Archive for conservation

Want to be a green scientist? With this site you can!

Sci.Spy from Discovery

Screenshot of Sci.Spy application for iPhone

This is an application I’ve been wanting to see for some time now – so glad it’s a reality!  Sci.Spy lets you take your photos of natural things (animals, plants, fungi, etc) and upload them to a database for use by scientists studying species distributions and the like.

It’s a natural extension of many smaller citizen science projects, for example, one which allowed the cataloging of tree species in British urban environments.  However, with Discovery Science behind the wheel and with the integration of an iPhone app which simplifies the process of uploading mobile phone images with geo tag information, this network looks as though it could become a very deep source of data.

As someone who travels pretty much everywhere with camera in hand, it’s exciting to think of the possibilities for individual species identification as well.  So often I take images of things, wild plants especially, which then require a lot of web researching to figure out what species or variety I’ve taken.  If a large body of data is amassed, then eventually this site could be used by foragers and and individuals looking to ID plants and animals in their surroundings with better accuracy.  And for foraging especially, that is quite important!

Want to find out more?  Check out the Sci.Spy site at Discovery.com, or download the iPhone app.

Here are some other interesting citizen science sites:

Urban Forest Map, The Wild Lab, The Milky Way Project, and ScienceForCitizens.net (has a listing of many citizen scientist projects).

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Solutions From the Land Initiative

The Solutions From the Land initiative is a newly announced coalition of world government, universities and various NGOs which will be funded by The United Nations Foundation, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and Farm Foundation.  Formally launched about two weeks ago, the initiative is tasked with creating integrative land use systems which reduce hunger, improve water availability, protect and encourage biodiversity, and battle the threats of climate change.  Way to jump right in the deep end!

The initiative’s website, www.sfldialogue.net, proclaims their vision for the world by 2050:

“By 2050, agricultural systems, forests and other land uses are managed to simultaneously satisfy domestic and global demand for safe, abundant and affordable food, feed, and fiber; support economic security and sustainable development; reduce hunger and malnutrition; improve soil, air and water quality; enhance biodiversity and ensure ecosystem health, and deliver mitigation and adaptation solutions to a changing climate.”

This coming year, four working task groups will address questions critical to the success of the above stated vision.  These task groups will be made up of members of various conservation, forestry, and agricultural groups, as well as representatives from universities and the non-profit world.  They will discuss how to balance an increased demand for natural resources with a need to protect and/or restore natural spaces for the long-term protection of ecosystems while delivering enough water and food to maintain safe and healthy human populations.  They will also look at ways in which legislation, incentivisation, and regulation can be restructured to best serve all interrelated industries.

Then, in Phase 3 of the initiative, scheduled to roll out in 2012, the involved organizations will lay a road map for others to follow to ensure compliance with the spirit of the initiative’s findings.  The initiative hopes to change consumer behavior through a combination of policy changes, voluntary initiatives such as buyer programs, and consumer awareness campaigns, which may also include incentive programs which reward innovations in system design processes and land use.  Though the initial phase of the initiative focuses on domestic American systems, the eventual goal is to take the recommendations, programs, and best practices findings global, in particular so they may benefit developing nations.

I will be interested to see how this project moves forward.  Certainly the approach of integrated systems management which complements rather than destroys surrounding environments is one worth pursuing.  It is headed by the former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, who is himself a farmer, and Tom Lovejoy of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.  A full list of the design team who have been collaborating these past two years and creating the mission statement can be found at the link above or on their website.

Download a PDF summary of the SFL initiative here.

Initiative press contact information here.

Learn more about Integrated Ecosystem Assessments, as described by NOAA’s NCCOS program, which aims to protect coastal lands and waters through similar research methodologies.

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How to Get Far Without a Car

Some of you readers may recall when I made a pledge to sell my car in order to green my travel around the city.  It’s been more than three years now, and I’m happy to report that I haven’t died from lack of access to basic goods yet, so clearly, it IS possible to make work, even in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles.  It’s fairly easy to trade in the frustrations of driving, paying for inevitable parking tickets, car insurance, gas, crazy-driver door dings and side view mirrors lopped off by passing cars for the peace of mind that comes with regular exercise and time spent enjoying LA’s incredible outdoor clime.  Of course it does have a few drawbacks, the greatest of which being that it’s harder to get out of town to places which are far enough away to necessitate a car but not far enough to be serviced by the Greyhounds and Metrolink trains of the world.  There are a few strategies I’ve employed over time to make it work without feeling deprived.

First, I took a good look at the places I travel in a normal day.  Since I work “from home” but live off-grid without power, my primary need in the work department is occasional access to an outlet to recharge the computer and internet to post stuff like this, converse with clients, etc.  About a year and a half back, I purchased a netbook with a seven hour battery life.  Best investment ever! This means that I only have to find an outlet for an hour or so daily to have my portable office up and running for more hours than I can practically stare at a screen.  So I hit a local coffee shop each morning, sip tea, upload posts, and download relevant research for the next edition or client.  The mile or two walk to and from the shop each morning gives me a chance to start my day outside, practicing walking meditation (a post on this coming soon!) and organizing in my head what I need to accomplish.  As a photographer, I carry my camera with me everywhere I go, and this walk also allows me to get interesting shots in the golden light of early morning before most people wake up.  What started as an obligation to get to a destination has actually become one of my favorite daily activities!

Over time, I’ve discovered local alternatives to my daily purchases.  The other day, I found the best little pupuseria while walking by on an errand, saving me a bus trip across town to my other favorite streetside vendor.  How’s that for ultra-localizing life!  Many people drive all over creation going to stores that they are used to frequenting when there exist alternatives right within their own communities.  By shopping locally, not only will you save frustration and gas/insurance money, you might also get to know your local business owners better, which helps build stronger community ties.  Of course, supporting your local Best Buy over a family run electronics shop just because it’s down the road isn’t necessarily what I’m talking about, but even franchise businesses are run by individual owners who may be from your community.  Take the time to ask, it can often lead to an enlightening conversation.

When needing to get out further than walkable distance, I can get most places for $3, the current price of a round trip bus or metro ticket in these parts.  Sure, it takes about fifteen minutes to walk to or from the metro station, but I simply view it all as exercise and think about the money I save by not having a gym membership while I walk.  If the destination lies off a main bus or metro line, then I might ride my bike to the station, which cuts the travel time down even more.

In order to head out of town/city limits, which is an occasional necessity given my other-other day job as a treasure hunter, I’ve had good luck by posting on Craigslist for someone to drive to a given destination, even one off the beaten path.  Usually it costs me gas money and the price of lunch, maybe an honorary token payment, far less than it would to rent a car for the day and I don’t even have to drive.  (yet another option is signing up for a shared-car service such as Zipcar, which I’ll cover in an upcoming post)  There are several rideshare sites which can be used in similar fashion, especially if one is not tied to a particular moment of travel and can be a little flexible.  Of course as a woman I am careful about this, bringing a buddy with me to share the ride and always being on top of knowing the exact directions to where I’m heading.  You can also run a classified ad for people to pick up items from further locales and deliver them to you for a nominal charge if they are headed some direction anyway.  Given the state of public transport here expanded by an additional biking radius, both this and the ride for hire scenario are rarely utilized but useful tools to have in the arsenal.

One final thing that I’d like to mention here is that of motivation.  If you’re going to be walking or biking, why not reward yourself for putting in miles toward the sustainable cause? There are many websites that let you track your exercise miles over time and provide like-minded communities for motivation and friendly competition.  I started using dailymile.com a few months back to log miles walked in order to see how much gas I would theoretically save each month by not driving.  It nicely computes my calories burned, keeps track of the amount of gas I’ve saved by not driving, and even tells me other fun stats like how many donuts I can now afford to eat after all that walking!  Though the site is primarily designed for athletes who are training for things to share inspirational workout routes, it serves well too as a general tracker of miles logged, featuring interactive route maps which calculate your mileage based upon the path you draw on a Google map.  One of my favorite features of the site is the challenge page, where you can sign up to try and complete a certain number of miles or hours spent exercising during a given time span in friendly competition with other athletes on the site.

The luxurious abode that is Trimpi Shelter.

Last Thanksgiving I signed up there for a virtual Appalachian Trail hike, in which walkers try to log the 2179 miles of the AT within a year’s time.  I use my distance data from the site (it keeps track of which types of exercise qualify, in this case walking and hiking) and compare it to a distance map of the trail to see where I am on a given day.  Today, two and a half months after starting out my “hike”, I’ve walked through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and am venturing up through southern Virginia toward the Trimpi Shelter, pictured above, where I will virtually slumber this evening.  Right now things are on track to finish the trail with a few weeks to spare, which at the necessary rate of 5.5 miles daily is no small feat!  By looking up each county I travel through on Wikipedia and reading about what the areas are known for (the Trimpi shelter is in Grayson County, VA, mountainous home to several annual bluegrass and fiddle music festivals and a yearly through-hiker festival which celebrates those trying to complete the AT), my daily walking chores have changed from a simple necessity into an exciting and educational activity which feels more like a vacation.

The location of the Trimpi shelter along the Appalachian Trail.

Well, those are a couple things I have found useful.  What strategies do you employ to cut down on extraneous daily travel? How have they worked for you?

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Swaptree: Get cool stuff for cleaning out your closet

The idea behind Swaptree is simple. You have a stack of old books, CDs, and maybe video games that you never use. Of course, being a conscientious greenie, you don’t want to add to our already clogged landfills by throwing them away. You could donate them to the local library (so long as there’s no profanity, violence, not already too many copies there, etc) but there’s this book you’ve been dying to read… you’re the perfect candidate to sign up for Swaptree now! You list the items you have, then search the items that others have, arranging free trades with people. So you get The Botany of Desire (an awesome read!) for the price of shipping, and also manage to rid yourself of that dusty old copy of the joy of cooking that Aunt Mabel gave you even though your apartment doesn’t even have a kitchen. Saves landfill space, introduces you to media you may not even have known about, and helps to undermine the excessive capitalism that’s sweeping the planet all with one click. It only takes a second to sign up (well, their website claims it takes 8 seconds, so I’ll trust them on that), which you can do at the Swaptree Signup Page.

A brief tour around the site revealed some pretty interesting looking picks available for trade… the first Godfather movie, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, Star Wars movies and complete seasons of many many TV shows, the Complete Planet Earth collection on DVD (an amazing series), lots of kids movies, music ranging from Bob Marley to Madonna and pretty much everything in between, and a wide assortment of video games, of which I won’t even pretend to know what’s hot and what’s not. I’d bet that no matter what your tastes there’s something here for you.

Part of going off-grid involves understanding that the capitalist system in which we’ve been raised is unsustainable and needs to change. Barter predates the exchange of money as a form of goods exchange by a long time, and is a more globally conscious way of doing business removing the money component of the trade. If you want some interesting fodder for thought on this topic, watch Zeitgeist: Addendum (or it’s predecessor Zeitgeist), available for free on Google video. After the two to four hours it takes to complete this mini rite of conscious passage, you’ll have a whole new understanding of the ways in which those in power control us through our present financial system. It will also make internet sites like Swaptree and Freecycle make that much more sense. But do you really need to be convinced that getting free stuff for the stuff you don’t want is a beautiful thing? Visit today!

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Finally, the proof! Trees help save you green

From the folks over at the Forestry Sciences Lab of Oregon and the National Institute of Standards and Technology comes proof that planting trees around your home will save you money in the long run on your electric bills.  This is something that has long been suspected and anecdotally promoted, but this is the first study to take people’s actual electricity bills and compare them with the amount of growth of trees near the home.

Its official, trees save energy!

It's official, trees save energy!

If you’re headed for off-grid living, chances are that you’re implementing some sort of solar or wind technology in your power mix, so careful siting of the trees you plant and the panels or turbines you place will be necessary.  But if each tree you plant makes the job of those alternative technologies that much easier, it would be hard to go wrong!  Other studies have shown that a single mature tree can produce as much cooling effect as five, yes that’s FIVE AC units.  For each tree.  Now that’s a powerful plant!

Also, don’t forget that other studies have shown that planting trees in your yard actually raises the property value of your home to prospective home buyers, even without factoring in energy savings.  So in today’s lackluster home market, a few well placed trees could make the difference between a listing that sits or sells. And also, every tree you plant in your environment helps to filter the air that you breathe every day, making your lungs and body that much healthier and promoting biodiversity.  For an example of a nice tree distribution program, check out the Los Angeles organization Tree People, who partner with the city to give away free trees to city residents who agree to care for them.  This weekend, they’re giving away fruit trees like peaches, nectarines, and apples.  Yum!

Here’s the link to a Discovery News article outlining the methodology of this latest study.  Planting Trees Saves You Cash.

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Green Trading Cards – Saving the World From Your Computer

And now for something completely different…  If you use social media sites, then you know that there are more apps out there than hours in your day to keep track of them all.  While “hot or not” type applications provide little more than a way to waste inordinate amounts of time better spent doing other things, there is a new class of applications that help you make a difference while you happily go about having fun.

Facebook in particular has been a fertile development ground for such projects, but it can be difficult to know which applications are promising to save the world and which are actually putting their money where their mouths are.  My favorite pick of the socially conscious litter?  Green Trading Cards, an application which lets you collect sets of cards representing the best of what nature has to offer while the application developers contribute to wildlife funds as you use it.  Unlike most of these programs, the makers of Green Trading cards proudly display the donations they make on your behalf to green causes, and donate they do… they claim to donate 10 times more than any other application on Facebook.  While I can neither back up nor dispute this claim, I can say that the application is fun to use, and addictive in a way that L’il green patch, African Safari, and others of the sort just aren’t.  And believe me, I’ve spent too much time on all of ’em!  I think the reason for this is that you are going for a goal (finishing a particular set of cards and therefore saving between 10 and 100 square feet of rain forest) instead of just collecting, collecting, collecting for the sake of, well… collecting?

Green Trading Cards’ creators are committed to making their app better with each passing day too, and the recent additions of card sets are particularly interesting.  I love the extinct animals set, which is a stark reminder that although we socially conscious netizens do try to make a difference, amazing animals are slipping through the cracks every day.  Now that’s a game with a conscience!

My choice for first runner up would have to be the Lunch Money Network, on which you play games, including their signature game Owned! to rack up virtual lunch money that you can then donate to real philanthropic causes.

While playing games on the net isn’t expressly an off-grid activity, you and I both know that we spend lots of time on the web, and most likely, you’ve tried to kill a few hours here and there with less than intellectual pursuits.  So next time you’re thinking of firing up Solitaire, consider one of these apps instead, and help save the wild world into which you’re hoping to move.

Visit Green Trading Cards here: Green Trading Cards on Facebook

Visit Save the Planet from the Lunch Money Network here: Owned! from the LMN on Facebook

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Making Your Computer Carbon Neutral

I’ve admitted it before… I love my computer, and giving it up is out of the question.  But I do understand that while the internet saves me millions of miles of travel a year and countless hours spent locating far-flung information, the computer itself uses plain ol’ polluting energy and requires a lot of rare and potentially hazardous materials in its manufacture which are as often as not disposed of improperly.  So how to green the central machine?

First up, the average of one pound of CO2 emissions put out daily by computers worldwide.  Luckily, the wonderful social, email and action network Care2 has already thought about that, and nicely offers you the option to neutralize that carbon… with a single click! And if taking 10 seconds to sequester some CO2 to offest your surfing is too much to ask, I expect to see your name in the newspaper soon, because you must be REALLY busy on something important.  Visit Care2’s Daily Click to Donate page here to ease your digital burden on the planet today, and while you’re there, click to donate to 9 other great causes like saving tiger habitat, preventing breat cancer, and preserving marine wetlands.

screenshot002

Next, consider efficiency when purchasing computer components.  It may surprise you to know that a vast majority of computer components are manufactured in one of a handful of factories in the same town in China.  One that barely even existed twenty five years ago.  To read all about it, pick up the fascinating global travel book “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” by Fred Pearce (2008).   Though he only deals with this particular product for a chapter, the whole book is filled with amazing (and scary) tales of how the things you take for granted make it into your shopping bag.  But back to that computer… Assuming that practices amongst these competitors are relatively equal, and given that they are all run by guys who went to school together as youth this is proabably safe, you won’t gain much by purchasing an Acer over a Compaq.  That doesn’t mean, however that all manufacturers are equal.  Some voluntarily, and some in response to the European Union’s RoHS Directive which calls for elimination of certain toxic metals from their computers (see this Treehugger article for more information), computer manufacturers have started to take notice and make greener PCs.  Apple and Toshiba are notable leaders in this movement, though others are jumping onboard every day.  I’m waiting for the day one releases a totally non-toxic and recyclable computer… and while wishing, can it be compostable too?

If you’ve got your machine itself under control, there are still ways to go further, by examining the source of the energy that goes into your plug.  I’m a huge fan of surfing the web at Whole Foods Markets, because the company has a policy of purchasing renewable (wind) energy credits to offset the electricity used at each of its stores.  So when you play Tetris while eating your lunch, you’re actually helping to stimulate the alternative energy market and doing so in a totally renewable way.

Of course, they’re a popular store, so if you can’t get a seat there, you’re may be forced to strike out on your own.  There is, of course, the off-grid option of generating your own electricity with wind, solar, or micro-hydro.  These are the golden children of rugged off-griddists everywhere, and one will likely be a pretty good fit for your area.  If you don’t have the ability to install your own generation system, consider paying a little premium on your power bill for the Green Power option.  Similar to Whole Foods’ arrangement, customers who purchase green power get the satisfaction of knowing that their purchases contribute to the development of renewable energy portfolios while enjoying the on-demand power we all expect.  Or you can lease solar panels from a company that charges you a bill like any other utility but sells the power you generate using their panels back to the grid.  Solar without the start-up costs.

Speaking of power, here’s to all you night-owls out there! You see centrally generated power (utility-style) must usually be produced at the rate of greatest demand within a day.  So even though 1-5 pm is the peak power usage, at night, the generators are pumping out the same amount of juice to supply a drastically lower demand. Where does all this power go?  Some municipalities have constructed power recycling schemes, such as Los Angeles DWP’s practice of pumping water uphill at night to use for generating hydro power during daylight peak demand hours.  Other cities let this power go to waste.  That is why power use rates are so much lower at night, because utilities hope to entice people to use this cut-price power whenever possible.  So go ahead and burn a little midnight oil (figuratively of course) to take advantage of this financial reward.

Peak vs. Off-Peak

Peak vs. Off-Peak

And lastly, please, friends, recycle your computer responsibly when it reaches the end of its useful life.  Replacing single components that go bad is almost always a cheaper option than buying a whole new machine, so consider that first before declaring it dead.  But when it is, there are organizations across the globe which will take your computer, make any necessary repairs, and give it to a person in need.  Many states won’t even let you toss computer equipment legally, so you’ll be doing your civic duty, too.  If you don’t, sadly, the common practice is to let children pick through the toxic rubble of old electronics, pulling valuable metals out and stripping copper off boards in acid vats wihtout any protective measures.  It sounds like one of this “Save a child with a dollar a day” commercials, but it really happens.  Don’t be the reason little Pradeep gets cancer by the age of fifteen.

All said, the fact you can shop online rather than at retail stores, commit acts of generosity such as campaigning for social rights and making donations to worthy causes, and research innovations that make your life greener in so many ways makes the computer a world-saving tool no matter what you do to mitigate its environmental consequences.  But doesn’t doing it green just feel so much better?

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