Benedict Cumberbatch & Ian McKellen Read Epic Letters Written by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Von­negut is one of those writ­ers whose wit, human­ism and lack of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty leave you han­ker­ing for more.

For­tu­nate­ly, the pro­lif­ic nov­el­ist was an equal­ly pro­lif­ic let­ter writer.

His pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence includes a descrip­tion of the fire­bomb­ing of Dres­den penned upon his release from the Slaugh­ter­house Five POW camp, an admis­sion to daugh­ter Nanette that most parental mis­sives “con­tain a par­en­t’s own lost dreams dis­guised as good advice,” and some unvar­nished exchanges with many of famil­iar lit­er­ary names. (“I am cuter than you are,” he taunt­ed Cape Cod neigh­bor Nor­man Mail­er.)

No won­der these let­ters are cat­nip to per­form­ers with the pedi­gree to rec­og­nize good writ­ing when they see it.

Hav­ing inter­pret­ed Shake­speare, Ibsen, and Ionesco, book lover Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch obvi­ous­ly rel­ish­es the straight­for­ward ire of Vonnegut’s 1973 response to a North Dako­ta school board chair­man who ordered a school jan­i­tor to burn all copies of Slaugh­ter­house-Five assigned by Bruce Sev­ery, a recent­ly hired, young Eng­lish teacher.

In addi­tion to Slaugh­ter­house-Five, the board also con­signed two oth­er vol­umes on the syl­labus — James Dick­ey’s Deliv­er­ance and an anthol­o­gy con­tain­ing short sto­ries by Faulkn­er, Hem­ing­way and Stein­beck — to the fire.

Revis­it­ing the event, the Bis­mar­ck Tri­bune reports that “the objec­tion to (Slaugh­ter­house-Five) had to do with pro­fan­i­ty, (Deliv­er­ance) with some homo­sex­u­al mate­r­i­al and the (anthol­o­gy) because the first two ren­dered all of Severy’s choic­es sus­pect.”

A decade lat­er, Von­negut also revis­it­ed the school board’s “insult­ing” objec­tions in the pages of  the New York Times:

Even by the stan­dards of Queen Vic­to­ria, the only offen­sive line in the entire nov­el is this: ”Get out of the road, you dumb m(———–).” This is spo­ken by an Amer­i­can anti­tank gun­ner to an unarmed Amer­i­can chap­lain’s assis­tant dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge in Europe in Decem­ber 1944, the largest sin­gle defeat of Amer­i­can arms (the Con­fed­er­a­cy exclud­ed) in his­to­ry. The chap­lain’s assis­tant had attract­ed ene­my fire.

Word is Von­negut’s let­ter nev­er received the cour­tesy of a reply.

One won­ders if the recip­i­ent burned it, too.

If that 50 year old let­ter feels ger­mane, check out Vonnegut’s 1988 let­ter to peo­ple liv­ing 100 years in the future, a lit­tle more than 50 years from where we are now.

In many ways, its com­mon­sense advice sur­pass­es the ever­green words of those it namechecks — Shakespeare’s Polo­nius, St. John the Divine, and the Big Book of Alco­holics Anony­mous. The threat of envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse it seeks to stave off has become even more dire in the ensu­ing years.

Vonnegut’s advice (list­ed below) clear­ly res­onates with Cum­ber­batch, a veg­an who lever­aged his celebri­ty to bring atten­tion to the cli­mate cri­sis when he par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Extinc­tion Rebel­lion Protests in Lon­don.

1. Reduce and sta­bi­lize your pop­u­la­tion.

2. Stop poi­son­ing the air, the water, and the top­soil.

3. Stop prepar­ing for war and start deal­ing with your real prob­lems.

4. Teach your kids, and your­selves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhab­it a small plan­et with­out help­ing to kill it.

5. Stop think­ing sci­ence can fix any­thing if you give it a tril­lion dol­lars.

6. Stop think­ing your grand­chil­dren will be OK no mat­ter how waste­ful or destruc­tive you may be, since they can go to a nice new plan­et on a space­ship. That is real­ly mean, and stu­pid.

7. And so on. Or else.

Von­negut, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, nev­er lost his touch with young read­ers. Who bet­ter to recite his 2006 let­ter to his fans in New York City’s Xavier High School’s stu­dent body than the ever youth­ful, ever curi­ous actor and activist, Sir Ian McK­ellen?

Cum­ber­batch is a won­der­ful read­er, but he’d require a bit more sea­son­ing to pull these lines off with­out the aid of major pros­thet­ics:

You sure know how to cheer up a real­ly old geezer (84) in his sun­set years. I don’t make pub­lic appear­ances any more because I now resem­ble noth­ing so much as an igua­na. 

Now if only these gents would attempt a Hoosier accent…

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ian McK­ellen Recites Shakespeare’s Son­net 20, Backed by Garage Rock Band, the Flesh­tones, on Andy Warhol’s MTV Vari­ety Show (1987)

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Nick Cave’s Beau­ti­ful Let­ter About Grief

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Mas­ter Class on Macbeth’s Final Mono­logue

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads “the Best Cov­er Let­ter Ever Writ­ten”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Its cur­rent issue cel­e­brates Kurt Vonnegut’s cen­ten­ni­al. Her most recent books are Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Why Dutch & Japanese Cities Are Insanely Well Designed (and American Cities Are Terribly Designed)

Pity the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca: despite its eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and mil­i­tary dom­i­nance of so much of the world, it strug­gles to build cities that mea­sure up with the cap­i­tals of Europe and Asia. The likes of New York, Los Ange­les, and Chica­go offer abun­dant urban life to enjoy, but also equal­ly abun­dant prob­lems. Apart from the crime rates for which Amer­i­can cities have become fair­ly or unfair­ly noto­ri­ous, there’s also the mat­ter of urban design. Sim­ply put, they don’t feel as if they were built very well, which any Amer­i­can will feel after return­ing from a trip to Ams­ter­dam or Tokyo — or after watch­ing the videos on those cities by Dan­ish Youtu­ber OBF.

In Ams­ter­dam, OBF says, “com­muters will use their bikes to get to and enter tran­sit sta­tions, where they sim­ply park their bikes in these enor­mous bike-park­ing garages. Then they’ll trav­el on either a bus, tram, or train to their final des­ti­na­tion, but most of the time, the fastest and most con­ve­nient option is sim­ply tak­ing the bike to the final des­ti­na­tion.”

Near-impos­si­ble to imag­ine in the Unit­ed States, this preva­lence of cycling is a real­i­ty in not just the Dutch cap­i­tal but also in oth­er cities across the coun­try, which boasts 32,000 kilo­me­ters of bike lanes in total. And those count as only one of the infra­struc­tur­al glo­ries cov­ered in OBF’s video “Why the Nether­lands Is Insane­ly Well Designed.”

Tokyo, too, has its fair share of cyclists. When­ev­er I’m over there, I take note of all the well-dressed moms bik­ing their young chil­dren to school in the morn­ing, who cut fig­ures in the stark­est pos­si­ble con­trast to their Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents. But what real­ly under­lies the Japan­ese cap­i­tal’s dis­tinc­tive­ly intense urban­ism, lit­er­al­ly as well as fig­u­ra­tive­ly, is its net­work of sub­way trains. OBF takes the pre­ci­sion-engi­neered effi­cien­cy and the impec­ca­ble main­te­nance of this sys­tem as his main sub­ject in “Why Tokyo Is Insane­ly Well Designed.” But enough about good city design; what accounts for bad city design, espe­cial­ly in a rich coun­try like the U.S.?

OMF has an answer in one word: park­ing. Philadel­phia, for exam­ple, sup­plies its 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple with 2.2 mil­lion park­ing spaces. The con­se­quent defor­ma­tion of the city’s built envi­ron­ment, clear­ly vis­i­ble in aer­i­al footage, both sym­bol­izes and per­pet­u­ates the hege­mo­ny of the auto­mo­bile. That same con­di­tion once afflict­ed the Euro­pean and Asian cities that have since designed their way out of it and then some. While “some peo­ple might think it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to imple­ment these meth­ods into oth­er coun­tries,” says OBF, they “can be repli­cat­ed any place in the world if the peo­ple and lead­er­ship are will­ing to col­lab­o­rate and lis­ten to one anoth­er, and invest in infra­struc­ture that is people‑, environment‑, and future-cen­tered.” As an Amer­i­can liv­ing in a non-Amer­i­can city, I here­by invite him to come have a ride on the Seoul Metro.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Pub­lic Tran­sit Sucks in the Unit­ed States: Four Videos Tell the Sto­ry

Ani­ma­tions Visu­al­ize the Evo­lu­tion of Lon­don and New York: From Their Cre­ation to the Present Day

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

Ani­mat­ed GIFs Show How Sub­way Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & Lon­don Com­pare to the Real Geog­ra­phy of Those Great Cities

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Designs the Ide­al City: See 3D Mod­els of His Rad­i­cal Design

The Utopi­an, Social­ist Designs of Sovi­et Cities

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Radical Gardeners Took Back New York City

New York­ers’ rela­tion­ship to New York City com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens is large­ly informed by how long we’ve lived here.

Do you remem­ber the 60s, when a fis­cal cri­sis and white flight result­ed in thou­sands of vacant lots and aban­doned build­ings in low income neigh­bor­hoods?

Activists like Hat­tie Carthan and Liz Christy sprung from such soil, cre­at­ing youth pro­grams, haul­ing away debris, and putting con­stant pres­sure on elect­ed offi­cials to trans­form those urban waste­lands into green oases.

Ver­dant sites like the Bow­ery Hous­ton Com­mu­ni­ty Farm and Gar­den (now known as the Liz Christy Gar­den) improved air qual­i­ty, low­ered tem­per­a­tures, and offered a pleas­ant gath­er­ing place for neigh­bors of all ages.

In the ‘80s, the city boast­ed 1000 com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, most­ly in neigh­bor­hoods con­sid­ered blight­ed. School aged chil­dren learned how to plant, tend, and har­vest veg­eta­bles. Immi­grant mem­bers intro­duced seeds new to Amer­i­can-born gar­den­ers, to help com­bat both home­sick­ness and food inse­cu­ri­ty. On site arts pro­grams flour­ished. There were al fres­co birth­day par­ties, con­certs, movie screen­ings, hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, per­ma­cul­ture class­es, com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings…. Gar­dens became focal points for com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment. Par­tic­i­pants were under­stand­ably proud, and invest­ed in what they’d built.

As Yon­nette Flem­ing, founder of the com­mu­ni­ty-led mar­ket at the Hat­tie Carthan Com­mu­ni­ty Gar­den and Farmer’s Mar­ket, says in the above episode of Vox’s Miss­ing Chap­ter: “Com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens grow com­mu­ni­ties, for the peo­ple, to be run by the peo­ple, for the ben­e­fit of the peo­ple.”

In the mid-90s, new­ly elect­ed May­or Rudy Giu­liani sided with devel­op­ers over cit­i­zens. More than half of the city’s gar­dens were bull­dozed to make way for lux­u­ry res­i­dences.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly low-rise neigh­bor­hoods like the East Vil­lage and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuyvesant would become increas­ing­ly fash­ion­able dur­ing the ear­ly days of the new mil­len­ni­um. New arrivals with lit­tle inter­est in neigh­bor­hood his­to­ry might assume that the side­walks had always been lined with cute cafes and hip­ster bars, not to men­tion trees. (In real­i­ty, Carthan was 64 when she began her suc­cess­ful cam­paign to line Bed-Stuy with trees, and land­mark a ven­er­a­ble Mag­no­lia that was at risk of being torn down.)

Per­haps hop­ing to com­mand younger view­ers’ atten­tion, Vox’s Miss­ing Chap­ter opens not with the rich his­to­ry of New York City’s com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, but rather the many recipes for seed bombs on Tik­Tok. The glass half full per­spec­tive on our 500-strong sur­viv­ing gar­dens can ring a bit emp­ty to those who lost the fight to pre­serve a num­ber of East Harlem gar­dens just a few short years ago.

Don’t for­get your roots! Christy’s type­writ­ten, hand illus­trat­ed Green Gueril­las recipe for seed bombs is below. (If you want to try it at home, please use seeds native to your area.)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A New Inter­ac­tive Map Shows All Four Mil­lion Build­ings That Exist­ed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Inter­ac­tive Map That Cat­a­logues the 700,000 Trees Shad­ing the Streets of New York City

New York City: A Social His­to­ry (A Free Online Course from N.Y.U.) 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Cicadas Return After 17 Years: Stunning Footage of the Brood X Cicadas

Sing, fly, mate, die.

The peri­od­i­cal cicadas in Brood X are emerg­ing from under­ground, where they have spent the last 17 years as nymphs. They are mak­ing the final climb of their lives, intent on escap­ing their cara­paces in order to make more cicadas. And as always they are doing it en masse.

Once free, they must quick­ly get the hang of their brand new wings, and make for the trees, where the males will sing (some say scream) in a bid for females with whom to mate.

The preg­nant females drill cav­i­ties into nar­row branch­es to receive their eggs.

By the time the lar­va emerge, some six weeks lat­er, their moth­ers and fathers are long dead.

Instinct pro­pels these babies to drop to the ground and bur­row in, thus begin­ning anoth­er 17 year cycle, a process Samuel Orr, a time lapse pho­tog­ra­ph­er and film­mak­er spe­cial­iz­ing in nature doc­u­men­tary, doc­u­ments in macro close up in Return of the Cicadas, above.

His adven­tures with Brood X date to their last emer­gence in 2004, when he was a stu­dent at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty, work­ing in a lab with a pro­fes­sor whose area of exper­tise was cicadas.

While wait­ing around for Brood X’s next appear­ance, he trav­eled around the coun­try and as far as Aus­tralia, gath­er­ing over 200 hours of footage of oth­er peri­od­i­cal cicadas for an hour long, Kick­starter-fund­ed film that aired on PBS in 2012.

Brood X has a way of ensur­ing that we humans will also observe a 17 year cycle, at least those of us who live in the states the Great East­ern Brood calls home.

Some cel­e­brate with com­mem­o­ra­tive merch. This year, that means face masks as well as an ever bur­geon­ing assort­ment of t‑shirts, mugs, and oth­er para­pher­na­lia.

Also new this year, Cica­da Safari, ento­mol­o­gist Dr. Gene Kritsky’s smart­phone app for cit­i­zen sci­en­tists eager to help map the 2021 emer­gence with pho­tos and loca­tion.

There are some among us who com­plain about the males’ lusty cho­rus, which can rival garbage dis­pos­als, lawn mow­ers, and jack­ham­mers in terms of deci­bels.

Those con­cerned with the planet’s health can use the data from this and past emer­gences to dis­cuss the impact of cli­mate change and defor­esta­tion. Brood X is list­ed as “Near Threat­ened” on the Inter­na­tion­al Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature’s Red List.

Some of us are moved to write poet­ry and songs, though we don’t always get the species right — wit­ness Ogden Nash’s Locust-Lovers, Atten­tion! (1936) and Bob Dylan’s Day of the Locusts (1970).

Inevitably, there will be arti­cles about eat­ing them. It’s true that they’re a hyper­local source of sus­tain­able pro­tein, albeit one that’s rarely on the menu. (The Ononda­ga Nation cel­e­brates — and cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly sam­ples — Brood VII every 17 years, cred­it­ing the insects with sav­ing their ances­tors from star­va­tion after the Con­ti­nen­tal Army destroyed their vil­lages and food sources in 1779.)

Human nature is such that we can’t help but reflect on the twists and turns our lives have tak­en over the last 17 years.

A woman in Mary­land planned a cica­da themed wed­ding to coin­cide with Brood X’s 1987 emer­gence, hav­ing been born two emer­gences before, and grad­u­at­ed from Bryn Mawr dur­ing the 1970 emer­gence, as 50 miles away, Bob Dylan was hav­ing his fate­ful encounter on the cam­pus of Prince­ton.

Most of us will find that our mile­stones have been a bit more acci­den­tal in nature.

Brood X’s emer­gence also serves as a lens through which to view 17 years in the life of our coun­try. The Onion took this to the edge sev­er­al years ago with an arti­cle from the point of view of Brood II, but it’ll be hard to top the 17-year chunk of recent his­to­ry Brood X and the humans who have been liv­ing atop them since 2004 will have to digest.

Speak­ing of his­to­ry, Brood X Mania has been around much longer than any of us have been alive, and prob­a­bly pre­dates a Philadel­phia pastor’s descrip­tion of the 1715 emer­gence in his jour­nal (though we’ll give him FIRST!!! since no ear­li­er accounts have sur­faced).

Pri­or to the Inter­net, ento­mol­o­gist Charles L. Marlatt’s The Peri­od­i­cal Cica­da: An Account of Cica­da Sep­ten­dec­im, Its Nat­ur­al Ene­mies and the Means of Pre­vent­ing Its Injury (1907) was the go to source for all things cica­da relat­ed, and it remains a fas­ci­nat­ing read.

In addi­tion to lots of nit­ty grit­ty on the insects’ anato­my, habits, diet, and habi­tat, he quotes lib­er­al­ly from oth­er cica­da experts, from both his own era and before. The anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests our obses­sion is far from new.

These days, any­one armed with a smart­phone can make a record­ing of Brood X’s cacoph­o­ny, but back then, experts in the field were tasked with try­ing to cap­ture it in print.

Pro­fes­sor Charles Valen­tine Riley com­pared the sound ear­ly in the sea­son, when the first males were emerg­ing to the “whistling of a train pass­ing through a short tun­nel” and also, “the croak­ing of cer­tain frogs.” (For those need­ing help with pro­nun­ci­a­tion, he ren­dered it pho­net­i­cal­ly as “Pha-r-r-r-aoh.”)

Pro­fes­sor Asa Fitch’s described high sea­son in New York state, when a max­i­mum of males sing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly:

tsh-e-e-E-E-E-E-e-ou, uttered con­tin­u­ous­ly and pro­longed to a quar­ter or half minute in length, the mid­dle note deaf­en­ing­ly shrill, loud and pierc­ing to the ear

Mar­latt him­self wor­ried, pre­ma­ture­ly but not with­out rea­son, that the march of civ­i­liza­tion would bring about extinc­tion by over-clear­ing the dense­ly wood­ed areas that are essen­tial to the cicadas’ repro­duc­tive rit­u­als while offer­ing a bit of pro­tec­tion from preda­tors.

Dr. Samuel P. Hil­dreth of Mari­et­ta, Ohio not­ed in 1830 that “hogs eat them in pref­er­ence to any oth­er food” and that birds were such fans “that very few birds were seen around our gar­dens dur­ing their con­tin­u­ance and our cher­ries, etc, remained unmo­lest­ed.”

Dr. Leland Oss­ian Howard was erro­neous­ly cred­it­ed with con­duct­ing “the first exper­i­ments of cica­da as an arti­cle of human food” in ear­ly sum­mer 1885. Mar­latt repro­duces the account of an eye­wit­ness who seemed to fan­cy them­selves a bit of a restau­rant crit­ic:

With the aid of the Doctor’s cook, he had pre­pared a plain stew, a milk stew, and a broil. The Cicadae were col­lect­ed just as they emerged from pupae and were thrown into cold water, in which they remained overnight. They were cooked the next morn­ing, and served at break­fast time. They impart­ed a dis­tinct and not unpleas­ant fla­vor to the stew, but they were not at all palat­able them­selves, as they were reduced to noth­ing but bits of flab­by skin. The broil lacked sub­stance. The most palat­able method of cook­ing is to fry in bat­ter, when they remind one of shrimps. They will nev­er prove a del­i­ca­cy.

We leave you with the thoughts of Dr Gideon B. Smith of Bal­ti­more, whose attempt to cap­ture a mer­cu­r­ial month turns bit­ter­sweet, and all too relat­able:

The music or song pro­duced by the myr­i­ads of these insects in a warm day from about the 25th of May to the mid­dle of June is won­der­ful. It is not deaf­en­ing, as many describe it; even at its height it does not inter­rupt con­ver­sa­tion. It seems like an atmos­phere of wild, monot­o­nous sound, in which all oth­er sounds float with per­fect dis­tinct­ness. After a day or two this music becomes tire­some and dole­ful, and to many very dis­agree­able. To me, it was oth­er­wise, and when I heard the last note on the 25th of June the melan­choly reflec­tion occurred. Shall I live to hear it yet again?

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sounds of the For­est: A Free Audio Archive Gath­ers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

Tune Into An Online Radio Sta­tion That Streams the Sooth­ing Sounds of Forests from Around the World

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Doc­u­men­taries: Meet the Artists Who Cre­ate the Sounds of Fish, Spi­ders, Orang­utans, Mush­rooms & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Wel­come back, Brood X Over­lords! Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Time-Lapse Video Reveals Humanity’s Impact on the Earth Since 1984

Google has worked with experts at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty’s CREATE Lab to devel­op a time-lapse fea­ture with­in Google Earth, which allows you to see first­hand the changes to our plan­et since 1984.

In the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, you can now see our plan­et in an entire­ly new dimen­sion — time. With Time­lapse in Google Earth, 24 mil­lion satel­lite pho­tos from the past 37 years have been com­piled into an inter­ac­tive 4D expe­ri­ence. Now any­one can watch time unfold and wit­ness near­ly four decades of plan­e­tary change.…

To explore Time­lapse in Google Earth, go to — you can use the handy search bar to choose any place on the plan­et where you want to see time in motion…

As we looked at what was hap­pen­ing, five themes emerged: for­est changeurban growthwarm­ing tem­per­a­turessources of ener­gy, and our world’s frag­ile beau­ty. Google Earth takes you on a guid­ed tour of each top­ic to bet­ter under­stand them.

You can get a feel for the relent­less change in the short video above, and learn more about the new iter­a­tion of Google Earth over at the Google blog.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Envi­ron­ment & Nat­ur­al Resources: Free Online Cours­es

Dr. Jane Goodall Will Teach an Online Course About Con­serv­ing Our Envi­ron­ment

A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in a 35 Sec­ond Video

132 Years of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in 26 Dra­mat­i­cal­ly Ani­mat­ed Sec­onds

The Eden Project Built a Rainforest Ecosystem Inside Buckminster Fuller-Inspired Geodesic Domes

Buck­min­ster Fuller had a dif­fi­cult time as an inven­tor in his ear­ly years. “Hav­ing been expelled from Har­vard for irre­spon­si­ble con­duct,” notes The Guardian, “he strug­gled to find a job and pro­vide a liv­ing for his young fam­i­ly in his ear­ly 30s.” Despite lat­er suc­cess­es, and a lat­er rep­u­ta­tion as leg­endary as Niko­la Tesla’s, he was often, like Tes­la, seen by crit­ics as a utopi­an vision­ary, whose visions were too imprac­ti­cal to real­ly change the world.

But his body of work remains a tes­ta­ment to an imag­i­na­tion that ris­es above the trends of indus­tri­al design and engi­neer­ing. After a peri­od of decline, for exam­ple, Fuller’s geo­des­ic domes expe­ri­enced a revival in the ear­ly 2000’s when “aging baby-boomers across Amer­i­ca” began “build­ing dream homes in the shape of geo­des­ic domes.” Mean­while in Corn­wall, Eng­land, a few years ahead of the curve, Dutch-born busi­ness­man and archae­ol­o­gist-turned-suc­cess­ful-music-pro­duc­er Sir Tim­o­thy Smit broke ground on what would become a far more British use of Ful­lerist prin­ci­ples.

In the late 90s, Smit start­ed work on an enor­mous com­plex of geo­des­ic bio­mes called the Eden Project, a facil­i­ty “akin to a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Vic­to­ri­an cre­ation: the Eng­lish green­house,” which reached its apex in the famed “Crys­tal Palace” built for the Great Exhi­bi­tion in Hyde Park in 1851. These were build­ings “born out of a play­ful, deca­dent imagination—yet in their archi­tec­ture and design they often opened new path­ways for the future.” So too do Fuller’s designs, in an appli­ca­tion meld­ing Vic­to­ri­an and Ful­lerist ideas about cura­tor­ship and sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

Look­ing like “clus­ters of soap bub­bles” the Eden Project slow­ly rose above an exhaust­ed clay pit and opened in 2001 (see a short time-lapse film of the con­struc­tion above). Each of the two huge cen­tral domes recre­ates an ecosys­tem. The Rain­for­est Bio­me allows vis­i­tors to get lost in near­ly 4 acres of trop­i­cal for­est and includes banana, cof­fee, and rub­ber plants. The Mediter­ranean Bio­me hous­es an acre and a half of olives and grape vines. Small­er adjoin­ing domes house thou­sands of addi­tion­al plant species. There is a per­for­mance space and a year­ly music fes­ti­val; sculp­tures and art exhi­bi­tions in both the indoor and out­door gar­dens. The facil­i­ty has host­ed well over a mil­lion vis­i­tors each year.

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In 2016, the Eden Project began plant­i­ng red­woods, intro­duc­ing a for­est of the North Amer­i­can trees to Europe for the first time. Next year, it will begin drilling for a geot­her­mal ener­gy project to turn heat from the gran­ite under­ground into pow­er, an under­tak­ing that, unlike frack­ing, will not release con­t­a­m­i­nants into the water sup­ply or addi­tion­al fos­sil fuels into the air and could pow­er and heat the facil­i­ty and 5000 addi­tion­al homes. In 2018, the project began con­struc­tion on Eden Project North, in More­cambe, Lan­cashire, with build­ings designed to look like giant mus­sels and a focus on marine envi­ron­ments.

Eden Project Inter­na­tion­al aims to build unique facil­i­ties all around the world, “to cre­ate new attrac­tions with a mes­sage of envi­ron­men­tal, social and eco­nom­ic regen­er­a­tion” and “to pro­tect and reju­ve­nate nat­ur­al land­scapes.” None of these ambi­tious expan­sions use the geo­des­ic domes of the orig­i­nal Eden Project, but that is not a reflec­tion on the domes’ struc­tur­al sound­ness. Many oth­er trans­par­ent uses of Fuller’s design have encoun­tered dif­fi­cul­ties with water tight­ness and heat flow. The Eden Project’s domes use inno­v­a­tive inflat­able, tri­an­gu­lar pan­els instead of glass to solve those prob­lems. Fuller sure­ly would have approved.

The project also rep­re­sents a poignant per­son­al vin­di­ca­tion for the Fuller fam­i­ly. Fuller “vowed to ded­i­cate his life to improv­ing stan­dards of liv­ing through good design,” The Guardian writes, after his daugh­ter Alexan­dra died in 1922. In 2009, his only sur­viv­ing child, Alle­gra Fuller Sny­der, then 82 and Chair­woman of the Buck­min­ster Fuller Insti­tute, vis­it­ed the Eden Project. “Of all the projects relat­ed to my father’s work,” she remarked after­ward, “I would say that this is the one I am most aware of as being a pow­er­ful, com­pre­hen­sive project…. My father would have been just thrilled. He would feel that it is a mar­vel­lous appli­ca­tion of his think­ing.”

Learn more about the Eden Project, which reopens Decem­ber 3, here. And learn how to “cre­ate Eden wher­ev­er you are” with the project’s free resources for gar­den­ers at home.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)

The Life & Times of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Geo­des­ic Dome: A Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

16 Ways the World Is Getting Remarkably Better: Visuals by Statistician Hans Rosling

It cer­tain­ly may not feel like things are get­ting bet­ter behind the anx­ious veils of our COVID lock­downs. But some might say that opti­mism and pes­simism are prod­ucts of the gut, hid­den some­where in the bac­te­r­i­al stew we call the micro­bio­me. “All prej­u­dices come from the intestines,” pro­claimed not­ed suf­fer­er of indi­ges­tion, Friedrich Niet­zsche. Maybe we can change our views by chang­ing our diet. But it’s a lit­tle hard­er to change our emo­tions with facts. We turn up our noses at them, or find them impos­si­ble to digest.

Niet­zsche did not con­sid­er him­self a pes­simist. Despite his stom­ach trou­bles, he “adopt­ed a phi­los­o­phy that said yes to life,” notes Rea­son and Mean­ing, “ful­ly cog­nizant of the fact that life is most­ly mis­er­able, evil, ugly, and absurd.” Let’s grant that this is so. A great many of us, I think, are inclined to believe it. We are ide­al con­sumers for dystopi­an Niet­zsche-esque fan­tasies about super­men and “last men.” Still, it’s worth ask­ing: is life always and equal­ly mis­er­able, evil, ugly, and absurd? Is the idea of human progress no more than a mod­ern delu­sion?

Physi­cian, sta­tis­ti­cian, and one­time sword swal­low­er Hans Rosling spent sev­er­al years try­ing to show oth­er­wise in tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries for the BBC, TED Talks, and the posthu­mous book Fact­ful­ness: Ten Rea­sons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Bet­ter Than You Think, co-writ­ten with his son and daugh­ter-in-law, a sta­tis­ti­cian and design­er, respec­tive­ly. Rosling, who passed away in 2017, also worked with his two co-authors on soft­ware used to ani­mate sta­tis­tics, and in his pub­lic talks and book, he attempt­ed to bring data to life in ways that engage gut feel­ings.

Take the set of graphs above, aka, “16 Bad Things Decreas­ing,” from Fact­ful­ness. (View a larg­er scan of the pages here.) Yes, you may look at a set of mono­chro­mat­ic trend lines and yawn. But if you attend to the details, you’ll can see that each arrow plum­met­ing down­ward rep­re­sents some pro­found ill, man­made or oth­er­wise, that has killed or maimed mil­lions. These range from legal slavery—down from 194 coun­tries in 1800 to 3 in 2017—to small­pox: down from 148 coun­tries with cas­es in 1850 to 0 in 1979. (Per­haps our cur­rent glob­al epi­dem­ic will war­rant its own tri­umphant graph in a revised edi­tion some decades in the future.) Is this not progress?

What about the steadi­ly falling rates of world hunger, child mor­tal­i­ty, HIV infec­tions, num­bers of nuclear war­heads, deaths from dis­as­ter, and ozone deple­tion? Hard to argue with the num­bers, though as always, we should con­sid­er the source. (Near­ly all these sta­tis­tics come from Rosling’s own com­pa­ny, Gap­min­der.) In the video above, Dr. Rosling explains to a TED audi­ence how he designed a course on glob­al health in his native Swe­den. In order to make sure the mate­r­i­al mea­sured up to his accom­plished stu­dents’ abil­i­ties, he first gave them a ques­tion­naire to test their knowl­edge.

Rosling found, he jokes, “that Swedish top stu­dents know sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant­ly less about the world than a chim­panzee,” who would have scored high­er by chance. The prob­lem “was not igno­rance, it was pre­con­ceived ideas,” which are worse. Bad ideas are dri­ven by many ‑isms, but also by what Rosling calls in the book an “over­dra­mat­ic” world­view. Humans are ner­vous by nature. “Our ten­den­cy to mis­in­ter­pret facts is instinctive—an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion to help us make quick deci­sions to avoid dan­ger,” writes Katie Law in a review of Fact­ful­ness.

“While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.” Mag­ni­fied by glob­al, col­lec­tive anx­i­eties, weaponized by can­ny mass media, the ten­den­cy to pes­simism becomes real­i­ty, but it’s one that is not sup­port­ed by the data. This kind of argu­ment has become kind of a cot­tage indus­try; each pre­sen­ta­tion must be eval­u­at­ed on its own mer­its. Pre­sum­ably enlight­ened opti­mism can be just as over­sim­pli­fied a view as the dark­est pes­simism. But Rosling insist­ed he wasn’t an opti­mist. He was just being “fact­ful.” We prob­a­bly shouldn’t get into what Niet­zsche might say to that.

via Simon Kuesten­mach­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Against All Odds: A Gen­tle Intro­duc­tion to Sta­tis­tics Host­ed by Har­vard Geneti­cist Par­dis Sabeti (Free Online Course)

David Byrne Launch­es Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful, an Online Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Arti­cles by Byrne, Bri­an Eno & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Earth Archive Will 3D-Scan the Entire World & Create an “Open-Source” Record of Our Planet

If you keep up with cli­mate change news, you see a lot of pre­dic­tions of what the world will look like twen­ty years from now, fifty years from now, a cen­tu­ry from now. Some of these pro­jec­tions of the state of the land, the shape of con­ti­nents, and the lev­els of the sea are more dra­mat­ic than oth­ers, and in any case they vary so much that one nev­er knows which ones to cred­it. But of equal impor­tance to fore­see­ing what Earth will look like in the future is not for­get­ting what it looks like now — or so holds the premise of the Earth Archive, a sci­en­tif­ic effort to “scan the entire sur­face of the Earth before it’s too late.”

This ambi­tious project has three goals: to “cre­ate a base­line record of the earth as it is today to more effec­tive­ly mit­i­gate the cli­mate cri­sis,” to “build a vir­tu­al, open-source plan­et acces­si­ble to all sci­en­tists so we can bet­ter under­stand our world,” and to “pre­serve a record of the Earth for our grandchildren’s grand­chil­dren so they can study & recre­ate our lost her­itage.”

All three depend on the cre­ation of a detailed 3D mod­el of the globe — but “globe” is the wrong word, bring­ing to mind as it does a sphere cov­ered with flat images of land and sea.

Using lidar (short for Light Detec­tion & Rang­ing), a tech­nol­o­gy that “involves shoot­ing a dense grid of infrared beams from an air­plane towards the ground,” the Earth Archive aims to cre­ate not an image but “a dense three-dimen­sion­al cloud of points” cap­tur­ing the whole plan­et. At the top of the post, you can see a TED Talk on the Earth Archive’s ori­gin, pur­pose, and poten­tial by archae­ol­o­gist and anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Chris Fish­er, the pro­jec­t’s founder and direc­tor. “Fish­er had used lidar to sur­vey the ancient Purépecha set­tle­ment of Anga­mu­co, in Mexico’s Michoacán state,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Isaac Schultz. “In the course of that work, he saw human-caused changes to the land­scape, and decid­ed to broad­en his scope.”

Now, Fish­er and Earth Archive co-direc­tor Steve Leisz want to cre­ate “a com­pre­hen­sive archive of lidar scans” to “fuel an immense dataset of the Earth’s sur­face, in three dimen­sions.” This comes with cer­tain obsta­cles, not the least the price tag: a scan of the Ama­zon rain­for­est would take six years and cost $15 mil­lion. “The next step,” writes Schultz, “could be to use some future tech­nol­o­gy that puts lidar in orbit and makes cov­er­ing large areas eas­i­er.” Dis­in­clined to wait around for the devel­op­ment of such a tech­nol­o­gy while forests burn and coast­lines erode, Fish­er and Leisz are tak­ing their first steps — and tak­ing dona­tions — right now. On the off chance that humans of cen­turies ahead devel­op the abil­i­ty to recre­ate the plan­et as we know it today, it’s the Earth Archive’s data they’ll rely on to do it.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in a 35 Sec­ond Video

Explore Metic­u­lous 3D Mod­els of Endan­gered His­tor­i­cal Sites in Google’s “Open Her­itage” Project

Earth­rise, Apol­lo 8’s Pho­to of Earth from Space, Turns 50: Down­load the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph from NASA

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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