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No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius

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Let’s start with Jeff Mitchell’s car. From the outside, it looks like a regular, if slightly dinged-up, white Prius. But inside it’s so messy that it’s hard for me to describe it without sounding like I’m exaggerating.

When I say the back seat is packed solidly with papers, I mean that literally: It’s as if Mitchell had pulled up alongside a set of filing cabinets and transferred everything that could fit into the back, carefully filling the leg space until it was high enough to be incorporated into the stack on the seats. The papers are wedged solidly together, three-quarters of the way up to the headrests.

There’s some PVC pipe back there too, some metal tools, a power cord, and some luggage. But that’s just what I could see on the surface. On the front dash there’s another layer of files, and a layer of dirt. And again, when I say dirt, I’m not overstating it. It’s not just a patina of dust; there are big clots of mud clinging to the face of the radio.

“What can I say?” Mitchell said when I asked about the state of his vehicle. “I’m embarrassed. People say I could just scatter seeds in here and they’d grow.”

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I was never able to get a straight answer out of Mitchell as to why his car was so squalid, but it’s easy enough to guess. He has spent years driving up and down California’s long Central Valley, from one field to another, asking farmers to sign up to try new conservation techniques. He estimates that the car has driven 600,000 miles, though he can’t say for sure: The odometer stopped at 299,999. The car really does have to function as a high-speed file cabinet, as well as a mobile tool shed and soil-sample transporter.

“So, is this basically your life?” I asked, after about an hour driving down highway 99.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Insane cycling video will make you hold your breath for two minutes

Grist cannot be held responsible for the crapping of your pants while watching this helmet-cam of daredevil cyclist Geoff Gulevich going down a mountain:

The GoPro video of Gulevich’s ride is from the Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, Utah -- an exclusive, invite-only mountain bike competition so dangerous it was cancelled for several years -- so it’s prrrrrobably not anything you’d encounter in your morning commute.

Plus, Gulevich is a professional mountain biker, so don’t feel guilty if you’re not as daring on two wheels. After all, YOU risk getting doored and T-boned if you ride in the city, whereas THIS punk only flirted with the edge of a cliff. Pfffft. He’s got nothin’ on rush-hour San Francisco.

Read more: Cities, Living

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This giant vacuum will suck the pollution out of rivers

Dyson vacuums are legendary; they’re the main reason divorce is so ugly. So imagine what happens when you put that powerful technology to work cleaning rivers instead of rugs.

Did you picture marine trash getting slurped up into the world’s biggest vacuum bag? Ding ding ding! James Dyson hasn’t actually CREATED his super-sucker yet, but he’s made a design for the M.V. Recyclone boat, a.k.a. the U.S.S. Sucky. Check it:

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James Dyson
Read more: Living

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Here’s what fracking can do to your health

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Daniel Foster | Shutterstock | Tim McDonnell

If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.

Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.

So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?

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Fruit of the Gloom

Mark Ruffalo, you are our chosen green celeb! (We hope you like fruit)

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The people have spoken, and one lucky man in Hollywood will be the happy recipient of a fruit basket.  The entire Grist staff just breathed a collective sigh of relief, because this guy can get pretty riled up when things don’t go his way.

That’s right, folks -- Mark Ruffalo beat out five fellow actors and one supermodel to be crowned as Grist’s greenest celebrity. What about this rugged hunk won the hearts of our green-minded audience? Was it his outspokenness against the natural gas and oil industry? Was it his valiant efforts to protect water resources through his own nonprofit? Was it the ease with which he makes Henry David Thoreau sound incredibly sexy? Let’s just go ahead and circle “all of the above.”

And Adrian Grenier, if you’re reading this: We’re sorry we don’t have more Entourage fans among our readers. But hey -- you know what you can do to change that!

So, Mark, keep an eye out for a delightful collection of seasonal fruit on your doorstep. And since we hope you actually enjoy eating it, we promise it won’t be from Edible Arrangements.

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This velomobile is basically an electric car without the hassle

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If the words “recumbent trike” make your lip curl, we understand. Weird bikes often seem to perpetuate the myth that cyclists are fringey oddballs disconnected from reality. But the ELF deserves a second glance:

A team from Durham, N.C., designed the semi-enclosed, three-wheeled contraption to marry the best aspect of bikes and cars. The result is a low-impact EV that gives you some protection from the elements and plenty of room for groceries. Pedal when you can, but let the solar-powered battery kick in if you’re hauling bags of kitty litter uphill.

The ELF can go up to 30 mph and carry up to 350 pounds, but doesn’t need any of that pesky car stuff like a license plate, insurance, or actual gasoline. The battery’ll charge in 90 minutes when plugged in, carrying you up to 14 miles -- farther if you put your thighs to work.

The ELF’s main problem is its $5,495 price tag. Then again, if you’re basically getting 1,800 mpg, it could be worth it -- more than 300 ELF owners seem to think so. If, like moi, your wimpiness forever prevents you from turning cyclist, velomobiles like the ELF just might be the gateway drug.

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“Years of Living Dangerously” host on the climate change stories we need to tell

M. Sanjayan.

If you thought the title of Showtime’s new series, Years of Living Dangerously, was just a reference to the perils of climate change, think again: “I almost died on that show,” one of its hosts, M. Sanjayan, told us when he came into the Grist office earlier this month.

Sanjayan helps tell the story of climate change by journeying to exotic places like the Andes and Christmas Island. But when he's not swashbuckling around the world in the name of the environment and science, he’s still vouching for it: previously, as the head scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and now as the executive vice president of Conservation International. He also keeps the conversation going through media outlets like the Huffington Post and CBS News.

We talked with Sanjayan about his brush with death, finding the face of climate change (hint: It’s not a polar bear’s), and coming to grips with the fact that, at this point, we’re going to have to adapt to the hot new conditions we've created. And, in our lightning round video at the top of the post, we asked him what we really wanted to know: Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye?

Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

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You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a "dash for gas" as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available.

The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says "near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced" by replacing coal-fired power plants with "highly efficient" natural gasburning alternatives -- a move that "may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources." But that's only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are "low" -- which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC's energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has "created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health."

To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn't mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Power plants lose legal bid to douse you with mercury

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When it proposed strict pollution rules in late 2011, the EPA paid no heed to the $9.6 billion worth of costs that coal-burning power plants would have to swallow. Its only concern in drafting the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards was keeping mercury and other poisons out of the environment  and away from Americans  by demanding that power plants use scrubbers and other clean-air technology.

And on Tuesday, over the legal whimpers of the coal industry, federal judges said that's just fine.

Coal power plants are responsible for half of the country's mercury pollution and two-thirds of its arsenic emissions. By cracking down on this health-harming, brain-damaging, ecosystem-ruining pollution, the EPA has estimated that the standards will prevent 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks -- every single year. Thousands of lives will be saved.

The power plant owners felt it was unfair that the government cared about public health but didn't care about their bottom lines. More mercury in your air means more money in their pockets. So they sued. And they were joined in their battle by the governments of conservative-led states like Alaska, Kansas, and Michigan.

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Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Why it matters that Democrat Mary Landrieu is bashing Obama over energy

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John Orrell

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is running against President Obama instead of her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy. Her first reelection ad of the year compiles clips of her standing up for her state’s oil and gas interests, attacking Obama for policies like the brief moratorium on offshore oil drilling imposed in 2010 after the disastrous BP oil rig explosion. "It's 300,000 people that go to work every day in this industry," Landrieu intones. "You can't just beat up on them." Implicitly working-class men -- they have beards and engineer hats, but they're too old to be hipsters -- look on in solemn assent.

Landrieu also recently brought together 10 other Democrats from red or swing states to push Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of May. "It has already taken much longer than anyone can reasonably justify," they argue in a letter sent to the president last week.

This is surely a good strategy in Louisiana, a state where Obama lost to Mitt Romney by more than 17 points -- and where the oil industry directly employs around 62,000 workers and pays $1.4 billion a year in state taxes.

And Obama knows it's in his interest to have Democrats hold onto the Senate. That’s why Paul Waldman of The American Prospect argues that there’s no harm done by Landrieu’s pro-fossil-fuel pandering in her new ad: