Archive for the ‘education’ Category

The Byron Fellowship, part 2: An Aspirational Dialogue

As these few days following my experiences at the Byron Fellowship have passed, I have found myself noticing more and more facets of the experience – little things, the full significance of which are only hitting me now. One of these things was initially brought to my attention by a fellow participant who mentioned in reflection that not once during the week did we hear a negative, sarcastic, or intentionally hurtful comment out of our fellow participants. How many times in our lives, he said, do we go a day – much less a week – without hearing such negativity out of those around us, be they strangers, coworkers, friends, or even ourselves?

Upon my own reflection over these past few days, I have come to realize that this lack of negativity during the week of the Byron Fellowship extended far beyond just our comments to and about each other. The framing of the issues we discussed the entire week was what we called “aspirational” language – an aspirational dialogue of possibility, hope, creativity, and optimism. Of what we can create and inspire in this world, rather than what we need to eliminate or avoid. This simple use of positive framing and phrasing of issues was key to creating the mood for the week – the inspiring environment that all those who participated in the Byron Fellowship will carry with us throughout our lives.

Aspirational language, we learned at the Fellowship, is in opposition to the language of desperation. In the environmental movement in general, so often we resort to desperation, fear, pessimism, and anger in our plea for action and change. If we don’t stop using fossil fuels right now, the world will experience a drastic increase in catastrophic weather events related to global warming, sea levels will rise and Florida and Bangladesh and island nations will be under water! We have to stop the Big Oil companies from letting this happen! Or, If you don’t stop overfishing, soon there will be no ocean life left! Or, Can’t you see that our American consumerist lifestyle is creating waste, overwhelming the landfills, and putting too much pressure on the world’s resource supplies? You can’t buy that new flat screen TV! So often, those involved in the environmental movement phrase things in a desperate, negative way. We must stop polluting, stop emitting carbon dioxide, stop driving our gas-guzzling cars, stop buying so many useless consumer goods, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!

But just telling people they can’t do this, or to stop doing that is not an effective way to inspire change. In fact, for most people, the words I have written above are not inspiring at all. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, founders of the BreakThrough Institute, present a critique of the 1970s, 80s and 90s negative environmentalism in their book by the same name. This type of environmentalism, they argue, includes so much negativity that people genearally turn off when they hear it, rejecting even scientific claims because of they way they are presented, as things we have to avoid and get rid of. We have to ban these pesticides, these polluters should pay to remove these contaminants from this river, we have to stop littering, etc. This type of language does not spur people to action, because what action is implied by these statements is not really action but inaction: something to stop or avoid doing. Thus (and this is me expanding on Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s ideas, now), people never really think they are the problem, that there is any action required of them because they are not polluters. The problem is thereby externalized, while at the same time no alternative positive action is suggested.

Aspirational language, on the other hand, the type we were encouraged to use at the Byron Fellowship, phrases things in the language of possibility – this is the “Politics of Possibility,” according to the subtitle of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book. To me, aspirational language is associated directly with the principles of sustainability, while the language of desperation is associated with the old environmentalism described above. While environmentalism is about what we need to remove, to avoid, to stop, sustainability is about what we can create, encourage, and build. Sustainability involves a positive vision of what we want the future to look like. Where environmentalism involves stopping urban sprawl, removing contaminants, and limiting the effect of human activities on the environment, sustainability involves creating community, encouraging urban gardens and permaculture, designing walkable communities and livable public spaces, developing alternative energy sources, and creating products that benefit the environment, rather than just minimizing harm. Sustainability, then, is framed in a positive light, rather than a negative.

This week’s dialogues at the Byron Fellowship were all framed in aspirational language. We talked about creating communities among people deeply connected to a place so as to inspire care of that place and of one another. We talked of developing a measure of trust and faith in each other (and in God, if you wish), so that we desire to make the world a better place for all of our grandchildren. We talked about learning to understand, listen to, and have compassion for others, and, rather than trying to force them into a sustainable way of life, to be open to different ways of thinking and encourage them to do the same. I truly believe that this type of compassion and listening to others can really have an impact on the way we as humans treat the natural world and how we go about transitioning to sustainable communities.

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What children’s books say about the human-nature relationship

My mother loves children’s books. She collects them, really. Ever since I was little – and even now that I am not so little – she often will come home from the bookstore with a new Caldecott winner, a collection of children’s Christmas stories, or a treasury of children’s classics for a friend who’s having a baby. From beautifully illustrated read-to-me storybooks to beautifully written chapter books, there is no end to her love of children’s literature. In her retirement, she says, she wants to write children’s books.

So it’s only natural that I should inherit from her the same love of children’s books. However, for the longest time, I laughed at her every time she brought home a new book, saying that we, her children, had grown too old for this. We were too old for her to read us stories, too old to look at the pictures, too old to listen to the rhymes of children’s poetry. And yet, a year ago, I fell in love with children’s books all over again.

It started in a college course I took from the education department. In this course, the professor read to us several familiar children’s books that spoke of nature and the environment. He read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, of course, but he also read Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumpius, and showed an animated interpretation of the French children’s story, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono. It was these titles that got me thinking about the books I remembered and loved from my childhood. I thought of Bill Peet’s The Wump World and Cristina Bjork’s Linnea in Monet’s Garden. This summer, while working at a local bookstore, I also discovered a wonderful new children’s book by Peter Brown, called The Curious Garden, and it is now one of my favorites. And I re-discovered Frances Hamerstrom’s touching Walk When the Moon is Full while visiting my parents’ cabin in northern Wisconsin.

These were my favorites as a child – or have since become my new favorites – but also, or perhaps because of this, they influenced the way I think about the world. These books, as do all good books, say something about the way we as humans interpret and interact with the world. The more obvious messages to be found in The Lorax and The Wump World speak to our human pattern of overconsumption and destruction of nature – but also about nature’s resilience and ability to come back after humans have gone. Nature will always be there, and will always able to rebound, these books say. The Man Who Planted Trees, Miss Rumpius and The Curious Garden illustrate the power of one person to shape and change the world, to find and create beauty, and the ability of nature to influence people. Linnea in Monet’s Garden and Walk When the Moon is Full laud the redemptive and educative power of curiosity, particularly of the natural world.

The messages in these books are not lost on even their youngest readers. Inspired by The Curious Garden, the children to whom I gifted that book last spring started a garden in their mother’s backyard. And I can recall discussions about the need to “save the rainforest” motivated by readings of The Lorax in elementary school.

These on-the-surface meanings are not at all difficult to integrate into discussions both in the classroom and in the living room, because the fit nicely within the tenets of our modern worldview. The value of creativity to progress, the primacy of human influence on nature, the emphasis on the individual to affect change – these are all principals of our society in which progress is always good; bigger and more are always applauded; and individual effort is always better than group work.

But there are deeper messages between the pages of these books that are much harder to cultivate in either children or adult readers because they go against the grain of the modern paradigm. The Man Who Planted Trees presents an intriguing statement about the effect the condition of the natural world has on the human psyche and on human society. In the story,* there is a man who plants and cares for trees on a barren, human-created desert, ultimately resulting in the repopulation of the area with a community of people who live gently and in harmony with the land. Clearly, this is a much deeper sort of message than the superficial “power of one person to change the world.” This book cultivates ideas of stewardship of the land and repair of the human and natural environment, similar to Aldo Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic.” The true story behind The Man Who Planted Trees, I believe, is one that promotes an ideal relationship between humans and the land we live on that is healthy for both society and the environment.

The Man Who Planted Trees has a second message in its pages. The people who had lived in the desert prior to the growth of the man’s forest had been poor, miserly unhappy. But when people come to live in the valley where the man has planted trees, they are a happier people. They work, live and laugh together. This sentiment of happiness nearer to nature and greenness has been well-documented in the literature of preventative medicine, and much echoed by popular writers, such as Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, on the benefits of nature to personal health and well-being. The Man Who Planted Trees conveys this deeply rooted relationship beautifully and simply in story form.

The idea of living sustainably with the land is not a new concept, but it is far from becoming an ideal valued by mainstream society. It used to be, however. The Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian man was part of the creation of our nation. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of small farmers, where everyone cultivated the land sustainably. This agrarian ideal included principles of crop rotation, community collaboration, and living in balance with the land around you.

Somewhere in our society’s history, however, we lost our communitarian, agrarian ideal, and farming became the backward rustic’s job or the task of machine-wielding industrial farmers. People moved city-wards. We began working in factories and cubicles instead of fields. We lost our connection with the land and much of our knowledge of the workings of nature. We stopped being stewards of the land, and instead began to exploit it for profit, like the characters in The Lorax and The Wump World. We stopped being people who planted trees, and instead became makers of concrete and buildings, and consumers of “thneeds.”

Our modern worldview dictates that this was a change for the better. That no longer being directly dependent on the earth was a good thing. That going to the supermarket alone instead of the fields with each other for our food was progress. But there were always those who resisted. There have been counterculture movements since the beginning of industrialization that attempted to move society back towards nature. There were Utopian communities interwoven with the Populist movement of the 1890s. Intentional communities and co-ops sprung up in the 1960s and later, dedicated to self-sufficiency and a connection to nature and community. These movements questioned whether society’s movement away from nature was necessarily progress.

Children’s books and stories have always aimed to convey what society values in a simple, easily understood, often allegorical fashion for young readers. What our children’s books say about the way we as humans treat the natural world has an important affect on the way children grow up thinking about the world.
Nature, by instinct, I think, is intriguing to children. It is the world around us: the sky, the birds, the trees, the grass, the soil. The Lorax, The Curious Garden, The Man Who Planted Trees – these books have powerful messages, and can, perhaps, help endow our children with Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” or perhaps with Rachel Carson’s “sense of wonder” about the natural world. If we can use these books as a spring board for a discussion in living rooms and classrooms – to teach our children to be curious about the natural world, to teach them that a healthy environment means healthier and happier people, to teach them, ultimately, to be stewards of the land and the earth – then perhaps we can begin to shift in how society affects the environment. Perhaps we can stop wanting “thneeds” and instead be those who plant trees.

No one is too old for children’s books. As adults, we often have just as much to learn from them as children do. I reread The Wump World the other night. I had forgotten the ending of the story: after the “Pollutions” have finished turning the whole world to concrete and buildings, after they have used up all the green space, after they have dirtied the air and water, they leave. And through their cracked concrete streets, a small seedling emerges. Nature is still there, if we are willing to see it. Maybe we can plant a seed in our children, in hopes that someday, through a crack in the modern worldview, a land ethic will emerge.

*English translation, from Peter Doyle, available here. (This version lies in the public domain.)

Sustainability as a learning endeavor

More often than not in life, we wait until something ends to look back and reflect. History is just that – a look backwards at what has happened, a chance to comment on the implications of an event or experience. A chance to see just really what have we learned from the past. People wait until they near the end of their lives to write an autobiography. We wait until the end of a war to write into history books the winners and losers. We wait until the end of our schooling to look back and see just what have we learned.

But why should we necessarily wait until the end to reflect? With education in particular, waiting until the end to look back only leaves us dissatisfied with our experience. We think, I wish I had taken advantages of more opportunities in college., or I wish I had known about that in the beginning. It appears we could learn a lot more if we simply took time out to reflect on things during the process. I think the best education can come from constant reflection and thought during an experience. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but nearsightedness is better than being blind. Looking while you are in the thick of it is better than not looking at all.

As this first semester of my graduate education concludes, I am taking the chance to reflect on my experiences thus far. As a dual-degree student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, my chosen concentration is Sustainable Development, or Sustainability. “Sustainable development” has always been a favorite pet phrase of mine, since I first came across the term while writing a high school history paper on the current situation of the global environment in the context of American environmental history. “Providing for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” is the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission definition of “sustainable development” I read. While researching global climate change, resource depletion and environmental conflicts worldwide, the idea of sustainable development was a breath of fresh air amidst all the pollution. It seemed to be a solution with real potential to create a healthy, livable planet, an idea with the scope and interdisciplinary aspects needed to focus the ingenuity and creativity of the world on a sustainable future.

Sustainable development has proven thus far to be an interesting subject and context as a learning endeavor. For me, sustainability is a necessity for any future our planet and the human species is to have. This term, I have learned that ecological economists and sustainable developers might say that sustainability is about limits – limits to growth, limits to resource availability, limits to planetary capacity, limits to consumption. But I say, it is also about embracing the a profound challenge and tremendous opportunity that these limits bring. Sustainable development, I think, is about using our immense human capacity for creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship to create a sustainable future in which all people can live. This is bigger than the “weak sustainabilist”* idea that all inputs to current economic systems of production can be substituted for with enough innovation and creativity. This is about thinking of a new way to live, about rethinking our individual, consumerist, unsustainable lifestyles, about rethinking the entire socio-economic system in which we operate. It can be done. People are starting to think. Activists, writers, thinkers like Will Allen, Paul Hawken, Anna and Frances Moore Lappe, Annie Leonard, Bob Doppelt, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, even New York Times columnists Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman are thinking this way. Organizations and thinktanks, more than I can list, are thinking and doing this way. It is possible.

But sustainability is also personal. Not only have I begun to attempt to live my own life sustainably in my first semester on my own, but I have also come to realize that sustainability has a more personal meaning for me. If, in my life, I could contribute to creating a sustainable world in which there is abundance for all, I would have lived a life worthwhile. If I could live to see a world where people live in safe, sustainable, healthy and happy communities, where people have lots of meaningful, sustaining relationships, where people eat good tasting and nourishing food grown without harm to the environment, where people engage in worthwhile work that doesn’t degrade the environment or come at the expense of another person, where people live in harmony with nature – if I could live to see that kind of world, I would have lived a good life.

Sustainability for me is not just about overcoming the myopia of consumer culture, or about living on a farm and raising chickens, or about shopping only at thrift stores, or about buying organic vegetables from the coop. Sustainability is more than just living my own life sustainably. It’s about contributing to a sustainable whole. And teaching others about the merits of sustainability.

This is where my final point comes in: the educational opportunities presented by sustainability. Sustainable development and sustainable living provide immense opportunity for educators and people globally to teach creative thinking, community-mindedness, ecological connections – a potent antidote to the business-as-usual philosophy promoted by the corporate world and most conventional educational institutions. If we are to create a happy, livable world for all, we need to start thinking differently, and we need to do it now. Using the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable living as a teaching and learning module in classrooms, living rooms, and coffee shops, at workshops, faith gatherings, and fire circles, on front porches and street corners worldwide will help us begin to care for one another and for the earth. We need to think both globally and locally, to value relationships and social contact more than flat screen televisions and mansion-size homes, to learn to take time to enjoy nature and its awesome beauty and wealth. If we can begin to learn and teach these things, then perhaps we may all live to see a sustainable world.

*A note on “weak” versus “strong” sustainability: These terms are used by people in ecological economics and sustainable development to depict two different views on sustainability. “Weak sustainabilists” hold that the concept of sustainability can be worked into our current socio-politico-economic system via substituting newly discovered resources, capital, technology, and human innovation and labor for limited resources currently used in the capitalistic, production-based system. “Strong sustainabilists,” on the other hand, hold that true sustainability does not come from infinite capacity to substitute, and that there are some resources that are inherently limited on this planet and for which there are no substitutes (e.g. clean air or fresh water). “Strong sustainabilists” believe in a deeper, more inclusive and conclusive concept of sustainability that diverges significantly from the current economic paradigm described above.

Yes! Magazine: Building a Just and Sustainable World

Yes Fall 2009 issue cover

Image credit: yesmagazine.org

Last week in the mail, I received the Fall 2009 issue of Yes!, a magazine I’d never heard of, and to which I did not subscribe. However, this magazine may be the best piece of unsolicited mail I have ever received. Subtitled “Building a Just and Sustainable World,” this magazine was filled with articles on building stronger community, retooling our education system to really educate people instead of just schooling them with how to stay afloat in the current everyone-for-themselves world, and inspiring stories of grassroots environmental activism. I don’t think I have ever been so accurately targeted with a piece of junk mail (unless someone secretly sent me a subscription to the magazine).

The Yes! Magazine website describes the goal of the organization to provide “inspiring solution-oriented journalism” and “connections with like-minded people.” If I may be allowed to judge from reading their Fall 2009 issue cover-to-cover, they have clearly succeeded in meeting these goals. The articles published by Yes! cover topics ranging from the holistic alternative education efforts in the place-based education movement, the community revitalization efforts of programs such as Detroit Summer, and the innovative inner life and education ideas of Parker Palmer. This issue is chock-a-block full of inspiring articles filled with real-world solutions to the problems of our communities, our schools, and our environment today.

This issue of Yes! reminds me what is truly important and amazing about our world: the capacity for change in the status quo. Our current, individual-, consumption-based society struggles with creating healthy, mindful, strong individuals committed to their community and the betterment and sustainability of our world. In an educational system and corporate climate based on test scores and competition, we seek to groom individuals for obedience, prejudice, competition, and to remain just far enough removed from the natural world so that we can destroy it without it weighing too much on our conscience. We can change this status quo. We can educate with the aim of cultivating individuals who know how to sustain healthy relationships, are not afraid to voice their own opinions and beliefs or to challenge others’ opinions, are intelligent but also mindful and think before they speak or write. The place-based education movement, with its aim of providing students with relevant experiences so that they are learning for a purpose and not just memorizing facts for a test, uses the community as a classroom and laboratory to encourage individual exploration and also connection with and responsibility to those around us.

These are the values key to creating a society that will work together to transform this planet into a “just and sustainable world:” a belief in lifelong education that comes from within and is nurtured by a vital community, a healthy sense of responsibility to others and to the earth, and a desire to see and create the positive change needed in the world. Yes! magazine tells the stories of change we need to inspire sustainable action in our own lives.

*Post script: My mother has fessed up to sending me the “unsolicited subscription.” Thanks, Mom! Now I can look forward to the next issue of the magazine.