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March is ‘Get Small’ month at Grist

get-smallx470
Susie Cagle

Climate change is a Big Problem. Moving our energy economy off fossil fuels is a Big Problem. Transforming our factory food system into something healthier? Remodeling our cities around sustainable models? Protecting our air and water? Big Problems, all.

Sometimes the sheer size of these problems can overwhelm us and leave us listless and passive. Which is one reason we've picked an offbeat theme for our coverage this month: Get Small -- Micro Solutions to Macro Problems.

Can we steer around big obstacles by thinking differently -- diminutively -- about them? Can we tackle big challenges by breaking them down into smaller ones? Do massive, planetary-scale dilemmas look different at eye height?

"Small is beautiful," sure -- that idea has a proud and venerable pedigree. But "small is strong"? "Small wins"? "Small saves the planet"? These are the ideas we're going to kick around.

For example: Did you know that there are entire species of animal that are adapting to climate change by getting smaller? We've got 'em here for you!

We'll look at what climate change looks like up really close -- at the level of dust, snowflakes, and molecules.

We'll explore -- from all sides -- the hypothesis that neighborhoods and local communities may be better positioned to cope with climate-driven change than nations and megalopolises.

We'll take a look at the indomitable online popularity of tiny abodes -- mini-apartments and nano-houses.

And we're planning a contest in which you can help us come up with a better name than "shrinkage" or "downsizing" (or even "rightsizing") for what happens when something gets smaller so it can be better.

We hope you'll stick around and get small with us. And do add your own ideas on this theme in the comments below -- but keep them, you know, brief.

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Your new Grist front page — tried and tested

nintendo-controller
Phossil

We've made some changes on our Grist front page -- in the service of a simpler, clearer, more sprightly delivery of Grist's non-grumpy green news. We're moving to a single, unified list of all our posts -- Grist List items, Gristmill news posts, features, blog posts, columns.

Some of you have met these changes already, because we've been showing them, selectively, for a couple of weeks. We did something that, while increasingly the norm in the web industry, remains a little uncommon in the online journalism world: a live A/B test of our new homepage design versus the old one.

A/B testing is a kind of controlled experiment with concrete results. Thirty percent of you got the "new" Grist. The rest of you got the existing version of the site. And we looked at what happened.

What did we learn? First, judging from the absence of howls of consternation from our never shy readership, the change didn't cause many of you to blink an eye. Second, our metrics showed that the new design actually boosted click-throughs from the homepage to story pages by enough percentage points to make a significant difference.

Of course, if you're reading Grist on your phone, as we know more and more of you are doing, then this is how you've been seeing our stories for some time. The mobile theme for our site (what you see if you visit Grist on your phone's browser) shows all our posts in a single stream. We know this works well because, hey, we read on our phones, too.

We know, too, that the homepage itself is the point of entry for a diminishing fraction of visitors to Grist. More commonly, now, you arrive on wings of Twitter or thumbs of Facebook, alight on a story or two, and flutter off. Such readers -- and indeed all our visitors -- are still only a click away from the complete Grist List and Gristmill pages; topics like Climate and Energy, Food, and Cities; and regulars like David Roberts and Ask Umbra.

Nothing in the world of digital publishing stands still for very long. So don't be surprised if you keep noticing little things changing around here -- we're probably testing another new tweak. And of course let us know what you think: in comments below, here or anywhere, or via email. Thanks!

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Grist comic wins population prize; babies still happening

For 33 years the Population Institute has given out its Global Media Awards, and this year, I'm proud to say, Grist's Senior Editor Lisa Hymas has won one.

The institute honored "7 Billion, Unpacked," an explanation in comic book format of the planet's crossing the 7-billion population mark. It ran in Grist in October 2011.

Hymas collaborated with comics artist Thomas Pitilli to create the feature, which was part of our special series on "What to Expect When You're Expanding."

Congratulations to Hymas (and us as well, I guess). We love comics!

Also: That 7 billion number is already way out of date.

Read more: Living

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The sharing economy: Grist’s theme for January

sharing-economy
Susie Cagle

This thing we call "the sharing economy" -- the messy, fascinating world of networked goods exchange, freecycling, carsharing, and beyond -- is an unusual hybrid of normally warring sensibilities and belief systems.

It's got enough touchy-feely-huggy utopianism to turn the stomach of any self-respecting contemporary skeptic. But it's got enough market-economics pragmatism to raise the hackles of your typical leftie communitarian.

The sharing economy, in other words, cuts across our assumptions in intriguing ways. That's one reason we've picked this subject as our January theme here at Grist. Another is that the sharing-economy vision offers one imaginable route around that big pileup on the road just ahead of us, where an out-of-control growth economy is slamming into the physics of climate.

Why is there so much buzz and innovation around sharing right now? Part of it is the limping economy, of course -- the "real one," the one that's all what's mine is mine. Part of it is a growing awareness that mindless consumption is a big ingredient in the recipe for our sweating climate. And then there's technology.

The internet has always threatened/promised to remove comfortable middlemen and disrupt existing profit margins. The money newspapers lost on classified revenues when Craigslist came along was also money that ended up, fractionally, in all our pockets when we stopped having to pay cash to place our classifieds.

Rinse and repeat, industry by industry. You end up with a good number of happy Airbnb customers as well as a good number of unhappy hoteliers. Now the car-free population can connect with car owners whose vehicles are idle; they're mostly pretty happy, but the taxi folks are steaming.

How can we square the ethos of sharing with a go-go internet startup culture that typically has at least one eye on IPOs and acquisitions? Are sharing and capitalism really at loggerheads, and if so, what could a "sharing business" possibly mean? Anybody got something good to trade for a set of drill bits? (I only used them once!)

Many of us are excited about the benefits, environmental and otherwise, of an economy that's less hellbent on exploiting resources for profit and more mindful of ways to get fuller, fairer use out of the (mountains of) stuff we've already got. To get those benefits, we're going to have to grapple with some of these tougher questions around sharing. So over the next couple of weeks we'll dig into them here. (Susie Cagle's nifty illustrated explainer is a good place to start.) We'll also try to provide you with some helpful resources. In the spirit of this thing, we trust you'll step up and share some of yours, too.

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Hot in here: How the ‘If you’re 27 or younger’ meme took off

Two months ago, Grist blogger Philip Bump took a look at a new study of global warming data, prepared a short post explaining the findings, and wrote this headline to summarize his interpretation of the numbers: "If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had reported an alarming but unfathomable statistic -- that the previous month had been "the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature" across the Earth's land and sea surfaces.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Bump translated it into terms that made more direct sense to those of us who don't do instant calculations in our heads as we read.

His choice reframing of this information took wing across the web, the press, and social media, landing everywhere from a column by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof to Slate to a post at Treehugger.

It has now reached the status of "statistic you no longer need to cite a source for," which is how it appeared in a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times: "Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985."

Of course, the moment a number reaches that status, it also becomes a target for would-be debunkers. Some folks, like this guy at Forbes, charged that the headline was misleading, because -- though the data for global average temperatures is quite clear -- members of the under-27 set have nonetheless experienced "colder than average months" if you look at local, rather than global, averages. This is a convenient but specious dodge; the NOAA data was worldwide, and so was our point. We're talking, after all, about the planet, not your neighborhood.

When you succeed in planting an idea in the collective online consciousness, it's only human to want credit. Attribution helps earn trust; links are a courtesy. In the newsroom, you'll frequently hear the wounded cry of the journalist who feels somehow ripped off by the competitor who fails to offer a hat-tip.

But in the bigger picture, really, who cares? Ideas can't be patented, nor should anyone try. We're glad to see Bump's conceptual craftsmanship propagate across the network, with or without a link to the original. Part of our mission here at Grist is to keep trying out new ways of talking about the climate crisis until we find ones that stick. This one left a mark.

UPDATE: A friend writes in to point me to this Joe Romm post from 2011, which features a very similar notion: "People under 35 have never seen normal global temperatures." Romm's post in turn is based on one by Robert Grumbine that digs deeper into the numbers: "If you're younger than 26, you have never seen a month where the global mean was as cold as the 161 year average." (Bump tells me he'd never seen these posts before composing his.)

All of which, I think, is further reason to put aside the whole "whose idea is it?" discussion, focus on the substance, and try to understand what was successful here so we can repeat it. There's nothing new under the sun, but meanwhile, it keeps getting hotter here.

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EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has left the building

Image (1) lisa_jackson.JPG for post 38785We knew this one was coming, but now it's official: Lisa Jackson, President Obama's long-embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is leaving her post.

Jackson served for four years as lead environmental regulator for the Obama administration, taking innumerable volleys of criticism from all directions. Serious environmentalists felt she caved too regularly to White House-driven compromises, allowing the climate to become a footnote and essential initiatives to be watered down. Meanwhile, the Tea Party right set her up as a job-killing bogeyperson and marshal of a "war on coal." (Green types only wished that war was real.)

As the first African American EPA administrator, Jackson brought a more inclusive approach to her environmental work -- moving both her agency and the national public far beyond old green stereotypes. The achievements of Jackson's tenure were real: major improvements in automobile emissions standards, important new controls on mercury in power-plant fumes, and the first-ever federal ruling that greenhouse gases should be classed as pollutants.

And yet no one who is conscious of the climate crisis can fail to see the last four years as, fundamentally, a failure where it most counts -- a critical, fleeting, now-missed chance to jam open a closing window of opportunity and alter our global-warming course. Early in Obama's first term, the White House and a then-Democratic Congress took one futile run at a watered-down cap-and-trade measure, then played dead on the issue. Obama barely mentioned the climate during his reelection campaign. Prospects for stronger action remain dim.

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Mission astonished: Thanks for your donations!

secret agent with a megaphone
Shutterstock / Grist

We did it! Or rather, you did it: Thanks to all of you amazing Grist readers who rose to our challenge, our December fund drive hit its goal.

In 10 days we raised 2,530 donations for a total of $78,251.

This gives us even more goose bumps than the James Bond music that played on our mental soundtracks as we created the fund drive's secret-agent-y theme.

Why? Because it means that you share our belief that the stories we cover matter, and the work we do deserves support.

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Shift the gift: Dematerializing the holidays

shiftthegift
Susie Cagle

Trying to think more, um, sustainably about the holidays this year? So, it seems, is everyone else. It's hardly an innovation that 2012 can claim to own -- in fact, it has become a holiday tradition in its own right.

It's what was on the mind of Grist Senior Editor Greg Hanscom, when, confronted with the prospect of another Black Friday post-turkey shopping spree, he penned an open letter to his family and friends. "Please get my kids nothing for Christmas," he begged. Posted here at Grist, Greg's plea for a saner approach to a less stuff-y holiday fired up many of our readers' imaginations, caught the eye of some of our friends in TV-land, and led us to declare it, officially, our Grist theme for December: For the holidays this year, make it anything but stuff. Shift the gift!

Of course we can't claim that any of this is truly new. Long before someone had the bright idea of transmuting "gift" into a verb, many of us were scratching our heads looking for ways to dematerialize the annual solstice celebrations. I'm sure we're eventually going to discover a cave-wall drawing recording the moment at which some hapless neolithic family, surveying the dwindling space in its communal burrow, let out the cry of "TOO MUCH STUFF!"

Still: Ideas have moments, and surely this is this year's merry meme. We are years into a grueling recession that has only improved around the edges. We are reeling from a storm that battered large chunks of the East Coast. We see with deepening clarity that our system hasn't yet embraced the changes needed to deflect the curve of climate change.

We won't let that stop us from enjoying the holidays. But the last thing we need is to do so by gathering piles of stuff that we don't really need and may not even want.

Celebration without accumulation! Or, as we intend to chant, with our human mics cranked up as loud as we know how, "Shift the gift!"

Read more: Living

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Do we leave you stirred, not shaken? Then toast us with a donation!

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Shutterstock

Hello Grist readers,

When it comes to suavely outmaneuvering the climate apocalypse, Grist aims to leave you stirred, not shaken.

Would you give just $5 to bolster Grist's defenses so we can stir more people into action?

If you do, we'll raise our martini glass to you. We know lots of you are out there making change because of something you spied on Grist. In fact, 70 percent of our readers say we give you license to kill bad habits thanks to our fearless news and advice -- and perhaps a good pun or two.

But it's going to take a whole lot more of us to fight the political and industrial foes who are bent on planetary destruction. And creating agents of change doesn't come cheap -- it takes some bullion. So please, toast us with a donation.

Grist readers, we have just one more week to hit the payload. Make a gift today to help us reach our goal of 2,500 donations by Dec. 11.

Thirstily,
Scott Rosenberg
Head of Editorial Secret Services

P.S. Did we mention that gifts of $50 or more will be matched by a generous, anonymous ally?

P.P.S. Rather not give online? You're also welcome to send a check: Grist, 710 Second Avenue, Suite 860, Seattle, WA 98104.

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How cities can lead the climate fight: Introducing Alex Steffen’s ‘Climate Zero’

Alex Steffen.

It's not every day that the author of a new book -- a sharp perspective on a topic that's central to your work -- approaches you and proposes that you make the entire thing available on your website. Usually, authors are more ... parsimonious with their work.

So when Alex Steffen brought his Carbon Zero to Grist several weeks ago with this offer, I wanted to make absolutely certain I'd heard him right.

I knew he'd already raised a little money on Kickstarter to write the book. And I knew he was publishing Carbon Zero under the share-and-modify-friendly Creative Commons license. Still, I had to ask.

"So, you're sure you want us to post the entire book? Really truly? You're not afraid it'll hurt sales? You won't change your mind?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "I'm most interested in getting these ideas out there."

(Of course, if you like what you read, Steffen absolutely will not mind if you do want to buy Carbon Zero in its fully designed e-book format, available very shortly.)

I first encountered Steffen the way you probably did -- through his work cofounding and editing the late, lamented blog called Worldchanging. He's known for thinking realistically -- but not too dejectedly -- about how we might get to a greener future, and in a way that embraces technology without fetishizing it.

When I read Carbon Zero, it more than lived up to that reputation. It's a brief but deep manual for imagining how our cities can become the solution to our climate woes. I think you'll find it makes for bracing, inspiring reading that should serve as perfect pick-me-up after Sandy's devastating East Coast visit. You may want to quarrel with some of Steffen's arguments, but I don't think you'll be disappointed by the scope of his ideas or the urgency of his perspective.

This week, we'll be posting all of Carbon Zero's six chapters (along with their occasional sidebars), a chapter each day till we're done. You can begin at the beginning right here.

We'll also bring Steffen over soon to talk more about the book and its ideas and answer your questions. As we post these fresh hunks of prose, the links on this contents page will light up -- and once we're done, they'll stay lit. Ideas, after all, are a renewable energy source.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy