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Low Technologies, High Aims

Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Beneath the bustling “infinite corridor” linking buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just past a boiler room, an assemblage of tinkerers from 16 countries welded, stitched and hammered, working on rough-hewn inventions aimed at saving the world, one village at a time

M.I.T. has nurtured dozens of Nobel Prize winners in cerebral realms like astrophysics, economics and genetics. But lately, the institute has turned its attention toward concrete thinking to improve the lives of the world’s bottom billion, those who live on a dollar a day or less and who often die young.

This summer, it played host to a four-week International Development Design Summit to identify problems, cobble together prototype solutions and winnow the results to see which might work in the real world.

Mohamed Mashaal, a young British engineer headed for a job with BP on the North Sea this fall, poured water into a handcrafted plastic backpack worn by a design partner, Bernard Kiwia, who teaches bicycle repair in rural Tanzania and hopes to offer women there an easier way to tote the precious liquid for long distances.

Sham Tembo, an electrical engineer from Zambia, and Jessica Vechakul, an engineering graduate student at M.I.T., slowly added a cow manure puree to a five-gallon bucket holding charcoal made from corncobs. In the right configuration, the mix might generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone battery or a small flashlight for a year or more.

The summit ( was the brainchild mainly of Amy Smith, a lecturer at M.I.T. who received her master’s there in 1995 and in 2004 won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and Kenneth Pickar, an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology. Faculty and students from Olin College, an engineering school near Boston, were also involved.

The flurry of activity was taking place at D-Lab, a research center and set of courses at M.I.T. devoted to devising cheap technologies that could have a big effect in impoverished communities.
(11 September 2007)

Knitting for the Apocalypse

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
The title here is somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, but I do think that we knitters and crocheters, spinners and weavers have something useful to contribute to a lower-impact future – warm fingers and toes, homemade reusable cloth bags, beautiful clothing – all made from local or recycled or otherwise sustainable materials. So I thought a discussion of how to knit (and all the other useful fiber arts) sustainably was in order. I want to hear what other people are doing.

If you don’t knit, and you read this for advice about how to address peak oil and climate change, you may be thinking “couldn’t she have picked something even more boring to write about?” But here’s one of the details the apocalyptic websites rarely include – disasters are actually really boring.

During the instant that bad things are happening there’s likely to be all sorts of excitement, screaming and running about, but in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly the sort that are likely in a slow, grinding loss of stability and wealth like the one we’re facing, there’s an awful lot of time spent standing around. Unemployment comes. You don’t have a car any more and can’t go out to the movies or to get a beer. No more recreational shopping. You turn the lights way down to save money at night, so you can’t read. Your sister in law and her three kids moved in and there’s nowhere to go to escape.

What do you do?

That’s the beauty of fiber arts. They are portable, cheap (or they can be – you can blow a lot of money if you want), and accessible. They provide something to do with your hands in a dark place, or a light one, it can be complex or relaxing. Whittling and other small woodworking projects work too, but fiber arts have the advantage of using only minimally pointy things, and being permissable in places like court and planes where knives get you in trouble. Seriously, this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but with a “Mooooommm…I’m bored!” Might as well have something useful to do with your hands.
(11 September 2007)

Free-lunch foragers

Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times
‘Freegans’ are a growing subculture that has opted out of capitalism by cutting spending habits and living off consumer waste.

NEW YORK — For lunch in her modest apartment, Madeline Nelson tossed a salad made with shaved carrots and lettuce she dug out of a Whole Foods dumpster. She flavored the dressing with miso powder she found in a trash bag on a curb in Chinatown. She baked bread made with yeast plucked from the garbage of a Middle Eastern grocery store.

Nelson is a former corporate executive who can afford to dine at four-star restaurants. But she prefers turning garbage into gourmet meals without spending a cent.

On this afternoon, she thawed a slab of pate that she found three days before its expiration date in a dumpster outside a health food store. She made buttery chicken soup from another health food store’s hot buffet leftovers, which she salvaged before they were tossed into the garbage.

Nelson, 51, once earned a six-figure income as director of communications at Barnes and Noble. Tired of representing a multimillion dollar company, she quit in 2005 and became a “freegan” — the word combining “vegan” and “free” — a growing subculture of people who have reduced their spending habits and live off consumer waste. Though many of its pioneers are vegans, people who neither eat nor use any animal-based products, the concept has caught on with Nelson and other meat-eaters who do not want to depend on businesses that they believe waste resources, harm the environment or allow unfair labor practices.

“We’re doing something that is really socially unacceptable,” Nelson said. “Not everyone is going to do it, but we hope it leads people to push their own limits and quit spending.”

…Freeganism was born out of environmental justice and anti-globalization movements dating to the 1980s. The concept was inspired in part by groups like “Food Not Bombs,” an international organization that feeds the homeless with surplus food that’s often donated by businesses.
(11 September 2007)

Green Acres

Bryan Walsh, TIME Magazine
Gail Carson would like you to know something about the EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI): it is not a commune. “It’s the first question people ask when they visit,” says Carson, a pleasant, shy woman who runs a bed-and-breakfast at the upstate New York village. But you could be forgiven for not believing her.

At the moment, Carson, 66, is speaking to a circle of about 20 fellow ecovillagers who have gathered in the purple August twilight outside one of the community’s common houses, where they’ve just polished off a group meal of broccoli pasta (regular, as well as wheat-free for the allergic). The 160 members of EVI eat several meals a week together, prepared by rotating teams of volunteer cooks. They share laundry machines, babysitters, organic produce, TVs (for the few who watch), even cars. If all this togetherness doesn’t make EVI a commune, that’s because it’s potentially much more: a clean, green village hoping to show the rest of us how to live a fully modern life while reducing our environmental footprint to little more than a tiptoe.

“We’re trying to create an attractive, viable alternative to American life,” says Liz Walker, 53, who co-founded EVI in 1991 and still serves as its philosophical engine. “For us this feels like the way people should live on the earth.”

Americans have sought out companies of like-minded souls since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, organizing around religion, politics, philosophy and–by the time the 1960s rolled around–long hair, free love and poor hygiene. But today that need for community is paired with a desire to live in harmony with the environment. The result is the ecovillage, and EVI is hardly the only one of its kind.
(6 September 2007)
Generally a sympathetic article. The irony is that Green Acres and other eco-communes are much more similar to traditional American life than modern consumerism. Suburbia and isolated nuclear families are a bizarre phenomenon of the last half century. -BA

Think Longevity

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
One of the things we simply can’t afford to have anymore – afford in either economic or environmental terms – is a throwaway society, in which things exist for short term usage. Instead, as energy and resource costs rise, we need to make our possessions last – ideally for generations.

I don’t know about you, but my observation is that old stuff is generally better made than new. This isn’t universal, but I’m often surprised by how sturdy old things are, and how beautiful, how well they last. Part of that is because people simply didn’t have as many things, or as much money to waste on things that promptly broke, so lasting materials and solid engineering were the norm. And part of it is because form and function didn’t always operate so seperately.

Right now, I plant corn and beans with a 120 year old jab planter. I serve bread and soup from transferware dishes from the 1870s that my grandmother kept in her kitchen. My kids read stories from an ancient McGuffey’s Reader, and I teach them spelling from word lists copied out of the books my great-grandfather used to teach school in Connecticut at the turn of the century – and some of the books belonged to his father.

…Now I’m lucky enough to have this stuff, but for me, it illustrates the possibilities of a pass-down society, where we concentrate our (fewer) purchases on high-quality items that last a lifetime, rather than focusing on mass accumulation. That is, when we buy things, we should be thinking “can my grandchildren (or someone else’s grandchildren) make use of this?” Because we simply don’t have the option anymore of treating our possessions as throwaways. Not only are the environmental consequences simply too great, but more importantly, the resource that has enabled us to have so much is getting more and more expensive and harder and harder to come by. That is, whether we want our children and grandchildren to have live with the things we pass down to them or not, they may well have no choice.
(10 September 2007)
Sharon touched on the emotional reasons for the “buy-and-hold” philosophy of consumerism, but are many more benefits. How would it help your peace of mind to work with tools that are reliable and understandable (no damn instruction booklets to read). What does it do for your sense of connectedness to eat on the dishes that your Grandmother used, to work at your father’s desk, to cook with a clay pot a close friend gave you 20 years ago? How might it reduce your stress level not to drive through traffic to the mall to keep up with fashion? -BA