Solipsism is the belief in the idea that my self and my mind is the only thing that I can be certain of. If this is something people struggle with, then a path to overcoming it would be found in the last two days of the Explorers Festival.
This past Saturday a main question was asked: How do we save ourselves from ourselves? This is the question that guided the daylong event. It was hosted by Stephanie Ruhle and Kenny Broad. Ruhle is an anchor at MSNBC and correspondent at NBC News. She was the first journalist to break the 2012 story of the “London Whale,” identifying the trader behind the JPMorgan Chase $2 billion trading loss. After she told us that story of how it happened she said: “Everyone can make an impact, everyone can do one thing to make an impact.” Broad is a National Geographic Explorer and environmental anthropologist who, as he said, has one feet in academia and one feet in exploration. Recently he was with explorer Corey Jaskolski in Petra, Jordan helping create digital copies of what is there with the newest technologies. This is what also allowed for the Tomb of Christ exhibition to exist and bring us VR and 3D experiences of the Holy Sepulchre to Washington, DC.
Hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Kenny Broad. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
A series of panels followed. The first one was titled: “What tipped the scale?” and was moderated by Andrew Revkin. Some of the ideas that came from this introspective look into what we have done to unbalance the scale included the shortcomings of academia, and an invitation for us to get out of our filter bubbles. Panelists included Victoria Herrmann, Emma Marris, Leland Melvin, and Iain Stewart. Melvin, an astronaut, said that the planet isn’t fragile, we are. That is why we need to work together as the human race to connect with each other in this pale blue dot we are fortunate enough to inhabit.
The second panel was titled: “What does balance look like?” which was moderated by Ian Urbina. Panelists included Mustafa Santiago Ali, Jonathan Baillie, Jess Cramp, and Natalie Jofler. Some of the ideas and questions that came from the panel were: How does human and wildlife conflict exist? Why don’t we often talk about it? What are the inter-generational climate effects? How do they affect our communities and their balance? A pointed question was also asked by an attendee: Is there a case in which balance is not what needs to be done? And the panelists, especially Ali, said that yes there are cases. Environmental injustices all across the nation and the world are not balanced, as they ignore some communities, and we have to sometimes flip things on their head. We need to recognize whose values we are defending or acquiring while deciding to tip the scale a certain way or another. And to include the values and human dignity of those communities would actually look more like balance. We need to celebrate human cleverness too, added Baillie, and have a sense of possibility to go towards that balance.
Lunch time. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
Then came lunch time. And from Grosvenor Auditorium we headed to the National Geographic cafeteria. This is where we – Explorers, panelists, and other attendees – all sat next to each other to not only enjoy our lunch, but to come up with solutions to these very problems we were immersed in earlier. We came up with some compromises and ideas. On my table, for example, we said that to save ourselves from ourselves we will: start with empathy, communicate a sense of urgency, while working hand-in-hand with the manufacturing and other businesses that can create solutions from the inside, and thus caring about ourselves and our planet.
A panel titled “How far can tech get us?” followed lunch. It was moderated by NPR’s Laura Sydell, and asked questions like: With our future hanging on this aforementioned balance, how should we harness technology? Should we focus our efforts on reversing what we have helped bring about, or is it more practical to use technology to help us adapt to the troubled environment in which we live? Of course, tech can get us as far as time, resources, and imagination can. But only if we use the tools we have created, and will continue to create, responsibly. Panelists included Cory Doctorow, David Gruber, Arthur Huang, and Jessica Trancik. Some of the ideas that were brought up included: How to go around risk homeostasis, the effects of the United States withdrawing from the COP 21, how we’ve created environmental problems with technology that was supposed to solve another previous environmental or economic problems, how convenience might not be always the way to go, and finally how we need to understand the limits of growth.
“How Far Can Tech Get Us?” Photograph by Taylor Mickal
The last panel of the day was aptly titled “Ignite Change” and was moderated by Susan Goldberg. Panelists included Vicki Arroyo, Heather Koldewey, Lyndon Rive, and Dekila Chungyalpa. Chungyalpa said that we need to reach people where they’re at. If they’re religious they will listen to a religious leader more often than not. If they love Instagram posts with a stunning picture, reach them there. And give them alternatives and options. A question from an attendee was: What can people do? The answers from the panel included things like thinking about how to engage locally, to stop being isolated from one another, and find and build communities that care about each other and what is in their world from within. It concluded with an invitation to believe in ourselves and in each other’s capacities to effect change.
Then, on Sunday, we engaged and witnessed the inspiring work of explorers in the field with the second annual FURTHER Film Festival. It showcased the work of explorers such as Jane Goodall, Topher White in the Brazilian amazon, Asha Stuart photographing and filming the gypsy communities of Rajasthan crossing the Thar dessert, the Symphony of Our World, some upcoming Costa Rican footage from Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade, a film titled “Person of the Forest” showing us the similarities and dangers orangutans face in the wild, the first installment in the collaboration of Clare Fieseler and Gabby Salazar showcasing the diversity of women in science and the issues they face with their short-film “Outnumbered in Africa,” as well as many others.
Clare Fieseler and Gabby Salazar present “Outnumbered in Africa” with Greg McGruder. Photograph by Rolf Sjogren
As a matter of closure for this year’s festival I wanted to offer a reflection. This week-long festival should leave us hopeful. Inspired to know that we can effect change responsibly. Because when you have responsibility for someone else, it changes the dynamic. It changes the way we perceive others and the world. Solipsism might make us forget about others, but powerful and emotional storytelling can help connect with those that don’t know much about something and get them feeling part of this world too. What are we doing to tell these stories and how can we change those things we care about? These two are very important questions to help solve the problems of today and tomorrow. And I think that the importance of a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach that bridges ethics with science and technology, literature with innovation and communication, cannot be stressed enough. Recognizing the silos, identities, and tribes we inhabit, and then rising above our natures is also necessary. This, in order to cure the only-we-do-something-about-our-world mentality as it happens. When we get from solipsism to recognizing our interdependency and interconnectedness with the world we inhabit, and seeing it is also our world, we shall know and effect balance.
If yesterday was a day in which we focused on the connections and the connective tissue that we share by being part of this planet and thanks to our work at National Geographic, then today is the day that we identify some of the catalysts, some of the sparks, that will be ignited.
On the Explorers Symposium’s second day, National Geographic Explorers, educators, and staff members took to the stage at Grosvenor Auditorium for a series of panel sessions, updates from the field, as well as lightning-round talks to further our shared mission of reaching a planet in balance.
And to further that goal, the morning started with a surprise announcement. Women around the world will be benefitting from the bridge that the Lyda Hill Foundation is providing for their explorations to become a reality. They pledged a 1 million dollar grant in order to support women in exploration around the world.
Following is a synoptic view of the day:
At first we heard from Beverly and Dereck Joubert who are National Explorers-at-Large and co-founders of the Big Cats Initiative, in a short update from the field. Emma Carrasco, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer and Executive Vice President for Global Strategy for the National Geographic Society, led a conversation in which not only did the Jouberts tell us the importance of their work, but also updated us on the buffalo charge that they both survived last year. Even after a near-death experience their work hasn’t stopped, providing an example of resilience and courage amidst the difficulties they faced.
Beverly and Dereck Joubert in conversation with Emma Carrasco. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
We then had a session in which Joel Sartore showed us that we need to reach people where they are at and that by playing to the ego and to what gets people’s attention will result in them caring for something that they didn’t care for before like an animal from his Photo Ark. He also became a panelist in company of the inaugural Photo Ark EDGE Fellows, and those are: Jamal Galves, Marina Rivero Hernández, Vinicius Alberici Roberto, Daniel Arauz, and Yajaira García Feria. They all shared with moderator Gael Almeida why it is that every animal deserves a story. Among the great lessons was the fact that these fellows saw a need and they decided to fill it and solve it. Galves also told us the story of a baby manatee he saved and named Lucky and how although an animal can’t speak, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to say.
Photo Ark EDGE Fellows. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
We later heard from a panel moderated by Catherine Workman that told us about the secret lives of animals. Shane Gero then shared how important the vocal and matrilineal cultures, dialects and identities formed by sperm whales in Dominica are vital. He also shared his view on how we need to include the cultural diversity of species into our concept of biodiversity. Some other stories about animal’s secret lives came from Jacinta C. Beehner, Thomas Peschak, and Mimi Kessler.
Afterwards we had an update from the field by Brian Skerry where he showed us a photo he took of President Obama while snorkeling, and how Sylvia Earle told him she was blue with envy about the opportunity. After all, this photo would inspire and ignite change by seeing a sitting President of the United States enjoying the places he was about to protect. Skerry also wrote a poem about the cousin of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, which he named the Azorax, who lives in the seas, and hopes that we can all protect them, please! He brought tears to more than one.
A panel exploring cutting-edge solutions followed. Technology has and continues to change the way we explore our planet, said explorer Albert Lin who also moderated the panel. He also said that technology is just a byproduct of human imagination. Just think of the beginning of our use of telephones and lightbulbs a century ago and how they created possibilities that didn’t exist before. On the panel we also had Martin Wikelski who spoke about his project on the “Internet of Animals” which uses the internet of things via satellite as a valuable tool for understanding different species. We also heard from Topher White and Peg Keiner, who appropriately expressed that everyone can connect emotionally with a journey, with a story.
A panel on Cutting-Edge Solutions. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
Making the case for nature was the topic of the next panel moderated by Andy Revkin, and in it we heard from Steve Ramirez, Julia Lee, Emma Marris, and David Doubilet. The main question we explored was: How do we communicate nature effectively and make people empathize in order to act? Neuroscience, photography, and journalism, all were highlighted.
Revkin then delighted us with a song titled “Liberated Carbon” for the closing performance of the symposium.
Andy Revkin performing “Liberated Carbon.” Photograph by Taylor Mickal
Later that night after the symposium wrapped up, we went out to the courtyard in order to enjoy each other’s company in what was deemed the Party for the Planet. And indeed, it was. It included cocktails, sustainable food, as well as different stations where you could take the plastic pledge to significantly reduce the amount of plastic we put out into the world. Which reminds me of another feature of the night: there was no single-use plastic! This means that we continue leading by example. We also had a performance by The Suffers that included jazz, cumbias, and some ska to get us all dancing even more.
Not only would you see fellow Explorers and National Geographic staff members interacting with one another, and maybe imagining the next project that would start from these conversations, but the ignition happened as well with sharing one of the common denominators of our social and human experiment: dancing. And as Uruguayan Jorge Drexler reminds us: humans have been dancing since cavemen. And we haven’t stopped since. As I said before, this movement, this dance, is essentially human. “Dancing as a belief/as heritage/as a game.”
And if this humanity we share helps us realize an emotional connection with nature through a character such as an animal, that might have a secret life but still deserves a story, then with technology and innovation these shared characteristics can become a spark. Let’s continue drinking from the inspirational firehose, and ignite change.
We are always part of interrelated processes of momentary events. That is what one of my mentors in college used to explain to us, his students, during the Buddhist Philosophy course. He was teaching us about the interconnectivity of it all, according to a buddhist system of thought called abhidharma. Nothing is independent. Everything is interdependent.
And this interconnectedness, as well as human ingenuity – as expressed by Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President, Science and Exploration, Jonathan Baillie – was evident on the first day of the Explorers Symposium, where 30 National Geographic Explorers, educators, and staff members took to the stage at Grosvenor Auditorium for a series of panel sessions, updates from the field, as well as lightning-round talks to further our shared mission of reaching a planet in balance. Some ideas that were shared and that inspired us yesterday included:
Jonathan Baillie, BoB BALLARD, KAKANI KATIJA, Corey Jaskolski, Steven Brumby, and AVITA GUPTA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
Misconceptions and a healthy skepticism permeated at a panel session where Lee Berger shared that we should be humble by understanding that, “the more we find, the more we don’t know,” and where Kim Young also argued that in our interconnected world of telecommunications there might also be an intergenerational shift happening from “Who am I?” to “Who are we?” The panel also included contributions on identity from Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Evgenia Arbugaeva, and which was moderated by Jamie Shreeve.
We got updates from the field from three different explorers. We furthered our understanding, and our shared humanity was highlighted, with an update from the field from Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk. Emmanuel Merode shared with us what is going on from the front lines of conservation over at Virunga National Park in Congo, and the courageous resilience that is necessary to work there every day. And we also heard from Steve Boyes about his #Cuando18 expedition to protect the Okavango River Basin and Delta with the Okavango Wilderness Project team.
We saw work in progress from a few explorers like Stephen Humphreys with the rehabilitation of veterans through archaeology and exploration, as well as Tatjana Rosen and her critical work in saving one of the most introverted felines, snow leopards.
Janni Benavides from my home country of Colombia delighted us with a song for the closing performance of the symposium. It is an ode to the creeks, rivers, and other parts of the ecosystems around the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.
Pablo García Borboroglu and LÉONIDAS NZIGIYIMPA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal
But I not only found meaning and inspiration in the great events of Explorers Symposium and the National Geographic Awards. In the past couple of days I found synchronicity and serendipity as well in the little things, in the details of what appeared to be mundane. While going back to work I ran into Explorer-in-Residence, Enric Sala in an elevator ride where we spoke enthusiastically about soccer and the World Cup that started yesterday; I saw Ronan Donovan and Stephen Wilkes getting coffee near the headquarters, and recognized the meeting of two of the world’s best photographers; while walking to the National Geographic cafeteria I saw explorers Asha de Vos, Sylvia Earle, and – as of last night, Buffett Award winner – Pablo García Borboroglu, smiling at a camera in the courtyard while someone snapped a photograph of the smiles of three of the most dedicated defenders of the world’s marine wildlife.
This all reminds me of the connections we have with one another. It reminds me of how simple and yet how hard it is sometimes to reach out and join one another for a higher purpose.
I ask, as a matter of conclusion: What if changing the world started with chance encounters of the world’s leading change-makers by highlighting our connective tissue?
I’m glad to be able to witness these connections from yesterday’s symposium, and I can’t wait to watch what other connections are made later today in this world renowned forum of the minds. (Don’t forget you can stream today’s symposium live, here).