Category Archives: culture change

Sustainability Strategies Sampler

I had to throw together a presentation for a Sustainability Salon at the beginning of this otherwise-very-busy-with-grant-writing week. Despite its hasty nature, I think there are some interesting and useful things in there. I tried to explain and organize some of the current sustainability mindsets/movements in terms of their visions of the future, whether these were more or less complex, globalized and high-tech, and how extensively they believed social, economic and cultural norms need to change to accomplish sustainability goals.

Sustainability Future Visions M Merrill 24 Aug 2015

I posted the description, with a PDF of the slideshow and my notes, at 24 Aug 2015 Sustainability Strategies Sampler.

Little humans on a big planet

Happy Earth Day!  I hope you enjoyed the Google doodle and quiz as much as I did (in my squiddy way, I ‘spose).  You can even get Google to match your donations to the Jane Goodall Institute  and other wildlife charities (Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, World Wildlife Fund, WildAid, Zoological Society of London and Virunga Fund), through the end of the month.  Such donations are a small thing, to be sure, but if enough people pitch in where money is being leveraged so cleverly, we can change outcomes for the better.

Google Doodle Earth Day 2015

However, there are some big problems that are not going to be solved by a little donation here, or a shorter shower there. These are great things to do, they’re not wrong, but they’re still not enough.  All indications are that we are tipping over into some serious crisis conditions, and we will not be able to just do the first 10 of the 50 Simple Things… or shop our way out of it. As a recent Union of Concerned Scientists blogger pointed out:

When we focus on the “human activities” that are causing climate change, we sound like we’re laying climate blame on things like using a washer and dryer, driving, flipping a light switch and other day-to-day things many humans in the developed world take for granted and that many humans in the developing world would very much like to do, too.

two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions...

The problems are big, and the biggest sources of those problems lie in the policies of governments and the actions of big industries.  The people who make the decisions about how much coal and oil is burned to run our economy are the tiny handful of humans with most of the ability to cause (or, one hopes, fix) the problems.  And as Utah Phillips is alleged to have said

The earth is not dying. It is being killed, and the people killing it have names and addresses.

What’s more, those people who bear the vast majority of the responsibility could fit into a small auditorium (or, say, a few dozen board rooms, plus the chamber of the US House of Representatives).

How do we get them to change their evil ways?  Well, that’s where our real power comes in, not as individuals, but as groups and communities.  We need to demand transparency, so that we can make informed choices.  We need to demand accountability, so that those who are most responsible for making the messes are the ones who pay the most to clean them up.  We need to demand justice, for the global billions alive today who did so little to cause the problems, and the coming generations who are blameless, but who would suffer so much if we do not make real changes.  And we need to demand sanity, so that the nearsighted self-interest of a few does not lead to catastrophe for all.  To make these demands, we must come together, share information, and refuse to be silenced.

We are primates that have undergone millions of years of evolution to specialize in social learning and creative problem-solving. The seven-billion-plus humans alive and breathing right now have a lot of potential.  We can do incredible things.  So, let’s decide to do them, together.  We haven’t got time to wait any more.

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Okay, now that I’m done ranting, I should probably go hug a tree :-)

Happy Earth Day!

A New Type of Thinking

The world we have made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.

Because attribution of sources is a big part of good scholarship, I went looking for the original source of this quote (often phrased differently, but almost always attributed to Albert Einstein).

What I found was things like:

Ah, searching for “Einstein” and “level of thinking” rather than “same level of thinking” turns up a much earlier example from The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Volumes 1-4, which is dated 1969 by google books though these snippets show it contains pieces from 1969 and 1970. The quote, on p. 124, is “The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level as the level we created them at.” It’s prefaced by “Einstein said an interesting thing”, and the same phrase and quote appears in a 1974 book by Ram Dass (who needs his own wikiquote page!), The Only Dance There Is, on this page, so presumably the one in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology is the same piece by Ram Dass.  []


In the interview by Michael Amrine titled, ‘The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men’ (New York Times Magazine – June 23 1946) Einstein says:‘Many persons have inquired concerning a recent message of mine that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels“.’ (p.7)

The source of that recent message is quoted in an article that appeared the month before titled‘Atomic Education Urged by Einstein‘ where the mircofiche archive copy of the article reports on an appeal by telegram to ‘several hundred prominent Americans’ on 24 May 1946 in a ‘Plea for $200,000 to promote new type of essential thinking’. The telegram was signed by the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with Albert Einstein as Chairman and the Federation of American Scientists. The text of that telegram is quoted in part and reads:

‘Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe… a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels… []

Of course, one can argue that the words and the source are not as important as the idea conveyed.  That notion that we have to think about things in new ways to resolve major problems is powerful.  I suspect that is why the quote is constantly rephrased and repeated, yet that essential message survives the transformations.


KSR: The question is…

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite science fiction writers.  His works include some of the better collapsitarian novels, The Wild Shore, Pacific Edge and Forty Signs of Rain, plus the brilliant Red Mars.  He gives a thoughtful response to the question “Is it too late?”

So on to the much better question: How much of the biosphere can we save? Similarly, how much of civilization can we save (and what parts do we most want to save)?

Sustainable Living, NTU Style

So, I’m finally moving into my first green building!  We’ve moved into one of the apartments at the top of Crescent Hall.  Erik has posted some pictures at, such as:

Crescent Hall, NTU, SingaporeClever features of this building include

  • the rainwater bioswale system you can see
  • shading structures to keep the direct sun out
  • some solar panels on the rooftops
  • double-glazed windows and insulation to keep the cool air in
  • air conditioners that are paid for with usage cards, so users can track how much that luxury is costing them
  • water heaters that benefit from waste heat from air conditioner use, and have “eco” mode (only heat on demand) as a default, and a vacation mode to not heat at all

Learn more about NTU’s sustainable building efforts here.



Thanksgiving, as Told by Wednesday Addams…

Thanksgiving, as Told by Wednesday Addams…

A great article that captures one of my favorite film moments, by Alexa Carrasco at Paste Magazine.

“Wait. We cannot break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours.”

And then comes, the monologue. The lines Christina Ricci delivered so bold, so dead-pan we didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hide our eyes in fear…

“Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs.”



Singapore’s outsized footprint

Singapore is putting some efforts into improving sustainability, but that doesn’t mean we’re outpacing the problem.

From Channel News Asia:

Singapore was found to have the seventh-largest ecological footprint [per capita]– a measure of the population’s demands on natural resources – out of more than 150 countries.

MtFaberStandard view - Photo by Erik S. Peterson

Read more: Lion City’s green ranking worsens

And then there was the transboundary haze at the beginning of the week:

Haze rating Monday night – mostly from fires on Sumatra.

So while there are glimmers of hope in the smog, it’s not all sunshine and roses here on the little island of Singapore.  There’s plenty of work left to do!