Kwolz's Adventures in Saving the World

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." -Albert Einstein

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New Website:

Posted by kevinwolz on January 7, 2013

I’ve moved!

Please check out my new website, with the same blog and even more content at

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How Soil Can Solve Climate Change

Posted by kevinwolz on March 11, 2012

Just ran the numbers…I’ve been meaning to do this for quite a while now…

There are 1.89 quadrilion (10^15) pounds of carbon (C) in the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide – CO2). That’s a lot. Here’s a better way to think of it…that’s about 1.2 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of land on Earth’s surface. Taking this a bit further, with ~40% of Earth’s land surface today covered by either cropland or pasture, that’s ~3 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of agricultural land – a much easier number to wrap your head around.

Those numbers are for today’s situation, with atmospheric [CO2] at about 393 ppm. Pre-industrial levels were about 290 ppm, and while it’s important that we eventually get back down to those levels, it is commonly argued by scientists that bringing [CO2] down to just 350 ppm will at least stave off the worst of climate change – a good first goal.

Getting back down to 350 ppm [CO2] in the atmosphere means removing just ~11% of the CO2 currently up there. Again using our easy metric from above, that’s about 0.3 lbs of C for every sq. ft. of agricultural land.

So why am I using this metric that refers to agricultural land? Well, when one thinks of ag land, the first thing that comes to mind is soilSoil comes in many varieties, which mainly differ by their relative composition of sand, silt, and clay, soil’s three primary components. In addition, however, soil contains organic matter. Organic matter is the decomposing matter that was once part of a plant or animal, and it’s about 58% carbon. The amount of organic matter in soil typically ranges from about 1-10%, depending on the type of soil and its health. Prairie soils before the plow came through were on the higher end of this range…conventional ag soils today are on the lower end of this range.

SO, even though the typical agricultural soil today only contains about 1-3% carbon, this number is not fixed – we can change it. In the typical agricultural “loam” soil, raising soil organic matter (SOM) by just 1% in a cubic foot of soil locks up ~0.5 lbs of C. See where I’m going with this??

THEREFORE, all we need to do to bring us back to manageable a CO2 level (350 ppm) and prevent the worst of climate change is to increase the soil organic matter in the top foot of the world’s agricultural land by just 0.62%! Since conventional agricultural practices have managed to bring down SOM by at least 1% on most agricultural land in the last 100 years, bringing it back up by just 0.62% should be EASY! How? An agricultural system that uses perennial polycultures in nature’s image to produce food, fuel, and fiber while simultaneously restoring ecosystem services and sequestering carbon. Simple.

Want to mitigate climate change? We need to get carbon back in the soil!

Posted in Climate Change, Sustainable Ag | Leave a Comment »

Chindia Rising

Posted by kevinwolz on January 16, 2012

As I near the end of my 15-hour flight back to Chicago, the impact of the last two weeks is only beginning to sink in. I doubt that I will fully understand everything that I saw on this trip for years to come, and yet it has already begun to have a profound effect on the way I look at the world. From the food I eat to the path of my career, the East has left its mark.

Just two days after a great Christmas with my family, I headed off to the airport to meet a group of 26 unfamiliar UIUC students and fly half way around the world with them. We represented different ages, different degrees, and different career plans. Our desire to experience a whole new world was our only common thread. The purpose of our trip was to experience first-hand the people, the culture, and the emerging markets that are now a global force.

We started in the bustling city of Chennai, on India’s southeast coast. To our innocent eyes, The city was congested, the streets dirty, and the weather muggy. But we wasted no time with this superficial reaction and immediately began to dig deeper, uncovering the true nature of what we saw.

In both urban and semi-rural areas, we meet with and interviewed students of all ages,  adults of all professions, and business(wo)men of all fields. Fishermen, farmers, retailers, teachers, pharmacists…you name it. Our focus, however, was on entrepreneurs, especially women. The rise of women’s self-help groups, with great help from Dr. Madhu Viswanathan, one of the professors leading our trip, has sparked a dramatic increase in the entrepreneurial initiative and business leadership of women across India. Interacting with these amazing women was incredibly inspirational.

One of our days in a semi-rural village was by far the best of the trip. We walked the streets of the town, interacting with store owners, children, and homemakers going about their daily activities.

I entered the home (hut) of a family that barely makes ends meet. I saw where they get their water. I saw where her daughters go to school. I played with them in the streets. I saw her daily religious ceremony. And I saw the opportunities that lie ahead.

After such a vivid insight into the lives of people in this village, our last stop was the local community center, where many of the wives work in a new enterprise that hand makes paper mâché decorative dolls. It is an entrepreneurial community effort that has created a new path of opportunity for the village and is the perfect example of changes taking place in the emerging Indian markets.

From the outside, the village looks poor, unstructured, and completely disconnected from the modern world. While we from the West expect all development to take place in our image, this is not the case at all. The emerging market of this small semi-rural village in southern India may not look exactly like a small town in center Illinois, but I can assure you that it is just as sophisticated and poised for success.

From Chennai, we headed inland to the booming city of Bangalore, the technological hub of India and its most rapidly developing city. Bangalore was starkly different from Chennai: mild weather, modern skyscrapers, and fast food on every corner. Our goals here were obviously quite different. Rather than rural villages and subsistence marketplaces, our time in Bangalore focused on the technology and big companies coming out of India. Here, we visited with Boeing, Accenture, Caterpillar, Motorola, and Mindtree, some of the biggest names in business. Company executives gave us valuable insights to both the rapid development of the Indian economy and the unique approaches that were necessary for their success in a country very different that what we were used to. We also had the lucky opportunity to meet with government officials (from all three branches of government) while in Bangalore and get a first hand experience the inner workings of their system.

A perfect example of Bangalore's intrigue: Modern green development on the left, and typical slums on the right.

As quickly as it started, our time in India was then over, and our group then headed to China via a more than 30-hour transfer that included nothing less than planes, trains, and automobiles. Our first stop in China was Chongqing. Ever heard of it? I surely hadn’t. And yet it’s a city of 30 million people!! Both Chongqing and our subsequent city of Chengdu are a force to be reckoned with. They are the industrial and commercial powerhouses of western China, and they have a plan. They are already huge, and they are growing FAST. I had heard people say it before, but I never really believed it until now: Get out of the way U.S.A. China IS the next world power.

"Hot Pot": The traditional meal of Chengdu.

The final stop in our journey was the wondrous island metropolis of Hong Kong. In addition to our traditional company visits and economic insights, our focus in Hong Kong was also on politics. I had never really understood the unique political situation and history of Hong Kong until interacting with the several powerful and famous (some controversial) figures we were lucky to meet with. Sitting in a suit at a mahogany table on the umpteenth floor of a skyscraper that’s first floor is occupied by a Versace store was certainly a stark contrast to our first experiences in Chennai, but I have no doubt that they were just important. It is always critical to understand both ends of the spectrum, and I’m sure that Hong Kong will be a centerpiece in this arena as the rest of China takes off.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak above the city.

Overall, I learned and experienced  way more in the past two weeks than I could ever aspire to write in this post. The insights above are just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that at the very least I have conveyed that India and China are big, they’re different, and they’re coming fast. Their influence on the world economy, culture, and politics will reach every one of us in new ways everyday. There will be both great opportunities to embrace and serious problems to tackle. I went on this trip so that I could get a glimpse of what that future might look like and what it might mean for me. I urge everyone else, businessmen and homemakers alike, to take similar prudence towards understanding and appreciating the future that is coming.

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Current & Prospective Class Reflection: Fall 2011

Posted by kevinwolz on December 12, 2011

As I’ve said at the end of the last few semesters, “My favorite time of the semester (registering for classes–really, what is more empowering than choosing and taking action on your own education!?) has already come and gone. I want to continue what I’ve done in the past with a review/reflection on this semester’s classes and some prospective thoughts on the line up for spring. This really isn’t for anyone else’s benefit but mine. It’s an opportunity for me to reflect on past classes, redirect my academic interests, and scope out the next semester. A successful college education will only come if I continue to reevaluate where I’m at and make sure that I’m passionate about where I’m going. Here are the classes that I’m finishing up now:”

Systems Engineering & Economics: Okay, I get it. Linear programming is important. Can I be done now? That’s how I felt all semester. After optimizing and re-optimizing every possible engineering scenario you could encounter, I became quite jaded with the whole idea of optimizing something from such a reductionist point of view. I think I can best sum this up by the following quote of Wes Jackson that I heard the other day: “When you break a problem down to a point where there’s no ambiguity, that’s where it becomes irrelevant.”

Intro to Computing  (Computer Science 101): Well, whadaya know,  programming isn’t so bad after all. I know it’s a 101 class, but for someone who has never really thought in the programming mindset before, coding can be a whole new world. Overall, I learned the basics, and they should come quite in handy as I begin modeling-based research next spring.

Ecology and Evolution: Finally!…a biology course focused on ecology, my scale of interest. Overall, this course was great. While the evolution half of the course was a bit dry and unorganized, the material still furthered my interest and understanding of evolution, in all its statistical glory. Not to mention, we took some pretty epic field trips that gave me a whole new respect for Illinois.

Introductory Biochemistry: I’ll be brief, and I’ll be blunt. This was undoubtedly the worst class that I’ve ever taken at U of I. Here’s what we were told (or could infer) on the first day of class: 1) Don’t buy the book because no material outside of the lectures slides will ever be discussed. 2) Lecture slides will be recited verbatim during class and then posted online. 3) Homework is not mandatory, but the posted problems are the same problems that will be on the tests. 4) The teacher is not a professor and has no teaching experience whatsoever. 5) We don’t have the “manpower” to make this course any better. WOW, sign me up! Suffice it to say that the only time I ever showed up to that class again was for our three exams, each of which I simply crammed for the night before by reading trough the lectures and doing the posted (test) problems.

Math in Music and Art: As can be expected from any class with as crazy of a name as this, MMA was my honors class for the semester (and my last required honors class at UofI!). A late add, MMA did not show up in last May’s preview, but it proved to be one of the better spontaneous decision I’ve made. Ever since I started playing in band, I’ve been curious to understand the math behind it all. I know…I’m such an engineer. Anyway, this class did just that! On the very first day, we mathematically proved why there are 12 notes to an octave  and 7 notes in a scale in Western music. It’s not just an arbitrary choice…It’s a centuries-long controversy rooted in fractions and irrational numbers! This class has added a whole new level of understanding to my musical background, and it has even prompted my to whip out my sax again. On top of all that, one of the most excited things I did all semester was the final project for this class. That’s a story for another post though.


As opposed to the relatively general classes I took last semester, I’ll be diving deep into some focused topics this spring. The best part is that since I will be starting my extended commitment to research next semester (more on this soon), I’m only taking four classes! Furthermore, my daily schedule couldn’t have worked out any better…it’s the most regular and predictable schedule I’ve ever had.

Statistical Modeling: This one came out of nowhere. Since Statistical Modeling is actually a graduate level course, it never really even came up on my radar while planning my degrees out. However, the recent revelation that this course covers almost exactly what I will need to know in order to complete successful research next semester has convinced me that I simply cannot pass it up…for the sake of my career. It will certainly be hard, but I’m sure just as fascinating as well.

GIS for Planners: GIS stands for Geographic Information System. Basically, GIS is the intersection of maps, data, and statistics. Four good reasons went into my decision to take this course: 1) I love maps. 2) The job description for my dream job said that proficiency in GIS  was a requirement. 3) Urban planning is a discipline I would like to explore and understand, and this is the only course I’ll be able to take in that department. 4) My good friend Declan is taking the class with me.

Introductory Dynamics: Arranging class schedules that appease both of my majors as well as my interests has been quite challenging. To make everything fit, I had to start planning things before I even showed up on campus! Retiring professors, cancelled classes, changing requirements  and bad teachers have only added to this difficulty. Nevertheless, I’ve always been able to make everything work…except for this class. Dynamics has been the single hardest class to schedule. The class is typically taken by first semester sophomores, but I have had to push it back again and again due to conflicts. So, here I am, scheduling the second semester of my junior year and realizing that if I don’t make Dynamics fit now I won’t graduate on time. It’s a prerequisite for almost every civil engineering class that I have left to take! Okay, so no big deal right? Wrong. The time conflicts with the lab of Statistical Modeling. Of course. After freaking out a bit, I decided that, since I would probably end up ditching the Dynamic lecture half the time anyway, the conflict wasn’t terribly unreasonable. So, I pulled a few strings, sweet talked some secretaries, and got the override I needed. Take that Hermione. No time-turner needed.

Sustainable & Resilient Infrastructure Systems: To be quite honest, one of the main reasons I registered for this course was because the title had the word “resilient” in it…quite possibly my favorite word of all time. This is one of the classes that was randomly added to the civil engineering department last year as part of the push to make the curriculum better reflect sustainability issues in engineering. I really don’t know what spurred the development of this course…all I’ll say is that when I wrote up my engineering custom degree plan almost two years ago now, I used a quite similar phrase to describe my approach to civil engineering. So, while I’m excited for this unexpected opportunity, I’m actually quite skeptical about the material they will cover. Things may change once I see the syllabus…

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Where In The World Am I Today?

Posted by kevinwolz on November 24, 2011

Once 2011 comes to a close, I will be able to say that in the last year I have stepped foot in 6 U.S. states (not including drive-throughs), 7 countries, and 4 continents (as long as you consider Panama south of the canal to be South America). Whoa. How did that happen!? I honestly don’t view myself as a world traveler…many of those trips were quite under planned and/or unexpected. In the lat two years, my life has grown more decentralized…I currently have strong roots in southern Wisconsin, the Chicago suburbs, and the U of I. I can barely figure out where my clothes are, let alone my home turf. Add to that a slew of world travel, and you have quite the whirlwind. I’ve probably slept as many nights this year in a bed (or lack thereof) that wasn’t mine that in my own bed(s)! Often times this year, I have woken up in the morning quite confused…without the slightest idea of where I was. Intense. I’ve already posted about my European travels last winter and my summer in the tropics, so here I’m just going to give a quick run down on the whirlwind that has been my fall semester. The following five locations are the last 6 weeks/weekends of my life. Crazy.

Phoenix, AZ

By this point, Phoenix seems so long ago, but was actually the first domino that fell this fall (pun half-intended). I traveled to Phoenix through the always-awesome Campus Honors Program here at U of I in order to attend the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) Annual Conference. At the conference, I presented the Prairie Garden Project that I led last spring (the funding for the project came from an NCHC grant that I secured last fall). While my presentation was a very small component of the conference, attending the rest of the conference (centered around innovation in collegiate education) provided some really neat sessions and programs. The best program I attended was a day-long trip out to Montezuma’s Well National Monument for a behind-the-scenes experience on how the National Park Service operates and what it takes to maintain a park, both ecologically and economically.

Montezuma's Well National Monument

Overall, Phoenix was just so beautiful. It’s one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been in, and the weather was incredible. Above all, the best part of this trip was the fact that I have family in Phoenix who I haven’t seen in a long time. So, reconnecting with them and spending some quality time together was a really great experience.

Columbia, MO & Charlotte, NC

These two weekends came about as a result of the Illinois Cross Country Club (IXC), the first being the site of our Regionals race, and the second of our Nationals Race. I’m proud to say that the IXC won both the men’s and women’s team titles this year! We are the Champions!! While I did not race competitively this cross season (since I did not train all summer), I did attend both of these meets as a coach and raced the open races. Surprisingly, those open races went far better than I had ever expected after taking an entire some off. More importantly, however, was that, as the IXC Travel Coordinator, I coordinated both of these trips. Consequently, these two trips were personally by far the most stressful of any this fall. For Nationals, I had to get 75 people to travel 750 miles in five 15-passenger vans in a comfortable and relaxed manner that allowed them to compete at their highest potential, and then bring them back…for as cheap as possible and in only 3 days. Stressful. However, the trips ran smoothly and we had a great time. All that’s left to do is wish Declan good luck. He has to do this job in the spring…

Maysville, MO

This was the Open Source Ecology weekend, which I have already posted about extensively. It was only one day, but what a long day it was…

Los Angeles, CA

Most recently,  as I enjoy my week-long fall break from school, I have headed to Los Angeles to visit my two best friends from high school, neither of whom I have seen for a significant period of time since we all left for college. We’ve had a lot of catching up to do. Aside from just spending lots of time running and catching up on life plans, we explored downtown LA, hiked the nearby Malibu Creek State Park, and are now cooking our very own Thanksgiving Dinner.

And just when you (and I) thought that the year was winding down and relaxation was on its way, I go and do something crazy: sign up for a Winter Abroad course through U of I that travels to China and India for a week each over winter break. What the heck is wrong with me!? We’ve already been told that we shouldn’t expect to sleep very much on the trip. Despite the lack of relaxation, I think that these two weeks are extremely important for me. They will include lots of traveling and intense cultural/social interactions…essential to understanding the global nature of the issues I am interested in.

This year of traveling has certainly taught me more about the Real World and opened my mind more than any other year of my life. The opportunity to head out on all these endeavors is something that I am extremely fortunate to have and for which I am truly thankful. I can definitively say that I have not taken these opportunities for granted and have made the most out of every moment I have the privilege of experiences. That said, traveling is exhausting…in more ways than one…and next year I plan on scaling my travels back quite a bit, at least the far-reaching ones. For many different reasons, 2012 is going to be the Year of Focus for me. More on this to come…

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