Thursday, January 21, 2010

What's the big idea?

Solutions to the environmental, economic and social problems we face in the 21st century are as numerous as the people willing to face them. These solutions range from turning out the lights when to developing sustainable nuclear energy. But often our greatest attempts to be environmentally and socially conscious have little chance of making a physical difference. Even the most sacrificial attempts by a large group of people are counteracted by the consumptive behaviour of a few. It’s frustrating. If I’m going to put alot of time, money and energy into trying to make a difference in the world I want to actually make a difference.

Not to say that these efforts are entirely frivolous. The difference they make comes in the form of restructuring social mindsets, changing the way people think about where our food, clothing and electricity come from. This is an important shift, and I don’t want to undermine it. But we are currently facing the problem of depleting our sources of fossil fuels within my lifetime and an increasing global population that can not be supported by the earth if we continue with ‘business as normal’. We need solutions that will not just change the way we think, but solutions that will revolutionize what we eat, how we conduct business and how the majority of people in the world receive their income.

We need big ideas. This week we were at Samboja Lestari, a project which is the brain child of Wilie Smits. Wilie is a solver of large problems and we were privileged enough to spend a day and a half with him listening to lectures about some of his big ideas.

Wilie’s idea was to replant the rainforest on a desolate grassland. With a forestry degree in hand Wilie set about turning degraded land into beautiful, healthy forest within 5 years. Not only did his project create a new forest habitat for animals, among other benefits it also meant that the wells of the community now held water during the dry season, it provided jobs for hundreds of people who were previously either unemployed or relied on jobs in the coal mining industry, which causes environmental and health problems. Although the project is currently facing problems with funding, upkeep and leadership, the fact remains that someone saw a problem, came up with a solution and implemented it. Within a very short period of time he was able to change an entire region of the world.

Some of Wilies ideas are quite controversial. They seem entirely unrealistic from a logistics standpoint. But I would argue that more than anything right now, at this critical time in history, we need people who are big thinkers. We need people who have the capacity to come up with solutions that solve problems on numerous levels. The next project Wilie is working on is the use of sugar palms as the next biodiesel. The idea is that sugar palms can provide a viable income for numerous farmers, do not deplete the soil of nutrients and can’t be turned into monoculture crops because they only survive in mixed forests. Not to mention that palm sugar would solve many of the obesity problems in the world because it is not a refined sugar and is actually good for your body.

It was refreshing to listen to someone who is untethered by the details of reality and simply putting his brilliance towards developing solutions that seem more intuitive than the way we are currently doing things. The world needs more big ideas.

To learn more about the creation of Samboja Lestarie check out

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