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 at 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? When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was only four years old, he co-authored a paper on the toxic chemicals affecting life in the Chesapeake Bay.
Somewhat of a Renaissance man, Nies is accomplished in environmental science, chemistry, marine biology, geophysics, carpentry, caning, and music—he studied with Eddie Dimond, the legendary jazz pianist who performed at the Blue Bayou in Georgetown. Nies is widely read in literature, poetry, and philosophy, and composes his own music. Born in northern Virginia, John Dirk Nies III was raised by two government-associated attorneys in wooded, planned communities near the Potomac River, which instilled in him an early connection with Mother Nature. “It was kind of a Huckleberry Finn life,” he reminisced. “We could bike along the canal to Great Falls to fish off the 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 early 70s, he proposed through three successive levels of management that they research what chemical compounds workers were being exposed to and their effects—only to be turned down at each stage. This raised his awareness of the complete disconnect between the corporation and how it 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 believed. Leaving the corporate world behind, he opened a lab to help industry, especially high tech, analyze the effects of their products on air, water, and soil. He worked as a contractor for EPA for over 20 years and helped to establish the Office of Pollution Prevention, which spearheaded the Green Chemistry movement. Later, 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 reviewed here.
Throughout his life and career, 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 the book. “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, aesthetics, and ethics—into one unified paradigm for problem solving.
“I fashioned Floriescence to counterbalance strong technological, cultural, and ecological forces that often are pulling us apart at the seams, threatening our health and well-being …. Our ecological footprint has grown too great to continue the status quo on a massive scale.”
In 2014, Dirk and his wife, Carmen Morales Nies, founded the nonprofit Floriescence Institute at their Sweet Blue Farm in White Hall, with Dirk as the executive director and Carmen as the education and outreach coordinator. The Institute offers lectures, workshops, seminars, and retreats to discuss how to tackle the global challenges we face using what they call the Floriescence Paradigm. Since then, the Nieses have been hard at work writing a primer to introduce the ideas and concepts underlying it. Floriescence: Foundations for Human Flourishing on a Thriving Planet was published in May with the assistance of the McLain Printing Co. in West Virginia. “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.” The book’s sub-sub-title is A Visionary Synthesis of Science, Ethics, and Aesthetics Crafted to Promote Well-Being in the 21st Century.
Dirk first met Carmen Morales, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to an Air Force linguist who provided military intelligence for the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day, in high school. But he re-connected with her at a neighborhood Fourth of July block party in 1972 and married her two years later. Having lived for many years in South America—including eight years in Peru—with a father who spoke German at home, 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,” or traditional Puerto Rican folk music and art. “Their art is communal, weaving communities together,” she explained. “The music is tied to local culture and more connected to the community than the individualistic 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.
Floriescence is a carefully thought out, idealistic, and hopeful view of future possibilities, peppered throughout with real-world examples as well as relevant, inspiring quotations from great poets and philosophers such as Confucius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Longfellow. “Because changes are happening so fast, the need for clear, comprehensive, trustworthy, and humane discernment is urgent,” he declares. Nies 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. Universal ethical constants from three ancient cultures—Chinese, Greek, and Hebrew—are identified which, when combined with situational particulars, give rise to an individual’s moral obligations. Reverence for life is just one example of an ethical constant. 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.”
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, published earlier in this newspaper, apply the paradigm to various challenges currently faced by mankind—such as Artificial Intelligence, CRISPR, and the renewable energy debate—revealing and ranking the choices we have before us. In “Renewable Energy and Mass Extinction,” Nies argues that, unlike 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 21st century, 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.” 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 what it might look like in ideal form. “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.”
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 p.m. at the Crozet Library with “Building Community.” Future talks are planned for August 24 at Central Library, September 7 at Northside Library, and in October 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 is a warning, a call to action, as well as offering a radical solution to the challenges facing mankind. 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’.
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 have the opportunity to foster 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.”