the wicking bed.

Steps for making a wicker watering bed
  1. Start with a raised garden bed or any container that you want to grow vegetables/plants in. You can have anything from a broccoli box to a full-on garden bed. The bottom scoria/sand layer needs to be about 5-10 cm and plants require 30-35 cm of soil (this may vary depending on what you're growing). If you have garden beds that come up to your waist, you can fill the bottom with wood pieces or carpet (note on carpet: just make sure the carpet isn't in direct contact with the soil/scoria as there is sometimes chemicals in the carpet). You can also use carpet/wood chips to make the bottom more even or cover up any parts that might tear holes into the plastic.

  2. Using a sheet of plastic, line the sides and bottom of your garden bed. It's important that this plastic not have any holes, as any water leakage would defeat the purpose of the wicker bed. Although you don't necessarily need to line the sides all the way up, it makes it easier not to have the plastic slip down over time or weeds grow between the spaces of your plastic/soil and the garden bed container.

  3. Measure out an appropriate length of agricultural pipe, which is basically tubing with holes on the side so water can drain out. In small garden beds, you can just lay the pipe out diagonally, but for larger beds, zigzag it. The pipe needs to go all the way up one side of the bed to where it'd be above or flush to the top of the soil. This is where you'll pour water into the pipe.

  4. Once measured out, cut the piping and cover both ends with a piece of shade cloth or some other permeable material that will allow water through but prevent sediment.

  5. Fill the bottom with a 10cm layer of scoria/sand, covering the piping. Use your feet to keep the piping in place as you pour in the sand. It's important to keep the sand layer even, otherwise the water will be biased towards one side, so use a balance to see if this layer is level. As you leveling, make sure not to tear holes in the plastic surrounding the bed. Once level, dig out ridges in the sand (see below) so that even if the water level drops, the soil can always be in contact with the water.

  6. IMPORTANT: Once you have your sand layer in, an outlet must be placed in. This is so that you can tell when you've added too much water to your wicker bed. If too much water gets into the bed, it gets swampy and acidic, which is not good for the soil. To prevent this, make an opening in your garden bed where the top of your sand layer is and place a small PVC pipe (~25mm radius) through to the outside. This way, if the water level goes above 10cm, then the overflow can leave the bed via the PVC pipe. Cover the end of the PVC pipe that's in the bed with shade cloth/equivalent to prevent sediment from clogging it.

  7. Once your piping and sand layer is done, place another layer of shade cloth over the whole bed. The soil layers will sit on top of the shade cloth. The benefit of this is that you can periodically lift up the entire shade cloth and do maintenance on the bottom sand layer if necessary. The shade cloth should go all the way up the sides of the garden bed and over the top a bit. IMPORTANT: Make sure the shade cloth is as flush as you can get to the sides of the bed because anything that falls between the sides will contaminate the water in the sand layer.

  8. Start layering on soil, manure, and dynamic lifter to the top of the garden bed. You can pretty much put whatever you have on hand, but for nutrient rich soil for plants to grow in, it's best to layer in sheep/horse manure (best for leafy vegetables) or chicken manure (high in phosphates, good for food producing plants). Other things to consider - straw, dynamic lifter plant food. Keep sandwiching different layers in until you hit about 5cm to the top of the bed.

  9. WORM FARM: An easy way to add nutrients to the wicking bed (a closed system) is to have several worm farms along the sides of the bed. Simply take a plastic bin (such as an old ice cream tub), cut out the bottom, and place against the side of the bed and on the bottom of the shade cloth. This way, the worm droppings will steep into the water and be diluted enough for plant uptake. You can have as many as you want, depending on how big your garden bed is. As you layer in the soil and the manure in the bed, fill around the bin to secure the placement. To activate the worm farm, fill it with straw/moistened cardboard, or newspaper at the bottom and worms. On top of that, place your kitchen scraps (vegetable peelings, uneaten leftovers, coffee grinds, tea leaves, etc). Eggshells can be used, but since they're harder to decompose, crush them first. Avoid citrus or onion peels because they're acidic and worms don't like them. Keep this worm farm covered to keep in the moisture.
wicker beds before
Before: Empty raised garden bed fixing the ag pipe head with shade cloth
Seila and Sophie tying the shade cloth onto the ag pipe ridging the scoria
The bottom layer of scoria with ridges. Seila here is adjusting the overflow pipe layering manure and soil
Layering on soil and manure finished wicker bed
After: The finished wicker bed

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Translations of sustainable living brochures

I just found something really cool - Environment Victoria in conjunction with their Sustainability for Diverse Communities Resource Hub has provided translations of various sustainable living brochures. They're all available here. The translations were done by different organizations so the topics vary from climate change to water to chemicals to gardening and food. I think it's a great idea to have this information for different communities in different languages, especially considering how multicultural and diverse communities can be. Hopefully once people get access to this information, they can act on it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia

This news on the anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia makes me so frustrated at the glossing over of racist violence by explanations of the marginalized black minority who are resentful of other minorities. Seriously?! There are so many problems with that argument.

  1. Just because you had been wronged by other people does not give you the right to hurt others. That goes for ANY situation. Do onto others as you would like them to do onto you. Basic KINDERGARTEN principles.
  2. The long history of injustice against the Africa American community is valid and it certainly can contribute towards the culture and perspective within the community, but it doesn’t mean that you can just wave that around like some magic excuse for everything. You have to treat this group of students as individual perpetrators of violence because that’s what it was.
  3. The attitude of the superintendent ("These problems are long-standing and go beyond the school and into the community") pretty much puts the blame and responsibility away from the school administration and onto the shoulders of the community, which isn’t right. Schools have just as much responsibility, if not more because of how many years are spent in school, to properly EDUCATE the kids on what’s right and what’s wrong, including racism.

The comments about the difference between the perspective of African American students and Asian immigrant students have some truth to them, but I think the "model minority" stereotype of the hard-working academic Asian student tends to be of the East Asian background. There are plenty of Southeastern Asians from refugee backgrounds who probably don’t fit all too well with that "optimistic outlook" of America as the land of limitless opportunity. That being said though, I do think that to succeed, marginalized people of every sort need to step out of the self destructive cycle of race and learn to "grab a helping hand [rather than] pull others down". It doesn’t do anyone any good to just sit and complain or lash out against others who have it "better". There are always going to be barriers and obstacles, but unless you take them on with determination, optimism, and willingness to work hard, you won’t get far.

I must laud the activists who got the Asian students to boycott and stand up for the injustice. There are times when you just power through it and times when you have to fight, and it was definitely a time to fight. I really am disappointed by the superintendent’s silence on all this racist violence. What happened to educators taking a role in shaping the kids’ future? What kind of example is this setting for the kids?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Greywater guidelines

In a continent where water scarcity is a common phenomenon, Australia's been taking a lot of steps towards more efficient water usage. During the last ten year drought, strict guidelines were set up for activities such as watering gardens and washing cars, limiting how often and what kind of water could be used. Water saving flushing toilets are standard, as are signs on showers in commercial accommodation suggesting a 4 min or less shower for guests.

This attitude towards water also includes using greywater, which is pretty much recycling water that's already been used, such as shower water, rainwater, and sink tap water. There's some microbial risk from reusing such water (which will be the focus of my upcoming PhD, incidentally), but in general, good water filtration and treatment methods can reduce the risk to acceptable levels. Some examples of filtration systems can be found here from Minnesota Public Radio, which includes septic tanks and concentrated wetlands.

A useful set of guidelines was recently issued from the Australian Clearwater organization on the best ways to harvest and store stormwater (ie run-off from drains or creeks) and roofwater (ie rainwater). These stormwater harvesting guidelines describe how to go about setting up the greywater collecting project, including what kind of roof characteristics to look out for to avoid contamination, types of rainwater tanks and piping to use, and monitoring/maintenance of the project. This might be useful for those interested in using greywater for non-drinking purposes. Other guideline publications from Clearwater can be found here.

What's important though is changing public perception. Many people still have much aversion towards using treated greywater, despite the fact that the microbial risk in the treated greywater can actually be LOWER than the risk in regular tap water. Using greywater is going to become more and more necessary around the world with climate change, but especially in Australia since the continent is already so water vulnerable. So the more the public can understand the process, the better off they'll be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Biking innovations

Two great ideas in time for "Ride To Work/School" tomorrow in Victoria, Australia

1) Self service bicycle repair station: In the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, a DIY bike repair station called Bike Fixation was recently launched to help stranded cyclists. Open 365 days a year from 6am to midnight, you can come buy tire repair kits, pump your tires for free, and make adjustments with tools available from the kiosk. It's a great way to make use of vacant lots in a way that would help the local bikers and also present new business opportunities.

2) In 2007, Minneapolis built the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge to help route cyclists away from the Hiawatha Avenue lane crossing. Quotes from the article:

The first cable-stayed bridge of any kind in the state, it’s breathtaking, even to the people who have been riding it for years. It provides a safe, continuous crossing and offers up a glorious view of the downtown skyline (especially at sunset!). The sleek Hiawatha light rail line runs beneath it, and there are benches to sit on and take everything in.

Used by an average of 2,500 riders a day, peak use can hit 5,000 to 6,000 per day on some gorgeous summer weekends, according to Shaun Murphy of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

Here's a video to check out about the bridge.

Have a great bike ride tomorrow!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Boris Pelcer's Environmental Awareness Illustrations

I just came across Boris Pelcer's ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS © illustrations.

Environmental Awareness

They're a series of illustrations based on the artist's childhood experience as a war refugee from Bosnia & Herzegovina living in Peć, Kosovo | Serbia from 1992 to 1998. Here's the artist's description:

Can you imagine our planet & our way of life in fifty of hundred years from now? Consider this. We live in a profit-driven economy. Great number of decisions are made with this question in mind: "What will bring us the most money?" Those decisions do not consider what is the best for the planet, but what is best for the economy financially. This series of work is to make you realize the quality of life we would create for our children & grandchildren if no action is taken. The problem seems too big to feel as though our efforts will make a difference, so most of us don't even try. However, as long as we put in any kind of effort with patience & persistence, we are doing exactly what we need to be doing to make a difference.

I found the illustrations very powerful - they really capture the despair and wretchedness that comes from living in a place environmentally torn, especially with children as the focal point of the illustrations. It brings the viewer from their comfort zone and forces them to realize what they take for granted, like fresh unpolluted air and enough food to eat. Art can provide ways to imagine the unimaginable and provoke discussion about issues that matter, so just wanted to share these illustrations with you.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Biking and living one's value system

I just finished changing a flat tire on my bike. It's my 4th flat tire in 2.5 months and I'm certainly not getting any faster at changing out the punctured inner tube. It still takes me around 1 hour if I'm lucky to get it all done. Add in the stress of figuring out how to get home on a flat and obtaining new inner tubes and you get a whole lot of frustration. It's days like these I ask myself, why do I put up with this?

Every time it happens, I recall a story an environmental studies professor at Wellesley once told us. She was asked to speak at a conference in Portland, Oregon and the conference hosts had arranged for a taxi to pick her up from the airport. But instead of taking the taxi service, my professor voluntarily looked up the public transport from the airport to her hotel and the conference site. The reason was because taking public transport in lieu of the more carbon footprint heavy taxi was more in-line with her value system as an environmentalist. If one really wants to be true to one's values, one's actions must reflect that.

Ever since I heard that story, I've been inspired to really put my actions where my words are. My decision to become vegetarian, bike to work and school, and buy more environmentally friendly products came from that. It hasn't been easy. My friends have to accommodate my dietary needs every time we have get togethers; it takes me an hour to commute to school each way and it rains a lot in Melbourne; and organic goods tend to be more expensive. But I feel despite all that, I am being true to what I believe.

There are a lot of pluses, of course. Biking every day has greatly improved my overall health (multitasking exercise and commuting, what an idea!) and it's sometimes easier than trying to figure out the fastest route by public transport. Being vegetarian also has contributed to a healthier living style and I've discovered many new delicious dishes I wouldn't necessarily have come across before. And all of this has raised awareness of environmental issues amongst people I interact with because they can see clearly the kinds of choices and impacts it makes.

So how do I feel now, hands covered in dirt and new inner tube back on my bike? I wouldn't change my mind for the world.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reducing food waste

A recent NY Times article came out about the war against food waste. The statistics about the amount of food that's thrown out uneaten is astounding - quoting from the article

According to the most recent available statistics, more than 30 million tons of food was dumped in landfills in 2009, making food by far the most abundant material there by weight, the federal Environmental Protection Agency says. (That calculation excludes industrial, construction and hazardous waste.) This amounts roughly to 200 pounds a year for every man, woman and child in the United States.

What people don't realize is that much more than just food is wasted when food's thrown away. There are an enormous amount of resources that go into getting the food "from paddock to plate", including picking, processing, storage, transportation, and refrigeration. It's estimated that for every 1 ton of food wasted, 3.8 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions are generated. Reducing the amount of food wasted is an easy way to reduce the carbon footprint.

Supermarkets are a big culprit in generating this food waste. Perfectly good food gets thrown out because of food labeling changes, excess stock, marginally damaged products, slight label inaccuracies, outdated packaging, discontinued products, and expired shelf life. Some people have taken to the "freegan" movement and go dumpster diving for the still-good food thrown out by supermarkets. Before the reader gets too disgusted by this idea, freegan divers take precautions such as wearing rubber gloves, choosing well lit sites, taking items that are packaged, and thoroughly washing fruit and vegetables. I have never personally been dumpster diving, but it has definite appeal, from waste reduction to free food with a tinge of adventure.

Another (slightly less disgusting) way to make the most of food left out is to go foraging for fruit on vacant property. The NY Times article describes several fruit foraging organizations and leaders, who scout out vacant or foreclosed lots with fruit trees to pick the ripened fruit for themselves or charity. One forager, Anna Chan of Clayton, California, is known as the Lemon Lady. Three years ago, she started collecting fruit and donating them to food banks, local farms and grocery store produce departments - since then, she and other volunteers have delivered up over 250 tons of food to the hungry. It's a great way to make the most of what's available, I think. Despite the legal grey area of who owns the property, I think it makes more sense for people to pick the fruit when it's ripening and give it to those who need it than the bank to claim the land and then let everything go to waste.

What wasted food boils down to the end is that people need to be more conscious about what's wasted. It's not just the food itself, but the time and resources needed to produce that food. When food is thrown out, it's contributing a lot of extra, unnecessary CO2 and it's diverting resources away from people who need it. With so many complicated environmental problems out there, this is one that can be easily resolved, so why not start now?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Peru, indigenous communities, and going back to traditions

Dealing with climate change with ancient traditions: Peru is going back to farming traditions that indigenous people living there centuries ago. This includes planting crops that are adapted to the land, temperature, and weather, such as the huaña pink potato which lasts 4 times longer than normal potatoes in storage and which can resist frost, hail, extreme rain and drought. Peruvian farmers are also looking into different techniques of farming, such as level terraces on the mountains and hillsides. It's very promising that organizations are now looking into local traditions that have persisted through the years as a way to combat climate change. While not all traditions are equally efficient or relevant now, there are many benefits from learning from the past, especially if they are traditions that had been honed for that particular environment over many years. Jared Diamond writes of successful (and unsuccessful) societies from the past and present in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, including examples of farming methodology and government structure that may be worthwhile to explore now.

In another article about Peru, Peru is now one of the leading Latin American countries for indigenous communities rights. A new law recognizing land ownership rights has now come into effect, which can help reduce social conflict between locals and companies interested in mining, logging, or other resource extraction. It'll be seen whether the government takes the consultation of such indigenous leaders into consideration when making decisions, as some countries make decisions contrary to the wishes of their indigenous communities despite having consulted them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The good of community gardens

This article here on community greening is an issue that those involved in community gardening and open space advocating come across often – having to describe the benefits of community gardening. Having just written a review section on urban agriculture in the US and Canada, I wanted to share with you some of the key points I found.

There are a number of benefits from community gardens which fall under three main themes: urban agriculture, community development, and open spaces.

Urban agriculture: One of the crises faced by inner city residents is the food desert and lack of access to fresh healthy produce. This food insecurity problem can be addressed through community gardens in the city itself – vacant lots can be turned into garden plots and its harvest distributed to the neighborhood. The gardens can be owned by municipalities, community organizations, schools, land trusts, or even private owners. This local cultivation of one’s own food comes along with better food security, improvements in nutrition by eating fresh produce, reduced need for food transportation, and less money spent on groceries. Learning to plant and eat with the seasons can bring in a lot of educational opportunities as well. Organizations like Just Food in New York City focuses on developing a sustainable food system including partnerships with community gardens and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms.

Community development: Besides the direct impact on food security, getting a group of people together for a common cause, in this case growing greens, opens up many opportunities for community development. A sense of belonging is cultivated by the members and gardeners who tend the plot as well as a sense of neighborhood. Growing one’s own food, making decisions in what goes into the garden, and becoming self reliant is also hugely empowering, especially for new immigrants or low income people who might not feel as comfortable in formal parks. Relationships can be built across generations, cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes through working and playing together in these spaces and certainly it can contribute to reduction of crime and drug use. Some who get involved in gardening find that it helps them reconnect to their cultural or ethnic identity by the types of fruits and vegetables grown. Such empowerment and community participation very much strengthens the community as a whole.

For the especially productive gardens, they can become starting points for teaching entrepreneurship. Food from the 'Hood in South Central Los Angeles was created in October 1992 in response to the race riots and has become a nationally acclaimed program for empowering youth through entrepreneurial training. Students grew fruit and vegetables in an empty lot behind the Crenshaw High football field and developed their own line of salad dressing. Proceeds went to donation and scholarships to student managers; to date, over $250,000 in scholarships has been generated.

Open spaces: The garden itself can be a space for social, cultural, and educational activities. A study by Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny (2004) on Latino community gardens in New York found that these spaces were used as places for family gatherings, parties, holidays, workshops, school group tours, and educational courses. For residents and families that may not be able to afford visiting public parks or personal backyards, having a green communal area is an inexpensive way to gather and relax. In addition, having a green space contributes to city beautification, improvements in environmental health through ameliorating air pollution and the urban heat effect, and positive reflections of the community identity. It’s a great opportunity for residents to participate and show their culture, creativity, and aesthetics through the plants and structures.

Today, the American Community Gardening Association estimates there are over 18,000 community gardens in the US and Canada, ranging from neighborhood gardens to public housing gardens and school gardens (Kortright and Wakefield, 2011). I think that it’s a great way to reconnect with nature and the community. If you’re interested in starting your own community garden, check out the resources below or contact the People’s Garden Initiative with the US Department of Agriculture to locate your nearest community garden.


  • American Community Gardening Association
  • The Urban Agriculture Network
  • Community Food Security Coalition
  • City Farmer
  • FoodShare Toronto


    Brown KH, Carter A (2003). Urban agriculture and community food security in the United States: farming from the city center to the urban fringe. Community Food Security Coalition, North American Urban Agriculture Committee.

    Kortright R, Wakefield S (2011). Edible backyards: a qualitative study of household food growing and its contributions to food security. Agricultural and Human Values, 28:39-53

    Saldivar-Tanaka L, Krasny ME (2004). Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens. Agriculture and Human Values, 21:399-412
  • Friday, September 2, 2011

    DPI Climate Dogs

    The Australian Department of Primary Industries made these really cute, but informative videos about the interactions of El Nino and La Nina affecting the weather patterns in Australia. They're one of the reasons why Melbourne had a cold and rainy year. Check them out! More information can be found here at the DPI website

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Politicizing climate science is ultimately deterimental to the world

    Recent news about politicians such as Texas Governor Rick Perry and his views on climate science makes me so frustrated. Perry’s comments that climate scientists "manipulate" their data to keep "dollars rolling into their projects" are completely contrary to what scientists actually do and frankly, by that logic, every scientific field would be subject to the same incentive to manipulate data for funding. Climate scientists are after the factual truth about climate change, not some political agenda. I agree with Andrew Dessler of the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences:

    I would add that the governor has it exactly backwards. There is evidence that climate skeptics are working off a political agenda. See [University of Alabama-Huntsville scientist and climate change skeptic] Roy Spencer’s statement, "I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government." There’s no way that you can reach that conclusion by looking at data, and it is typical of the political views of skeptics. It’s a pre-determined political goal.

    That is the most disconcerting part to me – scientists should always be critical about their work and that of their peers, but not for political reasons. To jump from climate data to minimizing the role of government seems to me something that is completely driven by political ideology and it has no place in science.

    Another interesting article I came across recently was this describing how white conservative males tend to doubt climate change more than the general population. Again, it’s pointing to how climate science gets politicized from the right in the US, from those in organizations with outspoken views and resources to publicize them. It doesn’t surprise me that the trend towards climate skepticism is increasing in this group from the way the issue is so vehemently denied and associated with extreme anti-Americanism or anti-business in conservative networks. Interestingly, social conservatism isn’t always linked with disbelief in climate change – the UK and Germany were cited as examples – which makes me wonder why the US alone is so set against climate change.

    My thoughts from all this is that American politicians are holding too much to their ideologies and not paying attention to facts. When people are unwilling to be flexible with their views, they cannot do what is best for the whole community. It doesn’t matter if the first ones to be hit aren’t going to well-off Americans; there are already people suffering from rising sea levels, prolonged drought, and poor agricultural yields. We as human beings have a responsibility to take care of each other and this planet. This isn’t about who’s right or who’s wrong or what political party is in charge – this is about everyone’s well-being in the present, as in NOW. We are in a point in time when action needs to be taken by community leaders on environmental issues like climate change and unless the political right gets their heads out of the sand, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

    There are things the everyday person can do, however, and the first and foremost is to get informed on the issue. For credible sources of information on climate science, here are some resources provided by the Australian Primary Industries Adaptation Research Network (PIARN):

  • Climate Change Guide for the Perplexed New Scientist magazine
  • Skeptical Science 'Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism'
  • Facts and Fictions About Climate Change The Royal Society UK
  • The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007

  • Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Meat eater's guide, supermarket access, and vertical farming

    Meat Eater's Guide ranks foods by environmental, health effects. Lamb, beef, cheese, and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases of 20 popular meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins, according to a new study from the Environmental Working Group. This study looked primarily at the ecological footprint via life cycle analysis based on CO2 output from farm to table. A useful parameter, especially considering climate change, though I would argue not the only factor (how accessible alternative options and can those alternatives be mass produced?). Still, it's a useful reminder that eating less meat (even just one meal per week) and more organic produce is better for the environment and human health.

    Access to supermarkets doesn't improve diets, study finds. The study found that people didn't eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods. Instead, income — and proximity to fast-food restaurants — were the strongest factors in food choice. Not surprising. Even if people are aware of the nutritional cons, if produce costs more upfront and you don't have the time to cook it, then fast food is the way to go. I do agree with the article on the point that not all grocery markets are created equal (having more expensive health food options at stores in low income areas). The problem is figuring out what's the root of the problem - lack of access to (cheaper) healthy food, lack of income, lack of knowledge, or combination of factors.

    Vertical farming: Can urban agriculture feed a hungry world?: Another article on growing food in high rise buildings designed to simulate outdoor farm environments. Experts say that vertical farming could feed up to 10 billion people and make agriculture independent of the weather and the need for land. But such urban farms need huge amounts of energy, to the point where it becomes way too energy intensive to bring to the scale needed for feeding a city or country. The article reports that there has been progress with ThePlantLab in the Netherlands, a 10yr company that has grown many different plant species 3 stories underground without natural sunlight. I'd like to know more on how they're accomplishing this (genetic selection, energy efficient light technology?), but the crux is still the energy factor. If it's not energy efficient on large scale, maybe this is something that can only be accomplished on the small scale and maybe that's the direction that needs to be taken in the long run (individual gardens).

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Food deserts and why we need to change the US food system

    This article on food deserts in New Jersey and communities that lack access to healthy fresh food highlights how there is a real systemic problem for food access. I agree that the problem is complicated by lack of information and knowledge about better nutrition - too many families out there think fast food is an acceptable alternative for homecooked meals, but at the same time, when fast food is the ONLY cheap alternative to expensive groceries, that is a huge issue. A 15 min drive to the nearest supermarket for people who don't have cars means a 45 min walk one way. When you're faced with such time drains for food you eat every day, it's hard not to go buy fast food, which really contributes to the US' obesity problem and huge healthcare problems for the whole society in the long run. This isn't to say that there isn't ANY food in these communities, but mini-marts and groceries stores mark up their prices such that those fresh produce options become too expensive.

    If the government isn't willing or able to resolve the issue of access, one option is to turn unused land lots into community gardens. Find a piece of government owned property that is not be used and ask the local town council if part of it can be devoted to a community garden. Parcel out the land so that each interested party has a place to plant their crop. Ask the local library if they can get someone to talk to the group on topics about canning and other ways of preserving fresh produce. This takes a lot of self initiative, but has a lot of benefits, such as community and relationship building, connection to one's own food, and not having to rely on government officials for hand outs. Another option is setting up a food co-op or farmers' market via local government.

    (Yes, I realize not all areas are suitable for sustaining food growth because of water shortages or weather. But that's a whole other argument I'll save for later).

    The problem is, of course, not just limited to access. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution program was started because there is a paucity of knowledge about good nutrition and cooking in the US. There was a scene from his show of Jamie going to elementary schools to teach about food and the kids couldn't even name half the vegetables, including eggplant and broccoli. Problem? I think so. Is it compounded by socioeconomic class? Perhaps - you can make the argument that those living in poorer neighborhoods may not have as much education resources (libraries, community centers, universities, etc). With so many health problems coming from poor nutrition, like diabetes and obesity, I think it's worth investing in programs to teach people about growing food and better nutrition. There are a good few examples of school programs that combine gardening and cooking (such as the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Foundation and the Chez Panisse Foundation) and the movement is growing. Do a search in your neighborhood for similar programs.

    The point is that what we have going on NOW in terms of food in the US is not working and there needs to be changes.

    Welcome to A Life of Green!

    Hello there! I'm starting up this blog to post thoughts on environmental and sustainability issues, including food and agriculture, community development, global climate change, and green practices. There'll also be the occasional post on LGBTQ rights, social justice, arts/music, and diversity. Follow me as I embark on a journey to link science with community oriented projects and spread awareness about living the green life.

    - Journeywoman Fei