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In praise of zealous nuts

Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces
It’s these impassioned citizens whose dedication to Placemaking brings vast improvements to their communities
We’ve seen a dramatic change recently in the way communities grow and improve themselves. You won’t hear much about it in the media or from the upper echelons of the design profession, but evidence of this new approach can be found almost everywhere else. Many towns and cities have transformed parks, downtowns and other crucial public spaces from derelict eyesores to lively gathering places beloved by local citizens. This is not the product of visionary planners, innovative developers or powerful politicians (although they helped) but by a new breed of engaged citizen we at PPS fondly call “zealous nuts.”

…These remarkable stories are just a few of the many wonderful transformations going on all over the world. I believe we are now waking up to the fact that the world is fundamentally changing, in a subtle but powerful way. The era of narrowly-defined professional disciplines and heavy-handed developers dictating the future of cities is thankfully ending. Placemaking transforms the roles of professionals and developers, enabling them to act as resources for citizens, who in turn are elevated to the role of respected experts who know their community best. This transition has far-ranging implications: Governmental structure and professional training will need to evolve drastically just to keep up. It never ceases to amaze how quickly such changes happen; if you don’t know what to look for, you might miss it. But those who are attuned to Placemaking will help it take hold.
(no date)

Permaculture – Permanent Agriculture (& a mini movie)

Warren McLaren, Treehugger
We do go on a bit about local food around here. But there is nothing more local than your own home grown food. Permaculture is one powerful method for cultivating a sustainable supply of your own food needs, be from your own balcony, backyard or barrio (neighbourhood). We recently ran a story on a permaculture project in a city ‘hood, but you might like a tad more on just what it is: “Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”

Now if that sounds a little too New Agey for you, think of it as William McDonough’s Cradle-to-Cradle concept, but applied to food. In nature there is no waste, the end life of one entity provides the the beginning for another. Think of it as Biomimicry for food. Watch and learn how nature makes food, and design a system to replicate that.

But Permaculture is much older than either of those two esteemed concepts. It was developed in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren on the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. They created a technique of farming that duplicates natural relationships and patterns. They discovered that the most productive land is at the edge of two ecosystems, such as riverbanks, coasts, where forests meet grasslands, etc.

Their design sets out to create different agricultural ‘zones’, so that many productive edges are formed. But permaculture in imitating the complexity of natural systems, right down to how night air moves, defies simple explanation. So one way to get a sense of its effectiveness is to watch a little online movie, in which permaculture designer, Geoff Lawton, converts 10 acres of Jordanian desert into a lush productive garden. See how in just four months he was able to train local farmers to cultivate fruiting figs, pomegranates and guavas from what was once considered a salt riddled wasteland.

If that inspires you, check the ::Permaculture Research Institute for design courses around the world. Another list of current courses in North America and elsewhere can also be found at
(27 Aug 2006)
I think this way of looking at permaculture doesn’t quite do it justice. The name ‘permaculture’ as a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’ is actually quite misleading, although that was how it was originally conceived and defined. For a long time now permaculture has been about much more than agriculture, rather about human settlements in general. It’s scope includes almost everything including economics, health, buildings, tools, conflict resolution, and so on, in an holistic design system.

Furthermore, permaculture is more commonly being seen as not about ‘permanence’ at all. Why? It will be decades or centuries before post-industiral cultures achieve anything like a stable ‘sustainability’. And permaculture is about that process — moving down the downslope of peak oil — rather than the end result.

These two aspects of permaculture (a less misleading name might be ‘transition-culture’) make it very different to mainstream notions of ‘sustainability’.

In so far as we are successful in dealing with the challenges of oil peak, climate change, and other limits to growth, permaculture will move towards the cultural mainstream, whether by that name, another name, or no name at all.

Eating Local, Thinking Global
Talk of the Nation, NPR
When you sit down to dinner tonight, take a minute to consider how far your food traveled to get to your plate. Is your steak from Nebraska? Are your carrots from California? Experts say eating locally might make us healthier and safer… and it would be better for the environment, too.


Brian Halweil, author: Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket; senior researcher, Worldwatch Institute

Jennifer L. Wilkins, Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow; Senior Extension Associate, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University
(25 Aug 2006)
Submitter DM remarks: “This is good. They bring up the following points:

  • The average pound of produce travels 1500 miles.
  • In the typical meal served in Iowa, most of it has travelled 1000 to 2000 miles and consumes 17 times the energy in transportation than it would have if they had consumed food grown within 50 miles.
  • 10 calories of fossil fuels are consumed for every 1 calorie of food.
  • 20% of fossil fuel use in the U.S. goes to our food systems (from production to getting it to our table).”

My Low-Carbon Diet
From gas gluttony to fuel fitness in three weeks

Seth Zuckerman, Sierra Club Magazine
…With those trends [about global warming and carbon emissions] in mind, I wondered what it would mean to live within the planet’s capacities. I suspected it wouldn’t be easy. After all, Morocco and Indonesia emit only as much carbon dioxide per capita as Earth can absorb–and they’re hardly known for their high standard of living. Is impoverishment the only way to bring our carbon bender under control?

To find some answers, I decided to try three carbon dioxide diets. First, that of the typical American. I would see how my consumption measures up to the national average and attempt (briefly) to burn as much fuel as my fellow citizens. Next, I’d investigate what it would take to bring my emissions down to the world average, the level of countries such as Jamaica and Romania. Finally, I’d try to produce no more than my share of what Earth’s natural systems can handle.

For this journey into the thicket of tons, BTUs, and kilowatts, I would need a guide. I recruited Jon Koomey, an energy and climate researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, who was eager to be my wise man. “I’ve always wanted to play Yoda,” he said.

We reviewed my initial assets and handicaps. It turned out that several factors made my carbon dioxide output leaner than the average American’s. I live in a city, so I don’t have to travel far for daily necessities. That city is Seattle, where subfreezing weather is uncommon and mild summers make air-conditioning unnecessary. At the time of my experiment, I worked at home, so my commute was carbon free. To top it off, my wife, Jen, and I occupied an apartment in a 28-unit building, whose shared walls reduce the energy needed for wintertime heating. Reaching the all-American consumption level seemed well-nigh impossible.
(Sept/Oct 2006 issue)

“Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being” – theme for 2007 AAAS conference

American Assocication for the Advancement of Science

2007 AAAS Annual Meeting
15-19 February • San Francisco

“Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being” is the theme for the 2007 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The achievement of sustainable well-being depends heavily on economic, sociopolitical, and environmental conditions and processes, and on their interconnections. The meeting will bring together provocative thinkers and decision makers for a wide range of symposia, plenary lectures, topical lectures, seminars, presidential tracks, and other sessions.

Although the full program is still in development, it will have global and national issues in health, energy, the environment, economic development, education, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism at the forefront.

[Among the challenges to be addressed: ]
….* Weather-related disasters – floods, droughts, wildfires, and “hundred-year” storms – multiply before our eyes, while many of the most powerful governments and corporations cling to their “wait-and-see” stance on whether regulation of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is required.
* The economic and security challenges of overdependence of the world’s energy system on petroleum continue to receive more lip service than serious policy responses, in industrial and developing nations alike.
(Aug 2006)
Submitter MF writes:

I have been to four of these meetings in the past, and they are heavily attended by scientists and the press. It will be a great opportunity for peak oilers and others to ask scientists questions and offer comments on pertinent topics in front of the press. Those who can should consider going.