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A Month's Worth of Blogging, Condensed into a Single Column
Alex Steffen, 3 Apr 09

It's been a crazy month, with talks to give and essays and books to write, and money to raise, and I've really fallen behind in blogging. So here's a month's worth of things I've been meaning to post about:

Screw your IQ -- what's your Buxton Index?

"The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans." ... This is an interesting concept: and one that helps explain a lot of attitudes and responses towards issues like climate change, environmental destruction, and DRM.

When you extend the time horizon out long enough, doing the right thing and doing the smart thing almost always involve doing the same things.


Forging a Hot Link to the Farmer Who Grows the Food, a good NYT story on the growing trend (we called it first!) of revealing the backstory of food as a way to market it:

The maker of Stone-Buhr flour, a popular brand in the western United States, is encouraging its customers to reconnect with their lost agrarian past, from the comfort of their computer screens. Its Find the Farmer Web site and special labels on the packages let buyers learn about and even contact the farmers who produced the wheat that went into their bag of flour.


SugarLabs, whose motto totally ought to be "sweet software for kids:"

The award-winning Sugar Learning Platform promotes collaborative learning through Sugar Activities that encourage critical thinking, the heart of a quality education. Designed from the ground up especially for children, Sugar offers an alternative to traditional “office-desktop” software. Sugar is the core component of a worldwide effort to provide every child with equal opportunity for a quality education. Available in 25 languages, Sugar’s Activities are used every school day by almost one-million children in more than forty countries. Originally developed for the One Laptop per Child XO-1 netbook, Sugar runs on most computers. Sugar is free and open-source software. Try it with a child today.


All up and down the West Coast there are hopeful signs of a broad shift away from clearcut-based logging and towards sustainable forestry, heck even the NYT is on the story:

Some mills that once sought the oldest, tallest evergreens are now producing alternative energy from wood byproducts like bark or brush. Unemployed loggers are looking for work thinning federal forests, a task for which the stimulus package devotes $500 million; the goal is to make forests more resistant to wildfires and disease. Some local officials are betting there is revenue in a forest resource that few appreciated before: the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that can contribute to global warming.
Pragmatism drives the shifting thinking, but a critical question remains: can people really make a long-term living off the forest without cutting it down?
“I run into people all the time who think we’re lying and trying to go back to old logging ways,” said Jim Walls, director of the Lake County Resources Initiative in southeastern Oregon, a nonprofit agency that is trying to create jobs for rural residents in fields like biomass energy production and wildfire prevention. “It’s just not true.”


If open intellectual property is a sustainability accelerator, CC0 is the new gas pedal:

CC0 (read “CC Zero”) is a universal waiver that may be used by anyone wishing to permanently surrender the copyright and database rights they may have in a work, thereby placing it as nearly as possible into the public domain.
Another early adopter of CC0 is the Personal Genome Project, a pioneer in the emerging field of personal genomics technology. The Personal Genome Project is announcing today the release of a large data set containing genomic sequences for ten individuals using CC0, with future planned releases also under CC0. “ is committed to making our research data freely available to the public because we think that is the best way to promote discovery and advance science, and CC0 helps us to state that commitment in a clear and legally accurate way,” said Jason Bobe, Director of Community.


Water. Srsly.

By 2030, nearly half of the world's people will be living in areas of acute water shortage, said a report jointly produced by more than two dozen U.N. bodies and issued ahead of a major conference on water to be held in Istanbul next week.
The report, "Water in a Changing World," made "clear that urgent action is needed if we are to avoid a global water crisis,"

While I'm on the bad news ... Worrying about the apocalypse may make us stupid, but if you read enough futurism, it can get to be like an itch that feels so good to scratch ... oh no, we're all going to die! Food, water and energy shortages, climate and population growth will be "the perfect storm" by 2030, says the U.K. government's chief scientist, John Beddington; Mexico is next to collapse says the U.S. Joint Forces Command's 2008 Joint Operating Environment report ("the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels" -- they do have a point there, as some Mexican towns have started building moats and walls to protect themselves from narcobandit attacks, but the answer is clear: legalize pot in the U.S.); while the U.K. is only "nine meals away from anarchy."

Still, no survivalist panic, please. When you bet against the future, you lose even when you win. That said, we can all be forgiven a bit of terriblisma.


A cool TED talk about augmented reality as a 6th sense:


Disturbing news that Obama administration climate policy is not yet as current as either the science it purports to be based on or the economics of our new century:

"A road map agreed to by industrialized countries at a 2007 summit in Bali, Indonesia, suggests that industrialized countries reduce their emissions by between 25% and 40% by 2020. But Mr. Stern said in his speech that it was 'not possible' for the U.S. to cut its emissions as quickly as suggested under the Bali road map. Mr. Stern reiterated Mr. Obama's goal of returning U.S. emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020, adding that the U.S. could compensate with swifter reductions in the years beyond 2020. Mr. Obama's recent budget proposal calls for reducing U.S. emissions roughly 80% by 2050 over 2005 levels."

Meanwhile, Climate-proofing the Netherlands -- if you want to see how serious coastal defense will be done in an age of rising seas, look to the Dutch:

The increased risks by future sea level changes (including the fact that climate change is also expected to promote higher precipitation in the Alps which will trickle through the rivers of Europe) have prompted the creation of the Delta Committee. Governmentally assigned, and comprised of a team of experts, the committee produced a report in 2008 that investigated how to climate-proof the Netherlands for the next century. The report proposed a 100-year mega project, which included extending the coastline and building new surge barriers while fortifying the levees. An estimated 400 square miles is to be added to the Netherlands (or seventeen ‘Manhattans’) over the course of the project.

And... Island nations to world: Stop raising the fucking seas, dudes!"


Clive Thompson with an awesome column on what Etsy says about the future of micromanufacturing

[T]he physical world is going to be increasingly customized—built to your specs by craftspeople. Etsy now runs a service that lets you describe something you want—a pair of pants, a shoulder bag, a table—and how much you'll pay, then artisans can offer to make it for you. ( has a similar setup.) And as high-end atom-hacking tools like 3-D milling and laser cutting become cheaper, those folks on Etsy will be able to quickly deliver you customized versions of a huge array of personal products: Laptops, bicycles, even robots. The Age of Bespoke Everything, as it were.

(See Ethan's brilliant piece on maker culture in Argentina, too. Of course, wait till you can just buy micro-designed, cement-jet-printed buildings.)


Speaking of cement, more news about concrete, the hidden climate catastrophe!

Aesthetic considerations aside, concrete is environmentally ugly. The manufacturing of Portland cement is responsible for about 5 percent of human-caused emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
“The new twist over the last 10 years has been to try to avoid materials that generate CO2,” said Kevin A. MacDonald, vice president for engineering services of the Cemstone Products Company, the concrete supplier for the I-35W bridge.
In his mixes, Dr. MacDonald replaced much of the Portland cement with two industrial waste products — fly ash, left over from burning coal in power plants, and blast-furnace slag. Both are what are called pozzolans, reactive materials that help make the concrete stronger. Because the CO2 emissions associated with them are accounted for in electricity generation and steel making, they also help reduce the concrete’s carbon footprint. Some engineers and scientists are going further, with the goal of developing concrete that can capture and permanently sequester CO2 from power plants or other sources, so it cannot contribute to the warming of the planet.

(You can learn everything you need to know, almost, from Jer's post on climate friendly concrete. I'm still waiting for the world to freak out about the underground coal-fire menace, which is even scarier, IMHO, since nobody seems to have much of a clue about what to do to stop it.)


Seven numbers that explain a lot about what's gone wrong in America:

Percentage of all families with debt greater than 40% of income: 12 Percentage of bottom-fifth families with debt greater than 40% of income: 27 Median net worth, in dollars, of bottom-fifth families: 7,500 Median net worth, in dollars, of middle-fifth families: 71,600 Median net worth, in dollars, of top-fifth families: 617,600 Growth in median net worth of bottom-fifth families, 1992–2004: 44% ($2,300) Growth in median net worth of top-fifth families, 1992–2004: 94% ($298,500)

Remember, crazy GINI coefficients are great predictors of disaster.


I really want to play Flower, "an insanely beautiful game released two weeks ago for the Playstation 3 by Jenova Chen. In the game, you control a gust of wind that blows a flower petal along, and you do, well, lots of things. You touch other flowers, opening them up and releasing their petals; if you do a lot of this you start to bring dead, dry land back to life. Sometimes you also cause huge rocks to shift and groan and open up like petals themselves. Other times dead trees explode with color and leaves, or winds start blowing that power wind turbines. The final 'boss fight' — such as it is — consists of a crazy, massive “awakening” of an entire grey, dead, 'fallen' city.'"


A beautiful animation challenging our notions of "developed" and "developing" nations, from our friends at Gapminder.


Are we just off-shoring our emissions to China? Yep:

"A remarkable study to be published in Geophysical Research Letters reports that fully half of China's recent increase in CO2 emissions can be attributed to demand for manufactured goods from western developed countries. Of China's total emissions, one-third are attributed to the insatiable demand for cheap exports from the west."


Food without soil:

"Less than 10 percent of the volcanic Cape Verde archipelago is cultivable and almost all of the country’s food is imported, according to the Ministry of Agriculture ... In his 15-sqm greenhouse on Santiago Island, home to the capital Praia, Monteiro grows watercress, lettuce and other vegetables, which he sells to local hotels and restaurants. By substituting gravel for soil and recycling a continuous stream of water and minerals through trays that hold 600 lettuce and 200 watercress plants, Monteiro told IRIN he uses less than one-fifth of the water and a fraction of the land that traditional farmers use."

Hydroponics: not just for hippies any more.


Why we need environmental law in space: Mars as a nature preserve? Space jam?


When I wrote up my worries about the new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (the "congressman from Caterpillar"), I warned that the sprawl lobby was gearing up to use the stimulus bill to fund exurban sprawl no bank would finance. Great, I was right:

Texas plans to spend $181 million of its federal stimulus money on building a 15-mile, four-lane toll road — from Interstate 10 to Highway 290 and right through the prairie — that will eventually form part of an outer beltway around greater Houston called the Grand Parkway.
The road exemplifies an unintended effect of the stimulus law: an administration that opposes suburban sprawl is giving money to states for projects that are almost certain to exacerbate it.
A new master-planned community called Bridgeland is rising on the prairie along the proposed site of the road; once completed, the development is expected to have 21,000 new homes on 11,400 acres. Other developers are eagerly awaiting the new road so they can start building on their empty land, too.

Are we ever going to get our heads around the politics of sprawl?


Awesome talk by Worldchanging ally Natalie Jerimijenko: Seed Design Series


Collaborative services is the latest name for product-service systems, though with the added twist of open collaboration. This new report looks awesome

“Car-sharing on demand”, “micro-leasing system for tools between neighbours”, “shared sewing studio,” “home restaurant,” “delivery service between users who exchange goods”… The scenario looks at how various daily procedures could be performed by structured services that rely on a greater collaboration of individuals amongst themselves. It indicates how, through local collaboration, mutual assistance, shared use we can reduce significantly each individual’s needs in terms of products and living space and optimize the use of equipment, reduce travel distances and, finally, lessen the impact of our daily lives on the environment. The scenario also gives an idea on how the diffusion of organisations based on sharing, exchange, participation at the neighbourhood scale can also regenerate the social fabric, restore relations of proximity and create meaningful bonds between individuals

You can download the report for free. Heck, this stuff is even showing up in the NYT:

"Sharing eliminated the fixed costs of private car ownership — the upfront purchase price or the monthly payment, as well as the costs of parking, insurance, maintenance and depreciation. (In 2008, AAA figured the typical cost of owning and driving a midsize sedan to be more than $8,000 per year.) High fixed costs encourage lots of driving; since the car is being paid for, it might as well be used. Hence the paradigmatically wasteful three-block trip to the store for a quart of milk, the sort of carbon blast that few car owners fail to indulge at one time or another. Car sharing, by contrast, is a pay-per-use system, which has the effect of significantly altering driving behavior. Evidence suggests that sharers drive from a quarter to half as much as owners — a staggering reduction in energy consumption. Not only do they drive less frequently, but they also drive differently. They “chain” their trips, making multiple stops along the shortest route in order to drive most efficiently. They save money, do better by the environment and contribute less to congestion. Car sharing also has an appealing communal spirit. Brook likened it to membership in a fitness club. A gym provides its members with a range of equipment that no one member would be able to buy, house and maintain on his own. It is essentially a self-service business, but it manages to foster enough fellow-feeling that unselfish behavior — wiping down machines, returning weights to racks, keeping locker rooms clean — becomes second nature."

Progress towards a world where, as Alok Jha puts it, we can borrow cars and drink rainwater.


Generate your own set of fifth scenario-like assumptions for the future of transportation with these automated trends and issues cards from our allies the Art Center College of Design (oh, and go check out these swanky new trend cards, too, from our pals at ARUP foresight.


I have a whole file of Australian climate catastrophe stories, but this one is pretty much the best so far:

Just ask Greg Ogle, a 49-year-old conservationist from New South Wales who once farmed the northern banks of the Murray River north of Melbourne. Ogle came of age in the 1970s when regular floods filled the wetlands near his home and the centuries-old red gum trees — a species as iconic to Australians as maples and oaks are to Americans — provided nests for snakes and the small mammals they hunted. It was common then, he said, to see big Goanna monitor lizards — stout as logs and nearly as long as a man is tall — resting on the thick branches of the towering trees.
Today red gums are dying all across southern Australia. Frogs and snakes and small mammals are gone, and Goannas are rarely seen. Ninety percent of the wetlands in the Murray-Darling basin have disappeared or have been seriously damaged, according to reports by the CSIRO. Poisonous bacterial blooms, like one that covered nearly 700 miles of the Darling River in 1990 and 1991, are an ever-present danger. The lengthy drought is behind these changes, disrupting the natural cycle of regular flooding that once sustained thousands of square miles of wetland and floodplain.
“I see vast changes just in my lifetime,” said Ogle, who switched careers and is now a conservationist with Trust for Nature, Australia’s oldest and largest land conservancy. “It’s very alarming. We aren’t a long-lived species, and to see these changes in a lifetime is quite distressing. We can actually see several species that disappeared. We’ve watched wetlands die. The alarming thing about it all is the snowballing effect of those changes. A lot of it is yet to come.”

If you live in a part of the world which is already moderately dry, and you want to know the sort of changes that could happen, and quickly, in a rapidly warming world, look to Australia's drought. All of this is messing with Aussies' heads, of course, and solastalgia is pretty rampant down under, from what I read.


ReCaptcha is a cool use for otherwise wasted attention:

When you buy a concert ticket on Ticketmaster, post something for sale on Craigslist, or poke an old friend on Facebook, you may not know it, but you’re helping to put millions of books online in a vast free library.
To access these websites, you must decipher two squiggly words to prove that you’re not a computer program designed to spam the site. Once it knows you’re human, the website lets you continue.
Those two decoded words don’t disappear, however. In fact, your brain has deciphered words that had baffled the scanning software used for an enormous project to digitize every public domain book in the world. ... The Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit group based in a San Francisco, has enlisted about 150 libraries and research centers to digitize as many printed works as it legally can and post them online for anyone in the world to read.

Kinda reinforces Clay's point about how our massive social surplus could be used for good.


Former Worldchanging managing editor Sarah Rich turned me on to this: BLDG 2.0 | Crowd-Sourcing Building Energy Performance. Worth a look, and though the concept still needs ripening, "providing an open-source analytical interface to building performance databases, a collaborative community of experts, and an online marketplace for ideas emphasizing building energy performance and open innovation" sounds exactly right.


As someone who (mis)spent a good portion of my youth writing and drinking in bars (sometimes at the same time), throwing them back with the crazy, the lazy, the sexy and the brilliant, I have to say that this essay by Tim Kreider is the best thing I've ever read about the sport: "Drunkenness and youth share in a reckless irresponsibility and the illusion of timelessness. The young and the drunk are both reprieved from that oppressive, nagging sense of obligation that ruins so much of our lives, the worry that we really ought to be doing something productive instead."


Finally, this profile of Freeman Dyson really pissed me off, not because it's wrong to highlight dissension (though the media has consistently failed to tell the truth by running he said, she said climate stories), but because on this issue his grounds for dissension are simply not very intelligent or even fact-based, as the brilliant Elizabeth Kolbert points out:

e360: If you turn on the TV news, the weathermen are making global warming jokes, saying, “This isn’t global warming. Hey, who said anything about global warming? It’s cold today.” There’s still this reaction, even when the facts are presented to them.
Kolbert: Absolutely. This is a total system failure, okay? We’re not talking about an isolated little problem, and that’s the problem. It's a total system failure that we’re in this situation and it’s a total system failure that we can’t seem to steer away even when the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that we better do something.
It gets back to this issue of whether the public believes in science, which, to be honest, we do not. You can still find a lot of people who don’t believe in evolution, okay? So we’re talking about a country that has a very lax relationship to science. And what you need in order to grapple meaningfully with global warming is to believe that this is not a speculative thing. This is the way geophysics work, and we have established that very clearly both in a laboratory setting and on the ground — and we need to take very seriously these predictions.
I mean, Freeman Dyson has done a tremendous amount of damage saying, “I don’t believe models. We can’t model this.” Well, we actually can model it very accurately, it turns out. And we’re talking about very fundamental science. It’s not a very complicated science. And so when you have people like that out there sort of blowing smoke, really, I would say, it is hard for the public to know what to do. So I think scientists need to try to convey how virtually unanimous this consensus is, because otherwise people will just believe that the science is fuzzy or foggy

I think Dyson's legacy will be colored, in large part, by his willingness to boldly assert claims for which he really doesn't have the evidence (e.g., modeling doesn't work) that have been seized on for political advantage by those who want to continue making profits off fossil fuels, science and climate be damned. In hindsight, it'll look a lot like the scientists who, perhaps with the best of intentions, collaborated with Nazis in order to fund legitimate research projects, but in the process gave cover to evil.


...and with that cheery thought, I'm out, and off to give a talk to a room full of landscape architects. Have a great weekend!

Front page photo credit: "Concrete Rectangle" by flickr user Paul Vallejo, Creative Commons license.

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That was great! Maybe you should just do a post like this every month!

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 3 Apr 09

we love your writing alex, we really do, this is just like "steffen on speed" so there's an adrenaline response, right

Posted by: hapa on 3 Apr 09

the most interesting and varied column of material i have ever read!

the idea of a monthly column is good
and in fact
may i suggest that you do a kind of podcast --
actually i will do one based on the material here
and see if it works...
consider it a pilot

Posted by: happyseaurchin on 6 Apr 09

Thanks for the BLDG 2.0 mention!!! Need for ripening is right. We're in the very early stages but have come across incredible support. We will continuously add progress reports on our site, thanks!

Posted by: Federico Negro on 8 Apr 09

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