Earth Matters Around the Web : Brand New Lists for a Brand New Year

 

Although the new year recently passed, it was not so long ago that assessments of 2013 will stop rolling in anytime soon. This is especially true where science is concerned since the results take time to assemble and analyze. Consequently, one of the lists just recently released is a government list of extreme weather events for 2013, which came with a well illustrated map.Image

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/service/global/extremes/201313.gif

Chances are, that even without this summative list, that most readers heard of an extreme weather event in the news or experienced it themselves because these events occurred around the world: Drought in the American West, the typhoon in the Philippines, extreme heat in Australia, extreme cold in the U.K., heavy rains in China and Russia, and the shrinking of arctic glaciers.

In another but by no means unrelated article, a separate report predicts that extreme El Nino events are expected to double from once every 20 years to once every 10 years. Now, of course weather predictions are never fully accurate and are most of the time concerned with expectations and tendencies rather than predictions. But the research in this case seems extensive, with 20 separate climate models utilized in the findings and producing, we must assume, fairly consistent results.

What is the main culprit of these weather anomalies? Well, both much of the scientific community and the political left are inclined to say that global warming is responsible for the extreme fluctuations in weather that we have ben observing. Yet, because weather is not an exact science, proving these links hasn’t been easy, and that is one reason what we are left with so many skeptics. In the case of the El Nino effects, however, good evidence is arising for the connection between it and global warming. As the article explains in common language, the El Nino effects are produced when  “a pool of warm water that normally resides in the western Pacific expands to the eastern equatorial Pacific, bringing with it increased atmospheric convection and rainfall.” The reason that these effects do not frequently occur is because barriers of cold water generally keeps the expansion in check. Logically, then, it follows that as water temperatures rise and these barriers of cold water disappear, that the El Nino effects are likely to increase in frequency – which is about as simply as I have ever heard it explained.

As 2014 has now gotten well underway, I expect that we will continue to see anomalies in the weather such as these. And at the very least, I hope that more clear and convincing evidence such as this will turn the skeptics in the world around and harness their “renewable energy” for the effective action needed to combat climate change.

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Guest Voices: Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter

Today’s guest post comes from a pair of artists known collectively as Mwangi Hutter, who were featured in the Earth Matter’s exhibition. True to form and to this pair’s sensitive and poignant work, today’s post is a poem, or, more correctly, a poetic reflection on our relationship to planet Earth.

The sound of the world

Mwangi Hutter

The sound of the world has changed

it surrounds us with its deafening call

defeat

to repeat

to change

to blame

there is nothing I can do but listen

and watch while my tears blur the painful images

while I shake my head in disbelief

knowing I must believe.

if I don’t, who will listen to the screams to make them go away?

who will take them, engulf them, transform them

what can I do? I swallow the images that burn my memory.

I am dazed. I cannot allow

I allow it to happen

I am part of it

I don’t want to have any, any part in it

resignation marks my face, repulsion, sadness

and again disbelief

and again the questions arise

what can I do

do I do

do I do enough?

there is never enough done

until it stops

until the images fade to leave light

until

hurt is blinding me

making me numb

I need not judge nor care nor wonder

it is as it is

‘violence is a part of human nature’

I want no part of that part

I have to decide. Am I here to be within myself

or do I want to stand beside me and let them beat

kill the mother

whip the child

teach him to hold a gun

gun them down

download their useless

leech the bleeding earth

run from

hide through

never feel resposible

blame

justify

repeat

defeat humanity.

I will need to scream

to turn the inner scream outwards

to aim it

to kill the killers killing

but softly and strongly

need to believe that

if we don’t, I don’t know what will happen.

Image

Dandora Pool
video, 2012
Image
The View
video, 2012
 fdfd
Single Entities
video installation, 2013

Guest Voices: Tafline Laylin

Today’s guest post is from Tafline Laylin, Associate Editor for Inhabitat.com and Managing Editor of Green Prophet.

Earthy and Recycled African Architecture

Early Homo sapiens built Africa’s oldest homes with lightweight wood, a group of Polish archaeologists recently discovered. Our ancestors then continued to rely on local materials to build homes suited to their particular climate for the next 70,000 years or so. Designs varied depending on cultural values and available resources, of course, but ancient residential architecture was typically cheap, simple to build and accessible to just about anyone.

 Today, 62 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa seek out a life in slums, according to the 2012/2013 UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities report. Shacks in these so-called informal settlements are usually built with corrugated steel, cardboard, tarp and other cheap or free materials. They are dimly lit and poorly insulated, unbearably hot in summer, drafty in winter and frequently succumb to dangerous paraffin-related fires.

Far from simple, this dismal housing situation is becoming increasingly complicated as cities in particular burst at the seams. By 2050, the global population will swell to nine billion people and seven out of ten of them will live in cities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Albeit belatedly, municipalities across Africa (and indeed the globe) recognize that they have a serious problem and are slowly beginning to explore alternative housing solutions.

One low-income brick and mortar home costs the South African government roughly $12,500 and 2.8 million of them were built between 1994 and 2012. Still, the University of Stellenbosch’s Sustainability Institute estimates that 500,000 people in the Western Cape alone are still without homes or waiting for one.

As is so often the case, these challenges have spurred fascinating innovations throughout the continent. Especially exciting is the recent push to recycle existing materials instead of using more raw resources, to design smart homes that work in sync with nature, and to exploit renewable energy in order to ease pressure on national grids powered by dirty fuel such as coal and diesel generators.   

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch (Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch
(Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

Take the iShack designed by Andreas Keller and Professor Mark Swilling from the University of Stellenbosch. A short-term answer to South Africa’s housing crisis, its traditional zinc exterior belies a host of sustainable design interventions that make it almost revolutionary. In addition to incorporating waste cardboard and recycled tetra pack drinking cartons (painted with flame retardant) as insulation, the design team constructed the back wall out of straw and clay. These absorb the sun’s heat throughout the day and release it after dark.

A rainwater harvesting system allows residents to collect their own water, which is a simple but groundbreaking gift for people who don’t take it for granted. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Research Foundation have supported a plan to scale up distribution so that even more people can enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

As innovative as it is, however, the iShack doesn’t represent the most creative re-use of materials.

Critics sometimes question wheter using shipping containers for housing is humane. After all, these giant metal boxes once carried cargo across the seas and become blistering hot under the sun. But there are approximately seventeen million of them on the oceans at any given time, according to Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, and a great deal of them are disused. Instead of allowing them to languish as waste, modern designers have successfully repurposed them into comfortable homes, restaurants, hostels, and pop up retail stores.

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

The trend is picking up in parts of Africa as well. Tsai Design Studio recently converted a shipping container into a small classroom for five to six-year-old students living in Du Noon Township, an impoverished farming community outside of Cape Town. Windows are cut out of the red-painted metal to promote natural light and ventilation and a huge overhanging roof provides shade. There’s a gap between the top of the container and the roof, which evacuates rising heat, and gardens planted outdoors, including a vertical garden, will also help to keep the site cool.

Plastic Bottle House, DARE iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch

Plastic Bottle House, DARE

There are dozens of projects that I could have chosen for this short survey of earth and recycled architecture in Africa, but few were as popular on Inhabitat, where I work, as “Africa’s First Plastic Bottle House.” The Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE), a Nigerian NGO based in Kaduna, built a two-bedroom bungalow out of hundreds of plastic bottles filled with sand, strung together at the neck, and then stacked into round walls said to be stronger than cinder blocks.  Not only is the prototypical home cheap and well insulated, it also addresses a burgeoning waste problem by putting plastic bottles to a constructive use.

But why so popular? With such a proliferation of ridiculously expensive homes, people with modest means look at it and they think, “hey, if all else fails, I can always build one of those.”

Tafline Laylin is an Associate Editor for Inhabitat.com, an internationally renowned blog that believes design can save the world, and Managing Editor of Green Prophet, a leading source of environmental news in the Middle East and North Africa.

  

 

Earth Matters Around the Web

 via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

 

Our planet Earth is in constant flux and as the rate of technology rapidly increases, so does our understanding of the world we live in. Human beings have altered the surface of the planet  in many disastrous ways.  One of the projects in which NASA together with  TIME, Google, and the U.S. Geological Survey have collaborated is Timelapse, a project that sheds light on the how the Earth’s surface has shifted over the years.

NASA created the Landsat  program, a series of satellites that would orbit Earth and look down.  Using eight satellites Landsat has been mapping the surface of Earth for over twenty years. In total they have accumulated millions of images that trace changes to the earth’s surface including Dubai, Shanghai and Las Vegas.

 

To see theses shifts in the planet’s surface check out  Timelapse at  http://world.time.com/timelapse/

 

 via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

 

Or check out this video to see  how resources exploitation impacts the face of our planet

 

If you are interested in developments in Earth science and technology check out  NASA’s Earth Science Division, which develops a range of advanced technologies to enable new Earth science  missions and practical applications for society at large.

Also, later in August this year a new satellite named GeoEye-1 will be lifted  low earth orbit to  double the sharpness of Google Earth’s typical 3-foot resolution.

Check out this link for more information on the project at  http://www.dvice.com/archives/2008/06/geoeye1_imaging.php

 

Our curiosity of the world we live in, together with the  advancement of science and technology promises a greater perception and understanding of Earth and ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Guest Voices: Scott Wing on The Anthropocene

Today’s guest post is written by  Scott Wing , a research scientist and curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.  In this post Wing reflects on Anthropocene, or Age of Humans, as a new way of thinking about our human interaction with the earth.

 I’m amazed to find myself, a paleontologist who studies fossilized plants, writing a guest blog for Earth Matters. What does a fossil hunter know about the goals of this exhibit: to help us understand the meaning of earth, the metaphorical associations of earth and art, or how art might help us change environments in a positive way? You readers will judge how appropriate this blog entry might be.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

What I can claim, as a paleontologist, is that I am professionally required to take the long view. Among my friends and co-workers it is common to talk about VERY long periods of time – 4.6 billion years since the formation of the earth, 3.5 billion years since the origin of life, 540 million years since the rapid evolution of the types of multicellular animals that live in the world today, 250 million years since the greatest known mass extinction, 66 million years since an asteroid snuffed the dinosaurs.  Who but a geologist or paleontologist would refer to 10,000 years as “a short period” and not even smile when they said it?

Ever since the fields of geology and paleontology were first developed in the 18th century this idea that the earth is very old, almost unimaginably old, has been a handicap to popular acceptance. The Great Pyramid was built about 60 human lifetimes ago, the first members of our species appeared about 25 times longer ago than the Great Pyramid was built, the last dinosaur lived about 660 times longer ago than the earliest human, and the time since the last dinosaur is only about 1.5% of the earth history. The barrier to acceptance isn’t just that these are big numbers. I think people have resisted the idea of an old earth in part because it makes their own lives seem so short. Scientific understanding of the origin of the earth and the life on it is a bit like Copernicus’s realization that the earth is not the center of the universe. This understanding removes us from the center, from the beginning, and can make us feel insignificant. It is the underlying theme of many key scientific advances of the last 300 years that we have no privileged position in space or time. 

For the most part my paleontological predecessors and I have happily chipped away at rocks and fossils without thinking very much about the existential meaning of the history of life.  The earth is not ABOUT us. We are in no way the point of evolution. We paleontologists just like the detective game of figuring out life’s plot. While playing our detective game we have figured out some amazing things.  Carbon moves between the air, the oceans, and the solid earth, and in doing so it has powerful effects on the climate. Climate and environments have changed many times in the past, with profound effects on life.  Living organisms themselves have changed the composition of the atmosphere over many millions of years. Evolution produces vast numbers of species; rare and catastrophic events wipe out large proportions of this diversity. In the vastness of time really big changes happen on this earth.

In recent decades, though, we scientists have begun to realize that our perspective is attaining a new relevance.  Our species is changing the earth at a scale that is like the geological processes we have studied in the earth’s past. We have altered the composition and temperature of the atmosphere, the pH of the oceans, and the rate at which the soil beneath our feet erodes to the sea. Man-made compounds, many of them toxic, are now globally distributed in air, land, and water. We have even manufactured our own bodies. You may not realize that much of the protein in your body is built from nitrogen atoms that were originally extracted from the air in an industrial process to make fertilizer for the crops you eat. The changes we are causing in the carbon cycle, in climate, in erosion, and many other aspects of the environment, are huge. They are like the geological changes geologists and paleontologists see over epochs and eons in the past, except they are happening in mere centuries. This is the first time in hundreds of years that our scientific understanding of the earth is making our actions seem more important, perhaps even unprecedented in the 4.6 billion year history of the earth.

Our planetary effects, and our knowledge of them, put us in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans. Some think the term is hyperbole, some hubris, but I think it is remarkably apt. We really have become a force of geological scale, and perhaps even more important, the changes we are causing are far longer lived than almost anyone appreciates. The carbon dioxide generated during the early Industrial Revolution still warms the earth, and even if we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, high levels of the gas, and the higher temperatures and sea levels it causes, would persist for tens of thousands of years. That’s a timespan even a paleontologist can respect. We are causing extinctions at a high rate, and the re-diversification of life following these extinctions will likely require millions of years. Further, with >7 billion people on the earth, there is more change to come.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

The Anthropocene is a new period in the history of the earth because of the rate of change, but also because we are the agents of change, and we have some awareness of what we are doing. The Anthropocene should provide a new way of thinking about how we interact with the earth. The environmental and conservation debates of the last 4 or 5 decades have settled, I fear, into an unproductive thesis and antithesis. Passionate pleas to “save the Earth” have sometimes been phrased with a lot of idealism and a tinge of moralism – they imply that our goal should be to return the earth to some stable state free of human influence, and that opposing this goal is bad. The antithesis has been to deny that we are changing the global environment with unprecedented speed and in ways that will make life much more difficult for people. These endpoints are conceptually simple but they both deny reality. We can’t return the earth to some “natural” state – it has always changed, and we humans have long since changed it irrevocably. On the other hand, we would be stupid to ignore the dire problems we are creating, problems that will make our descendants less happy, healthy and wealthy if we don’t address them. I hope the Anthropocene perspective can provide a kind of radical synthesis of these opposed viewpoints. Problems of environmental change and degradation are serious and will occupy our descendants forever. We have to start serious planning for what we want the earth of the future to look like.

The basic challenge of the Anthropocene is to develop societies that are global gardeners and engineers. Our choice is this: we can alter the earth inadvertently and ignorantly, or we can recognize that natural systems place limits on the magnitude and rate at which we can modify the environment and still enjoy its products. We now know enough about how the earth works that we should acknowledge our social and economic systems are part of a larger ecological system. That larger system ultimately places limits on the rate at which we can consume resources and churn out waste products.

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Image Courtesy of Scott Wing

Finally, as a scientist, I think it is important to mention the role of art in the Anthropocene.  We scientists are in the business of figuring out how things work, how the earth system functions.  In the apt metaphor of Penn State professor Richard Alley, we are trying to read the “operator’s manual” for the earth.  If the Anthropocene perspective is correct, though, then we humans are now a big part of the earth system. That means that an important chapter in the operator’s manual is the one titled “How Humans Feel about the Earth.” Art, of course, is and always has been, in the business of interpreting, illustrating and shaping how humans think and feel about the earth. Helping people see and understand change in their own lives and in the world around them is more important in the Anthropocene than ever before. That’s why Earth Matters.

Earth Matters Around the Web

When people talk about business and the environment they are usually saying that: 1) Business and industry are the causes of our problems with the environment or 2) new ideas in business and industry can help save the environment. With that in mind I decided to investigate businesses that have instituted environment-friendly operations or offer environment-friendly services – I started by looking at businesses that share the name Earth Matters with the exhibition here at the National Museum of African Art. Below are a few that I found, and you can probably find more Earth Matters and Environment related businesses and business ideas on the web, take a look, see what you find, and tell us what is going on!

Sunflower_(Green_symbol)

 

First up is a law firm based in both America and Australia called Earth Matters Law http://www.earthmatterslaw.org/index.html

Their mission statement reads:

We believe that it is vital to understand that the integrity of our world, and indeed our survival, depends on understanding linkages between all life on earth and the natural resources necessary for life on earth. This includes the conservation of natural resources and species, the maintenance and preservation of the health, integrity and harmony of cultures and communities, in addition to the promotion and development of innovative solutions to pollution, and energy issues, including the replacement of fossil and hydrocarbon based fuels.

Check out how artists in the Earth Matters exhibition are also fighting for the environment http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/environmental.html.

Second is Earth Matters Incorporated http://www.earthmattersinc.com/, a subcontract-drilling firm that provides Geotechnical and Environmental drilling services to private, corporate and government agencies.

Although they are not digging for gold or diamonds, a theme that runs through section III of the Earth Matters exhibition, they are going into the underground!

Not surprisingly, Earth Matters is also the name of an organic grocery store http://www.earthmatters.com/index.php. Indeed, the only surprise here is that the store is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City!  In the 1990s, the Lower East Side was a gritty place known for its bargain clothing, bodegas and illegal drugs. Isaac Tapiero, a dancer and real estate investor from Israel, wanted a change, he wanted to open a place where people could detoxify from a harsh environment by eating healthy foods and relaxing in a spiritual environment. He wanted to promote a conscious lifestyle that is kind towards people and the environment.

In 2001, Isaac recruited his nephew, Marco Megira, to renovate the ground floor space at 177 Ludlow St., which used to house a bodega. With the help of local construction workers, Tapiero’s nephew, Marco Megira, built a three-level store with an Internet café on the mezzanine and a garden lounge on the top level.

You can check out the Smithsonian’s own gardens and outdoor sculpture in the Earth Matters exhibition at http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/earthworks.html or come see it in person!

You can also check more discussions about environment-friendly businesses at the following links;

http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/harvard-business-review-discusses-leadership-and-the-environment.html

http://www.greenbiz.com/

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-businesses-affect-the-environment.html

Guest Voices: Working with the Earth – Artist Margaret Boozer in Our Own Backyard

Today’s guest post comes to us from Anthony Stellaccio, the Project Manager for Earth Matters, who worked on the exhibit through its early research stages all the way to making the show a reality. Through this process, he met and worked with other artists to learn more about how the earth informs their work – read on to learn about one of these artists, Margaret Boozer. 

I am a ceramic artist, I work with clay. Better still, I might make the claim that I work with the earth. Let us consider that part of what qualified me for my job as project manager for the exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.

While working on the Earth Matters exhibition, steeped in research on mining, the environment, and all the other themes that the Earth Matters touches upon, I had the good fortune to be introduced to another ceramic artist, Margaret Boozer. Boozer is the founder of Red Dirt Studio, a collective of ceramic and multi-media artists just six miles from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where Earth Matters is currently on view.

Originally from Alabama, Margaret Boozer grew up surrounded by red dirt. When Boozer reminisces about her southern home, she recalls that red dirt with enough fondness to ensure that anybody listening will make an unmistakable connection between it and her identity.  Hardly surprising, then, that as an artist, Boozer has taken an interest in the raw and colorful clays that surround her wherever she goes. In fact, Boozer has made “the earth” her primary medium, often working with clays, minerals, and soils that come straight out of the ground and go straight into her art.

 Burst cotton bolls in a field in Auburn, Alabama

How does one work directly with the earth?

In some cases, Boozer “draws” with the earth. By creating compositions from the multi-colored materials that she extracts from the earth, Boozer creates what she calls “dirt drawings.” Despite being called “drawings,” these works of art are more like sculptural installations since what she draws on is not paper but the gallery floor. Boozer begins these installations by hauling buckets of different clays, minerals, and soils into the gallery. She then responds to the unique features of each space that she is asked to work in by creating a different work for each place. When the show is over she hauls the buckets of earth out and the pieces disappear. From then on the work she created will exist only in photographs.

Dirt Drawings by Margaret Boozer

Margaret Boozer also paints with the earth. Working with the same diversity of materials, Boozer creates rectangular compositions much the same way she creates her “dirt drawings.” Only with her “paintings,” instead of just brushing them away, she makes them permanent by building frames and backings, and then embedding the earthen material into them. Boozer refers to these as “rammed-earth paintings,” and they are paintings in the sense that they exist in frames and can be hung on walls.

Paintings from the Rammed Earth Series by Margaret Boozer

Last but not least, Margaret Boozer is also a ceramic artist. By saying ceramics, of course, I mean that Margaret also uses the clays and minerals that she finds to create two- and three-dimensional objects that she then transforms by heating them to high temperatures in a kiln. Once fired, the materials that Boozer works with have become something rather different than what they were when she first dug them out of the earth, and their new forms are far more permanent. Looking at all the different ways that Margaret Boozer works with clay, I find myself asking not only “how does earth matter,” but also “what can earth be?”

Ceramic Sculpture by Margaret Boozer

Be sure to check out more works from Margaret Boozer here, and stop by Earth Matters to see ways that other artists work with earth as a material and an inspiration.