On April 12, 2011, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) opened the flood gates of sustainability during its 5th Annual Sustainable Business and Design Conference. Motivated by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this year’s theme was “The Liquid Planet” (www.fitnyc.edu/sustainability) and focused on water as one of our most precious resources. Guest speakers including academics, biomimicry experts, scientists, CEOs, photographers, and explorers ushered in tides of inspiration, enthusiasm and knowledge.
Rise and Shine
Attendees awakened to the “Local Water Issues” morning panel as Kevin McAllister, Peconic Baykeeper, led the discussion and introduced guests to “nutrient pollution.” Although the term at first sounds like an oxymoron, he went on to describe that it’s in fact “a plague to our waters” (http://peconicbaykeeper.org). This type of pollution occurs when too many plant nutrients, such as phosphates from manufactured products, i.e. fertilizers, detergents, etc., enter the waters and cause an over production of algae, leading to the loss of seagrass beds and other forms of life. Kevin provided the audience with further insight and a plea, akin to his comments from a recent press release: “Nutrient pollution from the tens of thousands of cesspools in our region is a monumental threat to our waters, yet it has been largely ignored. Suffolk County regulations limiting the amount of nitrogen from onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) that enters our groundwater to protect drinking water are clearly inadequate in protecting surface waters. Maintaining superior water quality should be a priority. We must act now to save our bays.”
Sharing the story of one New York family who cannot drink or shower using their tap water, Andriene Espositio, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment discussed Hydrofracking and the consequences of gases and carcinogens entering the environment and drinking water (http://www.citizenscampaign.org). She explained how the family uses bottled water to drink/bathe because the chemicals in their tap water caused their children to become ill and burned their skin; once a week they go to their relative’s home to take a “safe shower”.
The conversations inevitably flowed from local water issues to regional and global concerns. Andriene talked about the importance of our Great Lakes, which contain 1/5 of the planet’s fresh water, yet society continues to dump toxic waste and other pollutants into them (http://healthylakes.org). She also described the Vortex of plastic bags in the oceans, which are annihilating sea life. For example, animals mistake them for food, i.e., jelly fish, and the bags either choke the animals or disrupt their digestive systems, which could lead to starvation or dehydration. Andriene displayed photos of an animal’s carcass that washed up on shore; most of the flesh disintegrated and what was leftover was the animal’s bones and the plastic bag. Although devoid of a heartbeat, our artificial plastic bag lives on to destroy nature again. She urged the audience to rise up to a new way of thinking and to make wise decisions.
Mother Nature’s Intelligence
Look to Mother Nature as “mentor and model” was the message given by Mark Dorfman, green chemist and water expert from the Biomimicry Guild, during his “Nature’s Myriad Water-based Technologies” session. He detailed some of nature’s creative solutions for survival, such as modifying the physical characteristics of various animals, insects and plants (www.asknature.org). For example, beetles living in the Namibian Desert have hydrophilic bumps on their backs. The beetle sticks its back into the air and the bumps allow it to capture moisture, which then runs along its body and into its mouth. Mark also described how the water bear organism can remain un-hydrated for decades, trees pump water upwards to survive and lotus leaves are designed so water runs off and keeps the leaf clean in order for its cells to absorb the sunlight.
Waves of Light
The momentum of enthusiasm and curiosity flowed like waves through the audience, generating whirlpools of conversation and interactions among attendees as they navigated around FIT’s John Reeves Great Hall, absorbing luminant exhibits that were created by our bright students, and as they attended the conference breakout sessions. On display were garments made from organic materials, accessories made from recycled products, green architectural designs and sustainable business projects from FIT’s Schools of Art and Design and Business and Technology. Highlights of the breakout sessions included “Our Common Water” by David Hopkins, an Environmental Coordinator from Patagonia, and a tour of FIT’s green roofs, where vegetation is thriving several stories above NYC.
Light radiates not only from above but also from below. During the lunch break, guests enjoyed a video of underwater sculptures, photos of which are included in this article, by Jason deCaires Taylor (http://www.underwatersculpture.com/pages/gallery/film/film.htm). As described on his website, his “underwater sculptures create a unique, absorbing and expansive visual seascape. Highlighting natural ecological processes Taylor’s interventions explore the intricate relationships that exist between art and environment. His works become artificial reefs, attracting marine life, while offering the viewer privileged temporal encounters, as the shifting sand of the ocean floor, and the works change from moment to moment”.
Viewing the images, one senses the artist’s strength in projecting creativity. He dove deep, tapped into his current, and through brave and direct expression, was able to shower the audience with inspiration. One raindrop from a cloud of courage penetrates the cells of a petal more than all the mist from an ocean of fear.
Joshua Onysko, founder and CEO of Pangea Organics talked about how the decisions society makes continue to compromise our water’s cleanliness in his “Purity Starts with Purpose” presentation. He covered various data on America’s excessive water usage, the hundreds of thousands of unregulated chemicals used in consumer products, genetically modified organisms, and played 2 short videos.
The first video he presented documented Pangea Organic’s process for sourcing seaweed, an ingredient in its product line. The company obtains its seaweed from Naturespirit Herbs, a family-owned business located in southwestern Oregon. As the video played, it was evident that Naturespirit Herbs harvests the seaweed in a mindful manner, with great respect for the ocean’s resources. “We harvest an average of one out of every four plants…that preserves the integrity of the ecosystem,” stated James Jungwrith (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP8DB8f2t7s). Additionally, Joshua advised the audience that prior to harvesting the seaweed, the people at Naturespirit Herbs say a prayer and give thanks to the earth for its generosity and resources. This reminded me of passages from a book that I just read “Deep Cinema” where the author, Mary Trainor-Brigham, references many Native American, Caribbean and Polynesian Indigenous ceremonies, among others, and the immense reverence the natives have for the environment.
Joshua presented another video of an impromptu interview with a man he met on the beach, during his seaweed sourcing trip. The man said that his favorite thing about the beach is that “it’s where the sea meets the land….where balance happens” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPRPlai9QM0). When Joshua asked him what is the most important thing he learned in life, the man replied realizing that we are all part of the same family and “connecting to the universe.”
Other Worldly Experience
Photographer, explorer and writer Anne Doubilet, of the Explorers Club, described the feelings she has, her awareness, when photographing as “other worldly experience”, during her “Pole to Pole: From the Ends of the Earth” presentation. She dazzled the audience with scenes from The Artic, Papa New Guinea and The Antarctic and identified her amazing water images, some of which were taken during sunrise/sunset, as “molten lakes”, “fire to ice”, “wind brushed waves” and “glowing sea.” Several times during her presentation, she expressed her special love for the Red Sea and identified it as her “favorite area.” In one of her videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs_b7z_v1zo), Anne shares the feelings that submerged her as she walked through vast energetic crowds in NYC and sensed the similarity to swimming among teeming schools of fish near Australia; she realized “these people don’t know it but they are connected to the fish”.
The message that trickled down from all sessions and rippled through the audience is that in order to lead a sustainable lifestyle, society should break through the dams of complacency, become mindful of our environment and view water as a “finite rather than infinite” resource. Surging ahead, Mary Trainor-Brigham advises society to “perceive this Earth-Water-Heavenly Planet as more than mere resource: as ensouled, and we sharing in that Life”. Similar sentiments surfaced during the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) 2010 Forum (www.lohas.com), which I attended last summer; Dr. Elliot Dacher, MD Internal Medicine and Shaman and Healer Brant Secunda explained how a truly sustainable lifestyle must first start with a person’s internal spiritual realizations and connectivity to nature before it can be extended externally to society and the environment. And we could use all the advice available whether it comes from an activist, artist, shaman, farmer, academic, CEO, photographer, scientist, student, writer, doctor, or from meeting a newly discovered family member on the beach.
It’s uncertain how long the planet can continue providing us with enough water needed to survive. One thing that is certain is that our connection to water is also physically “internal.” Water makes up over 50% of our bodies and over 70% of our brains, with waves of energy flowing through our bodies and thoughts; dive deep, embrace the light, claim your current and illuminate.
Written by Professor Shireen Musa,
Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York