1. Green Worker Cooperative’s Co-op Academy , The Bronx, N.Y.
Ideas for co-ops may flourish, but few people understand exactly how to make theirs real. The Co-op Academy is providing answers. Founded four years ago by Omar Freilla (who recently made Ebony magazine’s list of the Power 100), the academy runs 16-week courses that offer intensive mentoring, legal and financial advice, and help with designing logos and websites.
Run by the South Bronx-based Green Worker Cooperative, the academy guides up to four teams per session through the startup process and has graduated four organizations now thriving in New York City. These include Caracol Interpreters, which is raising the bar on interpreter wages, and Concrete Green, which focuses on environmentally sound landscaping. Six more co-ops are in the pipeline.
“I’m amazed at how little knowledge and information is out there for the average person about how co-ops function and how to start one,” says Janvieve Williams Comrie, whose mother-owned cooperative Ginger Moon also came out of the program. “That’s one thing the Co-op Academy really provides, the hands-on know-how.”
Even money for tuition ($1,500 per team) gets the treatment. Mr. Freilla is adamant that teams fundraise to cover that cost—even if they can foot the bill themselves.
“By fundraising for the registration fee, you are promoting the vision for your cooperative, gaining supporters, and creating a buzz before the program even starts,” he says. “That is just the kind of support that will propel your business forward, and while you’re doing it you’ll be getting an early opportunity to see just how well you and your teammates work together.”
2. Red Clouds Collective , Portland, Ore.
They shared an active, outdoorsy lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest. They shared a talent for creative work. It seemed logical for the group of friends to leave their corporate jobs to form Red Clouds Collective, a Portland manufacturer of handcrafted canvas and leather gear. The worker-owner cooperative pools the talents of a variety of artists and allows them to make a living as craftsmen beyond what any of them could do individually. A percentage pay system benefits the original designer, the assembler, and the collective. After one year, business is great. What’s popular? theGOODbook™, a leather wallet/iphone case/sketchbook all in one.
3. Seward Community Cafe , Minneapolis
It’s one thing to run a successful cooperative business, and quite another to lend a hand to the competition. But that’s exactly what the Seward Cafe in Minneapolis did, loaning $10,000 to Hard Times Cafe when the nearby worker-run restaurant was struggling through an extended closure due to repairs. “
They’re like our little sister,” says Nils Collins, a worker at Seward, which is the oldest collectively run restaurant in the country. “We can’t function in an environment where everything is corporate-owned. It’s a lot more effective to have mutual support and solidarity.” The two businesses often help each other with tax-form preparation and even food delivery.
“We call it a friendly rivalry,” said Hard Times’ bookkeeper Rozina Doss. “A worker-run business has its own set of difficulties, so our relationship is just a recognition that other people have the same commitment that we do to changing the way work is done.”
4. Patient/Physician Co-ops , Houston
Don McCormick, a former health insurance executive, opened a free, charity-funded clinic to better understand the problems in health care and stumbled onto something that surprised him: Uninsured people were willing to pay a nominal monthly fee—like $18—if it guaranteed access to medical care.
Then McCormick learned that doctors actually earned more by billing patients directly—even at those nominal fees—than they did by going through Medicare, Medicaid, or HMOs. With that realization, McCormick founded the Houston-based Patient/Physician Cooperative in 2005, which now has 60 participating clinics. Members of PPC function as a group, which allows them to purchase health care at affordable prices. There are no co-payments or qualifications for those with pre-existing conditions, and the model has since spread to North Carolina and Portland, Ore.
“This turned into a very practical solution,” McCormick says, “and it’s better than what anyone else is proposing.”
5. Community Food Forest , Providence, R.I.
The new plantings at Roger Williams Park hover around three feet tall. But in a few years, they’ll sprout leafy greens and medicinal herbs. All will be available to harvest for free, along with wild mushrooms, tubers, and fiber. The edible forestry project, which broke ground in April 2012, is a partnership between the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners and city officials at Roger Williams Park.
The location is no accident. More than 83 percent of nearby residents live in a USDA-declared food desert, with little access to supermarkets selling fresh produce. But in years to come, the edible forest, which sits adjacent to a community garden, will provide nuts, mulch, fruit, and fuel.
Similar projects are popping up in other urban areas. The Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle—funded in part with a $20,000 grant from the city’s Department of Urban Neighborhoods—is the largest edible forest on public land in the nation.
6. Community-Owned Mercantile, Port Townsend, Wash.
“We live here, work here, invest here. We just want to buy some socks here,” reads the motto of Quimper Mercantile in Port Townsend, Wash. After the town’s general store closed in 2011, residents of this out-of-the-way town found themselves with few nearby options for buying basic goods, and they weren’t interested in inviting Wal-Mart to move in.
Their solution? A dozen activists and business owners raised $50,000, formed a corporation, and began selling shares to friends and neighbors. To date, 1,008 folks have invested—a hundred-dollar share at a time—$570,000, and Quimper Mercantile opened for business in October 2012.
When the bankroll reaches $950,000 investors can start trading their shares. “We’re a for-profit venture, not a co-op,” says Peter Quinn, CEO. “So it’s essentially buying stock in a startup, with all the usual possibilities and risks.” At this fledgling stage, participation is motivated less by profit-seeking than community-building. “A much more altruistic purpose,” Quinn says.
7. Buying land as a cooperative, Duvall, Wash.
Mobile homes provide a source of long-term, low-income housing but, vulnerable to rate increases or eviction, it’s hardly stable. Last year, in Duvall, Wash., 24 mobile-home dwellers joined to create a cooperative and purchase their trailer park. Final price: $1.18 million.
That sounds pretty steep, but Ben Guss, a facilitator with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, linked the residents to funding through ROC USA Capital, which has made loans to 125 such communities across the country. For the Duvall project, ROC partnered with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, and now for $475 a month—just $15 more than they were paying before—each member of the newly named Duvall Riverside Village Co-op is an owner.
“It’s great to change from having Damocles’ Sword in the air that you know can fall,” said Stewart Davidson, who lives there and serves as board president. “When I pass, my wife can live here and not be worried about having a knock on the door with someone saying, ‘Here’s your notice, you’re out.’”
• Claudie Rowe wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Claudia has been an award-winning social issues journalist for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
While these claims might be a bit overstated, social franchising works. The best examples come from sectors as diverse as nutrition and sustainable energy, but they all share common threads:
There’s usually an existing market failure, a simple business model that can be used over and over again, a partnership between transnational and local NGOs, and – ultimately – a cheap, innovative product or process that does what the market didn’t.
Global Envision has covered a number of franchises in the past. Here’s how our five favorites work:
Tiendas de la Salud, Guatemala
With expertise from Mercy Corps and money from the Linked Foundation, a pilot project brought 36 franchised stores to rural Guatemala, where 53 percent of the population lives in poverty. The stores provide affordable generic medications where health services are otherwise nonexistent. The business model has been so successful that it was purchased by local commercial pharmacy chain Farmacias de la Comunidad, which has plans to expand the project to rural areas across the country.
Read more here.
Founder Michel Lescanne had already revolutionized malnutrition treatment with Plumpy’Nut, a peanut and milk product that would allow patients to regain strength and recover at home rather than taking an expensive and often lengthy trip to the hospital. Taking a cue from McDonald's and Coca Cola, local manufacturers and distributors get the product to their markets, and Nutriset collects a royalty fee. This keeps Plumpy’Nut cheap, while Nutriset gets paid so they can do more research.
Read more here.
The HealthStore Foundation, Kenya
In 2000, Scott Hillstrom and Eva Ombaka set up a network of microfarmacies and microclinics to combat a host of treatable diseases accounting for 70 to 90 percent of all childhood deaths in Kenya. These franchised Child and Family Wellness Shops provide both essential drugs to treat infectious diseases and basic medical services, allowing them to reach more than 2.5 million Kenyans by turning nurses into entrepreneurs.
Read more here.
KeBAL food carts, Indonesia
A new food cart franchise is battling malnutrition in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mercy Corps teamed up with Dutch nutrition company DSM and Rabobank to develop street food that kids would enjoy while providing missing nutrients, supplied as an added mix by DSM. Initially piloted in 2009, the social franchise is working toward financial sustainability while exposing DSM to the massive base-of-the-pyramid market in Jakarta.
Read more here.
Husk Power Systems, India
Husk Power has been quietly leading a green revolution in India with its biomass-powered microgrids, which have already served over 200,000 customers. Backed by Acumen Fund, the group hopes to reach 5 million people over the next five years, providing a credible solution to India’s vast power needs. The key to its success? Developing a cheap generator that local franchisees can use to power a miniature grid for their village. To provide a cheap source of fuel, the generator runs on biomass waste that abounds on Indian farms.
Read more here.
Dana Frasz is a food entrepreneur. She wants to recycle food, taking the food that’s not consumed and putting it into the hands of those who cannot afford it. She wants companies to stop wasting so much food – at the grocery story and in restaurants. She wants us all to be aware of how much we’re throwing in the dustbin.
Too idealistic? Frasz would argue otherwise. Hear her talk about her passion – FoodShift.
How much waste is there currently in the United States and how accurate are these figures?
Forty percent of all the food produced in the US is wasted.
This figure is from national experts on food waste – author Jonathan Bloom wrote “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half its Food” and Dana Gunders has been researching this issue at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
What are grocery stores doing currently to prevent food waste? Are there any policies in place to prevent this?
Some grocery stores are donating excess food or marking down the prices of food that is still good but may be past its peak freshness, damaged in some way or cosmetically imperfect. There is a federal policy in place to encourage food donation. It’s called the Good Samaritan Food Act and it was passed specifically to encourage the donation of food. It protects food donors from liability as long as they are donating to a nonprofit. Many food donors can also receive tax deductions for their donations.
What has been the toughest part for you, as an activist and a social entrepreneur, in this effort?
I am really disturbed by the excessive waste and consumption in American culture.
Our materialistic lifestyles in the US have negative social and environmental impacts around the world. Rather than living in harmony with the earth, we are perpetuating a culture that is dependent on exploitation, extraction, and acquisition. Food waste is not only a waste of nutrition, it squanders water, depletes soil, wastes fossil fuels, and adds greatly to the world’s carbon footprint.
What is your solution?
Food Shift is working with Oakland, Calif., schools to ensure surplus food from the cafeteria is redistributed to students and families rather than thrown in the garbage. We are working with a local grocer who has expressed interest in paying Food Shift to recover food from their stores. This would allow us to employ someone in the process while reducing waste disposal costs for the business. We are interested in developing food recovery and redistribution models that increase access to more nutrition food, reduce waste, and generate revenue in some way so they can sustain and scale – like low-cost markets and value-added products.
How feasible is it?
We have trash and recycling removal in this country, why not have a food-recovery service sector that recovers and redistributes surplus food as an extension of our current waste management system?
It may sound crazy, but it is realistic strategy and could create a lot of jobs in the green economy. Generating revenue from food that would otherwise be wasted is possible, but by no means easy. It’s a difficult challenge to ensure food safety, to establish new distribution channels, and to pilot new models that are outside of the current norm.
Why do stores not simply list fresh foods items as 50 percent off at night, an hour or so before closing? That seems to make sense to avoid waste and still make some money.
It makes so much sense – and people love a good deal. Berkeley Bowl estimates it sells $1,500 per day of produce off its bargain shelf, which offers bags of damaged or nearly expired produce for 99 cents. Andronico's Community Markets is running a program with Food Star to sell cosmetically imperfect produce at a low cost, and Zero Percent is a technology that is allowing food establishments to post their surplus through an online application at either a discount or for donation. These are all great innovations that more businesses should adopt to reduce waste, save money, and protect the environment.
Are there models for food waste elsewhere in the world (that you’ve read or seen) that you would like to see implemented here in the US?
The United Kingdom is leading the way on this issue. A campaign there called Love Food Hate Waste has reduced food waste by 18 percent over the course of five years. The UK has also standardized date labels so they are not so confusing for consumers. Many grocery stores there provide storage instructions for fruits and vegetables and informational tips and ads are displayed in over 12,000 stores. Instead of buy-one-get-one-free promotions, some UK stores are piloting a buy-one-give-one-free or get one later program. I also really like Rubbies in the Rubble – a company in the UK making jam and chutney from rescued produce.
What can each person do?
Become a food waste champion within your family and circle of friends! There are lots of recipes and other tips online. Here is a storage guide.
From June 7-9, aspiring social entrepreneurs, designers, and developers will get a chance to try out new business ideas with expert coaches and judges, and to compete for prizes. International NGO Mercy Corps is hosting the competition, called Tech4Change, at its global headquarters in Portland, Ore., in collaboration with Seattle-based Startup Weekend and a host of local tech accelerators and mentors.
Like other Startup Weekends, the event schedule is intense: In less than 54 hours, participants must pitch, build, and present tech-oriented social enterprise concepts. If the crowd selects an initial concept as one of the top 12, the entrepreneur assembles a team of designers, developers, business project managers, and marketers from the weekend's attendees to help build a minimum viable product – a sort-of prototype – by the end of the weekend. The teams then present their new social enterprises to the panel of judges, and at 9 p.m. the event concludes with winners receiving their prizes.
Entrepreneurs might be surprised to learn that nonprofits aren't the only ones interested in Tech4Change, said event lead Allison Deverman Vietor of Mercy Corps.
RECOMMENDED: Think you're a true geek? Take our quiz
Many profit-maximizing investors are eager to gain access to the “base of the pyramid” – those living on $5 a day or less – a huge market with billions of potential new customers. Attendees will learn how to design and market “bottom of the pyramid” products and strategies from experts in the field at Mercy Corps, Thoughtworks, and Manifesto.
But nonprofits are also setting their scopes wide, hoping the weekend can generate job-creating ideas that they can take abroad to create employment in areas where it's needed. Mercy Corps Senior Director of Social Innovations Andy Dwonch explained:
”One billion jobs are needed in the coming decade just to keep up with current levels of global unemployment. We see that entrepreneurship and, in particular, entrepreneurship focused on opportunities in the digital economy, is one way to generate economic opportunities and jobs. Small businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises are the biggest engine for job growth in the world.”
RECOMMENDED: Think you're a true geek? Take our quiz
Focusing solely on social innovation is a new idea for Startup Weekend, and many entrepreneurs may need some support in developing business models with a double- or triple-bottom line. To help them along, Mercy Corps employees are attending both to mentor and participate, and Deverman Vietor hopes entrepreneurs will take this chance to get inside the heads of nonprofit experts and make new contacts.
As an added bonus, Global IT consultancy firm Thoughtworks is hosting a “boot camp” May 29th for registered participants to work on customer validation – designing products people want – and learn more about LEAN methodologies.
Tech4Change may be the first event of its kind, but Deverman Vietor hopes it won’t be the last. She predicts that by getting entrepreneurs and nonprofit experts together, the competition can create new solutions to old problems.
UPDATE (5/21): Relief is now pouring in from all over the world and President Obama has ordered federal aid to assist in the recovery. If you are not in the Oklahoma City area, the best thing to do right now is to donate using one of the links below. If you are in the area, local organizations are accepting gloves, flashlights, boots, and other rescue materials. Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief has a list of locations accepting donations.
Thousands of people have been displaced by a massive tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, Monday. Relief organizations are scrambling to bring aid to the area. You can help right now by taking the following actions:
• Donate to the United Way of Central Oklahoma, which can be earmarked specifically for tornado relief.
• Donate to the Red Cross, which has mobilized to help tornado victims throughout the Midwest. Text RED CROSS to 90999 to donate $10.
• Text GIVE OK to 80088 to donate $10 to the Tornado Relief Fund on GlobalGiving. You can also donate online.
• Donate to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Disaster Relief Fund. All donations go to "providing tree removal services, laundry services, and meals to victims."
• If you're in the pathway, follow these tips on what to do during a tornado.
• Residents are being asked for gloves, boots, toiletries, shovels, trash bags, dust masks, or cash. Bring these items to:
News 9 Studio
7401 North Kelley Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73111
As cultural institutions across the country struggle to attract young visitors, the Cleveland Museum of Art is embracing cutting-edge technology to try to lure new audiences to its collection of masterworks.
In the museum’s new Gallery One, visitors can try to match the expressions of faces in a painting or strike the pose of a sculpture in the collection and then share photographs of the results via social media. Display screens paired with original works of art show people how the pieces were made and where they come from.
The goal is to make the museum more welcoming, especially to young people who “mediate the world through the screen,” says David Franklin, director of the museum.
“The outcome is intergenerational,” he says. “But one of the inspirations was certainly trying to attract a younger demographic to the art museum, a demographic that might see the museum as off-putting or forbidding.”
The Collection Wall, a 40-foot touchscreen, features images of artworks grouped by theme, time period, and materials used, acting as a bridge between the interactive gallery and the rest of the museum. Visitors can create their own tours by saving their favorite pieces from the wall to an iPad, either their own or one borrowed from the museum.
The new space culminates with a gallery devoted to small exhibits. The first artwork exhibited was La Vie, a painting from Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period. The layout encourages visitors to take what they’ve learned from the interactive experiences to engage deeply with the artwork, says Mr. Franklin.
“There might be a temptation to put storage pictures there, works that wouldn’t necessarily belong in the main galleries,” he says. “But we’ve put works there of the highest order and therefore you’re interacting with the best of the best.”
The museum declined to reveal the total cost of the new gallery, saying only that it exceeded the $10 million grant the museum received from the Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation for the project.
As the museum world debates the best ways to incorporate technology, leaders of cultural institutions are watching the experiment at the Cleveland Museum of Art carefully, says Joshua Jeffery, manager of digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
“A lot of people were excited; a lot of people were really turned off,” he says. “But everyone was like, 'We can’t wait to see what’s going to happen.’”
For most of her 20-year marriage to Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs was content to be a behind-the-scenes philanthropist.
But a desire to change US immigration laws is bringing her into the media spotlight - albeit in a carefully managed way.
Ms. Powell Jobs has a net worth of about $11.5 billion, according to Bloomberg. Her husband, the Apple co-founder, wasn't a big philanthropist. And before his death, he did not join the "Giving Pledge," the organization started by Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage the world's wealthiest to donate at least half their wealth to charity. The site lists 114 people who have taken the pledge. Powell Jobs has not signed either.
But she has been a quiet donor of her time and money to many causes, especially to education.
RECOMMENDED: Meet the nine richest self-made women
In 1997, she started College Track, a non-profit organization that helps low-income students get into college, and graduate from college. The after-school program reaches kids starting the summer before high school and works with them throughout college. The program includes tutoring, extra-curricular activities and leadership classes. According to the website, 90 percent of the nearly 1,200 children who have participated in College Track programs have graduated from high school.
It was through her work at College Track that Powell Jobs got on the track to immigration reform. Some of the students in California in the program came into the US at a young age illegally. Now, as high school graduates, they are ineligible for state or federal college assistance. And that has led Powell Jobs to take a more public and active stance on the immigration.
“This continues to be a purgatory that they find themselves in,” Powell Jobs told The New York TImes recently. “It is one of these issues that seems discordant with what our country stands for.”
When the DREAM Act – which would have offered a path to citizenship for children living in the US illegally – failed to pass Congress, Powell Jobs began to flex her political and economic muscle. Through her Emerson Collective (which invests in education start-ups and gives education grants), she commissioned a film by Academy Award-winning filmmaker (Waiting for 'Superman,' An Inconvenient Truth) Davis Guggenheim. She's shown the 30-minute film ("The Dream is Now") to key members of Congress and launched a web site where it can be viewed.
Powell Jobs recently gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal, on the condition that the only topic she would discuss was immigration.
"Her profile is rising only of necessity and passion to change the system," said Ron Conway, a start-up investor who is a friend. "I don't think she necessarily wants to be in Washington all the time. I think it is based on the necessity of the issue." Conway told The Wall Street Journal that he saw her as "a catalyst, not a lobbyist."
RECOMMENDED: Meet the nine richest self-made women
Would men stop sexually harassing women, or at least understand what it feels like to be verbally and physically abused, if they were to experience it themselves?
One TV program in Egypt has looked at the issue of sexual harassment by doing just that.
“Awel el Khayt” – roughly translated as “The Thread”–- is a seven-episode series aimed at covering longstanding socio-political and economic problems in the North African country.
In a recently aired 30-minute episode titled “Sexual Harassment in Egypt,” young actor Waleed Hammad took to the streets of downtown Cairo dressed as a woman in order to experience harassment firsthand.
In the report, Hammad – who went out both veiled and unveiled to see whether that would make a difference – said he was followed by fancy cars with men in suits who would try to lure him into the vehicle.
On another occasion, he was followed by a man who seemed to be talking on the phone. The actor realized after a while that the man was in fact cautiously addressing him, proposing a paid appointment with another man in a hotel room.
“I realized that simply walking on the street, for a woman, is such a huge effort, a psychological effort and a bodily effort. It’s like women are besieged,” Hammad said.
“As a man [Hammad] takes to the streets to go about his daily business without much thought for what he is wearing, who is looking at him, and without the fear of being physically or verbally harassed,” Ramy Aly, the editorial consultant for the program told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“So dressing up as a woman was a real eye opener, an exercise in empathy.” Finding an actor willing to put on women’s clothing and walk the streets of Cairo wasn’t easy, Aly said.
Producers went to a number of casting agencies, but most actors refused. It took them two months to find Hammad.
Aly said the series is meant to fill a void in current affairs programming on Egyptian television, which has long been dominated by talk shows and TV debates but lacks factual programming formats.
“We decided to go for a mixed format where we would produce documentaries investigating issues like sexual harassment, food security, health care, and education, which we would use as a way of laying the ground for informed debate,” he said. “We wanted try and tackle some of the longstanding problems that Egypt faces in a different way.”
Sexual harassment is an endemic, longstanding, highly controversial, and sensitive subject in Egypt. A string of high-profile incidents of mass sex attacks in recent months has drawn global attention to the phenomenon.
“However,” Aly said, “society has by and large turned a blind eye to the everyday forms of sexual harassment that millions of Egyptian women experience every day on the street, public transport, and at work.”
Moreover, some men remain unsympathetic toward women who have been harassed, blaming them for dressing provocatively and calling the abuse upon them.
According to Aly, the reasons for sexual harassment are complex and include a number of stereotypes. It is fuelled by unemployment, poverty, lower chances of marriage, the Internet, pornography, and women going beyond their traditional roles as housewives and mothers.
However, none of the above provides an exhaustive, comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon, he said.
“We realized that we could not find a root cause, and so instead, the film engages in a kind of myth-busting exercise. [We found that] many perpetrators are married, they are both wealthy and poor men, and that women who are veiled in various degrees from niqab [full veil] to hijab [headscarf] are harassed in equal measure.”
They even came across a case in which a brother accidentally harassed his own sister.
In addition to Hammad’s experiment, the TV program also gathered testimonies of women who were victims of harassment. And, Aly said, it wasn’t easy getting them to open up.
“It is still a challenge to find nonactivist women who are willing to speak candidly about their experiences of sexual harassment because it is such a social taboo.”
One woman who took her harasser to court and got him convicted recounted being pressured to drop the charges during the first court hearing, and subsequently being threatened by his family, who said they would throw acid on her face.
“Nobody supported me, and to this day, not many people in my family know that I took him to court, and those that do know say, ‘How will you get married after what you have done?’ ” the woman said.
Hammad, after switching gender roles for the TV program, felt some empathy.
“I would say to all the women out there, God be with you. I know that it is such a devastating experience, and even as a man dressed as a woman, I don’t think I can claim to really understand what it feel like to be a woman under these circumstances,” Hammad said.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
Not long ago, a boatful of shellfish researchers and I cruised downstream toward a most unlikely structure bobbing at the mouth of one of the most urban bodies of water on the planet.
The 20-foot by 25-foot form ahead of us was an experimental raft that scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had placed at the mouth of New York City’s Bronx River last spring. Hanging beneath it were long, sock-like tendrils that had been seeded with Geukensia demissa, commonly known as ribbed mussels. The point of the two-year experiment was to see whether mussels would survive or even thrive given the industrial and organic effluent that flows from the Bronx into the greater New York Harbor. If the mussels did in fact prosper in this environment, it could have implications for how we might help clean up coastal waters in various parts of the world.
The idea of using bivalves like mussels, oysters, and clams to purify waterways has been on the minds of conservationists and scientists for decades. Perhaps because of a romantic nostalgia for the lost, billion-strong oyster colonies that once girded the coasts of the eastern US, millions of dollars have been put into oyster restoration projects, to mixed effect. But as mussel aquaculture grows in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, businessmen and scientists are increasingly considering the mussel, both as a way to produce a commercial product and to explore their potential as water filterers.
Uppermost on the minds of the researchers out on the Bronx River — a joint project of NOAA and the Long Island Sound Study — was whether certain types of mussels could be used to rid coastal waters of an onerous influx of nitrogen generated from sewage, fertilizers, and other pollutants. This “nutrient loading” can prompt algal blooms, which in turn deprive coastal waters of oxygen when the algae die and decompose.
“In areas where water quality is degraded... from nutrient over-enrichment, the ribbed mussel looks like a dependable partner to help us recycle lost nutrients back into useful products,” Gary Wikfors, an aquaculture expert and chief of the biotechnology branch at NOAA’s laboratory in Milford, Conn., said in an e-mail.
Other researchers also are investigating the beneficial effects of raising seaweed and kelp, in conjunction with bivalves, to clean coastal waters.
In macro-ecological terms, mussels and their bivalve kin are the intestines of coastal ecosystems. Their filters remove organic particulate matter from the water column, particularly phytoplankton. Oysters were long the bivalve of choice in the US, but the mussel has certain advantages that are being increasingly touted. Although an individual oyster can filter much more water — an estimated 20 to 30 gallons per day — mussels grow more densely than oysters.
Carter Newell, the founder of Pemaquid Mussel Farms in Damariscotta, Maine, and who had joined us on the Bronx River raft, explained that mussels do something that oysters in their present state of depletion don’t: They work in three dimensions. Oysters once built tremendous vertical reefs, many feet high, that accrued over centuries in places like the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound. But those wild reefs are mostly gone, and the time needed to rebuild them to a useful height is formidable. Meanwhile, mussel rafts, with their long tendrils of bivalves, can be immediately established in 3D, working throughout the water column at incredible densities.
“My mussel rafts are 40 feet by 40 feet,” Newell told me. “That means they can filter something like 5 million liters [1.3 million gallons] of water per hour.” Mussel rafts also provide habitat, something oyster reefs once did when they were bigger and more substantial. “I have counted 37 different species of invertebrates living among the mussels on their culture ropes,” said Newell, who has a Ph.D. in marine biology.
Mussels are also perhaps the easiest bivalve to grow. This is due to the tremendous amount of wild mussel seed, or “spat,” that still swims in American waters. Back when wild oysters were abundant, waterways were dense with oyster spat. But following the oyster’s collapse, oyster spat is increasingly rare.
“I first got the idea to grow mussels after Hurricane Irene,” Bren Smith, owner of the Thimble Island Oyster Company in Connecticut, told me recently. “After Irene there was just this incredible abundance of mussel larvae in the water and they set everywhere. Lobstermen were complaining that their traps were full of mussels. I realized all I’d have to do was provide the structure and I could have a mussel farm.”
The effects of Irene and other storms also highlight the mussel’s inherent hardiness. “Irene completely buried my oysters and killed them,” Smith told me.
“[Hurricane] Sandy did, too. The mussels — they were just hanging there on the ropes. They did fine.”
Eva Galimany, a marine biologist with the Institute of Sciences of the Sea in Barcelona and a member of the team working on the NOAA project in New York, noted the sheer abundance of saltwater mussel species (many more than oysters and distributed in intertidal zones throughout much of the world) means that mussels are adaptable to a wide range of conditions.
“From my experiments, they are great survivors, barely get sick, and can cope with many types of weather issues and toxins,” she said in an interview.
And since they can cope with difficult conditions it’s hoped that mussels could make it in places like the Bronx and theoretically be harvested and ground up for fish food, assuming they did not contain large quantities of toxics.
But some scientists believe there is only so much that mussels can do. A more diverse set of organisms, they maintain, will be needed to filter out the range of pollutants found in places like New York Harbor. For more than a decade, Thierry Chopin, a marine biologist at the University of New Brunswick, has been conducting research into the related field of “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture,” or IMTA, where salmon, mussels, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and seaweeds are all cultured together. His research in the Bay of Fundy shows that blue mussels and kelp can be cultivated and thrive thanks, in part, to the wastes produced by nearby pens of farmed Atlantic salmon.
His research has also revealed that seaweeds absorb persistent inorganic nutrients in the water column much more effectively than mussels. And unlike bivalves, which use oxygen as they filter and respire, photosynthetic seaweeds generate oxygen, making for a more oxygen-rich system — provided they are harvested before they die and decompose.
Moreover, Chopin believes seaweeds can safely remove toxic substances.
“The big problem is that if mussels filter phytoplankton and organic matter they also ingest all that comes with it, and that can be elements or chemicals that reach toxic levels,” Chopin said via e-mail. “What do you do with these mussels? Dump them somewhere? Then you create a pile of toxic material somewhere else.” Better in such areas, he said, to use seaweeds, which can be processed in what he calls an “Integrated Sequential BioRefinery” (ISBR). By breaking down different elements of seaweed in an ISBR, some parts can be used, for example, in cosmetics, while separating out pollutants.
Co-culturing seaweeds with mussels is something the Connecticut mussel grower Bren Smith has caught onto, although in far cleaner waters than New York Harbor. Along with his mussels, he expects this year to grow more than 10 tons of edible kelp, which he sells along with his bivalves at his community-supported fishery.
Although marine scientists hope that operations like Smith’s could build up US aquaculture potential, American growers face steep competition, primarily from Canada. Of the $108 million in mussels consumed in the US in 2012, the overwhelming majority came from Canada. Gary Wikfors of NOAA says that stressing the ecological advantages of culturing mussels is one way to expand the US mussel industry.
“More and more people who cultivate shellfish for food are trying to make the public aware of the environmental benefits, the ‘ecosystem services,’ of shellfish aquaculture,” said Wikfors.
Carter Newell of Maine has used the environmental benefits of mussel aquaculture to garner support for mussel farming along the Maine coast.
“Shellfish production is the economic argument for clean water,” Newell says. “If you’ve established a shellfish farming area and then some real estate development wants to come in, it’s very hard for them to get permits if they reduce the water quality, because edible shellfish require very clean water.”
Clean water is something in short supply at the mouth of the Bronx River. But as Newell and the NOAA scientists started pulling up yards of rope from underneath the experimental mussel raft, it did seem plausible that mussel culture could one day get going in New York — if not to produce edible mussels, then to grow mussels that would lend a hand in cleaning the water. Each and every mussel sock that we pulled up from beneath the raft was loaded with the ribbed mussels that had been set out the previous year. They had not only survived. They had thrived.
But most interesting of all was the experiment nature had conducted all by itself. On the human-planted raft, colonies of indigenous blue mussels had decided to set all along the ropes. It seems that now it is not only we who are considering the mussel. The mussel, in its way, is considering us.
• Paul Greenberg is the author of the James Beard Award winning New York Times bestseller Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. He is currently a fellow with The Blue Ocean Institute and the writer-in-residence at New York City’s South Street Seaport Museum. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he assessed the record of the US Clean Water Act on its 40th anniversary and reported on a controversial proposal to explore for oil and gas in the Atlantic Canyons off the US East Coast.
"If it bleeds, it leads." Ever hear that maxim of journalism? If you want readers, go with the scary, gruesome story—that's what gets hearts pumping and grabs attention.
But what grabs our attention can also scare the heck out of us and shut us down.
Scary news might "sell," but we can also feel so bombarded with the negative that our "why bother?" reflex kicks in. Fear stimuli go straight to the brain's amygdala, Harvard Medical School's Srinivasan Pillay explains. But, he adds, "because hope seems to travel in the same dungeons [parts of the brain] as fear, it might be a good soldier to employ if we want to meet fear."
So let's get better at using hope. It's a free energy source.
Hope isn't blind optimism. It's a sense of possibility—delight in the new and joy in creativity that characterizes our species. So let's break the good-news ban and become storytellers about real breakthroughs. (Below, don't miss my top 10 go-to's.) I'm convinced that in the process, we will strengthen our capacity to incorporate and act on the bad news as well.
After all, it's only in changing the small stories that we change the big, dangerous story—the myth of our own powerlessness. Remember, what we do and say doesn't just influence our friends, but also our friends' friends and our friends' friends' friends (yes, research shows it goes three layers out).
That's power! Here are some recent items that have made my day.
Renewables ramping up. With news of Keystone and tar sands and coal-crazy China, it's easy to think that renewable energy is going nowhere, but we'd be wrong. Between 2008 and 2012, the U. nearly doubled its renewables capacity. And in the first three months of this year, 82 percent of newly installed domestic electricity-generating capacity was renewable. Plus, installed capacity of new solar units during the first quarter of this year is more than double that of same period last year.
Globally, 13 countries now get 30 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources. And Germany—with cloud cover worse than Alaska's—gets 21 percent of its electricity from renewables. In 2010, Germany, which is slightly smaller in size than Montana, produced about half the world's solar energy. That could depress you, or, it could remind us of the vastness of untapped potential. In April, at the first Pathways to 100% Renewables conference in San Francisco, I heard scientists declare that there's absolutely no technical obstacle to our planet's reaching 100 percent renewable energy in a few decades.
Abetting the process, the cost of renewables is plummeting worldwide—that of electricity from large solar power plants fell by more than half, from $0.31 per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to $0.14 in 2012.
Wind wows. Denmark's wind energy alone provides about 30 percent of the country's electricity, making it the world leader as ranked by the share of a country's electricity that wind power provides. And US wind power? We're second only to China among the world's wind energy producers, with wind power equal to about 10 nuclear power stations or 40 coal-fired power stations.
Growing up in oil-centric Texas, I would have been the last person to predict my home state's leadership. But in the 1990s eight utility companies brought groups of citizens together to learn and to think through options. By the end of the process, they'd ranked efficiency higher than when they began, and the share of those willing to pay for renewables and conservation increased by more than 60 percent. Apparently, the utility companies listened: If Texas were a country, it would now be the world's sixth-ranking wind energy producer.
Cities, states, countries pledge to go clean: Eight countries, 42 cities, and 48 regions have shifted, or are committed to shifting within the next few decades, to 100 percent renewable energy in at least one sector (like electricity, transportation, or heating/cooling). In California, San Francisco, Lancaster, and San José have officially set their goal at 100 percent renewable electricity within the next decade. And if you're thinking, "Oh yeah, that's just California": Greensburg, Kan., set its goal at 100 percent renewable power for all sectors after the town was wiped out by a tornado in 2007.
Colorado's target is 30 percent renewable electricity by 2020, a standard that's helped spur success—especially when it comes to wind. And Vermont's energy plan is set to get the state to 90 percent renewable energy in all sectors by mid-century.
And whole countries? Iceland already gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables—three-quarters from large hydro and 25 percent from geothermal. In Costa Rica, it's about 95 percent—mainly from hydroelectric (which it's working to diversify), along with wind, biomass, and geothermal. Costa Rica's sights are set on becoming the world's first carbon-neutral country in time for its 2021 bicentennial. Absorbing more carbon will speed it along, so Costa Rica's forestry-financing agency is working with landowners to plant 7 million trees on cattle and coffee farms in the next few years.
Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland are also shooting to become the first carbon-neutral country. And Ethiopia unveiled plans to become a middle-income carbon-neutral country by 2025.
- Citizens clobber coal. Just since 2005, as part of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, citizens across the country have stopped more than 165 coal plants from opening and successfully pushed for the retirement of more than 100 existing ones. The campaign aims to retire one third of America's remaining 500 coal plants by 2020. And if you're not registering how important this is, consider that coal accounts for more than a third of US greenhouse gas emissions.
- Forests forever. In India, 10 million families take part in roughly 100,000 "forest-management groups" responsible for protecting nearby woodlands. Motivation is high, especially for women, because firewood still provides three-fourths of the energy used in cooking. Working collaboratively with the Indian government, these groups cover a fifth of India's forests; and they're likely a reason that India is one of the few countries in the world to enjoy an increase in forest cover since 2005.
And if you're not excited yet, try these two final tales:
Close to home: Four years ago in Magnolia Springs, Ala., the conservative town government passed the toughest land regulation in the South. It's spending a quarter-million dollars on a comprehensive plan to restore and protect its charming river from agricultural chemical runoff. "I'm a tree-hugging, liberal—I mean a tree-hugging conservative Republican! Which I know some people may say is an oxymoron," said Mayor Charlie Houser of this small town near Mobile. Brown pelicans are showing up again, says Houser, and he adds: "Cormorants up in the treetops ... Beautiful sight!"
Around the world: Three-fourths of Niger is desert, and news headlines focus on hunger there. But over two decades, poor farmers in the country's south have "regreened" 12.5 million desolate acres. In all, Niger farmers have nurtured the growth of some 200 million trees—discovering that trees and crops are not competitors but are complementary. The trees protect the soil, bringing big crop-yield increases, and they provide fruit, nutritious leaves, fodder, and firewood. Now young people are returning to villages in Niger, and school kids are learning to care for the trees, too.
Are you willing to step up as a solutions-news ban breaker?
Neuroscientists tell us our brains are "plastic," with new neuronal connections being created all the time, forming new "streambeds" in our brains that shape our responses to life. So isn't actively choosing what shapes our brains perhaps the most powerful ways to change ourselves, enabling us to change the world?
Facing unprecedented challenges, we can choose to remain open to possibility and creativity—not mired in despair. Surely, the latter is a luxury that none can afford. We can create and enthusiastically share a solutions story today, every day. It is a revolutionary act.
Here are my top picks to help you "break the ban":
Small Planet Institute
Ecologic Development Fund
ZERI (Zero Emissions Research Initiatives)
Your Olive Branch
World Future Council
OdeWire: News for Intelligent Optimists
• Frances Moore Lappé is a contributing editor to YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. This article is adapted from "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want."
Survival of the ... Nicest? Check Out the Other Theory of Evolution
A new theory of human origins says cooperation—not competition—is instinctive.
Marriage Equality Victories Show How Change Happens, One Step at a Time
Before 2004, no state allowed same-sex marriage. Today, it's legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. If you want to see how political progress is made, look to the local level.
Boston Aftermath Shows Nation Less—Not More—Afraid of Muslims
Despite the horrific attacks that followed the Boston bombing, the behavior of ordinary people and elected representatives shows improved tolerance of muslims and other immigrants.