Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Calling oneself an environmental activist isn’t enough - one has to do something, and making a single voice or project count is increasingly difficult amid the welter of issues and “green” opportunities.

“It’s hard to talk about global warming because it is so daunting. What is missing in public conversation is the solution,” says Chicago resident Wendy Abrams, mother of four and the woman responsible for the highly visible Cool Globes project on view as part of the U.S. Botanic Garden’s current exhibit “One Planet - Ours! Sustainability for the 22nd Century.” She came up with the idea as a “fun” way to get people talking.

“People feel hopeless and tune out, saying it’s the government’s or scientists’ problem to solve, but it’s everyone’s problem,” says Mrs. Abrams, explaining the motivation behind the nonprofit effort. It began last summer in her home city and ended up involving artists, schoolchildren, government agencies and corporate sponsors in Chicago, the District and San Francisco. The project here is teamed with other exhibit participants, including Builders Without Borders, the American Horticultural Society, the U.S. Department of Energy and Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia.

The globes - about 35 large original sculptures pointing up “whole-Earth” solutions - were donated by artists who received a stipend to cover materials. A public auction of globes large and small will be held next year to provide money to refit a D.C. public school to make it environmentally sound. That event is being run for Earth Day Network by Jayni Chase, wife of actor Chevy Chase. Both she and her husband are expected to be present Wednesday at a private celebratory party. Toyota is the chief exhibit sponsor locally.

In addition, 60 miniglobes created by a cross-section of well-known Americans go on display Wednesday through Sept. 3 in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations under the title “Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet.”

Needless to say, Mrs. Abrams’ attempt to, in her words, “leave the planet better for our kids” has mushroomed into a full-time job, with new globes by more artists due to be shown in London’s Trafalgar Square next May.

Exhibit visitors also can check out a straw-bale eco-house constructed by the Canada-based nonprofit Builders Without Borders, an eight-year-old international network of skilled professional and craftsmen volunteers who advocate using straw, earth and other local affordable natural materials for building. The network has no local chapters but runs projects through the Internet (, according to co-director Catherine Wanek, who says the group’s focus is on education while using the talents of local people and organizations.

Washington regional resources taking part in the exhibit include Takoma Park architect Bill Hutchins and contractor Polly Bart as well as Community Forklift of Edmonston, Md., and Patricia McArdle of Solar Cookers International. The surprisingly sturdy straw-bale house has been built on a terrace outside the Botanic Garden at 245 First St. SW., where demonstrations - including cookie baking - and other programs are scheduled throughout the exhibit’s run.

“Our personal goal is encouraging the use of locally available healthy materials that are low in energy, to reduce energy costs,” Ms. Wanek says, speaking on the phone from her home in Silver City, N.M. “We have an official membership of around 150 people but an e-mail list of several thousand.”

Straw, she notes, is an agricultural byproduct of grain and is produced anywhere wheat or rice - the main staples of the world - is grown.

“It’s natural and nontoxic and saves people money for insulation,” she says, but it is not ideal for every climate. “If you are building after a tsunami, you would not choose it; earth-bag technologies and bamboo are better in the tropics.”

The downside, she says, is having contractors “learn a new bag of tricks” because the prime problem encountered is protecting straw-bale homes from moisture.

Another exhibit participant is the American Horticultural Society, which has constructed a so-called green garage, a plywood framework shed, on a front terrace. The society, based south of Alexandria, will staff the garage periodically to offer tips to gardeners of all stripes, but especially the casual homeowner. A demonstration garden also us attached to illustrate the best ways for tending homegrown plants and vegetables.


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