Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

02 JULY, 2010

We’re Getting On: The Book That Grows Trees


Life without Twitter, luddite literature, and why judging a book by its cover may at last be okay.

In the 1960’s, the brilliant Marshall McLuhan coined the catchphrase “the medium is the message.” Today, a new book is embodying McLuhan’s ethos like no other book ever has. James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On — a compelling novella about how retreating from technology can spring rejuvenation through a kind of post-modern deprivation — is the world’s first plantable book. To truly capture the message of regeneration, the book’s cover is made out of birch seed paper, which you can actually plant once done reading and watch a birch tree grow.

To really drive the point home — or bike it home, as it were — Kaelan is embarking on a Zero Emission Book Tour, forsaking all technology. Armed with a bicycle and a smile, he will be biking from city to city, sleeping outdoors, and bartering food from local farmers for a total of 10 cities, 3400 miles, and zero emissions — this means no driving, no cooking, no tweeting, no hot showers.

Flavorpill has an excellent interview with Kaelan, in which he delves deeper into the inspiration for the project and the challenges it holds.

This is by no means a book that is going to appeal to everyone, but that’s totally cool. The only thing I don’t want from from the book is for people to be ambivalent about it. Ambivalence is, as you know, the death of art.” ~ James Kaelan

We’re Getting On hit bookstores yesterday and the tour kicks off today. And, no, you can’t follow it on the book’s official Twitter page — that would require Kaelan to actually tweet.

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09 JUNE, 2010

Bike Culture: A Roundup


How to slam-dunk rubbish, or what abandoned bikes have to do with the economy of war.

By now you likely know that we’re devoted to bikes, to riding them as well as admiring them in all their variety. Today we’d like to steer you to three waypoints in the growing bike culture trend—at least we hope it’s both growing and a trend.


David Byrne’s New York City bike racks (remember those?) double as an editorial in iron—each rack is designed to comment on the character of the neighborhood, its businesses and denizens.

We all know that lots of adults ride bikes in Copenhagen—about 30% of that city’s population regularly commutes by bike. That compares to about .07% of New Yorkers. So it makes sense that the city planners would think of all the little improvements aimed at making the cyclist comfortable, such as this footrest.

David Hembrow documents life on a bike in a country perhaps most deeply associated with practical riding in everyday life, The Netherlands. In his blog, “A view from the cycle path,” David recently showed how civil and green the Dutch can be, all without stepping off their bike — rubbish receptacles for coasting and disposing.

For the big bicycle picture, for advancing its place at the center of US politics, there’s the Bike Caucus, run by congressman Earl Blumenthal who always begins his speeches on behalf of the caucus with a dedication to all those Americans stuck in traffic on the way to the gym to ride a stationary bike.

To chart not only the increase in bike-friendly infrastructure, but also to chart your next ride, use the new Google Maps directions for cyclists. Map it, cycle it, and then give Google your feedback—all ways to do your own two-wheeler activism.


Joe Schumacher is a NYC-based photographer who walks a lot and takes pictures of things he finds. His blog, what about the plastic animals?, captures the off-beat and pedestrian, but we’d like to direct you to his haunting and beautiful photos of abandoned bicycles of Gotham.

Those who don’t abandon their bikes can also evoke a striking scene. Perhaps a cousin of steampunk, the Bicycle Tweed movement is rolling through cities across the U.S. Here’s the site dedicated to San Francisans astride their velos and attired in their distinctive and antique wool.

Art and commerce come coasting together at Bertelli Bici in New York City. The site’s photography is simple and gorgeous and these bikes, built from a combination of old and new parts, achieve a kind of sculptural beauty.


We all know about the Critical Mass movement spreading around the world. But devoted cyclists have a nice set of alternatives to express their dreams of making the world a better place. One organization we’ve long admired is Bikes Not Bombs in Boston. It’s an organization that stitches together community, education and employment of the under served, and bicycle culture as an alternative to cars, the oil economy, and war.

And what could be less threatening than a kid on a bike looking for a high five? Well, not so much if that kid happens to be a SCUL pilot steering a ship called Angry Candy and offering a high five from about six or seven feet up, roughly the position of a pilot on a typical SCUL ship. SCUL (Subversive Choppers Urban Legion) is a Massachusetts-based “anti-elite band of pilots testing out experimental ships, exploring the Greater Boston Star systems and occasionally other galaxies” from their “subspace communication broadcast headquarters.”

Finally, we’ve got to give a shout out to our local bike culture faves, the volunteers at Bikerowave. Lots of cities have them, but this LA neighborhood tool library and DIY bike repair hangout has a great vibe and lots of knowledgeable and friendly volunteers.

Andrew Lynch is a refugee from the academy now working in advertising. While he sometimes misses writing heady sentences including words like “teleological”, he’s enjoying his stint decoding the more varied and messy signs and symbols of pop culture, consumer trends, and brand stories.

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22 APRIL, 2010

Earth Day the TED Way


Oceans, omnivores, and what babies have to do with design manifestos.

It’s Earth Day, so what better time to spotlight some of the smartest, most compelling thinking in sustainability from the past few years, and what better place for these ideas to manifest themselves than the TED stage? Today, we’re curating our five favorite sustainability-related TED talks of the past five years — from eye-opening revelations to ideological landmarks.


We’re longtime fans of photographic artist Chris Jordan, whose work captures otherwise alienating and thus meaningless numbers and statistics in incredibly powerful and emotionally impactful collages. His first TED talk is compelling introduction to his extraordinary work and the vision behind it.

Jordan’s most recent work focuses specifically on marine sustainability, which is a nice segue to…


Winner of the 2009 TED Prize, legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle reveals a gripping look at what we’ve lost in the last 50 years and why that matters.

Last week, Earle’s TED Prize Wish came to life in the form of Mission Blue Voyage, the world’s first seaborne conference aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, focusing exclusively on water sustainability through a speaker lineup featuring the world’s most renowned ocean experts — marine scientists, deep sea explorers, technology innovators, policy makers, business leaders, environmentalists, activists and artists.

Many of the Mission Blue talks have been made available in the past week — we highly recommend all of them.


A few months ago, we raved about AskNature, a new biomimicry portal harnessing the power of this discipline as a potent cross-pollinator of design, engineering and science. This TED talk by founder Janine Benyus makes a strong and bold case for what biomimicry can do and where it is going.

Be sure to also watch Benyus’s first TED talk, if only to trace the incredible evolution of this sub-science over the past three years as more and more companies and inventors are embracing biomimicry as a real-world design solution and efficiency booster.


The notion of cradle-to-cradle design may be staple of every industrial designer’s manifesto today, but it wasn’t always a must-have catchphrase. Five years ago, it was more likely to raise an eyebrow than a fist. It was eco-minded architect and designer William McDonough that first coined the phrase and began . His 2005 TED talk laid the groundwork for what has become one of the most essential cultural conversations of our time.

For me, design is the first signal of human intentions. So what are our intentions? ~ William McDonough

Today, this sort of holistic thinking about the design process is encouragingly widespread — something chronicled in another excellent piece of advocacy on the subject, Emily Pilloton’s Design Revolution: 100 Product That Empower People.


In early 2007, when the relationship between food and sustainability was as evident to mainstream America as that between particle energy and the velocity of light was to early humans, Michael Pollan began a conversation that was to shape our common understanding of health — in the broadest sense, human and environmental — for years to come. A few months before his Omnivore’s Dilemma became a national bestseller, Pollan gave a groundbreaking TED talk that launched the issue into the public conversation. Though the talk’s central arguments are common sense to anyone even marginally socially attuned today, it’s still worth watching if only for its status as a historical landmark of cultural dialogue, one that made an entire generation never look at food the same way again.

Pollan’s name has since become synonymous with sustainable agriculture, unleashing a slew of books, documentaries and other social commentary on the subject, including the excellent PBS series The Botany of Desire, starring Pollan himself. Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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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