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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Green Patriarch

Like Al Gore, who named him the "Green Patriarch," the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church is a prominent leader in the environmental movement. Since 1997, he has been bringing principal scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders from all faiths, and policy makers from all over the world together to work on the ecological crisis.

This film looks at the ecological consequences of the historical split between science and religion, how we came to see ourselves as separate from nature, and how our consumer based economy found its moral justification in a Judeo-Christian view that humans have dominion over the planet’s resources. At the same time it also explores how Bartholomew's activism is inspired by the Orthodox position that we are part of nature, and that God’s intention for humans is to be stewards, or caretakers, of all creation.

In a world of unprecedented consumption of the earth’s natural resources, Patriarch Bartholomew shows by example how saving the planet is finally a moral issue, not solely a technological one. And as this film follows him on his trips to the most ecologically threatened areas of the planet, it also illustrates why these views are so controversial.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Trees Matter

From Jim Robbins at the New York Times

Helena, Mont.

TREES are on the front lines of our changing climate. And when the oldest trees in the world suddenly start dying, it’s time to pay attention.

North America’s ancient alpine bristlecone forests are falling victim to a voracious beetle and an Asian fungus. In Texas, a prolonged drought killed more than five million urban shade trees last year and an additional half-billion trees in parks and forests. In the Amazon, two severe droughts have killed billions more.

The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.

We have underestimated the importance of trees. They are not merely pleasant sources of shade but a potentially major answer to some of our most pressing environmental problems. We take them for granted, but they are a near miracle. In a bit of natural alchemy called photosynthesis, for example, trees turn one of the seemingly most insubstantial things of all — sunlight — into food for insects, wildlife and people, and use it to create shade, beauty and wood for fuel, furniture and homes.

For all of that, the unbroken forest that once covered much of the continent is now shot through with holes.

Humans have cut down the biggest and best trees and left the runts behind. What does that mean for the genetic fitness of our forests? No one knows for sure, for trees and forests are poorly understood on almost all levels. “It’s embarrassing how little we know,” one eminent redwood researcher told me.

What we do know, however, suggests that what trees do is essential though often not obvious. 

Decades ago, Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a marine chemist at Hokkaido University in Japan, discovered that when tree leaves decompose, they leach acids into the ocean that help fertilize plankton. When plankton thrive, so does the rest of the food chain. In a campaign called Forests Are Lovers of the Sea, fishermen have replanted forests along coasts and rivers to bring back fish and oyster stocks. And they have returned.

Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytoremediation. Tree leaves also filter air pollution. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.

In Japan, researchers have long studied what they call “forest bathing.” A walk in the woods, they say, reduces the level of stress chemicals in the body and increases natural killer cells in the immune system, which fight tumors and viruses. Studies in inner cities show that anxiety, depression and even crime are lower in a landscaped environment.

Trees also release vast clouds of beneficial chemicals. On a large scale, some of these aerosols appear to help regulate the climate; others are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. We need to learn much more about the role these chemicals play in nature. One of these substances, taxane, from the Pacific yew tree, has become a powerful treatment for breast and other cancers. Aspirin’s active ingredient comes from willows.

Trees are greatly underutilized as an eco-technology. “Working trees” could absorb some of the excess phosphorus and nitrogen that run off farm fields and help heal the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In Africa, millions of acres of parched land have been reclaimed through strategic tree growth.

Trees are also the planet’s heat shield. They keep the concrete and asphalt of cities and suburbs 10 or more degrees cooler and protect our skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays. The Texas Department of Forestry has estimated that the die-off of shade trees will cost Texans hundreds of millions of dollars more for air-conditioning. Trees, of course, sequester carbon, a greenhouse gas that makes the planet warmer. A study by the Carnegie Institution for Science also found that water vapor from forests lowers ambient temperatures.

A big question is, which trees should we be planting? Ten years ago, I met a shade tree farmer named David Milarch, a co-founder of the Champion Tree Project who has been cloning some of the world’s oldest and largest trees to protect their genetics, from California redwoods to the oaks of Ireland. “These are the supertrees, and they have stood the test of time,” he says.

Science doesn’t know if these genes will be important on a warmer planet, but an old proverb seems apt. “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The answer: “Twenty years ago. The second-best time? Today.”

Jim Robbins is the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Facebook, Some Friendly Energy Rivalry

Facebook users can use an Opower app to compare notes on how much energy they consume. 
OpowerFacebook users can use an Opower app to compare notes on how much energy they consume.

From Leslie Kaufman at the New York Times Green blog

So, would you stop washing your clothes in warm water if your best friend tried doing it in cold and said her jeans were coming out clean? Would you be more likely to weatherize your house if your college roommate said that it had cut her heating bill by 30 percent? And if your mom got one of those power strips that turn off devices that suck electricity in the middle of the night, would you do the same?

In 2009 I wrote about a company (now called Opower) that blends behavioral science and data analysis to find ways to help utilities get their customers to use less electricity. At the time, it was enabling power companies to send out bills comparing customers’ energy usage with that of their neighbors. Smiley faces adorned the bills of energy-efficient users; their less-efficient neighbors got frowns.

The thinking behind all this, of course, is that it’s not so much factual information that motivates behavioral change — knowing that smoking is bad for you, or that most electricity generation emits heat-trapping carbon dioxide – but the way that such information plays off social relationships and creates peer pressure. Now the company is harnessing social media to further that kind of psychological connection as well.

Teaming with Facebook, energy conservation advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, Opower released a a new app on Tuesday that will allow interested parties in 20 million households served by 16 utilities to post their energy use on their Facebook pages and invite friends to do so as well. The option is available from participating utilities in California, New York and points in between.

Only a few months ago, the White House challenged utilities to enable their customers to download information on their energy usage in what it described as a “Green Button” initiative. Many followed suit, and the Obama administration has called for the creation of more social-media apps to capitalize on this phenomenon.

Opower’s founder, Alex Laskey, said the company’s new app would allow anyone who signed up to automatically upload their usage data from their local utility to their Facebook page and then invite friends to do the same and compare notes on their efforts to save energy. The app could be used to share tips on what works in a community-support forum.

In homes with smart meters, the information on energy use is quite detailed, Mr. Laskey said. So by using computer modeling that takes other variables like weather and humidity into effect, consumers will be able to compare the energy they consume by, say, running air-conditioning in the summertime.

“The utility industry is not known for its cutting-edge customer service, mostly because they’re regulated monopolies,” Mr. Laskey said. “However, that is changing in a profound way — social networking, alerts, sophisticated usage analysis reports, et cetera.”

“We’re seeing one of our oldest, most important industries change in a very fundamental way right before our eyes,” he added.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Power Steer

 Click here to read this classic 2002 essay from Michael Pollen at the New York Times Magazine

(Editor's note-To vegetarian friends of the Yoga of Ecology, this is a vital piece to absorb.  It may not seem so at times, but this is a situation that is only getting worse, and I commend Pollen for bringing the mass industrialization of cattle breeding to light) 

But you can go farther still, and follow the fertilizer needed to grow that corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. No. 534 started life as part of a food chain that derived all its energy from the sun; now that corn constitutes such an important link in his food chain, he is the product of an industrial system powered by fossil fuel. (And in turn, defended by the military -- another uncounted cost of ''cheap'' food.) I asked David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, if it might be possible to calculate precisely how much oil it will take to grow my steer to slaughter weight. Assuming No. 534 continues to eat 25 pounds of corn a day and reaches a weight of 1,250 pounds, he will have consumed in his lifetime roughly 284 gallons of oil. We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Gita Nagari Yoga Farm

For more info on this amazing project, click here to go to their website.

Set in the scenic Tuscarora Valley, framed by mountain ridges, boundaried by the Tuscarora Creek on the east side, inhabited by melodious birds and other creatures, home to 9 joyful volunteers, 19 peaceful cows/oxen, and a carefree flock of about 40 peacocks, Gita Nagari Organic Farm of 350 acres of rolling green hay fields, pastures and diverse woods engages in compassionate farming, above all its other activities.

We are a small community set in cozy rural Port Royal, PA with a singular aim of integrating our existence based on the principles of love, care and respect for all living beings. Spirituality, Sustainability and Community Care form the basis of our activities.

The community residing at Gita Nagari Farm is an intentional community, which Wikipedia defines as:

"a planned residential community designed to have a much higher degree of teamwork than other communities. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and are often part of the alternative society. They typically also share responsibilities and resources. Intentional communities include cohousing communities, residential land trusts, ecovillages, communes, survivalist retreats, kibbutzim, ashrams and housing cooperatives. Typically, new members of an intentional community are selected by the community's existing membership, rather than by real-estate agents or land owners (if the land is not owned collectively by the community)".

The spiritual vision held by the residents is of understanding our identity as spirit souls and being engaged in a loving relationship with the Divine. The expression of this understanding translates into unconditional and uninterrupted service unmixed with any material or exploitative tendency. Understanding that the spirit soul is the basis of life, allows us to extend this mood of service to all residents - trees, animals, birds and  people! Non identification with the bodily/temporary/material designations, allows the community to over come barriers of race, color, creed, age, etc and work synergistically in a mood of service. Non-violence and peace are natural by-products of such a world view.

Bhakti Yoga

The residents of Gita Nagari relate to God through loving devotional service.  They practice bhakti yoga - the yoga of love and devotion.  They utlise their abilities, intelligence, talents in service to the Supreme Lord, and in this way they are able to serve each other and the needs of a farm community.

Growing our own Food

A key principle of self sufficiency is to grow one's own food.  At Gita Nagari Yoga Farm we cultivated an acre last year (2009) and harvested an abundant crop.  The harvest was offered to the presiding deities Sri Sri Radha Damodara.  This is an important principle for our community - to offer back with love to the source of everything.  We had to supplement our harvests with other sources because we do not grow everything we eat...yet!

Being inspired from last year's season, and due to requests for produce, we plan to cultivate 10 acres this year. Please join us in any manner that suits your schedule and interests, and experience the fulfilment that comes from working so closely with Mother Nature.

Organic Farming

At this point in time, 100 acres of the farm's pasture is certified organic. We currently grow hay on this parcel of land. This season, we will start an organic vegetable garden on about 20 acres of this land and launch our first ever Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program. We have now have 160 acres that are certified organic!


We have 160 acres of certified organic land, both pasture and cropland.  This year, we are growing 20 acres of a wide variety of vegetables and herbs. We are offering two primary services this growing season:
1. Wholesale Markets
2. CSA

1. Wholesale Markets
We have a commitment with a local organic growers cooperative to supply them with 20 different types of vegetables and herbs.  We are also on a search for more organic produce wholesale markets - if you are a wholesaler, please call us on 717 527 4101 to discuss your needs with us.  We have also introduced more exotic and speciality crops into our mix for various markets such as the Indian/Asian market! Once we have communicated with each other, log on to and order online. Payments can be accepted via credit cards, checks, Google checkout and Paypal.

2. CSA - Community Supported Agriculture
What is it?
Our CSA program will provide you with 26 weeks of local, sustainable, certified organic produce grown with love and devotion on our 350 acre farm in Port Royal, PA. Produce is hand harvested and delivered weekly, life energy fresh to seven drop-off points, namely Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; two in New Jersey; and two in New York. 
As members, you pay $600 for the season (only $23/ delivery) by March 25th and in return you will receive a variety of organic veggies, farm updates, recipes, and invites to farm tours, vegetarian dinners and other events hosted on our farm!

What sort of produce will you get?
Okra, Bitter Melon, Variety of Tomatoes, Spinach, Calabash, Fairy Tale Eggplants, Mustard Greens, Asian Greens (Mazuna red & green, Tatsoi, Kamasuna, Golden & Red Frill Mustard), Arugula, Beets, Broccoli, Cabbage, Peppers (sweet bell; mild; hot;), Chillies, Watermelon, Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Winter Squash, Dillacarda, Beans (long green & yellow), Bok Choi (red & green), Cauliflower, Zucchini and much more!

Click [here] to download the 2012 CSA Program brochure

************* Sign-Up by April 8th, 2012 ***********

On-line signup for CSA

  1. Shares run from ~May 13th through November 4th (26 weeks)
  2. Cost of CSA Share: $600/season, pay by March 25th
  3. Paying in Installments: Members who cannot pay the full share price up front are welcome to pay in 3 installments. $300/April - $150/May -$150/August - A $15 paper-work fee will be assessed. 
There are two ways you can sign up for the CSA online:

1. Sign-up using Paypal
Use the Paypal button below.
Right now, you can use this option only to make a single full payment.
You need not have an account with paypal. You can simply enter your credit card info and check out.

2. Sign-up Google Checkout:
Use the Google Checkout below to subscribe to our CSA using your credit card. You'll need a google-id (or create one).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. 
Rick Scibelli, Jr. for The New York Times 
Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

TUCSON — Your day breaks, your mind aches for something stimulating to match the stirrings of the season. The gate at the urban edge is open, here to the Santa Catalina Mountains, and yet you turn inward, to pixels and particle-board vistas.

Something’s amiss. A third of all American adults — check, it just went up to 35.7 percent — are obese. The French don’t even have a word for fat, Paul Rudnick mused in a mock-Parisian tone in
The New Yorker last week. “If a woman is obese,” he wrote, “we simply call her American.”

And, of course, our national branding comes with a host of deadly side effects: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer. Medical costs associated with obesity and inactivity are nearly $150 billion a year.

This grim toll is well known. Cripes: maybe surgery is the answer, or a menu of energy drinks and vodka (the Ann Coulter diet?). Count the calories. Lay off the muffins. Atkins one week, Slim-Fast the next. We spend more than $50 billion on the diet-industrial complex and have little to show for it (or too much).

But there is an obvious solution — just outside the window. For most of human history, people chased things or were chased themselves. They turned dirt over and planted seeds and saplings. They took in Vitamin D from the sun, and learned to tell a crow from a raven (ravens are larger; crows have a more nasal call; so say the birders). And then, in less than a generation’s time, millions of people completely decoupled themselves from nature.

There’s a term for the consequences of this divorce between human and habitat — nature deficit disorder, coined by the writer Richard Louv in a 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” It sounds trendy, a bit of sociological shorthand, but give the man and his point a listen.

Louv argued that certain behavioral problems could be caused by the sharp decline in how little time children now spend outdoors, a trend updated in the latest Recreation Participation Report. The number of boys ages 6 to 12 who engage in some kind of outdoor activity, in particular, continues to slide.

Kids who do play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns, Louv said. Since his book came out, things have gotten worse.

“The average young American now spends practically every minute — except for the time in school – using a smartphone, computer, television or electronic device,” my colleague Tamar Lewin reported in 2010, from a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

You can blame technology, but behind every screen-dominant upbringing is an overly cautious parent. Understandably, we want to protect our kids from “out there” variables. But it’s better not just to play in dirt, but to eat it. Studies show exposure to the randomness of nature may actually boost the immune system.

Nature may eventually come to those who shun it, and not in a pretty way. We stay indoors. We burn fossil fuels. The CO2 buildup adds to global warming. Suburbs of Denver are aflame this week, and much of the United States is getting ready for the tantrums of hurricane and tornado season, boosted by atmospheric instability.

Last week, an Australian mountaineer named Lincoln Hall died at the age of 56, and in the drama of that life cut short is a parable of sorts. Hall is best known for surviving a night at more than 28,000 feet on Mount Everest, in 2006. He’d become disoriented near the summit, and couldn’t move — to the peril of his sherpas. They left him for dead. And Hall’s death was announced to his family.

But the next day, a group of climbers found Hall sitting up, jacket unzipped, mumbling, badly frostbitten — but alive. He later wrote a book, “Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest.”

Still, having survived perhaps the most inhospitable, dangerous and life-killing perch on the planet, Hall died in middle age of a human-caused malady from urban life — mesothelioma, attributed to childhood exposure to asbestos.

Various groups, from the outdoor co-op REI to the Trust for Public Land, have have been working to
ensure that kids have more contact with the alpine world than one lined with asbestos. And they don’t even have to haul children off to a distant mountain to get some benefit. An urban park would do.

This week, Michelle Obama appeared in the glow of spring’s optimism to kick off the fourth year of the White House Kitchen Garden, a component of her campaign to curb childhood obesity. If she is successful, it will be because people learned by their own initiative — perhaps at her prompting. A worm at work can be a wonderful discovery if you’ve never seen one outside of a flat-screen. But so are endorphins, the narcotic byproduct of exercise.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. The First Lady supplied her own variation on the theme, with two powerful words that can go a long way to battling nature deficit disorder: “Let’s plant!”

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Vast Tracts in Paraguay Forest Being Replaced by Ranches

At least 1.2 million acres of the Chaco have been deforested in the last two years, according to satellite analyses by Guyra, an environmental group in Asunción, the capital. Ranchers making way for their vast herds of cattle have cleared roughly 10 percent of the Chaco forest in the last five years, Guyra said. That is reflected in surging beef exports.

“Paraguay already has the sad distinction of being a deforestation champion,” said José Luis Casaccia, a prosecutor and former environment minister, referring to the large clearing in recent decades of Atlantic forests in eastern Paraguay for soybean farms; little more than 10 percent of the original forests remain.

“If we continue with this insanity,” Mr. Casaccia said, “nearly all of the Chaco’s forests could be destroyed within 30 years.”

The rush is already transforming small Mennonite settlements on the Chaco frontier into boomtowns. 

The Mennonites, whose Protestant Anabaptist faith coalesced in Europe in the 16th century, founded settlements here in the 1920s. Towns with names like Neuland, Friedensfeld and Neu-Halbstadt dot the map.

Buoyed by their newfound prosperity, the Mennonite communities here differ from those in other parts of Latin America, like the settlements in eastern Bolivia where many Mennonites still drive horse-drawn buggies and wear traditional clothing.

In Filadelfia, Mennonite teenagers barrel down roads outside town in new Nissan pickup trucks. Banks advertise loans for cattle traders. Gas stations sell chewing tobacco and beers like Coors Light. An annual rodeo lures visitors from across Paraguay.

Patrick Friesen, communications manager for a Mennonite cooperative in Filadelfia, said property prices had surged fivefold in recent years. “A plot of land in town costs more than in downtown Asunción,” said Mr. Friesen, attributing the boom partly to surging global demand for beef.

“Eighty-five percent of our beef is exported, to places including South Africa, Russia and Gabon,” he said. Citing concerns in some countries over foot-and-mouth disease, which Paraguay detected in its cattle herd in 2011, he continued, “We are currently focused on some of the less-demanding markets.”
Paraguay’s Chaco forest lies in the Gran Chaco plain, spread across several nations. Scientists fear that the expansion of cattle ranching could wipe out what is a beguiling frontier for the discovery of new species. The Chaco is still relatively unexplored. The largest living species of peccary, piglike mammals, was revealed to science here in the 1970s. In some areas, biologists have recently glimpsed guanacos, a camelid similar to the llama.

More alarming, the land rush is also intensifying the upheaval among the Chaco’s indigenous peoples, who number in the thousands and have been grappling for decades with forays by foreign missionaries, the rising clout of the Mennonites and infighting among different tribes.

One group of hunter-gatherers, the Ayoreo, is under particular stress from the changes. In 2004, 17 Ayoreo speakers, from a subgroup who call themselves the Totobiegosode, or “people from the place where the collared peccaries ate our gardens,” made contact with outsiders for the first time.

In Chaidi, a village near Filadelfia, they described being hounded for years by bulldozers encroaching on their lands. The Ayoreo word for bulldozer, “eapajocacade,” means “attackers of the world.”

“They were destroying our forests, generating problems for us,” one Totobiegosode man, Esoi Chiquenoi, who believed he was in his 40s, said through an interpreter. As a result, he and others in his group, who in photographs taken in 2004 were wearing loincloths, abruptly abandoned their way of lif