Originally published in 1973, CHARAS: The Improbable Dome Builders by Syeus Mottel, about six ex-gang members who constructed a geodesic dome on the Lower East Side of Manhattan after a meeting with Buckminster Fuller, has been reissued by The Song Cave and Pioneer Works Press.
The reissue includes a present-day interview with Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, founder of The Lab, reflecting on his work with the project. You can view the chapter about Dr. Ben-Eli from the original publication, here.
Following an exhibition of Mottel’s photos from the project at Situations in New York City, the book was released at an event at Pioneer Works in early December. To commemorate the event, a conversation took place between CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia and Dr. Ben-Eli, moderated by the architect and professor Nandini Bagchee.
Dr. Ben-Eli (left) and Roy Battiste (right) constructing the dome
The following is an excerpt from the new interview with Ben Estes:
Michael: It was kind of an unusual, spontaneous effort of the counter-culture at the time to organize within the city. I think that a similar need exists even now. There is so much controversy, on the west side, in Chelsea, for example, where developers are putting pressure on a community that was fairly quiet and stable for a long time, where working class people had lived for ages and now that land values have skyrocketed and developers are forcing people out, citizen groups are forming and organizing themselves. I think that CHARAS was an early version of this kind of local communities getting together.
Ben: You mean you see this as a modern-day version of the utopic, counter-culture ideas that you were speaking about earlier?
Michael: It doesn’t need to be regarded as utopian, it’s a very practical matter. You have to live in a place, and you have to try to create conditions for a better life. And as I see it, CHARAS was successful in doing that–by creating their community center, all of the public programming, the activities for kids–really carving out a place for themselves within their urban context and trying to make it a better place.
Ben: But in some ways that is utopic, isn’t it?
Michael: The reason that I’m trying to get away from that term is because “utopia” indicates a dream, or something unreal–and I’m saying that there are practical day-to-day issues that don’t need a brand-new reality in order to be addressed. So, to the extent that individuals and groups take the initiative themselves, and don’t wait for the government, and don’t wait for others to do it for them, they can bring about effective, positive change. Individuals and groups can take the initiative and seek out what is needed to better one’s own life, and that’s what members of CHARAS were doing. It’s actually a very practical issue.
You can buy the book here.
Netafim was inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame at the organization’s 7th Annual Conference and Induction Ceremony in Clovis, CA. Dr. Michael Ben-Eli presented the award, which honored Netafim’s pioneering work in drip irrigation.
Naty Barak (left), Chief Sustainability Officer at Netafim, onstage with Michael Ben-Eli
Netafim is a friend of The Lab, and designed Project Wadi Attir’s custom drip-irrigation system.
Naty Barak and Michael Ben-Eli
Dr. Michael Ben-Eli is a previous inductee to the International Green Industry Hall of Fame, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Here he is below, giving a short synopsis on The Lab’s definition of sustainability, and why the prevailing definition is inadequate, at this year’s conference:
We are pleased and honored to announce that Dr. Fred Moavenzadeh of MIT has joined The Lab’s Advisory Board.
Widely recognized for his innovative role in building global institutions and developing new models of teaching and research through international initiatives in education, science and technology, Dr. Moavenzadeh has a long and distinguished career at MIT. He has served as the director of the Technology and Development Program, and the Center for Technology Policy and Industrial Development. Until recently, Dr. Moavenzadeh served as the President of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, supporting the Institute’s mandate of transforming the United Arab Emirates into a leading source of sustainable and advanced technologies, educating the human capital.
To learn more about Dr. Moavenzadeh, please visit the Advisory Board section of our website.
The Sustainability Laboratory is proud to announce the addition of Manuela Roosevelt and Peter Dean to its board. Both Manuela and Peter are longtime friends of The Lab and former members of The Lab’s Advisory Board.
Manuela Roosevelt, co-founder at Springwood Media, commented: “I’m deeply honored to serve on the Board of The Sustainability Laboratory and to join Michael Ben-Eli and my fellow board members as The Lab takes its next wonderful steps to global reach. I’m very excited to be able to contribute in small part to a big vision of rightful heritage of integrated sustainable livelihood and environment. I cannot think of any project in sustainability that delivers on its promise so tangibly and so magnificently.”
Peter Dean, Senior Teacher/Critic at RISD, said: “It gives me great hope and joy to be working with an organization devoted to actual projects that are exemplary of a truly sustainable model. There actually is a right way to be sustainable, and The Sustainability Laboratory is showing the way. I feel proud and privileged to join the board of this organization, and profoundly excited for what is to come!”
Joshua Arnow is leaving our board, but remains a committed friend of The Lab.
The Lab is also very please to announce the addition of Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, Mayor of Hura and longtime partner to Dr. Ben-Eli in the development of Project Wadi Attir, to its Advisory Board.
Dr. Mohammed Alnabari (left) with Dr. Michael Ben-Eli at Project Wadi Attir
To learn more about The Lab’s new board members, please see their bios on our Who We Are page.
In October 2015, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli was invited to present Bren Smith of Greenwave with the 2015 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Prize. The non-profit has designed the world’s first multi-species 3D ocean farms, aiming to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers.
“GreenWave exemplifies beautifully Fuller’s inspirational call for individuals and groups to take the initiative, identify a critical issue, and tackle it independently, creatively, responsibly, and in a comprehensive manner,” said Dr. Ben-Eli at the award ceremony.
Last week, we had a chance to visit the underwater farm with Bren, and team member Asa Dickerson, on a wonderful morning at sea just off the coast of Branford, Connecticut.
We watched as they pulled lines of long, beautiful kelp–cheap and easy to farm, with a negative carbon footprint due to its ability to sequester carbon–out of the ocean. Greenwave believes that every ocean ecosystem around the world has an abundance of sea vegetables waiting to be discovered, farmed and harvested, to feed the world and turn fishermen into ocean farmers, while protecting the seas and mitigating climate change.
In addition to the kelp, we tasted oysters and wild clams fresh out of the water. Wow!
The farms also act as natural reef systems, and are now teeming with life–a fact we saw firsthand when they pulled the oyster cages from the water and found crab and starfish hanging on their edges.
These “reefs” will also protect coastal communities from violent storms, enhancing resilience to climate-related weather events.
Greenwave is a project that embodies not just Buckminster Fuller’s legacy, but also The Lab’s Sustainability Principles. We look forward to hearing more about how the project develops. For more information about Greenwave, click here.
We are pleased to announce that The Lab has recently become a civil service organization (CSO) with official accreditation and “observer status” from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
From the UNCCD’s web post on civil society stakeholders:
“All through the United Nations system, an increasingly global civil society participates in proactive and engaged ways to the work of UN offices, programmes and agencies, making the UN both a counterpart and a witness to its contribution. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations (CSOs) are more and more UN system partners and constitute a valuable link for the UN to civil society and ‘people out there.’
CSOs play a key role at major United Nations conferences, they are indispensable partners for UN efforts at the country level, and they are consulted on UN policy and program matters. UNCCD promotes the active involvement of CSOs in the implementation of the Convention at all levels, and representatives from CSOs that are accredited to the UNCCD Conference of the Parties (COP) may directly participate in its sessions.
The UNCCD secretariat provides accredited CSOs with services aimed at enhancing their involvement in the intergovernmental process. Regular interaction with and feedback from the CSOs are essential to ensure that such services are effective and timely.“
Representatives from The Lab and its flagship project, Project Wadi Attir, recently attended the UNNCD COP12 Convention in Ankara, where they debuted the project’s Dryland Ecosystem Restoration Website, with the support of the conference.
Recently, Michael Ben-Eli, founder of The Lab, sat down for an interview with Michael Wayne, Founder of The Center for Quantum Revolution. In addition to his private practice as a practitioner of Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine, and Integrative Medicine, Wayne is also the author of several books, including Quantum-Integral Medicine: Towards a New Science of Healing and Human Potential, and The Low Density Lifestyle.
Over the course of an hour, Dr. Ben-Eli charts his course through life–his life-changing encounter with Buckminster Fuller, his eventual study of Cybernetics and Systems Dynamics, his attraction to and disillusionment with large multinationals like the UN and the World Bank, and ultimately, his vision for his work with The Sustainability Laboratory.
Don’t have a full hour?
Here’s a guide to the interview:
00:00 – 8:00: Early life, meeting with Buckminster Fuller.
“That’s the thing about life: you can never plan the really important things.”
8:00 – 19:30: Michael’s education in Cybernetics, System Dynamics, Managing Complexity, and the Theory of Evolution.
“It was like forming my own university, if you like, keeping my education in the way that I thought was most powerful. It always had to strike the right balance between conceptual development and actually experimenting with concepts in real projects.”
19:30 – 27:00: The problem with multinationals, the importance of experimentation, and the meaning of “second-order change.”
“These are not political issues. You cannot solve them by being a Democrat or a Republican…This is a design problem. You have to understand the science and the way systems work, and apply it in a way that makes sense.”
27:00 – 34:45: The concept and mission of The Sustainability Laboratory.
34:45 – 47:30: Project Wadi Attir
47:30 – 57:00: The Lab, moving forward
57:00 – 1:02:00: Parting message
As we welcome 2015, we’d love to share with you some of the highlights of the last half of 2014. It was a busy, but rewarding year!
Ray Day – October 5th, 2014, Serenbe Farms, Georgia
Michael and Arielle traveled to Georgia to honor the legacy of the late Ray Anderson, a leader in sustainability thinking who went beyond flimsy ideas of “corporate responsibility,” putting sustainability at the center of his business model. “What is the business case for ending life on earth?” he once said. (You can hear more from Ray Anderson in Michael’s 2005 short documentary CEOs on Sustainability.)
As we approached the fairgrounds, more of Ray’s words of wisdom lined our path:
Here’s our booth, where we spent the day meeting other sustainability leaders and discussing The Lab’s projects:
We also had a chance to catch up with our friends from EARTH. Here we are posing with a T-shirt from their recent campaign about compost and responsible management of solid wastes, “See what doo-doo can do!”
It was a wonderful day in Chattahoochee Hills, as The Lab caught up with some old friends and met new ones! Click here for another account of the day in Georgia Trend.
The Pierre Rabhi Endowment Fund – October 16th, 2014, Paris, France
Michael visited with Pierre Rabhi in Paris to discuss Project Wadi Attir, and the possibility of partnering with the Fund’s efforts in Morroco to further advance knowledge of desert sustainability. The Pierre Rabhi Endowment Fund aims to “contribute towards the promotion, development and introduction of agroecology by setting up ecological, educational and inter-generational communities, mainly in semi-arid regions.”
Rabhi says, “The action we are taking is not to ‘patch up’ our model of society, which is quite evidently inappropriate to man and nature, but to change it radically. The time has come to adjust politics to the realities of the modern world.”
The Deserts, Drylands and Desertification Conference – November 18th, 2014, Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Michael returned to Israel for the annual Deserts, Drylands and Desertification Conferece. He lectured on sustainability innovations at Project Wadi Attir as part of their “Rethinking Agricultural Technologies” series.
Michael with Uriel Safriel, Professor of Ecology at Hebrew University, and the Director of the Dryland Sustainability Initiative.
The following day, Professor Stefan Leu led a tour on the Project Wadi Attir site that highlighted the ecosystem restoration efforts taking place there. The central topic for the visit was the soil enhancement and water retention program.
On the final day of the conference, founding members of the Amutah, as well as members of the project’s Design Team participated in a panel which imparted the significance of the project to the Bedouin Community while offering an overview of the project’s integrated infrastructure of green technologies and its “waste into resources” approach.
Read the conference’s Concluding Statement here.
That’s a wrap! Looking forward to what 2015 has in store!
In preparing to blog about our visit to Ray Day outside of Atlanta, GA, an event that brought together a number of leading environmental organizations to honor the legacy of entrepreneur and environmentalist Ray Anderson, we revisited this 2005 documentary, CEOs on Sustainability, based on interviews with Lab founder, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli.
While there are some disappointing moments in the film—the CEO of BP insisting on the primacy of hydrocarbons at the expense of renewable energies, while defining the “long-term” future as 50-100 years—the majority of the film contains an affirmation of ecologically sustainable business practices as good common sense.
Ray Anderson particularly is full of standout, inspirational nuggets:
“The economy grows and the environment shrinks. How long can this go on? The driving force for unsustainability, in my view, is a system of economics that allows the externalization of cost, a system focused only on exchange value without regard for use value, and with no value whatsoever on nature.”
“I believe the power is with the people. I believe the people have to lead. It is the people who are the marketplace. It’s the people who are the voters. Government has a role. It has taxing power and it would be possible for government to redress the externalities and internalize the externalities through an enlightened taxation policy. Whether business leads or follows, it has to be part of the solution. Otherwise, it can drag the whole outfit down.”
As you may have noticed, The Lab’s website has gone through an incredible metamorphosis, thanks to the efforts of our Lab staff and our designers, Ashley Quinn and Andy Gillette of We Less Than Three.
The Lab Team and We Less Than Three, at work
We’re confident that this new iteration tells The Lab’s story in a clearer, more dynamic and more user-friendly fashion. Take a look around, and if you feel so inclined, tell us what you think.