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The Sweet Pursuit
Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive

Riding the Bicycle School Bus

De Cafe Racer poster 

Have you ever wondered how the exuberant energy of elementary school–aged children might be harnessed and put to good use? It seems the Dutch company De Café Racer has found a way, with a kid-powered bicycle intended to replace the traditional school bus.

The bike is pedaled by 1 adult (who is essential for steering and safety’s sake) and up to 10 children, reports Kate Malongowski in YES! Magazine. Designed for kids ranging in age from 4 to 12, the bike can reach a speed of 10 miles per hour, is available in a variety of colors—including blue, purple, red, and school-bus yellow—and has adjustable seats to accommodate its growing riders’ extra inches. In addition, the ride comes with a music system, a canvas cover to ward off rain, and an auxiliary electric motor for when the hills get too steep or the pedal pushers run out of steam.

The innovative cycle is beneficial on several levels, such as reducing pollution and combating childhood obesity, and De Café Racer hopes it will catch on outside of the Netherlands. So far, the company has sold about 25 of the bikes in Europe and has received inquiries from buyers in North America and South America as well.

When Co.Exist spoke with the bicycle’s builder, Thomas Tolkamp, about how he thinks the idea will fare internationally, he said that people from around the globe are intrigued: “We have gotten interest from…all over the world and all people are positive.”

Sources: YES! Magazine, Co.Exist 

Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.

A Givebox on Every Corner

Givebox, Berlin 1Decorated with brightly colored wallpaper and pots of cheery flowers, Giveboxes are festive additions to Germany’s city streets. The small structures, which look like a cross between a phone booth and a gardening shed, hold community-donated items that are free for the taking, says Dougal Squires on Slow Travel Berlin. Clothing, books, shoes, blankets, bags, lamps, glassware, and cologne are examples of the useful(ish) things up for grabs.

The idea for Giveboxes came from an anonymous Berliner known only as Andy or Andreas. (Go to Slow Travel Berlin’s website to hear an engaging interview with the Givebox founder.) Since the first Givebox debuted in Berlin last summer—constructed in an eyesore of a spot that was often used as an improvised public toilet—more have popped up in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, and elsewhere, with a miniature version making its way to San Francisco.

Cash-free shopping ventures are popular in many parts of the world, with freecycling and free stores found in North America and Europe. But Giveboxes offer an advantage, writes Chloe Lloyd in E Magazine:

The Givebox cuts out the middleman, hassle and arrangement requirements intrinsic to the better-known “freecycling.” The anonymity of the Givebox also supports the notion that it doesn’t matter who we are giving to as long as there is someone who is in need of goods that we no longer use.

To me, Giveboxes most closely call to mind the charming Little Free Libraries springing up in U.S. neighborhoods, which encourage passersby to leave a book or take a book. Both projects encourage community involvement and reuse, along with a pint-size dose of informal artistic expression.

Givebox, Berlin 2 

Givebox, Munich 

Want to build a Givebox in your town? Andy/Andreas offers plans, costs, and marketing materials on Givebox’s Facebook page, albeit in German. Let’s find a translator and keep up this communal spirit of giving—I’ve got a rice cooker, a dog-eared copy of The Stranger, and a 1960s red wool coat with your name on them.

Sources: Slow Travel Berlin, E Magazine 

Images via Givebox. 

Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.


The Closure Hustle

Locked doorYou need it. Everybody says so. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, a job, a relationship, or a pet, the one thing our culture insists will assuage your pain is closure—grief’s endgame. But is the concept of closure real, or is it just a way to exploit your heartache?

“Many bereavement scholars, grief counselors, and those grieving dismiss the idea of closure, but it continues to thrive in popular culture, politics, and marketing,” writes sociologist Nancy Berns in Contexts. Closure, which rose in popularity in the 1990s, “fits our culture’s quest to do things efficiently, following proscribed rules to get to a goal—in this case, an end to pain or loss. Since we are enmeshed in a consumer culture, it comes as no surprise that people turn to the marketplace to find grief rituals.”

And there are plenty of rituals to choose from: In the death care industry, where closure is king, a traditional funeral package can hover around $10,000. As cheaper cremations grow more common, funeral directors push viewings, which often require the cost of embalming, as necessary to reaching closure. There are also cremation-related products such as “memorial soil” (dirt mixed with ashes) and LifeGems (diamonds made from ashes); pet urns (to hold Fido’s ashes); and businesses like Air Legacy (to scatter ashes), all marketed as shortcuts to closure. The Everlife Memorials ash-scattering service, for example, claims that “aerial scattering offers a means of closure to families who are ready to take the final step in the grieving process.”

Other industries offer closure—for a fee—as well. Private investigators sell closure through the collection of evidence; psychics sell closure by offering answers from beyond; some forensic analysts even sell closure by hawking autopsies and the additional information they provide. And the growing divorce party industry sells products to help spurned wives and husbands shut the door on their marriages, with everything from party games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Ex to wedding ring coffins.

The business of closure reaches into the political realm, too. In an effort to advance their position, Berns writes, “death penalty advocates claim that killing a murderer will bring closure to the families of homicide victims.” She concludes:

The distorted message about grief that comes from closure marketing is this: You need closure. Salespeople and politicians have entered the business of grief counseling, but their advice is rooted in profits and politics. Expecting people to “find closure” within a particular time frame or after specific rituals does not help our understanding of grief. Selling products…in the name of closure exploits the emotional pain of grief, but it does not mean that closure exists or is needed.

That there is no finish line for grief frees you to experience it in a way that’s right for you. So, when it comes to the business of closure in your own life, consider leaving the door openeven just a crack—until you’re truly ready to ease it shut. 

Source: Contexts (article available to subscribers only) 

Image by Alcino, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.

Behold, the Power of Poop

toilet paper 

Excrement is an unexpected hero. While not a subject discussed in polite company, in both medical and environmental arenas poop is coming to the rescue.

Take, for example, the positive buzz surrounding fecal transplants, which are heralded as possible cures for everything from asthma and depression to Crohn’s disease, MS, and the bacterial gut infection c. difficile.

As its name suggests, a fecal transplant is the transfer of feces from a healthy donor to an ailing patient. The transfer, explains Pagan Kennedy in The Atlantic is performed using colonoscopy instruments to squirt a diluted stool sample from the donor into the large intestine of the patient. If all goes as it should, the donor sample repopulates the recipient’s intestine with a healthy amount of good bacteria.

While it doesn’t sound pleasant, the simple procedure yields surprisingly positive results—sometimes clearing up chronic symptoms in only two days. “Lately, stories about the success of at-home fecal transplants have been spreading across the Internet,” Kennedy writes. Such DIY fecal transplants are becoming popular due to the hesitation of mainstream clinicians who have yet to embrace poop as a miracle cure. “So far,” says Scientific American, “fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor.”

Still, some doctors are reporting remarkable successes, Scientific American continues: “[A]bout a dozen clinicians in the U.S., Europe and Australia have described performing fecal transplants on about 300 C. difficile patients. More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion.”

Our health isn’t the only thing that can be improved with feces, adds Sierra magazine’s Dashka Slater (with tongue in cheek): “In the future, poop will solve all our problems,” including environmental ones. She offers three examples of excrement’s energy prowess:

1) Dried flakes of human feces can be burned to produce energy. “The flakes, which resemble instant-coffee granules,” Slater says, “are made from dehydrated sludge, the fecal goo left behind after wastewater is treated.” Sixteen percent of the energy used by British water and sewage company Thames Water comes from human poo.

2) Elephant and panda poop contain bacteria that easily converts plants’ woody pulp into sugars. “Researchers at Mississippi State University (working with pandas) and at the Dutch technology company DSM (working with elephants) say that such bacteria could be key to producing cellulosic ethanol from biomass like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.”

3) Manure on large hog farms produces high levels of methane. “Now Duke University and Duke Energy have teamed up to harness pig-poop power, using the methane from a 9,000-head hog farm in North Carolina to run an electrical turbine,” says Slater. The project produces enough energy to light up the kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms—and bathrooms—of 35 area homes.

Sources: TheAtlantic, Scientific American, Sierra  

Image by macaron*macaron(EstBleu2007), licensed under Creative Commons 

Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.


Going Halfsies


How many times have you ordered an entrée at a restaurant only to leave a pile of food on your plate, dump the remains into a doggie bag, or stagger out the door with your pants unbuttoned? The new program Halfsies hopes to cut portion sizes for a good cause.

Halfsies identifies three food-focused problems in the United States. 1) Oversized servings. Most restaurant portions here are 2-4 times the recommended serving sizes, which contributes to our epidemic of overweight Americans. And portion size is a problem that keeps growing: 20 years ago, two slices of pizza added up to 500 calories; today, two slices weigh in at 850 calories. 2) Excessive food waste. Nearly half of the food produced in the United States is thrown in the trash. It’s commonly cited that every day we waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. 3) Hunger. More than 50 million Americans—and 1 billion people worldwide—are affected by food insecurity.

Combine these challenges, and “you have a dysfunctional feedback loop of waste, hunger and obesity,” says Beth Hoffman of Food + Tech Connect.

Halfsies wants to break this toxic pattern with a wonderfully simple initiative. When at a participating restaurant, choose a menu item with the Halfsies icon next to it and receive a half-portion. You’ll combat food waste as well as eat a healthier amount. You’ll also fight hunger: You pay full price for the plate, and the resulting proceeds are distributed to local nonprofit partners (60 percent), global hunger organizations (30 percent), and back into the Halfsies budget (10 percent).

Pilot programs will be launched in New York City and Austin, Texas, this spring. To learn more and help bring Halfsies to other parts of the country, view their beautifully commonsensical video here:


Sources: Food + Tech Connect, Halfsies 

Image via Halfsies. 


This Tiny, Bohemian Life

Roulotte de Campagne caravan 

Roulotte de Campagne wildflowersThe tiny house movement is undeniably romantic. Toss out your nonessential belongings, leave the responsibilities of your sprawling suburban home, and embrace the freedom and clarity of an unfettered life. Need more romance than that? Make your tiny home a real-life gypsy caravan.

In nineteenth-century Europe, elaborately painted wooden wagons, or vardos, were used by the Roma people (pejoratively called “gypsies”) as living quarters and work spaces. Several companies today, including Gypsy Vans, Windy Smithy, and Ingham & Fallon, produce modernized or replica wagons for sale.

Perhaps most appealing is Roulottes de Campagne, who offers caravans for rent in more than 75 windblown and wildflower-thick locations throughout the French countryside. “Roulotte de Campagne has redesigned the circus caravan, country caravan, or so-called gypsy caravan as a high-comfort way for city-dwellers to get away from it all and tap into their Bohemian spirit,” writes Kirsten Dirksen for *faircompanies.

“The Bohemian spirit is definitely a growing trend,” concurs Roulottes de Campagne. “More than ever before, caravans are the symbol of freedom without frontiers.”

Watch a video tour of one of their diminutive 10-foot by 26-foot dwellings below, and start cultivating your own bohemian dreams: 



Source: *faircompanies 

Images via Roulottes de Campagne. 


Galactic Gardens: How to Eat Local in Space

Lettuce leaves 

What must it feel like to be an astronaut: weightless, rocketing farther and farther from home and country, gazing out your craft’s window at the deepness of space, wondering where you can get a good salad...

As astronauts set their sights on a not-so-distant mission to Mars, scientists are wondering what to put on spacecraft menus. Current packaged meal options, while far more advanced than the nutrition pills and pureed-food tubes of early space travel, aren’t practical for an extended trip, says Alexandra Witze in Science News. “Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the length of a Mars mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be launched.”

Homegrown space food could be the answer. Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are exploring ways for astronauts to raise their own vegetables in orbit, from radishes and lettuce to cherry tomatoes and mizuna greens. The plants, generating oxygen as well as food, are grown hydroponically, with blue, red, and green lights employed to aid production and special implements used to carry moisture to their roots.

But as with Sputnik 1, the Russians got here first. They’ve been growing food in space, on a small scale, for decades and have a miniature garden in their part of the International Space Station. Now, funding for research in the United States—which has been fickle over the years—is reinvigorated, thanks to the prospective trek to Mars.

Researchers suspect that space gardens won’t be the primary source of sustenance on galactic missions, but fresh-picked vegetables will be a welcome addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.

“Along with reducing trash and launch mass requirements, such crops would give astronauts a little diet variety and psychological lift,” writes Witze. After all, even astronauts love to eat local.

Source: Science News 

Image by Tim Sackton, licensed under Creative Commons. 


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