Dirk Nies was concerned about the negative impacts of plastic on our environment long before the thought had even crossed most of our minds. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in Environmental Chemistry—before that field was cool—he was awarded a Gillette grant that supported him through a year of research with no strings attached. He chose to work with the National Bureau of Standards to research the effect of the plasticizer silicone on human and environmental health. He attempted to answer the question: when you make a new compound and put it in the environment, what happens? Not long after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, he co-authored a paper on the toxic chemicals affecting life in the Chesapeake Bay.
Throughout his life and career as a scientist, Nies was troubled by the specialization of disciplines and resulting fragmentation of effort in solving the world’s problems. “I was frustrated with the loss of civil conversation,” he said in explaining the germ of his new book,Floriescence: Foundations for Human Flourishing on a Thriving Planet. “I wanted to provide a way to frame complex problems. I looked to Nature as my primary guide, but also realized that Nature doesn’t provide us with a moral or ethical standard. In addition, I wanted to re-integrate Science and the Humanities.” Their son Ryan’s disability also gave Nies a new reverence for life beyond its economic utility. Developing this holistic approach over many years, Nies arrived at the concept of Floriescence, a worldview that synthesizes three foundational pillars—science, ethics, and aesthetics—into one unified paradigm for problem solving. “I fashioned Floriescence to counterbalance strong technological, cultural, and ecological forces that … are pulling us apart at the seams, threatening our health and well-being” (7).
Dirk and his wife, Carmen Morales Nies, founded the non-profit Floriescence Institute at their Sweet Blue Farm in White Hall in 2014, offering lectures, workshops, seminars, and retreats to discuss how to use the Floriescence Paradigm to tackle the global challenges we face. Dirk is the Executive Director and Carmen is the Education and Outreach Coordinator of the Institute. Since then, the Nieses have been working on writing a primer to introduce its ideas and concepts, and Floriescence: Foundations for Human Flourishing on a Thriving Planetwas published in May. “We needed a new word… to denote a creative synthesis of the scientifically verifiable, virtuous and ethical, aesthetic and harmonious…. No existing expression in our lexicon captures the breadth and scope of the Floriescence Paradigm,” Nies states in his Introduction. “’Flori’ connotes flourishing, flowering, creative beauty, yielding of good fruit,” while ‘escence’ denotes the integral importance that actions, processes, conditions, and relationships play in shaping and supporting our lives and livelihoods on Earth (6).” The book’s sub-sub-title is A Visionary Synthesis of Science, Ethics, and Aesthetics Crafted to Promote Well-Being in the 21stCentury.
Floriescenceis a deeply considered, comprehensive, and hopeful view of future possibilities that balances the idealistic with the practical and particular. It is enhanced throughout with real-world examples as well as relevant, inspiring quotations from great poets and philosophers such as Confucius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mary Oliver. “Because changes are happening so fast, the need for clear, comprehensive, trustworthy, and humane discernment is urgent,” Nies declares (3). He contrasts his paradigm with conventional patterns of thought including sustainability, “soulless” economic theory, utilitarian education, and partisan politics. The building blocks of Science—the first Pillar and cornerstone of the Floriescence paradigm—make life on Earth possible. But Science must be informed by virtue, as discussed in Ethics, the second Pillar. Drawing from the wisdom of three ancient cultures—Chinese, Greek, and Hebrew—Floriescence posits the existence of universal ethical constants which, when combined with situational particulars, give rise to moral obligations. In the absence of our full understanding of these constants, we rely on virtues such as reverence for life, gratitude, curiosity, and creativity. Aesthetics, the third Pillar, completes the Floriescence Paradigm with discussions of Natural, Cultural, and Personal aesthetics. We need art and beauty to be fully human. “Beauty lifts our spirits and comforts our souls, calling us to live with dignity and grace…. Beauty makes us long to be worthy of its call” (94). Together, these three pillars create a framework for decision-making.
The final chapter of the book defines and illustrates the Floriescent SEAview—a real-world application of the three pillars of Science, Ethics, and Aesthetics—to provide “a broad and trustworthy perspective from which to assess whether our actions promote or detract from human flourishing on a thriving planet.” Seven essays, first published in this newspaper, apply the paradigm to various challenges currently faced by mankind, revealing and ranking the choices we have before us on issues such as Artificial Intelligence, CRISPR, and the renewable energy debate. In “Renewable Energy and Mass Extinction,” for example, Nies argues that, contrary to the typical “renewable energy mantra, there is an upper limit to the amount of energy we can safely put to work manipulating the biosphere to meet our needs…. By the end of the 21stcentury, if global trends in energy use continue, the demise of as many as half of all species is assured…. The renewable energy paradigm leaves unaddressed this catastrophic loss to Earth’s natural history. It simply swaps one source of energy for another, permitting energy use to grow unabated” (11-12). Another of these essays, first published in 2014, proposes a downtown plaza for the “vacant, derelict” Barnes Lumber Property as a means of building community in Crozet, and describes how it might preserve and build on the ‘genius of the place.’ “We have a rare opportunity,” he writes, “… to create a downtown that is economically resilient, aesthetically attractive, and socially vibrant—a place that nourishes the soul” (129).
Somewhat of a Renaissance man, John Dirk Nies III is accomplished in environmental science, chemistry, marine biology, geophysics, carpentry, caning, and music—he studied with Eddie Dimond, the legendary jazz pianist who performed with his Foggy Bottom Six at the Bayou in Georgetown. Nies is widely read in literature, poetry, and philosophy, and composes his own music. Born in Northern Virginia, he was raised by two government-associated attorneys in wooded, planned communities near the Potomac River, which instilled in him an early connection with Nature. “It was kind of a Huckleberry Finn life,” he reminisced. “We could bike along the canal to Great Falls, or fish off the Little Falls dam. We built kayaks and took the pole ferry over to Sycamore Island.”
As supervisor of the environmental health department for a Fortune 500 company in the late 70s, he proposed through three successive levels of management that they research what toxic chemical compounds workers were being exposed to—only to be turned down at each stage. This raised his awareness of the complete disconnect between the corporation and how its products and processes impacted workers and the environment; the profit motive governed all decisions, without a trace of moral conscience. Nies decided early that this narrow view of “economy” needed to be broadened from what the accountants and engineers dictated. Leaving the corporate world behind, he supervised a consulting laboratory to help industry, especially high tech, analyze the effects of their products on air, water, and soil. He worked as an EPA contractor for more than 20 years, and helped to spearhead the Green Chemistry program within the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. As owner of Chemical Information Services Consulting, he began to think outside of both the academic and corporate boxes. You may have noticed his name as author of the “Science to Live By” column in this newspaper—seven of which form the basis of the SEAview applications included in the book.
Dirk first met Carmen Morales in high school, but they re-connected at a neighborhood Fourth of July block party in 1972 and married her two years later. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to a linguist who provided military intelligence for the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day and participated in the landing, Carmen lived for many years in South America—including eight years in Peru—with a father who spoke German at home, so she is multi-lingual and brings a multi-cultural perspective to the Floriescence project. From her home and family in Puerto Rico, she brought the idea of “jibara,” a colloquial term to describe the traditional Puerto Rican mountain customs, including food, music, and art. “Their art is communal, weaving communities together,” she explained. “Everything is tied to local culture and embodies a more rooted sensibility than the corporate American approach.” Her interest in nutrition and mental health, plus her career as a teacher and advocate for Hispanics navigating the Special Education system, prepared her for her role in the Floriescence Institute.
The Nieses will be offering Floriescent SEAview “Civil Conversations” on Saturday afternoons throughout the fall at area libraries. The series kicks off on July 27 at 2:30 pm at the Crozet Library with “Building Community.” Future talks are planned for August 24 at Central Library, September 7 at Northside Library, and October 5 at Gordon Ave. Library—on topics such as art in public spaces and powering our economy. The book may be found at New Dominion Bookstore on the downtown mall, or ordered online at www.floriescence.org.
Floriescence: Foundations for Human Flourishing on a Thriving Planetis a warning and a call to action, as well as offering a framework for cooperative, collective action to address the challenges facing mankind in the 21stcentury. It combines philosophy, history, and pragmatics into a hopeful vision for a prosperous future. “We are responsible for what we create, what we allow, what we do, and what we bequeath…. Mihi cura future”—which translates ‘the care of the future is mine’ (3). If we don’t change how we live, how we treat each other, and how we treat the planet, it cautions, we face an impoverished future. However, if we heed the important lessons of Floriescence, we will lay the groundwork for our future well-being. “Its precepts empower individuals, families, businesses, governments, civic organizations, and faith communities to flourish in ways that are just, beautiful, and in harmony with the ecological economy of the natural world” (5).