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This student-designed portable home may be the most beautiful tiny house we’ve seen

Students in the Renewable Energy and Ecological Design (REED) program at Vermont's Green Mountain College just made us all look lazy by designing and building a tiny home that’s part wooden chestnut and part stained-glass cathedral:

REED Green Mountain College

Pretty spiffy, right? Treehugger explains:

Read more: Living


SeaWorld only spends 0.0006 percent of revenue on animal rescue and rehabilitation

Britt Reints

Is SeaWorld a necessary evil? God, no. That’s the gist of a recent interview by Josh Zepps of the Huffington Post with Tim Zimmermann, associate producer of Blackfish, and former SeaWorld trainer Kim Ashdown. Playing devil’s advocate, Zepps says SeaWorld does good deeds like rescuing dolphins, going to oil spills and cleaning affected marine life, and so forth. And SeaWorld has to fund its benevolence SOMEhow -- so isn’t keeping dolphins and orcas in captivity a fair price to pay?

HELLZ NO, Zimmermann basically says, explaining that SeaWorld’s contributions to animal rescue and rehab only amount to .0006 percent of its profits. ZOW. Plus, some of that TEENY amount is actually spent to buy “rescued” animals that get used in SeaWorld shows, so it’s even less altruistic. Furthermore, if SeaWorld didn’t exist, plenty of other organizations -- ones that actually care about marine life -- would continue to rescue and rehabilitate orcas and dolphins.

If Zimmermann weren’t persuasive enough, Ashdown told HuffPost about her experience working at SeaWorld:

Read more: Living


Meet Monsanto’s newest vegetables

Dramatic spotlight on pepper

Monsanto, everyone's favorite food villain, is rolling out a new crop of improved veggies -- but none of them are GMOs. Or rather, their genes are modified, but in the old-fashioned way: careful cross-breeding to promote desirable traits. Meet the new veggies:

  • Broccoli with up to three times the antioxidants
  • Teeny-tiny bell peppers (which means less waste)
  • Winter cantaloupe that's 30 percent sweeter
  • Onions that don't make you cry
  • Lettuce with more nutrients and a longer shelf life
Read more: Food


U.N. warns us to eat less meat and lay off biofuels, or we’re in for it

Corn farmer

We're overconsuming ourselves into environmental oblivion.

Farming will eliminate forests, plains, and other wild areas nearly the size of Brazil by 2050 around the world if we can't mend our agricultural, dietary, and biofuel-burning ways. This unsustainable drive for more growing land will result in rising hunger and more frequent riots as food prices increase.

That's the salty prognosis in a new report by scientists working for the U.N.'s International Resource Panel.

The amount of farmland has increased 11 percent since the 1960s, as growers struggle to meet growing populations' ballooning demands for food and biofuel, according to the report. About 1.5 billion hectares, or 3.7 billion acres, is now being used globally to produce crops, and that figure continues to grow. Making matters worse, about a quarter of the world's soils are degraded, which reduces the amount of crops that can be grown in them.

"Growing demand for food and non-food biomass will lead to an expansion of global cropland; yield growth will not be able to compensate for the expected surge in global demand," the report states. "Cropland expansion at the cost of tropical forests and savannahs induces severe changes in the living environment with uncertain repercussions."

What may be hardest for some of the world's poorest and hungriest residents to stomach is the vast amount of farmland that's being dedicated to growing crops for biofuels and for animal feed.


Freedom Industries kept West Virginia spill details secret

Water testing in West Virginia
National Guard

If you had been among Freedom Industries' dozens of employees, you would have known more than your neighbors about the contents of a toxic spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without safe tap water recently.

After state officials discovered on Jan. 9 that chemicals had gushed out of a storage drum and into Elk River, the company told them that the drum contained something called 4-Methylcyclohexane methanol. The poison is used by the state's coal miners. Little is known about the precise hazards that it poses, but it has sickened hundreds of people.

What the company didn't tell the government until last week was that the drum also contained something that they call stripped PPH. The company did, however, tell its own workers about that second chemical in an email immediately after the spill. So, lucky them.

Stripped PPH was mixed in with the other chemicals in the drum at a concentration of about 6 percent. A material safety data sheet (MSDS) provided to state officials says stripped PPH contains a complex mixture of polyglycol ethers. "The specific chemical identity is being withheld as 'trade secret,'" the company wrote in the safety document, which was dated Oct. 15, 2013.


Ask Umbra: What do I do about my treacherous sidewalks this winter?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Is there anything new in deicing products as we enter the winter season? May I humbly suggest it may be time for an update to avoid a rash of broken bones?

Bill C.
Annandale, Va.

A. Dearest Bill,

Suggest an update? Why, of course you may. Though, believe it or not, there haven’t been many earth-shattering technological breakthroughs in the field of residential ice management in the past few years. But with this winter shaping up to be such a cold and snowy one for much of the U.S., now is indeed a good time for us all to brush up on eco-friendly deicing.


Front-vine lessons: What made Florida’s tomato-field uprising work

Immokalee coalition protest 2011

The first time I ever heard of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was from a friend who had gone to Immokalee, the region in South Florida where most of the tomatoes of the eastern seaboard are grown, on a volunteer trip. He came back depressed. People were living in circumstances that were not unlike (and in several cases fit the technical definition of) slavery, and they had for generations. People struggled. Nothing changed.

The next time I heard about the CIW, it was because they had changed something, and changed it big. After years of collaborating with federal slavery investigations and pressuring tomato growers for better wages and living conditions, the CIW had decided that the entire system needed to be reformed. Tomato growers didn’t get paid enough to pay fair wages. The federal, state, and local governments, on their own, were not capable of policing the kind of labor violations that were going on.

And so they developed a new plan: convince the biggest tomato buyers to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes, most of which would be funneled back into worker’s wages; and create an independent certification organization -- The Fair Food Standards Council -- that would handle labor violations.

They set their sights on their first target -- Taco Bell -- and won. With pressure, other companies began to sign the agreements too. Back in Immokalee, they rallied themselves by staging boxing matches where a farmworker punched out competitors wearing the logos of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods. Last year, the United Nations brought a delegation from the CIW to Geneva to speak about its successes to the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. And earlier this month, Walmart, the CIW’s biggest catch yet, sat down and signed the agreement too, without the CIW’s even needing to mount a public campaign pressuring it to do so.

How did such an improbable thing come to pass? And what can we, like the U.N., learn from their example?

The CIW was founded by a group of farmworkers and organizers in Immokalee, Fla. in 1993. Among them was Greg Asbed, a Brown grad who had gone to work at Florida Rural Legal Services. Recently, I talked with Asbed to try to answer these questions.

Q. You have an independent certifying body. Why, do you have that, and not a union? Other than the fact that unions aren’t doing too well?

A. We don’t have the right to unionize. California has a state labor relations act for agricultural workers but agricultural workers everywhere else are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and you just can’t organize without fear of losing your job. That’s just been the reality forever. So as a farmworker, you’ve always had to find some other way to do things.

But we’ve always been different. The people who formed the organization didn’t grow up in union families. They came from peasant movements in Haiti and Guatemala. They organized in the way that they knew how.


Want proof evolution is real? Just look at creationism

At the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a kid rides the triceratops statue. Just like our ancestors did, or something.
Wikimedia Commons
At the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a kid rides the triceratops statue. Just like our ancestors did, or something.

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of science in President Obama's past (and future) State of the Union addresses, and the science of how short-term memory works. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

Last week, we learned about the latest science education outrage. Writing at Slate, the pro-evolution activist Zach Kopplin highlighted the anti-science content that is apparently being taught in some state-funded Texas charter schools. That includes student biology workbooks that reportedly describe evolution as "dogma" and an "unproven theory."

It's just the latest of countless infringements upon accurate science education across the country in recent decades. The "war on science" in national politics has nothing on the war playing out every day in public schools, even if the latter is usually less visible. The attacks are diverse and ever-changing, showing a wide array of tactics and strategies. "If nothing else evolves," explains longtime evolution defender Eugenie Scott on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast, "religion does. Creationism does."

Read more: Climate & Energy


The pope is writing a big green manifesto

Pope Francis
neneo / Shutterstock

The first clue that Pope Francis might be a greenie came when he chose to name himself after Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.

We've also learned that he likes riding buses and doesn't like fracking.

Soon we'll find out more about his views on environmental protection. The Associated Press reports:

Pope Francis has begun drafting an encyclical on ecology.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the document was still very much in its early stages and that no publication date has been set.

Read more: Living


Seashore solar comes to Japan

Japan solar project

Japan has been thinking creatively about electricity since the Fukushima meltdown nearly three years ago.

Dozens of nuclear power plants remain in the "off" mode while leaders and citizens tussle over whether nuclear power can ever be safe. That has left the gas-and-oil-poor country heavily dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports. So it has been turning to cleaner alternatives, using subsidies to help get tens of thousands of renewable energy projects off the ground. We told you recently that offshore wind turbines are being built near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, part of an effort to turn the contaminated region into a hub for clean energy.

And now, for another Japanese endeavor into safe, low-carbon energy, look again to the sea. Smithsonian Magazine reports: