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Finally, someone wrote an opera about subsistence farming

Reading Wendell Berry’s works might inspire some to tape “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” to the refrigerator. Or if you’re Shawn Jaeger, you compose an opera. The young composer was reading Berry and enthusiastically growing his own food when he got the idea to put Berry’s short play Sonata at Payne Hollow to music. “I thought, well homesteading isn’t a typical subject that you see represented in opera,” Jaeger told Modern Farmer.

The play centers on a real-life Kentucky couple who lived simply without electricity, gardening and fishing on the bank of the Ohio River. Jaeger contacted Berry about his idea and heard back in a handwritten letter. And when Jaeger went to visit Berry in Henry County, Ky., Berry had already turned his play into a libretto as Jaeger had asked. Get a glimpse of the opera in its near-finished form:

Read more: Living


Photo crop: Iowa high schoolers explain where your food comes from

Click to embiggen. See more photos at the bottom of the story.
The Lexicon of Sustainability
Click to embiggen. See more photos at the bottom of the story.

You’ll recognize the Lexicon of Sustainability images if you’ve seen them around (perhaps here at Grist). The work of Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton, they each compress a sustainable-food lesson down to a few phrases scrawled on a mosaic of photos. They’re also showing up in a book, in pop-up shows, and in the form of short movies airing on PBS.

But there’s something different in the latest crop of images in the works: They’re all made by high school students. The result is a set of intensely local artworks that manage to avoid the pitfalls of other awareness-raising projects, and could just make an actual difference.

It all started when the Lexicon team noticed that a high school in Ames, Iowa, had organized an unusual number of shows around the Lexicon project. Typically, they'll mail prints to a group that agrees to do five shows; this high school had done nearly 20. “Who are these guys?” Gayeton remembers thinking.

Read more: Food


Mass transit ridership grows from pathetically low to just low

crowded subway

The media was impressed by a piece of good news on Monday: Last year, the number of trips Americans took on mass transit reached its highest point since 1956, according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association. Unfortunately, stories on the subject are leaving out an important statistic: How many Americans were there in 1956?

The answer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 168.9 million. In 2013, the population was 314.1 million. Keep that in mind when you read articles about transit ridership’s rebound.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Four new ozone-destroying gases found sneaking around the stratosphere

A record making hole in the ozone layer, in 2000.
A record-making hole in the ozone layer, in 2000.

There are things we know that we know, there are things that we know we don't know, and there are four previously unknown ozone-eating gases that we now know are eating the ozone. (It goes something like that, right?)

No, we are not back in 1985, when scientists first discovered that the ozone layer had sprung a serious leak. Back then, 40 countries banded together to take unprecedented global action to restrict the nefarious chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) responsible for the problem. The Montreal Protocol came into effect a mere four years after the threat was identified, culminating in a total ban on CFCs in 2010, tying up the loose ends once and seemingly for all (and, by happy accident, slowing the scourge of global warming by a 10th of a degree or so).

Read more: Climate & Energy


Oreos were just the subject of international espionage

Chupacabra Viranesque

First things first: DuPont's chloride-route titanium dioxide, or TiO2 -- the chemical that makes paper and paint so white -- is NOT used in food. DEFINITELY not. Don’t even think that it might be what makes the filling in Oreos so white, because DuPont says that is NOT true. Nope nope nope! (Mondelez International, the company that makes Oreos, is just like "ummmmm we're not saying either way.")

Now that we’ve established that TiO2 ISN’T the key to Oreo filling -- it must be something naturally white, like fluffy clouds! -- here’s the dish. Two guys were just convicted for trying to sell the recipe for TiO2 to a Chinese company for a cool $20 million. (TiO2 earns DuPont $17 billion annually, according to the Consumerist.)

Read more: Food, Living


Bogus, brah, climate change is stealing sick rides

Jean-Marc Astesana

Check it, dude, climate change is gettin kinda aggro. It’s wiping out those bomb sets that come up on Bondi Beach. These brahs say there’s gonna be fewer days with sick waves on Australia’s central east side, cuz global warming’s been dropping in on the storms that make them. They’re sayin’ greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are keeping the squalls that provide the righteous rides out there, called east coast lows, from happening. Like, waves taller than 13 feet are gonna drop by as much as 40 percent by the end of the century, and by about 20 percent by 2044 -- bummer!

The Guardian reports on a new study in Nature Climate Change:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Dyin’ to live: Biggie Smalls and the silent killers in urban America

Matt Handy

My Momma got cancer in her breast,
Don't ask me why I'm motherfucking stressed, things done changed

-- The Notorious B.I.G., in “Things Done Changed” from the album Ready to Die

Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of the death of “Brooklyn’s finest” hip hop artist, The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, who was gunned down in Los Angeles when he was just 24 years old.

Album cover: Ready to DieBiggie’s murder seemed part of some self-fulfilling prophecy that God perhaps took too seriously. His inaugural 1994 album, Ready to Die, is a series of tone poems illustrating the kind of drug war gunplay that would eventually claim him as a homicide statistic. The Brooklyn rapper imagines multiple scenarios under which his death might occur: In a shootout with cops while pursuing pathways out of poverty that President Obama would not approve of (“Gimme The Loot”); killed by jealous acquaintances who want to rob him for his riches (“Warning”); or, by his own finger on the trigger (“Suicidal Thoughts”).

Most of my friends (and Biggie fans in general, I’m sure) took the album as pure artistic liberty, no different than Martin Scorsese’s cinematic canon on mafia life. We no sooner thought that Biggie would actually die in a shootout than we did Robert De Niro would get shot like his character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. When Big, whose birth name was Christopher Wallace, was actually killed by gunfire, it stunk too much of life imitating art.

But of all the ways Big imagined himself dying on that album, none of them reflected the real climate of death that existed in Brooklyn at the time, or even today. Deaths for African Americans in Brooklyn usually look less like Wallace's murder and more like his mother's life. When he rapped about his Momma having breast cancer, that was true. Voletta Wallace survived two bouts with the deadly disease, in both cases proving that she was not yet ready to die.

Read more: Cities, Living


It takes HOW much water to make Greek yogurt?!

greek yogurt

California is experiencing one of its driest years in the past half millennium. It also happens to also be the country's leading dairy supplier. With profits surpassing $7 billion in 2012, the California dairy industry is far and away the most valuable sector of the state's enormous agricultural bounty. Unfortunately, as the chart below shows, dairy products use a whole lot of water.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Big Ben could get covered in solar panels


Good news about the world’s most famous clock! Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster are gonna get a little greener in the coming months. Specifically, Parliament is thinking about adding solar panels to the iconic clock’s face. (You can’t turn back the hands of time, but you CAN make them greener.)

The idea came from one of Parliament’s passholders. The palace and clock need to boost energy efficiency by a third by 2020. (According to Parliament, that could “save 22 power stations’ worth of electricity.”) So Parliament asked its stakeholders for energy-saving suggestions, and voila!

Also in the works is swaddling the palace in sheep’s wool to better insulate it. Reports BusinessGreen:

[T]he House is carrying out a number of other green measures this year, including installing voltage optimization technology to reduce energy wastage, exploring energy efficiency improvements for all buildings, and replacing lights with low energy LEDs.

Read more: Cities, Living


Are women really a “secret weapon” when it comes to fighting climate change?


Now THIS is gonna melt your brain: Women comprise a mere 49.8 percent of the global population, yet we can HAVE AN EFFECT on climate change, despite our elfin farts and doll-like hands. So says a special blog post from CNN titled “Why women are the secret weapon to tackling climate change.” (Did YOU know about this top-secret segment of the population?!)

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, writes that women around the world face the brunt of climate change -- both because they’re farmers and don’t have a lot of rights -- yet they can make shit happen:

[W]omen stand at the front lines in the battle against climate change: as providers of water, food, and energy or as leaders in businesses, communities and politics. Women are in a unique position to recognize some of the opportunities that climate change provides.

No beef there. (In countries other than America, women are even allowed to run the nation!) Women developing low-smoke stoves in Darfur or bamboo bikes in Ghana are awesome; we’d never want to pooh-pooh them.

The problem is that Figueres focuses on minor personal changes, conveniently setting aside the fact that the people with the power to make major environmental decisions are overwhelmingly male. She also ignores the fact that the U.S. and Europe contribute WAY more to global warming than the entire continent of Africa. Take this, for instance:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living