Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

22 MARCH, 2010

World Water Day: 3 Smart Projects to Celebrate It


What indie music and your favorite restaurant have to do with Haiti and TED.

It’s World Water Day today — though we believe every day should celebrate and honor Earth’s most precious resource. Since 1992, March 22 has been an international observance of the importance of clean water for a healthy world. Today, we spotlight three smart projects that actually do something about the cause and offer ways in which you too can help.


Tap Project logoIn 2008, Tap Project topped our list of the year’s best ideas. We still think it’s one of the simplest, smartest efforts to both raise awareness about water sustainability and make an actual, action-based difference.

Developed in partnership with UNICEF, the project’s premise is brilliantly simple: During World Water Week March 21-27, restaurants would ask patrons to donate $1 for each glass of tap water that they normally enjoy for free. It may seem like little, but $1 actually provides clean drinking water for a child for 40 days — which means less than $10 get a child a year’s worth of water. All donations go to UNICEF’s water sanitation programs that strive to bring clean, accessible drinking water to children around the world.

The one million restaurants across the US comprise the second largest industry in the country, following government. Thousands of them are participating in the program this week — up from 300 in 2007, when the project launched. So imagine the scale of impact of these micro-contributions, a powerful long tail of goodness.

This year, Tap Project is launching Tap Project Radio — a platform for musicians, artists, directors and thought leaders to play music, raise awareness and help fight the water crisis. From performances by Kenna, They Might Be Giants and other indie favorites, to interviews of advertising legends Lee Clow and David Droga (who founded Tap Project in 2007), the lineup is an absolute treat.

You can help in one of three ways: Dine at one of the participating restaurants and buy yourself some tap water; donate directly to the project; or text Text “TAP” to UNICEF (864233) to donate $5 and give a child 200 days of clean drinking water.

Have a restaurant or know someone who does? It’s not too late to register and join the effort.


Also in 2008, we featured just-launched nonprofit charity: water — a fundraising effort to bring clean drinking water to people in the developing world. Since then, the project has become such a blockbuster success — from getting press in just about every major media outlet to being the beneficiary of last year’s Twestival — so we won’t elaborate on what it’s all about.

Today, charity:water is launching Unshaken — a concentrated effort to help Haiti recover by providing long-term water solutions in a country where a third of the population didn’t have access to clean drinking water even before the disaster. The plan focuses on 11 specific areas that need funding. For each of them, the charity: water team has worked hard to calculate the exact costs and collected real-life stories from the community about how that particular issue affects their daily lives.

The goal is to raise $1.3 million, helping 40,000 people in dire need. Bring them a wee closer to it by donating today.


At TED last month, we were excited to see PUR’s drive to donate 10 liters of clean drinking water for every tweet that answered the question, “If water could speak, what would it say?” and every photo answer at the TED photo booth. The program was a smash-hit, with more than 800 plastic bottles saved over the course of the four days and over 40,000 liters of water donated by PUR.

For World Water Week this week, PUR is doing another round under the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program — for each new Facebook fan, they’re donating 100 liters of clean drinking water to the areas that need it the most, up to 1 million (yes, million) liters total. So do your part and fan PUR to give a child this basic human right.

And, shhh, a little birdie told us PUR will be having a bunch of giveaways this week, so follow them on Twitter for a shot at the goodies.

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19 MARCH, 2010

Infoviz Education: Animated Visualizations for Kids


Helium, carbon, and what Little Red Riding Hood has to do with malnutrition in Africa.

We love infographics. We love animation. And we’re all for engaging kids in creative education. So today we’re looking at three educational infoviz animations that shed light on complex or important issues in beautifully art-directed ways that make little eyes widen and little brains broaden.


Directed by Denis van Waerebeke, How To Feed The World is a brilliant animated short film made for the Bon appétit exhibition in Paris science museum. Though aimed at helping kids ages 9 to 14 understand the science behind eating and why nutrition is important, the film’s slick animation style and seamless visual narrative make it as educational for kids as it is for budding designers, looking to master the art of using design as a storytelling medium.

Bonus points for the obligatory British voiceover, always a delightful upgrade.


Though not necessarily aimed at kids alone, Annie Leonard’s brilliant The Story of Stuff — which we reviewed extensively some time ago — condenses the entire materials economy into 20 minutes of wonderfully illustrated and engagingly narrated storytelling that makes you never look at stuff the same way again.

The Story of Stuff recently got a book deal, further attesting to its all-around excellence. We highly recommend it.


A few months ago, we reviewed They Might Be Giants’ fantastic Here Comes Science 2-disc CD/DVD album aimed at the K-5 set, a brilliant intersection of entertainment and creative education. One of the highlights on it is this wonderful animated journey across the periodic table, a true exercise in art-meets-science.

The entire album is well worth the two Starbucks lattes that it costs, both as a tool of inspired education for kids and a timeless music treat for indie rock fans of all ages.


Though certainly not educational, and likely not aimed at kids, this fantastic animation — which we featured exactly a year ago today — offers a brilliant infographic reinterpretation of the Brothers Grimm children’s classic The Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by Röyksopp’s Remind Me.

We’d love to see this as a series, celebrating the cross-pollination of some of our favorite facets of creative culture — animation, data visualization, and classic children’s literature — with quirk, humor and superb art direction.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2010

Animation Spotlight: I AM


Deconstructing bears, or what mechanization has to do with access to language.

Today’s short-and-sweet is an abstract, poetic reflection on the dissolution of our relationship with nature amidst the man-made landscape of our urban space, courtesy of animation studio Tronic.

We find the robotic, monotonous voiceover to be a fitting vehicle for conveying the detached mechanization that has gradually replaced the organic cadence of the natural environment.

The title comes from the animals’ declaration of who they are. Each animal says, “I AM the elephant” and “I AM the horse” and it’s through language that they are reinforcing their physicality and their place in the world. And the irony, of course, is that animals don’t have access to our language, they have their own languages, but we privilege ours. And so with this piece, the idea was that by giving them access to language, it was giving them agency, giving them power, giving them the ability to be heard. ~ Vivian Rosenthal, Tronic

Read the full interview with Rosenthal on Vimeo for further insight into some of the thinking behind this beautifully executed statement piece.

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05 FEBRUARY, 2010

Project Documerica: A Portrait of the 1970s Environmental Movement


Tie-dye jeans, soda can houses, and what Thai Buddhists have to do with American cowboys.

In 1971, as the environmental movement was reaching critical mass, the Environmental Protection Agency hired a slew of freelance photographers to capture the environmental problems, EPA activities and everyday life of the ’70s. For seven years, the 81 photographers traveled around the country, producing what became known as Project Documerica — a fascinating and deeply insightful cultural portrait of one of the most important decades in modern history.

Thirty years later, The U.S. National Archives have digitized more than 15,000 of these photographs and made them publicly available in the Archival Research Catalog, as well as on the National Archives’ impressively excellent Flickr library.

From the booming industrialism to the ripening of hyper-consumerism to nature’s ever-more-timid cameos in daily life, the series captures the beginning of our industry-driven environmental demise — with the earnest lucidity of an era that can’t even begin to imagine what’s to come.

Subsets of the series tackle specific themes and issues — like this striking visual record of the car culture boom, which is a bit like looking at the can-tell-it-will-be-hideous-but-can’t-tell-just-how embryo of Godzilla.

Still, some of the photographs offer a welcome respite from the avalanche of consumerism — like this clever experimental wall construction, using empty soda cans to build housing in New Mexico, which reminds us of the Buddhist bottle temple in Thailand.

You can also browse the archive by state for a broad-reaching look across vastly different locations.

Despite the clumsy site navigation and appalling interface, Project Documerica is a rich and impressive record of the patterns, processes and cultural forces that shaped our current era — dig in.

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26 JANUARY, 2010

One Cubic Foot of Life


Lap-sized habitats, or what Central Park gardens and Polynesian reefs have in common.

UPDATE: The project is now a book, featuring a foreword by E. O. Wilson.

Ask a scientist, and she’ll tell you size is absolute. Ask an artist, and he’ll prove it’s relative. That’s exactly what photographer David Liittschwager did in his One Cubic Foot project, exploring how much of different ecosystems can fit within a single cubic foot of space. (Can you tell we’re on a biodiversity roll this week?)

Armed with a 12-inch cube, a green metal frame, and a team of assistants and biologists, Liittschwager set out to probe five sharply different environments — water and land, from New York’s temperate Central Park to a tropical forest in Costa Rica — putting down the cube in each, then waiting patiently, counting and photographing all the creatures that lived or crossed that space, down to those about a millimeter in size.

The Hallett Nature Sanctuary at Central Park, New York

Table Mountain National Park is an iconic mesa towering over Cape Town, South Africa

The endeavor was just as laborious as it sounds — each habitat took about three weeks to catalog, and a total of over 1000 organisms were photographed.

For clear access to the organisms of Duck River, Tennessee, the team had to lift a sample into a tank

It was like finding little gems.” ~ David Liittschwager

The project is highly reminiscent of a WWF campaign we featured last year, putting a global spin on the concept of ecological microcosms.

Towering a hundred feet over Monteverde, Costa Rica, this tropical cloud forest houses a microcosm of organisms the size of a finger nail

Coral reef in Moorea, French Polynesia, where Liittschwager worked with scientists from the Moorea Biocode Project, an effort to catalog every creature in and around the Moorea

Besides the original concept and impressive amount of work that went into it, the One Cubic Foot project bespeaks the incredible richness of our planet — and the regrettable gray deadness of our man-made concrete jungles: Try setting the green cube in the middle of an LA expressway or a New York City sidewalk.

So next time you venture out into the non-grey world, consider the fascinating and intricate homes and habitats framed by your even footstep.

Thanks, @TEDchris

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