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Cool ideas - April 4

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


Motown hopes food will spur rebirth, growth

Lisa Baertlein, Reuters
When Slows Bar-B-Q opened in Detroit's Corktown district seven years ago, the neighborhood was so neglected that the street lamps no longer worked.

The restaurant sits in the shadow of Detroit's abandoned central train station, a few blocks from the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium once stood. "People said we were nuts," recalled co-owner Phillip Cooley.

Today, Slows has two Detroit locations that pull in a healthy $6 million in sales annually.

An artisan coffee shop and a swanky cocktail bar have opened near Slows in Corktown, making the neighborhood one of a handful of vibrant residential pockets in Motor City. The success of Slows and other local food businesses is a rallying point for a cadre of entrepreneurs fighting to shake off Detroit's reputation as a culinary wasteland and give people a reason to return...
(4 April, 2012)



Students Seek Books For a Peopled Planet

Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth
I’m in the early stages of designing a crowd-shaped-and-shared online learning tool on the core issues shaping the human journey in this century (i.e., the issues at the right side of Dot Earth’s homepage). You can call it a syllabus, an online textbook, a course.

So when I learned about the New Earth Archive being built by a student organization at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I got pretty excited. David Rothenberg, a professor there who’s been a frequent presence on this blog, introduced me to Anthony Sorgi, an enterprising, innovative student driving the project.

His goal is to build a resource guide (to books, films, news reports and more) for students of any age eager to smooth the human transition from spike (the last 200 years, both in terms of numbers and resource appetites) to whatever comes next.

A prime focus at the moment is developing a collection of informative, provocative or inspiring books. Here’s the current list.

Below you can read Sorgi’s call for your input on books that are bedrock reading for this consequential century...
(10 March, 2012)



Greece on the breadline: cashless currency takes off

Jon Henley, The Guardian
In recent weeks, Theodoros Mavridis has bought fresh eggs, tsipourou (the local brandy: beware), fruit, olives, olive oil, jam, and soap. He has also had some legal advice, and enjoyed the services of an accountant to help fill in his tax return.

None of it has cost him a euro, because he had previously done a spot of electrical work – repairing a TV, sorting out a dodgy light – for some of the 800-odd members of a fast-growing exchange network in the port town of Volos, midway between Athens and Thessaloniki.

In return for his expert labour, Mavridis received a number of Local Alternative Units (known as tems in Greek) in his online network account. In return for the eggs, olive oil, tax advice and the rest, he transferred tems into other people's accounts.

"It's an easier, more direct way of exchanging goods and services," said Bernhardt Koppold, a German-born homeopathist and acupuncturist in Volos who is an active member of the network. "It's also a way of showing practical solidarity – of building relationships."

He had just treated Maria McCarthy, an English teacher who has lived and worked in the town for 20 years. The consultation was her first tem transaction, and she used one of the vouchers available for people who haven't yet, or can't, set up an online account...
(2012)



Futuristic farm shop grows food in synthetic veg patch

George Webster and Leo Dawson, CNN
Behind a Victorian shop front in the Cockney heartland of London's East End hides an urban agriculture initiative that claims to be the world's first farm in a shop.

The aptly-named FARM:shop sits along a busy main road next to a ragtag bunch of more conventional retail outlets, most of which are in various phases of decay.

There are chickens grazing on the rooftop -- seemingly oblivious to the red double decker buses roaring past below. Inside are fish tanks filled with Tilapia; mushrooms sprouting in the basement; fruit blooming in a polytunnel greenhouse; and endless rows of herbs and salad leaves growing from the hydroponic troughs that line the shelves.

"I think places like FARM:shop can reconnect people with their food," says engineer and co-founder Paul Smyth. "We've had this separation of countryside and city living ... So the connection has been severed between what you eat and how it's grown."

While the ethos is community focused, the shop's interior is more like a laboratory than a local gardening center. White low-energy strip lights facilitate the growth of vegetables in lieu of sun rays, and the cabbage patch looks more like a cluster of giant Petri dishes than an allotment.

"We've been learning as we go with most of this technology," admits Smyth. That said, the shop -- which opened in 2011 -- is already a modest commercial success. Having diversified into a grocery store, cafe, rentable office and events space, it now employs two staff and is turning a profit -- all of which is ploughed back into the business.

..."Right now, no-one is saying you're going to feed nine billion people like this," says Egal. "But agriculture reform is an incremental process requiring many solutions -- and growing perishable, fresh produce near to where it's consumed seems like one very sensible step."

Back in east London, Smyth is optimistic about the future.

"FARM:shop itself is experimental, it will always be our laboratory at the heart of our ideas. But going forward we'll be looking at bigger sites, scaling up, growing more food and selling more food together -- and if we get those kind of sites we're really confident we can roll this out and make a real lasting difference."
(3 April, 2012)



Cut the country some slack and introduce national gardening leave

Andrew Simms, the Guardian
What is a politician's main skill set: persuasion, self-advancement in a hostile environment, the ability to avoid blame? It might be many more things, some unmentionable, but it is not actually doing things. Generally, you wouldn't go to an MP to fix your plumbing, build a bridge, or bake and sell a pasty. In the main, they're not practical people.

For that reason perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see them floundering recently in the face of real world events.

The extraordinary thing is that their instincts for survival and blame avoidance hadn't fully grasped the threat of the tanker drivers' protest (or indeed the nation's fond attachment to affordable hot pies). It is more than a decade since blockades of fuel depots by lorry drivers, upset at the price of petrol, brought the nation to within days of crisis. At the time everyone was shocked at how easily such a small number of people could leave us all at a standstill.

But it was a seizure waiting to happen. In nature, ecosystems require slack to function well. But narrow economic notions of efficiency and a culture of short-sighted cost cutting drove the practice of "just-in-time" delivery into the mainstream. As a result, instead of having back-up stores of food or fuel "just-in-case" – something which in nature and society for millennia has been a tactic for robustness and resilience – we hang by the thread of last-minute deliveries from elsewhere. A side-effect of the ready-made, just-in-time world has been to change our expectations, strip our skills to do with food, and foster dependency on the vulnerable logistics of the supermarket model.

That's why, with only around three days' worth of stores, at any one point in time we're only nine meals from anarchy, as we discovered in the summer of late 2000.

...Is there a way to can tackle these problems at the same time as addressing broader economic and social problems?

I think so. National gardening leave, or something like it. Quite seriously, take a step back and look at a range of our problems....
(2012)

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