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Nature Knows No Borders: Pioneers in Sustainable Innovation & Peacebuilding

CCA LiveE | Wednesday December 7th, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Six of the 70 Global Sustainability Fellows at the 2011 Empowering Sustainability on Earth conference. From the right: Giuseppe Rotolo, Italy; Gonen Sagy, Israel; Debjeet Sarangi, India; Cindy Chen, China; Solange Teles da Silva & Milena Rodrigues Boniolo, Mexico.

by Ben Rosenthal

“For an intense week we listened and discussed perspectives on the difficult global context for sustainability,” said Gonen Sagy. Gonen participated in “Empowering Sustainability on Earth,” a conference hosted by the University of California–Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, where he represented Israel, among 70 Global Sustainability Fellows from 20 countries.

Some fellows were invited to present case studies of sustainability challenges in their countries. “We learned a positive lesson based on vision, accomplishments, and unmet challenges of coastal protection in Mexico, Costa Rica, and California,” Gonen said.

For his presentation, Gonen introduced the Youth Environmental Education Peace Initiative (YEEPI), whose goal is to reduce tension and conflict between Jewish and Arab Israelis and advance solutions to common environmental issues.

Gonen is an alumnus of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the premier environmental education and research program in the Middle East, out of which YEEPI was born. The Institute is preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges as bridges of understanding between people.

According to the Institute, “the environment is a tool to stimulate, teach, and maintain effective cross-cultural communication and reconciliation. YEEPI is not wholly focused on talking about peace; rather it seeks to produce peace through cooperative efforts toward sustainability in personal and natural environments.”

“A key element in materializing sustainability in Israel is peaceful activities that allow cooperative work toward environmental protection,” said Gonen. His focus on collaboration in the region will soon earn him a PhD.

“We did our best to understand and reflect on unanswered transcendent questions about sustainability,” Gonen said, again of his conference experience.

I could say the same about the semester I studied at the Arava Institute almost 10 years ago. Learning about how the Middle East manages water, an intense subject in the region, my classmates and I tried to make sense of uneven distribution, especially between Israel and Jordan.

We studied the biology of lakes and rivers, visited wastewater treatment plants of both chemical and natural models, and role-played possible balanced approaches to better understand the politics and regulations around this issue.

The Institute, located at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev region of Israel, has a student body comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and others from around the world, and a curriculum based on “nature knows no borders.” Arava generates capacity-building for conciliation and cooperation in the Middle East, in order to transcend political boundaries and achieve environmental change.

Throughout the semester, we had opportunities to dialog about our perspectives on each other’s personal experiences and on building peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. We also put our issues aside and played a lot of football (soccer).

Most special to me during my semester at the Institute was my time with Bryan Medwed, resident energy expert at Kibbutz Samar, down the road from Ketura, who mentored me while I completed an independent study of renewable energy in Israel.

Bryan Medwed was a tireless advocate for the promotion of renewable energy in the Arava region.

Bryan, a musician by training, idolized R. Buckminster Fuller and his work in synergetics, talked about the benefits of elephant grass which Bryan used to model a new solar collector, and shared with me his visions for renewable energy in the Negev, a prime spot for solar, wind, and biomass energy development.

Bryan showed me new designs for collecting solar energy through concentrated reflection at the National Solar Energy Center in Sde Boker, where he worked as a technician and researcher. He encouraged me to think creatively, telling me about generating energy from the waste date palm fronds that kibbutzniks would usually just leave on the ground as tractor-padding.

Bryan also designed innovative sustainable energy systems for remote desert communities. In one Bedouin village, denied access to electricity by the Israeli government, he created a solar/wind-powered refrigeration system that gave a young diabetic boy access to daily doses of fresh insulin. Echoing our shared perspective of life on Earth, Bryan once said:

Here we are, in a powerful, beautiful, and mysterious place. We want to live and love, to eat and work, to observe and speak, to strive and rest, to generate and then to die. Evolving through it, forward as evolution can only go, moving from the curse of our self-awareness to greater blessings therein. It is the maturity to which reckless youth may grow in time. At this moment, in this microcosm, an evolutionary step may be taken.

Although Bryan left the world prematurely, after presenting his solar collector design in June 2002, his wisdom lives on. In 2011, the Arava Power Company received the Bryan Medwed Award for Contribution to Renewable Energy when it broke ground at Kibbutz Ketura on Israel’s first utility-scale solar field, 18 years after Bryan pioneered solar energy generation at Kibbutz Samar.

During one of my visits with Bryan, he explained to me some of the hidden politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years, particularly how intelligently and speedily Yitzhak Rabin led a working road to peace. Then he spelled out some hopes for the future of the situation. I was impressed by Bryan’s attention to every detail that might affect this scenario and offered to help him publish it online.

He accepted, saying, “…as long as it is anonymous, titled ‘What I Hope Never Happens!'” We chuckled over that and enjoyed the moment. Since Bryan’s death, I have dreamed about and strive to emulate his lifestyle practices and worldview.

Ben Rosenthal is a bicyclist and Mac guru and has been active in the Jewish environmental community for over 20 years. Efficiency and common sense are two of the key values that provide flow in his lifestyle. Find Ben on Twitter @jamcycler or on his Xtracycle.


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  • Mirele

    What a beautiful and inspiring message. Thank you for sharing it.