Urgent Biophilia, Kairotic Time, and Sacred Space

July 22, 2013

One of the pleasures of my work is having regular contact with a community of thinkers whose collective interests wend (albeit in a eclectic way) through various tributaries of the contemporary arts and sciences.

When different constituents in this network start pointing to the same thing, it’s a pretty reliable proxy for its significance, or at the very least its interest. So it seemed more than kismet a few months ago when three unrelated colleagues pointed me to recent work by ecologist Keith Tidball at Cornell University, specifically his work on “urgent biophilia”.

Tidball’s contribution is a nuanced expansion of the term first introduced by E.O. Wilson in his 1984 landmark book, to express humanity’s innate preferences for living things, the “connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”:

From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors …

To affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.

Tidball elaborates on Wilson’s original concept of biophilia, connecting it to our response to disasters. He suggests that catastrophes may stir within us a vital instinct to reengage with nature, in ways that restore not only the environment, but also ourselves:

… when humans, faced with urgent disaster or hazard situations, when individuals and as communities and populations seek out doses of contact and engagement with nature to further their efforts to summon and demonstrate resilience in the face of a crisis, they exemplify an urgent biophilia … [T]he affinity we humans have for the rest of nature, the process of remembering that affinity and the urge to express it through creation of restorative environments, which may also restore or increase ecological function, may confer resilience across multiple scales.

Such an instinctive turn toward nature after disaster might initially strike one as counterintuitive.  After all, there might not be any such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, but many catastrophes feature significant ecological disruption. It seems just as plausible that, in the wake of such tumult, people might turn away from nature, expressing a kind of ‘urgent antibiophilia’.

Yet, in my own conversations with people in disaster-affected areas around the world, engagement with the natural world often surfaces as an important part of the post-disaster healing process. In New Orleans, after Katrina, a woman described how she and her neighbors planted trees throughout their neighborhood, both as a symbol of their own commitment to place, and (in a spirit of defiance and solidarity) to assert new ecological ‘facts on the ground’. A tornado victim from Joplin, MS told me he replanted tomatoes almost immediately after the tornadoes, “just to have living things around”.

In these, and countless other similar encounters, the conversation is almost never about dominance or reasserting control over nature, but rather about communion, consolation, recovery, and the restoration of coherence. One often hears synonyms for words like awakening, reckoning, correction, redemption, rebalancing, and even liberation through the disaster event.

For understandable reasons, the dialogue around disasters rarely exceeds a tally of what has been lost, harmed and broken. Almost never do we speak about broader cognitive and spiritual shifts that sometime attend such disruptions, out of an understandable fear of diminishing what has been often horrifically rent apart.

Yet for some (certainly not all) of those in a disaster-affected community, the period after a disruption can be one of profound, even peak significance. The loss of the usual signposts of life that attend a catastrophe can also liberate us from social norms and expectations, freeing us to think and act in new ways, surprising even ourselves. Amid the sorrow and confusion that follow any disaster, some people in affected communities experience a deepened sense of meaning and purpose, of increased agency, possibility and commonweal. Connections to place, to community, and to nature intensify, becoming more vivid and more sacred. Individuals can find themselves slipping into an entirely different kind of time, called kairotic time – not the chronological time of days, but closer to the psychological time found in novels – measured by the internal psychological progress of its protagonists, through a series of dilemmas and contradictions, toward a moment of resolution and purpose. In kairotic moments, the subjective experience of time itself is enlarged and its meaning is transformed. A Haitian colleague once told me that the earthquake “crucified her old life and set her free in her new one”. The choice of words hardly seemed accidental.

What is true for individuals seems likely true for communities as well. If the preexisting bonds of trust and solidarity are sufficiently strong, the post-crisis moment can be one of collective imagination and creative possibility, liberated from at least some prior constraints.

It seems likely that these aspects of human nature – our urgent biophilia and the possibility of post-crisis kairosis – are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  If that’s true, it suggests that ecological engagement and the design of restorative environments have critical roles to play in building community resilience in both the short and long-term.

Indeed, that’s the very premise of the Landscapes of Resilience project, led by Tidball, as well as Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell, social scientists with the U.S. Forest Service, working with TILL, a landscape architecture firm in Newark, NJ, and others, supported by the TKF Foundation. The Landscapes project will collectively envision, design, build and measure two “open and sacred spaces” in Joplin, MS and New York City – places of ecological engagement, remembrance, shared stewardship, and psychosocial restoration. (In undertaking this work, the team would do well to connect with Milenko Matanovic and his colleagues at the Pomegranate Center, who have developed deep expertise in designing exactly these kinds of spaces with communities.)

Regardless of its outcomes, this project touches on important, and often under-appreciated aspects of our response to disruptions. First, the connections between our mental health and the natural environment are integral and profound, and need to be respected as a key enabler of the resilience of any community. Second, the cognitive, spiritual and social dimensions of disruptions take time to unfold, and should not be measured solely by what has been lost, but understood in much broader, longer-term and potentially transformational terms. And finally, the post-crisis moment may offer a unique window for positive intervention in a social-ecological system – one that we should be prepared for with the right tools and processes to help communities ‘bounce forward’ and not merely recover.

Image credit: The Richat Structure

Ordinary Magic,
No Less Magical

April 23, 2013

Here is one of the most powerful graphs I’ve been exposed to in some time:

It’s from a remarkable case study, first published in 1989, by the developmental child psychologist (and one of my intellectual heroes) Ann Masten and her colleague Mary J. O’Connor.

The diagram tells part of the developmental story of Sara (not her real name) a 2 ½-year-old girl in foster care who suffered significant early trauma. Her story powerfully illuminates some important aspects of trauma resilience, particularly early in life.

Little was known of Sara’s mother, except that she was an occasionally homeless sex worker who reported suffering from bouts of schizophrenia. (Nothing was known of her father.) On her first day of life, against her doctor’s advice, Sara’s mother removed her from the hospital, only to abandon her a day later. Sara was then entered into protective custody and placed with her first foster family, with whom she stayed for her first 15 months of life.

By all accounts, she was a healthy baby and toddler, developing normally. Then, sadly, the husband/father in her foster family became ill and suddenly died. Sara was removed, without any preparation, from the only family she had known, and placed with a second foster family.

Almost immediately, everything about Sara’s developmental narrative changed. Upon arrival in her new home, she cried for a month without consolation. Her language skills declined precipitously, and she rarely spoke spontaneously. Distressingly, she would assume ‘statue-like poses’ for up to 20 minutes at a time, leading her new foster mother to speculate that she might have developmental disabilities. Even her physical growth slowed, as noted in the chart above – a phenomenon called ‘psychosocial dwarfism’. A consulting psychologist initially concluded she was functionally retarded, and may have been severely deprived. After much debate, she was admitted to an inpatient child psychiatric unit for evaluation.

In the hospital, Sara continued to express this fear of strangers, ‘freezing’ or walking with difficulty and stiffness, and showing an intense attachment, first to her foster mother, and then to her primary care nurse.

But after a month at the hospital, Sara’s interdisciplinary case team concluded that she was neither developmentally disabled nor schizophrenic. Rather, Sara’s challenges had come from environmental stressors, particularly the interruption of her early attachment relationships. They recommended she be adopted right away, and literally wrote a prescription for a new family designed around her needs: one that would have older children in it, but no infants or toddlers; a mother who would be at home most of the time; and a commitment to stay in the same place for some time.

Encouragingly, just such a family was found, and after several weeks of counseling, this new adoptive family took Sara home for good. Over her three months in the hospital, Sara had gained a year, developmentally; after discharge, she continued to grow, and after a year with her new (and permanent) family, had fully caught up. An assessment conducted several years later found she was a normal and well-adjusted little girl.

Sara’s precipitous decline after the trauma of being removed from her first foster home shows how severe stressors can affect not just our brains, but also our bodies – particularly when they are still developing. Her equally dramatic reversal shows just how resilient we can be, when placed in the right psychosocial context. (And, to me, it also captures something about the essential experience of love.)

Researchers, like Masten and others who study personal resilience, find many adaptive systems at work in our ability to recover from trauma. The strength of our social networks; the quality of our attachment relationships; the health of our brain and body; the interaction of our genes and lived experiences; our level of personal mastery and self-control; our spirituality and systems of belief; our access to resources of all kinds; the quality of the community we inhabit; and (especially) our ‘habits of mind’ – all play a part.

The good news is that these processes are neither mysterious nor rare – indeed they are so common (though by no means universal) that Masten famously labeled them ‘Ordinary Magic’.

The even better news is that we are discovering new ways to help bolster that innate resilience where it might have been diminished by circumstance. Thaddeus Pace, of the Emory University Mind Body Program (and a PopTech Science Fellow) and his colleagues have long-studied the effects of contemplative, compassion-based practices on our psychological and physical health. These practices, which researchers call Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) originated in Tibetan Buddhism, and are designed to help practitioners better manage the emotional content of lived experience, and cultivate a sense of compassion toward themselves and others.

Pace and his colleagues recently researched the effectiveness of CBCT with a group of adolescents in the foster care system in Atlanta. Almost by definition, all of these children had experienced severe stressors – ranging from neglect and abuse to drug addiction and violence. CBCT training not only decreased their anxiety and improved other measures of psychological resilience, it also diminished their physiological levels of a biomarker called the C-reactive protein, which signifies a person’s level of cellular inflammation. This inflammation, in turn, is implicated in a wide array of chronic illnesses later in life, from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes to cancer and depression. In other words, CBCT might (and I must stress, might) not only boost the near-term psychosocial resilience of young people who experience trauma, but also long-term, adverse health effects that might not manifest for decades.

These kinds of results are moving, inexorably, from the lab to the field. The coming years will bring exciting new ways of packaging, delivering and reinforcing such training – in person, via mobile devices, and in ways as yet unimagined.

Image credit: Resilience, by Celeste Yang

Five Climate Actions Obama Can Take Without Congress

February 15, 2013

During Wednesday’s State of the Union speech, President Obama reaffirmed climate action as one of the central planks his second term agenda, saying “I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” (Emphasis added.)

The next day, I sat down with Jeff Nesbit, the Executive Director of Climate Nexus – a communications initiative that is working to change the national climate conversation, and tell the climate story in new and innovative ways. Jeff is a talented and seasoned communicator and wise in the ways of Washington. We discussed the speech, and what, exactly, the President could do without Congressional approval.

Quite a bit, it turns out. There are five areas in particular where the President has latitude to act unilaterally:

The first is to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to seek additional opportunities where it can regulate greenhouse gasses as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. This authority was affirmed in 2007 in a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, and it has since been used as the legal basis for raising the CAFE fuel efficiency targets for automobiles, as well as for setting the emissions limits for coal plants high enough to force the closure of older plants and effectively shutter plans for new ones.

However, this part of the story here is a bit more complex, as the current US boom in natural gas – much of it driven by hydraulic ‘fracking’ – had already provided energy companies with more positive economic incentives to shift away from coal plants. And, it must be pointed out, coal isn’t going away globally – its use is continuing to grow rapidly, particularly in developing economies. In fact, the International Energy Association (IEA) predicts that coal will actually rival oil, globally, as the world’s dominant energy source by as early as 2017. (China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined, and India is on track to become the world’s largest importer – neither country has a fully developed natural gas infrastructure.) Indeed, so voracious are the developing economies’ (and Europe’s) appetites that US coal exports are skyrocketing. Whether these exports will ultimately raise or lower emissions is a subject of recent debate and conjecture.

One situation the EPA will likely address this year is the regulation of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal burning that gained national notoriety in a horrific spill in 2008 which dumped more than 525 million gallons of wet coal ash into the Tennessee River and surrounding areas. Industry groups argue that regulating coal ash as toxic waste could cost it $20 billion annually – a burden it can ill afford, given the circumstances described above (which is, presumably, just what environmental activists hope).

Given the natural gas boom mentioned above, the second thing that Obama can do is ensure that natural gas pipelines are secure and have minimal leakage. Methane, the key ingredient in natural gas, is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon – and according to a 2011 study by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, if too much gas leaks into the atmosphere, and not into a pipeline, it could actually make gas much worse than coal in terms of climate effects. As long as such leaked gas remains under 3.2% of the total, gas-powered plants ecologically outperform coal-powered plants. Worryingly, however, field research, just-published in Nature, undertaken in the Uinta Basin of Utah where a big natural gas project is underway, found a whopping 9% of the methane pulled out of the ground was going straight into the air. The Administration must insist on tough rules for monitoring and tougher maximum leakage limits.

The third thing that Obama can do unilaterally is to more wholeheartedly embrace efficiency.  In his speech, he actually proposed doubling US energy efficiency by 2030, which is a huge task, but there are some things he can do on his own to get started. These include improving the energy efficiency of household appliances (which are regulated by the Department of Energy) and retrofitting federal buildings (a bill for which was recently introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer) and copying the “Race to the Top” model in education reform by creating similar competition for Federal dollars among the States for improving efficiency. (This last one is actually in the President’s more detailed post-speech proposals.)

The fourth approach Obama can undertake on his own is to work to accelerate the technical substitution of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are gasses used in refrigeration and air conditioning, and their original purpose was beneficial: they were introduced by the chemical industry as part of the Montreal Protocol to replace chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) that created the ‘ozone hole’ in the 1980s. Today, almost all CFCs have been phased out, and the ozone hole is shrinking dramatically. Unfortunately, the HFCs which replaced them are ‘super greenhouse gasses’ – molecule-for-molecule, almost 4000 times more atmospherically potent than carbon dioxide.

The good news is that replacements for HFCs are on the horizon. For example, two American companies, DuPont and Honeywell, recently formed a joint venture to produce a ‘drop in’ automotive refrigerant that is 97% less impactful than the HFC it replaces. So one possible opportunity for Obama (and John Kerry) is use the existing platform of the Montreal Protocol to move the more-than-190 countries who are signatories to it away from HFCs.

Finally, there’s a fifth thing Obama can do: put real muscle into making sure we don’t go backwards. Little noticed amid the hoopla of increased automotive fuel efficiency standards was an ‘escape clause’ for carmakers: if, in 2018, they aren’t selling enough of Chevy Volts and Tesla Sedans, they can argue for a reversion of the standards. Obama can put effort into pressuring the car companies to either drop the escape clause, or make progress to the goal faster.

Taken together, argues Nesbit, these actions don’t amount to an energy policy, but they could propel two positive outcomes: first, spurring Congress to act more comprehensively, and second, returning America to a leadership position in the global climate arena, putting the President in a position, by 2015, to negotiate bilateral climate deals with India and China, which is the real prize.

I said to Jeff, “This list has many features of an energy policy, though it clearly isn’t one. What’s missing that would round it out?”

Without hesitation, he said:

“A Manhattan Project for renewables. But you can’t do that without the Congress.”

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

The Emerging (Arctic)
World Order

December 11, 2012

This summer, while America was suffering through a mega-drought that plunged half the country into a state of emergency, and India was experiencing the largest blackout in history, a group of Chinese scientists were undertaking a remarkable voyage. Aboard the world’s largest icebreaker, the Xue Long, (or ‘Snow Dragon’) they charted a course through what was once called the “Northeast Passage”, over Russia through the record-setting melting Arctic sea ice, finally docking in Reykjavik, Iceland.

China is obviously not an Arctic country, but that has not prevented it, like many other nations, from taking a keen interest in the region – scientifically, diplomatically, and commercially. In fact, the Chinese seem intent on playing a leadership role in this part of the world, particularly in Iceland, which has vast geothermal and hydroelectrical capacity (much of it currently used, controversially, to power aluminum smelters). In the capital of this small country of 320,000 people, the Chinese are constructing a truly massive embassy, with room for up to five hundred people. (The American embassy, presently the largest, holds about seventy.)

Why build something so big? Partly, to broadcast China’s presence, and partly to act as a basis of operations for the whole region, particularly those involving access to rich mineral and oil and gas resources of nearby Greenland. These may include up to 25% of the world’s reserves of rare earth metals, which are used to make magnets used in everything from cell phones to wind turbines to precision-guided munitions. (Much to the chagrin of folks at the Pentagon, China currently has about 95% of the world’s current supply.)

Indeed, plans are already being drawn up to open a huge iron ore mine in Greenland that could, overnight, swell the population of the country by 4% with Chinese workers – and that’s just from one project alone. This poses a challenge to the country’s 57,000 citizens – many of them indigenous Kalaallit – just as it does to their Icelandic neighbors (and Africans, and many others): how to admit the interests of the insatiable global extractive economy into their country in a controlled way, while trying to conserve one of the world’s pristine – and globally essential – ecosystems.

Amid these moves in a new ‘great game’ in Arctic energy, materials, and transport, something can easily be lost – the vastly greater global importance of the disappearing Arctic ice itself. The Chinese scientists aboard the Snow Dragon were there because, much like every nation – including the United States – China has to worry both about finding and extracting vast quantities of natural resources to power its growth, and about the consequences – in the form of melting ice, rising sea levels, and threats to its coastal cities – of those very extractive processes. (These threats don’t just include increasing risk from severe weather events, but also from things like the contamination of drinking water by rising seawater.)

The health of the planet’s ice is implicated in all of this, as Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson shared with me a few days ago on a visit to Reykjavik. In our wide ranging conversation, he mentioned two things that deeply impressed me: first, that, in his international travels, nations as far away as Singapore and South Korea – realizing they have a stake in what he calls the ‘Global Arctic’ – continuously express interest in joining the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body that addresses issues faced by regional Arctic governments and their indigenous people.

Second, President Grimsson also suggested a compelling agenda-item for Obama’s second term: convening an international Summit to directly address our shared, civilizational interest in the State of the Ice, and to generate what he called an “AHA” moment, which stands for the Arctic, Himalayas and the Antarctic – the three major ice centers on the planet. You can read about both of these and other compelling ideas in this transcript of a terrific speech he gave on the subject at the Arctic Imperative Summit, held earlier this year in Alaska.

It’s clear we need a moment of global focus and rule setting, or the new Wild West may be the Wild North.

Image credit: United Nations Photo

To Jeddah, And the Launch Of The i2 Institute

November 11, 2012

Later this week, I’ll be traveling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a very special event – the official launch of the i2 Institute, a new organization dedicated to building an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond.

I2 is the brainchild of my friend and colleague, the biotechnologist Hayat Sindi. Hayat is one of those people whose career path is as improbable as it is extraordinary.  She left her home country, went to the UK alone, got into Cambridge, then MIT and Harvard to do her post-doc work. There, in one of the preeminent chemistry labs in the US, run by George Whitesides, she helped launch a breakthrough medical diagnostics company called Diagnostics For All – which is developing ultra-low cost medical tests for critical health conditions.

Hayat’s fierce determination and abundant talent has been widely (and rightly) lauded in her home region and around the world – she was the only person to receive both a PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship and a Science Fellowship; she has since been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and was recently named a UNESCO World Ambassador for Science, among many other justly-deserved honorifics.

When Hayat met with Leetha Filderman and I in a Camden, Maine coffeehouse, after her first PopTech gathering in 2009, she laid out a big challenge, and an equally bold vision to address it. Her remarkable experience – not just pursuing scientific work at the highest level, but also working to see it translated from a research context into a company – is comparatively rare, at least by the standards of her home region. This isn’t for lack of talent – the Middle East is full of brilliant people. Instead, what is often lacking is an ecosystem – not just of money, but of mentors, colleagues, role models and institutions who could provide the services, encouragement, peer support, skills training and connectivity to help turn scientists’ and engineers’ research ideas into applied innovations that create wealth, employment, and prestige.

The consequences of the absence of this gap are significant. For example, according to NPR, the unemployment rate for college-educated men in Saudi Arabia is and eye-popping 44%. That number is an proxy for countless stories of people unable to realize their dreams and contribute to the richness of society and the world. And, as Hayat told us, it’s a story that is repeated, in different ways, across the region.

Hayat wanted to tackle this enormous challenge, and she had a clear vision of how to do so – to create a new kind of institution, starting in her home country, which could become the hub of a network of high-capacity innovators who could blaze a new path, and themselves become role models for the next generation.

So, over the next two years, with PopTech’s enthusiastic early support, she marshaled world-class resources (including the renowned strategic design firm Wolff Olins, and later McKinsey, as well as signing on MIT and Harvard). These would be essential to the task of scoping, communicating and delivering the elements of her vision.

After much work, next week, in Jeddah, Hayat’s vision will become reality: the Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity – i2 – will officially launch, opening the nomination process for its first round of Fellows.

I’m delighted to be speaking at the launch, joining innovation and design luminaries like Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab, noted digital thinker and venture capitalist Esther Dyson, Robert Fabricant of Frog Design, and Greg Brandeau of Pixar and Next. We will be joined by HRH Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Al-Saud, as well as Mohamed Al-Mady, the Chief Executive Officer of SABIC, Abdul Aziz Al Khodary, deputy Governor  of Mekkah, and Arif Naqvi, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Abraaj Capital, among others. I’ve also joined i2’s Board of Directors as a charter member.

It’s been an honor to play a small part in all of this, but it’s been ten times more inspiring to have watched Hayat undertake the never-easy, always-exhausting process of putting together a new organization from scratch. She is part of a global ‘reaspora’, which is the opposite of a diaspora: global elites, educated in the world’s best institutions, who could live and work anywhere in the world, but who choose to return to their home regions to labor on issues of critical social significance. That makes Hayat not only a social innovation hero, but also an embodiment of the very principles she seeks to inspire in others.

Image Credit: I2 Institute