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Lettuce, From a Skyscraper Near You

Vertical farms are gaining traction from Illinois to Singapore, but questions remain about their role in urban agriculture.

Skyscraper farms seem like a thing of the future: Lettuce growing in windowless rooms under red-tinted LED lights while scientists check nutrient levels and calculate optimal harvest times. Basil plants stacked 10-feet high. Tilapia swimming in large troughs. While these images may contrast with our romantic notions of farming, the truth is that intensive indoor farming isn’t just a sci-fi fantasy – but a thing of present. There are already indoor farms cranking out 10,000 heads of lettuce a day.

aquaponics bedphoto by Plant Chicago, on FlickrLettuce grows under the red-tinted glow of LED lights at The Plant, a vertical farm in Chicago.

During the past decade, enclosed vertical farms have popped up around the world, from Singapore, to Japan, to the United States. These farms strive to grow fresh produce in indoor settings and to fill gaps in local food production. In a world of rapid population growth, growing food insecurity, and global climate change, this type of innovation in agriculture seems like a good thing. But for all the promise that vertical farming may hold, it also raises serious questions about energy-use, food justice, and the fundamentals of how we want our food to be grown.

The first question is: What exactly constitutes a vertical farm? Indoor vertical farms come in many different shapes and sizes, but generally speaking, they are “vertical” because they stack plants from floor to ceiling (often in several stories of a building). Some are constructed in abandoned warehouses, while others, like the Plantagon under construction in Sweden, are stunning examples of modern architecture. Regardless of size and shape, they generally employ one of three technologies: aquaponics (growing plants adjacent to fish, and using the nutrient rich water from the fish tanks to fertilize plants), hydroponics (growing plants without soil, in sand, liquid, or some other solution), or aeroponics (growing food with roots suspended in the air).

Using these indoor technologies, farmers are able to grow food just about anywhere, allowing for “ultra-local” farming.

“There are a number of factors that go into the farm and why we do what we do, and the majority of it has to do with being able to provide local produce to people and to customers that otherwise, traditionally, especially in the Midwest, are getting products that are …more

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Blue Whale Recovery Report Leaves Room for Caution

New study only relevant to the Eastern Pacific Ocean; other blue whale populations around the world remain severely depressed

A recent report that the blue whales along the California coast in the Eastern Pacific Ocean have recovered from the severe damage done to the population by commercial whaling, which continued up until the mid-1960s on these giants, has gone viral on the Internet. While the story is a positive one, there is room for some caution.

Blue Whale off Redondo BeachPhoto by millerm217/FlickrBlue Whale spotted near Redondo Beach, CA. Of continuing concern is the fact that the seas the blue whales are swimming in are still in peril.

The headlines imply more scientific certainty about the findings than may be warranted, and blue whales still swim in an ocean with many dangers, including possible renewal of commercial whaling if some countries have their way. And, sadly, other populations of blue whales around the world remain severely depressed.

The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, growing in the Eastern Pacific to a length of 80 to 90 feet. Their brethren in the Antarctic can exceed 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons. 

The increase in numbers over the years is not new news — whale-watchers, fishermen, and researchers have known for two decades that blue whales (along with gray whales and humpback whales) have increased in numbers offshore since the 1970s when interest in whales began to rise. Intense research with photo identification of blue whales to count the numbers has come to a conclusion that about 2,500 blue whales can be found in the Eastern Pacific from the equator to Alaska. Researchers photograph the blue whales on the surface and can identify individuals from coloration, scarring, and the shape and size of their small dorsal fins.

We know these whales can swim enormous distances, likely looking for feeding areas where their main prey, krill, are found in abundance, especially during the summer and fall months. They can communicate with each other using very loud low frequency sound, which can travel substantial distances in the ocean.

The new study from the University of Washington analyzed the historic records from whaling vessels of blue whale kills and, using computer models, estimated the original carrying capacity of the Eastern Pacific. They conclude the current population is around 97 percent of the historical carrying capacity, suggesting that the population has indeed recovered.

Of course, studies were never conducted on …more

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End of the Road

The US Forest Service is beginning to decommission some of its roads, opening the way for a wildlife comeback

On a crisp afternoon last October, beneath a canopy of larch, lodgepole, and red cedar, Pete Leusch led me up a trail in the heart of the Yaak Valley, the densely forested corner of northwest Montana that remains one of the wildest ecosystems in the Continental United States. A steep mountain stream coursed to our left and the broad, star-shaped leaves of thimbleberry lined the path – “A little mushy, but just delicious,” Leusch said of the berries. We picked our way around scattered clusters of elk pellets, nodded at the parallel scars that bears had etched in bark. The morning hung earthy and moist, like aerosolized mulch.

photo of a fog-gentled meadow, a shadowy forest and an animal looking toward the cameraPhoto: Lowry BassMontana’s Yaak Valley is one of the wildest areas in the Lower 48 – and getting wilder as the Forest Service decommissions some its roads.

Leusch lowered his long, angular frame into a crouch to better examine a pine seedling that had thrust its head above the trail. “I’m really psyched about the way this is looking,” he said, his eyes alight beneath the knitted purple beanie pulled low over his forehead. “This is a lot better than it was in spring. Last time I was here, this was all raw.”

Without the commentary from Leusch, watershed restoration coordinator at the Yaak Valley Forest Council, it would have been impossible to tell that just a year ago, this wooded trail was a rutted logging road operated by the US Forest Service. Though the road had been officially closed for years, it had continued to inflict damage upon the stream below. As rivulets of water coursed down the adjacent slope and across the roadbed, they picked up loads of loose dirt, which was eventually deposited into the creek. Once in the watershed, the sediment could smother the eggs and spawning grounds of native westslope cutthroat and redband trout. Leusch and the Forest Service had identified the five-mile-long road as one of the most harmful in the Yaak.

That’s why the time had come to destroy it.

If interstates are this country’s arteries, Forest Service roads are its capillaries: its most minuscule, ubiquitous vessels. Although President Bill Clinton’s 2001roadless rule protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest from logging and road-building, our forests are …more

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$7.5 Billion California Water Bond Headed for the November Ballot

Voters must decide whether the bond can lead the state toward a sustainable water future

As California remains parched with drought, everyone’s mind is on water – and that includes state lawmakers’. During the final days of the legislative session, both houses passed a $7.5 billion water bond with broad bipartisan support. The new legislation will be placed before voters this November.

Replacing an earlier $11.1 billion bond, the slimmer measure provides funding to water recycling, water storage, safe drinking water, watershed protection and restoration, and flood management, among other projects.

The question is: Will the bond improve water sustainability and prepare the Golden State for future droughts? Environmental groups are divided.

P7084474-P7084477Aphoto by Lyle Rains, on FlickrLake Shasta in July 2014

A number of organizations – including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Nature Conservancy – think the bond is a step in the right direction. “ I think there are some really positive things about this bond, and potential for some really valuable investments,” says Doug Obegi, a staff attorney with NRDC’s Western Water Project.

In particular, Obegi points to the $1.5 billion the bond provides for water efficiency, water recycling, stormwater capture, and other local water supply projects. “If we were to create one or two million acre-feet of water from these projects, that would be a tremendous feat in California,” he says. “I think [the bond] is a really important step forward, or at least it could be.”

NRDC’s California director, Ann Notthoff, echoes those sentiments. “California’s drought brought a diverse set of interests together in support of a new bond that protects our environment and our economy, instead of one that creates a false choice between the two,” Notthoff stated in a recent press release. “The new water bond proposal is the right response to this drought.”

Although the bond’s proponents boast of its broad support among agricultural, business, environmental, and labor groups, not everyone agrees the bond will take California in the right direction. Within the environmental community, the inclusion of $2.7 billion in the bond for surface and groundwater storage projects is particularly controversial, with several groups – including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity – concerned that the money will fund construction of environmentally destructive dams. 

“In general, I think that the bond really misprioritizes the water needs of California in the context of a drier …more

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In Review: Disruption

Documentary film about upcoming People’s Climate March hits all the right notes

In case you missed it (and I’m really hoping you haven’t), environmental, labor and social justice groups are organizing what they promise will be the biggest climate march in history on September 21. Some 100,000 people are expected for a rally in Manhattan on the eve of a major climate summit at the United Nations, with similar marches planned for London, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, and Delhi. The groups behind the People’s Climate March are running ad campaigns in the New York and London subways, plastering cities with leaflets and posters, and pounding the pavement as they make a final push for a big turnout. On Sunday night, organizers added a new weapon to their public outreach arsenal: A slick documentary film, Disruption, about the climate crisis and the citizen effort to push political leaders to finally, belatedly address the threat of an out-of-whack atmosphere.

movie poster

I’ve never seen anything quite like Disruption. Of course, there have been plenty of climate change documentaries, Inconvenient Truth and Chasing Ice being standouts. Documentary films have helped spark movements (for example, Josh Fox’s Gasland, about fracking) or bolster existing ones (see Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s Big Ag takedown). But Disruption seems to belong to a unique genre: A documentary produced with the single goal of mobilizing for a political march. It’s like an infomercial for a rally. Perhaps this has done before and I just missed it. In any case, Disruption would seem to be in a league of its own – because, even though it’s propaganda of a sort, the film is just so bloody good.

Filmmakers Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott have succeeded in creating a film that at once supplies an easy-to-understand rundown of the science of global warming; lays out the history of international leaders’ half-hearted attempts to address the crisis; explains the political and psychological reasons for continued inaction; and offers a stirring call-to-arms for people to get off the couch and get into the streets. Disruption is like a unified field theory of climate change politics – delivered in a brisk 52 minutes that seems like far less.

The film is anchored by interviews with some of the progressive movement’s leading luminaries. We hear from climatologist James Hansen, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, author Naomi Klein, CNN Crossfire host and Rebuild the …more

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Managing a Wildly Popular Mountain as Wilderness

Visitors jostle to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome. How the Park Service has protected an icon from being loved to death.

Amid the hubbub of Yosemite Valley — its roads packed bumper-to-bumper on a late-June weekend, its hotels and campgrounds booked solid six-months in advance — it was hard for Matt Lunder to believe he was surrounded by an immense tract of federally designated wilderness.

"It felt more like Disney World," admitted Lunder. An attorney from Maryland, Lunder and his family had decided to spend their summer vacation in the park, in the process contributing a few more drops to the sloshing bucket of Yosemite National Park's massive visitation, now topping out at four million people annually.

Half Dome and cloudsPhoto by John KrzesinskiHalf Dome in Yosemite National Park. Four million people visit Yosemite annually.

Several hours after leaving Yosemite Valley, and after many calories burned, Lunder stood at the base of the pale, curving slope of Half Dome's summit. He gazed upward at a pair of 800-foot-long steel cables bolted to the rock. He pulled on a pair of gloves, gave a shrug, and began the heaving, 20-minute climb up the 45-degree slope.

On top, Lunder leaned over the sheer north face of the peak to peer at the Yosemite Valley floor 5,000 vertical feet below. He could see relatively few signs of civilization between the dense canopy of ponderosa pine. The Curry Village parking lot was an exception, full of glinting specks of cars, along with the two-lane road tracing through Sentinel Meadow. Lunder could not see the hotel where he'd left his family that morning, nor the grocery store, nor the theater or stables or ice cream shop. He could hear the wind rush over the lip of granite and the low echo of Tenaya Creek rumbling almost a mile down. Ravens played on the upwellings of the pine-resined air. Lunder was sure he had entered a wild place.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this is wilderness," he said. "So much of the world these days just strokes our human egos. Wilderness reminds you just how small you are."

Mark Fincher, the wilderness specialist at Yosemite National Park, also believes wholeheartedly that Half Dome is wilderness, but due to a more pragmatic reason: Congress said so.

After the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, Congress assigned the National Park Service, along with all federal land management agencies, with the task of surveying their lands to …more

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Religions Need Wilderness

Every faith in some way holds nature sacred – that is, as a place apart

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the importance of wilderness for spiritual value, while not explicitly stated, was implied through its definition of wilderness as an area with “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” In the years since, many scholars and activists have mined the precepts of major religions to formulate stronger arguments for the preservation of wild lands. Perhaps claiming a spiritual basis for wilderness does indeed help to save it. But the claim can also be turned around: In what way do most major faiths need the idea of wilderness?

P6080446photo by John Utter, on FlickrBlack Elk Wilderness, South Dakota

Alan Hodder, a professor of comparative religion, has noted that an “American nature religion,” or belief system, based on wilderness preservation has emerged, melded with historical-cultural views of what might be embodied in the national character and value of frontier. Derived from the Aldo Leopold and John Muir traditions, such wilderness piety is perhaps most often cited through the writing of Henry David Thoreau, who, in his essay about wilderness and civilization, Walking, wrote, “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure”.

But the contrast between the wild places and the city is not an American invention. Most of the world’s established religions have an element that engages the notion of what is sacred and holy in wild places. The word sacred originates from the idea of being set apart. But apart from what? In Thoreau’s mind, wilderness is set apart from settlements and has value because sacred nature allows “much air and sunshine in our thoughts.” Wilderness is a place where people can regain a lost relationship with Earth.

For some religions, wildland sacred space is set apart from the human-created environment to help us see “the Other,” particularly the glory of a Creator God. For other traditions, the sacred may be separate, but it is intended to remind humanity of the holistic interrelatedness of all the created Earth. We are separated to be brought back as one. And wilderness is the place that is the purest expression of that sacred element, where humility – not utility – guides our visits. The word wild in English is derived from the same root as “will;” wilderness is the place uncontrolled by human will. When the illusion of human control is removed, …more

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