At a time of unprecedented environmental challenges, a unique gathering of conservation leaders from across society came together to discuss and share solutions at the Earth Optimism Summit, recently held in Washington, DC. Students attended the event alongside scientists, thought leaders, philanthropists, conservationists and civic leaders, celebrating "a change in focus from problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope, in the dialogue about conservation and sustainability."
Rozalie Czesana '18 shared the following journal of her experience.
Upon my arrival to the majestic Reagan building, I was greeted by a vast expanse of tables representing various environmental organizations from National Geographic, to Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, to the Roadmap. Looking over the program that offered four sessions at a time, it was hard to choose. With a bias towards the sustainability of food systems, I opted to attend mostly panels revolving around innovation in food production, but at times I diverged to others, such as “Success in the City”, “The Business of Sustainability” and “Incomes From Nature”.
Starting out, I stepped into for the Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee break. Not sure what to expect, I imagined that perhaps birds would be flying around--nope. But while attending the “Species & Spaces” panel, I soon learned that Bird Friendly was a program that certifies coffee grown in multi-use lands, preserving bird habitat. This was only one of many cool innovations presented throughout the conference.
Another advancement I learned about was the Springtide Seaweed company. The founder, Sarah Redmond, used to work as the marine extension agent for the Maine Sea Grant and recently started her own company specializing in kelp aquaculture in Maine. By growing multiple varieties of kelp on ropes by the coast, she contributes to ecosystem restoration through sea water purification, while providing a source of nutrient-dense food in the form of “vegetarian seafood”. Currently, her main product will be kelp powder, which serves as a flavorful, nutritious condiment. As she put it, “I hope that one day, all Americans will have salt, pepper and seaweed on their table.”
Another concept that caught my attention was the Biophilic Cities Project, presented by Professor Tim Beatley. Started at the University of Virginia, the Project aims to advance the theory and practice of planning for biophilic cities, through a combination of collaborative research, dialogue and exchange, and teaching. The term biophiliia literally means ‘love of life or living systems,’ and was popularized by Harvard University conservationist E.O. Wilson to describe humans’ innate affinity of the natural world. Both Artemis Eyster ’19 and I got to speak to Professor Beatley after his presentation and we hope to bring him to campus to talk to Princeton students and to help us make Princeton a more biophilic campus!
One of the overarching ideas that emerged from the conference was the potential for art to highlight the urgency of sustainable thinking and design, and to make people think about the environment in different, more connected ways. James Prosek, an artist, writer and naturalist at Yale’s Peabody museum, talked about the limitations of language in describing nature and how art can overcome those. He also mentioned the “myth of order” people try to impose on nature by creating artificial boundaries (of national parks, cities etc.) and how those disrupt the natural flow of the environment.
Finally, I was impressed by Maya Lin’s most recent (and last) memorial, titled, “What Is Missing?". With this ‘living’ exhibit, Lin attempts to create a global memorial to the planet through a series of science-based artwork exhibited around the world. Her goal is to use art as a wakeup call and a call to action by showing people how to help protect and restore nature.
Overall, I found the conference not only optimistic, but incredibly inspiring. Seeing how many concrete projects from a variety of disciplines are currently underway, addressing climate change, biodiversity protection and other major environmental issues, I gained new encouragement to keep working on my share of designing a more sustainable future.
Partial funding for the conference attendance was provided by the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund