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Do you have an idea that could change the world but you aren’t sure how to get the ball rolling? The Buckminster Fuller Institute might just be able to help out. The Brooklyn-based institute is now accepting proposals for the 2014 Fuller Challenge for socially responsible design. Started in 2007, the challenge encourages designers, architects, entrepreneurs and others to submit holistic solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems, then awards $100,000 to the winning entry to help move it from idea to reality. Past winners include design programs like the Living Building Challengeinnovative biomaterials packaging and a new sustainable economic model for Appalachia. If you think you’re up to the challenge, send in your application by Friday, April 11.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by PNNL (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Speaking at the 2014 Science Online Together conference today, Mónica Feliú-Mójer, manager of outreach programs in the department of biostatistics at the University of Washington, argued that science is rarely contextualized for lay audiences — meaning that there’s nothing making it relate to their own lives. When those audiences are underserved and underrepresented, it’s contextualized even less. As one way to engage those audiences, the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico produces stories and podcasts from scientists for lay audiences that positions those scientists as role models. Though Ciencia Puerto Rico is specific to communicating scientific ideas to Puerto Ricans, Feliú-Mójer, who is also the vice director of the organization, says other organizations can replicate the model by helping scientists make their messages relevant and relatable to underserved communities. Specific examples include producing content in more than one language, providing context for scientific ideas and choosing storytellers that will resonate with diverse communities.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Some 126,000 described species rely on freshwater habitats, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. How can we target conservation efforts to best protect them? Identifying freshwater biodiversity hotspots is crucial, particularly in developing countries with limited resources. So experts with the European Union–funded BioFresh Platform created the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas, bringing together data from a wide range of sources to create a global map of freshwater-dependent amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and more. The online tool can be customized to create maps focusing on specific locations and biodiversity categories, and includes options for exploring the effects of climate change and invasive species. New contributions are encouraged in order to make the atlas an even more robust tool for conserving freshwater biodiversity.

Article by John Sisser. Photo by NOAA/NASA GOES Project (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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If you’re in the market for a new place with a natural setting surrounded by lush vegetation and trees, you’re probably not looking at high-rise apartment buildings in urban centers. But catch a glimpse of some new plans released by architecture firm Milroy Perera Associates and you may want to reconsider. The company teamed up with Mäga Engineering to design the Clearpoint Residencies, a 46-story apartment complex that, when completed in 2015, will be the world’s largest residential vertical garden. Located 10 kilometers from the center of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, the structure incorporates trees and vegetation along all four sides to create a ground floor experience on every level. As noted in Inhabitat, the greenery not only gives the building a unique appearance, but also serves as a heat and sound buffer helping reduce cooling costs and noise. And that’s not the skyscraper’s only green feature: The building also includes a high-efficiency drip irrigation system, rainwater collection, gray water recycling and solar panels to power elevators, lobby lighting and more.

Article by John Sisser; photo courtesy of Clearpoint Residencies.

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More than 1.8 billion phones were sold around the world in 2013, according to the research firm Gartner — a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year. Along with all those phones comes an abundance of toxic e-waste that’s often shipped to developing countries and ends up harming both people and the environment. Which is why the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards Initiative might be more important now than ever. An accredited third-party certification program, e-Stewards allows both electronics producers and consumers to identify recyclers that abide by a strict set of guidelines, such as keeping hazardous e-waste out of landfills and restricting the use of child labor or sweatshops. A complete list of companies and recyclers participating in the program can be found on the e-Stewards website.

Photo by JonJon2k8 (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Do you like generating novel ideas? You can have fun thinking them up and put them to good use, too, as a participant in a Challenge Driven Innovation competition. A number of such contests — some with cash prizes — have sprung up in recent years as a way to bring crowdsourced solutions to bear on solving seemingly intractable problems. Among the environment-benefiting applications are a number of challenges aimed at boosting the application of green chemistry with an eye to minimizing production, use and disposal of hazardous or toxic chemicals.

Photo by Jenn and Tony Bot (Creative Commons | Flickr )

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A stunning new collection of maps published this week in the journal Nature shows how fast and in which direction temperatures on land and sea have shifted around the world over the past 50 years. The research team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) discovered that warmer temperatures are pushing many species toward the coasts, to higher elevations, into shaded areas and away from the equator. The maps and research have wide-ranging implications for predicting future shifts due to climate change in species distributions at both global and local scales, while also influencing conservation decisions on the ground.

Image courtesy of CSIRO

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It’s hard to imagine a place where solar power makes more sense than in communities in sun-drenched countries that are not yet connected to the electric grid. Unfortunately, even though access to electricity would offer huge social and environmental benefits — making it possible for children to study after dark, reducing reliance on smoky kerosene lanterns, improving access to empowering mobile phone technology, to name a few — inadequate funding often makes it difficult to get something going.

Enter SunFunder. Founded in 2012 by Ryan Levinson, then vice-president of environmental finance at Wells Fargo, the crowdfunding initiative channels investments as small as $10 from anyone, anywhere, into prescreened solar energy companies in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Philippines to help them build their business. Once a recipient is generating enough revenue to repay the loan, investors can get their money back or reinvest it — along with “Impact Points,” which are essentially nonmonetary interest — in another project.

Photo by gr33n3gg (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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What do companies Novo Nordisk, Adidas, Outotec and Statoil all have in common? They’re in the top 10 on Corporate Knights’ 2014 Global 100 Index, a list of the most sustainable companies in the world. Using 12 KPIs, or key performance indicators — including environmental indicators like energy, carbon, water and waste productivity — the Canadian media company aims to break down the term corporate sustainability to its core ingredients in order to fairly rank companies against one another. “On the one hand, [sustainability] means doing more with less; squeezing more output out of every capital input, including financial, human and natural capital,” Doug Morrow, vice president of research at Corporate Knights, told Ensia partner Forbes. “But the hallmark of a sustainable enterprise is not just efficiency, but also mechanisms to encourage meritocracy, diversity, innovation and long-term planning. Management teams at sustainable corporations are afforded room to think and plan beyond the next financial quarter.” As the list’s name suggests, the companies are from across the globe, but the United States and Canada led the way with 18 and 13 companies on the list, respectively.

Photo by photologue_np (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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How are communities across the United States responding to our changing climate? Climate Central recently launched a new series — the Front Lines of Climate Change — that aims to answer this question by reporting from cities across the country over the coming year. In the second installment, senior science writer Bobby Magill homes in on Colorado — a state that’s seen more than its fair share of natural disasters over the past few years. Is there a connection between the recent spate of extreme weather and climate change, though? As Magill writes, “Climate change could make these disasters worse, fueling bigger and more frequent flooding and wildfires while possibly extending the severity of the state’s drought and making its water supply less secure.” Visit Climate Central to read more about the ongoing challenges facing Colorado and how communities across the state are racing to develop climate adaptation plans.

Photo by Bert Kaufman (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Too much plastic trash. Not enough resources to get out of poverty. Social entrepreneur David Katz looked at these two trends together and figured out a way to make them add up to opportunity, not despair. Last spring Katz and partner Shaun Frankson founded a company called Plastic Bank that plans to set up plastics recycling centers in developing areas around the world. Local community members will be encouraged to collect plastic trash and bring it to the centers, where they will be able to exchange it for basic necessities, the opportunity to use 3-D printers to create things they can use to set up their own enterprises, and more. Meanwhile, the plastic is recycled and waterways, beaches and roadsides are renewed. Katz and Frankson plan to open the first center in Lima this April, and have their eyes on establishing additional centers in Asia and Africa.

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When it comes to conservation, what you don’t know really can hurt you. That’s why a group of more than a dozen horizon scanners, researchers and others gather each year to identify relatively obscure threats and opportunities that could, if they bubble to the surface, have a big impact on our ability to protect biological diversity. This year’s prognostication, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution earlier this month, identifies 15 hot topics lurking in the wings. Among them: Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon, land loss in Southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, the discharge of polyisobutylene into ocean water and the resurrection of extinct species.

Photo by april-mo (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by Espen Faugstad  

In a provocative commentary just published in Nature, Robert Costanza, public policy professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and editor in chief of Solutions journal, along with colleagues from around the world, called for an end to using gross domestic product as a measure of success. While GDP is a fine measure of market activity, the authors write that it “ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality” and “blinds developing countries to possibilities for more sustainable models of development.” As an example of GDP’s shortcomings, the authors describe how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy both contributed positively to GDP by spurring economic development through cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Looking at alternatives, Costanza and colleagues review a range of measures of well-being including economic metrics inclusive of social and environmental impacts plus additional indicators such as “housing, life expectancy, leisure time and democratic engagement.” While none of these measures is perfect, collectively they offer the building blocks for moving beyond GDP.

Photo by Espen Faugstad (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Interdisciplinary collaboration is like a colonoscopy – though important and instructive, it can also be a real pain in the behind.

“We need pooled interdisciplinary expertise to solve real life problems,” a recent article in SciDevNet notes, “but experts can clash over language, divergent perspectives and knowledge gaps. Recognizing these barriers — and discussing how to overcome them — is crucial.”

Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of environmental and organizational communication at Northern Michigan University and author of the piece, argues that challenges arise because each discipline has its own language, theories and practices. Without deliberate efforts to acknowledge and accommodate them, these distinctions can hamper progress toward mutual goals.

Thompson goes on to offer concrete advice for overcoming those barriers. Among her tips:

  • Acknowledge and clarify at the outset differences in terms, definitions and jargon
  • Accept and accommodate perspectives that vary due to discipline, culture, nationality or gender
  • Trust others’ expertise in their fields
  • Make time for team building
  • Be open to new thinking and viewpoints
  • Decide as a group how you will share your work.

Learn more at “How to Communicate in an Interdisciplinary Team.”

Photo courtesy of Jeff Tabaco (Creative Commons | Flickr)

Photo by PNNL  

For years algae-to-oil biofuels have been too expensive to compete with fossil fuels, but a new breakthrough may be a game-changer. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a process that converts algae to biocrude in a matter of minutes. The process essentially heats the algae biomass to temperatures approaching 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) and then squeezes it at pressures of around 3,000 pounds per square inch.

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” says Douglas Elliott, lead researcher on the project. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”

The system operates in a continuous loop using a slurry made up of wet algae — dramatically reducing the biomass-to-biofuels production time to less than an hour.

“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” says Elliott.

In addition to biocrude oil, other products coming out of the process include fuel gas that can be used to produce electricity, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can be used to grow more algae.

Utah-based Genifuel Corp. has licensed the technology and is moving forward with plans to build a pilot plant.

Photo by PNNL

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Except for those pesky safety issues, nuclear energy has a lot going for it — a small carbon footprint, minimal air pollution, a plentiful fuel supply. In search of a work-around for the downsides, The Daily Climate reports, entrepreneurs in the U.S., Russia and Korea are developing a new class of reactor that would come in a kit and be installed underground, reducing the threat of terrorist attack or meltdown. Proponents say the so-called small modular reactors, ranging from 25 to 300 megawatts, could pair well with intermittent renewable energy sources to provide round-the-clock power in remote locations.

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What’s worth more, gold or rhino horn? Turns out it’s not even close. According to a recent infographic by The Huffington Post, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of 24 carat gold fetches approximately $42,322, whereas the same amount of ground rhino horn powder goes for around $100,000 on the black market.

Earlier this year Ensia delved into the complex topic of wildlife poaching in a piece by Adam Welz titled “The Race to Save Rhinos.” In 2013 a record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa – home to 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos. As pressure mounts on governments around the world to slow illegal wildlife trade, Ensia is poised to cover new solutions that might emerge in 2014.

Photo by colin the scot (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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The same source of electricity that makes a spark jump from your finger to the doorknob on a dry day is gearing up to power smartphones, medical devices and more, thanks to an experiment gone awry that alerted scientists to the promise of turning small-scale movements into portable sources of power.

As reported in R&D magazine, it all started when Georgia Tech engineering professor Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues found themselves producing way more power than they expected from some piezoelectric generators they were studying. They discovered that the experimental apparatus had been put together wrong, causing two pieces of polymer material to rub against each other and generate extra electricity through what is known as the triboelectric effect. The effect occurs when two materials – one an electron acceptor, and the other an electron donor – come into contact and then separate through the application of some external force. When the materials touch, electrons move from the donor to the acceptor. When they move apart, the electrons seek to move to equalize the charge. All it takes to create current is a conduit for electron movement.

The unexpected event turned Wang’s attention to triboelectrification as a potential source of usable power. Manipulating materials and configurations, Wang and colleagues are now working to develop triboelectric generating systems that can harness the movement of electrons to do useful work and refining them to increase the range of materials that can be used and the amount of electricity they can generate. The researchers envision the phenomenon eventually being used to transform the mechanical energy of motion from sources such as walking, wind, waves and wheels into electrical energy to power personal electronics, medical devices, remote monitoring equipment and more.

Photo from video by Georgia Tech.

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Policy makers designing strategies to protect biodiversity and ecosystems would do well to tap the wisdom of indigenous peoples, say advisors to a new international forum.

Representatives of the 115 nations comprising the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services met in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this month to formulate an action plan to protect biodiversity and the benefits it offers. Among the topics addressed: Bridging the gap between science and traditional knowledge.

At the meeting, the IPBES considered recommendations from a panel of experts from around the world on how and why indigenous knowledge should inform its future work. IPBES offers a number of examples of areas in which resource managers can benefit from such knowledge, including management of reindeer and other herd animals in the Arctic; rice-fish co-culture, developed more than 1,200 years ago in China; indigenous fire management, found in Asia and South America; promotion of plant diversity in agriculture; rotational farming as practiced in Tanzania and Thailand; sustainable fisheries management in Pacific Island communities; and rainwater harvesting practices originating more than 6,000 years ago in India.

Among other things, the expert panel noted that “the term ‘science’ is often used in too narrow a sense, excluding the social and human sciences,” and recommended IPBES replace the word in its deliberations with “knowledge,” which would better encompass indigenous and local perspectives.

“We must identify gaps in knowledge and build capacity for the interface between policy and knowledge — in all its forms,” IPBES founding chair Zakri Abdul Hamid said in a press release. “That means developing a process through which scientific and policy communities recognize, consider and build synergies with indigenous and local knowledge in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

To learn more, see The Contribution of Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems to IPBES: Building Synergies with Science [PDF].

Photo by Aleksi Aaltonen (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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A survey of 1,000 of the world’s largest investment funds by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project suggests that a large number are vulnerable to a “carbon crash” — a loss in investment value that would occur if climate change considerations caused businesses to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground rather than extract them.

According to the Daily Climate, of 458 asset owners responding to the survey, 431 failed to meet the project’s standard for responsibly managing climate risk. The survey considered a number of factors, including transparency, risk management and low carbon investment.

The Daily Climate reported that AODP board member Sharan Burrow called the situation outrageous. “It must be remembered that much of the money being held by these organizations is the product of workers’ lifelong savings,” she said.

Executive director Julian Poulter found hope, however, in the actions of the companies that did hit the mark.

“What is clear is that the world has an investment system capable of driving the low carbon transition,” he said. “If all the funds we surveyed has a triple AAA rating, we would be well advanced on meeting the global climate challenge upon us.”

Photo by Images_of_Money (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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A study by the Science for Environment Policy arm of the European Commission finds that recycling is a good way to reduce reliance on new rare earth element. Trouble is, the short-term recovery rates are low, meaning that some foresight will be necessary to maximize the potential of long-term recycling.

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Since the United Nations has named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, the organization Food Tank has partnered with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to support the IYFF throughout the year with research into family farming, articles and petitions to support family farms around the world. Their first effort is a video highlighting “the crucial importance of family farming and its potential to help create a more sustainable and just food system.”

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What’s this video from Unilever’s new initiative Project Sunlight selling? Ostensibly, hope. Some cynics have their doubts. Others, though, think that a company of Unilever’s size partnering with various environmental and social organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, The Rainforest Alliance and Oxfam to draw attention to issues such as sanitation, water conservation, sustainable farming and food waste may be enough to get past the cynicism. What do you think?

Photo of neodymium by images-of-elements.com (Creative Commons | Wikipedia)

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Rumor is that college dining hall fare today is better than ever. Still, sometimes even the hungriest students have trouble eating it all. What to do with the leftovers? Campus food services around the country are now finding a second life for the meals they make, thanks to a new nonprofit known as the Food Recovery Network. Launched by University of Maryland – College Park students in 2012, FRN shares surplus soups, salads, sandwiches and more from college cafeterias with hungry people in the surrounding communities. Volunteers pack food and deliver it to homeless shelters, food banks and other distribution centers — not only nourishing those in need, but also planting in tomorrow’s leaders the seeds of a deep personal awareness of the challenges and opportunities revolving around food security, supply, waste and distribution.

Photo by I Believe I Can Fry (Creative Commons | Flickr)

The Earth Security Index  

Resource scarcity and pressure are complex issues, traversing borders and cultures. One country’s deforestation leads to booming economies elsewhere. A dam powers one city and floods another. Not to mention the security issues that come with resource acquisition — all the more heightened when paucity is a factor. Now the Earth Security Initiative is out with a report meant to help businesses, societies and governments respond to such issues and risks in a solutions-focused, collaborative way.

Looking at eight themes (land governance, water security, climate security, crop performance, population growth, food security, fiscal stability and energy security) across 17 countries, the ESI points to opportunities to move toward a more prosperous and secure future, such as viewing a transition from water-intensive coal-fired power to renewable energy in China as a way to improve the country’s water security, or using Brazil’s tropical rainforests as an insurance policy against adverse impacts of future weather extremes on agriculture.

“Understanding the risks, involving all sectors, considering the inter-connections and mutual interests
 are necessary conditions in order for leaders to identify the opportunities 
before them,” writes Michael Schaefer, chairman of the BMW Foundation and former ambassador of Germany to China, in the report’s foreword.

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Need another reason to protect and value green spaces? Here’s an intriguing one: the benefits humans receive from being exposed to the microscopic organisms found in nature. In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University College London clinical microbiologist Graham Rook notes that such microorganisms, which he calls “Old Friends,” are an important part of our evolutionary history, and reduced exposure caused by distancing ourselves from the natural environment is likely one of the reasons behind the growing epidemic of immune disorders worldwide. Rook recommends policy makers and others factor in exposure to beneficial microbes when enumerating the services ecosystems provide to humans, and calls for stepped-up research “that will enable us to design urban green spaces that provide not only the psychological input to our brains but also an optimized microbial input to our immune systems.”

Photo by EMSL (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Today U.S. citizens across the country are preparing to observe two uniquely American events: Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. If you are among them, consider including in your holiday plans some food for thought: 19 minutes with British economist Tim Jackson as he explores what compels us to “spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about” — and, more importantly, what we might do about it.

In his classic 2010 TED talk, “An Economic Reality Check,” Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity Without Growth, begins with the etymological roots of “prosperity” — the Latin word for “hope.”

Humans’ penchant for novelty and our tendency to use material things as a proxy for our importance, Jackson says, have caused a deep rift between that original meaning of prosperity and the meaning we ascribe to it today. Ironically, he points out, “we have now grown our economy so much that we stand in real danger of undermining hope.”

The solution? Jackson draws what he calls “a map of the human heart” — a four-slice pie depicting two sets of  diametrically opposed desires that compel us: novelty vs. tradition and self vs. other. Rather than corraling ourselves in the novelty-self quadrant, Jackson suggests, why not embrace all four? He points to innovations such as B corporations as ways to bring the other dimensions into economic practice and create meaningful prosperity.

“This is not about standing in the way of development, overthrowing capitalism, changing human nature,” he concludes. “What we’re doing is taking a few steps toward a more credible, robust, realistic vision of what it means to be human.”

Photo by CHARMERS (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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