Category Archives: Culture Change

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

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

How do living systems ‘prepare, leverage and bounce back’ from times of crisis?

Rachel Hahs posted some amazing biomimetic analogies and questions for understanding how we respond to our current time of crisis and transformation through a contemplation of how nature expresses resilience after catastrophes like fire — such nutritious food for thought in this solstice season!

…[H]ow do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?

[READ MORE]

Here are some preliminary responses I had to her article:Seedlings and old cone after fire, Yellowstone NP, USA; Wikimedia Commons

For the weedy, pioneer species strategy, I suspect that one of the most important things to think about as ‘seeds’ are small packets of information that are inexpensive and easy to broadcast (e.g. blogs and other social media). The trick is to produce seeds/memes that can easily reach and germinate in the disturbed ground, then grow and reproduce successfully from there. If the disturbed ground in question is the disrupted and uncomfortable mental spaces that many of us find ourselves in, we need to consider what structure is most likely to reach such a target. What resources are likely to be available when the seed reaches that ground, to nourish and support its growth and reproduction?

Espengruppe (Populus tremula) in der Nähe der Lahnquelle, Gemeinde Netphen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland; Wikimedia Commons - selbst fotografiert von Nikanos CC BY-SA 2.5In terms of the prairie’s and aspen’s strategies, thinking deeply (pun mostly intended) about what safe, underground networks we already have in place is an important strategy.
We can be grounded (ooh, there’s another) in the community connections we already have; strengthening this existing network, sharing resources, signaling one another about dangers and opportunities we have detected, we do the same work as the rhizosphere in many thriving ecosystems to preserve the resilience and diversity of the community. The idea that this rhizosphere must be protected from the devastating changes at the surface might be an argument in favor of finding ‘underground’ ways to keep these communities strong (be they old-fashioned face-to-face meetings or A. One end of a trench used in excavating root systems. B. Distichlis spicata, showing the long rhizomes and shallow roots. J. Weaver (1919) The ecological relations of roots.conscientious privacy measures and enhanced encryption of key electronic communications for more extended communities). I also really appreciate Rachel’s question about ‘sacrificial parts’ – what can we safely give up to survive the time of crisis, without risking the roots? My inclination here is to think about the parts of our lives that we have normalized, but that on deeper consideration we could get by without (perhaps even do better without).

There is much deeper that this biomimicry work can go, seeking even more analogies based on the biology of resilient species and ecosystems. What ideas arise for you? What ways for responding to catastrophe can we learn by engaging nature as model, measure and mentor?

This Year’s Thanksgiving Thoughts

It is the eve of Thanksgiving in the United States, and in keeping with my annual tradition, I’d like to remind you that Friday is Black Friday Buy Nothing Day (and also to let California readers know that our State Parks are offering free passes so you can enjoy some time out in the fresh air instead of shopping). And of course, there is yet more to say about the complex relationship between the land of North America/Turtle Island, the first people who came here over 10,000 years ago, and the more recent immigrants to this continent.
If you have been following the news from Standing Rock, you know that a new generation of indigenous land and water protectors is under attack from some of these more recent immigrants. What this says about our nation, our priorities, and our future ranges from inspiring to alarming.
But rather than focus on current events, I’d like to wander into the past for a bit. About a month ago, my friend Joe asked a question for a class he was teaching. He and his students wanted an anthropologist’s perspective about the first steps toward modern technological society in Europe, and what advantages Europeans might have had in “getting there first.” He was wondering if “Guns, Germs and Steel ” were some of the answers.
If you have not read it, Guns, Germs and Steel is actually well worth the read – good writing and some brilliant insights (though not without its critics, e.g. Tomlinson 1998).  The title is a bit misleading: guns and steel are part of the same issue (technological complexification). Guns actually had their origin in China, with the invention of gunpowder over 1000 years ago, and its use in weapons by 1200CE (Haw 2013). Guns made their way into European warfare by 1324CE (DeVries 1998). Steel was produced much earlier, with some evidence from western Asia (in what is now Turkey) as early as 1900BCE (Akanuma 2008).
Germs were SO much more of an issue in the European conquest of the Americas, resulting in a loss of perhaps 95% of the pre-Columbian human population (Montenegro & Stephens 2006). Many indigenous populations were in decline and disarray due to exposure to European diseases before they actually saw any Europeans (Diamond 1997). The reason Europeans had so many contagious diseases was due to the kinds of animals that could be domesticated in the ‘Old World’ (versus the paucity of domesticatable critters in the ‘New World’), and the high human population densities that went along with intensive, livestock-supported agriculture.
And it was that kind of agriculture, and the energy surpluses it yielded (starting with human and animal labor) that made increased technological complexity possible, leading to innovations like steel, guns and internal/infernal combustion. In Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, Joseph A. Tainter (1996)  focuses on how and why complex societies collapse (short answer: diminishing returns on increased social complexity).
So, in essence, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were screwed because Europe’s aurochs could be easily domesticated into cattle, and American bison could not. Also, the first Americans had probably been involved in, and almost certainly were witnesses to, the early Holocene extinction of horses and camels in North America (had those indigenous species survived, it’s possible that North America would have been the first to develop complex civilizations, or at least been closer to on par with Europe, India and China). Despite the domestication disadvantage, several complex civilizations had come and gone in the Americas (Maya, Aztec, Inca).  Other North American peoples had a mix of agricultural and hunting/foraging subsistence  (Mississipian cultures, Pueblo cultures) or very rich foraging (Pacific Northwest cultures) as a basis for fairly high levels of complexification, including “permanent” settlements (sites occupied year-round, for decades or centuries), social stratification, pottery and metalworking.
Now, the reason it was western Europe, and not Persia or China or India or Egypt, that came to be the dominant culture of the last six or seven centuries is less clear.  I suspect it is mostly historical accident: Europe happened to be in a technological upswing as the other ‘Old World’ civilizations were in downswings.
One of the great challenges in looking at all this is (from this very recent perspective of the last several centuries) it seems like increased complexification and technological progress are normal.  From a deep-time anthropological perspective this is clearly not the case. About 96% of the time humans have been Homo sapiens (about 190,000 years), and among the vast majority of independent human cultures that were still intact a few hundred years ago, we’ve been low-complexity foragers with “stone-age” technologies and no “permanent” settlements.  Those are very successful, old-growth cultures. High-complexity cultures generally adopt a rapid expansion, weedy model of growth and invasion (even our choice of grain-based agriculture reflects this) – but there’s no evidence yet that such things can be built to last more than a millennium or two.
Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance - Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance  Lucky Pilgrims

So, one of the things you may be grateful for this holiday season is the opportunity to live at a time of such amazing social and technological complexification that we are able to investigate and consider the differences between old-growth cultures and weedy ones via nigh-instantaneous information access. Or, you know, you could be grateful for other stuff that’s maybe more pleasant (including our lovely California State Parks). Don’t forget Buy Nothing Day, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Ritual sacrifice with pie - Pangs (S4 E8):
References

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at Cracked.com provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.

Link

THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURES: A NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE

THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURESA NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE 24 October – 13 November 2016

from Resilience.org : Introducing … The Nearly Carbon-Free Academic Conference: The World in 2050 by John Foran

Scholars from University of Calfornia, Santa Barbara, wanted to see if they could reap most of the benefits of an academic conference without the huge carbon footprint associated with air travel. They have launched an interdisciplinary, online conference about climate futures:

…a conference where anyone could give a talk, no one had to fly to, and which anyone could attend and even participate in wide open discussions about the talks.

They thought that asking people to think about what the world would be like in 2050 would get a conversation going, and so they called the conference “The World in 2050:  Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures,” and they invited the whole world to attend for three weeks starting on Monday, October 24 by going to a website at

http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=14895

to see what was going on.

Then they stayed home and waited to see what would happen.