Thursday, September 22, 2011

Getting "Gaia'ed"

These experiences were shared in response to a prompt from a classmate to tell about times when we experienced deep connection to Gaia, or Mother Earth.

*When I was about five to six years old we lived on a small hobby farm in rural central Illinois.  We had a couple of acres replete with a small willow tree banked creek, dilapidated barn, a herd of goats and an open field.  We did not have a TV, so I spent my days playing outside.  The creek was pure magic, the barn was musty and mysterious, the goats were fun to frolic with and milk, but the field was my truly special place.  I would lay on my belly in the grass looking at all of the tiny life teaming around me or lay on my back watching the grass and trees sway and clouds drift by.  I remember feeling deeply content and at home in that little patch of earth. Definitely a part of a powerful whole.  I attribute much of my current love of nature and desire to recreate that little farm, goats, barn, creek, field and all as a part of my life dream.

*We moved a lot when I was young, at least every two years.  Although we have been in Maryland long enough for me to consider it my home state now, the place that I have called home throughout my entire life is Virginia Beach. I was born there, we returned there for a few years after our stint in Saudi Arabia, and we have visited my maternal family there multiple times a year for as long as I can remember.  I get my feet in the sand as soon as I can on every trip, preferably at a time of day when the beach is fairly empty.  Although I am not at home in the deep opaque water of the Atlantic, sitting at its edge watching the ebb and flow of the waves cleanses and revitalizes my soul like little else can.  I feel rocked and hushed by the vast maternal presence of the ocean and come away feeling like the world will be alright and my small part of it is worth contributing.

*The events that led me to live in California for a few years were rather drama filled. In short, a few days in to the cross-country drive to move from DC to San Francisco with my fiancé I broke off the engagement.  We moved into a 500 sqft studio with our two dogs and tried to heal the relationship for a few months.  I spent a LOT of time going to yoga and sitting on top of a hill with the dogs.  He spent a LOT of time working and drinking.  I did a tremendous amount of soul searching during that time and found seeking counsel from the wind and trees.  It may sound odd, but a country away from all my friends and family, nature was a great listener and a trusted companion.  There was a particular evening when I was grappling with the decision to leave for good and struggling with feelings of guilt, when I am quite sure the eucalyptus on that hill whispered a passage from “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountaindreamer that confirmed the decision I knew to be right and set me in motion to move on. 
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.  
If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Overview of Chapter 2 in A Primer for Environmental Literacy

This paper provides an overview of Chapter 2: The System in Frank B. Golley’s 1998 book, A Primer for Environmental Literacy.  An overview of the origin of the word system and its current definition leads into a discussion on natural systems, or ecosystems, which is the focus of Golley’s chapter. Special attention is given to three key attributes of natural systems, which is that they are open, have ecotones, and exhibit the property of emergence.  The paper concludes with a consideration of how natural systems, cultural systems, and economic systems may be viewed in an “ecosystem approach” framework that holds a place at its nexus for the systems thinking that will be instrumental in working towards a more sustainable and abundant future.

The word system has been in use since ancient times. It derives from the Latin words sunìstemi, which means uniting or putting together and systēma which means a whole compounded of several parts or members. Today, the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a system as consisting of “regularly interacting and interdependent components forming a unified whole”. This definition shares the essential elements with the definition Golley puts forward in Chapter 2: The System of his book, A Primer for Environmental Literacy (1998), which states that a system is an object that is made up of subsystems or components which interact in such a way that they have, collectively, a recognizable wholeness”. 
Although the basic definition of the word system is fairly agreed upon, the word itself is used in numerous unique contexts ranging from information systems, to cultural systems, economic systems, natural systems, and beyond.  Odum and Barrett (2005) explain natural systems as “containing living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) components that constitute biosystems, ranging from genetic system to ecological systems.”  The discipline of ecology is largely concerned with the larger ecological systems, or the collective functioning of communities of living populations and the non-living environment they occupy.  It is worth noting that the term ecosystem can be used to refer to general types of systems, such as estuarine bays, or to a site specific system such as the Chesapeake Bay which has a 64,000 square-mile watershed that is home to approximately 16 million people over its span of more than seven east coast states (EPA, 2004).  
Three key attributes of all natural ecosystems (not manmade ones like the Biosphere projects) are that they are open, have ecotones, and have the property of emergence. Open systems receive inputs from and give outputs to other systems.  As a result, they usually do not have well-defined boundaries like manmade systems typically do.  The term ecotone is used by ecologists to describe the “zone of interaction” of a system with its neighbors (Golley, 1998).  Ecotones may have fairly distinct boundaries, such as the interface between areas of forest and cleared land, or a more gradually blended gradient, such as wetlands, where species from each community will be found together along with unique local species. Permaculturists consider this “edge” to be a highly productive, dynamic part of a system. 
One of the most fascinating attributes of natural systems (and systems in general) is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is a simple way of describing the concept of emergence in which the interaction of the whole system produces something new and different that is not seen in and cannot be predicted by the individual parts (Golley, 1998).  Both Golley and Odum & Barret use the classic example of water to illustrate the property of emergence.  When hydrogen and oxygen are combined in a certain molecular configuration, water is formed – a liquid with properties utterly different from those of its gaseous components.
Based on these core attributes, half way through Chapter 2 Golley (1998) specifically defines natural systems as a “weakly bounded object made up of living and environmental components and processes that interact to form a whole.”  

Although Golley’s chapter on systems emphasizes natural systems, for the purposes of this course and our greater discipline of sustainability education, I found it interesting to reflect on the interplay between natural systems and other types of systems such as cultural systems (interaction of different elements of culture) and economic systems (people, institutions and their relationships to resources).  The Convention on Biological Diversity (nd), which I have evaluated for work, uses the “Ecosystem Approach” shown to the right as a framework to achieve their goals of integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.

The “integrated approaches” nexus of their van diagram model appears to be a place where systems thinking, or the process of understanding how things influence and connect to one another, can occur to create webs of connections to achieve sustainability, resilience, and abundance. Golley (1998) concludes his chapter on systems with the caution of avoiding the “machine thinking” that could easily be associated with the term system and encouragement to look beyond the analytical thinking that is typically the primary perspective of science, particularly in the US, to find the creative insight that comes more readily from systems thinking and synthetic experiences.

Reflections on completing my International Research Board (IRB) training

The dictum that "research studies are anticipated to make progress toward important, generalizable knowledge" may be fairly obvious but I also found it to be useful in how I think through my many ideas about the particular "slice" of inquiry I will focus on for my dissertation.  It seems like there will be an art to identifying a specific, appropriately narrowly focused research question whose outcomes will also be more broadly relevant.
Since the importance of children in creating sustainable communities is a running thread in my research interests, the portion of this training course focused on persons with diminished autonomy needing additional protections was particularly interesting to me.  I may not actually end up involving children directly in my research, but if I do I am glad to have an early awareness of special provisions that may be required to ensure their well-being. 

More broadly, I continue to be horrified by the cruelty that humans are capable of, both towards one another and to other living beings.  I noted that the Nuremberg code requires animal experimentation to precede human experimentation, which is understandable and often appropriate for medical research.  However, it was unclear whether the next clause "all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury should be avoided" also applies to animals - I think not.  This is deeply troubling to me, but I do greatly appreciate that Prescott applies the IRB process to non-human animal participants.  If anyone is interested in a VERY intense but powerful book that deals, in small part, with our history of research on animals, check out "A Language Older than Words" by Derrick Jensen. 

Looking at the history of formal protections for human research participants also triggered a line of thinking about whether it is a part of the human process for things to have to get so extremely bad before we start to put policies, laws and action into place to make them right?  Formal, national and international protections for human research participants were not necessary prior to the Nazi War Crime, the Syphilis study and other heinous acts.  Similarly atrocious environmental incidences spawned the environmental movement and the creation of environmental protection laws and policies.  Clearly there are still human rights and environmental protection violations taking place all over the world on a regular basis, but I wonder if our greater collective awareness about the need for beneficence, justice and respect is slowly creating a sea change towards a better model for how we treat each other, those we inhabit the earth with, and the earth at large?

Reflections on Mindful Inquiry by Bentz and Shapiro

My relationship with research to date could broadly be described as lukewarm.  The research projects I was required to do throughout secondary school and most of college were just that, requirements, which I typically did not find to be particularly captivating or illuminating. The research I did for my Master’s thesis was assigned to me because it was well funded, not because it aligned with my areas of interest. It primarily consisted of quantitative analysis of survey data and the more qualitative aspects were quite dry.  As a result, I did not particularly enjoy the development of my Master’s thesis and had trepidation about embarking on PhD research under other programs.
As I read the opening chapters of Mindful Inquiry, I realized that, ironically, positivism is at the root of the negative associations I have had with research.  I was unaware that I had been indoctrinated in positivism in my earlier education, particularly given how science focused my degrees have been. Now that I understand more of what positivism espouses, it makes sense to me that I always had a hard time with “pure” science and looked to balance it with ways of thinking that were more holistic and integrated. I am excited to be embarking on my doctoral inquiry and research in a postmodern era in which there is a challenge to positivism as the official scientific philosophy.  I resonate with the new (both historically and for me) ideas that a researcher should also be a philosopher and that research is improved by the mindful and reflective integration of the researcher into the process.  The shift into the postmodern era also seems to create the space for the constructive critique of modernity that I believe to be necessary in order to develop a new paradigm that will sustain an abundant future for all life.  
 While most of my research interests focus around the creation of sustainable communities and the reconnection of people with nature beginning in childhood, I have not yet clarified the specific question I want to delve into for my dissertation. Continuing to learn about the variety of methods now available for research in the social and human sciences will help me to better understand the type of new knowledge I am looking to create and how to most effectively obtain it.  One thing I am very clear about is that I am interested in knowledge that I can put into practice in my community. I do not want any more credentials that primarily gather dust on my resume; I want to do work that I am passionate about and that makes a tangible impact. The idea of a “scholar-practitioner” that is discussed in this book aligns with my ambitions beautifully. Although it is premature to hone in on any particular research methods, action research seems like it may be a particularly good fit and phenomenology, ethnography, and quantitative and behavioral science research also particularly peak my interest.
There was a lot for me to learn from this book and I eagerly marked it up with my green crayon. I found the spiral of mindful inquiry to be particularly helpful in creating a new framework for the research process that is creative, deeply personal and rooted in the broader context of my area of focus. As I begin to think critically about new concepts such as my personal ontology, I am struck by how much more there is for me to learn about myself as a researcher, about the process of mindful inquiry, and about sustainability education as a field. This environmentalist, middle-path seeking, status quo questioning, yoga doing, family-focused mom is looking forward to the journey of becoming a mindful researcher.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Small is Beautiful - Buddhist Economics

I just read a piece on Buddhist Economics by E.F. Schumacher and highly recommend it.  Visit for this nine page thought provoking essay.  Some of my favorite excerpts are:

Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence. From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern—amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results. For the modern economist this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the “standard of living” by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is “better off” than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.

Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—land, labour, and capital—as the means. The former, in short, tries to maximise human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption, while the latter tries to maximise consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. It is easy to see that the effort needed to sustain a way of life which seeks to attain the optimal pattern of consumption is likely to be much smaller than the effort needed to sustain a drive for maximum consumption.

People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.

From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale. Just as the modern economist would admit that a high rate of consumption of transport services between a man’s home and his place of work signifies a misfortune and not a high standard of life, so the Buddhist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success.

Modern economics does not distinguish between renewable and non-renewable materials, as its very method is to equalise and quantify everything by means of a money price. Thus, taking various alternative fuels, like coal, oil, wood, or water-power: the only difference between them recognised by modern economics is relative cost per equivalent unit. The cheapest is automatically the one to be preferred, as to do otherwise would be irrational and “uneconomic.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, this will not do; the essential difference between nonrenewable fuels like coal and oil on the one hand and renewable fuels like wood and water-power on the other cannot be simply overlooked. Non-renewable goods must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation.

For it is not a question of choosing between “modern growth” and “traditional stagnation.” It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding “Right Livelihood.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Arriving in Prescott

My first residency began on August 7th with a hike through a creek restoration project on the outskirts of the City of Prescott, Arizona.  That was a really nice way to begin to get to know the program faculty and the 23 other students who are embarking on this same journey.   The majority of the rest of our time here in Prescott will be spent in the school's Crossroads building, which houses the community gathering area. It is a beautiful building made of reclaimed materials and it sets a great stage for the work we are undertaking. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fall Semester Courses

During my first semester, I will be taking the following three courses:

Sustainability Theory and Practice in Education I
As one of the core foundational doctoral seminars, readings and discussion will reveal how the various themes in economy and ecology have evolved and in most cases the relation between them has been uneasy and even conflicting. Despite the fact that both economy and ecology originate from the same root oikos (or the household), the two disciplines developed without the necessary recognition of or integration with each other. While economists ignored nature, ecological scientists in turn pretended as if humans did not exist in their calculations of energy flow or population dynamic. Many attribute the
potential decline of techno-industrial economy due to this basic caveat. As Herman Daly and Joshua Farley (2004) urge us, the emergent discipline of ecological economics does not simply bring the light of ecology into the darkness of economics. Along with them and others, we will examine how both disciplines need fundamental reform if the marriage between ecology and economy is to come to fruition. In order to bring the earth household (ecology) and the human household (economy) in harmony, we will examine several ways to go about such integration. Authors and texts examine various options: the concept of natural capitalism, valuing of biomass and ecosystem services, calculating ecological footprint, investing in eco-economy, developing cradle-to-cradle ecological design, transitioning to post-carbon economy, using appropriate technologies, pursuing sustainable harvest regimes, and respecting indigenous ecological knowledge.

Sustainability Education and Transformational Change
Education as Sustainability explores the theories, processes, and conditions through which individuals, groups, and organizations learn and transform in ways that support a sustainable future. This entails an examination of current educational approaches and strategies as well as innovations that challenge traditional assumptions and practices. This investigation may take place in such arenas as public and private education, community development endeavors, business and economic ventures, government training programs, and through all the social and ecological networks critical for human survival. Sustainable Education is the process by which individuals and organizations engage in new learning that challenges existing norms and draws upon the resources and initiative of those involved in this learning. This approach to education is designed to contrast the predominant managerial and mechanistic paradigm of learning, such as exists in most public education settings and in much of higher education, with a more holistic and ecological model that emphasizes the realization of human potential and interdependence of social, economic, and ecological wellbeing. Such learning is more engaged, experiential, and addresses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components of our roles in the world and in human society. Such learning is based on core values of lifelong learning, recognition of diversity, cooperation and collaboration, personal reflection and values, integrative understanding, responsibility and faith in others, and developing learning communities with a commitment to the good of the whole. Education as Sustainability is the means through which we educate our citizenry to the values, opportunities, and choices each person has to develop one's self as an aware, independent, responsible, and active agent of one's own fate and hence contribute to the future of our society and ecological systems.

Modes of Inquiry: Interdisciplinary Graduate Research
This course is presented in two sections and provides an overview of scholarly thinking, research, and writing. The course is designed to address the following areas within graduate scholarship: how to select a research problem; how to conduct a literature review; how to design a research question or statement; how to formulate an appropriate research design; how to incorporate theory and epistemology; how to limit research parameters; and how to decide on the appropriate research methodology(ies) and method(s). It focuses on the interdisciplinary conceptual and methodological approaches necessary to understand complex social and natural systems. Section one of this course introduces the practical elements of planning, implementing, and reporting a research project. It stresses the importance that before it is possible to design effective research projects with appropriate methods in the context of sustainability, one must study the philosophical approaches that address the role of knowledge production in social reproduction, in problem solving, and in action directed at change.