Earth Matters Around the Web

Muslims from around the world are currently observing the month of Ramadan. It is a period of prayer, fasting, charity-giving and self-accountability for Muslims.This annual observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Check out the link below for more information on the fast that Muslims practice yearly.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/07/ramadan-2013-facts_n_3529135.html

The month of fasting also encourages empathy for those less fortunate. Most of the world’s hungry live in developing countries. Here are some statistics:

578 million in Asia and the Pacific
239 million in Sub-Saharan Africa
53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean
37 million in the Near East and North Africa

19 million in developed countries

Ghada Amer ‘s Hunger artwork featured in the Earth Matters exhibition which is located in the Enid Haupt Garden part of the  Smithsonian Gardens draws our attention to the plight of hunger, but it also reminds us of the earth’s bountiful resources.

“Hunger” by Ghada Amer (b. 1963, Egypt), site-specific installation

“Hunger” by Ghada Amer (b. 1963, Egypt), site-specific installation

The World Food Program is an organization that aims to fight hunger worldwide. Have a look at their mission by visiting their website at http://www.wfp.org/hunger

By UN. Uploaded by Sun Ladder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By UN. Uploaded by Sun Ladder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Josh and Chuck from Stuff You Should Know explore the necessities of food and water for survival in their podcast title “How long can you go without food and water?”  Check out the HowStuffWorks podcast in the link below:http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-long-can-you-go-without-food-and-water/

Also, next Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 12 noon, Dr Muhannad Salhi will give an introduction on Ramadan, The Muslim Holy Month. Click here to see the invitation to the talk.

Another podcast from Stuff You Should Know titled “Fasting: deadly or what?” looks at different forms of fasting and their implications on your body. Check it out here: http://www.mixcloud.com/StuffYouShouldKnow/fasting-deadly-or-what/

By Sudan Envoy (USAID and WFP Aid) [CC-BY-2.0  via Wikimedia Commons

By Sudan Envoy (USAID and WFP Aid) [CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For more information on global hunger and what  you can do to make a difference visit http://www.dosomething.org/actnow/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-world-hunger

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Site_Specific International Land Art Biennale

South African land artist Strijdom van der Merwe currently showing on  Earth Matters is one of the founding members of Site_Specific International Land Art Biennale, an arts initiative that aims to facilitate the broader community to care about and appreciate their environment. In its second year, Site_Specific International Land Art Biennale will be running from  from 10-17 August this year and will include educational programs and workshops alongside it arts program that will show works from both international and local artists.

Check out the invitation to the event below

Site_Specific_invite

For more information on this project visit  http://sitespecific.org.za/about/

Artists participating in this biennale are  foregrounding  the importance of land and the Earth through initiatives such as this biennale. 

Let us support the earth and these artists in their mission to nurture and beautify the world we live in!

Guest Voices: Eric Hollinger changing the world one step at a time

Today’s featured guest voice Eric Hollinger talks about the small ways in which we can affect change in our working environment, our local communities and the world at large. He reminds us that every action counts, no matter how small.

The Earth matters, like it or not, to all of us, and in more ways than most are aware.  We all come from the earth and will return to it and we depend on it for our daily existence.  As humans we tend to think ourselves above or somehow independent of nature and we find ourselves thinking of the environment as something we might like to help with “when I can find some time” or “if I get a bit more money and can afford to donate.”  We forget that everything we do throughout our day has an impact on the environment and therefore how we do what we do can have greater or lesser impacts on the world around us.  From the little things like leaving our computers on overnight, flipping on a light switch, or choosing steak over salad for lunch, the cumulative effects of all our little acts as humans, billions of times over each day, have made this period in Earth’s history the Anthropocene, the age of humans, and changed our planet irrevocably.

Eric Hollinger on a dig in Illinois

Eric Hollinger on a dig in Illinois

Recognition of the scale of the challenges facing us and our planet now and in the future can be overwhelming.  It is beyond my power to save the world so why worry about it, right?  But acknowledging that our acts or inactions accumulate, they add up, they do make a difference.  Awareness of our place in the natural world leads us to an awareness of our responsibilities as borrowers of its resources.  What we do matters.

I’m a Supervisory Archaeologist in the Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology Department.  My job is to work with Native American tribes, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians who request the return of human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects from the museum’s collections.  As an archaeologist, I am used to working with the evidence of past peoples, held and sometimes given up by the earth.  We know that what people do and how they live leaves marks, big and small, in and on the earth.  For some past societies, there are barely stains in the soil, or a few chips from stone tools, to reveal that they were ever here.  Others have moved mountains and rivers, deforested entire regions, and left monuments so massive they are visible from space.  Now, more than ever before in human history, how we live results in material byproducts and changes to our water and air that will far outlast our brief time here.

Secretary Clough and Rick Potts discussing a compostable cup made from corn-based plastic at the Smithsonian Staff Picnic.  (Photo by  by Rick Fary)

Secretary Clough and Eric Hollinger discussing a compostable cup made from corn-based plastic at the Smithsonian Staff Picnic.
(Photo by by Rick Fary)

Working in a Natural History Museum you would think this understanding would be always on our minds, but when we spend all our time looking at the forest we can forget that we are one of the trees.  I can recall having lunch with visiting tribal representatives in the museum’s cafeteria and they said “Why are you are serving us food on a Styrofoam plate?  Of anyone, a natural history museum should know better.”  I realized then that I didn’t have a good answer for them and I vowed to better understand why it seemed that we were not practicing what we were preaching.  I began with that cafeteria by asking them why we couldn’t change to reusable dishes or at least compostable serviceware.  I applied my training as a research scientist to picking apart the answers I received and trying to identify better options.  I became an advocate, advisor, assistant, and an agitator, working to try to reduce the environmental impacts of our own Smithsonian operations.  Today, with cooperation from the restaurant contractors and support from the museum administration, the museum’s cafeteria uses almost exclusively compostable products and has a composting operation that diverts 200 tons per year and saves money by doing so.  With many other eco-friendly steps, the Natural History Museum’s restaurant operations are now certified by the Green Restaurant Association as a 3-Star Green Restaurant.

Now, in my spare time, I try to work with all the Smithsonian’s museums and research facilities to help them with sustainability challenges.  I like to get hands on to study the problems and get all the facts possible so administrators can make informed decisions before implementing changes.  I may spend a Saturday volunteering in the dish room at the National Museum of the American Indian so I can understand what the staff has to do to separate their compostable organics and recycling efficiently.  Or I may travel to New York to help the Cooper-Hewitt conduct a waste audit to see if they can improve their recycling rates.  Or I may take a week off to help the Folklife Festival run the largest composting and recycling program ever attempted for a public event on the National Mall.  As an archaeologist, I often joke that it’s my job to dig through other peoples’ trash, and although it’s usually thousands of years old, the principle is the same with modern trash; we can learn about human behavior by studying disposal practices.  Often, increasing recycling or composting can be just a matter of small adjustments to our behaviors.  The little things add up.

I’ve come to realize that my own actions, big and small, do matter.  And as I accept more personal responsibility for my actions and what I have the power to influence, I recognize that the Smithsonian Institution also has a responsibility, through its practices both big and small, to try to minimize its impacts on the environment and help improve things where possible.  The Institution is good at educating through exhibits, public programs and published research, but our staff and visitors can learn as much about being good stewards of the earth by watching how the Smithsonian conducts itself  as by listening to what we are saying.  The Smithsonian must be seen as walking the walk as well as talking the talk or the respect held for the Smithsonian will dry up. The Smithsonian, as well as all of us  individuals, must show that we understand Earth Matters.

From the Archives: Photography’s role in shaping African identity

“Front view of Bolugun House, Lagos.”
Photographer unknown, c. 1877-1895
West African Photographic Album
EEPA 1995-170002
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

In Earth Matters, an enigmatic photograph, dated 1898, is featured: attributed to the unknown “O. Vincenti,” and labeled “M’Suguma—Tänzer,” the silver-gelatin print depicts two men, probably Sukuma, based on their dress, stiffly posed and likely arranged by the photographer. They stand before a painted backdrop that is not only clearly artificial but its “jungle” theme appears to be at clear odds with the dry, dusty dirt below the feet of the two men.

This photography works to deliver a “factual” record of these two men that would be extrapolated to the Sukuma people as whole. Through the framing and background, the photographer has created a falsified image that appears, nonetheless, seamless and truthful.  In this way, the work brings up questions about the way that photography has worked to shape our understanding of the African people and landscape.

However, in this remarkable photograph from the Eliot Elisofon archives that dates c. 1877-1898, we see a more complete picture of the photographic process, not just the composed or constructed final product. A portable darkroom is visible in front of the building and to the left.  Such darkrooms were necessary for early photography, when wet, non-fixed plates would be exposed and preparation and development of the wet plates had to be done on-site. A crowd of people appears to rest, taking a break from the photographic process. A large camera would have been concealed within the black box. The umbrella lying in front of the crowd seems to indicate the use of a rudimentary flash.

Despite these clues, we can still only speculate as to what was going on in this scene, which was taken in Lagos, Nigeria – thousands of miles across the African continent from Tanzania. But the standing woman, second in from left, is distinctive in her dress and hairstyle, which has been identified as Ghanaian.  Perhaps the group was in the middle of a posed photography session, similar to that in O. Vincenti’s photograph of the Sukuma men in Earth Matters. No matter what event this photograph depicts, what becomes clear is the role that photography has played in creating and affirming our knowledge of faraway places or people, and sometimes perpetuating misconceptions or stereotypes. (For more information on photography in Africa, check out this post on stereoscopes’ role in shaping the international understanding of mining in South Africa).

Further, it is obvious that this history extends back much farther than we typically acknowledge, far beyond what may typically call the “modern” era for the arts of Africa. This camera’s presence challenges our notion of the “primitive” nature of 19th century Africa, and is a reminder that photographs, no matter where, when, or by whom they were taken, document choices and negotiations between the photographer and their subjects, rather than “facts.”

 

Earth Matters Around the Web

The mass production, consumption and accumulation of plastic  is endangering our planet. Plastic is everywhere and almost impossible to destroy. It is found in our tooth brushes, in water bottles and our  lunch Tupperware. It can be found strewn on streets and sidewalks, as well as our oceans.

People from around the globe are looking for  innovative ways to  recycle and contain the rapid growth of plastic.

Currently showing on the Earth Matters exhibit is an artwork  titled Kemmoussa (2001) by Morrocan artist Younés Rahmoun, who tranformed littered plastic bags into  an art installation. Using waste materials is not new to artists. Vik Muniz is one of many artists who have used waste material in their art pracitce. In the film Wasteland, Muniz explores the world’s largest landfill in Brazil, and his journey of working with waste pickers to turn waste into art.  

Check out this link for more information on his project here: http://www.andrewpurcell.net/?p=932

New research initiatives are also underway in an attempt to find bio plastic alternatives to plastic, such as sugar plastic and corn plastic.Check out the video below to learn more about sugar plastic

Or this link on corn plastic : http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic.htm

Other companies such as BioFina are also invested in producing sustainable bio plastics for a cleaner, more plastic free world. Have a look at their website to check out their sustainability initiatives.

http://biofinagroup.com/ 

More inspiring are two young Grade 12 students Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao who have identified a new bacteria that breaks down   phthalate compounds, common to flexible plastics and linked to health problems.

Check out these young scientists in action in the video link below:

Two young scientists break down plastics with bacteria

One of the larger culprits in the mass production of plastic is bottled water. Instead of buying bottled water, why not invest in reusable bottle. Check out new waves in design that are aimed at reducing single use plastic waste.

http://www.psfk.com/2013/07/dopper-water-bottle-crowdsourced-green-design.html

The BPA found in plastic is also harmful to our bodies. The link below sheds some light on this issue.

http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/bpa.htm

Let’s be proactive in keeping our consumption of plastic down so that we can protect ourselves and the Earth!

Guest Voices: Rick Potts on the Life and Times of Our Early Ancestors

Today’s guest post features paleoanthropolgist  Rick Potts,  Director of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program, and Curator of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History.  Potts sheds light on his  recent  dig at the site of Olorgesailie in the southern part of Kenya.

Africa is known as the cradle of humanity.

The reason is the amazing collection of fossils and archeological finds dug up in the layers of sediments on the African continent. These discoveries tell us about the long distant past as the human ability to walk upright, make tools, and create art came into being. Nearly all of the important developments in human prehistory, spanning the past 6 million years, took place in Africa. I visit this huge continent every year because it’s the best place to search for clues about how our species evolved.

My team of excavators and researchers do our work in Kenya. For nearly three decades we have dug every year in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa at the site of Olorgesailie, in the southern part of Kenya. Here the record of remains left behind by early ancestors stretches back 1 million years. Our digs tell us about the era of simple stone handaxes, and later on about when our ancestors began making more complicated tools.  We also learn about the time when the ancestors who look like people today originated: our species, Homo sapiens.

Olorgesailie is famous for the thousands of stone handaxes accumulated in ancient stream channels between 1.2 million and 500,000 years ago. The handaxe shown here is about 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) tall. Early human ancestors made these kinds of stone tools for more than a million years.

Olorgesailie is famous for the thousands of stone handaxes accumulated in ancient stream channels between 1.2 million and 500,000 years ago. The handaxe shown here is about 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) tall. Early human ancestors made these kinds of stone tools for more than a million years.

This fossil discovered by my team shows the eye sockets, the brow ridges, and the forehead of a species of early human known as Homo erectus, who lived and made the handaxes at Olorgesailie 900,000 years ago. The white scale bar at the bottom is 1 centimeter long.

This fossil discovered by my team shows the eye sockets, the brow ridges, and the forehead of a species of early human known as Homo erectus, who lived and made the handaxes at Olorgesailie 900,000 years ago. The white scale bar at the bottom is 1 centimeter long.

Early humans lived in the Olorgesailie region starting around 1.2 million ago. The area today is inhabited by the Maasai people, who live by herding cows and other livestock. Our excavations at Olorgesailie allow us to find out about the habitats and animals that much earlier humans encountered, as well as the handaxe tools they made and the climate challenges they met.

The landscape of the Rift Valley of Kenya where I work. The many layers of sediment show the changes that occurred in the environment as the layers of dirt built up over time. Study of these layers by geologists tells us of fluctuations in the lake that once occupied this area, and when it eventually dried up. Ash layers from nearby volcanic eruptions can be dated, providing a time line for changes in climate, plants and animals, and the ways of life of early humans.

The landscape of the Rift Valley of Kenya where I work. The many layers of sediment show the changes that occurred in the environment as the layers of dirt built up over time. Study of these layers by geologists tells us of fluctuations in the lake that once occupied this area, and when it eventually dried up. Ash layers from nearby volcanic eruptions can be dated, providing a time line for changes in climate, plants and animals, and the ways of life of early humans.

In September 2012, we began an unusual project that led us to bring heavy machinery to Olorgesailie in order to drill into the ground and extract a long cylinder from beneath the surface. The goal was to obtain an undisturbed record of ancient climate preserved in the underground layers over the last several hundred thousand of years. After a lot of effort, we succeeded getting the long cylinder, or drill core, that reached 162 meters underground (almost 2 football fields deep). Our research indicates that the core very likely represents the past 500,000 years of climate in that part of the world – East Africa – that gave rise to our species and to all people who live on Earth.

We set up drilling equipment in the southern part of the Olorgesailie region. The layers of sediments underneath the drill reached 162 meters deep. The specialized drill brought the core to the surface in segments 3 meters long, which allowed us to pack up all the portions of the core and bring them to the U.S. for study. Our team carried out drilling in both the day and night (below).

We set up drilling equipment in the southern part of the Olorgesailie region. The layers of sediments underneath the drill reached 162 meters deep. The specialized drill brought the core to the surface in segments 3 meters long, which allowed us to pack up all the portions of the core and bring them to the U.S. for study. Our team carried out drilling in both the day and night (below).

Untitled5

Twenty-two researchers from around the world participated in the Olorgesailie core workshop in 2013. Our research team collected samples from the core so that we can conduct many different kinds of environmental analysis, including study of ancient pollen grains and chemical indicators of changes in rainfall and temperature over time. Our first analysis suggests that the core represents African climate from the past 500,000 years.

Twenty-two researchers from around the world participated in the Olorgesailie core workshop in 2013. Our research team collected samples from the core so that we can conduct many different kinds of environmental analysis, including study of ancient pollen grains and chemical indicators of changes in rainfall and temperature over time. Our first analysis suggests that the core represents African climate from the past 500,000 years.

Conclusion:  In our study of the Olorgesailie core, the big question is whether our species emerged in a time of strong fluctuations and uncertainty in the environment or at a time of relatively stable climate. Our answer to this question may help us understand the capacity of our species in the future to adjust to new climates and environments that will inevitably arise.

Earth Matters Around the Web

Tomorrow is Mandela Day, a day that celebrates  former South African president Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Mandela , who has become an icon for democracy and human rights around the world, will turn 95  tomorrow.

 

Even though Mandela is critically ill and in a fragile state, celebrations and charity events around the world will be taking place to mark this occasion. Mandela spend 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island under the apartheid regime. While the  island is a poignant reminder of apartheid and its atrocities,  it is also a  heritage site and booming tourist destination. President Obama recently visited Robben Island during his visit to South Africa. Check out a video of his visit to Mandela’s prison cell here:

 

President Obama visits Robben Island

 

The history of the island can also be traced as far back as the early 15th century. For more information on a timeline of the island check out this link: http://www.robben-island.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9&Itemid=46]

 via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Robben Island is a  sensitive eco-system, and South African law states that the Island is a protected nature conservation area and, as a World Heritage Site, has to balance additional conservation requirements with the Robben Island Museum’s mission of ensuring public access to the Island’s heritage. Thus measures have been placed to ensure the conservation of its birdlife, natural vegetation, marine and wildlife as well as its geology.

 

 via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

 

Robben Island has also been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. For more information on this check out http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/916

In terms of the National Monuments Act of South Africa, the area was declared as a National Monument in 1996.Protection in terms of mining or prospecting is completely prohibited from taking place within the property or its buffer zone, and any unsuitable development with a potential impact on the property is not permitted by the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

To celebrate Mandela Day with us and the rest of the world, why not participate in the Mandela Day Campaign  and give  67 minutes of  your time to a good cause, whether it be your local community or to your chosen charity. You could even dedicate your 67 minutes to cleaning up your neighborhood, planting trees, or any activity that could empower people and help improve the built and natural environment that we live in.