Wednesday night, a group of 200 or so—a smattering of bankers, financial planners, sustainability consultants, climate activists, and Pierce Brosnan—sat down to dinner by pouring a thick, green water from a flower vase into a bowl of nasturtiums, grass, and clover. “What is this?” a burly, Robert Mitchum-looking guy asked a server. Her answer: “It’s soup.”
The crowd had convened for inaugural Grounded Summit, a climate change conference oriented around “synergetic solutions,” and the brainchild of vineyard heiress-turned-environmental philanthropist Julia Jackson. Tickets for the conference, which went for a cool $1200, got attendees into two days of lectures in a colossal geodesic dome, dotted by evergreen “living installations,” framed by a “meditative labyrinth,” and held on Jackson’s private family estate in Sonoma County. During these lectures, many of the speakers—among them: environmentalist Paul Hawken, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, and former president of Iceland Olafur Grimsson—riffed on a similar idea. Namely, that climate change, almost unlike any other societal problem in history, implicates everyone; that even if billionaires buy up all the caves in New Zealand, there’s only so far you can run from boiling oceans, constant drought, thawing permafrost and the geopolitical threat of mass migration. The summit itself was proof of concept: inspiration for the event had struck when the host’s hometown, the wealthy Bay Area suburb of Santa Rosa, was overtaken by fires in 2017.
But if climate change hits us all, it does not hit us all equally. And this central paradox of the Grounded Summit was on display constantly—perhaps no better than by the food, prepared by Søren Westh, the former sous-chef of Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Denmark, and a four-time winner of Restaurant magazine’s “Best Restaurant in the World.”
The spread—which ranged from comfort dishes like “celeriac scraps with almond milk” to “semi-dried strawberry with woodruff” (a dessert which mimicked rotten fruit in appearance, odor and mouthfeel)—was so baffling, that servers often had to counsel confused eaters. When my seat neighbor, the Mitchum lookalike, mistakenly accepted a plate adorned by three slender carrots, a sous-chef intervened. “We do this family-style,” he said, pulling the barren platter towards our table of starved, increasingly irate environmentalists. The next day at lunch, having sat down before a gnarled root which could have been a set piece in Pan’s Labyrinth, a very nice server informed me that I had applied my “vase-water” incorrectly.
On the flip side, if the universal threat of climate change could unite humankind, nothing inspired solidarity like the self-inflicted scarcity of hip, semi-foraged gastronomy. The first night, I caught a group of speakers, among them a representative from the Environmental Defense Fund, sharing a second dinner of pepperoni pizza in the hallway of a nearby Hyatt. The second day, after chatting with the owner of Tanka, an indigenous-owned meat bar company from South Dakota, I found out that attendees had been crashing her stand and glutting themselves on free samples. “They’re like, I need protein,” she said.
Between meals, the conference had some high points. For all their excess, Grounded did a good job of elevating voices which so often get left out of the conversation. They highlighted Tanka bars, for example, instead of their far-more famous competitor, Epic, a wealthy, white-owned company which was recently outed by the New Food Economy, for ripping off Tanka’s thousand-year-old recipe for “wasna,” the native predecessor of the modern bison-bar, and for rampant cultural appropriation. Grounded also invited representatives from the Ceibo Alliance, a group of four indigenous tribes in Ecuador, who are currently locked in legal battle over the oil rights to the Amazon forests which have been their home for millennia; a speaker from the Marin Carbon Project, the group responsible for popularizing one of the most promising methods for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere; and a leading expert on “megafires,” who proposed a plainly inspiring plan for adapting to the West’s increasingly dangerous wildfire problem.
But the intersection of wealth with activism is always weird, and especially at a conference concerned with staying “grounded,” when so often the one percent seem anything but. Case in point: after an evening of boiled daikon and nutty sea urchin, the summit culminated in a private performance from Brandon Boyd, Mike Einziger, and Ben Kenney, the three primary members of the '90s-era nü metal group Incubus. It’s hard to identify what, exactly, seemed so odd about the musical choice. Maybe it came from seeing a roomful of executives shrug in confusion, as Boyd, who has swapped out his soul-patch for a man-bun, took the stage. The one percent! They know not the common man! Or maybe it came from the squint of recognition once the band started playing, the relatable grimace from sustainability consultants and CEOs, as they flashed back to years when the band’s 2000 hit single, “Drive,” got wall-to-wall radio play—to the time when funk-rock, like the coming floods, was a terrible, unavoidable equalizer.
This piece has been edited for style and a grammatical error.