Category Archives: culture change

Video

Nurturing Asian Networks for Post-Secondary Sustainability Education

This is a virtual presentation I am giving for the Asian Conference on Education for Sustainability 2014.
The paper is by Michelle Y. Merrill, Youngho Chang, Md Saidul Islam and Chang Chew Hung
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

About: The part of the world that reaches from India to Japan and China to Indonesia holds nearly half the current human population, and accounts for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is under-represented in publications on Education for Sustainability (EfS) in post-secondary education. This presentation examines the progress and context of EfS in southeast, southern and eastern Asia, based primarily on an analysis of the proceedings of the “Sustainability in Education: Pedagogical Themes and Practices in Asian Countries” workshop hosted at Nanyang Technological University in February 2014. It discusses the approaches and conclusions of scholars working in over a dozen countries (including most ASEAN members, plus China, India, Japan, and South Korea) on questions of pedagogy for sustainability in secondary and higher education. Strategies for strengthening the social network of EfS higher education practitioners in this region will be discussed, with a view toward nurturing this growing community of practice with the knowledge, skills, access and mindsets required to educate future generations for sustainability.

You may also want to check out my take on sustainability in video form.

Reviewing The Systems View of Life

Zygote Quarterly has just published the review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, 2014) that I worked on as a co-author.  Like the other review authors, I think it is a useful and important book.  Capra and Luisi have attempted an integrated review of physical, biological, social and cognitive sciences, with some deep-ecology-inspired philosophy and spirituality thrown in for good measure.  It’s a big deal, and I’d recommend it to most readers.

I was very excited about participating in writing a review for the book, and co-authoring a review with a few other people was a very good process.  But there are things I had to say that couldn’t quite fit into the review we were writing together. Below are a few thoughts I had that were edited down or not included in the review.

Bad Anthropology

I did have some real problems with the book, in particular the chapter called “The human adventure.”  Some of these complaints and caveats were included in the review, but others were not, so I give them in more detail here.  Basically, I could have assigned Chapter 11 in an anthropology class as an exercise in looking for things that are either just plain wrong or open to different interpretations for my Intro to Biological Anthropology classes.

I was disappointed by the internal inconsistencies in Chapters 10 and 11 (“The quest for the origin of life on Earth” and “The human adventure”). As mentioned in the review they use some very linear, deterministic metaphors when talking about organismal evolution, despite their accurate and gratifying note in Chapter 9 that the process is NOT linear and deterministic.  For example,“The human evolutionary adventure is the most recent phase in the unfolding of life on Earth…” (p. 240) seems to imply that it was all leading up to us; “The first human species, Homo habilis, appears 4 minutes before midnight, evolves into Homo erectus half a minute later, and into the archaic forms of Homo sapiens 30 seconds before midnight,” (p. 241) ignores the many side branches of hominin relatives that were concurrent with these species.

This part of the book is further weakened by the fact that the authors chose to ignore many broader ecological contexts in which human evolution took place (not to mention all the other organisms evolving since the earliest eukaryotes). Their summary of human evolution also ignores changes to our scientific understanding of bipedalism and its context over the last decade (particularly in the last five years, including the important Ardipithecus ramidus finds).  Other research illuminating the extent of tool use and social learning in other species demonstrates that bipedalism and the “freeing of the hands” is not a pre-requisite for tool manufacture.  All great apes make tools, including the very arboreal orangutans.  Even species without hands, such as bottlenose dolphins and New Caledonian crows, make and use fairly sophisticated tools. (This was a big part of my 2004 dissertation: Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.)

Some other debates in evolutionary anthropology that are neglected include the notion of nuclear families and male provisioning in early hominins (p242-3; this has been contentious since the 1980s, and it’s not going away any time soon – I don’t think what they described as “widely accepted” is in fact widely accepted).  Also  on p243 they talk about Homo erectus as the first to leave Africa at 1MYA, but there is an interesting and more primitive hominin at Dmanisi, Georgia dated at about 1.8MYA that has been widely known by anthropologists since at least 2007 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/abs/nature06134.html).   Their depiction of European cave art as revealing a recent breakthrough in human cognition is also highly debatable; there is now evidence for other forms of art and similar cultural complexity that predate this in Africa, much closer to the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens (a good, accessible reference for this is Shea’s 2011 article in American Scientist www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.11845,y.2011,no.2,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

I went back and looked at a similar chapter that Capra had included in his 1996 book The Web of Life, and found that many of the examples in The Systems View of Life‘s Chapter 11 were taken directly from The Web of Life‘s Chapter 10, “The Unfolding of Life” in a sub-section also titled “The Human Adventure.”  A lot has changed in the field of anthropology in 18 years.  I’m disappointed that this wasn’t updated for the new book.

A Living Book-System?

One other thing that was not included in the final version of the book review was an admittedly half-baked notion of how to make something like a book into more of a living system.  This would have solved the problems, such as those with anthropology described above, by opening the writing up for input from scholars working in each field.

At this point the book itself is something of a dead organism, no longer able to dynamically respond to its surroundings (more like a stone than a dog – and can we please transform that otherwise useful distinction between reactions and responses on page 136 to something that doesn’t involve kicking dogs!).  Would this work embody the idea of a living system more readily as some kind of ongoing, tightly controlled wiki, with carefully managed permeability (like the crucial cell membrane), accepting certain incoming additions or replacements of information and rejecting others in order to maintain integrity and exhibit development through interactions with its environment? Such a work (no longer a book, but a kind of intellectual organism), if structured and nourished by careful systems thinkers, could prove even more useful than the book in its current form.

In other words, is there an transformation whereby a “book” can become more biomimetic, and operate in ways that reflect the cognitive and metabolic processes of living systems?

In the conclusion of our review in Zygote Quarterly, we do make a suggestion that readers find ways to engage with the work.  One option is online communities.  I set up a discussion group on Goodreads as one possible forum for this.

I met one of my dearest friends, the late Judy Bloomgardener, when I attended a talk that Fritjof Capra was giving at Bookshop Santa Cruz for the release of 2004’s The Hidden Connections. Judy was making her way through the rows of folding chairs, leaving fliers for starting a discussion group around the book.  I don’t think I actually talked to her then, but I did call the phone number on the flier and join the group.  We continued to discuss that book and many others, with groups as large as a dozen and as small as just the two of us.  These are some of my fondest memories, and I wish I had been able to talk with Judy about this book, too.  I encourage you to read it, and talk about it with your friends.

Interdependence~Independence Day 2014

Re-imagining Independence Day

It’s that time of year again, and I’m an ocean away from my home country.

Of course, I can’t let a Fourth of July pass without remembering my dear friend Joody, and our attempts to articulate and celebrate new thoughts appropriate to such a revolutionary anniversary.  So raise your own flagoccupy your worldget decolonized,  start your own currency and declare something wonderful today!

Again this year, I celebrate and embrace both, entwined as they are in their powerful dance.  I declare Independence ~ Interdependence!

In light of the Independence /Interdependence Day celebration, I found some related links:

A 2012 Declaration of Interdependence (a bit New-Age-y-Self-Help-y, but makes good points):

 

And if you are feeling a bit anti-patriotic, I can recommend some great readings from the Archdruid Report:

(Updated from my 2011 Inter-dependence Day Post, with a little from 2012 and 2013, because recycling is beautiful!)

Video

My take on sustainability, in video form

This morning I took a workshop on producing and editing screencast videos for the “flipped classroom.”  I chose to pursue my usual prey with my PowerPoint.  The results (including goofy headphones and wonderful, wandering workshop instructors) are visible here:

What is Sustainability vid start

 

So yeah, it could use a little more careful editing.  No telling when I’ll get around to making the “next segment” promised at the end.  But maybe it’s not entirely worthless?

And I was taking this training workshop at just the right time, as I’ve just been accepted to give a virtual presentation for the Asian Conference on Education for Sustainability.  I wish I could go in person, but it was a bit too pricey this time, and this way my carbon footprint is much lower.

Cheers!

Quote

In these times of change…

A fascinating new piece,

Want to Change the World? Read This First

by Richard Heinberg was published on Resilience.org.  He moves through important ideas from anthropologist Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism to Heinberg’s own important perspectives on the age of fossil foolishness.  Below are some highlights, but you should really read  the whole thing.

Oil has given us the ability to dramatically increase the rate at which we extract and transform Earth’s bounty (via mining machinery, tractors, and powered fishing boats), as well as the ability to transport people and materials at high speed and at little cost. It and the other fossil fuels have also served as feedstocks for greatly expanded chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, and have enabled a dramatic intensification of agricultural production while reducing the need for field labor. The results of fossil-fueling our infrastructure have included rapid population growth, the ballooning of the middle class, unprecedented levels of urbanization, and the construction of a consumer economy. While elements of the Scientific Revolution were in place a couple of centuries prior to our adoption of fossil fuels, cheap fossil energy supplied a means of vastly expanding scientific research and applying it to the development of a broad range of technologies that are themselves directly or indirectly fossil-fueled. With heightened mobility, immigration increased greatly, and the democratic multi-ethnic nation state became the era’s emblematic political institution. As economies expanded almost continually due to the abundant availability of high-quality energy, neoliberal economic theory emerged as the world’s primary ideology of societal management. It soon evolved to incorporate several unchallenged though logically unsupportable notions, including the belief that economies can grow forever and the assumption that the entire natural world is merely a subset of the human economy.

He means the failure to comprehend:

3REALMSX

…With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction. Increased energy efficiency [and, as outlined earlier in the article, the lower energy-return-on-investment array of renewable alternatives - ed.] may cushion the impact but cannot avert it. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology may increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.

And don’t forget:

Choose your assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. In any case, this is a big deal.
*          *          *
We are living at a historic moment when the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged perhaps as never before. When infrastructure changes, what seemingly was solid melts into air, paradigms fall, and institutions crumble, until a new societal regime emerges. Think of a caterpillar pupating, its organ systems evidently being reduced to undifferentiated protoplasm before reorganizing themselves into the features of a butterfly. [Not entirely accurate for what happens in butterfly metamorphosis, but close enough. - ed.] What a perfect opportunity for an idealist intent on changing the world!
It’s time to take up the role of doula and assist in the birth of a positive future. Let’s help this come out right!

More Quantification: Religion, History, Education, Literacy

Venturing into even more contentious territory than last week, I’ve compiled some more statistics for my study area.

Asia Religion, History, Higher Education, and Literacy

Some interesting findings in the religious diversity study just completed by Pew Research: half of the most religiously diverse countries are in Asia, and the most religiously diverse place on earth is right here in Singapore.

To capture some tiny summary of the history of colonial influences, I decided to only look at colonizers from outside the area, because power exchanges within the study area would really complicate things.  Of course, some of the more recent colonial issues were with pre-WWII imperial Japan, and various Chinese and Indian populations have been colonizers of other areas for millennia.

The calculation used to determine the percent enrollment in higher education was comparing the number of enrolled students to the population that is “college age” (usually 18-23). I expect South Korea has 101% because of either a fair number of older students (since enrollment includes graduate school) or foreign students who were not counted as part of the population statistic but were counted in the enrollment statistics.

Asia Religion, History, Education, Literacy info table

 

Asia relig hist ed lit data table

I also found a map that shows some of the colonial history.

 

Quality quantification? Comparing Asian Countries

In her recent, brilliant (as usual) video, “The Story of Solutions,” Annie Leonard admonishes that we should stop relentlessly working toward MORE and start emphasizing BETTER.

Trouble is, how do we locate BETTER?  How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from that goal?  How do we get the feedback we need, in a way that will be convincing to people across the ideological spectrum?  In other words, how do we measure our progress in ways that allow for useful comparison?  Here’s what Donella Meadows had to say on the subject:

Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. [from D. Meadows, "Dancing with Systems" 2002]

And yet, I’m a science nerd.  I ♥ numbers.  Can we get numbers, even with fuzzy definitions, just to give us some way to compare over time or across cultures?  If natural selection works by amplifying positive deviance, and we seek to emulate this most successful biological process, then we need a way to recognize those bright spots on the fitness landscape, so that we can foster them and encourage their replication.  We need feedback to know if we’re moving toward our goal of BETTER.  And, to quote Meadows again:

If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system cannot possibly produce a desired result.  Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. 138)

There are several indices out there that purport to measure something about our well-being and progress.  I’ve written before about the idea of Gross National Happiness. I’ve been investigating other available measures in relation to my current project to promote Education for Sustainability in the sixteen countries that represent half the world.

What is it that could be BETTER in this vast and complex system?  I’d venture almost everything in the nested sets of human economic, social and environmental interactions.

3REALMSX

These interdependent and interpenetrating systems interact in complex ways (go ahead, say that three times fast).  As discussed previously, economic aspects of these systems tend to be the first ones measured, because money is by its very nature quite amenable to counting.  There have also been some interesting attempts to measure global environmental health, and even to express environmental health in economic terms.  And there are some widespread attempts to measure things like social well-being, especially in terms of freedom. No such index is without controversy; all have limitations in terms of data validity, not to mention the challenges associated with trying to quantify important qualitative values (basically attempting to scrute the inscrutable).  Nonetheless, they are a place to start, so I’ve started there with my attempts to compare the current status of my sixteen countries.  Below are my tabulated results, with color coding to help our primate optics detect patterns more readily.  Click the link or image for the Excel spreadsheet.

Asia Economic Data by Country

First up, the oh-so-quantifiable economic measures.  The classic and deeply problematic way of representing the economic status of a country is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  To even begin to be a useful basis of comparison, this must be expressed in some kind of per capita way (otherwise, the fact that China’s GDP is so much bigger than Brunei’s is almost entirely attributable to the fact that there are over 3000 Chinese citizens for every single Brunei citizen). But as we move into the relationship between economic and social factors, another glaring discrepancy becomes obvious: the distribution of the wealth represented in the GDP is far from equitable.  Just how far is indicated by another index: GINI, utilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  A higher GINI coefficient indicates a more dramatic difference between the few rich and the many poor in each nation (Wikipedia is a good starting place for not only the definition and calculations, but also the limitations and controversies).  Also, GDP and GINI notoriously neglect certain aspects of what are usually considered important goals in economic development (e.g. health, education).  So UNDP factors those into another measure, the Human Development Index, which can then be further adjusted for inequality, to give some sense of progress (or lack thereof) toward the Millennium Development Goals.

Asia Economic Data by Country
Asia econ data table

Asia Political Ratings by Country

The above economic indices are also, of course, measures of social relationships in some sense. The following data and rankings move more explicitly into the social and political realm.  (One could argue that HDI more properly belongs in this set.) I’ve included a quick-and-dirty summary description of each country’s political system (thanks Google), and some indices related to freedom, as a shorthand for some of the crucial social systems at the national level.  Sadly, Gross National Happiness has not yet been measured for most countries.  There are lots of other things I could include here (dominant religions, years since independence from colonial powers, etc.); feel free to suggest other useful comparisons in the comments.

Asia political data by country Asia social data table

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

These are ratings that are more specifically connected to the human impact on the rest of the biosphere.  As they are in the realm usually investigated by the natural sciences (e.g. population biology, forestry and ecology), they are again more quantitative.  One particularly interesting rating is the Happy Planet Index, an attempt to measure the environmental efficiency of human well-being.

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

Asia enviro data table