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Engineering comes to life in practical water systems

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Southern Methodist University’s annual Engineering and Humanity Week addresses humanitarian crises across the globe, connecting experts and innovators with students and the general populace in order to raise awareness and build support for their work. Although the major focus of this year’s conference, Water: Ripple Effects, was on how to bring fresh water to people living in developing countries, there were a handful of grassroots companies and organizations from Texas showing how they help people across the state gain easier access to sustainable, low cost sources of clean food and water. Two systems on display were hydroponic gardening and point of use water filtration systems.

Adam Cohen has been building hydroponic gardens in North Texas for the past five years with his company, Green Phoenix Farms. Hydroponic gardens, he claims, are more sustainable and produce more food than traditional soil gardens.

“It’s the combination of aquaculture, fish farming, and hydroponics, growing plants without soil. We’ve taken two individual systems that both have waste products, and we’ve taken the waste from the fish culture and turned that into the nutrient source for the plants. [The plants clean the] water, so it comes back to the fish clean, ready to be re-used another time,” Cohen said. “On a large scale application, we use 90 percent less water than traditional soil agriculture.

“Our display system has a 250 gallon fish tank that would grow 50 lbs of tilapia every 6 months, and we have a 24 square feet of raft bed can do almost 100 heads of lettuce every 30 days.

“The total material cost for our system of that we have on display here is under $700, and that’s a system that would provide two people with fish once a week and salad four to five times a week.”

Cohen said one advantage of a hydroponic garden is the minimal upkeep it requires; feeding the fish every day and adding a few gallons of water every week to compensate for evaporation is all that is necessary.

Another group came to Dallas from Texas A&M University where graduate students in engineering and art have joined forces to solve Texas’ water crisis by building clay filters that turn dangerous river water into pure drinking water.

“They are point of use water filters that we make in communities and teach communities how to make using their local materials, so they have potable water to drink,” said Cory Arcak, a Ph.D. student in art education. “Part of the reason behind this is we’ve got half a million people in the State of Texas that don’t have access to clean water along the Texas-Mexico border, and so we’re trying to take in a low cost, low tech solution that they can actually create themselves.”

The filter’s simple design belies the level of research and development that has gone into the project.

“We mix 50 percent sawdust and 50 percent clay into an actual clay body,” Arcak said. “The current shape we’re using is one that will fit inside a five gallon receptacle because this is easy to find.

“What happens is that sawdust, whenever it’s fired in the kiln, actually burns out and you can see pours are created, and the water filters through there and [the pours] catch the bacteria, so what drains out into this receptacle is water that is 98 percent free of water borne pathogens and bacteria.”

But the mechanical filtration sometimes is not pure enough – 98 percent is still unsanitary. Ben Smith, a civil engineering graduation student, described how they added a chemical filter to make the water potable.

“We actually coat it with colloidal silver solution – colloidal silver just means really, really small silver particles – that acts as another anti-microbial agent, chemically. That gets us to about 99.9 percent percent removal of bacteria,” Smith said.

“It will filter two liters an hour. This filter holds five liters. The average family [of four] usually uses about 20 liters a day,” Arcak said.

Each filter will provide a family with all the clean water it needs for five years.

Students learn hard lessons living on a dollar a day

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In the summer of 2010, four economics students studying at Claremont McKenna College in California decided to spend two months living in a rural Guatemalan village. The challenge for these well educated, reasonably well off young men was to survive like so many others in the world – in extreme poverty, living on only one dollar a day per person.

Two of these intrepid souls, Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci brought their experiences and expertise to SMU’s Engineering and Humanity Week.

“We had been studying about international relations and development in class,” Temple said. “We had heard the statistic that 1.1 billion people live on a dollar a day. But coming from Connecticut and Zach from Seattle, we really weren’t able to understand how someone could survive at that level. We felt like we needed to go experience it firsthand.

“We thought of this simulation, and we decided to film the whole experience to allow people to follow along with us.”

“While we were down there, we shot two minute video blogs and edited them on the dirt floor in our house,” Ingrasci said. “They ended up getting 600,000 views on YouTube. This showed us we had a powerful way to tell a story.”

One of the initial challenges the group faced was creating a scenario that would actually allow them to experience the reality of poverty in only eight weeks.

“The beginning was really difficult,” Ingrasci said. “We knew from the very beginning that we would never be able to truly replicate poverty. But we wanted to replicate a couple of key aspects of it. So we took our $56 each, and we divided it into random increments from 0 to 9 and drew each day from a hat. That was supposed to replicate the random income the people in this community were getting, because they don’t actually get a dollar a day. That is an average over a year.

“Sometimes we would draw out $9, sometimes we would draw zero. It was all about how you manage such an irregular and small income to pay for not only your food, but your house and to invest in a crop or to handle a medical emergency. How do you deal with these daily things?

“The first two weeks was a huge shock, because we were drawing some low numbers in the beginning, and we were not eating well.”

“There was one week where I drew four numbers in a row,” Temple said, “and two of them were zeros and two of them were ones. So amongst the four of us, we had 12 cents per person to live on per day.

“I remember waking up on the dirt floor that fourth day having been bitten by fleas all night, and we didn’t know if we were going to have enough money for food, let alone the medicine for a sickness I had. I had both Giardia and E. Coli from waterborne parasites from drinking the water in the village. It came from where everyone else in the village was getting water from as well.

“It was a bit of a glimpse at some of the immense hardship people go through day after day when they don’t have access to basic things that we take advantage of like clean water, a bed to sleep in, and access to a loan or bank account. These things can make a huge impact on a person’s life.”

At this point in the simulation, the group reached what they consider to be their greatest failure. Unable to save the $25 needed to buy medicine, they used emergency medicine they brought with them to treat Chris’ illness.

“Realizing what a week of being sick and not having access to medicine would do to the head of a household and what the affect would be on the income of the family was pretty shocking,” Ingrasci said. “There were a couple of big takeaways for us, and one of the biggest was that small things can have huge affects in the lives of the extreme poor in a good way or a bad way. They are living so intensely on the edge.

“I think honestly we would have gone home that week when Chris was sick, and we were trying to deal with budgeting our money, had we not met a couple of key people in this village. We became really close with two people in particular. One was a 12 year old boy, Chino, and the other was a 21 year old woman, Rosa.

“Coming into this village, we weren’t immediately accepted by everyone. It was really the kids who accepted us,” he continued. “We were literally the best telenovela they had ever seen. We were in this hut, and they were watching us for hours. They were like ‘look at them trying to make beans. Look at them try to make rice. Look at them try to start a fire.’

“But we started to talk to some of them and Chino became really close with us. We were kind of wondering why Chino was always around. We found out by getting to know him more that he was one of the only kids in the village who couldn’t pay for the $25 book fee to go to school. And he was one of the smartest kids.

“He and Chris would go back and forth. He would teach Chris the Mayan dialect they speak in the village, Chris would teach him English and they would both be speaking in Spanish. After you find out what he goes through every day, and what they are eating, we realized we could definitely do this for two months. This is their life, and it became about telling this story,” Ingrasci said.

Often the villagers captured in videos taken by the students seem happy as they chat with friends or play with their children.

“In a lot of ways, the people are very optimistic and very positive about their situation and the life they are living,” Temple said. “But that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments where they would be completely honest. I think their happiness was borne out of years of living at this level, and they recognize small moments of happiness. We would be hanging out playing soccer or Rosa would have sold her weavings in the market that day, and little things would provide a lot of happiness. But at its core it shouldn’t be mistaken that someone who is living at that level, who is living in extreme hardship everyday… nobody here would be happy living in that situation.

“You can look at us in the video blogs. We are very down most of the time. We were dejected or tired. We were hungry, and you feel like you are swimming because you haven’t had enough to eat. I think any kind of happiness that came across in the film is a testament to their strength.”

“I think it is cool that we can learn so much from each other. Something we took away is to be appreciative of what you have,” Ingrasci said. “They definitely appreciate anything positive that does happen to them. They have a unique perspective, and it was pretty eye opening for us.

“They are happy, but they also deal with things they shouldn’t have to deal with like a lack of education or unsanitary drinking water. We were getting our water out of a pipe out of the side of a hill. It was ground water that just piped out of this hill. There is a certain level of living that people need. That was something we felt was really lacking when you are living at that level.”

In an effort to share what they learned through their experiences in Guatemala, they made a documentary film Living on One Dollar and have toured the country speaking at film screenings.

“It is really exciting to be at a conference like this where we can show some of these videos, allow people to come along on this journey with us and feel a bit of that perspective,” Temple said. “We hope that we can continue to encourage appreciation for the things we take for granted every day, and inspire action around experiential learning.

“People should go out and try something new, especially students. It is an amazing time when you are in college to get to go meet new people, try something you never otherwise would. Even as a student, you can make a small difference in someone else’s life. There are more people not living in poverty than living in poverty. Each of us can have a positive impact on someone else that can really have a dramatic affect on the whole world, and that could ripple through.

“I think there were some amazing positives we were able to take away from being lucky to go to this community that we want to continue to share through our film.

“This conference has shown how complex an issue poverty is. There are so many issues that need to be solved,” he said. “There is no one solution to poverty. It is more about how do we approach the solutions to poverty. Do we just give and provide direct charity or do we provide resources that empower people to change their own lives?

“When you can provide an opportunity for someone like this microfinance loan for Rosa who is entrepreneurial and wanted to start a business, it can have a huge effect.”

“With understanding comes a greater ability to make a positive impact,” Ingrasci said. “By working with a local community to understand if they even need a clean water filter or would they prefer to have education loans or whatever. And understand that village knows best what it needs. Our role in the west can be to empower that change by providing resources, but not to force a change without any understanding of what the village really is.

“Now technology has allowed us to have so much more communication with rural villages around the world. This communication allows cultural exchange and understanding between these different worlds that it makes it so much easier for us to know how to make a difference.

“Recognizing that each one of us can do something small to make an impact on one person’s life; if we can all believe that, that is the solution to poverty. Just to stop hiding from it and feel empowered,” he said.

Living On One Dollar will air on Hulu from April 22 through May 3

For more information, visit or .

Plastiki and de Rothchild inspire area school children

For four years, David de Rothschild and his team labored in conceptual design, innovation and build to create the Plastiki. Composed primarily from recycled plastic bottles, the Plastiki, a unique, ocean going catamaran, sailed 8,000 nautical miles in 110 days with a crew of six from San Francisco, CA to Sydney Australia in 2010.

The next phase of her remarkable journey took place not on the high seas, but on the back of a flat bed truck as she traveled to Esplanade Fountain near Centennial Hall in Dallas’ Fair Park where she will remain for Earth Day celebrations during April and May.

As some of the stars of this year’s 3rd annual Engineering & Humanity Week, Plastiki, David de Rothschild and other members of the Plastiki team and crew met with over 500 school children on April 6. The event introduced the youngsters not only to the history and adventure of the Plastiki and her mission to bring attention to the global misuse of plastic, but also to ignite in them a spark of curiosity to seek out the possibilities that exist still undiscovered in their own lives.

“Hopefully I will inspire you guys to think about what you guys can do in your own world and everyday life to tackle some of the everyday problems we hear about,” de Rothschild said to the young students. “When you are on twitter or some website and you read about the problems our planet is facing, it often becomes a little bit depressing and sometimes it feels like these problems we face are too large to do anything about.

“I want you to know that even though I am standing here with a microphone and I might look a bit weird, I’m just like you, and that is the most important thing. I didn’t know or have any idea about how this was going to come to life. All I had was a crazy idea and a crazy dream. I started a conversation and started having interactions with people and asking what they thought. Most people basically said I was completely nuts, and said I should go do something else.

“Although what you see is incredible and has taken thousands and thousands of hours, it wasn’t just me, it was the team. There were a huge number of people involved in this project.”

In order to engage people in a discussion about climate change and the problems of waste, de Rothschild wanted to create something that people could touch, taste, see and be a part of.

“Every single day no matter how good you are, you are constantly creating a footprint. So the first thing that came to mind was bottled water. It seems like such a crazy concept,” de Rothschild said. “We go into countries all over the world. We grab water, we put it onto a boat and we ship it, and the water is encased in a plastic container. To make a two liter plastic bottle, takes one and half liters of water to make the plastic, which is kind of crazy.”

Eventually, de Rothschild came up with the concept of building a boat out of recycled plastic bottles. He named his creation the ‘Plastiki’ in homage to the Kon-Tiki, a balsawood raft used by explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 to sail from South America to the Polynesian Islands.

“I was doing a talk for Google in 2006, and one of the people on the panel was an architect,” de Rothschild said. “And I said to him, ‘Have you ever designed a boat?’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Perfect, I want to hire you to design a boat.’

“This guy was so curious and excited that he jumped straight into it. We spent the next 18 months to two years working through different concepts and designs of how we could keep the bottles together. One of the areas we went for inspiration was nature. Think about it, nature has had four and a half billion years of research and development to create what we all get to live within on spaceship Earth. Nature has amazing answers.

“The only thing I said to anybody who was involved in this project was that there were only two conditions: one the bottles had to be in there original form, and two they have to be functional,” he said.

“The bottles (filled with CO2) actually make up our buoyancy. So just under 70 percent of the flotation that we needed to sail this boat was coming from these bottles. If all the bottles were to disappear, this boat wouldn’t sail. Because we kept that as our starting point, everything else was open for interpretation. Anybody could throw out any ideas. It didn’t matter how stupid they were. All of the sudden everybody got excited and was throwing out all sorts of ideas about how we could make this boat come to life.”

Design plans hit a snag when the team could not find any acceptable board materials with which to build the structure of the boat.

“We couldn’t find any suitable materials that fit with the methodology and principles of this project,” de Rothschild said. “We tried to find post-consumer plastic made into sheet material and boards that we could use. We found all these different companies claiming they had all these materials.

“It kind of hit me on the head. The problem we have today with plastic isn’t because of plastic. It is because of us. In a way, plastic isn’t to blame. It is how we use it that is the problem. There are dumb single use plastics. The straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic wraps, disposable razors, disposable cameras, all the stuff we get in our everyday lives that is so hard to avoid.

“On the other side, plastic is an awesome material. It just hasn’t been used correctly. We have a toxic love affair with this stuff,” he said.

“In the end, we had to engineer this new material. The shredded plastic is turned into a pellet. The pellet is extruded into a fiber, which is made into a sheet of material. When the material is pressed under heat, turns into a slightly harder material, and finally turns into a laminate in its final stage. It is a self reinforcing plastic, 100 percent PET and number one in the recycling stream.

“The name of the new material started out as SR-PET, which stands for Self Reinforcing –Polyethylene terephthalate. So then we imaginatively named it seratex, because it sounded a bit like vortex and we thought that was kind of cool. But it just stands for self reinforcing textile,” he said.

“The Plastiki weighs about 10.5 tons, 22,000 lbs, but it is about half the weight of a normal boat her size, because the material is half the weight of fiberglass and twice as strong.

“Once we knew we could make this strong board material which sat inside the principal of project of using material in a smart way, we could start to build the boat,” de Rothschild said. “So after nearly two years of conversations, failures, dead ends, we finally managed to start the build process.

“We took a snowboard press, modified it, and then we could start making these boards. One piece of this material 60 feet in length took 17 hours to create. The fabric would come through the snowboard press, you’d press a button, it would sit on there for about four minutes, and then we’d pull the next section through. Nobody else had done this. We had no idea how the material would perform. We didn’t know if it was going to work, but we knew we had something that could give us the structure.

We would build these massive sheets and cut shapes out. Those shapes would be locked into place. So the boat is like one huge jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “The boat is a culmination of a team of about 20 people working around the clock putting thousands and thousands of hours into making this vessel.

“We have 12,500 bottles taken directly from the trash in San Francisco. The main frame, the superstructure, is also made out of PET. Both the masts are made from old irrigation pipe that we took and reconditioned for this purpose. The grey on the sail is also made 100 percent out of post-consumer plastic bottles. We found a company in Asia. They said it wasn’t possible. They are now making post-consumer plastic sails as their business.

“We then had to put the boat together. But we couldn’t find a glue that was suitable for the project. We didn’t want to go out and make this amazing boat and stick it together with a really noxious epoxy resin, which is what you usually get with building glue,” de Rothschild said. “So we engineered a new glue made of cashew nuts and sugar.

“One of the big takeaways is that most people always say ‘no’ before they even actually understand. They just say no. It is just too complicated. We all do it. It is called taking the path of least resistance. At that point it is easy to say ‘okay, cool that doesn’t work’ and walk away. Or you can ring them up every day and say ‘please just try.’ That is what we did. We pestered them. Finally, they were so annoyed that just to get rid of us; they would give it a try. Then they would be like, ‘hey, this works.’

“The portholes, wenches, little locks, stays and guide wires were the only things we actually bought. And they were the only things that broke. The stuff we made survived,” he said.

Having started out as a dream, been built by curiosity and determination, then sailed across the Pacific Ocean, the true legacy of the Plastiki may yet to be realized.

“Did the Plastiki do what it was meant to do? Well, technically no. It failed from the point of view that we didn’t stop people using single use plastics,” de Rothschild said. “We didn’t stop plastics ending up in our oceans.

“On the other side it really succeeded from the point of view that it became much bigger than us. It became a story that so many people around the world started to use the metaphor ‘What’s your Plastiki?’ People would interpret that in any way. What it means is anything is possible. I call it the equation of curiosity. No matter where you come from, no matter where you are going, you are all at this point in your life probably much more curious than we are as adults. That curiosity is the breeding ground for dreams. And those dreams are the breeding grounds for adventures. And those adventures are the breeding grounds for stories. And those stories inspire more dreams.

“The Plastiki is as much mine as it is yours,” he said. “Today is the first day the Plastiki has really been shown on display since we finished the voyage three years ago. It’s taken a lot of logistics to get out here. She is going to stay in Dallas and hopefully continue her life as an inspiration.

“If we can build a boat out of plastic bottles and sail across the Pacific, then you guys can do anything you want to do.

“The Plastiki is now a Texan. I had a number of conversations with a lot of people, and it transpired that Dallas and the community here would be really embracing and open to it. And it is evident in the fact that you guys have turned up on your weekend to see this,” de Rothschild said.

De Rothschild chose to donate Plastiki to the Urban Innovation Lab for Youth, an open-access center that is scheduled to be built next year in downtown Dallas. Conceptualized by the Hunts in 2006, this cooperative venture will target 12- to 24-year-olds to augment interpersonal problem-solving skills and collaboration efforts, with support from innovative technologies and guidance from a variety of mentors. The Hunts’ ROi Project team will spearhead the project’s development in partnership with SMU, Paul Quinn College and bcWorkshop in Dallas, the University of Oxford, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Some information provided by the Hunt Institute.

Barefoot Festival brings Emmanuel Jal to SMU

SMU students and faculty partnered to put on Barefoot on the Boulevard, a festival of music and environmental advocacy on April 6. Emmanuel Jal headlined the event. Jal is a South Sudanese rapper, a former child soldier and humanitarian advocate, who blended the program’s environmental theme with his own message of peace.

“If our environment is not taken care of, it is going to affect all of us. And that’s why I have come to support you guys,” Jal said.

In 1980, Jal was born in South Sudan, now an independent nation but then part of greater Sudan. When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out he tried to escape to Ethiopia, but was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). He was seven years old at the time.

“The war reached the core of my family. Ninety-eight percent of everyone in South Sudan lost somebody, that’s over 2.8 million dead. All my aunties died in the war,” said Jal.

Later he managed to escape to Waat, a village that was home to many SPLA deserters and Emma McCune, a British aid worker, who helped turn his life around. He also started listening to American Hip Hop.

“There was Tupac, there was Run DMC, there was Lost Boys, a lot of American artists,” he said. He has since gone on to become an internationally renowned hip hop artist.

“I was just doing it for fun [at first], and I was trying to raise funds to put ex-child soldiers into school in Nairobi, but I didn’t know I was creating a career for myself, so accidentally without my plans or wishing to be what I’m doing it ended up becoming a career,” Jal said.

He is also the founder of We Want Peace, a campaign to persuade people that world peace is a realistic possibility.

“We Want Peace is a simple way of saying, when you put a spotlight in a dark place, the evil can perform less,” said Jal, speaking of the organization.

Though his message was unalloyed positivity, Jal’s music was honest about his sometimes brutal experiences. One lyric reads, “next was I, but Jesus heard my cry, as I was tempted to eat the rotten flesh of my comrade.” The piece is a spoken word about being tempted to resort to cannibalism to fend off starvation.

Though Jal was the headliner and a major draw, the event also featured tables from several local environmental organizations, including Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) and Groundwork Dallas, an initiative to improve Dallas park land and bring on-site environmental education to local schools. All proceeds from the event went to TCE.

“It’s important to get kids this age to think about environmental issues beyond putting plastic and aluminum in the recycling bin and changing the light bulbs, because college age is when they can start to think about policy changes, about voting in elections, about corporate accountability. Because this is when they have money, they have jobs, they can speak with their checkbooks like everyone else,” said Virginia Fugman, Staff Director for the Dallas office of TCE.

Sisters turn art into clean water for others

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With outdoor workshops situated along a water distribution camp along a green space on SMU’s campus and grad students to play with, there was little to keep Isabelle (9) and Katherine (7) Adams interested in origami for too long. The two could not sit still at a single table while engineering students struggled with stubborn water pumps, fish swam beneath a hydroponic garden and crafts projects fired in a Webber grill held the potential for cheap clean water.

But do not be fooled by the quixotic exuberance of the young pair. With the help of their parents and volunteers, the girls have impacted several communities through Paper for Water by creating origami decoration and donating the proceeds from their art to create water wells.

“We started taking donations for origami ornaments Nov. 3, 2011,” said mom Deborah Adams. “It was just going to be a one month long fundraiser at Starbucks, because Katherine and her dad had been making them before school in the morning. They had accumulated some and thought it would make a nice fundraiser, because we had done fundraisers with other art projects.

“The first night we had a little party, and they sold out raising about $800. Then we thought ‘wow, we still have another month.’ So began to thing we might be able to raise enough money for half a well, because the girls wanted to donate the money towards a well in Ethiopia. Each well was $9,200.”

“Through a friend of a friend, my husband met Curtis Eggemeyer whose family owns Lemi Shine in Midland, TX,” Adams said. “They were trying to raise money for Living Water International for wells in Ethiopia. They were doing a matching dollar for dollar campaign with all of their clients. So he was real excited about what the girls were doing, and he sent a check for $3,400.

“It was literally two days before the end of the year, and we actually made it to the whole $9,200.

“We took a break. But we just felt like we kept being called back to working on this. We just couldn’t stop. Now we have raised over $130,000, which has paid for 26 wells,” she said. “It has just been the most fun adventure. We have met so many amazing people. So many people help us now, we have tons of volunteers of all ages. It is just amazing.

“When we started, every 15 seconds a child was dying from unclean water. Now that statistic is every 20 seconds. So we know there is forward progress being made, which is really exciting.”

The lack of clean water in communities not only endangers lives, the time it takes to collect and transport water steals away opportunities for people to engage in education and other activities.

“Millions and millions of hours are being wasted just hauling water,” Adams said. “A lot of girls cannot go to school, because they spend the day hauling water. My girls want those kids to be in school like they are. It’s not just girls; there are women, men and boys hauling water also. But instead of using that time to run a business, doing something productive or being in school, they are spending it hauling water.

“Now we also realize that by doing this, we are also promoting peace. If you have access to things and you have opportunity, you are promoting peace, because people are getting what they need.”

Taking a moment from exploring the water tap, which supplied water throughout the living village, Isabelle spoke about the importance of Paper for Water.

“We sell origami to raise money for water wells,” Isabelle said. “It makes me happy, because we are giving clean water to the thirsty. You need water to live.

“They can use the water to grow vegetables to eat and start businesses and make money.”

Paper for Water’s 2013 goal is $250,000. If you would like to donate, please make donations payable to Living Water International P.O. Box 720999, Dallas, TX 75372-0999.

For more information, visit .

To save the environment and ourselves we need to reframe the discussion

Great minds in conversation are one of the treasures of an Engineering and Humanity Week. For a few moments or hours at a time, mere mortals have the rare chance to stand on the shoulders of giants and see the world from their perspective. For those lucky enough to listen in on the dialogue, for an instant problems of poverty, thirst and climate change can be experienced from the peaks of world travelers, social scientists and adventurers rather than the lower vistas occupied by those of us with limited travel and worldly experience.

After receiving the 2013 Visionary Award from SMU’s Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity on the evening of April 6, David de Rothschild was interviewed about the myths and realities of the environmentalist movement by Jeffery Ball, Scholar-in-Residence at Stanford University.
“You’ve talked about your concern about environmentalism: that it is going the wrong way, and you want to change it. Just talk about where in your view the environmental movement has gone wrong,” Ball said.

“We look at something, and we try to put it into a compartment,” de Rothschild responded. “We narrow the conversation down. Then we try and label it, so we can consume it in a bite sized piece. And the reality is that we can’t take massive, systemic problems and make them into bite sized, beautiful pieces of information. That is where we are kidding ourselves.

“What we attempt to do is try and package things into sugar powdered, bite sized bits of information, and it drives me nuts. There is a sort of constant battle to try and get people to jump in and really digest the issues properly.

“I am an optimistic pessimist about the situation we face. We are incredible consumers. We are much better at consuming than we are about conserving. How do we start to take these issues and actually act upon them, and not just dress them up in a way that becomes fluffy media?”

“Should one exhort people to change themselves and let that bubble up, or should one pass policies or spend money on research and development on whiz bang technologies and present the solutions from the top down,” Ball asked.

“I don’t care if it is top up, bottom down, sideways, back to front – just do something. Come on guys, you’ve got to wake up. I think the idea of sitting here rather than acting and figuring out how do we approach the acting is just the wrong approach. We just need to act,” de Rothschild said.

Do you think that you or other people in the environmental movement have done an effective job,” Ball asked.

“Horrible, horrible job,” de Rothschild responded. “The environmental movement has fundamentally failed, because it is called the ‘environmental movement.’ I think Kermit the Frog summed it up when he said, ‘It isn’t easy being green.’ We made green into a thing. It is a chore.

“I make the parallel between health and the environment. It is like the practitioner who says, ‘you’re getting a little fat, you can have a heart attack. You got to go out, get some trainers on, go run and get fit.’ It is starting at a reductionist point of view, and that doesn’t work.

“What we have become as environmentalist are really undertakers for nature. We are very good at articulating the demise of nature rather than articulating the solutions that can exist. What is crazy is if we know where the problem starts, we can solve it.”

“What is the most effective strategy that you see going forward to explain to people your sense that things are going to get bad quick,” Ball asked.

“I often say to people that plastic isn’t the problem,” de Rothschild said. “Plastic is great. It is an awesome material. It is just misunderstood. We have created a toxic love affair with this material, because we haven’t understood how to use it, design for it, dispose of it and reuse it.

“We have to flip the equation and allow people to understand what they can do.

“I think it comes back to some simple, basic starting points. The first thing is it all sounds too cute and cuddly. Like ‘global warming,’ warming is great, sounds awesome. ‘Climate change,’ change is great. It should be ‘flying kiss of death.’ Imagine that, I don’t want that. We need to change the messaging.

“The biggest thing is that we have created a false dichotomy that there is nature in us. You can’t get people to recognize that there is a problem with the underpinning of our society, the very way that we live, the very way that we breathe, unless you actually reconnect the dots, and allow individuals to come back in and recognize that we are part of the web of life.

“We all create fake nature environments. We use nature in advertising. We use nature when you walk into a hotel and for $50 more you can have the ocean view. You use the corporate card and look at the ocean through the window, but you don’t go out into the ocean. We come home and watch what I call ‘nature pornography.’ We turn on National Geographic and there are the wilder beast running in the Savannah.

“Our perception is on a daily basis that nature is thriving. When we see the car commercial, the mountains are covered in snow. Guess what, there is no snow.”