Ancient Fungi Could Help Fuel Our Future

The "white rot" mushroom Trametes versicolor, also known as "Turkey Tails"

The "brown rot" mushroom Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as "Sulphur Shelf"

From my local paper:

A study released today in the journal Science identifies how a group of fungi prevalent in Oregon evolved to digest wood, properties that today hold promise for biofuels and even to clean up environmental contamination. […]

Cellulosic ethanol is a plant-based biofuel. Much like brewing beer, yeast converts a carbohydrate called cellulose into alcohol. But the yeast can’t access the cellulose if it’s trapped by lignin, says Dr. Christine Kelly of OSU, who was not involved in the study. Plants use lignin to prevent the exact sort of microbial attack used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Current techniques to separate lignin from cellulose usually involve chemical extraction or heat, but each has drawbacks.

That’s where white rot comes in.

Scientists may be able to harvest enzymes or perhaps create better ones to break down lignin. In the rapidly evolving biofuels industry, more efficient techniques to remove lignin from cellulose could be a big advance.

Full Story: Oregon Live: Oregon’s forests filled with fungus that offer promise for fuels, eating contamination

The study is here, behind a paywall alas.

Kardashians Get 40 Times More News Coverage Than Ocean Acidification

Carbon dioxide emissions are not just warming up our atmosphere, they’re also changing the chemistry of our oceans. This phenomenon is known as ocean acidification, or sometimes as global warming’s “evil twin” or the “osteoporosis of the sea.” Scientists have warned that it poses a serious threat to ocean life. Yet major American
news outlets covered the Kardashians over 40 times more often than ocean acidification over the past year and a half. […]
Despite a boom of recent scientific research documenting this threat, there has been a blackout on the topic at most media outlets. Since the end of 2010, ABC, NBC, and Fox News have completely ignored ocean acidification, and the Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, CNN, and CBS have barely mentioned it at all.

Full Story: Media Matters: Kardashians Get 40 Times More News Coverage Than Ocean Acidification

However, some of those outlets may have included newswire stories. From Media Matters: “The study included articles in all sections of the newspapers, but did not include any newswire reports that were run in the paper.” That means that there was little original reporting by those papers, but that there may have been slightly more coverage published. That coverage was still likely dwarfed by celebrity coverage, however.

For my part, I’ve only linked to ocean acidification here once, but I’ve covered Alan Moore many many times.

See also:

Welcome to the Acid Age

The effect of ocean acidification on oyster farming

Global ocean acidification monitoring network to launch at Rio summit

Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2012 (Highlights Part 1)

It’s that time of year again. Some good stuff this year. Sterling starts off talking about what he sees as the key drivers of global change:

I’ve tended to emphasize climate change, urbanization and demographics. Those are big and significant changes in the world, but also pretty easy to measure and quantify. That’s like hunting for futurity under the street-lights where it’s nice and bright.

So I often tell people that the mid-century will be about “old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.” I think that’s a pretty useful, common-sense, plausible assessment. You may not hear it said much, but it’s how things are turning out.

Sterling then runs through the futurism of various localities, including fringe groups, including:

Chemtrails. These guys are pitiable loons, but they’re interesting harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly afraid of the sky. It’s interesting that we have cults of people who walk outside and read the sky like a teacup. I’ve got a soft spot for chemtrail people, they’re really just sort of cool, and much more interesting than UFO cultists, who are all basically Christians. Jesus is always the number one Saucer Brother in UFO contactee cults. It’s incredible how little imagination the saucer people have.

Sterling’s bit on the mud machine of Italy could apply almost equally in the U.S:

The “Mud Machine.” This is the Berlusconi media empire, which engages in the unique practice of suppressing dissent by suggesting that everybody in Italy equally useless and crooked, so why even bother. After all, everybody in Italy would have orgies involving underage illegal-alien Moslem prostitutes if they had the chance, so why get all worked up; mind your own business. The Mud Machine works because Italians enjoy being cynical about themselves. Nobody wants to be seen as the chump, so everybody ends up being victimized.

Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2012

For an important angle on urbanization check out this Grist interview with professor of urbanism Witold Rybczynski.

Also, the Grinders are running their own state of the world style conversation. You can submit questions for them on Formspring.

Cold Fusion Device Tested, Rossi Claims Sale Was Made

According to Wired UK:

Today is set to be the start of a new era of cheap power, as a new type of low-cost nuclear reactor goes live in front of an audience of scientists and media representatives in Bologna. Once the mystery customer who commissioned the device has confirmed that it really is producing one megawatt, they’ll pay the developer, Andrea Rossi.

Unless, of course, it all goes horribly wrong. […]

And that’s the important thing about the 28 October test: for the first time it will be carried out by the customer’s consultants, not by Rossi himself. The customer, apparently a large US company which has declined to be identified, will be measuring for itself whether the E-Cat does what it says before it will pay for it. Rossi has claimed that the device will output six times as much energy as it consumes. If it fails to perform, Rossi will not get paid and the customer will doubtless remain anonymous to avoid the inevitable bad publicity. If it succeeds, the customer might reveal itself to take credit for financing the biggest breakthrough in energy production of the modern era.

Wired UK: Cold Fusion: Future of physics or phoney?

You can find notes and video from the test here. The Pure Energy Systems Twitter account claims the same was made to the customer:

Q&A just finished; reading of results; 470 kW maintained continuously during self-sustain; customer satisfied; sale made; more later.

See also: Laser Fusion Closer to Becoming a Practical Reality

Nuclear Fusion Closer to Becoming a Practical Reality?

NIF giant laser

Using nuclear fusion – star energy – to power the world’s dishwashers, TVs and servers has long been a twinkling in the misty eyes of physicists, but it inched closer to reality this week as the American National Ignition Facility (strap line: “Bringing Star Power To Earth”) struck a deal with the UK company AWE and Oxford-based Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The National Ignition facility (NIF) in California – at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – has been using lasers to force together the isotopes and create the fusion needed for the process to work. Scientists there believe they are within years of achieving the goal in the lab and project that the concept could eventually become a commercially viable energy source.

The Register: UK, US ink boffinry pact on laser fusion ‘star power’

The Carbon Footprint of Marijuana – How Does It Compare with Carbon Footprint of Television?

By now you may have seen coverage of this report on the carbon footprint of marijuana cultivation in the U.S. If not, check out the report or this Huffington Post story on it.

The figure that the HuffPo and other sources cite, that indoor marijuana cultivation accounts for 1% of electrical use in the U.S., is meaningless to me. I mean, how does that compare to other stuff? According to the report’s FAQ, that 1% figure works out to “22 billion kilowatt-hours/year estimated for indoor Cannabis.”

Working backwards from this page from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I’ve worked out some comparisons. This data is from 2001, so there may have been significant advances in efficiency since then, but this is the best I could find on short notice:

-PCs and printers: 23 kWh
-Dishwashers: 29 kWh (I’ve read that electric dishwashers actually end up using fewer resources than washing dishes by hand, but I don’t have a source handy. I’m also not sure if those figure factor in the manufacture of dishwashers).
-Color TVs and TV peripherals: 49 kWh
-Refrigerators: 156 kWh (freezers add an additional 39 kWh)
-Air conditioning: 183 kWh

That of course doesn’t include the carbon foot print of manufacturing the equipment. Nor the cost of producing TV shows, and the carbon foot print of data centers and servers to power the Internet. You and I are probably doing more environmental damage right now by writing and reading this blog post than my pot-smoking neighbors down the hall are.

That doesn’t mean that growing indoor weed couldn’t or shouldn’t be made more efficient. But “indoor marijuana cultivations uses slightly less than half the total amount of electricity spent powering TVs” is less impressive than saying “1% of U.S. power consumption in the U.S. goes to growing pot.”

Also of interest is the environmental footprint of other drugs. Marijuana has a much lower impact than crystal meth, because meth requires chemicals imported from India and China. Marijuana doesn’t generally have to travel far once it’s grown, which reduces its footprint.

The ecological case for decriminalizing drugs is probably stronger for drugs other than marijuana. From the report’s FAQ:

Does this study support the case for criminalization?
No. In fact, many argue that criminalization is an important driver towards energy-intensive indoor production. Criminalization also contributes to many of the energy inefficiencies in the process, including long driving distances, noise and odor suppression measures that undercut ventilation efficiencies, and off-grid power production that is far less efficient produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than many electric grids. Moreover, decades of criminalization has resulted in this energy-using sector being passed over by massive efforts to incentivize and mandate efficiency improvements. The analysis does suggest a role for improved management of energy use, in much the same way that we address the energy use and fuel economy of our cars, buildings, and appliances.

Does this study support the case for decriminalization?
Not really. People grow indoors for many reasons aside from criminalization, e.g., quality control, pest control, and year-round yield. Many producers with licenses choose to grow indoors. That said, in a scenario where production is legalized it is, in principal, easier to address the energy issues.

Update: I thought I should also mention that 22 kWh per year for growing pot is still a pretty high number, even when compared to TV and other stuff, in that only about 10% of the U.S. population smokes marijuana. However, I still don’t think it justifies alarmism.

Can Vertical Farming Scale?

Vertical farming

Some researchers, such as Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer and founder of New York Sun Works, a non-profit group, argue that even using renewable energy the numbers do not add up. Between 2006 and 2009 Dr Caplow and his colleagues operated the Science Barge, a floating hydroponic greenhouse moored in Manhattan (it has since moved to Yonkers). “It was to investigate what we could do to grow food in the heart of the city with minimal resource-consumption and maximum resource-efficiency,” says Dr Caplow.

The barge used one-tenth as much water as a comparable field farm. There was no agricultural run-off, and chemical pesticides were replaced with natural predators such as ladybirds. Operating all year round, the barge could grow 20 times more than could have been produced by a field of the same size, says Dr Caplow.

Solar panels and wind turbines on the barge meant that it could produce food with near-zero net carbon emissions. But the greenhouses on the barge were only one storey high, so there was not much need for artificial lighting. As soon as you start trying to stack greenhouses on top of each other you run into problems, says Dr Caplow. Based on his experience with the Science Barge, he has devised a rule of thumb: generating enough electricity using solar panels requires an area about 20 times larger than the area being illuminated. For a skyscraper-sized hydroponic farm, that is clearly impractical. Vertical farming will work only if it makes use of natural light, Dr Caplow concludes.

One idea, developed by Valcent, a vertical-farming firm based in Texas, Vancouver and Cornwall, is to use vertically stacked hydroponic trays that move on rails, to ensure that all plants get an even amount of sunlight. The company already has a 100-square-metre working prototype at Paignton Zoo in Devon, producing rapid-cycle leaf vegetable crops, such as lettuce, for the zoo’s animals. The VerticCrop system (pictured) ensures an even distribution of light and air flow, says Dan Caiger-Smith of Valcent. Using energy equivalent to running a desktop computer for ten hours a day it can produce 500,000 lettuces a year, he says. Growing the same crop in fields would require seven times more energy and up to 20 times more land and water.

But VertiCrop uses multiple layers of stacked trays that operate within a single-storey greenhouse, where natural light enters from above, as well as from the sides. So although this boosts productivity, it doesn’t help with multi-storey vertical farms.

The Economist: Vertical Farming: Does It Really Stack Up

The article suggests that rooftop farming may be a more practical alternative in the near term. Here’s what VertiCrop looks like:

urban farming

Resilient communities with Jeremy O’Leary – the Technoccult Interview

Jeremy O'Leary

(Photo by Audrey Eschright / CC)

Jeremy O’Leary is a steering committee member of the Multnomah Food Initiative and was an initial organizer of the City of Portland Peak Oil Taskforce. He’s a member of Portland Peak Oil, Transition PDX, and the Portland Permaculture Guild. He’s a contributor to the online publication The Dirt and maintains his own blog Biohabit. You can view his presentation on “20 Minute Neighborhoods and Emergency Response” here.

Klint Finley: What do you think the biggest/most important food security problems we have in Portland are?

Jeremy O’Leary: During the City of Portland’s Peak Oil Taskforce, we had a conversation with the management of Safeway where we learned that, for example, an apple from Hood River would be driven to LA and then back up to Portland. I think this example indicates one of the many problems with the food system. Many of the food issue we have in Portland are similar in other areas.

One of the things we have discussed in the steering committee meetings for the Multnomah Food Initiative is our area has one of the highest levels of hunger.

Which personally I’ve always found odd as we are also one of the leading cities for the local food movement. The following is from Multnomah Food Initiative:

Why a Food Initiative?

Multnomah County is at the epicenter of the local food movement. There are countless food-related, grassroots efforts being made in the community, as well as numerous projects and initiatives led by local government. The prevalence of local Farmers’ Markets and growing interest in organic gardening indicate strong community support for local food, but we must do more. To achieve a truly sustainable, healthy and equitable food system, all partners must help reach a common vision and share responsibility for the implementation of a strategic action plan.

It makes more sense than ever to implement a local food initiative. Despite the energy generated by local food in communities throughout Oregon, statistics show that our food system is broken:

Oregon is ranked second in hunger by the United States Department of Agriculture.
About 36,000 Multnomah County residents access emergency food boxes each month.
Half of all adults in Multnomah County are either overweight or obese.
Chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are on the rise
Half of all Multnomah County children will be on food stamps at one point in their childhood.
Only a small percentage of the food that we consume is grown locally (estimates indicate 5-10%).
We lack a coordinated strategy to ensure the vitality of our local food system.

One thing I’ve been puzzled by is how if you don’t have food in your house for tonight, it is a social justice issue. However if you don’t have food in your house for 72 hours (standard Red Cross recommendations) it is an emergency management issue.

Just to narrow the conversation a little, as the food system is more than a little complex, just talking about organic food sold at places like People’s Coop, New Seasons, Wild Oats … the fact that stores only have a three day supply of date sensitive food is one aspect that I’m concerned about.

More broadly speaking I sometimes think that the best way to describe our food system is (mind you I have a somewhat dark sense of humor) is Death by Convenience.

MFI Goal Framework - Graphic 3-11

How is that even though we’re one of the leading local food cities, we still only produce about 5-10% of the food we consume here?

It is in the same vein as the discussion of Portland being the Greenest City in the US, basically we are being graded on a bell curve. I’m always filled with pride and terror when it is pointed out that Portland is leading the charge on sustainability.

Just how problematic is the fact that we only produce about 5-10% of our own food? Do we export a lot of food? And do you know what they’re counting as local? For example, would they be considering Forest Grove local?

This may seem like an aside but it is related….

In Yellowstone national park, analysis of trees prior to 1850 shows that 50% of the nitrogen was of marine origin. 50% of the nitrogen arrived in the form of salmon. So it is not as if a long supply is necessarily a bad thing.

Efforts like the 100 mile diet are interesting, but it really depends on how the food arrives. Grain shipped in via trains from the mid-west is considerably better then strawberries flown in from Chile.

As for what food we export, I don’t have specific information about that.

Taking a completely different angle on things… I did my own sociological experiment by going to the one of the local gun shows and talking about sustainability to self-described “right-wing gun nuts.”

Basically, if you ask whether it’s a good idea to take a typical single family house and re-design it so you can live without power fairly well for a week if it is January or July, to have a large pantry, rain water cisterns, veggie gardens, fruit trees, … the response to this was basically “duh.”

My conversations with the “gun nuts” led me to the view that it is much better to focus on what you want and stop. The key detail when talking about a problem: you can debate whether that problem is actually a problem then never actually start effectlvely talking about actions.

It seems like the environmental movement has progressed from talking about renewable resources, to sustainability, and now to resilience. What exactly is resilience?

I can’t speak for the environmental movement, just for what I’m focusing on which is community and resilience. I think part of the focusing on resilience is that it is a more accurate meaning of sustainability…. how you sustain yourself/family/community is a rather important detail.

Sustainability seems to have been mostly about a long term vision, which is great, but doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have a vision for tonight or next week.

I think resilience is an example of what folks want.

Based on your experience on the gun show, do you think there’s more overlap between the left and the right if you re-frame what you’re talking about as resilience instead of “environmentalism”?

On the community level, very much so. On the level of Washington DC, I have no idea.

Rainwater cistern

(Above: an example of a rainwater cistern at Columbia Credit Union in Vancouver)

What can individuals do to improve their community’s resilience – whether that be in Portland or elsewhere?

I would suggest one of the 1st steps is to re-enforce the school buildings to withstand an earthquake, use the food certified kitchens in the schools to process locally grown food, and store emergency provisions at the schools.

If you mount solar PV panels on the roofs and place HAM radios there you can be fairly sure of having islands of communication even if things go really sideways.

You would need to have rain water cisterns at the schools, which could also be used for the urban orchards and the veggie gardens.

More broadly speaking, knowing your neighbors and being on good terms with them is possibly the 1st thing to do. It’s only then that conversations about sharing resources can be possible.

It sounds like you’ve picked schools as the epicenter for resilience in communities. Why?

At least in the case of Portland, they are arranged so there is usually a school within a 1/2 mile of you at any point in town. Community centers, churches, a mall…. these would of course work as well.

Columbia Ecovillage

(Above: The Columbia Ecovillage)

Transition PDX is interested in applying permaculture principles to the city. Are there good working examples of urban permaculture already?

As applied to dirt, very much so. The Columbia EcoVillage would be a good example that is more or less open to the public. For me permaculture comes down to good design, which translates into other disciplines.

In the case of my backyard, I have things lined up so I’m getting fruit consistently from early may until late Sept. Once the Kiwi matures, I can get another harvest in late November.

People who rent, instead of own, single family houses can have a hard time applying permaculture to their homes. Is there anything at all people who live in multifamily housing can do in terms of applying permaculture?

Yes, for this I would refer folks with what Leonard Barrett has been doing – Permaculture for Renters.

Container Food Forest

Above: Image from the Permaculture for Renters post Create a Container Food Forest

So what Leonard is doing is also applicable in multi-family housing?

Admittedly I’m not the best source of suggestion around permaculture for folks who don’t have some land to work with. You can do some pretty nifty things with container gardening on a balcony for example. But there are also examples of folks finding ways to share resources or buy things in bulk together.

What is the minimum amount of space needed to grow enough food for one person to survive? And for one person to have a reasonably healthy diet?

Quite a bit fits inside. I would point to books by John Jeavons such as How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. I would also point to materials by Toby Hemenway such as The Self-Reliance Myth.

I guess we’re just about out of time, so I will ask one last question: If people reading this interview come away with only ONE message, what message should that be?

Using “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” as a point of reference, society seems to spend the vast majority of our focus on whether we are sufficiently amused. This is an arrangement that by definition is unsustainable.

Energy, Moore’s Law, and Substitution

We will likely adapt, but not in the way anticipated. The most likely adaption will come in the form of a substrate shift. A shift in the underlying model of the global economy to one that is much, much more energy efficient. This shift isn’t seen the small and peripheral gains in efficiency we see in the work of Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute.

Instead, it’s a global judo move that flips everything on its back. A core change to our fundamental economic and social model that substitutes physically moving products globally to virtually moving information about products. Where virtual presence is substituted for actual visitation and nothing is made that isn’t bought.

It’s a place where you telecommute to work if you sell goods and services globally. Where all production is increasingly and inexorably local, from food to energy to consumer products.

Global Guerrillas: Energy, Moore’s Law, and Substitution

I like that Robb points out that alternative energy need not meet or exceed our current level of energy use to live comfortable, contemporary lifestyles – we can use energy more efficiently (and if energy prices rise exponentially, we’ll start seeing more and more efficiency).

Robb doesn’t mention coal, though. We still have preposterous amounts of it, and barring policy intervention to curb its use, I don’t see it going anywhere – at least not until alternatives like solar, wind, and geothermal can start to compete on price.

Which leaves oil as the major problem.

Markets, Antimarkets and the Fate of the Nutrient Cycles

From the point of view of this essay, that is, as far as the distinction between markets and antimarkets is concerned, the splitting open of the nutrient cycles had important consequences. Every input to food production which came from outside the farm (not only fertilizers but also insecticides and herbicides) was one more point of entry for antimarkets, and hence, it implied a further loss of control by the food producers. While a century and a half ago farms produced most of what they needed (and hence ran on tight nutrient cycles), today American farms receive up to seventy percent of their inputs (including seed) from the outside. (7) Worse yet, the advent of direct genetic manipulation has allowed large corporations to intensify this dependency.

Although most of the early technical innovations in biotechnology were created by small companies engaged in market relations, antimarket organizations, using the economic power which their large size gives them, readily absorbed these innovators through vertical and horizontal integration. Moreover, these antimarkets were in many cases the same ones which already owned seed and fertilizer/pesticide divisions. Hence, rather than transferring genes for pest-resistance into new crop plants (thus freeing food producers from the need to buy pesticides) these corporations permanently fixed dependence on chemicals into the genetic base of the crops.

Ars Electronica: Markets, Antimarkets and the Fate of the Nutrient Cycles

This is the best case I’ve read for organic farming: a reduction in outside dependencies (ie, resilience).

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