The sun was bright on a clear day across San Francisco for “Turning the Tide,” a global environment conference last Friday. Hosted at picturesque Fort Baker, the Institute at the Golden Gate brought representatives from the corporate, nonprofit, and entrepreneurial start-up worlds together to discuss and share their opinions about some of today’s most pressing environmental issues and most promising innovations.

The day opened with an acoustic song by Adam Gardner, guitarist and lead singer for Guster. The mellow tunes put everyone at ease before a presentation by professional marathon swimmer and Guinness record holder, Martin Strel. He told stories about swimming the infamous Amazon River in Brazil, the Yangtze in China, and the great Mississippi River in the United States. He swam to raise awareness around not only how precious our water supply is, but also to draw attention to how polluted and mistreated these resources can become without attentive care.

Panelists from IBM, Google, Stanford University, and Fortune Magazine shared insights and engaged with the audience over issues of sustainable disaster relief strategies, adaption and evolution of enviro-media, and innovations in energy. A favorite on the agenda was a water purifier put on display by Yobie Benjamin of Emicus, a community powered emergency information network. The machine used reverse osmosis and could produce clean water for hundreds of people using only a 3 by 5 foot flexible mat of solar cells for power.

Cameron Sinclair, CEO of Architects for Humanity, also shared stories about exciting and at times frustrating community rebuilding efforts. Sinclair spoke passionately about strategies for reconstruction in Haiti centered on empowering local people through hands-on education and industrial training as a way to achieve long-term sustainable solutions. In a funny anecdote, Sinclair recalled a guerilla marketing strategy used to get informational videos to the general population. Training videos were leaked for free to bootleg film merchants who then sold them on the street corners for a dollar! It worked and soon the instructional videos were being distributed all over.

Highlights for the day were presentations by Google Earth creator, Rebecca Moore, and Mary Crowley, founder of Project Kaisei. Moore spoke for our rainforests and about the need to engage and re-value the roles that Indigenous populations are playing in the fight to preserve such beautiful and unexplored resources. Crowley spoke on behalf of our oceans and educated the audience with footage and narrations from her last sailing voyage to the great Pacific Garbage patch. The Garbage patch is an area of ocean, close to the size of the state of Texas, so polluted that every time a net is cast into the water, it pulls up human trash. She shared possible solutions and even invited the audience to brainstorm with her. 

It was an inspiring day and a valuable perception-widening experience. I hadn’t really thought about how environmentally disruptive, despite the good intentions, sending a quarter million plastic water bottles to Haiti could be. Without considering the repercussions for communities with no means of recycling, the aid sent down has now become plastic pollution all over the Port Au Prince. The take-away for the day was that despite how big the environmental problems we face today seem, there are roles for each of us to play, from entrepreneurs, to scientists, educators, and volunteers, that can, when carried out collectively, create the large-scale impact that we seek.

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