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Did Humans Once Live by Beer Alone? An Oktoberfest Tale

By Lina Zeldovich

In October of 1953, the farmers of the Western hemisphere were busy toiling over harvested grain, either milling it into flour or prepping it for brewing. Meanwhile, a group of historians and anthropologists gathered to debate which of these two common grain uses humans mastered first—bread or beer?

The original question posed by Professor J. D. Sauer, of the University of Wisconsin’s Botany Department, was even more provocative. He wanted to know whether “thirst, rather than hunger, may have been the stimulus [for] grain agriculture.” In more scientific terms, the participants were asking: “Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making?”

Interestingly, the available archaeological evidence didn’t produce a definitive answer. The cereals and the tools used for planting and reaping, as well as the milling stones and various receptacles, could be involved for making either the bread or the beer. Nonetheless, the symposium, which ran under the title of Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?, featured plenty of discussion.

The proponents of the beer-before-bread idea noted that the earliest grains might have actually been more suitable for brewing than for baking. For example, some wild wheat and barley varieties had husks or chaff stuck to the grains. Without additional processing, such husk-enclosed grains were useless for making bread—but fit for brewing. Brewing fermented drinks may also have been easier than baking. Making bread is a fairly complex operation that necessitates milling grains and making dough, which in the case of leavened bread requires yeast. It also requires fire and ovens, or heated stones at the least.

On the other hand, as some attendees pointed out, brewing needs only a simple receptacle in which grain can ferment, a chemical reaction that can be easily started in three different ways. Sprouting grain produces its own fermentation enzyme—diastase. There are also various types of yeast naturally present in the environment. Lastly, human saliva also contains fermentation enzymes, which could have started a brewing process in a partially chewed up grain. South American tribes make corn beer called chicha, as well as other fermented beverages, by chewing the seeds, roots, or flour to initiate the brewing process.

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But those who believed in the “bread first, beer later” concept posed some important questions. If the ancient cereals weren’t used for food, what did their gatherers or growers actually eat? “Man cannot live on beer alone, and not too satisfactorily on beer and meat,” noted botanist and agronomist Paul Christoph Mangelsdorf. “And the addition of a few legumes, the wild peas and lentils of the Near East, would not have improved the situation appreciably. Additional carbohydrates were needed to balance the diet… Did these Neolithic farmers forego the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favor of alcohol, for which they had no physiological need?” He finished his statement with an even more provoking inquiry. “Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?” Another attendee said that proposing the idea of grain domestication for brewing was not unlike suggesting that cattle was “domesticated for making intoxicating beverages from the milk.”

In the end, the two camps met halfway. They agreed that our ancestors probably used cereal for food, but that food might have been in liquid rather than baked form. It’s likely that the earliest cereal dishes were prepared as gruel—a thinner, more liquidy version of porridge that had been a Western peasants’ dietary staple. But gruel could easily ferment. Anthropologist Ralph Linton, who chose to take “an intermediate position” in the beer vs. bread controversy, noted that beer “may have resulted from accidental souring of a thin gruel … which had been left standing in an open vessel.” So perhaps humankind indeed owes its effervescent bubbly beverage to some leftover mush gone bad thousands of years ago.

The post Did Humans Once Live by Beer Alone? An Oktoberfest Tale appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Industrial London’s Maternal Child Abductors

By Livia Gershon

There may be no crime that horrifies the public more than child abduction. Historian Elizabeth Foyster writes that this was also true in London 200 years ago, though the crime then typically took a much different form than we expect today.

Historians generally agree that the late eighteenth century brought a major change in what English childhood meant. This included more positive attitudes toward kids, and a new wealth of books, toys, and clothes for middle-class urban children. Children were increasingly prized “for giving women a role as mothers,” and as “miniature models of all that a more affluent consumer society could afford,” Foyster writes.

If children were becoming more valuable, it stands to reason that, like all valuable things, they were in danger of being stolen. And, indeed, Foyster found 108 cases of child abduction tried in London and reported in the newspapers between 1790 and 1849.

Child abduction was nothing new, but it was understood differently than in previous times. In fourteenth-century England, “ravishment” covered both forced and consensual “abduction” of children or adult women. It typically had a sexual element, and the child victims were generally teenagers. Later, in the seventeenth century, abduction was understood as a fate befalling unfortunate boys forced into indentured servitude.

In contrast, in the period Foyster studied, the majority of stolen children were under six, and the abductor was usually a woman in her 20s or 30s. In some cases, kids were stolen for their clothes. Abductors might bring fancy children’s clothes to a pawnbroker, leaving a half-naked child outside. Other times, women reportedly stole children to gain sympathy when begging for money or seeking a job.

There were also well-off married women who stole—or paid someone else to steal—children they could present as their own. One 22-year-old wrote to her husband, serving in the Navy, about an invented pregnancy and childbirth. When she learned he was returning home, she travelled to London, snatched a four-year-old boy, and cared for him for two months before she was caught.

Foyster writes that news accounts paid little attention to possible harm done to the children. Unlike today, child abduction wasn’t generally assumed to be motivated by deviant sexual desire. Instead, newspapers focused on the terror and despair of mothers whose children were stolen, and suggested a parallel lack of feeling in the abductors.

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A judge told one convicted child thief that, as a childless woman, she was “Ignorant of those heavenly feelings which subsist in the relation between parent and child; for had you been a mother, you must have respected and regarded, instead of agonizing a mother’s heart.” Still, Foyster writes, news reports also acknowledged that child-stealers might be motivated by a twisted “fondness” for children—reflecting their own stunted development.

Child-thieves clearly had no place in the growing public conception of natural motherly love. Yet the new understanding of children as valuable objects who gave meaning to women’s lives may have spurred the increase of child abduction.

The post Industrial London’s Maternal Child Abductors appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Autism Aesthetics

About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented—in art, in culture, in politics, et cetera—especially in the case of physical disability. This, I thought, fell short of the field’s promise for literary studies. Where, I wondered, was the field’s equivalent...

The post Autism Aesthetics appeared first on Public Books.

The Controversial Core of the Clean Water Act

By James MacDonald

By all accounts the Clean Water Act (CWA), the preeminent federal law protecting water quality in the United States, has been highly successful. The 1972 law has been periodically amended, but the gist is that it limits pollution into surface waters of the U.S. through restrictions and permit requirements. The act does not directly regulate drinking water. Now the Trump administration wishes to significantly weaken the CWA by limiting its jurisdiction, a move cheered by some but bemoaned by many others. Nevertheless, according to April Collaku in Fordham Environmental Law Review, this question of exactly which waters are covered by the CWA is not new.

Upon enactment of the CWA, federal agencies charged with its enforcement saw the law as covering discharges in the “navigable waters of the United States,” which on the face of it sounds like any water that can hold a boat. The reality is more complicated. The CWA itself, in fact, defines navigable waters as “waters of the United States,” which sounds like all water everywhere under U.S. jurisdiction.

Given the ambiguity, this definition has repeatedly found itself under court review. The courts struggled to reconcile the “waters of the United States” language with “navigable waters,” roughly defined as waters used for commerce or travel. Courts have generally expanded that definition to include tributaries of those navigable bodies and wetlands that are adjacent or connected to those navigable bodies.

The rules the current administration is seeking to override stem from a 2006 Supreme Court Decision. The decision, known as Rapanos v. United States, left the exact scope of the CWA muddled, with some justices arguing for the expanded navigable waters definition above and others limiting jurisdiction only to permanent bodies of water.

To help end the confusion, during the Obama administration the EPA decided to spell out a clear definition of waters of the United States. The definition closely hews to the expanded definition of navigable waters, but specifies all tributaries and adjacent waters that have a “significant nexus” to navigable waters. This expanded definition included a lot more wetlands, as now wetlands adjacent to tributaries were also included. Certain seasonal streams and wetlands were included under this final definition as well.

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This expansion provided clarification but also controversy. The newly covered waters often came into conflict with private property. Some farmers and business interests found themselves occasionally limited in what crops they could plant, or what practices they could follow, next to what they saw as unimportant streams or wetlands.

Now the controversy rolls on, as under the Trump administration, most tributaries and adjacent wetlands will be stripped of CWA protection. Opponents fear that increased pollution will inevitably cause downstream harm. One side effect of the rule reversal is that the CWA is once again operating without a firm definition. More confusion and lawsuits are inevitable.

Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the Supreme Court Decision Rapanos v. United States was decided in 2015; in fact it was decided in 2006.

The post The Controversial Core of the Clean Water Act appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Whose Life?

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by the philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale, is a book anyone committed to public-facing scholarship ought to take note of. This is all the ...

The post Whose Life? appeared first on Public Books.

To the Class of 2023: Embrace the Adventure

By Christopher Long


Dear Class of 2023,

Welcome to Michigan State University!

As we prepared our Welcome to MSU video this year, I found myself unexpectedly face-to-face with a picture of my past self as a first-year student at Wittenberg University. It brought me immediately back to a transformative time in my life.

The idea of living in one place when I went to college was exhilarating. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, so for almost a decade my brother and I had been moving between my mother’s and my father’s house every two weeks. It would be nice, I thought, to have one place to live all year.

Still, the 10-hour drive from Philadelphia, where I grew up, to Springfield, Ohio, home of Wittenberg University, was marked more by anxiety than excitement. Living in my own place was one thing, living on my own, quite another. As my Mom and I shopped for all the things I would need for my dorm room, I could feel my emotions come increasingly to the surface. When it finally came time to give her a hug goodbye, I cried and cried.

Looking back, I now recognize that time as a pivotal period of transition for me, as the opening of a new world of ideas, as the beginning of an intellectual adventure that has come to shape my life. But at the time, despite my excitement, it felt mostly like loss and loneliness.


It wasn’t long, however, before I met Peter Tyksinski, a fellow first-year student who has become a lifelong friend. What I found in Peter then, and continue to value now, is a friend who loves ideas, reads deeply, and makes me laugh. He is a person of immense creativity who travels broadly and allows himself to be changed by the cultures he encounters. His study away experiences lent me the courage to study abroad in Vienna in the Fall of 1989 — where I began to learn German and witnessed, first hand, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. 

It wasn’t long, too, before I found myself sitting in an Introduction to Philosophy course that challenged me to consider what makes life meaningful, not in the abstract, but as an urgent question that has come to animate my life: what makes your “one wild and precious life” meaningful?

Soon, my mind was on fire with new ideas, my horizons expanded by transformative experiences. It was as if I was beginning to wake up to a life rich in meaning beyond what I could previously have imagined. Deepening our engagement with the world and those we encounter in it is at the heart of the liberal arts education on which you are now embarking. 

You stand at the beginning of a great intellectual adventure. The opportunities before you are limited only by the capacity of your courage to try something new, to push beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and comfortable. And you will need courage, because learning always involves failure, growth requires resilience, and a fulfilling life calls us to put purpose into practice.

What I did not fully realize then, as I waved goodbye to my mother and to my younger self, were the opportunities opening for me as I embarked on an educational adventure that has enriched and shaped my life.

We, the faculty and staff of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State, are here to support your educational adventure. Indulge your curiosity by taking a course outside your comfort zone; study cultures different from you own; find an internship abroad in a country that speaks a language you have yet to learn; put your values into practice by giving back to the communities about which you care; engage in research with a member of our world-class faculty; join one of more than 900 MSU student organizations. Michigan State University is rich with opportunity, and you are ready for what we have to offer.

Imagine your future self, 30 years from now, looking back at a picture of yourself during this first year of college — what will you have done to become the person you now value yourself to be?

Sincerely,

Christopher P. Long
Dean, College of Arts & Letters

The Transformative Power of Publishing

By Christopher Long

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of offering the closing keynote address of the 2019 Association of University Presses annual conference held in Detroit. The address was entitled The Transformative Power of Publishing, and it argued that the values that shape our publishing practices have the capacity to transform the culture of higher education.

Values of openness and dialogue always inform my work and I have long sought to put these values into practice in the modes by which I share and present my ideas. This commitment to performative consistency led me to develop the keynote address in the form of a Tweetstorm, a mode of presentation that enabled me to share my ideas with a wider public and invited broad engagement with themes I introduced.

A Few Words about the Tweetstorm Process

A number of people have asked me about my process in developing this Tweetstorm presentation, so I thought I would say a few words about it here before embedding the presentation and responses below.

Using the iPad Twitter application, I drafted twelve tweets, each with up to four pictures which were to serve as slides for the presentation. As I developed the tweets, I saved them as drafts in a thread in the Twitter application. (The key is not to accidentally send the thread before you have completed the series!) I used Keynote to develop some of the slides, saving them as images that could then be attached to tweets. The nice thing about using images in this way is that you can tag up to 10 people who have been engaged with the theme of a tweet in the image itself. So, as I developed the presentation, I was able to mention and give credit to colleagues who helped shape some of ideas central to the presentation. Doing this intentionally enabled me to live out a commitment to collegiality through the presentation itself.

Drafting the presentation in this way requires you to consider both how you want to present ideas to those in the audience and how you want those who are not physically present to experience the address. Attending to the multiple dimensions a Tweetstorm presentation opens an opportunity to reflect more intentionally on how the mode of presentation relates to the ideas expressed. How will what you say in person add value to what you show on screen? How will someone unable to hear the oral presentation experience the themes online? How can a presentation about the transformative power of publishing become a catalyst of transformation itself by virtue of the manner in which it is made public?

Affordances and Limitations of a Tweetstorm Presentation

This last question is at the heart of my interest in performative publishing. How ideas are made public shapes the capacity of the ideas themselves to transform publics in meaningful ways. The Tweetstorm form opens opportunities for engagement unavailable to traditional presentations. There are, of course, affordances and limitations to the Tweetstorm form. Chief among the limitations, from my perspective, is that Twitter is a for-profit company oriented toward generating revenue based on advertising. Their algorithms are oriented toward maximizing revenue, rather than to enriching communities of scholarship. For me, however, the affordances of broad public exposure and multi-modal expression outweigh these limitations. Still, even as I share the presentation here on my blog, I am aware of the extent to which enduring access to this work depends ultimately on a platform that might disappear if it proves no longer to be financially viable.

Until then, I have curated the Tweetstorm presentation into a Twitter Moment and share it here for ongoing discussion.

Impossible Belonging

If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves...

The post Impossible Belonging appeared first on Public Books.

The Environmental Downside of Cannabis Cultivation

By Lina Zeldovich

Thanks to the legalization of recreational cannabis in 10 states and the District of Columbia, sparking up a joint in these areas is as easy as ordering a glass of wine.

Spending on legal cannabis, which includes 33 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical cannabis use for conditions such as glaucoma, chronic pain, and the side effects of cancer treatments, topped $12 billion worldwide in 2018, according to industry analysts, and is expected to increase to $31.3 billion by 2022.

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With all that potential profit on the line, it’s no surprise there is growing interest in legalizing cannabis cultivation. California has issued around 10,000 cultivation permits. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of cannabis farms in the Golden State increased 58 percent and the number of plants increased 183 percent.

While much of the research has focused on public health and criminalization, the environmental implications of commercial-scale cultivation have been largely ignored. Could the increases in cannabis cultivation send the environment up in smoke?

New research has linked production of the once-verboten plant to a host of issues ranging from water theft and degradation of public lands to wildlife deaths and potential ozone effects.“We have a culture and history of cannabis cultivation in remote areas that may be sensitive to environmental disruptions,” explains Van Butsic, co-director of the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California Berkeley.

Worries over Water

In California, the water-hungry crop is often grown in remote, forested watersheds and requires almost 22 liters of water per plant a day during the growing season, which adds up to three billion liters per square kilometer of greenhouse-grown plants between June and October, according to some research. During the low flow period, irrigation demands for cultivation can exceed the amount of water flowing in a river, leaving little water to sustain aquatic life.

Some of the biggest environmental offenders are cultivators operating unpermitted farms on public lands. These “trespass grows” are often in national forests or on tribal lands where water is diverted from streams to irrigate acres of plants. In 2018, there were an estimated 14,000 trespass grows on federal and private lands in Humboldt County, California, alone.

Satellite image of cannabis farms in the forest in Humboldt County. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Cannabis Research Center

At the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California, a team from the Integral Ecology Research Center, or IREC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation, removed more than five miles of irrigation lines that diverted more than 500,000 gallons of water per day to irrigate cannabis plants.

IREC co-director Mourad Gabriel notes that trespass grows are often located near headwaters and have disastrous downstream effects. For example, streams in Mendocino, California, often run dry during the summer when growers are diverting water, decimating populations of Coho salmon and steelhead trout. “These are drug trafficking organizations looking to profit off of our natural resources,” says Gabriel.

War on Wildlife

Unpermitted growers wanting to avoid detection often choose public and tribal lands as prime places to hide their operations. These locations are also pristine wildlife habitats.

The cultivation sites also interfere with the restoration of distressed habitats. Local environmental groups complained that the grows overwhelmed their conservation efforts and, in some cases, disrupted ongoing restorations or made the work more dangerous, according to a 2018 study published in Humboldt Journal of Social Relations. The grows drained and polluted streams, degraded watersheds and killed wildlife.

Trespass grows, which use mass quantities of toxic rodenticides to keep rodents from chewing on irrigation lines, have been linked to the deaths of fish, birds, and mammals. One study found that 79 percent of dead fishers—small carnivorous mammals, collected in California between 2006 and 2011—had been exposed to pesticides at trespass grow sites. The rate continues to increase, according to Gabriel. Mule deer, gray foxes, coyotes, northern spotted owls and ravens have also been victims of poisoning, linked to cannabis cultivation.

Rodenticide wired to a snap-trap beneath marijuana plants. Image courtesy Mourad Gabriel at IERC.
Rodenticide wired to a snap-trap beneath marijuana plants. Image courtesy Mourad Gabriel at IERC.

“The amount of fertilizers and pesticides we find on one half-acre [of illegal] cultivation plot could be [used on] 1,000 acres of corn—and wildlife are paying the price,” Gabriel says.

Pollution Problems

It’s not just trespass grows causing environmental issues. Since Colorado stores started legally selling recreational cannabis in 2014, emissions from the 600-plus licensed cultivation facilities in Denver have sparked concerns over air pollution.

William Vizuete, associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health, is working on an air quality model to better understand how commercial cannabis cultivation could affect the atmosphere. His research showed that cannabis plants produce volatile organic compounds or VOCs that can produce harmful pollutants.

“If plants produce VOCs, there is a high possibility that under certain conditions, cannabis cultivation could impact the ozone,” Vizuete explains.

Cannabis emits potent VOCs called terpenes that, when mixed with nitrogen oxide and sunlight, form ozone-degrading aerosols. In a high desert zone like Denver, where normally there are few sources of VOCs, any new source of such pollutants will likely lead to ground-level ozone production, Vizuete notes. He worries that the significant numbers of cannabis plants being grown will become the regular source of VOCs, exacerbating the issue by combining with the manmade nitrogen oxide spewed from the many cars in that urban environment. Vizuete worries that the significant numbers of cannabis plants being grown in an urban area could exacerbate the issue. (High concentrations of VOCs have been linked to a range of human health issues, from nausea and fatigue to liver damage and cancer).

To test the potential effects, Vizuete grew four strains of cannabis (from among the 600-plus strains available in Colorado): Critical Mass, Lemon Wheel, Elephant Purple, and Rockstar Kush—for 90 days and measured the terpenes at each stage of growth. The results showed that in Denver, assuming a concentration of 10,000 plants per cultivation facility, cannabis could more than double the existing rate of annual VOC emissions to 520 metric tons and produce 2,100 metric tons of ozone.

Vizuete believes his estimates might be conservative, explaining, “We picked four [cannabis] strains based on their popularity, and their VOC emissions might not be representative all of the strains. Additionally, in commercial facilities, where conditions are optimized for growth, emissions may be even higher.”

Legalization Could Close Environmental Loopholes

Regulating the production of cannabis can address many of the environmental issues associated with its cultivation, argues Jennifer Carah, senior scientist in the water program at The Nature Conservancy of California.

In California, where up to 70 percent of legal cannabis is grown, the California Department of Food and Agriculture regulates the licensure process but many counties and municipalities also have the authority to grant cultivation licenses and, Carah says, the regulations are highly variable. Plus, the black market for cannabis still exists. It’s more expensive to purchase legal cannabis than to buy it on the black market, plus not all growers are willing to go through the due process to become legal.

“The black market is not going away,” Carah admits, “but to the degree that we can entice growers into the legal market, their agricultural practices can be regulated like other agricultural crops, which will go a long way to addressing potential environmental impacts.”

Recently, legalization has put a dent in the number of trespass grows. Illicit cultivation in Oregon forests decreased following legalization.

Some states have established environmental regulations for cannabis growers. California Water Boards require permitted growers to register water rights and follow strict guidelines that include prohibitions on diverting surface water from April to October and irrigating with stored water during the dry season—regulations not imposed on other California-grown crops. In Washington State, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency requires growers to submit information about their plans for monitoring and controlling air pollution.

Butsic of UC Berkeley argues that federal legalization would also provide new funding opportunities through organizations such as the National Science Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency to allow researchers to assess environmental risks and develop solutions.

From a pollution perspective, federal legalization could set emissions standards.

“There are lots of technologies that capture VOCs before they enter the atmosphere that are required in other industries like gas stations,” Butsic explains. “Before [emissions] standards can be set for cannabis, we need recognition of the issue and long-term data to develop regulatory statutes—and we’re a long way from that because federal prohibition has hindered research and we don’t have the science yet.”

The post The Environmental Downside of Cannabis Cultivation appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Art of Digital Addiction

By Alexandra Samuel

The tech got away from us
And we weren’t ready
I don’t think we’re wired to handle this

Those lines come from Octet, a new a cappella musical about digital addiction from Tony-winning composer Dave Malloy. Octet offers a theatrical riposte to our increasingly saturated digital lives: Over the course of ninety minutes, the show takes us inside an imagined 12-step support group for eight digital addicts, each of whom speaks to a different online pathology. I was lucky to see a recent performance, and was awed by its insightful (not to mention amusing) take on digital temptations like online dating, conspiracy sites, and Candy Crush.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Octet is its very existence. As a thoughtful and entertaining consideration of the various perils of life online, Octet is an early harbinger of an inevitable wave of cultural production: Art and entertainment designed to help us navigate the emotional and psychological perils of the digital world.

“THE ONLINE COMMUNITY IS BY DEFINITION PRO-SOCIAL AND PRO-TECHNOLOGICAL”

These distresses are the necessary by-product of technological innovation itself. As Paul Virilio famously wrote in “An Architect’s Crime,” the advent of any new technology “necessarily entails the creation of a new kind of specific accident; for the invention of the ship ushered in the shipwreck; the invention of the railway, the derailment; of the plane, the plane crash; of the computer, the bug or virus.”

But the disasters inherent in new technology can be psychological as well as material. Some scholars have already framed the challenges of information technology in the language of addiction: In “Digital Disturbances, Disorders, and Pathologies,” Noela A. Haughton et al. summarize a 1998 definition of internet addiction as “an impulse-control disorder” in which “individuals derive satisfaction and gratification as they compulsively check their e-mails, browse Internet sites, or pursue other technology-centered activities, such as gaming and gambling, and are often unable to control the desire to be online.”

I’m not convinced that the addiction framing is a particularly accurate or helpful way of understanding the perils of life online. As Amnon Jacob Suissa writes in “Medicalization and Addictions,” “the more we label people as having or suffering from pathologies, the more we multiply their number.”

But the addiction framing is useful in embracing the potential of art to help us understand and address the challenges of our new lives online. Whether or not you consider them “addictions” per se, there are certainly many mental health and relationship issues that are unique to the online world—issues that often involve compulsive or even pathological behaviors like excessive online shopping, relentless social media browsing, or constant online gaming.

In engaging directly with these compulsions, Octet joins a rich tradition of artistic works that map emergent temptations and help us navigate their risks. Throughout history, every time we have encountered a new mind-altering substance, an outpouring of art and entertainment has helped us to figure out its potential risks and benefits.

While we are now grappling with a technology rather than something we eat, smoke, or swallow, the challenges closely parallel previous encounters with drugs and alcohol. Understanding how art has helped us navigate those previous encounters can help us anticipate the way it may now help us come to terms with our digital compulsions.

There are three key ways art helps us make sense of mind-altering substances (or technologies): Through causal stories, through cautionary tales, and through invocations of mind-expanding potential.

“I SUSPECT DEEP DOWN / I DON’T CARE IF I DIE / HOW ELSE COULD I / BE WASTING SO MUCH TIME / ON THIS SWEET FLUORESCENT SMILING BRAINROT”

The tradition of using mind-altering substances as plot devices goes at least as far back as Shakespeare. “In various plays the drunkenness of some character is an essential feature of the plot,” scholar Albert H. Tolman writes in “Drunkenness in Shakespeare,” “and in most of these cases one feels a distinct note of disapproval.” As evidence, Tolman cites the Borachio’s drunken words in Much Ado About Nothing, which, when overhead, thwart a villainous plot; Othello’s dismissal of a drunken Cassio, as engineered by the evil Iago; and Hamlet’s condemnation of his uncle’s drinking.

Where once we blamed alcohol, now we use technology as the plot device that leads people astray. To take another example from musical theatre, the musical Dear Evan Hansen portrays an online video as the crucial catalyst for an escalating series of misrepresentations and misunderstandings.

These kinds of causal stories are dramatically useful—it’s easier to sympathize with a character who can blame his bad behavior on the devil alcohol or the demon YouTube—but they also help readers, audiences, and listeners recognize the potential impact of substance use and abuse. If excessive drinking, smoking, or web-surfing can lead a hero astray, we are implicitly warned, then we need to recognize the potential for these temptations to derail our own lives. By tapping into that tradition, art that uses digital compulsion as plot device serves as a useful reminder to continually scrutinize how technology shapes our own life choices.

“FIRST THEY POISONED THE WATER / THEN THEY POISONED THE SKY / AND NOW IT’S OUR MINDS”

But art and literature about mind-altering substances needn’t be limited to implicit warnings about their potential life-altering dangers: There is also plenty of art that explicitly warns us of the risks of addiction and substance abuse. As George W. Ewing writes in “The Well-Tempered Lyre: Songs of the Temperance Movement,”

Few people today realize the extent of the publication of temperance verse or its all-pervasive influence in the lives of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of nineteenth-century America. The other section of the choir is more often heard, for some drinking songs, such as “The Little Brown Jug,” are part of the repertory of virtually every English-speaking vocalist… In spite of this early recognition that poetry might play a part in keeping a people sober, centuries passed before the output of anti-drinking verse approached that of drinking songs.

The temperance movement—and its music—eventually found expression in the call for Prohibition, which went into force just as the film industry emerged. As Michael C. Gerald writes in the exhaustive “Drugs and Alcohol Go To Hollywood,” “[t]he use of alcohol in excess is a familiar film theme, which is not surprising since it mirrors American society’s involvement with booze.” As Gerald chronicles, these films typically followed one of a few, familiar trajectories:

The drinker may engage in regular heavy drinking leading to humorous situations. The drinker may be a celebrity or an “ordinary” individual whose career or life has followed a progressive downhill trajectory. Disastrous consequences result for the drinker, which often reverberate to the family or other close relationships. Still other films continue by retracing the alcoholic’s path back to recovery and even redemption.

If the alcoholic or drug addict has become a stock character through these cautionary tales, we can anticipate that the tech addict will soon become just as familiar. Already, in the movie Her, the novel The Circle, and the TV show Black Mirror, we have met characters who serve as object lessons in technology over-use.

As much as these portrayals sometimes rankle—please don’t make me think twice about how much I love my iPhone–there’s a reason we have a long cultural tradition of depicting addicts in art and entertainment. By explicitly preaching the dangers of substance or technology over-use, art can inspire us to keep our own compulsions in check.

“THERE IS A DRUG INSIDE MY HEAD / I JUST HAVE TO TURN IT ON / FALL INTO THE SCREEN AND I’M GONE”

While mind-altering substances have often been portrayed as dangerous or harmful, there’s also a creative tradition that celebrates their potential. In “William Burroughs and the Literature of Addiction,” Frank D. McConnell notes that substance abuse literature sits well within America’s frontier tradition. Citing critic Leslie Fiedler, McConnell writes that drugs are “simply another permutation of the American myth of westering, out of which he has gotten so much mileage: a retreat into the last undiscovered territory, the inner space of the mind.” Arguing that Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is a fine representation of this tradition, McConnell writes that:

It is only appropriate that the literature of addiction, European and Romantic in genesis, should find its fullest articulation in an American novel, just as it is inevitable that America should become the most addicted country in the West, and that only within the last half-century.

Even as Burroughs was exploring drug use on paper, the motion picture industry was birthing a new wave of films that not only tolerated substance use, but celebrated it. Gerald writes:

The 1960s witnessed a sharp escalation in societal interest in and use and general acceptance of such mind-altering substances as LSD and marijuana. This was coupled with the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code’s restrictions on subject matter deemed unsuitable for movies. With these changes came a number of movies positively depicting the use of such drugs to escape the boredom of traditional living and to relieve workplace pressures and the tension between the establishment and the counterculture.

If tech addiction literature follows this path, we may see productions like Octet countered by voices that celebrate our collective disappearance into the digital ether. The book and subsequent movie of Ready Player One suggest one potential framing: As the physical world grows gradually more polluted and less tolerable, the digital world may represent a relatively more appealing retreat.

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But at this moment, with this set of technologies, our need for assistance in navigating the perils of online living vastly outweighs our need for more cheerleading. That’s why it’s so exciting to see a work of art like Octet join in the rich tradition of art that helps us come to terms with the negative impacts of mind-altering substances and technologies: By offering us causal and cautionary tales, art can help us recognize the risks of abuse and over-use alongside the benefits of mind-altering potential.

The more those problems seep into our day-to-day lives, the more we’re going to need stories like these—not the least because so many of those problems are larger than the internet itself. To quote one final lyric from Octet:

When we say “in real life”
This is a lie to protect us
It is all real
It is all real life

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The Rubble of Creation

This spring, I was enchanted by the story of mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, awarded the Norwegian Abel Prize in 2019 for her work on bubbles, who at 76 still relishes the “technical obstacle,” “secrets,” and “mystery” of ...

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Artificial Photosynthesis

By James MacDonald

When it comes to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, nothing beats good old plants and their knack for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of converting sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and the sugars that feed all life on Earth. Ever since photosynthesis was discovered, scientists have been trying to artificially duplicate it. Now a French team thinks they have succeeded, at least on a small scale.

In a discussion of the potential avenues for artificial photosynthesis, science writer Katherine Bourzac notes that at its most basic, photosynthesis aims to convert energy and carbon into fuel. It’s really a form of solar power, sometimes called “wet solar,” for those situations when direct production of electricity is impractical. As Bourzac points out, at current levels of technology most of humanity uses liquid or gas fuel as energy. Until this changes, there need to be ways to produce carbon neutral, or near-neutral, fuels.

In both natural and artificial photosynthesis, water molecules are split into hydrogen and water. Plants absorb sunlight into pigments (e.g. chlorophyll), which energizes electrons; these juiced-up electrons are passed through a chain of molecules in a complicated process called electron transport. At the end of the process, the electrons split water.

Without electron transport, which nobody has yet been able to duplicate, splitting water can be a difficult and expensive process. (Unsurprisingly, interest in artificial photosynthesis research tends to rise and fall with oil prices.) The earliest attempts to simulate electron transport involved using sunlight to activate a circuit between platinum catalysts, or materials that facilitate a chemical reaction. Newer methods increase efficiency by running an electric current through the catalysts, developing better solar cells to directly feed energy into the system, and using cheaper metals as catalysts.

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If the goal is to produce hydrogen, which can be used as fuel, the process can stop there. However, there are cheaper ways to produce hydrogen, so the end goal is usually to keep going and create hydrocarbon fuels such as methane or butane, ideally using waste carbon from emissions. Plants make fuel for living things, so the desired result is conceptually similar. The trouble is that plants use complicated enzymes to create sugars from carbon, and the enzymes are damaged by the process. Plants easily repair their enzymes, but constructed materials are harder to fix. Several ongoing efforts have been trying to work around the problems by using solar electricity to split water and various bacteria to create the hydrocarbons. This approach is sometimes called a “living catalyst.”

The French researchers claim to have a fully artificial system, creating ethylene and ethane, both potent fuels, from the common mineral perovskite. The French system, as all the others, is still a prototype in a lab and a long way from being a functional way to produce sustainable fuel at scale—but it’s a promising start.

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The Weather Forecast That Saved D-Day

By Matthew Wills

On June 6th, 1944, Operation Overlord began on the Normandy coast. It was the beginning of the liberation of Nazi-occupied France. More than a dozen nations contributed soldiers, the great majority from America, Britain, and Canada. The ultimate goal was the defeat of Nazism.

Most Allied invasions and landings in World War II began with a “D-Day.” The D stood, in military redundancy, for “day”—the day-day of the invasion. But this D-Day was different, an unparalleled undertaking involving more than two million Allied personnel. Of course, those involved in Overlord couldn’t know if the invasion would be a success. It all came down to the weather, the tides, and the amount of moonlight. Low tide, small waves, and a moonlit night were essential.

As geographer Mildred Berman explains, weather forecasting was fairly rudimentary in those days. There were no satellites, telecommunications, or supercomputers. “One or two days of continuously overcast sky with low clouds could bring the entire undertaking to a halt,” she writes, quoting a general who said weather “would remain as constant an enemy as the Germans.”

Berman writes,

The success or failure of the grand design would be controlled by a combination of elements, not only the moon and its effect on the tides but also sea swells, breaking surf, beach surfaces, and visibility in the air and on the ground…All the desired conditions for tides occurred on only six days a month, but optimum conditions for tides and moonlight occurred on only three days a month, which in June 1944 were the 5th, 6th, and 7th.

Cancelling these dates would mean a delay of two weeks at least, something logistics, secrecy, and hundreds of thousands of troops in the south of England could hardly bear. June 5th was the initial choice, but the 4th saw December-like high winds, five-foot waves, and four-foot surf. Planning shifted to June 6th.

American assault troops at Omaha Beach
American assault troops at Omaha Beach via Wikimedia Commons

Berman recreates the frantic back-and-forth between weathermen and military brass. At 3:30 a.m. on June 5th, “winds were almost hurricane strength, rain was driving in horizontal sheets, and roads to Allied headquarters in Portsmouth were morasses of mud.” Meteorologists predicted that the next morning, however, would see a brief break in the miserable weather, aligning with the optimal moon and tides. So just after midnight, on June 6th, airplanes with 18,000 airborne troops started their motors.

Berman comments on the vital weather-data gap:

German meteorologists had failed to predict the break in the weather that prompted the Allied decision, because they simply did not have sufficient data. Due to high winds and heavy overcast on 5 June, German naval patrols were canceled, mine layers restricted to port, and the Luftwaffe was grounded.

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel thought an invasion so unlikely in the bad weather that he returned to Germany for his wife’s birthday… and to ask for more tanks for what he considered a woefully under-defended Atlantic coast.

In 2018, oceanographer John Vassie and engineer Byung Ho Choi ran a “hindcast simulation” using all the modern tools of weather forecasting and “coupled tide-wave-storm surge physics” to see how good the original forecast was. They found “the tidal prediction at invasion at Omaha Beach [one of the five targeted beaches] was reasonably accurate.”

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Back in 1944, however, German commanders were convinced the Normandy landings were actually a diversion for a main assault at Pas de Calais, the narrowest part of the Channel. They should have been solving the Daily Telegraph’s crossword puzzle, which in the weeks prior to D-Day had answers that were the codewords for the operation.

The Allies suffered at least 10,000 casualties during the initial landings. There would be many more before Germany’s unconditional surrender in May of 1945.

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The Big Picture: Trump’s Attack on Knowledge

On any particular policy, we can always hope President Trump will flip-flop. Expel the Dreamers; save the Dreamers. Maybe he’ll keep the US in the Paris climate ...

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Is Plastic Pollution Depriving Us of Oxygen?

By Lina Zeldovich

The plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans entangles wildlife, kills birds that swallow it mistaking it for food, and seeps into the food chain, showing up in fish that humans eat. A major threat to the ocean, this plastic pollution is estimated to cause more than $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year. Turns out, it also disturbs important ocean bacteria, and the effects are far more profound than one may think.

Dispersed throughout the upper 200 meters of ocean, abundant and important bacteria known as Prochlorococcus govern many processes that happen not only inside that water, but also on land. These tiny green species have been called the ocean’s invisible forests because they perform similar functions to what plants do on earth. Prochlorococcus are photosynthetic organisms—they use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, adding it to the atmosphere like miniature plants. They are a type of Cyanobacteria, which were the planet’s first oxygen-producing creatures—so they are essentially the ancestors of today’s plants.

Prochlorococcus may be the most plentiful microorganisms on the planet. They produce nearly ten percent of the all the oxygen we breathe. A single drop of ocean water can contain 20,000 of them. But despite their abundance, they managed to evade modern science until fifteen years ago, when Sallie W. Chisholm from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Robert J. Olson from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution first discovered the species. Passing the ocean water through a flow cytometer—a device that detects and measures physical and chemical characteristics of particles suspended in fluids—the scientists noticed the cells, which were later named Prochlorococcus.

Prochlorococcus Dividing. Courtesy of Chisholm Lab.

Because there is less sunlight in the deep-sea water column, Prochlorococcus evolved to harvest light very efficiently. It is also a major player of the global carbon cycle. But scientists at the Macquarie University in Australia have found that these bacteria are susceptible to plastic pollution, which interferes with their growth, functioning, and oxygen production.

Working in lab settings, the team exposed two strains of Prochlorococcus, which live at different depths in the ocean, to chemicals leached from two common plastic products: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and plastic grocery bags, which are made from high-density polyethylene.

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The scientists found that exposure to these chemicals impaired Prochlorococcus’s growth and function, including the amount of oxygen they produce. It also altered the bacteria’s expression in many of their genes. “We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis, and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus,” says Macquarie University researcher Sasha Tetu, lead author of the study published in Communications Biology. Moreover, the higher the concentration of the plastic pollution, the thinner the density of the bacterial population. The team’s next step would be to take their experiments out to sea and see how Prochlorococcus fare in nature. “Now we’d like to explore if plastic pollution is having the same impact on these microbes in the ocean,” Tetu says.

Is oxygen deprivation looming ahead? The diminished oxygen production will have a ripple effect through the earth’s ecosystems. “Plastic leachate exposure could influence marine Prochlorococcus community composition and potentially the broader composition and productivity of ocean phytoplankton communities,” the authors note in the study. We won’t start suffocating any time soon, but the magnitude of these changes isn’t yet understood.

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The Lowdown on Municipal Trash Incinerators

By James MacDonald

Currently, most of Baltimore’s household trash is burned in a massive incinerator. Faced with stricter air pollution regulations, however, the incinerator has not been permitted to renew its contract and by 2021 will either have to to invest in more expensive pollution-scrubbing technology, or close down.

Municipal waste incineration has been around since 1875, when the first “destructor” was patented. According to environmental law scholars Sara Imperiale and Wang Pian Pian, writing in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, incineration is now widely practiced in developed countries such as Denmark and Japan, alongside composting and recycling.

Imperiale and Wang looked at waste disposal in China, where a vast population and a rising middle class are generating unsustainable amounts of waste. Many of China’s urban landfills are out of space, leaving municipalities scrambling for alternatives such as incineration.

The main advantage of incineration is that it saves space—it’s no accident that it is so common in small countries where available open space for landfill is severely limited. In many cases waste heat from the incinerator is also captured and used to produce energy. One disadvantage is air pollution, especially toxic dioxins from improperly burned trash. Incineration also creates a very unpleasant ash, known as bottom ash. In many developed countries, however, this bottom ash is recycled for use in paving, fill, or building materials.

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In addition to air pollution concerns, incinerators are also noisy and attract trucks full of trash, so generally, people don’t want them too close to their homes. Unfortunately,  incinerators are typically located in low income communities that lack the political influence to resist. In areas with lax regulations, such as China, poorly-regulated incinerators located too close to residences in underserved communities can lead to documented health and safety concerns. Legal remedies exist sometimes, but not always. Often communities get stuck in a situation where the presence of one polluting industry attracts others.

Modern pollution-capture technology and good management can reduce the negative impacts of trash incinerators. Upgrading the Baltimore facility is one option; scrubbers and other technologies can reduce the air pollution the incinerator produces. But such upgrades are expensive and may not mollify neighbors. A truly zero-waste incinerator does not exist.

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The Big Picture: Defending Society

Why, today, are many of the most antidemocratic voices in the United States not merely protected by Constitutional freedoms but draping themselves in them?

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The Prince of Quacks (and How He Captivated London)

By Benjamin Winterhalter

Let me set the scene: In late eighteenth-century England, ladies and gentlemen flocked to exhibitions of solar microscopes. The miniature world of mites and polyps was blown up and cast on the wall like a magic lantern show. The ladies and gents might have witnessed Sir William Hamilton’s Vesuvian Apparatus, with its simulated flowing lava and drumbeat explosions.

It was the age of scientific entertainment, the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment colliding with the passion of the Romantic spirit. These exhibitions demonstrated scientific control of nature at the same time that they overawed their viewers with the sublime grandeur of natural forces at play.

Electricity, newly harnessed, was “the youngest daughter of the sciences.” High society aristocrats held electrical soirées in which they shocked one another with electrified kisses. They marveled at green and blue luminescence swirling in aurora flasks. King Louis XV even employed a court electrician, Jean Abbe Nollet, who devised spectacular electrical experiments for the entertainment of the court. On one occasion, the electrician lined up a row of several hundred monks and ran a current through them, sending them all leaping up into the air at the same moment. To the witnesses of these spectacles, electricity was something almost miraculous, an “ethereal fire” that connected the roars and flashes of the heavens to the inner workings of the human body.

Enter James Graham, a man who the British Medical Journal described as “one of the vilest imposters in the history of quackery.” Handsome and dapper, Graham benefitted from his undeniable flair for showmanship and his talent for leaping on trends. In 1780, he opened his “Temple of Health,” a medical establishment on the fashionable Pall Mall street in London. It was a lavish home for Graham’s much-touted “medico-electrical apparatus,” which he proudly proclaimed the “largest, most stupendous, most useful, and most magnificent, that now is, or ever was, in the World.”

The entrance hall to the Temple was scattered with discarded walking sticks, ear trumpets, eyeglasses, and crutches, supposedly cast away in fits of exuberant health by the beneficiaries of Graham’s cures. Perfume and music, played by a band concealed under the stairs, wafted on the air. Guests were paraded past one electrical marvel after another: flint glass jars blazing with captive sparks, gilded dragons breathing electrical fire, a gilded throne on which Graham’s patients sat to receive their curative shocks. Among the jars and columns Emma Hart (later to become famous as Lord Nelson’s mistress) posed in gauzy Grecian robes as Hebe, the Goddess of Youth.

Some came to be treated, some simply to gawp. Many came to hear Graham’s lectures, which were famously titillating. At the end of each lecture, the guests were shocked (literally) by conductors concealed in their seats. Then, a gigantic, gaunt “spirit” would emerge from a hidden trapdoor, bearing a bottle of “aetherial balsam” to be distributed to the guests.

A depiction of James Graham's 'Celestial Bed'
A depiction of James Graham’s Celestial Bed. Getty

The most infamous feature of the Temple of Health was Graham’s Celestial Bed. Borne up on forty pillars of colored glass, perfumed with flowers and spices, and humming with vivifying electricity, the bed (according to Graham) guaranteed conception. “Any gentleman and his lady desirous of progeny, and wishing to spend an evening in this Celestial apartment… may, by a compliment of a fifty pound bank note be permitted to partake of the heavenly joys it affords,” Graham wrote. “The barren certainly must become fruitful when they are powerfully agitated in the delight.” The bed featured an adjustable frame, so that it could be set at various angles.

With his devices and his medicines, Graham claimed to have “an absolute command over the health, functions and diseases of the human body.” He confidently predicted that he would live to at least 150, healthy all the while. The English poet laureate Robert Southey, who met James Graham, described him as “half knave, half enthusiast.” That is, he bought into his own hype, but he was a con man all the same.

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James Graham may not have been much of a doctor, but he was a master of aesthetics. His Temple of Health was, ultimately, a performance, a stage on which he enacted his cosmic drama: the fire of the heavens, carried down to Earth for the benefit of humankind. His cures may not have worked, per se, but they worked for his audience because they fit precisely into their worldview. Graham wrote that, when confronted with the grandest apartment in his Temple, “words can convey no adequate idea of the astonishment and awful sublimity which seizes the mind of every spectator.” To have lightning coursing through your body may be the most literal possible version of the Romantic encounter with nature’s terror and majesty.

The Temple of Health didn’t last long, however. By 1782, Graham was bankrupt. He was forced to sell off the Temple’s lavish accoutrements, including the Celestial Bed. It didn’t take him long to develop a new angle. By 1790, he was promoting a new theory that the human body could absorb all the nutrients it needed through contact with soil. Thenceforth, he delivered his lectures buried up to the neck in dirt.

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Three Ways to Turn Your Apartment into a Sustainable Garden

By Lina Zeldovich

Urban parks and gardens help city dwellers stay connected with nature. Then there is the growing trend of gardening within one’s living space—no matter how small. These urban gardens comprise their own unique ecosystems. More than just houseplants, if done right, these urban mini-gardens can be lush and green even inside the tiniest spaces—in courtyards, on balconies, or inside living rooms.

Got a Courtyard? Dig Right In.

If you live in a large building with an unpaved courtyard, you’re in luck. You can easily arrange a few flowerbeds or vegetable patches, planting right into the ground. If your courtyard is paved, a few raised beds filled with topsoil from a store might be an easier solution.

According to Kate Smalley of Small Spaces Garden Design, when choosing what to plant, it’s important to take into account your environment, assessing what’s around or what may be growing in your neighbors’ yards. If you are planting into the ground and your neighbors have tall, sprawling trees, those trees will provide shade on hot summer days, but will draw moisture from the soil. And if your courtyard is very narrow or has tall fences, getting enough sunlight may be a challenge. The buildings or boundary fences can cast a shadow over your beds, blocking light and rainfall. In these cases, shade-loving plants may be a good choice. If your beds aren’t getting enough rainwater, you will have to water them by hand. Another option may be installing a drip irrigation system, possibly connected to a battery-operated timer to assure that the plants get water regularly.

A Few Pots on the Front Porch

No matter how small front porches and balconies are, they can fit a few pots, whether on the floor or hanging from the rails. Unless the space is covered, your plants will likely receive some sunlight and rainfall. If you are planting on a balcony, which is elevated by definition, your miniature garden will likely be more exposed to the drying effects of the winds. Placing your pots in saucers with water isn’t a good solution because it stops oxygen from getting to the root zone and roots need air just as much as they need water. Using bigger planters would help preserve moisture, and also allow you to grow some small trees. When planting on a balcony you have to consider the weight of your miniature garden. If you are aiming to use larger pots or troughs, opt for lightweight containers, such as fiberglass rather than concrete or stone.

Permaculture experts Dan Palmer and Adam Grubb suggest using wicking beds—containers that water the plants from ground up by maintaining a layer of water on the bottom, which slowly rises up. Wicking beds are a perfect solution for busy horticulturists who don’t always have time to water their gardens and for those who travel frequently.

Give Your Living Room a Living Wall

If you have no outdoor options, you can green your inside space. Who says you can’t have an herb garden on your wall? Vertical horticulture goes back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More recently, living walls have become a popular trend, partially in response to the increasing urban population density.

Small planters can be attached to the walls. This article in ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future suggests Woolly Pockets made of recycled polyethylene, which can sustain herbs that have shorter roots. An assemblage of such wall-mounted Woolly Pockets can grow a variety of edible herbs, including oregano, thyme, parsley, basil, and rosemary. Non-edible plants that would look good on a wall are ground covers and grasses, especially of different colors and foliage shapes. Ferns and some flowers, such as fuchsia and begonia, can make your wall even more picturesque by adding color and blooms.

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Because small pots dry out quickly, vertical gardens are best combined with an automatic watering system that is programmed to supply water to each pocket for a few minutes a day. You will also need to keep all that moisture away from the wall, so stretching a piece of plastic between the wall and the planters is a good idea.

Got a bigger garden? Here’s how you can turn it into a carbon sink.

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