In the aftermath of the tsunami, a Japanese collective created the off-the-grid house of the future where technology and nature coexist.
In domestic relationships, one of the quickest ways to butter up your partner is by taking out the trash. In business, removing festering piles of waste also makes you the sort of person who’s gets missed when you’re not around.
In 2009, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were recent graduates of the University of California at Berkeley who had both been offered positions in consulting and investment banking. Yet both were stuck on an idea they came across in their business ethics class: Gourmet mushrooms grow and flourish in recycled coffee grounds; thus, waste from one industry could be fertile ground for another. Trash, if not treasure, could be a sustainable and cost-free raw material.
The two set to experimenting with growing mushrooms in coffee grounds in the basement of Velez’s fraternity. They managed one crop in an old paint bucket and immediately charged out to their local Whole Foods, where they showed their harvest to the first person they saw in the produce department: “Hey, look, we grew these mushrooms.”
The two were sent from department to department by managers who were curious—and more than a little bemused—by the two college kids and their bucket of mushrooms. Two weeks later, they received a call from the regional produce manager for Northern California Whole Foods stores. They were told that if they could figure out how to do it on a larger scale, “we can blow this up in stores.”
So Arora and Velez turned down their corporate job offers and, learning from YouTube videos, trained themselves as urban mushroom farmers. “We both believe to our core that business doesn’t have to be something where for-profit is bad and nonprofit is good,” Arora says. “It’s an awesome tool, if leveraged correctly, to really make a quick difference.”
What started as a small-scale farm supplying local restaurants and a few groceries expanded to include the mushroom kits, which now sell at 1,000 retail centers nationally. Since its founding, Back To The Roots has repurposed 1 million pounds of coffee grounds. After one year, the company had revenue of a quarter-million dollars; last year, it increased that number to $1.4 million. The company forecasts $5 million in revenue this year.
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Mikuti is a socially active jewelry label that supports Tanzanian artisans. Their latest collection includes these recycled-aluminum bracelets embellished with Czech glass beads using traditional Masaai technique in a variety of 17 colors and shapes.
In recent years an emerging body of research has begun to describe the restorative power of time spent in the natural world. Even in small doses, we are learning, exposure to nature can measurably improve our psychological and physical health.
While the study of the relationship between mental acuity, creativity, and time spent outdoors is still a frontier for science, new data suggests that exposure to the living world can even enhance intelligence. At least two factors are involved: first, our senses and sensibilities can be improved by spending time in nature; second, the natural environment seems to stimulate our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative.
In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in towns and cities. The traditional ways that humans have experienced nature are vanishing along with biodiversity. At the same time, our culture’s faith in technological immersion has no limits. We sink ever deeper into a sea of circuitry. We consume breathtaking accounts of the creation of synthetic life, combining bacteria with human DNA; of microscopic machines designed to enter our bodies to fight biological invaders; of computer-augmented reality. We even hear talk of a posthuman era in which people themselves are optimally enhanced by technology. Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves?
By contrast, I believe the future can be shaped by what I call the Nature Principle, which holds that in an age of environmental, economic, and social transformation, the future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of nature and balance the virtual with the real.
The skeptic will say that this prescription is at best problematic, given the rate at which we’re destroying nature, and the skeptic will be right. This is why the Nature Principle is about conservation but also about restoring ourselves while we restore nature; about bringing back natural habitats where they once existed or creating them where they never were—in our homes, workplaces, cities, and suburbs. It’s about the power of living in nature—not with it but in it.
The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need.
Many of us desire a fuller life of the senses. We city dwellers marvel at the seemingly superhuman or supernatural abilities of “primitive” peoples like the Australian Aborigines but consider those talents vestigial, like that remnant tailbone. Here’s another view: such senses are in fact latent in all of us, blanketed by noise and faulty assumptions.
Ever wonder why you have two nostrils? Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley did. They fitted undergraduates with taped-over goggles, earmuffs, and work gloves to block other senses, then set them loose in a field. Most of the students could follow a 30-foot-long trail of chocolate perfume and even changed direction precisely where the invisible path took a turn. The subjects were able to smell better with two functioning nostrils, which researchers likened to hearing in stereo. And they found themselves zigzagging, a technique employed by dogs as they track. “We found that not only are humans capable of scent tracking,” said study researcher Noam Sobel, “but they spontaneously mimic the tracking pattern of [other] mammals.”
What else can we do that we’ve forgotten? Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative 10 to as many as 30, including blood-sugar levels, empty stomach, thirst, and proprioception (awareness of our body’s position in space). In 2009, researchers at Madrid’s University of Alcalá de Henares showed how people, like bats, could identify objects without needing to see them, through the echoes of human tongue clicks. According to the lead researcher, echoes are also perceived through vibrations in ears, tongue, and bones—a refined sense learned through trial and error by some blind people and even sighted individuals. It’s all about hearing a world that exists beyond what we normally mistake for silence.
This brings us to the so-called sixth sense, which to some means intuition, to others ESP, and to still others the ability to unconsciously detect danger. In December 2004, as the devastating Asian tsunami approached, Jarawa tribespeople of India’s Andaman Islands reportedly sensed sounds from the approaching wave, or some other unusual activity, long before the water struck the shore. They fled to higher ground. The Jarawas used tribal knowledge of nature’s warning signs, explained V. R. Rao, director of the Anthropological Survey of India, based in Calcutta. “They got wind of impending danger from biological warning signals, like the cry of birds and change in the behavioral patterns of marine animals.” In the Jarawas’ case, the sixth sense may be the sum of all the other senses combined with their everyday knowledge of nature.
In separate research, the U.S. military has studied how some soldiers seem to be able to use their latent senses to detect roadside bombs and other hazards. The 18-month study of 800 military personnel found that the best bomb spotters were rural people—those who’d grown up in the woods hunting turkey or deer—as well as those from tough urban neighborhoods, where it’s equally important to be alert. “They just seemed to pick up things much better,” reported Army Sergeant Major Todd Burnett, who worked on the study for the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. “They know how to look at the entire environment.” And the other enlistees, the ones who’d spent more time with Game Boys or at the mall? They didn’t do so well. As Burnett put it, they were focused on the proverbial “screen rather than the whole surrounding.”
The explanation may be partly physiological. Australian researchers suggest that the troubling increase in nearsightedness is linked to young people spending less time outdoors, where eyes must focus at longer distances. But more is probably going on here. Good vision, acute hearing, an attuned sense of smell, spatial awareness—all of these abilities could be operating simultaneously. This natural advantage offers practical applications. One is an increased ability to learn; another is an enhanced capability to avoid danger. Still another, perhaps the most important, is the measurement-defying ability to more fully engage in life…
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Special thanks to the anon who submitted this. Living within and through Nature is something every child and adult must rediscover.
As part of wider efforts to put France’s south-western technology capital at the forefront of green wizardry, Toulouse authorities are testing out a scheme to generate electricity for street lights through the stamping feet of passers-by. Designers say the section of eight custom-made modules placed in the city centre for a two-week trial period can produce between 50 and 60 watts of electricity—enough to power a nearby street lamp.