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Look who's changing the world
Profiles on the people who are making a difference in your green world.

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NFL player tackles sustainable beef off the field

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Deanna Hurley

From September to December, Will Witherspoon spends his time chasing down quarterbacks and grappling with 300-pound linemen. During the off-season, the St. Louis Rams linebacker spends his free time in the company of heavyweights of a different breed: sustainably raised cattle. Witherspoon owns and operates Shire Gate Farm in Owensville, Mo., and has a passion for meat that’s produced in environmentally conscious and humane ways.

So how did Witherspoon end up on a different kind of field? He's a bonafide foodie, and got into the agriculture game to produce his own line of antibiotic-free, organically raised beef. We chatted with Witherspoon about his love for animals, holistic land management, and how he’s spreading the message of sustainable meat to athletes and congressmembers alike.

Read more: Food, Living

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Rockstar climber Alex Honnold scales up solar in Navajo Territory

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Jimmy Chin

Sunny, high 50s, and just a light breeze: It's a perfect California December morning for rock climbing at the Owens River Gorge and Alex Honnold has just offered to give me a belay -- meaning, he’s offered to attend to the safety rope for me on a climb. The official reason I'm here is to get the scoop on Honnold’s environmental foundation. But, for a climber, getting offered a belay by Honnold is probably the closest thing we have to getting thrown a ball by Peyton Manning or LeBron James. Because his crazy free-solo (climbing without ropes) ascents in places like …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Meet the smart farm you can control with a smartphone

Freight Farms founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara
Freight Farms

Repurposed shipping containers have long enjoyed a place in the spotlight of sustainable development and eco-dream-home Pinterest porn. They’ve even started to appear as heralds for the local food economy -- as grocery stores for food deserts and trendy pop-up restaurants. So it only makes sense that next up on the docket for urban agriculture and food independence are Freight Farms: hydroponic farms in shipping containers.

A Freight Farm is more than just a garden in a box. Each 325 square-foot unit comes equipped with high-efficiency red and blue LEDs to simulate night and day, a climate-controlled temperature system for optimal growth conditions, and vertical growing troughs. Translation: Farmers can enjoy a year-round growing season regardless of weather. Freight Farms are also sealable (no need for pesticides and herbicides), stackable, and (because of their closed loop hydroponic system) use 90 percent less water than conventional farming. And the fun part: Growth settings can even be controlled by a smartphone app.

Founder Jon Friedman calls his inventions "vessels for the next generation of food production." And the irony isn’t lost on him that these vessels may have once been clocking food miles for the global shipping industry. "It's one of those things, like, the weapon turns into the thing that saves everybody."

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The full Monte: Beloved Montana artist makes bold statement on climate and coal

If you grew up in Montana, the backdrop to your childhood was likely a Monte Dolack print. The Treasure State artist has been painting, drawing, and printing posters for the last 40 years. And Montanans love the stuff. You couldn’t skip a stone on Flathead Lake without hitting a cabin containing a Dolack print or three.

In one of Dolack’s best-known series, wild animals take over domestic scenes. Grizzly bears recline on couches. Trout jump out of bathtubs while feathery ducks paddle next to the rubber sort. The kitschy, kaleidoscopic prints mix iconic Montana wildlife with a healthy dose of humor, winning his work a place on the walls, and in the hearts, of multigenerational ranch families and fly-through fishermen alike. The $35 price tag helps, too.

Return Of Lake Missoula.
Monte Dolack
Return Of Lake Missoula.

Dolack has long worked with conservation and wilderness groups (an alliance that helped cement his place in so many Montana living rooms). In his new show, Altered State, Dolack takes a look at less picturesque and more controversial topics like climate change, coal, Superfund sites, and the effects of extractive companies moving into Montana’s wild spaces.

Monte Dolack, trout fan.
Monte Dolack, trout fan.

I recently dropped by the show at the Holter Museum in Helena, Mont. As I’m from Big Sky Country, I was curious as to how art, environmentalism, and mining mix in a red(dish) state with a strong industry presence. As much as I love Montana, “environmentalist” tends to elicit a negative reaction here. And don’t get started on “artist.”

So how does Dolack navigate this potential cultural minefield? He tries to avoid a “shame on you” mentality, he told me* over the phone. “I wasn’t trying to wag the finger at anyone in particular. This is just the way it is,” he said.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Up the creek by pedal power: An Englishman bikes the Hudson Valley

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Andrew Paynter

Nick Hand began to fully appreciate the songs and environmental work of Pete Seeger from the seat of a touring bicycle. It was in the spring, 2012, and Hand, a graphic designer from Bristol, England, had launched a 500-mile bicycle tour through New York’s Hudson Valley.

What incites an Englishman to pedal from Manhattan to Hudson Falls? For Hand, it was the love of pedaling, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.

A typographer and graphic designer, Hand is the founder of The Department of Small Works, a small business that collects stories of traditional and contemporary craftsmen and women. He’s made it his job to look between the folds, the moss and waterfalls, rooting out conversation to learn a bit about how people live.

Read more: Living

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The brightest bulb: Rising energy star scores seat with FLOTUS at State of the Union

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While you're watching the State of the Union tonight, when the camera spotlights First Lady Michelle Obama, you’ll see among her entourage one of the nation’s future leaders on climate change. That would be 30-year-old Tyrone Davis of Winston-Salem, N.C., a third-year law student at Elon University.

In the summer of 2010, working as a Climate Corps fellow for the Environmental Defense Fund, Davis completed an energy efficiency plan for four large buildings at the historically black Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. He suggested improvements that would deliver more than $30,000 in savings each year -- and spare the climate from 190 tons of CO2 emissions annually. The school liked the proposal so much it hired him to write a campus-wide sustainability plan.

I caught up with Davis by phone and learned that, while he’s legally blind, he has no problem spotting places where we can up our game to better address the climate threat.

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Man of the cloth: Zace the Great grows organic, heirloom veggies — and blue jeans

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Zachary Myers

Zachary Myers leads the way into his horse-barn-turned-workshop in Centerburg, Ohio, a little less than an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus. Inside, along with two vintage Allis-Chalmers Model G tractors, there are rows and shelves of antique black Singer and Union Special sewing machines, their colored spools unleashing trails of red, green, and navy thread. On the wall, hung neatly in rows among farm tools, are white paper patterns of pant legs. Bolts of sturdy striped and solid indigo fabric unfurl across worktables.

Myers, his arms painted with tattoos, sits at a sewing machine with a pair of overalls, puts a work boot to the pedal, and stitches on a label bearing a drawing of a sewing machine converted into a tractor, melding together his two passions. Emblazoned with his nickname, Zace, pronounced "Zackie," it reads:

Zace The Great Overall Company
The Finest Most Durable American Indigo Goods

Myers, 36, is an organic farmer by day and an indie blue jean maker by night. He is a bold example of diversification, sustainability, and DIY innovation: Understanding the need for duds that can withstand hard agricultural labor, he created a line of durable work clothes for farmers. Working into the night, often by kerosene lamps, Myers, fueled by thick coffee and Ryan Adams, says his heroes are denim slingers such as Levi Strauss. He shows a sneak photo of himself bolting from the entrance of Ralph Lauren's Rocky Mountain ranch.

“My generation is so fed up with the way our predecessors handled things in this country that we’re learning to craft things with our own hands,” he says. “And there’s nothing more American than denim."

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The kids are alright: Erin Schrode helps teens go green

Teens Turning Green co-founder Erin Schrode.
Courtesy of Erin Schrode
Teens Turning Green co-founder Erin Schrode.

Teens are terrible. I might get flack for saying that, but who among us wasn’t awful? Ask your parents, teachers, and siblings: They’ll confirm you were a raging sack of hormones, sadness, and confusion. (I’m not immune to my own assessment: Picture a Dave Matthews Band superfan in ill-fitting khakis, with the heart of Genghis Khan. See? Total nightmare.)

So expecting paragons of selfishness to care about anything outside of themselves -- much less the fate of an entire planet -- would seem beyond the realm of possibility. It's certainly easier to throw up your hands, grumbling "Kids these days -- amirite?"

But in order for the green torch to be passed down to the next generation, we should make some attempt to appeal to the young’uns. Thankfully, there’s Erin Schrode: She’s been wading into that teenage wasteland for the last nine years as the co-founder of Teens Turning Green. And she believes, contrary to previously stated expert opinions, [deep breath] teens aren’t terrible. Or at least they aren’t any more terrible than the rest of us.

Read more: Living

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Polar bear-lesque: The weirdest, sexiest way to confront climate change

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Piquette Imagery

Una Aya Osato has been performing since she was 2 years old -- she landed her first part after chatting up a casting director in a Chinese restaurant -- and she’s been political for almost as long. As a New York City teenager involved in Reclaim the Streets, a social justice movement that transformed city blocks into dance parties, all she wanted for her 17th birthday was a bullhorn. But before she had a chance to really use it, she was arrested, for sound production without a permit.

That was how Osato met Miss AuroraBoobRealis, although not in that guise, yet. At the time, she was “this random lady who was dancing barefoot down Wall Street, who was very kind to me while we were in jail,” Osato says. They met again at the 2004 Republican National Convention. A few years later, they found themselves in the same theater group, and Miss Aurora invited Osato to the first show of a troupe she'd co-founded, Brown Girls Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turned out, brought together all the elements of performance that interested Osato -- theater and dance and storytelling and politics. Particularly Brown Girls Burlesques' style: sexy, yes, but smart, campy and feminist, too -- the sort of burlesque that's seen a revival in the past few years. She thought, “Oh, yeah, I could try that.”

As “the exHOTic other,” Osato began creating burlesque pieces on everything from gentrification to U.S. nationalism. Working with her sister Michi (who performs with Brown Girls Burlesque, too, as "sister selva"), she created burlesque and clowning acts that grappled with questions about the Earth, destruction, and human rights.

“These are big big questions. And sometimes for such big questions, we need big mediums,” Michi says.

Osato’s newest, “PolarBare,” tackles one of the biggest issues of all: climate change. She performed it for the first time this past winter as part of a Brown Girls Burlesque show in New York.

Grist sat down with Osato recently to talk about Brown Girls Burlesque -- which is currently raising money for its 2014 season -- as well as clowns, consumption, and, of course, fuzzy arctic animals.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Meals with wheels: A fresh food movement rolls into Boston

Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw.
Fresh Food Generation
Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw.

Wander through Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District, SoCo in Austin, or Manhattan’s financial district and you won’t be able to spit without hitting a food truck selling poutine, Korean tacos, or barbecue in some form. The trend has hit Boston as well, unless you happen to live in the neighborhood of Roxbury.

Most Roxbury residents are black or Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey. Thirty percent of the people living there have incomes below the poverty line. A Tufts project found the obesity rate of Roxbury about 8 percent higher than the overall average in the city.

And it isn’t just food trucks missing, says Cassandria Campbell, who calls Roxbury home. Grocery stores and restaurants serving healthier options aren’t in high supply. “I found myself going to other neighborhoods to get good food,” she says. “These food trucks [appearing in other parts of the city] weren’t serving my neighborhood or other neighborhoods in Boston that are similar in demographic to mine."

So she called up her friend Jackson Renshaw with an idea for solving both the dearth of trucks and lack of access to healthy, local food in one swoop.

Read more: Cities, Food