Archive for May, 2009

“The Lawrence Bubble”: Just a PR problem?

(A version of this post will appear in tomorrow’s Lawrentian, but I wanted to post here as well.)

As I am writing this, it is a gray Thursday. I sit looking out over the Fox River, watching the seagulls swoop low over the moving water among the rocks. The white smoke from the paper plants melt into the gray-white sky that is rimmed with trees and smokestacks and radio towers. Though this view I have is far from natural, it carries a rich history that lends a sort of industrial beauty to the landscape.

As my time at Lawrence University comes to a close and I reflect, I regret that I have not learned more about this landscape that surrounds us. Though I am an Appleton native, I have not spent much time at all thinking about the Fox River—its ecology, industry, history—or the greater Fox Valley community during my time at Lawrence. Until this, my last, term at Lawrence, when I have been involved in a project on the history of the Fox River for Professor Monica Rico’s American Environmental History class, hardly a single class I’ve had at Lawrence has integrated this place Lawrentians call home into the academic subjects we learn here.

Lawrentians could easily spend four years here and never truly get to know the community’s history, ecology, politics, socioeconomic demographics, or current issues. Lawrentians joke about the “Lawrence Bubble,” and possibly lament the fact that they rarely get off campus into the surrounding community. We hear how the “townies” dislike the students for having loud parties on the weekends and riding their bicycles down College Avenue on the sidewalks, or stereotype us as being a bunch of snobby rich kids at private school.

Many on campus would make this out to merely be a PR problem—it is only because the surrounding community doesn’t know all the good things Lawrence students do: they don’t get to campus enough to see the “real Lawrence,” and only the bad things that get into the local papers. But is this really true? I argue that the issue of the “Lawrence Bubble” is more than just bad PR; it is also the lack of involvement and positive interaction between Lawrentians and community members.

True, programs like LARY Buddy and Habitat for Humanity do attempt to reach out to members of the non-Lawrence community and create a positive face for the University. Students are regularly encouraged to vote in local elections (though they may know little about the local issues on which they are voting). In the education program, student teachers are required to observe and teach at a local school. The Campus Center will purportedly be available to the community at large as a limited convenience store and for community events when requested. And some faculty, like Professor Mark Jenike through his research on nutrition in area schools, and the aforementioned Fox River project in Professor Rico’s class, are attempting to break out of the Bubble and use the surrounding community for translational research and experiential learning.

But for the large part, these are isolated examples that only reach a small portion of students and the community. There has been no comprehensive, University-wide effort to engage students in the Fox Valley community. If Lawrence is to truly prepare students that are prepared to be both world citizens and also contributing members of a community, it must start with encouraging students to be members of this community. We need to attempt to burst the “Lawrence Bubble” by engaging ourselves in meaningful ways in the greater community.

The Green Roots mission statement reads, “Responsible citizenship…requires…that we act in a manner that cares for the places in which we, and others, live and work. [T]he hallmark of an educated person…must be knowledge of the places we call home, an awareness of their interconnectedness, and an acceptance of our civic duty to act in ways that protect their wellbeing.” In order for Lawrence to truly create graduates that go out into the world with an understanding of “the places we call home,” it is necessary that our curriculum and civic outreach reflect these goals.

We must encourage faculty to use the Fox Valley as a “text” for academic study. We must educate students on the current local issues, so that they can become engaged citizens working toward a better community. We must teach students about the importance of local businesses in sewing together the economic and social fabric of the town. We must bring in more community members to share their knowledge about local and global issues with Lawrentians.

If we can develop students that truly know this place, perhaps they will go out into the world knowing the importance of place and how to live well in a that place, and contributing to strong vibrant communities. Only if we can take care of our own communities will we be able to extend that care into the larger world in the search for a global sustainable society.

(Many thanks to Stewart Purkey for exposing me to many of the ideas present in this article in his class Environment, Community and Education, and for suggestions on a draft of this article.)


Forced to take gadgets on vacation, the career-minded can never relax

ZDNet blogged this week about a company that is “recommending” that their employees “take your cell phone, laptop, pager and hand-held electronic organizer wherever you vacation.” This same company even suggests that employees request their hotel to have a fax machine installed in their room!

In today’s modern, high-powered society, it’s edicts like these that make us over-worked – chained to our jobs to earn money to support our consumer lifestyles (the so-called “paradox of affluence”). How, when your company all but requires you to take your Blackberry with you and check voicemail twice a day, can Americans really enjoy the vacations they spend all that time working to afford? We’re stressed and unhappy as a society because we don’t have enough time to relax. But as the ZD Net story indicates, even when we do have the opportunity to “relax,” we still wind up being bugged by work items: the last minute email or phone conference ties us to our desks even when we’re hundreds of miles away from the office. But, in the cut-throat competition of the modern corporate world, measures such as these are often necessary if you don’t want to lose your job or get passed up for that promotion.

What’s the solution for today’s over-stressed, over-worked slave to the corporate office?

Writer and Professor of Environmental Studies, David Orr, in his book entitled Earth in Mind, originally published in 1994, writes of the concept of a “calling” as compared to the modern idea of a “career” (2004, p. 22). A career, writes Orr, is often nothing more than a means to an end – and often that end is money that is then used to “support a ‘lifestyle'” of consumption of material goods (Orr, 2004, p. 22). Most modern jobs are along the lines of a career. A calling, on the other hand, involves an inner sense of “purpose” (Orr, 2004, p. 22). With a calling, there is an integration between “work” and play that means work never really seems like work because you enjoy what you’re doing. In a world where people act on their calling and not their career, there is no need to fill the void caused by a lack of purpose with needless, mindless consumption of stuff.

If we all could have a calling instead of a career, then perhaps we’d never feel that we need to “get away” from our jobs through vacations. We’d never need to “de-stress” or engage in activities designed to relax us. If we enjoyed work, perhaps we’d feel less chained to our jobs, with the sole purpose of our work being to make money. And if we value the work we do in and of itself and not just because it can be exchanged for money, work will become less arduous and more enjoyable.

But, how, then, is this an anecdote to those employers requiring workers to bring every work-linking device on vacation with them? Well, I could easily argue that if you enjoy your job, remaining connected with it on vacation should be a joy not a chore. One would be anxious to know what is going on in the workplace and to stay in the loop with any new developments at work. In all likelihood, any job that reflects a calling and a deeper sense of purpose, that integrates work and play in such a way that you enjoy what you do every day, and are not over-worked would result in a people that have time to relax on a day to day basis, instead of saving up all our alloted vacation time into long weekends and weeks away.

However, no matter how much you love your job, we all need to truly get away once in a while. And jobs that require you to remain connected while on vacation do not allow you to fully escape. But with a calling instead of a career, this need for connection will hopefully at least be slightly less onerous (and maybe you’ll only need to take one instead of five work-connecting devices with you on vacation).

Orr, David. 2004. Earth in Mind. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Listening to nature

Sometimes it’s important to actually listen to nature once in a while. We can become so plugged in – to the television, internet, movies, iTunes – that we forget what our world actually sounds like.

Tonight, as I finish reading for my class tomorrow, I’ve opened the windows to let the warm early summer breeze in, and I’m listening to the sounds of my world. Seagulls crying over the river, motorcycles buzzing over the bridge, Canadian geese squawking in the brush, trucks and cars humming on the highway in the distance, a dog barking, the wind swirling through the long grass and tall trees. Though most of those sounds aren’t what we would consider part of nature, they’re part of my nature nonetheless. The sounds outside my windows are comforting. It reminds me of falling asleep with the window open when I was a little girl. Or going for a long walk in the late evening, hand in hand with my partner.

It’s healthy to just listen to the natural noises once in a while, instead of always putting on the newest pop tune or the latest radio celebrity gossip. Though music or television can make some lonely people feel less alone, it can also mask the reality of one’s thoughts. Sometimes, I find that too much noise clutters what I’m thinking about, making me simply hum along to the radio, instead of letting new thoughts percolate in my brain.

So, tonight, I’m just letting the sound of the wind through the grasses outside my window and the hum of traffic across the bridge be my company, as I enjoy a rare moment of peaceful loneliness.

Even the industrial silence of the modern town can be healing.

A brief outline of the modern socioecological crisis, Part 1: A “paradox of affluence”

The more I read in environmental studies, the more I realize that there seems to be a consensus among those in the field on two things: first, that we are definitely in an ecological crises, the causes of which are largely sociocultural (and within this, mainly consumerism and the modern worldview); and second, that there needs to be some sort of (at the very least, minimal) paradigm shift both outside of and within the environmental movement if we are to collectively solve any of our global problems.

In regards to this first point, in my post on Annie Leonard from a few weeks ago, I began to put together some thoughts on the effects of the disintegration of community on the environment and our current ecological crises. A quick, over-simplified recap of Leonard’s thesis is that the vast amount of consumerism in today’s (modern, Western) society contributes to ecological degradation in the form of loss of natural resources, destruction of natural habitat, and release of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases. According to Leonard, this consumption also leads us to have increasing work hours to fund our consumption, and decreasing time for community and meaningful relationships, which means we’re not as happy as a society, though our standard of living is higher than ever.

Leonard is not alone in thinking that our overconsumption leads to environmental degradation and unhappiness. Gregg Easterbrook, in The Progress Paradox (2003), expands on the point that as a society Westerner’s (and moreover, Americans) are less happy, despite our increased standard of living. Easterbrook argues that although we (in the Western world) are for the large part getting smarter (having higher average levels of education—debate the difference between degree-level and intelligence as one may) and wealthier (at least on average, or at least until quite recently—and our purchasing power and standard of living are definitely increasing), we are not getting happier. Levels of depression and mental illness are higher now than at any point in the past, and, according to Easterbrook, polling of the US populace has indicated that people were happier in our parents generations than in our own.

In addition to the paradox of affluence, disconnect from the environment has also been sited as a root cause of unhappiness. Journalist Richard Louv writes in his book, The Last Child in the Woods (2005), that a decline in awareness of the natural world—a sort of ecological intelligence—has accompanied population growth and the need for larger houses, yards and vacation homes that spurs urban sprawl and soaks up natural spaces in previously rural communities. Louv goes on to write that the loss of these “wild spaces” and of opportunities for children and adults alike to be out in nature has resulted not only in a largely ecologically illiterate population, but also individuals that are more stressed and less happy than during past times and in places where access to nature is more available. Environmental sociologists call this the so-called “paradox of affluence,” whereby individuals feel worse and worse, though they are supposedly “better off.”

Likewise, local Fox River Valley historian Gregory Summers, in Consuming Nature: The Rise of Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley 1850-1950 (2006), claims the rise of consumer society both contributed to a growing disconnect between society and the nature and natural resources upon which it relies, as well as allowed for the increased use of the natural environment for recreational activities. “Consumption served as a filter in people’s interactions with the material world, screening out nature’s unpleasant realities while at the same time creating new attachments to its recreational and aesthetic charms,” Summers writes (p8). As society became more and more market-oriented during industrialization, people’s direct interactions with the environment became much more limited than they had been under subsistence modes of production. Concurrently, however, as people became more affluent, opportunities to enjoy nature for recreation became more common and available to individuals (particularly those of the middle- and upper-class). Other environmental historians, such as Carolyn Merchant, concur with Summer’s view.

This increasing disconnect society faces between the natural world that sustains us and our day to day activities brings me to the second point of this essay: that there must be a paradigm shift both within and outside the environmental movement in order to solve our environmental crisis. If we as a society continue to think as we do in regards to the earth and each other, we will not be able to successfully move out of the current ecological crisis into a sustainable world.

A professor of mine at Lawrence University, Professor Stewart Purkey, in teaching the class Environment, Community and Education, puts it this way: The environmental crisis is essentially a sociocultural crisis, and all the technical or scientific changes or advancements in the world will not make a difference, unless we change the underlying paradigms within which we see the environment and the natural world. I believe this is true: unless people begin to see things differently, the way we interact as humans—consumers, deforesters, resource-users—in the world will not change.

I’ve long thought that the biggest environmental problem facing the planet is education—that enough people do not recognize or acknowledge that our planet is in peril, nor do enough people know what they can do to help. However, it’s only been recently that I’ve become aware of the cause of this apparent lack of environmental education and awareness.

David Orr, in his groundbreaking book of essays in the field of environmental sociology, Earth in Mind (1994), states that all education is environmental education of some form or another. Either directly or indirectly, the modern educational system teaches us how to interact with the planet: as economically-minded consumers, as recreational tourists seeking exotic nature, as eco-conscious buyers of organic vegetables. More often than not, however, it is what our education does not teach us, claims Orr, that impacts the way we view the environment. For the large part, we do not see the connections between what we consume and how we live, and the environment. People do not recognize that the ability to turn on a light with the flip of a switch comes from the burning of coal at a power plant and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We do not realize that the growing of our food via conventional agriculture in the US results in the runoff of fertilizer into the water of the Mississippi and thus in the eutrophic “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless, Orr continues, we somehow retool the educational system to teach our children holistically about the environment—how we affect it and how it affects us, and how all educational disciplines are interrelated—we will never be successful at creating a society of individuals capable of constructing a sustainable world.

Author and education professor Paul Theobald expands on the thoughts outlined above in his 1997 book, Teaching the Commons, furthering that the disconnect between humanity and the environment originated with the degradation of community—particularly rural community— that correlates with the rise of modernity over the past 500 or so years. This piece of theory is likely the root of the cultural crisis mentioned above. As society moved from collective, interdependent, communities of connectedness to individualistic, independent, modern corporate society (for a variety of reasons; see Teaching the Commons for a deeper explanation), the “ethic of care” for one another and for the earth was lost. Thus, environmental degradation is a casualty of modernization. If we could get back to a society that was more community-minded, more responsible for one another, more decentralized and participatory, more locally-oriented, says Theobald, we could hopefully create a healthier and more sustainable society.

All the things I’ve been talking about fit together. With a society that is more community-oriented and environmentally-aware, possessing an “ethic of care” for the environment and each other, we may have the paradigm shift we need to solve the disconnect inherent in modern, consumer, possessively-individualistic society, making us a healthier, happier, more sustainable society living with the natural world. The question, then, becomes how to inspire this new paradigm.

(To be continued in Part 2: A New Environmentalism)

New Blog Look

I’ve decided to change the look of my blog, to be a bit cleaner and brighter in appearance. The text of this theme is a little smaller so that more can fit on one page, and the tags and categories of each post are relocated to just under the post title (where they are reduced in size and much less conspicuous). This look also places the widgets in the right hand sidebar in boxes for a cleaner look that’s easier on the eye. Also, the pages in this theme are dated, which allows me to mark them with the date they were most recently updated.

Leave comments about what you think–likes, dislikes, ideas, etc. Thanks!

New York Times front page story on “Story of Stuff”

A front page New York Times article today discussed the use of Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” in schools as a way to teach about consumption and the way our production system affects the planet. This is a huge boost for the Story of Stuff project, which has several new things in the works including future videos, a book authored by Ms. Leonard, and a 2-week curriculum developed in cooperation with Facing the Future.

See Annie’s comments re: the NY Times story on the Story of Stuff blog.

And pass the word along!