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Mitch Lowe enlists an army of Zuckerbergs to save the planet

With just a couple of finger taps on my smartphone, I can purchase a beer via QR code or tell the people in city hall about a downed power line on my street. It’s better living through gadgetry -- and now, a San Francisco-based business accelerator wants to put the same principles to work saving the planet.

Accelerators, common in Silicon Valley since the opening of Y Combinator in 2005, work like this: They lasso up a bunch of entrepreneurs, hand them thousands of bucks in seed funding, and ask them to grow or build companies in three months (hence the “accelerate” reference). Greenstart, founded in fall 2011, is the first accelerator program in the country that pumps dollars into cleantech -- that is, technology that expands the use of clean energy.

Its founder is 40-year-old Mitch Lowe, a guy who, at 23, bailed on a “very boring finance job” he’d landed right out of college and founded his own marketing services agency -- a proposition that turned out to be “a sort of a long failure,” he says. By 28, having watched another startup founder and sink, Lowe resolved to either get a real job or figure out how to actually launch a successful business. The result was Jumpstart Automotive Media, which handled ad sales for sites like Vehix.com and CarandDriver.com. After selling Jumpstart in 2007, he decided to bring the lessons he’d learned the hard way to companies that are committed to doing good.

“I have a passion for the environment and recognize that that is a big problem we have to face,” Lowe says. “But with a big problem comes a big opportunity.”

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Zakiya Harris says communities of color can lead us to a sustainable future

Bethanie Hines

Five years ago, artist, educator, and community organizer Zakiya Harris was at the top of her game. After years of reaching out to disenfranchised communities through her hip hop band, FIYAWATA, the Oakland, Calif.-based activist co-founded Grind for the Green (G4G), a nonprofit designed to engage young people of color in the environmental movement using hip hop, art, and cultural programs. In 2008, she became the first African American regional director of the San Francisco Green Festival, an annual expo on all things sustainable in the Bay Area, from a green careers resource center to vegan cooking demonstrations. In rapid succession, she earned a multitude of accolades (including being named "one to watch" by Grist).

Then the bottom fell out of the economy. Like thousands of other nonprofit organizations, G4G watched its funding tank. Harris eliminated a successful job-training program, cut back on events, and faced a bleak and broke future.

Rather than wilt, Harris, who signs her emails “Forever Forward” and quotes Nelson Mandela on her voicemail -- “It only seems impossible until it’s done” -- did what she does best: She hustled. To lessen G4G’s reliance on government and foundation grants, she acquired a solar trailer -- a bunch of solar panels on a trailer that generate enough power to run solar-powered hip hop concerts and more -- that she then rented out, along with electronic billboard space on the trailer.

Read more: Cities

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Meet the woman behind the Newman’s Own Organics label

You’ve probably seen Nell Newman, even if you don’t know very much about her.

Ever since she and a business partner founded Newman’s Own Organics as a division of Newman’s Own in 1993, the image of Newman and her father, Paul, dressed up in their best country gothic guises has appeared on the labels of everything from pretzels (their first product) to their signature Fig Newmans. After becoming an independent company in 2001, Newman’s Own Organics went far beyond the basics, bringing us surprises like organic pet food and fair trade coffee at McDonald’s.

Behind that famous image is a remarkably down-to-earth sustainable food advocate from Santa Cruz, Calif., known for her friendship with Alice Waters, and a regular gig as a judge for the Good Food Awards.

Grist had the chance to chat with Newman recently about her environmentalist roots, her father’s tendency towards wild PR stunts, and her thoughts about the upcoming election.

Q. You are a strong environmentalist, with experience working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and several wildlife and wilderness projects. Why did you decide to start an organic food company?

A. I’ve always been an environmentalist. I grew up in Westport, Conn., when it was very rural. My parents would go back and forth between Connecticut and Beverly Hills -- they would make a movie one year and then go back to Connecticut. And my time was spent running around the woods with a pack of dogs, fishing. I was fascinated by nature, particularly birds, and I was really crushed at the age of 10 or 11 to discover that my favorite bird, the peregrine falcon, fastest animal on the planet, had gone extinct east of the Mississippi. They had no idea why, and it was spreading across the United States, this mass disappearance of peregrine falcons. I knew what extinction was -- I knew that we had eaten all the dodo birds and shot all the passenger pigeons and I was really horrified. Within the next couple of years they began to figure out it was this thing called DDT, which my mother had to explain to me was something that we sprayed on our food to kill insects. So I guess that was really the catalyst.

Read more: Food

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San Francisco artist mends clothes and builds community — just by giving a darn

Daniel Gorrell
The Luggage Store lets Swaine keep his cart inside, so he only has to roll it out into the alley every month.

Once a month for the past 11 years, Michael Swaine has mended clothing for free on the San Francisco streets.

At first, he did a five-mile route through the city, from dusk to dawn, with a sewing machine covered by an umbrella on wheelbarrow wheels. He loved the route, but it was exhausting and often folks didn't have their torn clothes with them when he rolled by. He eventually settled at the Luggage Store, a nonprofit artist collective in the Tenderloin District, a tougher part of town. He's so committed to the project, the Free Mending Library, that he's only missed three months out of more than 130.

Swaine is an artist, an active member of Futurefarmers (a loose collective of artists, designers, farmers, and computer programmers), and a ceramics instructor. “Most people think of me as a fibers artist. Or a social artist,” he says in a video. “There’s all sorts of strange words [that] people say to me. I try to ignore them.”

I first came across Swaine in Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, a wonderful little book about the folks who are rethinking fashion and trying to create a more sustainable clothing industry. Swaine took the time to chat with me about the beautiful things that happen on streets, our throwaway culture, and the strangest thing he's ever fixed.

Q. What exactly is the Free Mending Library?

A. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome to bring something to be mended -- and equally people are welcome to come and help mend. Those are the days that I love the most, when there’s a really wonderful balance -- people coming to help mend, people sitting and telling stories, people bringing things to be mended. It’s nice when all of those things are happening at once.

Q. I love the guy who has six pairs of the same black Levi’s and you've fixed each pair several times. What’s the community like that’s sprung up around this?

Read more: Cities, Living

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New Agtivist: Paul Kearsley’s gardens play by nature’s rules

Back when he was in college, Paul Kearsley was -- well, let’s just say he wasn’t running with the cool crowd. While his classmates were doing keg stands on the weekends, he railed against consumptive American culture. When an Industrial Design professor asked Kearsley’s class to create a surveillance system, his peers designed camera networks for prisons and fancy homes. Kearsley devised a system that could monitor a forest, and the data used to make recommendations on improving wildlife habitat.

“I was on the outside,” says Kearsley, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “I’d be asking, ‘Do we need a 2012 Honda Civic? What’s wrong with the 2011 Civic? Do we need more phones? What are the resources going into this? Where are they coming from? Who is this action hurting?’ A lot of the dialog stopped at ‘make it look cool,’ and I wanted to know more.”

Then, after graduation, someone lent Kearsley a 1,200-page tome that changed his life: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. As he read about a school of design devoted to creating productive, regenerative landscapes and resilient systems that “support life in all of its forms,” he knew he’d found his calling.

Read more: Food

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DJ Spooky wants to remix the climate fight

Mike Figgis

Al Gore had An Inconvenient Truth. DJ Spooky is taking a different approach.

Spooky, whose real name is Paul Miller, is an artist, writer, and musician based in New York. A few years back, moved by the news that the Larsen and Wilkins ice shelves had collapsed, he packed up his camera and recording equipment and headed south. The result is what Miller calls an “acoustic portrait” of the melting ice at the bottom of the globe, and he’s been touring with it, and its graphical companion, The Book of Ice, off and on ever since.

The work, called Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, has left some scientists scratching their heads (see Wynne Parry’s review of his performance at the New York Academy of Sciences), but it has landed Miller some remarkable gigs, including a show on the National Mall on Earth Day in front of a crowd of 200,000 people. It includes sounds of shifting ice he recorded during his visit, and a “sonification” of the molecular structure of ice -- and it’s all spliced and reconstructed remix-style, filtered through the mind, and turntable, of a DJ.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Alison Gannett: Extreme skier turned climate hawk

Alison with Spot the pig. (Photo by Jim Brett.)

At first blush, Alison Gannett’s sacrifices in the name of fighting global climate change don’t seem all that sacrificial. In 2001, the world champion extreme freeskier gave up helicopter skiing. She sold her snowmobile in 2005. Several years ago, she rejected a lucrative contract with Crocs because of the shoe company’s questionable environmental practices. (She kept her contract with the more sustainable Keen Footwear.) Just recently she turned down a photo shoot in the Alps because the flight over the pond was too much for her carbon footprint to bear.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. (Oh muffin … no heliskiing??) Then take note: Gannett walks the walk when it comes to living green. She and her husband grow their own food on an earth-friendly farm, and she's battled to bring sustainable eats to residents in her rural corner of Colorado. Gannett has also leveraged her personal experience into a business that helps individuals and corporations -- including a few of her athletic sponsors -- reduce their energy consumption by up to 50 percent.

Hers is a story of how a fun hog became a climate activist in order to protect the thing she loves most: winter.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Knope and change: A tribute to the women of urban sustainability, inspired by Parks and Rec

At Grist, we love Parks and Recreation. The show is brilliant and funny -- and we especially admire protagonist Lesley Knope. As played by Amy Poehler, the wonderfully multidimensional Knope makes mistakes, but in the end she always manages to pull the Parks Department together to get the job done. And no one loves her hilarious, flawed city more than she does.

In fact, the way we see it, we could all use a little more Knope in our cities. So over the next few months, we will introduce you to the real-life Lesley Knopes of the world: the female city officials who work hard to make their cities more sustainable. Even if Parks and Recreation isn’t your speed, you’ll get a fresh look at the women on the ground fighting to implement real change in our urban environments.

Gayle Prest: "It's OK to be nice."

Episode 1 features an edited conversation with Gayle Prest, sustainability director for the city of Minneapolis.

Prest passes the Knope test in two big ways. First, she loves her city. (Sample question: “Are you a big fan of cities?” Answer: “I love Minneapolis. I really love Minneapolis. Have you ever been here?”) Second, she's incredibly friendly. (She offered me a personal tour of the city within the first five minutes of our call and ended the chat with, “and for crying out loud, get your butt out here.”)

While this butt has still not been to Minneapolis, the Minnesota native made the city sound awfully alluring. Prest, who has been with the Minneapolis sustainability office since 2006, told me why sustainability directors across the nation are working together, how Minnesota provides a unique approach to urban sustainability, and why the City of Lakes is just so darn lovable.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Stacey Champion took on the Tea Party — and won

Stacey Champion sits in a tree she helped save from the bulldozer. (Photo by Ross Hendrickson.)

Imagine living someplace where the political hijinks are so outlandish that people refuse to believe that they’re really happening. (Oh, right.) Stacey Champion lives in just such a place. It’s called Arizona.

“We have these extremist legislators -- some of the shit they say would blow your mind,” says Champion, an environmental consultant and PR specialist who lives in Phoenix. "'Al Gore created climate change' -- they really believe this stuff."

You laugh, but for those who care about the Grand Canyon State, it creates a conundrum: Recent proposals from Tea Party Republicans -- to raise money for the state’s schools by making the state the nation’s nuclear waste dump, for example -- have stretched the popular imagination to the breaking point.

People assume that such spectacularly bad ideas will run up against political checks and balances and die early deaths -- and often they do, even in Arizona, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. But sometimes they don't, and sometimes these proposals are pushed through in such a sneaky fashion that no one has a chance to shoot them down.

That’s where Champion came in.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Urban naturalist: Molly Steinwald challenges city kids to find the wilderness in a sidewalk crack

Molly Steinwald (right) with a group of high school interns (Photo by Julia Petruska.)

You can take Molly Steinwald out of the city, but you’re never, ever going to get the city out of Molly Steinwald.

Trust me. She’s tried.

Steinwald grew up a free-school-lunch kid on the outskirts of the old mill town of Manchester, N.H. She came from a large, religious family. Her mom died when she was young. “I didn’t do the skiing and mountain climbing thing,” she says. If you’d told her she’d grow up to raise a ruckus in the nature-education world she probably would have thought you were nuts.

Read more: Cities, Living