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Ten Stories You May Have Missed
Alex Steffen, 4 Jan 07
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Gosh, we were busy in the last three months. Between the launch of the book, the book tour and our normal efforts to cover sustainability and innovation on this site, there were a number of great stories that we meant to get to, but couldn't given our time constraints. Here are ten pieces worth your attention.

Title: The Green 50

What it is: Profiles of a fairly arbitrary collection of fifty sustainability innovators.

Why it's important: Because green enterprise has become big enough business for Inc. to start tracking.

Telling quote: "Every few years or so, American companies and consumers embrace the concept of green business. We're certainly in the midst of one of those moments right now. But something seems different about our current green awakening. This time, the action is being driven as much by markets as morality. High oil prices, global warming, the sense that chemicals cause real harm and the earth's resources are indeed finite--these are not so much charitable causes to embrace as they are problems that entrepreneurs can solve."

Title: Nano-health, Nano-war

What it is: An overview of recent news about nanotechnology.

Why it's important: Because it's written by Jamais Cascio, co-founder of this site and perhaps the sharpest thinker around about nanotechnology's future implications, which is, in turn, an increasingly important subject.

Telling quote: "One of the big questions about nanomaterials arising in recent months concerns the toxicity of nanoparticles, particularly carbon nanotubes. Since carbon nanotubes have applications ranging from solar power to artificial muscles (see below), their almost-magical potential would be blunted by confirmation of nasty effects on living tissues. Rice University is one of the leading institutions studying the biological effects of nanomaterials, so it was welcome news that a Rice University group (working with the University of Texas) has found through in-vivo tests that single-wall carbon nanotubes have no immediate harmful effects, and that they are flushed from the bloodstream within 24 hours."

Title: Intelligent sensors watch for impending floods

What it is: A story about a the River Ribble in the UK, which is being equipped with a grid of smart sensors monitoring its depth and flow and evaluating possible to tell when and how it can be expected to flood.

Why it's important: Because floods and other natural disasters are increasingly a reality in our climate-wounded world, but also because knowing nature through technology is one of the ways we're going to help nature survive the chaos of climate change.

Telling quote: "If the river’s behaviour starts to change, the network uses the data collected to run models and predict what will happen next. If a flood seems likely – because it is rapidly rising and moving quickly – the network can send a wireless warning containing the details."

Title: HealthMap.

What it is: A "global disease alert mapping system."

Why it's important: Because in an era when public health programs have been irresponsibly de-funded and epidemic diseases are prolieferating, collaborative efforts towards confronting and preventing pandemics are much needed. We need new thinking and new ways of working together to confront new plagues.

Telling quote: "HEALTHmap brings together disparate data sources to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. This freely available Web site integrates outbreak data of varying reliability, ranging from news sources (such as Google News) to curated personal accounts (such as ProMED) to validated official alerts (such as World Health Organization). Through an automated text processing system, the data is aggregated by disease and displayed by location for user-friendly access to the original alert. HEALTHmap provides a jumping-off point for real-time information on emerging infectious diseases and has particular interest for public health officials and international travelers."

Title: Scientists reveal link between Sahara and Amazon

What it is: A brief news report about scientific work revealing that the ecological health of the Amazon depends of weather patterns that create gusting winds that bring dust from the Sahara Desert over the Atlantic.

Why it's important: Because we're increasingly finding that we a.) don't know the planet all that well at all, and b.) are profoundly and inextricably linked together and incapable of creating sustainability anywhere without creating sustainability everywhere.

Telling quote: "It might sound unlikely, but their work has shown that the Amazon rainforest depends on dust from one tiny area of the Sahara desert to restock its soil with nutrients and minerals. Analysis of images from NASA's MODIS satellite have revealed the Bodélé, a region of the Sahara not far from Lake Chad, as the source of more than half the material that fertilises the rainforest. The Bodélé depression was already known as one of the largest sources of dust in the world, but the scientists involved in the research say no one had any idea of the scale of the region's importance to the Amazon. It transpires that if the Bodélé was not there, the Amazon would be a mere wet desert."

Title: We-think.

What it is: Charles Leadbeater (with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a stage in London this autumn) is in the process of writing and revising a book about the power of creative collaboration, and has not only invited us all to respond to and help craft his ideas, but is giving us complete access to his text as he goes.

Why it's important: Because collaboration is an important tool for innovating quickly enough to successfully overcome the challenges we face.

Telling quote: "The basic argument is very simple. Most creativity is collaborative. It combines different views, disciplines and insights in new ways. The opportunities for creative collaboration are expanding the whole time. The number of people who could be participants in these creative conversations is going up largely thanks to the communications technologies that now give voice to many more people and make it easier for them to connect. As a result we are developing new ways to be innovative and creative at mass scale. We can be organised without having an organisation. People can combine their ideas and skills without a hierarchy to coordinate their activities. Many of the ingredients of these forms of self-organised creative collaboration are not new - peer review for example has been around a long time in academia. But what is striking about Wikipedia, Linux, Second Life, Youtube and many more is the way they take familiar ingredients and combine them to allow people to collaborate creatively at mass scale."

Title: Seattle's Green Ribbon Commission Report (PDF) and Blowing Smoke: Mayor Nickels's Climate Action Agenda Is All Talk.

What it is: An important document describing how Seattle might begin to move seriously towards first Kyoto compliance and then climate neutrality, and a searing expose about how the same allegedly heroic Seattle mayor who commissioned the report is largely ignoring its implications because they are politically inconvenient, especially as regards a proposed waterfront freeway. (Full disclosure: the author, Erica C. Barnett, is my girlfriend.)

Why it's important: Because we aren't going to meet the clear and imminent danger climate change presents though half-measures and small steps. Greg Nickels' terrific Green Ribbon Commission illustrates the kinds of steps we need to take, while his failures illustrate the difficulty of actually taking them.

Telling quote: "Driving fewer cars and fewer miles is critical to meeting our Kyoto target. Our recommended actions, taken together, will reduce our dependence on passenger vehicles, decrease both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and create a healthier, more livable and walkable community."


"Here's the really depressing thing: For the $6 billion or more we'll eventually spend building Nickels's waterfront freeway, we could build light rail to the Eastside and elsewhere, vastly expand Seattle's bus system, and create a real network of bike paths that would attract would-be bike commuters who are currently daunted by the prospect of riding inches away from speeding cars. A good example of the kind of investment Seattle should be making can be found in Denver, which will spend $5 billion over 12 years to build six light-rail and commuter-rail lines with a combined length of 119 miles, plus bus routes to support them."

Title: The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind (PDF)

What it is: An academic overview of massively multiplayer online games and what we're learning about how people think while they're playing them and what the implications of those modes of thought might be.

Why it's important: Because it describes intellectually, in the best terms I've yet seen, the experience of playing MMOGs, and why they are important tools for innovation and learning (with clear implications for future-making).

Telling quote: "As Peter Brook describes the phenomenon in theater, working as an ensemble leads “actors to the point where if one actor does something unexpected but true, the others can take this up and respond on the same level. This is ensemble playing [...] players begin to act out of a sense of instinct and rhythm rather than intellect. What transfers in such a situation is not specific knowledge of how to kill an end-game boss or negotiate passage through a dungeon, but how to respond to cues from other players, how to think ahead, and how to perform tasks in concert with others."

Title: Like All Else, Space Exploration Goes Global

What it is: An overview of all the various major space launch efforts expected to mature in 2007 -- from China's first spacewalk and India's unplanned Lunar mission, to private space programs like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and NASA's well-established space station work -- come to maturity.

Why it's important: Because the imminent accessibility of nearby outer space to large numbers of independent actors offers both opportunities (to better understand our home world) and risks (for example, in the absence of good space environmental law, the ruthless exploitation of space resources -- with all the inevitable unintended consequences we know to expect).

Telling quote: "The skies could get crowded in 2007. This time around it’s not just a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. New countries, and some rich people, will make it more of a space roller derby."

Title: View From the Future.

What it is: A near-perfect example of the current vogue for Long Emergency-style, relocalization as the model for making it through the coming troubled times.

Why it's important: Because it is the latest iteration of Survivalist Romaticism (a trend always worth watching warily), but manages to also add some interesting ideas about how the future might unfold.

Telling quote: "More creative responses to climate change included the tree-traveler and polar-bear collectives. These eco-anarchist clans--now popular contemporary heroes--first nursed plant populations on their unnatural journeys north by means of extensive rainy-season nursery cultivation and summer planting programs that have since become huge outdoor festivals. Today, many city parks and town squares have statues of Cleo Dorothy Chan, who organized the first small tree-traveler collective in southern Oregon and is now hailed globally as the twenty-first century's Johnny Appleseed. ("You can't choose between grief and exhilaration; they are the left and right foot on which we hike onward," said the T-shirts of the tree-travelers.) As for the polar-bear folks, they were initially a group of zoologists and circus trainers who, inspired by the tree-travelers, mobilized to teach young polar bears to adapt to changed habitat. They are often credited with saving that one charismatic species in the wild, even as thousands of less emblematic ones vanished."

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sweet rundown...u-da-man

The Seattle story is very representative of our current state, meaning that it could be very telling to see how that unfolds. There you have good intentions, sufficient funds and most importantly an environmentally sensitive population. It's not an easy project because what do you do with 99, just let it rot? People still love their cars.

It also reminds me of my old boss Billy G. and all that money he's putting to good causes, ( I don’t think that got nearly enough press as it deserved) what's more important though, education and disease control now or environmental crisis a bit later?

Posted by: Stiven (sustainableday) on 5 Jan 07

Very intesting, Alex - I'm going to point to this on my own blog. Of all of these, I'm particularly intrigued by the Bodélé/Amazon connection. It's soooooo easy to think that we *know* the score, when in fact we don't. (I'll let you complete for yourself the whole recursive, Rumsfeldian spiral on "known unknowns" and the like.)

Keep up the good work! TW

Posted by: Tim Walker on 5 Jan 07

Does anyone have any further information on HealthMap? It's a very interesting project, but the links from the site itself are quite sparse. Are there plans for further development of the system? Are there any other comparable projects out there?

Posted by: Phil Cowans on 6 Jan 07



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