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Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to re-side my house?

Bob Jagendorf

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Do you know anything about polypropylene house siding? We have to get our whole house re-sided and (obviously) wanted to avoid using vinyl, but it's so much cheaper than all the other options. And then I saw that Consumer Reports seems to differentiate between vinyl siding and "other plastic/polymer siding" in their rankings and I did some research. It looks like PP siding is an entirely different product.

Jeff K.
Brighton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jeff,

The greenest house is probably one we build ourselves from natural materials gathered from the forest floor. Somehow this sort of back-to-nature carpentry is a nonstarter for most people, however, so we’re stuck with actual houses that need some type of protective siding. I’ve spent the better part of a day immersing myself in polypropylene, and I’d be tickled to share what I've learned.


Burgs & the bees

Habitats for humanity: Why our cities need to be ecosystems, too


The whole better-greener-more-awesome-cities movement has a problem: We haven’t found a good name for it. Sustainable cities! The term brings to mind such mundanity as energy audits and transit routes. Resilient cities! The notion requires us to consider, first, what horrible shit is coming down the pike. Carbon-neutral cities! Ugh. Don't get me started on that one.

Enter University of Virginia urban and environmental planning professor Tim Beatley with the solution, FINALLY. Here he comes, with the delivery. Wait for it...

Biophilic cities.

Wait, come back! It’s better than it sounds! Biophilic cities are places where animals and plants and other wild things weave through our everyday lives. The name comes from “biophilia,” E.O. Wilson’s theory that humans have an innate connection to other living things, because we evolved alongside them. It’s futurism with a paleo twist: An effort to create human habitat that can also host a menagerie of wild creatures — and not just for their sake, but for ours.

The idea seems to be catching. In October, Beatley helped launch the Biophilic Cities Network, which includes eight cities worldwide, and there are more to come. “Reducing your emissions, hitting people over the head about turning the lights off -- we need to do those things,” Beatley says. “But to motivate people I think we need that vision of where we want to go, not just how much less we want to consume of something.”

Beatley stopped by Grist HQ on a recent swing through Seattle promoting his new book, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning. Here are a few snippets from our conversation, which covered aerial urban trails, our odd relationship with the natural world, and cities that are far greener than the this here emerald one.

Q. How is a biophilic city different than a “sustainable” city or a “green” city?

Tim Beatley.
Tim Beatley.

A. There’s lot of overlap, to be sure. A biophilic city must be resilient and sustainable and all of those things. But it ought to be a dense, rich, urban life in close contact with nature. The idea grows from the theory that we have coevolved with the natural world, that we’re carrying our ancient brains, and we have an innate need to connect with nature.

Read more: Cities, Living


Waste deep in the big muddy

Has modern agriculture cleaned up its dirty runoff act?

Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013
USDA photo by Keith Weston
Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013

While I was in Iowa recently, Chris Jones, an environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, showed me this fascinating graph (based on this study). It basically shows how much dirt was in one of the main rivers flowing through Iowa's farmland over the last century:

Christopher Jones

It doesn’t look like much at first, but becomes more and more interesting as you study it. Because the span of time here is so long (1916 to 2009) and because changes in agricultural policy have had a big effect on the erosion of topsoil into rivers, you can see historical events reflected in these numbers.

That big peak in 1973? That came just after Earl Butz, then the secretary of agriculture, urged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farmers cut into marginal land, and then heavy rains followed in Iowa. The newly disturbed soil washed off the fields and into the rivers, creating the spike on the graph.

Read more: Food


Global buying spree is saving solar panel manufacturers

solar panel in a shopping cart

The sun is starting to shine again on the solar-panel manufacturing industry, a year after a string of corporate collapses.

The glut of cheap solar panels that pushed manufacturing giant Suntech and others into bankruptcy is being whittled away by a worldwide surge in solar installations. The manufacturing sector's gradual return to profitability comes eight months after China announced it would go on a solar-buying spree to cash in on the oversupply of panels.


Let this mesmerizing video show you the beauty of Alaska’s ice caves before they’re gone

After the winter we've had in a lot of the U.S., we're not inclined to see a lot of beauty in ice. But the truth is, when you're not ready to smother yourself with a North Face if you see another flake, icy landscapes can actually be stunningly lovely. And global warming means we should probably enjoy them while we can.

This video, taken by a GoPro-enabled drone in Alaska, should do nicely. It's so lovely and relaxing, it might even make you smile benevolently on the much less beautiful frozen wasteland outside your window.

Read more: Climate & Energy


From veteran organizer Marshall Ganz, how-tos for activists

Marshall Ganz

Every spring, Marshall Ganz teaches a class at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on how to organize a political movement. This year feels especially strange, he tells the assembled room of earnest young students who have packed the classroom to overflowing so that they cover the floor and the window ledges. It’s 2014 -- the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, which was the beginning both of Ganz’ education and of a theory of political organizing that would, ultimately, be used to help elect the first African American president of the United States.

In 1964, Ganz was 21, and on the verge of becoming a college dropout. He has a way of making not staying in school sound pretty exciting. “It was a movement of young people,” he tells the room. “Do you know how old Martin Luther King was when he led the bus boycott?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Twenty-five.”

“I got hooked,” he continues. “Going back to Harvard seemed like the most boring thing in the world. I wrote a pretentious letter: 'How can I go back and study history when I’ve been making it?'"

Ganz’s father was a rabbi, and Ganz remembers spending his fifth birthday in a displaced persons camp in Germany, giving presents to other children. “My mom,” he tells the students, “had an idea that I should give presents instead of getting them.” To him, the Holocaust was not about anti-Semitism, but racism. “It’s not a complex ideology,” Ganz says. “Racism kills. As a rabbi’s kid I loved the Passover seder. They were like the story of the Exodus, but with food. They point at children and say, ‘You were slaves in Egypt.’ Not you literally -- but you have to figure out who you are in this story. You need to figure out if you’re holding people back or helping people through."

Ganz is disheveled, folksy, and charming. Everything about the talk feels loose, improvisational, off-the-cuff. It’s not. It’s a well-crafted work of persuasion -- an attempt to make the craft of shifting the standards of a society into something accessible to anyone.

The talk we’re hearing now is nearly identical to one he gave three years ago, to Occupy Boston. Most of this course is online, as is nearly everything Ganz has written or talked about.

What Freedom Summer taught him, Ganz continues, is how to fight back against a group of people who have rigged the system. “Whites didn’t have power because blacks had granted it. They couldn’t vote! There was no mechanism of political accountability. If you want to understand inequality, look at the power. And then -- what do you do? Do you go to Washington, D.C., and say 'Can I have some of your power?’ They’ll just say, 'Testify before our committee! Give us some more evidence!'"

The civil rights movement had no such illusions, says Ganz. It was packed with seasoned activists, and was always grooming more. Rosa Parks was a secretary of NAACP, but she also trained at the Highlander Center. Martin Luther King learned from his father, who was a Baptist minister. “You have to be a good organizer to be a good minister,” laughs Ganz. “Otherwise you don’t have a congregation."

To Ganz, who has spent decades seeing causes rise and fall, the strongest social movements are made of a network, rather than a hierarchy. He illustrates this point with a cartoonishly large Hoberman sphere that he likes to snap open at the end of lectures.

Recently, he sat down with me to talk about how organizing works, where the environmental movement fits in, and how the Sierra Club's plans evolved into the 2008 Obama campaign.


“The Simpsons” now has an extensive public transit system

Bart Simpson doesn't just ride around on a skateboard because he was invented in the '80s. Until recently, if you weren't old enough to drive a Canyonero, there just weren't that many ways to traverse the famous fictional town of Springfield. It's not surprising that the town would be a little gun-shy after the monorail flop, but look at the sad state of this old public transit system:


As of this past Sunday's episode, though, Springfield's rail system is looking spiffed-up, with eight color-coded lines serving areas like Ethnictown, Albino Heights, and the Varmint District, and easy access to tourist attractions like the Duff Brewery and the Giant Magnifying Glass.

Read more: Cities, Living


Whoa there! State lawmakers try to make oil trains safer

"beware of trains" sign

The wheels of railway safety reform may be in motion in Minnesota, but they've ground to a halt in Washington state.

Each day, an average of six trains bearing particularly incendiary fracked crude travel through Minnesota's Twin Cities, rattling the nerves of residents and lawmakers. The main worries are about potential derailments and explosions, but oil spills are also a concern, as evidenced by the recent leak of 12,000 gallons from a moving train in the state’s southeast.

On Monday, Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein introduced legislation that aims to protect the state from oil-by-rail accidents. The Star Tribune reports:


Florida has just basically given up on trying to keep pythons from taking over the Everglades

Matthew Cashmore

Just what you don’t want to hear about your friendly neighborhood national park: It’s crawling with up to 100,000 terrifying pythons that officials have given up eradicating. This is true of the Everglades, where the snakes are so stealthy, even trackers with radio transmitters couldn’t spot pythons just a few feet away.

The Everglades tried to make Capture the Snake happen (for once, not sexual innuendo!), but it was a huge flop, writes the Washington Post:

Last year, Florida organized a month-long hunt, called the Python Challenge, and enlisted volunteers to help remove its top-priority invasive species from the Everglades. When it was over, the state fish and wildlife commission and other experts came to this conclusion: Evicting the snakes is impossible ... [M]ore than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters who flocked to the event from across the country caught only 68.

But hey, at least something good came of -- the biologists who got to examine the dead snakes were delighted. (They’re a special kind of twisted.) They sliced open the pythons assembly line­-style and determined the creatures were feasting mostly on cotton rats, not small children:

Read more: Living


The sharing economy is thriving in Berlin’s “borrowing shops”

Lizbt Action

Nikolai Wolfert wasn’t the only one who was bummed after the Berlin Green Party’s loss in 2011, but he channeled his disappointment in a pretty unique way: opening a lending library for everything. The 31-year-old launched his donation-supported shop, Leila, in June 2012 as a way of making local political change.

And to call it a success would be an understatement. More than 400 Berliners have joined Leila, donating and borrowing everything from electric drills to board games, unicycles, and wine glasses. Leila’s spawned a slew of good-natured copycats too, according to the Guardian:

Borrowing shops are under development in several Berlin districts, with similar projects being set up in Kiel and Vienna. Würzburg has its own Leihbar, or "borrowing bar," and a cafe in Berlin-Wedding has set up a Dingeschrank, or "cupboard for things." Other collaborative projects with an emphasis on sharing resources are popping up all over the German capital.

Car-sharing is flourishing in the country as well -- the Guardian reports 760,000 Germans are registered with companies like Car2Go, DriveNow, and Tamyca. And they're going green in other ways too:

Read more: Cities, Living