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VPI BioD Team Brews Up a Fundraising Project

Coffee Fundraiser Pic

Madagascar is well-known as home to an abundant variety of plant and animal species seen nowhere else in the world, as well as its high quality exports of vanilla, chocolate, and rice. What you may not know is Madagascar is also home to some seriously good coffee. This fact was discovered during Vort Port International’s most recent trip to the country earlier this year when team members tried some of the coffee during their travels. After tasting the quality of the coffee, the team thought there had to be a way to incorporate this wonderful product into our overall BioD strategy.

With this in mind, the BioD team and its local partners the Peace Corps and Rotaract Club AVANA began exploring the possibility of using the coffee as a fundraising tool for the BioD project. The goal would be to transport the coffee back to United States, where it would be roasted and sold in and around the Washington, D.C., area. The proceeds from the coffee would go toward operating costs for the BioD project as well helping defray the substantial initial investment required by the Malagasy when purchasing a biodigester.

Although the fundraising initiative is still early in its development, significant progress has been made. Thanks to our Peace Corps and Rotaract AVANA partners in Madagascar (and some of their family coming back to the U.S.!) we were able to send around five pounds of raw coffee to Washington, D.C. Once the coffee arrived, we teamed up with a locally owned roaster to roast the coffee for us and provide feedback on the quality. In addition, we took the roasted coffee to several local D.C. coffee shops for feedback and to gauge interest level.

The feedback from the roaster and the coffee shops was overwhelmingly positive! The quality of the coffee, along with rareness of being able to offer a coffee from Madagascar, led to a lot of interest from the roaster and coffee shops. Due to the high interest from our first batch of Malagasy coffee, we are already looking to bring back a second batch of raw coffee to test with additional roasters and gain some more feedback.

While there is still much work to be done, the BioD team is excited about the prospects the coffee fundraising brings. In addition to providing a source of fundraising for the BioD project, the project will aid Malagasy farmers in finding a steady buyer for their coffee and increase awareness of Madagascar as a legitimate coffee exporter. The BioD team is confident that conscious coffee consumers will be excited to try the Malagasy coffee, as well as learn about the biodigester program it helps support. Hopefully within the next year you will be seeing Malagasy coffee at your favorite coffee shop and will be able to try it for yourself!

This blog post was written by Mike Waldsmith, Business Lead – BioD Project with Vort Port International.

Redefining the 6 p.m. Hour

 

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Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.

But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.

The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.

But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future

What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.

Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.

VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.

Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.

Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.

This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project

VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit www.theshapeofnews.com for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Vort Port International’s BioD Project Partners with DC’s Wangari Gardens

A community garden in the Park View neighborhood of Washington, DC, may seem worlds away from the African island nation of Madagascar, but this spring, Wangari Gardens (WG) will play an important role in developing technology that will be used nearly 9,000 miles away.

Since 2010, Vort Port International’s (VPI) Biodigester (BioD) team of creative designers and engineers has been developing a low-cost anaerobic biodigester to generate clean and renewable energy in order to provide an alternative for cooking fuel in biodiversity-threatened, at-need regions of the world.

Part of the development process includes testing, so when VPI Executive Director Merry Walker heard about Friends of Wangari Gardens, a non-profit with a mission of converting DC vacant green spaces into sustainable parks and gardens, governed by and for the non-profit benefit of the community, she knew they would be a perfect fit as a VPI community partner.

“While the BioD will provide sustainable energy in underserved communities around the world, our partnership with Wangari Gardens will promote awareness in our local community of the most pressing global issues such as deforestation, air pollution and lack of access to clean energy,” explains BioD Project Director Rahul Mitra.

Through this partnership, VPI will test the BioD at the Wangari Gardens site using manure from a local horse stable and plant waste matter from the garden as inputs. The by-products of the BioD are a nutrient-rich sludge that Wangari Gardens’ growers will be able to use as fertilizer, as well as methane gas.

“Wangari Gardens is ecstatic to partner with VPI on their BioD Project for several reasons,” says Josh Singer, Executive Director of Friends of Wangari Gardens. “First, we hope to use the methane gas by-product to create an outdoor cooking class someday. We also plan to educate our community about the science, benefits and sustainability of biodigesters.  And finally, Wangari Gardens is named in honor of one of the greatest tree advocates in the world, Professor Wangari Maathai. If this BioD model could save forests around the world, we are thrilled to help.”

On March 17, 2013, the BioD team officially moved the prototype to Wangari Gardens where members of the community got a chance to see the BioD in action. Using a mixture of horse manure and water, the team began the seeding process, which will develop an anaerobic bacterial colony in the BioD prototype required to generate methane gas. Members of the BioD team were on hand to provide information on biodigester technology, as well as the global energy issues that VPI hopes to address. Pictures from this event can be seen on the VPI Facebook page.

VPI’s BioD team will be participating in open houses at Wangari Gardens over the next few months. Check WG’s Facebook page for schedule updates.

In other BioD news, students at the Institut pour la Maîtrise de l’Energie in Madagascar have started testing their prototype as well. Results from the concurrent testing of the two prototypes will be used to make design modifications and performance enhancements. Merry Walker will be traveling to Madagascar in May, at which time she and the students will visit partner communities. She will also visit the Malagasy BioD prototype, and identify the pilot sites and on-the-ground leaders.

For more information on the BioD project or to make a donation visit www.vortport.org/our-projects/biodigesters/.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Rooftops: The Urban Backyard

As a city dweller, if there’s one concept that never escapes me, it’s space. There’s so much of it, yet it’s never plentiful. Distances are vast, and if you live in Brooklyn, your friends in the Bronx might as well live in a different state, but personal space is hardly in high supply. Our kitchens are installed in the corners of living rooms almost as an afterthought; finding free parking takes hours of toil and strife; and we measure our yards (if we have them) not by acres but by square feet.

For this reason, I never cease to be amazed by the amount of eminently viable space that goes unused throughout the urban landscape. As more and more Americans flock to urban centers, our need for a paradigm shift in how we treat city living is becoming increasingly pertinent. And while urbanites continue to moan about their cramped quarters, they continue to fail to look up!

If you live in a densely populated city, and you don’t have a garden, and you’re wondering how I could even wonder if you do have a garden, then ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the building I occupy have a “conventional” rooftop?
2. If yes, do I have access to said rooftop?
3. If yes again, is it host to a whole lot of tar paper and ventilation pipes?

If this sounds like your rooftop situation, then there’s cause to celebrate: you’re in possession of a slice of the urban landscape’s greatest untapped resource.

When I first moved to Brooklyn from a city with considerably more space, I instantly came to rely on my apartment building’s roof as a place to get away from the din and stress of the busy city streets. From my roof, I could enjoy being outdoors while still able to have a phone conversation or read a book, all within a few steps (or, as was my case, ladder rungs) from my front door. My building’s roof became a much needed replacement for the back yard that I longed for but lacked. Yet what most astonished me about my roof was that no one from the rest of the block seemed to know it was there. What went unnoticed by everyone else became the largest back yard I’d ever had!

I now have my own roof in Brooklyn, and I’ve taken my roof dwelling to the next level. With a modest $50 inventment, I’ve developed a humble little rooftop garden. And for a guy who’s pretty green in the gardening department, the greenery on my vacant outdoor space has thrived. With a few minutes of research, I found plenty of vegetables that do well in direct sunlight, and besides their daily watering, nature has done the rest.

The few vegetables I planted this season won’t be slashing my grocery shopping budget by a whole lot come harvest. But rooftop improvements in the city are some of the easiest and most productive projects one can undertake to make city living more sustainable while beautifying the concrete jungle. They can keep your building cooler in the summer and help lower your energy bills. Plants improve air quality and mood, and can provide food. Plus, maintaining a garden dozens of feet above the bustling street provides at least a few moments of peace and tranquility every morning.

There’s a very real phenomenon in cities called the Urban Heat Island Effect, which describes the noticeable increase in temperature you experience in cities compared to surrounding rural areas. Dark surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops absorb sunlight and radiate heat – the reason why the sidewalk often feels “hot enough to fry an egg”, but the grass in the back yard is always comfortable. If cities as a whole learn to promote the widespread transformation of rooftops into gardens and yards, rather than vast, desolate heat traps, our cities will become cooler, greener, and healthier. Energy consumption and pollution can both be reduced as our roof tops become the back yards of the city – and, with a bit of elbow grease, the envy of our friends in suburbia!

It’s frustrating to see so much space go to waste in the city – but it’s equally as liberating to discover that it’s easy to do for yourself. So aim to set an example for your neighbors! There’s no better way to contribute to a positive movement than by throwing your next great tiki party on your beautified roof yard and inviting the neighbors. The greatest boon to progress is proving to others that it’s fun.

In closing, I quote The Drifters:

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowd
and all that rat race noise down on the street
On the roof, the only place I know
where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof

Happy gardening,

Joe

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Think of Their Future!

I recently caught the R train at Prince Street in Soho on a rainy summer afternoon. The subway system and its strange ecosystem of commuters, tourists, homeless, and wildcards is hardly phasing to my wife and I anymore. We moved to Brooklyn three years ago from our humble (and quiet) home state of Michigan, but we have acclimated well to our new environment. On this particular train was a wildcard I’ve grown accustomed to seeing underground. The middle-aged man standing in the center of the car, with his worn jeans, t-shirt and backpack, felt the need to enlighten his fellow passengers. With a voice tinged with disparity, his exhausted red eyes beamed at us strangers, and the man began to stress aloud about controlled media, big business, and corrupt politicians. Then, specifically, he spoke urgently about the practice of fracking and its dangers to our water sources.

“Wake up! Wake up people”, he shouted. He tried to open a dialogue with those around him, to no avail.

With slumped shoulders, he tugged awkwardly at his grey ponytail. “I don’t like to go this route, but I see a few children on this train. If not for yourselves, can you at least think of them? Think of their future!”

* * *

Two weeks prior to this train ride, I came home from a long 12-hour day at the warehouse. My wife, Meggie, has been feeling sick and achy with a long list of symptoms that are foreign to her. We suspected she might be pregnant. My mind was a blur at work all day, constantly shifting from work to her and the impending pregnancy test we were going to take that evening. When I finally walked through the door after 9pm that evening, Meggie jumped up from the couch. Her only greeting was a sheepish smile. I knew, immediately, that she had already taken the test.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I asked. Her face went red and I knew it was true. “Holy shit.”

My daily thought process hasn’t been the same ever since. We are currently 8 weeks into the pregnancy, we have seen the heart beat, and we notice every baby and toddler in passing through the course of every day. As a father-to-be I am very excited and, strangely, very confident. Being entirely new to the world of parenting, we are devouring one baby book after another. We are pouring through online forums and even interviewing midwives. Overall, I am feeling very good about being a father.

* * *

That is, until I think of that man on the R train. Think of their future! The line struck me unexpectedly. He held up a handful of pamphlets for anyone interested in what he was talking about. My hand, almost involuntarily, shot up in the air. Grateful that anyone was listening, he rushed over and handed me the literature. However, I didn’t get off that easy. Suddenly his best friend, he began to embark on a one-sided conversation with me about the practice of fracking (already know it) and the petitions I should sign (signed them all). The train came to my stop, so I quickly thanked the man and dodged around him for the closing door.

Think of their future! The line continues to nag at me. In fact, it may be my greatest fear in raising children of my own. What kind of a world am I raising them in? I sometimes view the world as a place with an overwhelming vastness of problems (hence my participation in Vort Port International). But with as many problems as I recognize in the world, what problems will my children inherit? That is what scares me. At times, these broad questions seem utterly and hopelessly beyond my control (and as a soon-to-be parent, I don’t like it).

​Thinking of their future, my role and work within Vort Port International has taken on new meaning. My reasons for nonprofit participation have new context. It is my hope that this nagging fear will evolve into unmovable purpose in Vort Port International and my role as a global citizen seeking sustainability for all.

written by
Patrick Kwiatkowski, VPI Media Director

Earth Day – The Big Picture

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In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space.  Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing.  The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.

“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said.   “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”

The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon.  The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.”  The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth.  Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space.  Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space.  The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things.  The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space.  For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share.  After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.

John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long.  His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van.  Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region.  Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles.  The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate.  Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew.  Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.

John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik.  McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”.  The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension.  The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization.  The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition.  After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts.  President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.

McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come.  The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees.  He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy.  As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day.  It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet.  Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20.  McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade.  Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration.  McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean).  The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders.  But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all.  A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N.  It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.

After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation.  The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees.  The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing.  Upon a used placemat he decreed:

Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.

– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s

It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then.  Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment.  Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet.  He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado.  Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day.  Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message.  Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”

We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home.  Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth.  McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day.  Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen.  Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet.  It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

Vort Port International, Media Director

Sustainable Brooklyn – The Future of Urban Environments

"The World Is Watching" -- Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

“CITIES ARE BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.”

I feel like I have always known this – having grown up in rural northern Michigan and having never seen a real city for the first several years of my life, names like “Los Angeles” conjured images in my mind of dense orange clouds of stagnating pollution; millions of people living under an oppressive, immovable blanket of toxic particulate matter, suffering an endless greenhouse summer.

In a way, my young imagination was correct: pollution, massive energy consumption, immense waste, and environmental destruction are classic trademarks of urban environments. Square miles of forests clear cut, wetlands turned to landfills, and the air poisoned with concentrated chemicals contributing to childhood asthma and a myriad of other health concerns. This, at least, is the average environmentalist’s notion of an urban landscape. Where nature and man’s shortsighted dominance have become inextricably woven; where the landscape no longer resembles its original pristine state. In a sad, ironic gesture, sod is laid and trees are replanted in single isolated hectares, fenced off from the street for people to visit and relax, because the sprawling sea of concrete we’ve poured around us takes a heavy toll on our souls.

But the perception that cities and metropolitan areas are an inevitable bane of the environment is troubling. If current projections are accurate, cities will account for around 70% of the entire world’s energy demands within 20 years. As populations grow and more people migrate to urban environments, I struggle with the concept that cities can do no good for the environment. I don’t like to think that as the world community evolves and adapts to new challenges and a changing planet, our push toward greater urbanization must necessitate part of our demise. Thus, the question is, what can urban populations do to reduce their environmental impact? What initiatives can be implemented now so that they become the status quo for future generations?

When I first moved to Brooklyn from the relatively beautiful city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was aghast at how sordid and contaminated my new neighborhood seemed. Every evening, Knickerbocker Street, the main thoroughfare of my Brooklyn neighborhood, was littered with so much trash and detritus that it resembled the aftermath of a parade. Trash receptacles were constantly overflowing, and the gutter seemed considered as good a place as any for rubbish. I was astounded at how little regard, how little respect, my new neighbors had for their neighborhood. And here I was, after all this time – actively existing in a place that was “contributing to the problem”.

And yet. Despite the trash, the exhaust, and the poured concrete profusion suffocating the earth, certain amenities, services, and lifestyles were abundant in New York that were almost entirely lacking back in Michigan. In this city of 8 million people, for instance, slightly less than half of NYC families own cars. The vast and far-reaching subway and bus systems operate at a flat rate,

An "urban garden" in Brooklyn - a modern take on the concept of public outdoor space

allowing commuters to travel dozens of miles between distant boroughs for two dollars a ride. The affordability of the transit system ($100 for a month of unlimited rides) enables millions of people to reduce their carbon footprint by driving nowhere. What’s more – driving in New York City is an arduous and time-consuming task. Not only is taking the train a more environmentally responsible form of transit; it is simply easier.

As I gradually come to terms with the possibility that I may very well live in a large city for the rest of my life, I have begun to see the landscape less as a hopeless wasteland and more as a space rich with opportunity.

Years ago, when I first witnessed the repugnant spectacle that is Times Square, a troubling thought occurred to me: How can a child, having witnessed Times Square, be taught the importance of turning off a light bulb when leaving a room? With so much energy wasted for no other purpose than to dazzle consumers into buying things they don’t need, it is troubling that a modern society can marvel at such an atrocity. Yet, the average city-dweller is also in a position to consume potentially far fewer resources than someone living in a traditional family home. With less space per family and multiple domiciles contained within single buildings, it can be easier to waste less. Spaces being actively heated and cooled are less often vacant. A lack of large, meticulously manicured grass yards alleviates the need for excessive watering, and trips to the store are generally made on foot or by bike or train rather than by automobile. And, because the cost of energy delivery and supply is greater, consumers are generally more aware of their consumption.

Cafe Habana in Brooklyn - powered entirely by solar-generated electricity

And while there is still much to be done to make a city like Brooklyn more sustainable and environmentally aware, there is great promise for a renewable future. While space on the ground is limited, the amount of flat rooftop space being underutilized is staggering. Solar panels and micro wind turbines are the future of the modern city, because, unlike in rural areas, where wind farms take up otherwise farmable or developable space, rooftops are the optimal location for capturing solar and wind energy and utilizing micro hydropower without needing to rebuild an infrastructure from the ground up.

Likewise, rooftops can be transformed into “green spaces” where, with some minor landscaping, grass and plants can be allowed to grow freely, and families can garden and grow produce without the risk of planting in contaminated ground soil. Not only does implementing a green space on a building’s rooftop provide insulation and help a building save on heating and cooling costs; it is a simple and realistic way of providing people living in a densely populated area a private outdoor oasis away from the teeming masses – the urban equivalent of the immeasurable luxury of a backyard. And in the meantime, while communities and building owners implement such meaningful changes to increase the value of their property while lowering the demand for dirty energy, simply painting rooftops white is a great start to reducing energy needs and taking the edge off the dreaded urban heat effect.

Perhaps a main issue to overcome in our urban environments is public awareness – massive influx to urban centers is a fairly recent trend, and I suspect that many individuals whose families have been living in the city for generations simply do not have a tangible concept of how beautiful a city can be. Ultimately, with no tapering of world population growth in sight, adapting to smaller living spaces can only be beneficial. And while I’d like to see the future of urban planning and development rethinking city layouts and paying greater reverence to natural space on the ground, I see the cities of the future relying more on a hybrid concept of community collaboration and environmentally responsible self-sustenance. Our planet can accommodate the modern city if we cooperate.

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Uncontacted Tribes of Peru

In February of this year, the organization Survival International and the BBC released stunning aerial footage of one of the world’s last remaining uncontacted tribes, a group of indigenous people living in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. Using camera lenses with long focal lengths, the photographers obtained intimate footage of tribal settlements and people from a kilometer above.

The footage is captivating; images depicting an expansive landscape of immense natural beauty and desperate fragility evoke a kind of wonder tinged with foreboding – much of the world once looked like this. These days, it is a sight unfamiliar to the common viewer.

Looking closer, we are introduced to the subject of the video: the small tribe of indigenous people living, away from the influence of an ever-encroaching society, in the midst of this remnant of untouched rainforest. Truly a part of the ecosystem – not a pressure on it – one cannot help but weigh against these stark images the contrast of more familiar sights: urbanization, oil exploration, deforestation and environmental destruction.

On August 8, various news sources reported that alleged drug traffickers, smuggling cocaine from Peru to Brazil, made potentially violent contact with the tribe depicted in the above video (read the story here). Survival International and the Brazilian government’s Indian Affairs Department both report that the tribe has been driven from their settlement and has disappeared without a trace.

The initial impact of the above footage was immense, for the existence of tribes such as this one was previously dismissed by the Peruvian government. These vulnerable people have historically had no representation in government, no voice in politics, and no defense from exploitation and violent invasion. Without government support, the eventual tragic fate of tribal people the world throughout is inevitable. Today, far too little is being done to protect and uphold the basic human rights of the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Documented proof of their existence is invaluable to their protection, but without social and political reform in areas where tribal people are at the greatest risk, acknowledgment alone is not enough.

Of course, uncontacted tribes are not the only peoples at risk of being hurt and exploited. Nor are they alone those in need of our attention. Mainstream media, consumerism, and the distractions of Western society keep many of us underexposed and uninformed of the plight of the world’s less fortunate. Too preoccupied with our own challenges, many of us simply don’t realize how much we would care – if only our awareness was broadened.

As the world’s natural resources continue to dwindle at alarming rates, the exploitation of vulnerable human beings can almost always be traced back to increasingly desperate means of resource acquisition. Timber, oil, food and clean water dominate the needs of much of the world’s societies, and as governments and corporations further exploit the Earth and its people, those who need help the most continue to receive the least. There is a dire need for a major paradigm shift in the ways our societies consume, as the risk of abiding the status quo has never been so great.

But our ability to reach a broad audience and establish a common thread of progressive thinking has also never been so feasible. With focus and poise, we have both the power and the credibility to continue striving for meaningful change. Simply by caring, you are part of the collective consciousness that longs to make a difference. But action is most powerful, and it comes in myriad forms. Signing petitions. Boycotting exploitative organizations. Making donations to causes. Changing your patterns of consumption. And, perhaps above all, maximizing the potential of the tools of communication before you to help raise awareness of the topics that instill with you the most passion. Talk to each other. Make your opinion known. Spread the word. A sustainable planet is possible.

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day!

Even though the weather might not be amazing outside, take some time to get outside today or this weekend to appreciate the wonderful planet we have.  It is truly the provider of all.  We must respect this planet, its resources, and what it has given us—air to breath, water to drink, and rich biodiversity to bring cures for diseases. 

There are simple things we can do to give back to our planet.  Plant a tree, clean up your local stream, unplug appliances when they’re not in use (read more on vampire loads), use your bike and/or public transportation rather than driving, recycle unused electronics (here’s a place you can do so and earn money), bring a reusable shopping back, try going a day without eating meat, wash your clothes on cold rather than hot (over 90% of the energy associated with washing is from hot water heating), reach out to kids in your area and take them for a hike in nature, the options are endless.

These things not only improve the environment, but are typically money-saving techniques and may improve your health.

Thanks for being warriors for our planet!

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