By Sara Granovetter (ICP '12) May 13, 2016
Listening to Josef Brinckmann speak about his passions-sustainability and wild botanicals-is like watching a spider weave an impossibly intricate yet expertly crafted web. As Vice President of Sustainability for the popular tea company Traditional Medicinals and an advisor to various government and U.N.-sponsored projects, he knows firsthand the numerous interlocking components that must be addressed for a sustainability initiative to succeed.
He speaks with measured ease as he tracks all of these components simultaneously: ecological, botanical, animal, social, economic, and political.
GENERATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE
Of the many webs he weaves, Brinckmann has recently been involved with rural communities that make their livelihood harvesting plants for use in traditional medicine. Many of these communities have been harvesting wild plants for generations, passing ecological and medical knowledge from one generation to the next. With a tone of awe, Brinckmann recounts how these deeply rooted indigenous and rural communities experience themselves not as stewards of the ecosystem but as integral parts of it.
In the United States, scientists take years to study the complex interactions of plants, animals, and humans. In these communities, he says, the members already understand them.
But times are changing, and the biggest threat to the last remaining sensitive ecosystems is the mass migration of young people from these communities to urban areas, interrupting the ancient transmission of knowledge. This is where Brinckmann steps in. He supports initiatives that ensure that wild plant harvesters receive fair compensation for their work. He insists that "if you profit from it, the local, rural, and indigenous people have to not only have access but also have to benefit from it." He hopes that when the communities are made more sustainable, the young people may want to stay.
CHANGING "BUSINESS AS USUAL
It turns out this is both ethical practice and good business. Traditional Medicinals' business model is based on forming deep, long-lasting relationships with the rural villagers. Without
these relationships, there would be no continued access to medicinal plants or transmission of traditional knowledge, and the company would eventually fail.
As a founding member of the board of trustees for the FairWild Foundation, Brinckmann has been working to promote a new ethical standard for responsible business practices in wild-crafted botanicals. To gain the FairWild label, companies must demonstrate that they meet rigorous standards for environmental sustainability, social development, and economic concerns. He is pushing hard for more companies to step up to the challenge.
GUIDED BY LOVE
When it comes down to it, Brinckmann's passion and dedication to these projects is not motivated by profit. Without a hint of a smile, he says, "Companies or governments think I work for them, but I work for the plants." Indeed, from a young age, Brinckmann has had a special relationship with plants, and has been nurturing this relationship for the past 33 years.
When Brinckmann travels, as he often does to provide expert advice to international governments, he comes face to face with people who are affected by his work: "People invite
me into their homes to have tea with yak butter up in the Himalayas, and I'm privileged to learn about how they live. When I get to have those exchanges, there's nothing like it. I fall in love with people everywhere I go."
A MODEL FOR INTEGRAL ACTION
Although Brinckmann did not attend CIIS, his dedication to the well-being of plants, animals, and people sets a high bar for integral action.
Even so, he was "genuinely surprised and deeply moved to be nominated for an honorary doctorate." He is grateful to be recognized by CIIS for his work. He notes, "For decades CIIS and ACTCM have trained the next generations of conscious practitioners, so desperately needed to help solve the very big problems faced in our world today."
Let's hope that with the collaboration of dedicated practitioners like Brinckmann and graduates of CIIS, the web of people, plants, animals, and places that he cares so much about will be around for generations to come.
Sara Granovetter, a PhD student in East-West Psychology, is a Writing Center Senior Fellow.