creativity

I can’t stop thinking about Yellowstone

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

On Sunday night, I sat down to work on my novel-in-progress. All I could think about was the devastation in Yellowstone that could take years to restore and cost billions of dollars. You’ve got to write what’s in your heart and on your mind. This is what poured out of me:

Many of us are watching the recent flooding in Yellowstone National Park with horror, and rightly so. To see whole structures carried away as if they were weightless is terrifying. What struck me is how quickly the devastation came and went from the top headlines. Did any of us change anything about the way we live after seeing the footage? Very few, if any. The reason, unfortunately, is science. 

Though scientists across the globe have largely rallied around data that supports the impacts of climate change on our planet and the rapidly closing window of time left to truly stave off the worst consequences, scientists have also been reluctant to draw direct connections between catastrophic events like Yellowstone’s flooding and climate change. Their reluctance is so common that media articles and reports often reference it in environmental coverage. 

For example, in a recent New York Times article, the reporters say this in the opening: “It is difficult to directly connect the damage in Yellowstone to a rapidly warming climate — rivers have flooded for millenniums …”

With sweeping statements like that, the well-intentioned reporters have given climate deniers all the fuel they need to shrug their shoulders and go about their day exactly as they have every other day. Or worse—this is a simple explanation they use to convince others that scientists have no idea what they’re talking about and that everything is just fine. This behavior is destroying the planet and will ultimately destroy us.

Our hand-wringing about “direct connections” is going to cost us our lives and livelihoods. It’s time for us to get off the sidelines and stop taking the role of being our own worst enemies. Climate scientists can look to other areas of science to see how to inspire action, namely medicine. 

Very little in the field of medicine is certain. A lot of medicine is educated guessing. Standards of care often read something akin to “given your situation and what we have observed with those who we believe are similar to you, we believe this course of treatment may help.” I know this first-hand because I’m currently taking a medication after beating early-stage breast cancer that is still experimental with some studies showing that it has a possible chance of reducing the risk of recurrence for someone like me. 

There are caveats all over that statement, but you know what? If it can’t hurt, might help, and my insurance covers it, I’m taking it. I want to live a long, healthy life. Most of us do. For that singular reason we exercise, eat healthy food, try to manage our stress level, don’t smoke, limit (or eliminate) alcohol, go to the doctor for check-ups and exams, and take medications that could help us. Is any of that advice perfect? No. Are we guaranteed a specific outcome if we do all those things? No. But why not give ourselves every possible advantage we can, right?

Climate scientists could model their approach on medicine. Even if they can’t make a perfect case for cause and effect between climate change and a single catastrophe like Yellowstone flooding, does it seem likely that the two are related? Yes. Could an increase in wildfires, droughts, and more severe storms be related to a warming planet? Yes. Could an acceleration of species extinction be driven by deforestation and the pollution of our air, oceans, and water ways? Yes. Could the continuous and increasing supply of greenhouse gases being pumped into the air be destabilizing our atmosphere? Yes. Then why not do everything possible to mitigate the impacts that could have such dire consequences on the life of every living being on the planet?

We want to live long, healthy lives so we do everything we can to try to make that possible. Why not do the same for the planet that we all need? Even if you and I do everything right when it comes to the health of our bodies and minds, if the health of the planet as a whole suffers, what we do for our own individual health will be for naught. 

The planet needs a standard of care—limit or eliminate pollution in all its forms; reduce, reuse, and recycle; replace fossil fuel consumption with clean, renewable sources of energy; stop food waste; stop deforestation and replenish the forests we’ve lost. 

None of these changes will be simple nor pain-free. We have to reinvent how we live and the systems that make our lives and economies function. The transition will be difficult, expensive, and, for a while, inconvenient. But you know what’s more difficult, expensive, and inconvenient? Having a planet that’s in such poor health that it can no longer sustain life—ours or anyone else’s. Why take that risk when there is another way? Why not give ourselves and all those who (hopefully) come after us the best chance to live and live well?

We don’t need certainty and one-to-one causations for climate action. If a high probability and correlation is good enough for the science we use to sustain our bodies, then it’s good enough for the science to sustain our planet. By the time we have inarguable certainty, it will be too late for all of us. That’s a risk none of us should willingly take. 

creativity

Milan’s Vertical Forest

Milan’s Vertical Forest

The Vertical Forest in the Porta Nuova area of Milan is an understated marvel and an innovative prototype for how modern cities with deep historical roots can help humans, animals, and plants cohabitate for everyone’s benefit.

The two residential buildings create space for 800 trees, 15,000 plants, and 5,000 shrubs. This is the same number of plants you’d find on ~90,000 square feet of woodland on just ~9,000 square meters of urban space. The Vertical Forest reduces heat when it’s warm, regulates humidity, provides insulation when it’s cold, and cleans the air. And by the way, plants help humans by lowering our stress and anxiety. This greenery has provided a home for 1,600 species of butterflies and birds. An added bonus—if we building our cities vertically, we prevent them from sprawling horizontally which saves more land and the species that call that land home.

This kind of living architecture is a financial and health win for people and nature, and one we cannot afford to ignore. Cities across the world can adopt the ethos of the Vertical Forest and we will all benefit.

creativity

The Great Green Wall of Africa

The Great Green Wall plan. Image by NASA.

A lot of my writing life revolves around science, environmental sustainability, and biomimicry. This Fall, I’m starting a graduate program in Sustainability Leadership at University of Cambridge. As I prepare for that program, I’m researching different programs around the world that are restoring land and protecting species from the effects of climate change.

I recently learned about a project called the Great Green Wall. From their website:

Growing a World Wonder
The Great Green Wall is an African-led movement with an epic ambition to grow an 8,000km natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa. Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, 3 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.

A decade in and roughly 15% underway, the initiative is already bringing life back to Africa’s degraded landscapes at an unprecedented scale, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path. 

The Wall promises to be a compelling solution to the many urgent threats not only facing the African Continent, but the global community as a whole–notably climate change, drought, famine, conflict, and migration. 

Improving Millions of Lives
The Great Green Wall is taking root in Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara desert – one of the poorest places on the planet.

More than anywhere else on Earth, the Sahel is on the frontline of climate change and millions of locals are already facing its devastating impact. Persistent droughts, lack of food, conflicts over dwindling natural resources, and mass migration to Europe are just some of the many consequences.

Yet, communities from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East are fighting back. 

Since the birth of the initiative in 2007, life has started coming back to the land, bringing improved food security, jobs and stability to people’s lives.

A Global Symbol
The Great Green Wall isn’t just for the Sahel. It is a global symbol for humanity overcoming its biggest threat – our rapidly degrading environment.

It shows that if we can work with nature, even in challenging places like the Sahel, we can overcome adversity, and build a better world for generations to come.

Growing More Than Trees
More than just growing trees and plants, the Great Green Wall is transforming
the lives of millions of people in the Sahel region.    

The Great Green Wall makes a vital contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (known as the SDGs)—a global agenda which aims to achieve a more equitable and sustainable world by 2030. It’s rare to find a project that impacts all of the SDGs and the Great Green Wall does just that.

We can all be involved in this effort. Visit https://www.greatgreenwall.org/ to learn more.

01- Containing2.jpg
Growing a new world wonder across the entire width of Africa.
Growing fertile land, one of humanity’s most precious natural assets. 
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Growing a wall of hope against abject poverty.
Growing food security, for the millions that go hungry every day. 
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Growing health and wellbeing for the world’s poorest communities. 
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Growing improved water security, so women and girls don’t have to spend hours everyday fetching water. 
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Growing gender equity, empowering women with new opportunities.
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Growing sustainable energy, powering communities towards a brighter future. 
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Growing green jobs, giving real incomes to families across the Sahel. 
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Growing a reason to stay
to help break the cycle of migration.
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Growing sustainable consumption patterns,
to protect the natural capital of the Sahel. 
Growing resilience to climate change in a region where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth. 
Growing a symbol of peace in countries where conflict continues to displace communities. 
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Growing a symbol of interfaith harmony across Africa.
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Growing strategic partnerships to  accelerate rural development across Africa

creativity

Write every day: Teaching 300 students about biomimicry this week

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

This week, I have the great pleasure and honor to teach biomimicry to 300 high school and college students through a program run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. (WCS is famously known in the U.S. for all of New York’s zoos including the Bronx Zoo, central Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium!) The feedback was terrific with some of them saying this was the best presentation they’ve had in their entire summer program and a few of them reaching out to me personally asking if I’d mentor them.

They’ve filled me with joy and I’m grateful to all of them and to WCS for the opportunity to share my passion for nature as our greatest design teacher. I’m one tiny step closer to my goal of finding a way to get biomimicry into every high school and college in the country. If you’d like me to present to your group or class (young children, teens, or adults), please let me know!

creativity

Write every day: 30 Days of Reconnection with the Biomimicry Institute

20200607_185701When COVID-19 started to spread across the U.S. in March, the Biomimicry Institute started 30 Days of Reconnection to help people stay connected to one another by reconnecting through nature. Each day they sent an email with a nature topic, resources to learn more, and a prompt. Then they asked people to reflect on the prompt with something creative and share the reflections on Twitter and / or Instagram with the hashtag #30DaysOfReconnection. https://biomimicry.org/30days/

I was finishing my Biomimicry graduate program in March and April so I didn’t have time to participate then but I do have some time now. Luckily, the 30 days of prompts are all available on the Biomimicry Institute website. I started yesterday and will be doing a prompt each day for the next 30 days with the lens of building back better after COVID and to create equity and justice in our society.

I’ll post my creations each day. If you’d like, please join me and share your creations with me. I’d love to see and hear them! Here’s my Day 1:

Day 1 was about the topic of regeneration. I created a word map about what regeneration means to me and drew a sketch of the Eurasian Wolf. When wolves return to an ecosystem, their presence is a sign that we’ve turned the corner from regeneration to restoration. I also included what I think is my superpower: an endless supply of joy and curiosity that keeps me strong, hopeful, and active even in tough times like the times we’re facing now.

Destruction and ruin are often heartbreaking to witness. Destruction is now visible in every corner of our country. Some of that destruction is causing intense pain and suffering among people who were suffering even before the pandemic—job losses, hunger, and intense fear about our democracy and the future. Some of that destruction is tearing down structures that have grown brittle with efficiency—our food supply chain, education system, healthcare, and housing to name just a few. It all hurts.

The only hope I can find in all of this wreckage is that through regeneration we have the opportunity to build back better, with more justice, more equity, and for better mental, physical, emotional, and economic health. I’m committed to that process, and that commitment is what’s getting me through the pain, fear, sadness, and uncertainty I have faith in our will to collectively choose to create a braver, brighter future for all us.

creativity

Joy today: Winter stars

“Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.”
~Sarah Williams, poet and novelist, “The Old Astronomer”

If you’re a stargazer, winter is your season. With more nighttime hours and the brightest, clearest, and most beautiful skies of the entire calendar, winter is something to celebrate. Having more time with the stars is one of the main reasons I love this season. So if cold temperatures and long nights have you down, look up. There’s so much out there to love.

creativity

Joy today: My new business in biomimicry, The Green Atelier

“The wilderness holds answers to questions that we have not yet learned to ask.” ~Nancy Newhall

I’m pretty jazzed that my final assignment for one of my biomimicry classes is giving me the opportunity to lay down the very first tracks for the invention company I’d like to build with biomimicry when I finish my graduate degree. At first, I was so excited about this prospect that I was actually afraid of it. This felt like a big commitment to make to myself. And once I put these dreams and hopes out into the world, I couldn’t take them back. Once I had to admitted what kind of business I really wanted to build in this field, I could unsee it. Sure, it could morph, but there would be no denying my dream. There would only be choosing to do the work to make it happen, or not. And so, I went for it.

The assignment was to imagine my career in biomimicry 25 years from now and the business I would build with a sustainable framework. Here is what I came up with. What do you think?

25 years ago in the winter of 2019, I took my first class in biomimicry. At the time it was a burgeoning field and in many ways felt like the Wild West, a new frontier. Every day there was a new discovery, a new way of seeing and being in the world.

At the time, our planet was racked with difficulty—climate change deniers, enormous and growing islands of plastic in our oceans, rampant habitat loss, and painful species extinctions. This is not to say that we don’t still face difficulties today; it’s just that now in 2044 there is no denying our role as the chief contributors to climate change. We wore out the planet’s welcome and her resiliency; now it is common place for most people to consider the environmental consequences of their actions and purchases. We simply don’t have a choice to ignore our responsibility now as we so often did in 2019.

After graduating from my Master of Science in biomimicry program at Arizona State University, I put together my 20-year career in product development with my passion for science and started The Green Atelier, an invention shop that reimagines, patents, produces, and commercializes sustainable products, systems, and solutions that mimic the deep design principles found in the processes and structures of nature. We work with for-profit, nonprofit, and local and international government agencies. We are a small and mighty team with skill sets in product development, business, science, design, and engineering. We determined that we must begin this business as we wish to go. And so from Day 1, we fearlessly put a stake in the ground and committed to create conditions conducive to life.

Zero waste and maximum resource efficiency
We operate as the planet operates, taking only what we need and returning as much as we can to the greater communities where we work and live. This conservative approach to resource management means we have what we need for today and also ensure that we and others have what we all need for all of our tomorrows.

Life-friendly chemistry
We do not and never will use any type of toxic chemicals in our products, processes, and operations. When we must do activities such as travel, which is now much-improved with high-speed trains but still has a long way to go in terms of air travel, we make sure to pay a monetary contribution that covers our cost to the environment for that activity.

Locally attuned and responsive solutions
Context matters to us. Before we take any action in our product development process, we thoroughly research and incorporate all of the environmental factors in which our solutions must exist. We use locally available resources—including physical goods, labor, and mindshare. Community-involvement in our co-creative processes is always top of mind and a part of every project. We are guests in the areas where we work, and we act accordingly—with gratitude and grace. We listen much more than we talk.   

Integration of development with growth
We recognize that progress can and must coexist with conservation. Indeed, the two can feed one another in a symbiotic relationship so that everyone wins. There is a level of give and take that fluidly happens in the course of our work. However, it is not without effort and consciousness. Every player is aware of every other player, and respectful of their right to survive and thrive in the same space. The investment of our time, attention, and action with this mindset is crucial to our success, and the success of our clients, customers, and neighbors.

Respond and adapt to changing conditions
In the past 25 years, our planet has become more diverse than ever. This diversity has driven a compassion, curiosity, and resiliency that has become the backbone of our strength as a species and as a cohesive, cooperative biosphere. Relationships are the cornerstone of everything we do. We experiment, expect the unexpected, make changes based on new information and learning, and then replicate that work. We are committed to continuous improvement with every breath.

While all of these operating principles of our business seemed aspirational 23 years ago when we officially opened for business in the first days of 2021, to us they were an absolute necessity. We could see what our planet would become without this unwavering and sincere promise to operate and build in a sustainable, healthful way. A world without a sustainable ethos was not a world we want to live in. Indeed, it was a world none of us would actually be able to live in. Without exaggeration, we were on the doorstep of extinction and we were the only ones who could pull ourselves back from the brink. We had seen the problem, and the problem was us.

And so we set about becoming our own saviors, our own solution, and thereby the saviors of our elders in the natural world who were counting on us to make amends and drastically change our wasteful ways for the benefit of all beings. We would not, and could not, disappoint them. They needed us to be successful in our pursuit, and so we did everything we could to live up to our potential and responsibility while taking on the genius of nature as our wisest teacher and guide.

23 years on, we have no regrets at The Green Atelier about our brave and bold choices to build a business on the foundation of a sustainable framework. Our only regret is that we did not do this sooner, that our society had to quite literally be on a burning platform before we would make the necessary behavioral changes to survive.

We cannot change our past, but now that we are awake, we will never go back to sleep when it comes to the consciousness with which we make all our decisions, as a business, as a community, and as individuals who are but brief flashes of light in the landscape of deep time. We are privileged to be here in every sense, and we’re grateful for the opportunity that life affords us to support life.

creativity

Joy Today: Making our coasts resilient to climate change

I’m studying sustainable coastal resilience strategies in the face of climate change and rising sea levels. Seawalls don’t provide sufficient protection, harm wildlife, pollute waterways, and are difficult and expensive to maintain. Artificial walls don’t work in nature. What works is building longer buffet tables and larger homes that make accommodations for all stakeholders—coral reefs, mangroves, oyster beds, and salt marshes. This idea is much more than a metaphor or allegory. Seawalls are a cautionary tale of what happens when we exclude beings who have all the same rights that we do to survive and thrive. Sustainable solutions have successfully played out over the course of 3.8 billion years of natural history’s R&D lab. We would be wise to follow its example.

creativity

Joy today: Trees as teachers

Something cool happened today. I was walking my dog, Phineas, in Riverside Park, and I started to look at the trees differently than I ever have before. Now, I’ve been to this park hundreds of time. Maybe even thousands. But after studying trees for my biomimicry grad program, the trees seemed to speak to me in a different way than they ever have before. I could identify the trees, and see how they protect themselves. I could sense that they were in their deep sleep mode for the winter, and I let their peace wash over me, too. We are living in stressful times in this country right now, and today I am immensely grateful for the example and wisdom of these trees. Sometimes what we need to do most is rest. When in doubt, go outside.

creativity

A Year of Yes: Stay curious

200-600 octillion microbes live a mile underground and thrive in 250°F water. Some breathe rocks, specifically uranium. Others eat leftover plants that are hundreds of millions of years old. And they can wait to reproduce for thousands of years when conditions are favorable. Add up all these wild subterranean microbes and they weigh as much as 200 million blue whales, much more than all 7.5 billion humans. And you know what? They’re related to us far less immutable surface dwellers. Bats hear shapes. Songbirds see UV light. Most animals are bioluminescent (including us!) but our eyes are too weak to see it without visual aids. Wonder is everywhere, a gift for all of us. Stay curious, friends. We have so many discoveries to look forward to.