Category Archives: Culture Change

How human cultures change, and the tools for managing change and promoting changes for the better.

Adventures at AASHE

MYMatAASHE2017Thanks to support from many friends and relatives (and a scholarship from some conference sponsors that covered my registration) I just got back from the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education conference in San Antonio, Texas.  I presented a poster, Higher Education for Sustainability in Asian Contexts, about the book (Education for Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia). Higher Education for Sustainability in Asian Contexts poster for AASHE 2017 Conference

I also delivered a one-hour workshop on Techniques to Foster Interpersonal Competences (slidesreferences | metaphors worksheet). The workshop participants seemed to enjoy the event, and were especially enthusiastic about the section on language and metaphors, and the 1-2-4-All activity from Liberating Structures. I met many wonderful people doing great work to improve the ways that higher education institutions can serve the interests of sustainability for future generations on earth.

A few things I learned about:

It was so inspiring to meet so many passionate and effective change-makers. Thanks  to logo2x and logo-text for sponsoring scholarships so some of us could attend, and special thanks to all of those who supported me on GoFundMe.

Career Panarchy

Life often reflects some of the key concepts we systems thinkers discuss around change in complex adaptive systems. Nonetheless, it can sometimes be surprising when you notice them clearly reflected in the more vexing systems problems of your own life. I was thus surprised when I noticed that my post-Ph.D. career trajectory has followed the Panarchy model of cyclic change. This perspective may be helpful in making sense of the transitions and transformations that we all face as our careers unfold. Below, I outline the model, and provide my experiences as an example. My hope is that this can help you to apply the Panarchy model to your own career history, and consider your career future.

The Panarchy model  describes four major phases of change and development in complex adaptive systems. The initial descriptions of these phases were based on studies of ecosystems, but they are broadly applicable as metaphors in other complex adaptive systems (organismal, social, technological). The four phases are in a loop, so one could, in principle, start anywhere. Traditionally, we start by looking at the r-phase (exploitation and growth) where a new system is just beginning to take root and use available resources to grow quickly. This is like the first seeds sprouting in ground scoured clean after a fire or flood. Next is the K-phase (conservation and stabilization), when the system growth slows as the system becomes more complex, diverse, interdependent, mature, and stable. Picture an old-growth forest, where almost all of the resources are cycled continually between centuries-old trees, undergrowth, and the animals and fungi that eat them and break them down. Typically a K-phase system becomes increasingly resistant to change.

Only as systems in the K-phase start to loose resilience, disturbances drive them toward collapse into the Ω-phase (‘omega’: release). The Ω-phase frees up resources that were once bound into K-phase processes and structures, making them available for new systems and functions.  This Ω-phase of creative destruction is typically followed by an α-phase (‘alpha’: reorganization), wherein new systems begin to organize from the resources released in the Ω-phase, presaging the transition to the rapid growth r-phase. The K- and r-phases can be seen as the ‘front loop’, when growth and productivity are most obvious, while the α- and Ω-phases are the oft-neglected ‘back loop,’ when most of the activity is hidden below-ground, as old structures are composted, or in small kernels of incipient change.


McCandless, Holley and Kimball talked about some of the traps that are often encountered as social systems cycle through these different phases in the Panarchy model. Systems can get stuck in the transition from the α-phase to the r-phase because of a “poverty trap.” There are insufficient resources available to successfully reorganize, there is no fertile ground for the next opportunity to grow and thrive. Systems can also get stuck in a “rigidity trap” between the K-phase and the Ω-phase, when aspects of the old system actively resist change. Resources remain tightly held within old patterns, and novelty is suppressed.

I have mapped this Panarchy model onto the cycles of my career path since I completed my doctorate. One could describe the completion of the Ph.D. program as the end of a K-phase followed by an Ω-phase. I knew that I could no longer continue to work on wild primate research, given my field experiences. Suspended_smI felt that the great apes that I so loved and had wanted to study were in too much peril. With my dissertation completed, my time, energy and motivation were available to focus on promoting the kinds of global systems changes that might improve their chances for survival. I wanted to transition to sustainability work, but I was unsure how and where to start. I did a little volunteering, but I could not find a way through that to build a career, given my student debt. I emerged into an α-phase when I was able to begin some consulting work related to sustainability and education, but at first this was not stable and failed to grow. Finally, I added some part-time anthropology teaching at my local community college.

This brought me into an r-phase in my career. I was able to teach classes up to the limit for adjunct employment. While I did this, I added in a lot of volunteer work at the college (focused on sustainability), in the hope that I could build a career there as an anthropology instructor and sustainability leader. I held the expectation that my extracurricular efforts at the college would improve my likelihood of being hired full-time, and poured all my resources of time and energy into the institution.

In the K-phase of my work at the community college, I developed good relationships with the members of my department and the college administration. I continued to innovate and do research related to teaching and learning for sustainability. I even received an award for my excellence as a teacher.  However, budgets were tight, and it was many years until the next full-time position became available in my field. I applied, and I was told I did very well in the interview. Nonetheless, the job was given to someone much younger, from outside the institution. This plunged me into the tumult of an Ω-phase.

After some soul-searching, I was able to push through to a new α-phase, concentrating on looking for career opportunities that were better aligned with my true calling: education for sustainability. I moved into my next r-phase with a postdoctoral research fellowship focused on sustainability pedagogy. My knowledge, skills and experiences grew rapidly during this two-year fellowship.

As I climbed through the K-phase of that endeavor, I built an international community of practice for sustainability education in Asia, and a broader network of colleagues working on education for sustainability. Because the fellowship in Singapore was limited to two years, I knew I needed to prepare for the next Ω-phase. Throughout the second year of the fellowship I was actively seeking my next job. I got a few interviews, but did not get any offers. To forestall the Ω-phase collapse, I took a pay cut and stayed on with my postdoctoral adviser while he had a small bit of grant funding, but the additional six months of job search I had while doing that work did not bear fruit. The Ω-phase to α-phase transition brought me back to the US. More applications went out, I got more interviews, but still no offers. I completed editing a book and co-authoring a research paper while continuing to search for new opportunities. I have remained this protracted α-phase for over a year now.

I find myself now in a poverty trap as I try to emerge into the next r-phase of my career. I know that one of the most useful things I can do in trying to find new work is to go to a professional conference and try to add new contacts to my network. Many months ago, I submitted a proposal to the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education to give a talk on the work that was the subject of the book I edited: Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia.  I had expected to have been hired in an academic position by the time I was preparing to go to the conference. That has not happened, and now I find that a year of little-to-no employment has left me unable to afford to go.

23631520_1504631789-0514The experiment I am now attempting is to get crowdfunding to help me out of this particular poverty trap. I set up a campaign on GoFundMe to raise the money necessary to attend the conference. My hope is that there are sufficient social network resources to overcome the lack of financial resources and escape this particular incarnation of the poverty trap. With help, participation in the conference will be a step into the r-phase of (re)building my career.

How does your career history map onto the Panarchy cycle? How have you dealt with poverty traps and rigidity traps that you may have faced during transitions?

Crowdfunding Career and Caring

Dear readers – can you

Help Me Get to Texas for Sustainability Education Conference and Hurricane Relief Volunteering

Please help me go to Texas to give a talk at the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education conference, and do some hurricane relief volunteering! This will be an opportunity for me to promote my book, make contacts to help with my career, and (if I get enough support) also contribute to much needed post-hurricane rebuilding efforts: all of this in service to a more sustainable and resilient future. Thanks for anything you can contribute!

Please share this with your friends. Your advice or further ideas is most welcome in the comments below.

The EfS Asia Book is published!

Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia,


the first book completed as a collaborative project within our community of practice, is now available. It was officially published on 15 August 2017.  [Correction: due to a printer delay, it was not officially published until 18 September 2017.]

The full reference is

Merrill, M.Y., Burkhardt-Holm, P., Chang, C.H.., Islam, M.S., Chang, Y. (editors),  2018. Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia. Singapore: Routledge. 296 pages. ISBN: 978-1-138-68141-5).

If you are an EfS scholar in Asia, please join our community – see the blog at


The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is one the government isn’t telling you about | Science Magazine

From Science article:

 …four lifestyle choices had a major impact: Become a vegetarian, forego air travel, ditch your car, and—most significantly—have fewer children.

The top ways to reduce your carbon footprint


Credits: (Graphic) J. You/Science; (Data) Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters (2017)

So, I’m good on #1 (child-free by choice); mostly there on #2 (I never drive, but I do bum rides, and at times my spouse has owned a car); technically good on #3, but I have taken some trans-Pacific flights, which are even worse, so… low marks on this one; only do #4 to the extent that green energy is in the local PG&E mix (currently 33%); #5&6 presume car ownership, so they don’t really apply; about 90% there on #7 (fish or chicken maybe once or twice a week, still some dairy and eggs); #8 again presumes cars – n/a; and generally good on #9-12. I suppose I can feel pretty good about myself today 🙂

But if you’re not there yet, don’t feel bad! Just do the best you can, and keep working at it. (Of course, it’s probably too late to send back any existing offspring you may have, but you might consider carefully whether to produce any additional biological progeny in the future.)

We don’t all have to change all at once, but change is vitally necessary. The more people start to participate in, expect and demand change, the more the culture around us will transform to make those changes easier for everyone.

千里之行… or



Declaring Independent Interdependence

The 4th of July is the day the United States celebrates its independence from external tyranny. What about the forms of tyranny and oppression that are inherent in our country today? Here are a few responses I propose for 2017.

Option 1: Start a Community

One notion to fix some of what is broken in U.S. politics is to help shift the population of a swing district by encouraging progressives to move there and get active. Inspirations for a new community include Gaviotas, Occupy! and the cooperatives around the world.  I’ve created spaces where people can share and contribute their ideas on GoogleDocs and wikispaces.

Option 2: Update the Constitution

Electoral colleges, 3/5 person-hood, Prohibition… this document is really showing its age. It might be time to start a new one, keeping the best of what the US Constitution still has to offer, but clearing out the useless or dreadful junk from bygone centuries, and perhaps even getting some fresh ideas into it, like the Equal Rights Amendment (does 94 years old still count as “fresh”?).

Most liberal democracies—including the nice, stable ones in Western Europe—amend their constitutions with great frequency.

Once again, collaborative editing to the rescue! I’ve posted the full constitution as a GoogleDoc and on wikispaces.

Option 3: Declare Interdependence

As ever, with gratitude to JoodyB for all her amazing ideas: Re-imagining Independence Day invites you to celebrate, and even come up with a New Declaration.

“…a little rebellion now and then is a good thing…”
~Thomas Jefferson, 1787


The Guardian: Rural distrust of urban elites & city bike innovations

Another look at how Americans became polarized between small-town and big-city voters and the creation of the red/blue divide in the USA, this time from The Guardian.

It’s no secret Donald Trump benefited from rural voters. But Democrat or Republican, they usually tell Katherine Cramer – who has spent a decade visiting residents of small-town Wisconsin – the same thing: it’s the cities that get all the breaks, and then have the gall to look down on them, too

Also, don’t miss The Guardian‘s many articles around Velo-City 2017 this week, including:


Project Drawdown, Part 1

Tonight I will have the great good fortune to see Paul Hawken speak about Project Drawdown (and especially the newly-released book Drawdown) at one of my favorite places in the world: Bookshop Santa Cruz.  drawdown_book_cover

Project Drawdown is an amazing effort, documenting over 80 solutions for reducing carbon emissions or sequestering atmospheric carbon to mitigate climate change and reduce global warming. Each solution is meticulously researched, with extensive references on the website. The Drawdown team provides an estimate of the potential greenhouse gas reduction, the likely net cost of implementation for said reduction, and the likely net savings from other benefits of implementation.

The book itself is reminiscent of last-decade’s beautiful WorldChanging – more like a magazine than a complete narrative, brimming with inspirations for making a positive change in the world, illuminated by compelling photos that bring delight with every turn of the page.

One thing I would have liked to see in the book, and one thing I hope to see in the future from Project Drawdown, is a connection to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. There are already efforts underway by academics to articulate the linkages and intersections of the different SDGs. Global Goals SDGsProject Drawdown clearly is focused on lucky 13 (Climate Action), but almost all of the solutions proposed have intersections with one or more other goals. It would be amazing to begin articulating the trade-offs and synergies of these in a rigorous, evidence-based way.

SingaporeAlleyDrawdown is a book that is meant to be flipped-through rather than read sequentially. In one of those moments of odd serendipity, the first page I flipped to had a picture of air conditioners in Singapore, similar to this one that my husband had taken in an alley between Circular Road and Boat Quay. The solution in question was actually the one they rated #1 for its potential to reduce global warming: Refrigerant Management. Air conditioning is ubiquitous in burgeoning tropical cities like Singapore, a symbol of prosperity.

When I was there at conferences earlier this month (Education for Sustainability in Asia and the Singapore Sustainability Symposium), someone joked that Singapore has two seasons: outdoors and indoors. Outdoors is always steamy and usually approaching 30°C (86°F). Indoors is very chilly, requiring jackets and therefore comfortable for men in business suits. When I first arrived in Singapore, I noted that a big part of their energy cost is the culture of business attire. Part of refrigerant management may in fact be a change in that aspect of culture – completely inappropriate for equatorial climates. 2015-02-02 14.03.57Of course, places like NTU generally prioritize technological fixes over social ones, but at least they were making some progress on that path. The Hive at NTU features passive cooling and a silent, fan-less, convection-based chiller for the classrooms. Such engineering-oriented solutions have the benefit of providing locked-in infrastructure for reliable savings, but they are more expensive and potentially much slower to implement than changing behavior.

I’m sure I will have more to say about  Project Drawdown soon after tonight’s event – stay tuned…

[minor updates May 26th: “Only” 80 solutions are fully researched and documented, plus there are descriptions of many “coming attractions.” I was able to ask Paul Hawken about the connection to the SDGs – his reply was mainly that there wasn’t sufficient room in the book to get into those. More to come…]

Earth Day & March for Science

I’m heading to the lovely Santa Cruz March for Scienceonlinesquare and Earth Day celebration, and wanted to share a song to celebrate that:

(You can also see the lyrics to IFLS hereHank Green has lots of other nerdy science songs, plus SciShow and Crash Course, and I guess I’m a fangirl.)

Happy Earth Day!

The Education and Sustainability book is in press

In case you’ve been wondering why you haven’t heard much from me lately, for the last few months I’ve been busy preparing the manuscript that just went to the publisher.  I can now officially say the following are “in press” (and not just “in preparation”):

Merrill, M.Y., Burkhardt-Holm, P., Chang, C.H.., Islam, M.S., Chang, Y. (editors), Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia.  (edited volume at Routledge, Singapore, due out mid-2017)

Merrill, M. Y. Introduction: Education for Sustainability in Asian Contexts, (Chapter 1). In M. Y. Merrill, P. Burkhardt-Holm, C.-H. Chang, M. S. Islam, & Y. Chang (editors), Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia (pp. tbd). Singapore: Routledge.
Chang, Y., Dang, T.Q.T., Merrill, M.Y.  Economics Approaches to Sustainability: Methods and Applications, (Chapter 3) in M. Y. Merrill, P. Burkhardt-Holm, C.-H. Chang, M. S. Islam, & Y. Chang (editors), Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia.  (pp. tbd). Singapore: Routledge.
Merrill, M. Y., Chang, C.-H., & Burkhardt-Holm, P. Conclusion: The Current State of Higher Education for Sustainability in Monsoon Asia, (Chapter 17).  In M. Y. Merrill, P. Burkhardt-Holm, C.-H. Chang, M. S. Islam, & Y. Chang (editors), Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia (pp. tbd). Singapore: Routledge.

The book emerged from the conferences and community of practice I helped to organize around themes of Education for Sustainability in Asia. We had chapters that were submitted by authors in Singapore, Malaysia, India, South Korea, Thailand, China (mainland, Hong Kong and Macau), Indonesia and the Philippines.

More than half the world's population lives within 4100km of Guiyang, Guizhou Province, Southwest China.

There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it.
You may remember that putting this book together was a process I started a couple of years ago, not long after I started my job in Singapore:

For the Introduction to the book, I updated and reconsidered these comparisons (for the countries that are actually included in the book).  The conclusion then looks at how those contexts relate to the differences described in the preceding chapters. It also makes some comparisons between those efforts toward Education for Sustainability (or Education for Sustainable Development) in these countries of monsoon Asia, and some examples from Europe (the Master’s in Sustainable Development program Patricia Holm chairs at University of Basel) and North America (the Sustainable Cultures class I designed and taught at Cabrillo College).

It’s so good to have this stage of the project done! Now, back to that job search