The Generational Thinkers: Li An Phoa

Every month, design agency Verveeld � Verward interviews a leading, future ancestor from the design field about generational thinking. Dorine Baars and Jonas Martens jump into the depths of their inspirations about substantive work, legacy and cross-generational design. This time, they get to visit Li An Phoa, philosopher and ecologist.

Type Update
Published on 18 March 2024
The Generational Thinkers: Li An Phoa
Part of

The Maeslant Barrier has been closed, the rivers are high, and hail is forecasted to be high. The KNMI has also issued a code yellow due to the stormy westerly wind. So we agreed to meet inside. We are welcomed in a small house in a pleasant but weather-beaten coastal town. In the hallway, surfboards hang on the wall; here and there, you’ll find leaves of the Ginkgo, also known as the ancient tree, appearing in bowls and works of art. There, by the sea, where drinkable rivers will flow again, lives Li An Phoa.

‘We keep cutting small incisions in an artery. The river is an important artery for our existence. All those small incisions of pollution and destruction shape an enormous and undeniable problem.’

‘Drinkable rivers’ has now become a concept that stands for the apparent ambition to bring our rivers back into balance and make them drinkable. Drinkable rivers require change and cooperation. Phoa has been committed to this for years through inspiring walks, events, research, education, and various action programs. She calls herself a ‘watershed mobiliser’ – a title she prefers to ascribe to herself rather than activist or coach. With a friendly and connecting approach, she taps into new sources of mobilisation that set the movement – or flow – in motion together with her. All of these serve a commitment to drinkable rivers that can develop into a river basin. The metaphor of this is, of course, undeniable.

“We keep cutting small incisions in an artery,” says Phoa—another metaphor. “The river is an important artery for our existence. All those small incisions of pollution and destruction shape an enormous and undeniable problem.” According to Phoa, it is essential that everyone feels that this is important and that we all play a role in the health and future of our river basins.

Can the drinkable river be achieved in your lifetime? We ask her. And contrary to our expectations, she says this is feasible within one generation. For this, we must desire a place for it in our hearts.

"Of course, not everyone will have such a leading experience with water, but I look for everyone's personal water biography in my conversations."
— Li An Phoa

Water biography

According to Li An, the desire for such an ideal differs for everyone. She experienced firsthand how a Canadian river that she could previously drink from became poisoned and has since become undrinkable. For her, this experience was the origin of awareness, mourning, and, ultimately, the mobilisation of all kinds of people along the banks. “Of course, not everyone will have such a leading experience with water, but I look for everyone’s personal water biography in my conversations. Sometimes, that is a beautiful memory of water. Sometimes, it is a traumatic one. Either way, a water biography is always a way to make the relationship with water much more tangible, and it serves as a starting point for taking the conversation further. I often ask what makes their hearts sing, what excites them, and whether that can help them to take steps towards a drinkable river.”

Aside from the conversation, walking is also a source of new connection with our homeland. “When a farmer with land along the river hears that I have been walking for days and still have ten days to go after visiting them, it becomes very clear that they are part of a long line along the water.” And so we arrive at the following metaphor, that of the ‘seventh generation principle’. Along the line of time, like the river, people came before us, and people will come after us. We have to relate to it, to them. It is particularly striking that Li An calls this the river family, where water is our blood bond. “Are you that great-uncle who never shows up for Christmas dinner? Or that cousin that no one wants to sit next to? Even if you don’t participate, you are part of the whole. We are family.”

The compass and the intimacy

“There is a lot of focus on goals. However, if you formulate a goal and all the steps that go with it, there is little room for new input.” According to Phoa, we must move towards a compass where the direction is always clear, but swinging is encouraged. “Would you like a piece of pear?” The pear comes out of the kitchen on a plate that was once broken, the golden veins of Kintsugi now hold it together. We each eat a quarter. “If you desire something, monitor the process, unleash creativity and collaborate, you can achieve a lot.” She adds: “The drinkable river is a good example of such a compass. Nature is very regenerative. If we give the right impetus, such as allowing the river space and swirls where the water wants to go, the river can cleanse and heal itself.”

Such a compass is strengthened if we feel more connected to our nature, says Phoa. We have created quite a distance there. We have started to live more and more abstractly. “In the past, all planners were walkers. Now, we work from models and from behind a screen. While walking, taking footsteps in a 3D living world offers important intimacy. A surfer might experience this while floating on a huge body of water. Another is by looking carefully at a plant and its tiny ingenious properties. Slowing down in such a way reminds us that we are part of the very big and the very small.”

Phoa also sees how language plays a role. The word ‘river’ in Chinese also looks like a river. Just like her own name, Phoa is an old and forgotten Chinese word for the water that remains after rice harvests. “Originally, descriptions of natural phenomena were much more concrete, visual and nuanced,” says Phoa. Nowadays, this is also a source from which you can deduce that we live more at a distance. In that sense, language is a good indicator, as a carrier of emotion and world views. ‘Drinkable rivers’, in that sense, uses language to re-stimulate intimacy.

Ultimately, of course, the operation of that compass requires a notion for multiple things. But everything has to do with seeking intimacy: with your environment, language, and creation. Phoa gives an example of her nephew, who recently visited her and found a feather along the beach. He wanted to make a pen from this. “That was such a nice process. Children want to try things from tangible steps. We adults in a fast-paced world do not see such an approach as efficient, but we forget how such a process can make our hearts sing. Seeing something take shape through our trial and error gives a lot of energy.” She refers back to that modern but short-sighted goal orientation, where we have become conditioned to avoid the detours, while the long run-up often produces a much more robust result.

"Make decisions outside, by the water, preferably with a child present."
— Li An Phoa

Face to face with the storm

“I actually wanted to walk outside with you; that’s how I always do it,” says Li An. In other words, we still decide to brave the storm. The recording of our conversation changes into a muffled and messy sound. The wind blows through the speaker as we walk towards the beach. “Look!” A rainbow forms right in front of us.

According to Li An, being outside immediately causes you to relate differently to each other and your environment. “Make decisions outside, by the water, preferably with a child present,” she advocates. “People often dare to say more and make decisions from a different connection. A child forces us to express our story clearly and look them in the eye when discussing their future. It is a simple difference with a meeting inside; it does not have to cost more and only makes the process more fun.”

Li An has sat in a circle between the tall reeds several times with farmers, administrators and mayors, disarmed and present. There, she asked them to commit to a drinkable river. And although it makes you think that, among the reeds, she may have cast a spell on the shore residents – because everyone seems to want to participate – she sees it as a sincere decision. Why does everyone say yes? “One, it’s clear. Two, time is offered, being one generation. Third, they retain freedom as entrepreneurs.” says Phoa, as a charmer certainly wouldn’t. She emphasises that the commitment one makes takes the measure of human change into account. We move from one step to exploring the next step. Playfully. As if you were making a pen from a feather. This attention deepens the connection with the compass and the necessary adjustment. There is a dark side to that, right? Because this way, people can secretly take another 200 years, or in other words, continue in the same manner… “Yes, that is a risk, but it all starts with trust.”

Human legal-form sauce

“And giving rights to the river, what do you think about that?” we ask. Li An answers with a long ‘duhhhh’ and that, unfortunately, it does not make sense to everyone. On the one hand, it is quite poignant that a human legal form has to be added to consider the river’s right to exist. “On the other hand,” she says, “let them try.” It is not wrong to use the instruments with which we govern our society to bring the compass to light actively.


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