The event themed Human Progress in Harmony with Nature was incredibly significant, not only for the speakers, but for the fact that it sought to connect people with the ability to create change.
"When you ask someone if they think that climate change is happening, they say yes. When you ask them if they are doing anything about it, they say no. Where did that disconnect happen?" questioned Paul Coleman, director of Qi GLOBAL. "We want to inspire people to think about the long term, and simply put, care about the future."
The evening was full of people who did exactly that, many starting out from extremely humble means and little money. Dr. Willie Smits, founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation was one such example. He arrived in Indonesia from the Netherlands and became smitten with the local wildlife. Very quickly he realized the large scale destruction that plagues rainforests in Indonesia, with poor farmers clashing and burning in order to open up areas to agricultural land. In 1998 alone, over 5.5 million hectares were lost to fires set by locals, which were exasperated by layers of coal near the surface. For roughly 3 months, only minor sunlight could get through the thick haze of smoke.
Under such conditions, the native orangutans are frequently driven from their habitat, often turning up in villages where they quickly become food for impoverished locals. Dr. Smits sought to change all that, and starting only with small donations bought up incremental parcels of land. Using mixed agriculture techniques, he slowly transformed acres of landscape from agricultural plain back to rainforest. "Interaction lead to innovation" he said. "We used over 1232 different species of plants to regenerate the area, not just for nature, but for human well-being also."
In this mix was bamboo that could be harvested for a number of uses, as well as the highly valuable sugar palms. Far different than oil palms, sugar palms provide 20 times more jobs, and also have an extremely high sugar component making them valuable as an ethanol biofuel source. People in the area were taught these farming techniques and recruited for the replanting efforts that have reclaimed an every growing area of land each year. Dr. Smits used diversity of plants and their purposes to fulfill not only ecological roles, but also to help create livelihoods for locals so they could step beyond their traditional slash and burn methods. The evening’s raffle went to benefit the project.
Also in Indonesia, designer and entrepreneur Singgih Susilo Karotono helped transform his village of Kandangan in Central Java. He developed a high quality process for manufacturing a wide range of handcrafted wooden pieces, from chopsticks to radios. Working alongside European buyers, he created a market for his products and grown his business to the point that it now employs 30 locals.
Like Dr. Smits, Singgih had more than just ecological outcomes in mind. He wanted the products to redefine how people viewed with and interacted with nature. "A product is part of our life and people often have a strong connection with what they own. We need to have a similar relationship with the environment as we are all a part of nature," he said. "Beyond reduce, reuse, and recycle that everyone knows, we need to redefine what our lives and products are like in the first place."
His formula was simple: use small amounts of wood to craft high quality, high value products that are beautiful and sell for a fair price point. Teach the local craftspeople how to manufacture at this level and help them learn business skills to regenerate the local economy. Use profits from the business to regenerate local environment and encourage the planting of new trees, not only for future material, but for ecological benefit.
A Thai based designer took a different approach. Dr. Singh Intrachooto, the design principal at Osisu was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of agricultural waste Thailand produced annually. "Right now, we focus too much on the product, not on the process,2 he said. "Often something we make creates as much as 32x the waste as the final product we use."
Some 38 million tons of waste emerges from farming everything from rice to oranges every year in Thailand, not to mention the waste that comes from manufacturing processes that produce everything from buttons to foam for sofas. Dr. Singh set about experimenting with the different materials, seeing how they could be given new life.
One by one, new products took shape. Old steel pipes were reborn as park benches, pop tops as stylish handbags, plastic waste as chic modern seating. His solutions were genius in how they used waste streams as primary materials, and how they challenged what we think of as conventionally designed products. His designs are in hot demand with audiences across Asia and as far away as Europe.
The evening’s events also included presentations from Filipino designer Kenneth Cobonpue, world-renowned Danish conservationist Lone Droscher Nielsen and acclaimed jewelry designer John Hardy who founded the Green School in Bali.
What all these stories had in common was the ability for every day people to transform our world for the better, starting in their own “backyard” and often by trying to tackle a single problem. The innovation demonstrated in all of these stories was extremely inspiring.
While interest in sustainability issues in Asia might be a slow process, it seems likely that the tide is shifting. The room was packed with everyone from gallery owners to product designers and bankers; over 200 people attended on the evening. With enthusiasm we look forward to upcoming events.
Chris Tobias is Celsias Editor-At-Large and Lead Strategist at Forward.