Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Nurturing My Greens with High-Tech? Reflections on Vertical Farming and the PlantCube

by Marlen Elders

When I first saw designs for the plantCube, a smart, fully automated machine for producing perfect vegetables, it seemed more like a high-fashion kitchen device than a sustainable alternative for growing vegetables. The plantCube was created by Munich-based start-up agrilution, whose cofounder, Maximilian Lössl, spoke with us at a Tuesday Discussion at the RCC last July. The company is developing and manufacturing an automated small-scale vertical farming machine meant to enable urban citizens to grow their own food at home. With the plantCube, you don’t need a balcony or garden—not even sunlight or soil. The only thing you need is a white machine that looks like a freezer, electricity, an Internet connection, and a mobile phone. Via app you can remotely control everything from ordering seed mats to the development of your plants inside the cube.

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The plantCube developed by agrilution. Used with permission.

Although it has obvious benefits—it avoids long transportation, is free of pesticides, produces little waste, and is nearly non-perishable (thanks to a “holiday mode” that allows you to put your plants to sleep for a while)—I was skeptical about this invention. I was concerned by the idea that the fresh healthy vegetables I eat would not have touched juicy chilly dark soil, nor felt fresh breezes; I was concerned that they are not even able to experience a single ray of real sunlight. Could a plant growing on a nutrition mat in a clean white cube that automatically provides it with LED light, maintains a suitable temperature, and dispenses water in precise doses really be healthy at all? Continue reading


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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 4

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Science and Permaculture”

By Theresa Kuhl

There is only one wrong view: To believe that your view is the only right one.” (Nagarjuna)

Permaculture is a holistic concept of sustainable agriculture developed by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgreen. It includes the essential principles of caring for the Earth, caring for people, limits to consumption and growth, and redistribution of surpluses.

The study of natural science, especially agricultural science, contrasts with the approach of permaculture. “Science” is often mentioned as the big “evil” compared to permaculture. But it is important to distinguish between different scientific disciplines. On the one hand, there is biotechnology, which tries to alter ecosystems to generate the highest possible yield by using genetic manipulation of plants and strong chemical toxins. For example, glyphosate is a potent herbicide that kills any plant that lacks genetically engineered resistance. On the other hand, the discipline  of environmental science also focuses on productivity of soils, but in a more sustainable way, because environmental scientists also know that permanent exploitation of soils has no future. Continue reading


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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 1

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Let’s Save the World by Gardening!”

By Marlen Elders

“Permaculture”—a neologism combining “permanent” and “agriculture”—is all about sustainability with the aim of creating a self-preserving world (Koller 2009, 9ff.). A permacultural gardener aims to create a symbiotic interaction between soil, plants, animals, and microorganisms, each of which profits from the other—ideally resulting in a positive outcome for the gardener too. Clearly, the concept comes with an ideology: the ethics of diversity and care that goes beyond bare agricultural methods. This idea is alive and kicking, still evolving, still improving, as the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison, hoped it would. He referred to permaculture as a tool that needs to be tested, modified, and developed further. He encouraged the creation of permaculture networks to exchange experiences and to spread knowledge amongst practitioners (Mollison and Holmgren 1985, 13).

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Jochen Koller (right) with Alexander H. at Hummelhof, Elmatried. Photo by Ursula Münster.

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Urban Cultures of Sustainability

Conference Report (Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) at the Albert-Ludwig-University, Germany, 11–14 July 2016)

From 11 to 14 July 2016, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the FRIAS (Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies) project group A Green City Mandate? co-hosted a Graduate Student Seminar and International Workshop on Green Cities and Urban Cultures of Sustainability.

The project group invited an interdisciplinary group of young scholars and students from various disciplinary and national backgrounds, as well as several distinguished scholars from the fields of sustainable urban development, urban geography, environmental history, and ecocriticism to work together on issues of “green cities.”

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Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature

“Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature: Donald Worster and Environmental History”

Report on an International Conference (Beijing, China, June 26-28, 2016)

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In June of 2016, the Center for Ecological History (CEH) along with the School of History at Renmin University of China, hosted an academic conference honoring environmental history’s doyen Donald Worster (RCC alumnus). The theme was “Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature: Donald Worster and Environmental History.” Inspired by the publication of his latest book entitled Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (Oxford UP, 2016), the CEH invited more than two dozen environmental historians (among them were many of Worster’s former graduate students) from all over the world to thank him for his stimulating example and to present him with the long-term effects of his writings and teaching. Continue reading


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Workshop: Transformations of the Earth

“Talking Transformation in Beijing”
By Bailey Albrecht

This piece was originally published in Edge Effects  on July 12, 2016

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In Shanghai’s Natural History Museum there exists a full-sized re-creation of an African plain, complete with a herd of spooked zebras in perpetual flight from a crouching lion. It was neither the zebras, nor the two large taxidermy elephants across the crowded walkway, however, that caught my attention. Toward the right-hand wall stood a tall tree crowded with monkeys. Continue reading


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Student Research: Gardeners

By Veronika Degmayr (Environmental Studies Certificate Program)

Whether you’re an academic in the environmental field, an environmental activist, or just a person concerned about the state of our environment, you might at times wonder what good all that science, research, and activism is really doing. How far do published papers actually reach? Do we get to talk about our concerns with the right people; the ones who are not already convinced something “should be done about the environment”? Or are we—the concerned members of society—just trading information amongst each other without convincing anyone else, and without creating significant change to the “outside” world?

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“It’s great to go into your garden and eat a carrot. You are proud that something has grown there. Being able to harvest something is most important to me.”– Marianne. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

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