Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.)

Book Review: The Ecology of Hope, by Ted Bernard and Jora Young

Image credit: Indiebound.orgI’ve been meaning to write about this book for a long time. Though first published in 1996, its relevance extends beyond the decade or more since its release. Ted Bernard and Jora Young have written an inspirational manifesto for a sustainable world of all that’s wonderful, resilient, and, ultimately, hopeful in our communities. The book, fully titled, The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability, provides both an outline of the need for sustainable community action as well as an array of case studies from the United States.

The book begins with a brief but eloquent history and critique of the current worldview/paradigm merged into the context of American environmental history. The authors posit that our current worldview is individualistic and not community-centered, and that in order to create a sustainable world we must restructure our thinking to be more other-oriented, to focus more on community responsibility. Like other authors I have mentioned in my posts on community and sustainability, such as David Orr, Paul Theobald, and Wendell Berry, Bernard and Young are part of a growing sustainability movement that expresses the discontent and malaise that we feel with our current world, and works to engage people in their communities and their environment in an attempt to create a positive and sustainable future. This movement, instead of focusing on the negative effects human civilization and our consumer lifestyles are having on the environment and the great peril the earth is in due to anthropogenic climate change, encourages individual and collective action in our own lives to actively change our mindsets, our situation, and our world. In The Ecology of Hope, the authors cite examples of successful engagement and action, where people have worked to create sustainable communities – a holistic, economic, social and ecological version of sustainability.

The kind of collective action, cooperation and consensus these authors cite will be necessary as population grows, the climate warms, and human society exerts greater and greater pressure on our ecological life support systems, coming up against the limits of resource scarcity and pollution. Many authors have discussed the link between environmental scarcity and violent conflict (Homer-Dixon, et al.; a topic for another post), and as we face the limits mentioned above, we will be at an increased risk of war with one another. But building community through collaboration, cultivating a sense of responsibility towards one another, and encouraging communication and connection between human beings on a level that crosses both geopolitical bounds and psychological, perceived differences can allow us to transcend the risk of conflict and rise up like a phoenix from the flames into a just and sustainable world.

The Ecology of Hope is aptly titled. The word “ecology” in the natural sciences means the study of the interconnectedness of all things living in a given place, the study of relationships. In the study of climate change and world systems, this concept of “ecology” and interconnectivity can be extended to the entire biosphere, because we are all related to and interacting with one another and the earth somehow. In sociology and ecopsychology, the concept of ecology is sometimes applied to a community of human beings in a place – the intersection of humans and the natural world in that place. Where the concept of “ecology” is a scientific one, the word “hope” connotes spiritual and emotional ideas . “Hope” is a feeling of change, of progress, of better things to come, of optimism. The phrase “Ecology of Hope,” to me, means the interconnectedness of change, and optimistic phrase that makes me think of people and nature working in harmony to create a better world for all. This relationship component of change, this “Ecology of Hope” will be critical to a sustainable future.

And it will all start with action in our communities.

Myopia: Too much discounting can lead to an unsustainable future

In reading a book on nuclear power recently, I came across this passage:

“The international scientific consensus is that a deep geologic repository is the best place to isolate plutonium and other long-lasting nuclear waste. If the DOE [US Department of Energy] can show that such a repository will be safe for ten thousand years, the ideas is that it will be the same for a hundred thousand. But, geologically, it’s hard to predict accurately beyond ten thousand years, which is why Congress mandated a few decades ago that the repository had to be able to isolate waste for that long. A federal appeals court judge ruled in 2003 that a high-level nuclear waste repository should be guaranteed for a hundred thousand years instead of ten thousand. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), responding to another court ruling that ordered it to consider the fact that a few radionuclides would outlast that time frame, recommended that accountability extend to a span of one million years.” (p. 268. Cravens, Gwyneth. 2007. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Vintage Books.)

Now, this passage amazes and confuses me for a couple of reasons. First, how can we as a society be so concerned with the fate of generations millennia from now when it comes to them happening upon our nuclear waste, but when it comes to preserving a world with adequate resource stocks and a healthy environment for our progeny, we have a difficult time with it? Mainly, this comes down to discordance in discount rates.

Let me explain. Human beings are inherently myopic, or near-sighted and tending to care about the present more than the future. Of course, this makes sense. We are genetically wired to care more about ourselves than others and more about our current selves than our future selves. The existence of oneself is definite; you know your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, interests are real (at least to you) and they are exceedingly relevant because they are real. The interest of others is a less concrete fact, because we can’t really assess how anything will affect them – we can’t know absolutely what’s best for them. (And, from Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene perspective, who cares about anyone else? As long as we survive, that’s all that matters.) The future is even more indefinite: who knows whether or not I or any one else will be here tomorrow?

Now, most of the time, we generally presume our own existence will continue, at least for a duration of 70 or so years. And, if we have children, we assume their existence will be of similar length, and our grandchildren, and so on. And, honestly, we are not completely myopic, because we do care when it comes down to it about our children and grandchildren. But after grandchildren, or in some cases, great grandchildren, it gets a little more indefinite. This is where the discount rate and future discounting comes in. According to neoclassical environmental economics, the present value of anything – be it dollars, a factory, a forest, or the well-being of our great grandchildren – is less than it’s future value. How much less is summed up by the discount rate. The higher the discount rate, the greater we discount the future, and the less the present value.

For instance, you can think about inflation as taking into account the discount rate of future dollars; so, a dollar in ten years buys you less than a dollar would today. Thus, a rational person offered $100 dollars today or a $100 guaranteed in two years should always take the $100 today. One hundred dollars today could be invested, and at an interest rate of five percent per year, would be worth $105 dollars next year, and worth $110.25 the year after that. Compare this to the alternative of receiving $100 dollars guaranteed in two years, and you can see why people prefer the present over the future. The discount rate, in the above example, is equal to 5% per year. Alternatively, one can compute the present value of $100 received in two years and compare this to $100 received today. One hundred dollars received in two years discounted at a rate of 5% is worth only $90.70*, which once again illustrates why one would rather have the $100 now than in the future.

The number that we give the discount rate (between 0 and 1) determines to what degree we discount the future. A higher discount rate means that we value the future less. A discount rate of 1 means that individuals are perfectly myopic, and the future is entirely discounted and doesn’t matter at all; thus, things in the future are worth next to nothing in present-value terms. A discount rate of 0 means that the future is worth exactly the same as today is, or future value of something equals the present value.

The neoclassical environmental economic application of discount rates and future discounting is to problems of environmental degradation. According to discount rate theories, humans are currently using nonrenewable natural resources at an unsustainable rate because we discount the future highly, and therefore, see little value in preserving resources for future generations to use. We mine ore and minerals, degrade arable lands, and pollute the air and water largely because the discount rates we currently perceive are high. If we were to assign lower discount rates, we would find that the present value of resources used in the future would be higher, and thus worth preserving.

What on earth has this to do with nuclear power and the aforementioned book excerpt? Recall that in the passage, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires any long-term nuclear waste storage facility to be guaranteed safe, secure, and “accountable” for one million years. One million years. By saying this, they are saying that they value the safety of generations of humans living one millions of years from now to such a high degree (meaning, they assign a sufficiently low discount rate) that they believe it is worth a huge present effort to secure and guarantee such a waste storage facility that long.

One more fact: “The estimated cost to the United States of dealing with waste from decades of nuclear activities in ways that ensure the public would receive no more than a very low does for the next ten thousand years will probably total, in ballpark terms, in excess of $350 billion” (Cravens, 2007, p 268; italics mine). Three hundred and fifty billion dollars just to guarantee safety for the next ten thousand years. I don’t think I can even fathom the possible cost to guarantee a long-term nuclear waste repository for one million years.

Stop and digest those last few paragraphs for a moment: We do not value the future enough (the discount rate perceived is high) to preserve natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, even clean air and water, but we value generations a million of years in the future so highly (assign an exceedingly low discount rate) that we justify spending an exorbitant, nigh, unconscionable amount of money researching and developing a long-term nuclear storage site that will still be secure and impenetrable one million years from now.

I am not making any position statements about nuclear power here. I’ll save that for another post. I am merely making the point that there seems to be a discord here in the way we value the future. Our collective fear of nuclear power and radiation and its possible effects blinds us, precluding rational benefit-cost analysis. We demand our government make huge expenditures to secure a long-term nuclear repository, yet we do not demand that they make similar investments in strategies to prevent or at least curb climate change and its innumerable looming negative consequences. We damn nuclear power and proclaim the unacceptably (but largely unsubstantiated) high risks associated with nuclear reactor meltdown, terrorists obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material, and cancers due to radiation exposure, yet we barely bat an eye at the (empirically observable) smog generated from fossil-fuel dependent cars, or the smoke, carbon dioxide, and toxins belched from coal-fired power plants.

Human beings are largely myopic, yes. But we are also largely rational. We have been taught to properly weigh the pros and cons in rational decision-making, and choose the alternative where the pros outweigh the cons. However, sometimes in our policies, we can become blinded by our fears and special interests. With respect to the degradation of the environment, this is not only irrational, but also dangerous. With each passing year, we ignore the impending environmental crises, making token actions and statements, but never really facing up to the ecological limits of our planet. It is time to start looking at the costs and benefits again – this time, with the limits in mind -, reassess our priorities and our policies, and reexamine our discount rates. Only once we recognize the need to place greater value on the future – our own future – will we be able to craft policies for a sustainable world.

*For those of you interested in the math, the present value (PV) of anything is equal to the future value at time t (FVt) divided by the sum of the interest rate (r) plus one to the t power, where t is the number of years in the future:

PV = FVt/[(1+r)^t]

Conversely, the future value at time t of anything is equal to the present value times the sum of one plus the interest rate to the t power:

FVt = PV*[(1+r)^t]

For those of you exceedingly intrigued by the discount rate concept, the present value of an infinite future stream of benefits (PVi) is equal to the present value divided by the discount rate:

PVi = PV/r

For more information, the following is an excellent discussion on the concept of discounting:

Harris, J. M. 2006. Resource Allocation over Time. In Environmental and Natural Resource Economics: A Contemporary Approach, 2nd ed. (pp.90-105). Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Book review: The Land Remembers, by Ben Logan

The Land Remembers I just finished reading Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers. If any book I have read captures the ideals of stewardship of the land and preservation of family and community, this book is it. Logan writes beautifully of his childhood in the so-called driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin. One reviewer of the book commented that the book brought him to a place he wishes he remembered. This is immensely true; Logan’s boyhood home is a place I wish were in my past. With their order dictated by the flow of the seasons, Logan’s vignettes of home, family, the natural world, community relationships and more explore the fabric and definition of a full life.

Part-memoir, part philosophy, Logan writes of a communion between humans and the earth. Many of the vignettes in The Land Remembers state outright that the relationship most farmers in the first half of the 20th century had with the land was much more sustainable than the current interaction between modern industrialized agriculture and the land it exploits. The old way of farming relied on an understanding of the land that goes beyond just what it can give to humans. Logan’s farm family had a deep respect for the land and what it needs to stay healthy. Logan also acknowledges, however, that European farmers were not always on the land; long before Europeans or even Native Americans came to the hilltops of the driftless area, the land was there, and long after humans leave the area, the land will be there. There is a recognition of something larger than ourselves in Logan’s writing, similar to that found in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For me, the book embodies the strong sense of community that I hope I can someday cultivate in my own life and work. Logan’s story emphasizes elements of a strong community – I think intentionally so – and doesn’t hesitate to conclude that strong community and family ties are key to a healthy life and a healthy earth. Logan has strong ties with his parents and his three brothers growing up, and continued to maintain these ties throughout his life. There is also in the book a clear sense of connection between oneself and family and neighbors and other members of the community. Logan speaks often of the mailman, how this individual is more than just someone to deliver the bills but also a source of local news, gossip and entertainment. The mailman’s daily coming is a way to mark both the time of day and the passage of the seasons. Sociologists of education would call this extended role relations, or interacting on more than one plane with individuals in your community, a healthy way of learning new knowledge and about ones role in the community. In contrast, modern interactions between individuals within a community tend to be more limited (e.g. your see your teacher only within the classroom where she has the ultimate authority and encountering her outside the classroom is a rare and awkward experience; or, the mailman is just the mailman, without a name, personality or presence outside of his job). Logan’s experience is of a world that has a slower pace, more meaningful interactions between people, and greater ultimate purpose.

It is rare when one encounters a book so beautifully written and rich with narrative detail that you can actually see the place written of. But to have a book both beautiful and rich and that captures the ideals I wish to promote in my own life and career is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. I recommend Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers for both young and old, the modern and traditional, for those looking for something to entertain and those looking for something with deeper meaning.

(Photo credit: Barnes & Nobel.)

Conkey’s Bookstore is closing, the world is changing

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.  Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey’s Bookstore – the oldest independent bookstore in Wisconsin, a critical part of downtown Appleton, my place of employment through my four years at Lawrence University, where my mom took me for a cup of hot chocolate after the Christmas parade when I was a little girl, the place so many Appletonians rely on year after year for their Christmas gifts, birthday cards, and unusual book orders – is closing after 113 years of business.

An article in the Appleton Post Crescent last week gave the details of the store’s reasons for closing, so I will not go into those here. For me, and for many, the closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is much more than a news item.

The closing of Conkey’s is more than the loss of another independent bookstore in a community. It’s the loss of a way to make a livelihood for the store’s many full-time employees. It’s the loss of a neighborhood bookstore alternative to heading out to the mall for the residents of downtown Appleton. It’s the loss of a place to get cards, books and gifts for its thousands of loyal customers. It’s the loss of an anchor store for the many local businesses located on downtown College Avenue.

The closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is also a symbol of the direction this world is going in. The McDonaldization of America is often used by sociologists as a metaphor for the takeover of the so-called standardized, predictable, mass marketable, and “economically efficient” in modern American society. McDonaldization as a concept could have just as easily been termed WalMartization. The Big Box stores and chain fast food dives are beating out the small local businesses and ma and pop restaurants. Add this to the recession that is taking its toll on all businesses, large or small, local or chain, and the closing of another independent bookstore doesn’t seem so unlikely or surprising to today’s reader.

But the loss of independent businesses of all types means the loss of the individuality and character that comes with the businesses. Conkey’s has been in Appleton for over one hundred years. It has that charm of an old business, and it used to thrive on the services it provides, such as out-of-print book ordering, and the knowledgeable employees who can recommend a book for anyone. There is an one of those old rolling ladders inside, the kind that nowadays is only seen in movies or in pictures of old libraries. It has the charm of a bookstore that has been there forever. Conkey’s has been in downtown Appleton for longer than living memory.

Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the benefits of independent businesses to communities. One of the more often sited facts I’ve come across is that for every dollar spent at a locally owned business, approximately 60 cents returns to the local economy through wages, investments, and more. Compare this to every dollar spent in a Big Box or nationally owned chain, only 40 cents of which returns to the local community, and it’s clear that locally-owned, independent businesses support community much more than chain stores. Local businesses are also more likely to give donations to charitable causes than chain stores, because there is less corporate mumbo-jumbo to hurdle to get the donation to go through. Local businesses also collaborate frequently with each other, creating a social network of individuals and businesses that can support and cross-publicize one another.

Customers have come into Conkey’s over the past weeks, since the news of our closing was published, and all have lamented the fact that we will be closing our doors after so many years. It really is a tragedy. The oldest independent bookstore in the state of Wisconsin is closing after over a century of business. I think deep down we’re all sort of hoping for a miracle, that some one will be interested in buying the place and keeping it in business. Or that by some sort of divine intervention, business will take a drastic upward turn and we’ll be able to stay open. Or someone will come up with a brilliant business plan to turn Conkey’s into a co-op, like a bookstore in Shorewood, Wisconsin will hopefully soon become.

For me personally, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. It can’t be really happening. The community will find a way to keep Conkey’s open. It’s been such a downtown icon for so long. I’ve had two dreams since I found out Conkey’s was closing. In the first, I’m walking down College Avenue in Appleton and nearly every store is closed and boarded up. In the second dream, I’m talking to customers in the store and I finally start crying, letting out all the welled up grief and tears I have for the fate of the bookstore. I woke up sobbing.

It’s especially disheartening to find the store to be closing as I embark on schooling for a career in sustainable communities. Integral to the health of a community is the health and sustainability of its local businesses. Without places like Conkey’s to provide valuable services like book selling in downtown districts close to where people live and work, residents of communities are forced to get into their cars and travel to large shopping malls for their everyday needs. Local grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing shops, schools – in a sustainable community, these every day places should be within walking or biking distance of every resident. But as more and more local businesses and shops close and are out-competed by the malls and the Big Box stores, community citizens become more and more dependent on their fossil fuel powered vehicles. How can we be otherwise, when stores are farther and farther from our homes, and public transportation in most smaller cities and towns is awful?

It’s easy to sit and lament all the things that will be lost as Conkey’s closes. To berate the Big Box stores and the economy and the internet for forcing the little guys out of business. However, when I become angry at the whole situation, I have to remind myself of what one of Conkey’s loyal customers said the other day. We should have a big party here, she told us. It’s sad that we’re closing, but Conkey’s has had a great run of it for 113 years. We should have a big party, with all of the community invited, to celebrate a century of life. When a 113 year old dies, she said, you don’t have a funeral, you have a party, celebrating a good, long life!

I will miss Conkey’s. I had been planning on coming home to visit the place when I come home for Christmas during the next few years for my yearly walk down memory lane. With the store closing, residents of Appleton and graduates of Lawrence will all have to rely less on the store as a place to conjure nostalgia for our childhoods, and more on the fond memories inside our heads.

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)

The Evolution of a Sustainable Mindset

Trips to Northern Wisconsin to fish and swim at my grandparents cottage, digging in the garden in my grandpa’s backyard, family vacations to the wilderness of the American West, nature walks around the neighborhood picking up rocks and sticks, living in a house full of books on science and nature. These are the experiences that shaped my interest in the natural world around me. The more I learned of the natural world through experience, the more I wanted to read about it through books. I’ve always been someone who has loved ideas and books. Growing up, nearly every open wall of my house was filled with bookshelves and books. Year after year, they piled up on coffee tables and countertops. I picked up a new book nearly every afternoon when I came home from school. They were full of new ideas, possibilities, and knowledge. Throughout the course of my high school and college education, as my interest in science solidified, I began to read books on the well-being of the environment and the people who live in it. The evolution of my desire to have a career in sustainability can be traced through several key books I have encountered throughout high school and college.

When I was a junior in high school, I was assigned a final project in American History to examine American environmental history over the ages. As part of this project, my mom gave me the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. I was enamored with the way these masters of sustainable design described processes of industrial production where every waste was a resource, and all facets of society incorporated concern for the environment, the economy and society. This “cradle to cradle” production (as opposed to the current “cradle to grave” methodology where materials go from extraction to consumption to waste) and “triple bottom line” of consideration are key elements of a sustainable society, whose definition I also came across as part of this project. The Brundtland Report (also titled “Our Common Future”), born of the 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED), defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet those needs.” This vision fit directly with the principles outlined in McDonough and Braungart’s book. More importantly, it made sense to me on a personal level. Such a vision aligned with the teachings of my parents, who, while ordering paper and cleaning products from Seventh Generation, told me about the importance of preserving the Earth’s resources for use seven generations from now.

In my freshman year of college, I took a course on International Relations and wrote a term paper making the case for collaborative environmental sustainability in a globalizing world. In addition to reviewing the Brundtland Report and Cradle to Cradle for this project, I also discovered the principles presented in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, the Easter Island story, Lester Brown’s Eco-Economy, Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, and a number of other books on environmental economics, sustainable development, and the future of the social and natural world. The research for this term paper supported my conclusion that sustainability is not just necessary for continued human society but also possible.

This past spring, I picked up a book in my family’s living room entitled The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Louv’s research on the importance of “nature play” – time spent in the outdoors – both for robust and healthy mental development in children and for maintaining mental health in adults further solidified what my own experiences in nature as a child had taught me. Playing outside, exploring and discovering the intricacies of nature taught me about how things worked, and developed in me a keen interest in science and biology. Reading Louv’s empirical approach confirmed for me the necessity of preserving natural spaces within easy reach of every person, especially in cities, in order to maintain a healthy society.

At the end of this summer, I heard about community study circles that were starting in the Fox Cities to investigate sustainable development right here in my own community. Using the book The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti as a guide, these study circles brainstormed possibilities for implementing the Natural Step principles in our community. This book, which discussed the principles and methods for creating sustainable communities, was instrumental in confirming my desire to work at the level of municipal governments, businesses or institutions to implement real change in policies and practices, and to plan to meet a vision of a sustainable world. My experience in this study circle has brought perspective to the academic knowledge of sustainable development I gained from the previously mentioned books and research projects. Through discussion with citizens of the Fox Cities area about the possibilities for a sustainable community, I have become excited about the opportunities for creating sustainable policies and practices in our communities.

My environmental education, through both books and academic research, has taught me that the challenge of creating a sustainable future is not solely about developing practices that prevent the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources; it is also about commitment to more equitable distribution and use of the world’s resources. Developed nations, and those in the upper segments of all societies, currently consume far more than their fair share of natural resources, while contributing to a polluted environment that disproportionately diminishes the quality of life of those in poverty. Sustainable development – whether in a rural village in the developing world or an urban center in America – can help increase the health and well-being of all members of society.

My personal and academic reading continues, and with every new book or article, I become aware of some new aspect, method, or principle of sustainability. I look forward to continued deeper research into these methods, as I develop my own experience and credentials for future use in working with communities, businesses or organizations toward creating sustainable practices and contributing to a healthier earth.

(This essay was originally written for graduate program applications.)