Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thoughts on Reorganization

Photo by ACP at the Morton Arboretum
Note to the reader: this won't be a polished blog entry, because my thoughts are too raw and unformed as yet. This is a therapeutic exercise I am undertaking as I try to figure out where I and others like me fit in within this radically changed landscape. 

"Change is the only constant in life." - Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher

I have devoted my career to sustainability and resilience. For the first ten years, I used this as an architect, and for the last five it has been as an advocate and educator. I had optimism that even though my goals were large, complex, and long-term I was helping people to see their challenges in a different way. I thought that by helping people to think differently, I could help create a movement that moved our society and our world toward a more environmentally and socially just existence.

And then November 8th happened.

That night, I began to realize that I have been living in a bubble. My privileged existence of contemplating large scale, long-term change cannot be realized when people are hurting and worry for how they will exist the next day. I remember hearing Wangari Maathai say that people would cut down the last tree to burn so they can feed their children. And my mentor, Dayna Baumeister, telling us that we cannot appeal to rational solutions when people are hurting, our brains simply won't allow us to process future thinking when we must deal with today's survival.

I am beginning to realize more and more that environmental justice cannot occur when social justice is so far from our reach. It is sad for me to think that we as a nation and as a global community are not as evolved as I thought we were. Misogyny, racism, and elitism are far more wide-spread than I had thought they were. And as someone who heeds the warning of 99% of the scientific community that we are headed for global disruption at a scale we have never seen, I am horrified that we need to refocus - AGAIN - on short-term triage rather than long-term solutions.

So where does this leave us? Where do we go from here? Here are my thoughts as of this writing.

Task #1: Build Bridges for Social Resilience

I will start with helping to heal my local community. We are as divided as any other community in this country: red vs blue, rich vs poor, white vs non. We all live in bubbles of our own making by the news we read, the friends we have, and the places we live. We need to find ways to build bridges, not walls and to stand up for those that feel unsafe in this changed landscape. True community resilience can only occur when we hold each other close and focus on what we have in common more so than what divides us - even those we disagree with.
"It is better to light a candle rather than curse the darkness." - Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Task #2: Refocus Environmental Resilience, Locally

It is now clear that we cannot rely on outside forces to shape our destiny. We cannot rely on the federal government to make the changes we need to see - we can only rely on ourselves. As a community and as a bio-region, we must take charge of our own destiny and focus on how we can sustain ourselves and our communities as conditions change. Local governments, industries, and activists must work together to build and sustain initiatives that will help all of our citizens work together to create a socially and environmentally just place for all of us to thrive. Women and minorities (as well as our male allies) of all generations must empower each other and organize to collectively ensure the rhetoric, actions, and policies of this toxic campaign are not normalized.

The forces of injustice and unsustainability have been emboldened. It is up to us to stand collectively to fight for our way of life and the future our children will inhabit. We can be a beacon of light in the darkness and others will follow our example.

Task #3: Continue to Learn from Nature

Now, more than ever, we need to learn from our mentors. Those organisms and ecosystems that have survived here for millennia - through countless disturbances far greater than the ones we face now. They have learned to not only survive but THRIVE in this place, and we can do this too.

  • We can learn from the lowly dandelion how to change ourselves to fit the conditions in which we find ourselves - so that when we land in less-than optimal conditions, we can grow and set seed quickly so that our information survives when we cannot. But regardless of the conditions, we will still grow, but it will be different.
  • We cannot wait for a charismatic leader to show us the way. That ancestral tribal thinking of dividing us vs them empowered the Trump campaign to victory, but it has also lead to social unrest on the scale we haven't seen for a generation. We must begin to look to new models of collective action, like the collective animal behavior of birds, bees, and bison. Through information transparency, simple, system-wide rules, and thresholds for action we can begin to self-organize and move collectively in a common direction.
  • We must also look to ecosystem models of diversity, redundancy, and multi-scale reinforcement as the mechanisms upon which resilience emerges. By welcoming all types of diversity - not only racial but also a diversity of thought, strengthening our numbers, and forming multi-generational, multi-regional coalitions, we can begin the process of building bridges and healing. 

When a tornado rips through a woodland, the destruction is catastrophic and the standard way of life is temporarily halted. But slowly, the forest rebuilds. The Hindu God Shiva, the God of Destruction, opens the path to rebirth. Young trees feed off the nutrients of those that have fallen, creating a multi-generational canopy that is more resilient in the long-term than it would be had the disturbance never happened. Our strength is in our diversity, and true resilience can emerge after catastrophic events. But we must begin to reorganize now.

I am deeply saddened by the turn our country, as well as many parts of the world, has taken. And while I mourn, I also see this an opportunity for mobilization of grass roots activism on a scale that is unprecedented. Now is not the time to run, it's the time to stand and fight for our country as well as be open to the changes this type of reorganization will bring. I will always believe that we are "Stronger Together" and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute my talents toward creating a better world for everyone.

We can do this. Together.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Aspiring to be the drop

The owner of my gym posted this today and I've been thinking about this all day: it's an analogy for how we can make a difference by staying focused and taking actions in a slow and steady way.
"The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish good results while the strongest, by dispersing his effort over many chores, may fail to accomplish anything. Drops of water, by continually falling, hone their passage through the hardest of rocks but the hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar and leaves no trace behind." - Og Mandino.
Many of us working for social change find ourselves pulled in many directions. I continually wonder where my time and energy would have the most effect? When does a great idea start to take precedence over the good ones, and how do I prioritize? 

I have three primary goals with my work: 
  1. Improve the lives of people and all organisms in my bioregion;
  2. Choose projects that are financially sustainable; and 
  3. Be physically and mentally present for my family when they need me. 
That's it! It really shouldn't be as difficult as it has been to accomplish all three goals with each action I take, but trust me - it is. Most social justice initiatives do not pay at all or pay very little, so #1 and #2 can be in conflict. And accomplishing #3 is most times in conflict with #1 and #2. So what to do? Refer back to the quote:
"The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish good results while the strongest, by dispersing his effort over many chores, may fail to accomplish anything."
Too often, I disperse my brainpower and efforts over many tasks - see my 3 goals above! But doing so accomplishes very little. My goal for the month of July is to focus on one goal and use the time I have to work toward that end.
"Drops of water, by continually falling, hone their passage through the hardest of rocks but the hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar and leaves no trace behind."
I also need to remember that I am a drop. Too often, I am distracted by the latest catastrophe and rush to see how I can help with that, but my goal should be to keep focused and take actions that are slow and steady. I hope that by doing so, I will have the most impact in the long run.

Peace today and always,

Friday, May 27, 2016

Stories of a Place: Exploring Resilience Strategies at Home

My work is centered on understanding nature's resilience strategies and exploring ways that we can learn from them to embed resilience into human systems, such as communities, businesses, and our built environment. It's a fascinating topic that continually enriches my work life, and one that I am interested in exploring at home as well!

I have decided to make my home the test bed for how nature's resilience strategies can be showcased at home. Please follow what I plan will be a series of posts about my progress toward making a resilient (re)design of a suburban home, one that is inspired by the "Stories of our Place!"

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Contrast in Rain

I am a single drop of rain, falling from the sky

I fall fast and hard on a single leaf at the top of the forest canopy;
I break apart.
My daughters fall slower and softer on the leaves below;
Until they break apart.
My granddaughters fall slower and softer still;
Over and over;
Until they either rest on the leaves or fall to the soil, ready to venture down into the soil matrix where they are pulled up to through the tree to nourish it and be released into the air once more.

But if I fall in the city, my story is very different.

Instead of landing on many surfaces and being absorbed by the soil, I land on a hard roof or road.
I join my sister raindrops, travelling in a fast current and speeding up as if on a roller coaster, picking up leaves, debris, trash, chemicals, and topsoil and washing them away.
Faster and faster still, I travel at breakneck speed until I reach a river, and eventually the ocean.
I have fed no one;
I have polluted the river, the ocean;
And I have drained the fertility of the soil.

Water left on site feeds an ecosystem;
Water lost to runoff feeds no one.

But what if our buildings were more like trees, our streets more like the fertile soil?
They would drink me, clean me, store me, and eventually release me to the sky again!
Nourishing an ecosystem and the diversity of life.
By learning from the forest, our communities can do the same.


- Amy Coffman Phillips

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Alone in the Wildness

I took a walk outside of a homestead farm this morning, just at daybreak. The farm is between the territory of two wolf packs, so I was warned to be on guard. As I walked, I felt my own fragility. I looked for rocks with which to defend myself or scare a wolf away, should it come to that. To be fair, I was never in any real danger - wolves don't normally encroach on human settlements unless they are desperate - but as a city gal, it had me considering my own survival more than I normally do!

It made me feel as though the whole biophilia concept is a luxury for those who are safely disconnected from nature and her wildness. But after a day of workshops, talking, and deeply listening and planning, it felt good to have such clarity of thought and purpose. I was on guard, but I felt alive and alert in ways I don’t normally. And it felt amazing to be alone and quiet after a day of constant human communication.

Singularity of purpose, solitude, and quiet are rarities in my life, and I treasure the moments when they come, despite the undercurrent of fear. It was life, it was wildness, and it was gorgeous.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Nature Walk Among the Trees: Learning Multi-Functional Design from Nature

Educators are the ultimate multi-taskers! We are required to balance the needs and interests of students, parents, and administrators while teaching to many different sets of educational standards - and keeping it interesting for students (and us)! Because of this, we are always looking to get the most out of everything we do and every lesson plan must accomplish many goals at the same time. 
"It was fun measuring the tree and writing and coloring!"
- Camille, Kindergarten
Our “Nature Walk Among the Trees” lesson showcases our simple, yet powerful approach to fit in with various K-12 standards (STEM & NextGen Science) in a fun and thought provoking session that challenges students (and teachers) to think “outside the box” and learn about science in nature in a creative new way. Looking to biomimicry’s Life Principle to “use multi-functional design,” we showcase life’s multi-functional strategies as exemplified in a native tree. For example, leaves:
  • provide shade, 
  • transfer energy,
  • absorb carbon dioxide,
  • filter air,
  • self-cool, 
  • recycle nitrogen...
...all in one seemingly simple little package! What can we learn from life’s multi-functional strategies to design products and services that perform just as well?

Participants in our session will experience the class as their students would, learning about biomimicry’s life’s principles from a trained biomimic and learning from a curriculum designer how lessons from this course can fit within their current curriculum and fulfill requirements for a STEM and Next Generation Science Standards. Support materials will be provided that you can bring back and implement in your classroom. “A Nature Walk Among the Trees” is one of several courses we are creating to make it easy and fun to integrate biomimicry’s Life’s Principles into K-5 classes.

Register for the Biomimicry Educator's Summit in Austin, Texas, October 4th and learn more about our educational products on our website!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Biomimicry for the Designer: 101

Designers are continually looking for new and innovative ways to create beautiful, livable spaces that are environmentally responsible and, more recently, resilient to disturbances. Increasingly, designers on the leading edge are looking to nature for this inspiration, including HOK, Grimshaw and Exploration Architecture to name a few. Learn how biomimicry can contribute to the sustainability and resilience of the built environment in this short introductory video, and sign up for a Chicago Biomimicry Immersion through Prairie Lab to learn more!