Seawater greenhouses to bring life to the desert

From The Guardian: Seawater greenhouses to bring life to the desert.

Vast greenhouses that use seawater to grow crops could be combined with solar power plants to provide food, fresh water and clean energy in deserts, under an ambitious proposal from a team of architects and engineers.

The Sahara Forest project would marry huge greenhouses with concentrated solar power (CSP), which uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays and generate heat and electricity. The installations would turn deserts into lush patches of vegetation, according to its designers, and without the need to dig wells for fresh water, which has depleted acquifers in many parts of the world. [continue, see image]

To Greece, by car, on grease

From the Guardian: To Greece, by car, on grease.

A group of British eco-enthusiasts have just pulled off the greenest and grubbiest car rally ever, driving from London to Athens in vehicles powered exclusively on waste vegetable oil.

The team motored with unexpected ease across Europe on the proceeds of the grease thrown away by restaurants and cafes along the way. Their hope is that the 2,500-mile feat will help a drive to create a commodity out of cooking oils that otherwise end up in landfills or the sea. Unlike ethanol and other controversial biofuels, recycled cooking fat does not impact on food production.

"I think we can safely say that this is the first long-distance car journey in Europe that has relied on restaurants and burger bars as an informal network of filling stations," said Andy Pag, a 34-year-old Londoner, who organised the rally. [continue]

Smokey got it wrong

From the National Post: Smokey got it wrong.

Splashed with drops of burning fuel gel, trailing from a helicopter concealed by a roiling column of smoke overhead, the giant pines of Mount Nestor fire up like roman candles. A few kilometres away, on the eastern slope of Mount Nestor, Kevin Topolnicki’s team unleashes a necklace of fire from the Terra-Torch — a truck-mounted flamethrower — attacking the trees that survived an earlier air assault.

One of the men on his crew pulls over his nose a faded yellow bandana with a silk-screen of Smokey the Bear. The legendary enemy of forest fires would not be pleased about this arson attack on Alberta’s Spray Valley Provincial Park. But then, deadpans Mr. Topolnicki, duty officer for the province’s sustainable resource development ministry, "Smokey was wrong."

At least, that is the opinion of forest managers in Alberta, who have rediscovered fire in a big way after decades of working to eradicate it from virtually every last tree. [continue]

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The old ladies and the rats

What if you’d bought a house in a good neighbourhood, moved in, and then realized that you had a major rat problem caused by the old ladies next door? The LA Weekly tells of Scott and Liz Denham, who had that very problem: Unchallenged by Health Officials, Elderly Twins Fed Local Vermin Population.

"You start to realize that, as you go to that property, ‘Wait a minute. Something isn’t right here,’" says Scott. He hadn’t paid much attention to the house next door. But now, he noticed, "You couldn’t see in any of the windows. I don’t know if it was tarp, but it wasn’t just curtains. It was blacked out. You couldn’t see in the house. The front door was rotted."

When he crept closer,the odor — "a urine stench" — was "unbearable." By the end of their first long weekend in the Palisades, Liz was stressed out, peering at shadows. The more she peered, the more rats she saw. Standing in her own master bedroom, she found herself at eye level with a group of rats who clearly had a routine, slipping methodically in and out of drains and cracks on her neighbors’ outside wall.

She saw three rats squeeze out of a roof drain in a precision, shoulder-to-shoulder group, Ratatouille-style. Another rat pack traveled along the dusty, reeking hedge on the property line. The hedge was a rat highway, and it swayed under its commuters’ weight. [continue]

I love the way the writer of this article, Max Taves, includes information from so many different sources. Hurrah, Max! A fascinating read.

Stories like this make me want to climb on my soapbox to give my one piece of house-shopping advice: go interview the neighbours before you buy a house. They’ll tell you if there are crazy old ladies feeding rats, or if the dog-breeder down the street lets her 74 hounds yip and howl for hours. People selling a house don’t want you to know these things, so they’ll try to arrange it so that you don’t find out. Ask questions, and walk through the neighbourhood at different times of the day when you don’t have an appointment.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Keyhole gardens lock out starvation in Lesotho

From Celesias: Keyhole Gardens Lock Out Starvation in Lesotho.

Sometimes, the best solutions are low-tech. For example, in the tiny African country of Lesotho, a simple organic gardening technique called "keyhole gardening" is allowing people to produce enough vegetables to nourish their families without having to invest in costly technology, fuel, fertilizer or pesticides. As the BBC reported on June 3, a number of NGO’s have been teaching people how to use this technique in Lesotho, with incredibly promising results. A keyhole garden is a raised bed shaped like a keyhole and walled in by stone. In the center, a basket made from sticks and straw holds manure and later, vegetable scraps for compost. The garden is watered primarily through the basket in the center, which distributes the nutrients from the compost to the plants.

This gardening system has several advantages: [continue]

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Sweden turning sewage into a gasoline substitute

From the International Herald Tribune: Sweden turning sewage into a gasoline substitute.

GOTEBORG, Sweden: Taking a road trip? Remember to visit the toilet first. This city is among dozens of municipalities in Sweden with facilities that transform sewage waste into enough biogas to run thousands of cars and buses.

Cars using biogas created a stir when they began to be rolled out on a large scale at the start of the decade. The tailpipe emissions are virtually odorless, the fuel is cheaper than gasoline and diesel, and the idea of recovering energy from toilet waste appealed to green-minded Swedes. [continue]

Trouble in truffledom

From the Beeb: Alien threat to truffle delicacy.

One of the world’s most prized culinary delicacies, the famous Perigord black truffle, could soon be off the menu.

Scientists fear it will be wiped out by an invading Chinese truffle they have discovered growing in European soils.

They tell the New Phytologist journal that the incomer is a particularly aggressive and fast-growing species.

The Perigord black truffle is one of the most highly regarded truffles, fetching around 600 to 800 euros per kg this season. [continue]

Eat insects to help the environment

From Discover Magazine: Want to Help the Environment? Eat Insects.

David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. "Smell the meat," he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.

"Perfumey, tastes like salty apples," one says. "Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke," another adds.

The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal. The Gastronauts’ meal may seem more like a reality TV stunt than a radical environmental strategy, but Gracer is on a serious mission to shake up how we all think about our food supply. Gracer, a self-described "geeky poet/nature boy" who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.

Gracer wants people to move away from getting their protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens because [continue]

Planned: hi-tech, but traditional style community

From the Guardian: Free bikes, no uPVC – green light for prince’s ecotown.

The first homes will come with a free bicycle, and giant wind turbines will power mandatory low-energy light bulbs. Welcome to Sherford, the Prince of Wales’s south Devon ecotown for 12,000 people, which has been granted planning permission.

Cars are likely to be banned from some areas and the sun’s rays will be harnessed to heat water in what the prince’s advisers believe will be the greenest new settlement in Britain.

Sherford has been designed in collaboration with a private development consortium including the Royal Bank of Scotland. Like Poundbury, the new town in Dorset which Charles started building on his Duchy of Cornwall land 10 years ago, the buildings are inspired by historic townscapes.

A Georgian-style high street modelled on the Wiltshire market town of Marlborough will become the backbone of the new community, to be built between now and 2020 on rolling farmland on the edge of Plymouth. [continue]

A lush, no-care lawn

From the New York Times: Moss Makes a Lush, No-Care Lawn.

David Benner hasn’t watered his lawn since the Kennedy administration. He hasn’t mowed it, either. And it’s doing just fine. On a late-April afternoon, the two-acre property surrounding his ranch house in Bucks County was a carpet of green, uniformly lush and velvety under a canopy of shade trees.

Mr. Benner, 78, a retired professor of ornamental horticulture, is also a longtime practitioner and advocate of what he calls "the moss approach" to lawn maintenance. "Every time I give a lecture, I go into this spiel: get rid of your grass, and grow moss," he said. "And now it’s finally gaining momentum." [continue]

And what a sensible approach that is! We have a bit of wild grass here that has planted itself. Once I get rid of that, I’ll plant an alternative lawn instead. I’ve been thinking of clover. Here’s what EarthEasy’s Lawn Alternatives page says about clover: Continue reading

A house built for £4,000

From the Independent: How I built my house for £4,000.

When he’s expecting visitors, Steve James watches out the windows so he can catch the look on their faces when they see his house for the first time. "It’s always the same," he say. "There’s an intense stare and total mystification, as if they can’t quite believe what they are seeing." This may be because James’s house is made of straw and has a turf roof covered in flowers.

James is passionate about eco homes and deeply proud of the cottage, which huddles by a loch near Dumfries. His kitchen is made from a cedar that blew over in a Glasgow park. His sink came from a skip. To one side is a Moroccan marbled shower room, to the other are sofas and a log-burning stove. He sleeps in a galleried bedroom. A compost loo and rainwater filtration system complete the picture.

The total cost: £4,000. "Actually, you could make it for less than that," James says. "I’d cut the wood myself next time instead of going to the sawmill. That would knock off a thousand." He finds the whole concept of mortgages quite amusing. [continue]

Your petrol tank could soon smell like a distillery

From the Scotsman: Cheers! Your petrol tank could soon be smelling like a distillery.

Scotland’s whisky industry could become the source of eco-friendly biofuels for cars, with motorists powering their engines from the by-products of distilling.

The concept of turning the husks from the malted barley and other cereals used in the manufacture of whisky and other distilling and brewing processes into a source of fuel is being explored by researchers at Abertay University’s School of Contemporary Sciences. [continue]

Town that banned bags touts golf carts

From the Times Colonist: Town that banned bags touts golf carts.

The tiny town in northern Manitoba that was first in Canada to ban plastic shopping bags is now turning its attention to gas-powered vehicles.

Leaf Rapids Mayor Ed Charrier wants residents to drive electric golf carts around town instead. "Why would you start your vehicle for a two-second ride uptown?" asked Charrier, who plans to buy his own cart next spring. "Jump in a golf cart."

While he doesn’t plan to ban gas-powered automobiles, he will promote energy-saving golf carts. The town of 600 people is only about three kilometres from end to end, with homes, shopping, parks and the lake connected by a network of trails.

"You could take a golf cart on them, cruise around all over and start cutting down on greenhouse gases," said Charrier, who drives a Ford half-ton pickup on the 215-kilometre trips into Thompson, the nearest town.

As an incentive, the town will offer a free golf cart with each of 66 houses that the town bought last March, fixed up and put on the market. (The homes have stood empty since 2002 when the local mine closed.)

Charrier said they’re examining other incentives for residents to switch to golf carts that can travel about 70 kilometres before the batteries need recharging. [continue]


Darfur refugees tap the sun’s power to cook

From Darfur refugees tap the sun’s power to cook.

Imagine a town where everyone used solar power to cook their food, and reduced their reliance on finite sources of fuel, like firewood. At lunchtime, in front of every mud-walled hut, tens of thousands of pots are bubbling away inside silvery enclosures that tap sunlight.

The town you’re imagining is actually a refugee camp in the deserts of Eastern Chad, where 17,600 Darfur refugees fled from neighboring Sudan four years ago. Nearly 90 percent of the families here use solar cookers to prepare their midday meals.

In a pilot project by a Dutch aid group called SVAAKO, 6,000 portable solar cookers have been given out to the refugees, and there are plans to introduce the stoves to other camps. Camp residents, all of them women, make the solar stoves themselves in a small workshop, spreading glue on sheets of cardboard and attaching sheets of aluminum foil. The stoves are cheap to produce: less than $20 per unit. [continue]

Natural swimming pools

From the National Post: Huck Finn Chic: Swimming Ponds.

Natural swimming ponds first appeared in the mid-1980s in Germany and Austria. Since then they have become popular throughout Europe — there are an estimated 50,000 natural ponds — in residential gardens, hotels, spas and parks, where municipalities have introduced them for public swimming. In Germany, the facilities are used year-round: for swimming in summer and for skating in winter. Given Canada’s hot summers and cold winters, the pools seem made for our climate. Over the past three years, natural pools have appeared in the United Kingdom, and there are now a handful of companies and architects who are constructing them in North America.

In fact, the term "natural" swimming pond is a misnomer, since there is nothing natural about them. They are carefully designed and constructed. The water is cleaned by the surrounding plants but the ponds also require pumps and aeration to give nature a little assist. Even so, a well-constructed swimming pond displays no evidence of the plumbing that allows its owner to enjoy all the benefits of a garden pond and its variety of water plants. [continue]

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Training sheep to clean up vineyards

From Training sheep to clean up vineyards.

Call them mutton mowers. University researchers are training sheep to clean up vineyard weeds but stay off the grapes.

Enthusiastic and unpicky eaters, sheep are already being used in some vineyards as a green alternative to tractors. They don’t use gasoline and keep down weeds — a necessary task to deter pests and keep vines healthy — sans herbicides.

Unfortunately, sheep will chew up thousands of dollars worth of grapes if left to their own devices.

That’s why University of California, Davis researcher Morgan Doran and his colleagues are experimenting with aversion therapy and other techniques to turn sheep into better field hands.

Sheep ranchers get a new market for their flocks while vineyard managers get “another tool in the tool box,” says Doran. "It’s a win-win."

But just how do you teach sheep? [continue]

French revolution: rentable bikes every 900 feet

From French revolution: Rentable bikes every 900 feet.

The socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has seen the future and it’s got two wheels, three speeds, an adjustable seat, indestructible tires, a basket, and a bell. It’s 50 pounds of ecofriendly handlebars, comin’ at ya.

The French are turning Paris into a bicycle zone, pretty much overnight. Even now, astride small alleys and behind boulangeries, paving stones are being ripped to fit 750 bicycle rent "stations."

On July 15, a day after the French Revolution anniversary, the city of lights will kick off a "vélorution" with 10,648 rentable bikes, or vélos. By January, some 1,400 rent stations and 20,600 bikes are scheduled to be in place. In Paris proper, one will never be more than 900 feet from a set of cheap wheels. At least theoretically.

Similar programs have been launched elsewhere with varying success. But Paris officials say their city is the first world capital to adopt a major green biking initiative, and they are doing it in a way that may be too big to fail. The ambitious Paris project is titled Vélib’ — wordplay for bicycle freedom. Read: freedom from too many cars and carbon fumes. [continue]

Majestic sea eagle to soar again after absence of 200 years

From Majestic sea eagle to soar again after absence of 200 years.

Scotland’s largest and rarest bird of prey, the spectacular sea eagle, is set to soar over the east of the country for the first time in nearly two centuries.

Shortly after noon today, a Norwegian air force cargo plane will touch down at RAF Kinloss in Moray with a cargo of 15 sea eagle chicks, the first phase of an ambitious plan to reintroduce the raptor to the east of Scotland. [continue]

Thatching revival rescues ancient craft

From the Telegraph: Thatching revival rescues ancient craft.

A boom in demand for thatched roofs has rescued the centuries-old English craft of reed-cutting from the brink of extinction.

New schemes have been launched to begin harvesting reeds commercially in wetlands across Britain and a new generation of apprentices is learning the ancient trade to meet the soaring requirements of the thatching industry, [continue]

Small houses

From Small houses challenge our notions of need as well as minimum-size standards.

Down a rambling residential road on the outskirts of Sebastopol, the dream house sits like a testament to discriminating taste.

This dream house is the love child of artist-builder Jay Shafer, who lovingly hand-crafted it. The stainless-steel kitchen, gleaming next to the natural wood interior, is outfitted with customized storage and built-ins. From his bed, Shafer can gaze into the Northern California sky through a cathedral window. In his immaculate office space, a laptop sits alongside rows of architectural books and magazines — many featuring his house on the cover. And from the old-fashioned front porch, he can look out on a breathtaking setting: an apple orchard in full bloom.

But in an era when bigger is taken as a synonym for better, calling Shafer’s home a dream house might strike some as an oxymoron. Why? The entire house, including sleeping loft, measures only 96 square feet — smaller than many people’s bathrooms. But Jay Shafer’s dream isn’t of a lifestyle writ large but of one carefully created and then writ tiny. [continue, see photos]

Natural swimming pools

From the New York Times: From Europe, a No-Chlorine Backyard Pool.

Natural swimming pools (or swimming ponds, as they are called in Europe, where the concept originated 20 years ago) are self-cleaning pools that combine swimming areas and water gardens. Materials and designs vary — the pools can be lined with rubber or reinforced polyethylene, as in the case of Total Habitat’s, and may look rustic or modern — but all natural pools rely on "regeneration" zones, areas given over to aquatic plants that act as organic cleansers.

The pools have skimmers and pumps that circulate the water through the regeneration zone and draw it across a wall of rocks, loose gravel or tiles, to which friendly bacteria attach, serving as an additional biological filter. Unlike artificial ponds, which tend to be as murky with groundwater runoff and sediment from soil erosion as the natural ponds they’re modeled on, in a natural pool the water is clear enough to see through to the bottom. [continue]

Here’s more on the idea from The Ecologist’s Natural Swimming Pools article:

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Victorian eco-engine that could save the planet

From 24 Hour Museum: Museum reveals Victorian Eco-Engine that could save the planet.

A London museum is helping to highlight an eco-friendly way of creating ‘free’ energy that was invented almost 200 years ago.

Stirling engines were commonplace around 1880 to 1920 but fell out of fashion with the advent of the electric motor. Amid concerns over global warming, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum is organising a rally to showcase these engines, which some scientists believe have a role to play in delivering clean energy.

"The thing that makes them so intriguing is because technically it is almost like free energy," explained Lesley Bossine, who is organising the rally.

"Basically a Stirling engine is unlike a diesel car or steam engine where you have got to put a fuel in. The Stirling engine works on pure heat, so you can power them on solar power, geothermal energy or waste heat."

Originally invented in 1816 by the Rev Dr Robert Stirling, they are closed circuit combustion engines. They are silent, and work by using heat to warm a cylinder. Within the cylinder, air expands with an increase in pressure that in turn drives the engine. [continue]

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