Maywa Montenegro

Maywa Montenegro is an editor and writer at Seed magazine, focusing mainly on ecology, bidiversity, agriculture, and sustainable development.

Biochemist Oliver Peoples explains how his polymer-producing microbes could transform the plastics i

Over at Seedmagazine.com, I have a brief interview with Oliver Peoples, a biochemist who hopes that his new bio-based plastic will upend the petroleum-based industry—and help clean up oceans and landfills in the process: Seed: So you’re turning corn into plastic in much the same way that the ethanol industry turns it into biofuels. As I’m sure you know, the big criticism of corn ethanol has been that if you account for all of the embedded fossil fuels, it doesn’t wind up being very good for the environment. How does this play out with Mirel? OP: Grain ethanol has been …

Geopolitics of food

The great wealthy nation land-grab

Land is where the food isGlobally, farmland — and just as critically, water on that land — is disappearing at an alarming rate. Approximately 50 million acres vanish each year to urbanization, population growth, and economic and industrial development. So what are countries doing in response? Looking to buy or lease fertile land in parts of the developing world, where property is cheap and governments are eager for foreign investment. For example, Cambodia has entered land-for-oil talks with Kuwait and Qatar, and Laos has signed away 15 percent of its arable land. Yet both Cambodia and Laos have large food-insecure …

Metro drain

How urban life hurts your brain … and what you can do about it

A fascinating little article in Sunday's Boston Globe Ideas section highlights some recent scientific studies on the psychological effects of city life: Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control ... "The mind is a limited machine," says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations." So is it the sensory overload of being in an urban environment or the lack of nature that does the damage? It seems to be a bit of both: Numerous studies have shown, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows and that apartment-dwellers function better when their units overlook a grassy courtyard. Green spaces provide a mental break, according to the article, from the "urban roil." But what if the urban space isn't roiling? I mean, it stands to reason that walking through Times Square during a power outage at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning would tax the brain less than doing so on New Year's Eve, but would it be less taxing than hiking through a riotous rainforest? Interestingly enough, the answer is probably "no." The article goes on to explain that when it comes to nature, the more sensory stimulation, the better. Although [Frederick] Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis," which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks. OK, you say, so now surprise me. I don't need a psych study to tell me that a walk in the park is good for the mood. Or that traffic jams are less fun than lakes and butterflies. Point taken. But to the extent that scientific studies can help make the case for innovative urban design, including greener, airier homes and apartments, wilder public parks, and less concrete in between, then I'm all for them. And hey, it's a good argument for a corner office.

Climate Central

Scientists and journalists team up to get the climate story straight

What do Weather Channel seductress Heidi Cullen, Steven "wedge" Pacala, former TIME writer Michael Lemonick, soon-to-be NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, and Grist founding board member Ben Strauss have in common? They're all part of an new project called Climate Central. It was mentioned briefly in this recent post about Lubchenco, but it's so interesting and innovative that it merits further digital ink -- which I was going to provide myself, but Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review beat me to it. Climate Central is a hybrid team of nearly two dozen journalists and scientists -- spread between a main office in Princeton, New Jersey and a smaller one in Palo Alto, California -- who work side by side on stories for television, print, and the Web. Relying upon a non-profit business model that is similar to The Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica, and others, Climate Central pitches its work to local and national news outlets, looking for collaborative editorial partnerships. It also makes its various experts, many of who are still affiliated with major research institutions, available as primary sources. The goal is to "localize" the story around regions, states, or even cities, in order to highlight the various and particular ways that changes in climate are affecting people's daily lives. As Brainard points out, this new effort comes at a time when traditional news outlets are struggling to produce original environment-related content (many, like CNN, have axed their science and environment teams). Whether Climate Central will be, as communications scholar Matthew Nisbet puts it, "the future of science journalism -- non-profit partnerships providing independent and syndicated science coverage," or whether it will falter under conflicts of interest (real or perceived), remains to be seen. But it's great to see scientists stepping up to the plate -- or if you'll indulge a double-edged pun -- to the green screen.

In defense of difference

How to fend off biological and cultural extinctions

The relationship between our planet’s vanishing species, languages, and cultures has long fascinated me, so I was thrilled to write a story on the subject for the current issue of Seed. In the piece, my co-author Terry Glavin and I mention some important legislation being put forth at the annual meeting of the IUCN in Barcelona, Spain. Now that I look at my calendar, I realize the meeting’s just now wrapping up … and it looks like there is some amazing web coverage of the 10-day event. I haven’t yet figured out whether the resolution was adopted or not … …

Science debate 2008

A presidential pop quiz on energy, water, scientific integrity, oceans, and climate change

Barack Obama’s answers to the 14 top science questions facing America. (McCain is still working on his answers.)

More on 'lazy locavorism'

Edible landscapes can outgrow the elite

Monday's New York Times had a great opinion piece about My Farm's Trevor Paque -- the same guy recently profiled in the Times' Style section. In fact, I had to look twice to make sure it was the same T. Paque because the two articles emphasized such different aspects of the urban CSA mission. Kim Severson, in the style piece, describes it thus: Call them the lazy locavores -- city dwellers who insist on eating food grown close to home but have no inclination to get their hands dirty. Mr. Paque is typical of a new breed of business owner serving their needs. She devotes so much time and script to the eco-chic aspect that I, like Tom Philpott, was initially put off by the idea of armchair gardening. But just like Tom, who later posted that he was "too hard" on it, I softened after reading Allison Arieff's opinion piece. She writes:

The new film <em>Wall-E</em> gets it right

The link between obesity and the environment

Slate's Dan Engber has attempted to take down Wall-E in classic Green Room style with a piece slamming the film's connection between obesity and environmental destruction. Engber's critique is flawed in so many ways that it's hard to know where to begin ... For instance, he doesn't seem to believe that obesity really has much to do with being too sedentary or eating too much. To support this, he cites research saying that 80 percent of the variation in body weight can be explained by DNA. But what the research actually shows (and what his own colleague, William Saletan, has recently gotten right) is that 80 percent of the variation can be explained by DNA among individuals living in the same environment. If fatness is determined so strongly by genes, as Engber would have us believe, how in the world, then, is it possible to explain skyrocketing obesity rates in the past several decades? In sum, Engber thinks the Nalgene-toting eco-liberals are ridiculous (and disingenuous) in their linking of the expanding waistlines and climate change. It's a too-easy analogy, he says. Granted, I (most likely, we) are among those people Engber loves to loathe and could scarcely be dissuaded from doing so, but just in case -- in case there's been a fundamental oversight, a gap in education -- I feel like sending him a copy of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food or Paul Robert's The End of Food. It's impossibly hard to argue, after reading either one, that agriculture, ecological degradation, and obesity aren't closely intertwined.

The mpg illusion

Gallons per mile: A better way to express fuel efficiency

Let's say a pollster walks up to you and asks you the following question: "A town maintains a fleet of vehicles for town employee use. It has two types of vehicles. Type A gets 15 miles per gallon. Type B gets 34 miles per gallon. The town has 100 Type A vehicles and 100 Type B vehicles. Each car in the fleet is driven 10,000 miles per year." The town wants to replace these vehicles with corresponding hybrid models in order to to reduce gas consumption of the fleet and thereby reduce harmful environmental consequences. Should they (1) replace the 100 vehicles that get 15 mpg with vehicles that get 19 mpg , or (2) replace the 100 vehicles that get 34 mpg with vehicles that get 44 mpg? If you are like the people who were actually surveyed by Richard Larrick and Jack Soll of Duke University, you chose option two. After all, an increase of 10 mpg clearly sounds better than a measly 4 mpg. And yet, some simple number crunching reveals that the town fuel efficiency is improved more in option one (by 14,035 gallons) than in option two (by 6,684 gallons).

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