In the Brazilian Amazon, there are hundreds of indigenous tribes that have lived sustainably for thousands of years.  The rainforest sustains them, and their way of life has sustained and preserved the forest. The Surui is one of these tribes.

First contact with the Surui was made in 1969 by government agents when a road was built right through their territory. Over the next 40 years this road brought hundreds of thousands of people to Western Amazon. In 1987, I first went to the Amazon to assist on some documentaries. During the next three years, I went back and forth several times, and visited the Surui and Negarote indigenous communities.  I also met the rubber tappers, including Chico Mendes. The rubber tappers came from other regions of Brazil to harvest latex from the wild rubber trees, and they had joined with the indigenous people to protect the forest. And now, 40 years later, their way of life and the forest in which they had lived was being destroyed. There was this explosion of logging, ranching, farming and mining, industries that were consuming the forest with little or no control.

I returned to the Amazon 15 years later. This is the subject of my film “Children of the Amazon.” During this time I met Chief Almir of the Surui tribe. I was amazed at how quickly the forest was disappearing, but I was also inspired by how people in the indigenous communities were fighting to preserve it, and to find a voice in the complex society that they were becoming part of. Not long afterwards, Chief Almir discovered Google Earth at an internet cafe near his village, and contacted Google to see if they could help him raise visibility for his tribe.  Google agreed to help Chief Almir and to train his people to use computer technology to protect Surui lands, preserve their culture, and empower their people.

Over these 40 years, the tribes of the Surui and Negarote have gone from complete self sufficiency to being part of a complex economy. Unfortunately that economy is not always sustainable, but rather based on removing resources, old growth trees, even fruit trees, and burning the land to create pasture for animals.  The economic pressure to exploit the forest is very strong. The murder of Chico Mendes by ranchers in 1988 drew international attention to these issues, but even in the time since then, indigenous leaders are threatened and sometimes killed.

Many of the indigenous peoples of Brazil have recognized that education, knowledge and communication are key to their survival. As you can see in the clip, part of their work with Google has been the creation of a “ethno-cultural map,” recording their knowledge and history of the forest, medicinal plants, the site of first contact. Recognizing that they must have income that doesn’t destroy their land, Chief Almir has created a 50 year plan of sustainable development based on education, reforestation, and gaining access to the international carbon offset markets.  I am inspired by their continuous work on behalf of this planet which we all must figure out how best to share.

If you are interested in getting involved, you can start by learning about sustainable practices and fair trade products in your area. For example, the more you understand about fair trade coffee, tea and lumber, the more you can make informed decisions. If you are buying hardwood floors and furniture, you can find out where the lumber is from and how it is certified.  Local choices are always more sustainable than commodities shipped from far away, but if you are using Brazilian wood products, look closely at the certification. Making informed choices on what you purchase is one of the ways you can help increase the incentive for sustainable development.

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A little while ago I was in a grocery store with a friend, standing at the checkout line around lunchtime. We had put together the ingredients for a simple lunch that could be assembled at a picnic table using just a pocket knife: tomatoes, cucumbers, salad greens, a packet of dressing. We were feeling very virtuous, but then at the checkout line, there was the enticement of the small chocolates rack: the ultimate impulse purchase.

She said, “Keep moving.” I said, “Hang on a second.” Which side won out? Virtue, frugality, and a healthy diet on the one hand, or the irresistible pull of cocoa and sugar?

I’ll tell you in a minute, but first, a little known fact: did you know that chocolate used to be money?


There was a presentation on sustainable economics at the Green Festival. The speaker was Daniel Pinchbeck and he was talking about Ithaca Hours, a local currency in Ithaca NY which encourages people to spend their earnings within their community. Afterwards someone asked what happens when this currency pools — when one business is stuck holding alot of the Ithaca dollars but needs to pay suppliers that don’t participate in the program. After looking at different mechanisms for dealing with this scenario, Pinchbeck took a longer view of the issue.

Our current economic system encourages investments that will yield the highest short-term return regardless of the long-term consequences. But what if we could measure and reward investments according their ability to sustain community? Currency only has value as long as it’s in play. Pinchbeck mentioned the work of Bernard Lietaer, architect of the Euro, and alternative systems that Lietaer had proposed including currency that would depreciate over time — a kind of negative interest.

The Ancient Aztecs, Pinchbeck noted, traded in cocoa beans. The actual unit of currency decayed over time and lost value. The point was to spend wisely and invest, not hoard the wealth.

After my friend and I finished our vegetable lunch, just so you know, there was a chocolate bar to look forward to. But I let go of any impulse I might have had to hold onto the chocolate bar, to use it as a hedge against an uncertain future. Instead, I broke off a small piece for my friend. Before we knew it, the whole thing was gone.

(Photo Credit: davitydave under Creative Commons Attribution license)


My name is Denise Zmekhol. I am a filmmaker and photographer. I’m excited about the opportunity to produce and direct Green21, a series which addresses climate change and sustainability from a global perspective.

My latest film is Children of the Amazon, a co-production with ITVS. The clip above is about Forest Time – tempo de floresta in Portuguese – the time before the settlers came to the Amazon.

Below is an excerpt from my interview with Bruce Gellerman of Living on Earth

GELLERMAN: This is the sound of the Amazon rainforest. It’s one of the richest places on the planet for plants and wildlife and home to scores of remote indigenous tribes. The forest is also one of the most important places in the world for regulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


GELLERMAN: This too is the sound of the Amazon. Chainsaws and bulldozers have been carving away at the rainforest for decades clearing land for highways, cattle ranches and soybean plantations. It’s estimated that nearly 20 percent of the Amazon has been cleared, including an area almost the size of New Hampshire just last year.

Much of the destruction of the Amazon forest has taken place on the territory of indigenous tribes. In just a few brief years, members of many of these isolated societies were wrenched from the stone age into the space age… some driven nearly to extinction by their first contact with the outside world.

Almost 20 years ago, Denise Zmekhol traveled deep into the Amazon to photograph and document their struggles. She recently returned with a film crew to examine the changes the people of the rainforest have gone through since her first visit. Her new film is called “Children of the Amazon.”

It focuses on one tribe in particular: the Surui. Denise Zmekhol says the Surui never had contact with the outside world until the roads we built.

ZMEKHOL: The first official contact happened in 1969 when they were still living in what I call in the film “forest time.” It’s a very recent contact and I think they had to learn a lot about our society and our world in such a small time. So for thousands of years they were living in one way and just 39 years ago everything changed for them. [click here to continue…]


Stumble upon Green Cheese

by Frank Dufay on March 16, 2009

in food

I was researching cheddar cheeses (I’m a cheesemonger, and I’m especially drawn to blues and cheddars), and I heard about this “great” raw cow’s milk cheddar made locally – good so far, but I’m a critic, and if people say it’s great, but I think it’s just good, it leads me to think it’s a let down (the whole expectation thing).

So, I finally got my hands on Fiscalini’s 18 month bandaged cheddar, and my eyes rolled back in my head when it hit my tongue – I had to take a good 90 seconds to let the waves of taste pass through my senses before I was able to begin to recuperate. Of course, I had to have another taste (or three) to evaluate the flavor – it’s amazing, but I won’t get into those details here.

The main reason I’m writing is to highlight how one can just be doing their thing and come across a truly great product, and then learn that not only is this product of fantastic quality, but it’s also a leading example of the pursuit of idealism – not idealism of “right” vs. “wrong” – but rather idealism of “this is what I think is right, so I will do it, setting an example without preaching, castigating or judging.”

It turns out that Fiscalini is an ultra-green farmstead cheese company . . . besides making exceptional cheese, they’re a pioneer in green practices (having been highlighted on CBS for their methane capture), and they’re the first American dairy certified for positive animal welfare. It seems this cheese maker puts its money where its mouth is.

The reason I’m writing is to highlight how you can just be doing your thing and come across a truly great product, and then learn that not only is this product of fantastic quality, but it’s also an example of a kind of idealism – not the idealism of “right vs. wrong,” but rather an idealism of “this is what I think is right, so I will do it,” leading by example without preaching, castigating or judging.

Sometimes, amid all the greenwashing out there, it’s hard to know who’s truly green vs. those who just put a green sticker on their box. There are lots of great green cheese makers out there – like Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which is delicious and organic, Willow Hill Farm, making superb sheep’s milk cheese, and Crave Brothers, who’ve been featured on NBC – yet none of them have any green marketing on their labels. They are just good examples of how an individual or organization can make great stuff and pursue the best practices to the best of their ability, remain truly committed to their wares and the impact of their process, and allow the results to speak for themselves.


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It’s like a full moon or a really low tide. It comes once a month and often catches me by surprise: on a Friday night I’ll be heading through the Mission or Market street and see a mass of cyclists and the flashing bike lights. Critical Mass always feels a little like mardigras or the circus passing through town. But even if I’m riding my bike when I see them, it seems I always have somewhere else to go. Or I decide that the crowd looks a little too raucous. And being all raucous like that really doesn’t further a serious cause like transportation alternatives now, does it…

Maybe under that judgment is the wistfulness of the kid with too much homework who wishes he could join in the fun. If I can’t have fun, then having fun must be wrong. Right?

Tonight I landed right in the middle of the surging crowd of cyclists riding up Division St. and just fell in without giving it too much thought. We rode up Valencia to 22nd, then to Mission St., looped back to Valencia and up Market toward the Castro. There must have been 1000 cyclists in a sprawling caravan of tinkling bike bells and blinking red tail lights as far ahead as I could see.

It was an unexpected feeling of solidarity and closeness. There were a few DJ’s with huge speakers on bike trailers booming and I’d find one I liked the sound of and keep pace with it pedaling in time to the beat. When you’re a driver among other drivers, you’re alone in your cacoon of music or silence or your cell phone conversation. If you interact with other drivers it’s often out of anger and righteousness. They disobeyed some rule or did something stupid, so you become irritated and honk at them.

Well, obviously, being in the middle of critical mass feels different from being in a car in a traffic jam. But it’s also different from riding to work on the Folsom St. bike lane from the mission to downtown, which I used to do on a daily basis. I mentioned that to my neighbor and she agreed, then added how when you go a distance along a bike lane, it’s like these little families or tribes that spontaneously cluster then disperse. “You ever notice,” she said, “how there will be like a mom and a dad and then a sister and a little brother, and you’ll be riding along together and it’s like this little family that just assembled itself on the fly. You can imagine everyone’s personality and the role they’d play. And then you get to 4th street and — Woosh! sister goes off to college and then at 2nd St. — Whoosh! mom leaves home without saying goodbye.”

In the transition from small virtual family to large mobile village comes not just stability, but safety. I guess that’s why they call it Critical Mass. I’d never realized that constant note of fear that plays in the background every time I ride my bike on a road shared with cars, fear that a car might run a stop sign or make a turn, the uneven stakes in terms of what it would mean for the car and what it would mean for me. And now that note of fear is gone, and that absence is the most unexpected and exhilarating aspect of the experience.

Most of the people in the cars were smiling or tapping on their horns or waving out the window. But at a few intersections I’d see drivers leaning on the horn, or screaming through their windshield at the cyclists who just kept coming like a parade, regardless of the traffic lights. One well-dressed driver stepped out of a sports car and was ranting at the bikes in front of him. “Look at the light! It’s my light! It’s a green light!”

It was my first ever night of riding with Critical Mass, and already I wanted to stop and and give him a helpful lecture: “Every night of the month, it goes by those rules, except once a month, on the last Friday, the rules change, like carnaval. you know, just to remind us that all invented systems can be changed if we decide to change them.”

Instead of delivering this speech, I kept on going, and saw other riders who seemed more familiar with the sort of thing just surround his car with their bikes and quietly calm him down. That seemed like a better way of diffusing the situation, but as I rode on, I continued my imaginary conversation with the angry driver:

We get to feeling that a car is an essential tool, or even an inalienable right. Anyone who interferes with your car is disrespecting you as well as the rules. But who invented those rules? Who benefits by them? Do cars have rights?

Once in I remember a cab driver complaining to me about the foot traffic in American cities, all the jaywalkers. In his country, he told me in heavily accented English, the cars get more respect. The pedestrians know that if they don’t jump out of the way, they will be killed by the cars.

In your country, he said, there are too many laws against killing the people.

Well, we choose to have a system where hitting people with cars is not cool. We could also have a system where it was easier and safer for people to ride bikes. It’s up to us.

As I put my bike in the garage and walked up the steps of my house, I had a lingering image of the angry drivers, who were kept from their plans by some random, unfair event. I imagined their reaction: “If it’s not a construction crew or an accident, it’s a bunch of freaks on bicycles.”

Maybe in regards to them, Critical Mass doesn’t measure up. To those who are already bicycle believers, it’s an affirming experience. But for those who are dependent on their cars, or who just believe that they are, we probably hadn’t opened their mind to other points of view. More likely that they felt confirmed their sense of their own righteousness — and victimization — in the face of irresponsible and raucous people who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than ride their bikes around, having way too much fun.

Article republished with permission from Sustainable Social Media

Photo Credit: luxomedia via Creative Commons Attribution/Remix license.


My Green21 partner, Jennifer Thompson, wrote a great blog entry about the film Slumdog Millionaire. If we go back exactly 30 years ago, the film Prophecy forewarned of how humankind’s abuse of our natural resources have horrible effects on the environment. My Dad took me to see this bit of bio-horror when it came out in the theatres in 1979, I was 11 years old at the time. Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Talia Shire and Robert Foxworth, Prophecy is about how a lumber company’s pulp mill plant used a chemical process in which methyl mercury was dumped in a lake to process the cut lumber. The eating of the fish in this lake caused mutations in the birth of all the local wildlife and even the Native Americans who live in this Maine wilderness. The upshot of this is that a mutant bear kills a lot of people when trappers kill one of its mutated cubs in a net and the surviving cub is rescued by our protagonists (that is until it bites Talia Shires’ neck in a chase scene across a lake).

Seeing this film brought an awareness of environmental issues to me for the first time. Even though the film is a B-movie rip off of Jaws, it has some unique messages about how nature can go very wrong when it is disturbed by our destructive activities. This film had a lasting impact on my impressionable years and it unfortunately really serves as a “prophecy” of sorts to us 30 years later, our abuses have consequences that will ultimately hurt us.

Green21’s first episode, Welcome to the 21st Century, includes an interview with Dr. Susanne Moser, co-author of Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, where she discusses how difficult it is to communicate to the public about climate change issues because people feel fear and guilt about being part of the cause, they are not able to focus on empowering themselves and the planet with solutions. They become paralyzed with fear. That kind of reminds me of the victims in the film Prophecy.

One thing that is really fascinating about Propehcy is that it is based on a real incident in Minamata, Japan, it was called the Minamata Disease and it was caused by methyl mercury dumping.

Please write a post if you remember Prophecy or know of other bio-horror films.


This speech was Obama’s first statement on climate change since the election, delivered on November 18, 2008. President-elect Obama unequivocably acknowledges the scientific consensus on climate change, stresses the need for the U.S. to begin working with the world community on these issues, and commits to concrete goals for action.

I first heard about this speech while listening to This American Life episode #372 “The Inauguration Show,” which described the overwhelming response of the audience — delegates from over 50 states, provinces and countries. For those who had been frustrated by the denial and inaction of the previous administration, and also the lack of specifics during Obama’s campaign, these statements were a welcome change:

  • We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050.
  • We will invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private-sector efforts to build a clean energy future.

Below is the complete transcript of the speech:

Let me begin by thanking the bipartisan group of U.S. governors who convened this meeting. Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.

Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security. I know many of you are working to confront this challenge. In particular, I want to commend Governor Sebelius, Governor Doyle, Governor Crist, Governor Blagojevich and your host, Governor Schwarzenegger — all of you have shown true leadership in the fight to combat global warming. And we’ve also seen a number of businesses doing their part by investing in clean energy technologies.

But too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office. My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.

That will start with a federal cap and trade system. We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050. Further, we will invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private-sector efforts to build a clean energy future. We will invest in solar power, wind power and next-generation biofuels. We will tap nuclear power, while making sure it’s safe. And we will develop clean coal technologies.

This investment will not only help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure. And it will not only help us bring about a clean energy future, saving our planet. It will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.

But the truth is, the United States cannot meet this challenge alone. Solving this problem will require all of us working together. I understand that your meeting is being attended by government officials from over a dozen countries, including the U.K., Canada and Mexico, Brazil and Chile, Poland and Australia, India and Indonesia. And I look forward to working with all nations to meet this challenge in the coming years.

Let me also say a special word to the delegates from around the world who will gather at Poland next month: your work is vital to the planet. While I won’t be president at the time of your meeting and while the United States has only one president at a time, I’ve asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there.

And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.

Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.

Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.

On 18 November 2008, US President-elect Barack Obama sent this video message to a summit on global warming hosted in Los Angeles by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.


This weekend I saw “Slumdog Millionaire.” It’s an amazing movie that’s often hard to watch but has a happy ending. However, what struck me the most was the trash. I mean the actual trash on the ground, the trash in the background and the enormous trash heaps. I loved that the film didn’t pause the storyline to talk about trash – the filmmakers wove it into fabric of the characters’ lives. One of the best examples was when the main character, a homeless orphan, talked to his brother as he filled a discarded plastic water bottle with tap water and resealed it for resale. The film treated this act just like brushing teeth, part of an everyday routine.

The visuals in “Slumdog” startled me because I thought I knew trash. In 1994, I spend a year in Asia as a college student and as an intern for a film about Vietnam. During that time, I often talked to people about trash because there was no place to put it. I would carry it around with me, and every so often I would ask someone what to do with it. Once in Nepal, when I was living with a family, I asked the father what I should do with some old candybar wrappers and fax papers. He authoritatively took these bits of wrappers and paper, walked to the other end of the house, opened the window and threw them across the Himalayas. I froze. I waited several weeks before asking the next person what to do with the various scraps of debris I had accumulated. Now, fifteen years later, the trash in “Slumdog” still caught me off guard. Maybe my memory of trash has faded, or maybe there’s actually visibly more trash.

Working on Green21, I’ve realized that our understanding of trash has evolved and become more systemic. We’ve gone from focusing on the visible symptoms of waste to looking at “lifecycles” as detailed in Cradle to Cradle. Now it seems we need to move beyond exploring waste management systems to trying to understand our need to consume. The Story of Stuff is a great place to start.

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Green21 is a media project that I’ve been developing for the past two years. My goal is to bring a narrative to the environmental, sustainable and social justice movement. Green21 started out as an idea for a public television series, and my business partner Cynthia Zeiden has secured broadcast distribution with American Public Television.

In the process of developing the content for the 13-part broadcast series, I needed input from experts. I contacted a number of people and finally got a meeting with Dr. Stephen Schneider at Stanford University. When I first met with Dr. Schneider, he said Green21 is an ambitious project — and that’s why he agreed to get involved. He introduced me to a number of our board members including Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and Richard Moss of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

While the content of the series was being vetted by scientists and thought-leaders, Green21’s online and social media strategy took off. With the help of Kevin Kanarek, Michael Holzer, Ken Ikeda and Andy Volk, we developed a multi-platform media initiative which bridges broadcast television and Web 2.0 — and all its implications such as geotagging, Creative Commons licensing, Twitter and YouTube. Thank you to everyone who has worked to get Green21 to this stage, especially our graphic designer Frank Dufay.

We welcome your suggestions and comments regarding the project or content proposed in the series. Currently we’re in the fundraising stage and hope to start filming in the Summer of 2009.

(Photo Credit: Omar Uran under Creative Commons Attribution license)