The Aspen Ideas Festival 2006: Inspired Thinking in a Surreal Setting

The Aspen Ideas Festival is difficult to describe. Joel Makower put it well, he called it "TED meets Davos at 8,000 feet." I take this to mean that it spans just about every topic under the sun at slightly above the elevation at which reality functions normally. The town of Aspen is beautiful, safe, wealthy, and removed from most of the grittier issues tackled over the week-long marathon of panels, tutorials, and well-fed schmoozing. The Aspen community is an interesting coexistence of rugged outdoorsiness blended with exclusivity and conspicuous consumption. The army of sponsors for the Festival was also surreal enough to warrant some exaggerated eyebrow-raising (GE, Boeing, Altria, a.k.a. Phillip Morris, to name a few). But for a person looking to see big ecological issues discussed, the Aspen Ideas Festival did indeed deliver, as promised, "inspired thinking in an idyllic setting." Hopping from session to session was like a scavenger hunt to track down as many living eco legends as possible. E.O. Wilson, the eminent biologist credited with bringing the term biodiversity into the public lexicon, spoke on the loss of species and how much we just don't know about the spectrum of life on the planet. He discussed the urgent need to "put boots on the ground" in order to study the planet's vast biodiversity. He underscored how little we really know by recalling that best estimates for the number of species on Earth range from 10 to 100 million. He spoke briefly about The Encyclopedia of Life, a project he is involved in that is, in essence, a massive open database of species that can harness the power of amateur scientists working remotely as well as established projects and universities. The power of connective technology in this application becomes evident when we realize that we can't well protect what we don't know is there. (Joel Makower wrote an excellent summary of E.O. Wilson's talk)

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute shared the stage with John Haywood of MIT's Sloan Automotive Lab on the topic of sustainable transportation. Heywood gave an overview of world's 800 million private vehicles and the predicted tripling of this number within 50 years. It was Lovins, though, who illuminated how this trajectory could be a turned both sustainable and profitable. Drawing on the paper Winning the Oil Endgame and the remarkable work of his colleagues at RMI, Lovins sketched a plan for transforming the way mobility takes place, the way vehicles are fueled, designed, and produced, and how profit can be the private sector's reward for getting America off oil by 2040. To know that the RMI is now coaching Wal-Mart on sustainability is a uplifting thought, and Lovins alluded to the magnitude of the impact that these ideas could have in Wal-Mart's hands, though he made no direct mention of the alliance.

Architecture for Humanity's new book, Design Like You Give a Damn has already sent ripples through the sustainable design community. Cameron Sinclair, co-author and president of AFH, spends his days facilitating appropriately designed dwellings for disaster victims, refugees, and the otherwise displaced citizens of the world. He was one of only a few presenters selected to address the entire audience of the Ideas Fest
at an opening forum. He described a work in progress: an open-source design database that makes sustainable building methods available to agencies worldwide. The rest of the week found him speaking on development, architecture, and information technology. Sinclair brought along with him several Global Village Shelters, recycled cardboard huts designed to serve as emergency shelters. These he erected on the lawn of the Aspen Institute (Sarah Rich covered it well for Inhabitat).

I spent more time sitting next to Sinclair in lobby armchairs than hearing him at the podium. He was kind enough to slide me a copy of the new book, and told me about growing up in England and experiencing the contrasts of living poor, then rich, then poor again as his family made its way to the U.S. In Design Like You Give a Damn, Sinclair sketches an engaging image of himself as a young architect working as a "CAD monkey" in NY, stumbling into the world of humanitarian aide, and then managing to catalyze Architecture for Humanity on a shoestring.

Janine Benyus', book Biomimicry holds a place of honor in the canon of modern sustainability alongside Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle. Benyus is a nature writer turned biomimicry evangelist who travels the world inspiring audiences with the delightful logic of nature/technology holism. In her talk, she outlined the basic principals of biomimicry, which involve drawing on nature's R&D; for three basic areas of innovation: mimicking form, mimicking process, and mimicking ecosystem. She emphasized how biomimicry is not the practice of harnessing living organisms or systems to do our work for us (she recalled an example of a goat engineered to excrete spider silk from its mammaries), but learning from how living systems have evolved to solve problems and survive. Examples she gave ranged from food crops that resemble the natural intermingling of native species, to cars that cut through the air the way fish are cut through the water. Bringing "biologists to the design table" is one of Benyus' highest goals, and the Biomimicry Guild is the branch of her movement that trying to facilitate this synthesis. One of the most remarkable things about Benyus' list of biomimetic applications was that each one she summarized was in some stage of realistic development, whether in a university lab, or imbedded in products on the market. She even made a suggestion or two on where forward-thinking investors might want to sink some of their money.

An intriguing common thread connecting those speakers who focused on environmental problem-solving was the use of new media tools to leverage their efforts. E.O. Wilson spoke about the Encyclopedia of Life, a collaborative network of biodiversity research. Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute have made book-length policy papers like Winning the Oil Endgame available as free downloads. Benyus and Sinclair are co-compiling their resources into open databases that allow for sustainable design principals to proliferate through agile information networks.

It was relieving to see environmental issues make consistently make their way into almost every subject, in fact. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, spoke about his most recent investments in green tech. He referred to nanotech-based solar panels so efficient that even just their heat absorbing power would be enough to help mitigate atmospheric warming. California senator Dianne Feinstein outlined the basic steps people can take like switching their bulbs to CFLs. Both former CIA chief James Woolsey and former Fed chair Alan Greenspan discussed the importance of energy independence. No discussion of security, development, technology, or economics was without at least the mention of ecological factors, whether from within or without the assigned panel of experts. :: The Aspen Institute

Tags: Copenhagen | United Nations

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