Category Archives: Global Sustainability

Clocks and Trees

In ancient eras, there was no mechanical time since there were no human-made clocks. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the entire universe. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans were perceived as “nothing but” machines.

The mechanistic model of the world was useful since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church in the 17th century. A world that could be measured might not be subject to the authority of the church. However a new authority emerged, a science of reductionism, which allowed humans to control their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural systems. Today we need a new model, a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.

Systems thinking is a new way of looking at things that will help us overcome the crisis of perception left us by Descartes. The systems framework for thinking can encourage personal empowerment and a better understanding of the world. Systems thinkers begin with understanding processes and structures. Instead of starting to look at complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems and organizations by focusing on the components of the system, systems thinkers look at the whole and then examine key relationships within the whole.

A biologist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never understand the tree entirely. A systems thinker might see the seasonal exchange between the tree and the earth, between the earth and the sky, and between people as observers of the tree and the universe. A systems thinker might see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the whole forest; the habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring.” While a biologist might assume the world is a difficult place to survive and hence millions of seeds are needed, a systems thinker might speculate that because the tree is part of the web of life, the millions of seeds might be important for the entire ecosystem not just an individual tree or even tree species. The tree might have co-evolved with the system of which it is a component part, thus making the ecosystem as much as the ecosystem makes the tree.

 

 

 

Thought is not enough….

The problems of humans are many. Children are dying from hunger, war, poverty, disease, and pollution of the air and water. Humanity is in trouble. Dissolution of the social units that once supported community caring, such as the family, neighborhood, tribe and village, leave nothing but the schools to teach humans how to think, how to act, how to feel. The outcome is crime, loss of hope, vulgar desires for superficial symbols of success, a corrupt political response, more hurt, drugs, unwanted pregnancies yielding unwanted children, and on, and on, and on.

And environmental degradation continues. Billions of living things that are not “us” are victimized each year as we invade the habitats upon which they depend to live. This we know. The protective ozone womb of the mother of us all has been violated by compounds that we create for our own convenience. This we know. Millions of our own species are starving and dying on our televisions, while we watch. This we know too. Thoughtful people know but don’t feel. When we are fully attentive, that is both thoughtful and feeling, the sense of confusion and despair is so great that we stop paying attention. Feeling hurts too much, so we either think without passion or just stop thinking altogether about that which we don’t want to see. We know and don’t feel, or we distract our minds with television shows we don’t really see, food we don’t taste, music we don’t hear, or shopping for things we don’t need. Our minds grow dull and our hearts grow hard from lack of exercise, and spirit wanes.

The human mind, faced with the facts of the human condition digs itself a hole and covers itself with a layer of self-deceit. While some might decry this lack of thoughtfulness, this may be the only rational thing to do with these thoughts. After all, thinking has gotten us where we are today. The act of thinking has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love. Thought has degraded ecosystems, created cycles of poverty, and allowed us to introduce poisons into our bodies that dull the pain. Thinking “alone” cannot solve the problems that thinking has created. To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond thinking, beyond reason, beyond rational thought. Thought is necessary but not enough. Thought only produces knowledge. Today we need both knowledge AND wisdom, where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life. Learning for wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart, yin and yang. Learning for wisdom will require more coherence (literally, a hanging together) than learning for knowledge. Learning for wisdom will require more education and less schooling.

Even the “best” knowledge-focused schooling today only provides learning for the head. Information is handed over to pupils in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for them to judge and reward. The interchange of information between teachers and pupils is little more than a mental handshake in which a thought is passed from an old head to a young one and back again. Like a handshake, the connection between the teacher and student is safe and brief, resulting in the transfer of information without meaning, disconnected from life. We need more than mental handshakes to learn how to solve the problems we have created. We need a connection that is deep and lasting to produce learning for the heart. To understand how more meaningful learning might occur, we should look at the early years of human growth.

The early years of learning are ones in which feeling and thinking are coupled and intelligence grows through intuitive leaps. The child learning to examine and manipulate her fingers at will is an act of raw, unguided learning. This learning experience is full of wonder and awe, a miracle of personal achievement, so different from the teachings offered in school and university. The environment of the early learning experience is one of support, challenge, caring and love. This process is coherent, in that feeling and thinking are fully intertwined. The process of coherent learning that begins with the infant is lost early in life as socialization rewards thinking and discourages feeling. Passions are buried, sometimes to explode in destructive behavior but never to be employed in a coherent learning process in which intelligent feeling is encouraged.

Thinking is necessary but insufficient to coherent learning since it suppresses the role of feeling. To understand the difference between the coherent learning of the infant and the incoherent learning of the adult, imagine an adult who has never seen the sunrise over the eastern ocean. The first time this “uneducated” adult sees the ocean sunrise might be thought of as a moment of wonder and unfiltered learning. This childlike learner might see the ever-changing depth of color in the water, the brilliant reflection of the morning sun as it dances on the crests of distant waves. She might see the majesty of the ocean swells, and hear the roar of those same swells relinquishing their power as they crash one after the other onto the beach. She might feel the spray on her face, leaving a drying crust of salt, which is the same salt of her blood. At that moment, the childlike learner might ask what or who made this monument to the wonder of the earth. At that moment she might believe in God.

Now lets send this person to the university to study oceanography and learn about the physics, chemistry and biology of ocean systems in a classroom far from shore. When this student visits the ocean over a lifetime of study, the wonder of that first look is lost, as knowledge replaces awe. The first experience of the ocean was one of pure, coherent learning. Later perceptions of the ocean are filtered by memories, thoughts and facts acquired in the classroom. While this knowledge is useful, it is not coherent if it displaces the wonder of the first look. The learning which results from thinking alone yields a human mind capable of creating technologies or practices which pollute the ocean environment. Learning resulting from both thinking and feeling might contribute to a more balanced mind.

Our big brains seem to be particularly well adapted to retain thought (both of thinkings and feelings) through memory. This memory allows the body to repeat certain physical acts as well as to bring forward stored images into the active, living present. These images are both cognitive and emotive, with emotive being the more powerful. For example, memory of previous experiences can bring forward feelings of fear, anxiety, or happiness to affect current experience. Thought (being that which has been experienced in the past, stored in memory, and carried forward into the present) includes previous feelings and thinkings which interpenetrate each other and become hard wired into a common structure within our memories. The process of thinking and feeling not only create thought, but are themselves influenced by thought, since observations of objective reality are received through a filter of previous thinkings and feelings. Thought influences, even controls our current feelings and thinkings. While infants (or our “uneducatedý adult learner with her first look at the ocean) may be more open to new, unfiltered and coherent learning, adults are programmed to think, feel and act by “reflexive thought.”

Thought, which is the result of previous thinking and feeling, influences current thinking and feeling through an instantaneous reflexive act. Of course it is not possible to control the reflexive nature of thought, since the control will also be based on thought. But we have to wonder if it is possible to solve the problems of humanity that were created by thought, using a thinking and feeling process that itself is influenced by thought. Is it possible for “authentic” learning to happen as long as reflexive thought interferes with learning? Is the human species just a snake trying to swallow its own tail?

To break out of the circular pattern of thought controlling thinking and feeling, physicist David Bohm, approached the reflexive nature of thought by trying to understand something he called proprioception (or self-perception). This is the awareness of the internal system which controls routine activities such as eating, brushing teeth and walking. While these activities are usually “automatic”, it is a simple matter of will to shift from reflexive treatment of these acts to a more attentive awareness. If we choose to, and practice, we can become more aware of the act of brushing our teeth. The proprioception or self-awareness of the body is easily developed, if generally underutilized by most adults. Proprioception of thought on the other hand is not well- developed. If however, mind and body are one it should be possible to develop such self- perception or awareness of thought. Trying to control thought is not likely to be possible since the reflexive response is too fast, however it may be possible to suspend and observe reflexive thought (including thinking and feeling) producing what Bohm called insight. Intuitive discovery or insight is a spontaneous coherence at a level not possible through thinking alone.

Bohm proposed that it was more likely to achieve direct insight into the working of thought in group settings of twenty to forty people in a process of inquiry he called dialogue. While it is difficult to imagine a lone individual learning to become aware of their own reflexive thought process, it might be possible in a group. With practice, perhaps a group could develop a more mature and communal version of the unfiltered coherent learning experience of the infant in the dialogue process. If this was possible, we might begin to understand the complex issues of the day in a more coherent way. Then maybe, just maybe, we might be better able to create solutions together from a foundation of wisdom and build a better future.

While education is indeed the path to discovery of solutions for humanity’s problems, the incoherent teachings of the schools and universities divert us from the learning we need. We need an education of rigorous intellectual activity motivated by awe and wonder. This kind of learning should be nurtured by an environment of community caring where thinkings and feelings are both honored, and the values of happiness, health, friendship, love, justice, freedom, responsibility, democracy, and productive work are explicit, desired outcomes of coherent learning. Thought is necessary to this kind of learning, but thought “alone” (either separate from feeling) or “alone” (outside of a community) is simply not enough. Thinking and feeling must be done in the company of other humans, working and learning to heal ourselves, our communities, our planet – together.

                                                                                                                             John M. Gerber
March, 1997

 

Local Impact of Climate Change?

Every once in a while someone asks me about the potential local impact of global climate change.  So I compiled some reports relevant to my little area of the world, western Massachusetts.

Here goes….

pvplanAccording to a report by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the long-term observed climate warming trends in our region include:

  • Increase in average temperature of 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit;
  • More frequent summer days with temperatures above 90 degrees;
  • Smaller snow packs with earlier spring snow-melts; and more violent weather events, such as those we experienced in 2011.  Do you remember:
  • On June 1, a series of category EF-3 tornadoes struck Springfield and nine other communities, the region’s worst outbreak of tornadoes in a century, causing $90 million in damages in Hampden County alone; and
  • On August 28-29, Tropical Storm Irene dumped as much as 10 inches of rain on the region, causing extensive flood damages totaling over $1billion across the Northeast; and then;
  • On October 30, a record early snowstorm of 8-24 inches snapped branches and downed power lines, leaving 3 million people without power for up to 2 weeks, and causing $3 billion in damages across the Northeast.

Continue reading Local Impact of Climate Change?

Climate Change News from New York

The big news coming out of the United Nations Climate Summit in N.Y. City –  following the largest climate change march in history is…

….what WILL NOT happen.

 

This is from a news story from the Associated Press – flash!

  • The United States WILL NOT join 73 other countries to support a price on carbon.
  • Brazil WILL NOT sign a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030.
  • China WILL NOT agree to President Obama’s declaration that “nobody gets a pass” and insists that developing nations be treated differently

The rhetoric coming out of the historic meeting of nations following massive rallies by climate supporters in NY and around the world was indeed inspiring.

“Today we must set the world on a new course” according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

President Obama proclaimed “Today I call on all countries to join us, not next year or the year after that, but right now.  Because no nation can meet this global threat alone.Continue reading Climate Change News from New York

Walmart’s policies are the cause not the solution to poverty

Walmart, the largest grocery store in the world, is often presented as a solution to poverty because of its low prices.  There is a reason for those low prices however and it is because they put ever-increasing pressure on suppliers (including those that supply food) to drive down their costs.  This drives down wages, both for the Associates who work in the stores as well as all across the manufacturing and food production chain.

Walmart is the major player in the “race to the bottom” which keeps full-time employees in poverty.  Other retailers are forced to follow in their footsteps.  When we shop locally and pay a few cents more for our food, we invest in a better quality of life for all.  However, since less than 1% of the food sold in the U.S. is produced and sold locally, this won’t be enough.  We need to require fair working conditions for all workers.  Walmart’s death grip on groceries is making life worse for millions of people!

You can help!

The following is a call for action from the Food Chain Workers Alliance.  We need to recognize that food is cheap in the U.S. because we allow people to be exploited.  When we shop at Walmart (and other “big box” stores for food) we participate and benefit from this exploitative system.

Food workers are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of political voice.  When workers protest to unfair conditions, they are punished.

PLEASE SIGN THE STATEMENT LINKED BELOW!

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Stand with Wal-Mart Strikers
on June 4th! 

Walmart employees will be striking in key locations across the country to protest Walmart’s illegal retaliation against Associates who have spoken up about inequality and have struck. Associates have been calling for Walmart wages to be raised to $25,000. Faith communities, union members, community groups, allied groups and students will be taking action in solidarity with Associates who are standing up against inequality. These actions will be happening at stores across the country and online.

You can support by signing onto FCWA’s Solidarity Statement here. Please sign onto the statement by Tuesday June 3!  You can also participate in a local action in your city or state. To find a local action click here.

To find out more about the campaign and actions on June 4 click here.

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Check out our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts to prepare yourself to work on issues like this.

Will the International Year of Family Farming slow the “cancerous” growth of industrial farming?

The 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, declared 2014 to be the International Year of Family Farming” (IYFF).  Family Farming, according to the U.N., is the dominant form of agriculture throughout the world with over 500 million family farms.  These farms range from small and medium size holdings, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, and pastoralists.

The U.N. claims that family farmers should continue to be an important part of the solution to free the world from poverty and hunger. If this is to be the case, real policy changes will be needed to stop the multinational investors from continuing to acquire large tracks of land in both developed and developing nations.  A recent report titled “Land is Life” by La via Campesina documents the struggles of farming families to retain access to land in the face of escalating “land grabs” by the multinationals. According to this report…

“Land grabbing re-emerged during the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which pushed an additional 115 million people into hunger, leading to a total of almost one billion suffering from hunger by the end of 2008.  Today, global food prices remain high and volatile, particularly in developing countries. National ‘offshoring’ for land and food production, increased speculation in food markets, the ‘meatification’ of diets and the push for agrofuels are major trends that are fuellng the global land grab.”

Land speculation by corporate investors drive land values up and are seen as potentially profitable in a world where food will be in increasingly short supply.  This benefits both the investors and the industrial farms that will grow food in place of millions of small family farms.

But aren’t large, efficient farms the solution to hunger?

The multinational agribusiness and investment sector justifies the purchase of land in developing countries with reports stating that the only way to feed the world is through industrial scale, chemically-intensive and corporately-controlled farming operations.  The threat of escalating world population and increased consumption of meat in India and China are used as a rationale for putting peasants off land they have farmed for centuries.  Peasant agriculture and family farms are framed as inefficient and non-productive from a business perspective.

Nevertheless, the U.N. calculates that over 70 percent of food insecure peoples live in rural areas of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Near East.  Putting these people off their land to satisfy the corporate demand for cheap, raw foodstuffs to feed the industrial production of processed foods and biofuels will do little to alleviate global hunger.  Concentrating production in the hands of fewer and fewer multinationals will only make the entire planet more vulnerable to crisis.  Seemingly, the government of Australia recognized this trend was not in their national self-interest when they blocked the purchase of GrainCorp by Archer, Daniels Midland Co.

The self-proclaimed “supermarket to the world” expressed their disappointment with the following statement from CEO Deborah Woertz; “we are confident that our acquisition of GrainCorp would have created value for shareholders of ADM and GrainCorp.”  The proposed acquisition was not about growing more food.

In fact, the corporate food business has never been about feeding hungry people.  Despite wave after wave of promises to “feed the world” from the corporations that seek to control the global food supply, the worth of industrial farming is measured only in return on investment. The business of growing food has been financialized to the point that the health of rural communities, the quality of rivers and streams, public health and food safety have been sacrificed to maximize corporate profits.  Deregulation of government protection of the environment, small businesses, and public health, especially in the United States, has reached a radical extreme.

There is no reason to believe that continued industrialization of farming will ever “feed the world.”  Agribusiness is more of a cause than a solution to world hunger, as industrialization accelerates poverty and hunger among the displaced peoples of developing nations.  Perhaps it is time to balance industrialization with an effort to help family farmers feed the world.  (NOTE:  this is not to say that large farms should not be part of the solution to world hunger, but they would have to be regulated to prevent harm to rural communities, public health, food safety and environmental quality).

In addition to efforts to stop the “cancerous” growth of unregulated corporate farms, a supportive policy environment for family farmers might allow them to deploy their productivity potential.  A 2010 report from La via Campesina claims that indeed sustainable family farms can make a major contribution to ending world hunger.  By supporting rather than displacing farmers on the landscape, the world might create a more resilient food production system, less vulnerable to crisis.  The U.N. statement of support for Family Farming claims that:

“Facilitating access to land, water and other natural resources and implementing specific public policies for family farmers (credit, technical assistance, insurance, market access, public purchases, appropriate technologies) are key components for increasing agricultural productivity, eradicating poverty and achieving world food security”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a policy shift so extreme that the World Trade Organization (WTO) would agree to an agricultural policy that prioritizes local and regional trade (which supports family farming) at the expense of the global import/export business.  To date, any policy that threatens global trade (such as environmental protection) has been sacrificed to the financial bottom line of the multinationals.

What about family farms in the United States?

In spite of the support for this effort by the National Farmers Union in the U.S., the track record of U.S. policy has been anti-farmer for the past 60 years.  Wenonah Hauter writes in Foodopoly, “After World War II, farmers became the target of subtle but ruthless policies aimed at reducing their numbers, thereby creating a large and cheap labor pool.  In more recent times, federal policy has been focused on reducing the number of farms as labor has been replaced by capital and technology.” 

U.S. federal farm policy has been markedly pro agri-business and anti family farmer, in spite of the rhetoric of U.S.D.A. administrators.  While this policy has resulted in cheap food (consumers in the U.S. expend less than 10% of their income on average toward food) the effect on all other aspects of society such as public health, environmental quality, rural community vitality, and the economic viability of the family farm has been decidedly negative.

The business of growing and distributing food in the U.S. is owned by only a few major corporations.  This is not the result of “free trade” and fair competition but rather public policy.  Consolidation of the food industry is supported by the same politicians that benefit from corporate contributions to election campaigns.

It will take a remarkable turn around in public policy in the U.S. if we intend to participate in the celebration that is the International Year of Family Farming! 

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Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.  Go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Your life is a “story within a larger story”

When I introduce my Agricultural Systems Thinking class  to the concept of hierarchy, I often use our own lives as a metaphor for “subsystems within larger systems.”  In this blog, I will try to examine the relationship of subsystems within a natural systems hierarchy (or holarchy) to the “system above”, which provides the “system below” with meaning.  But first, lets  examine the title of the blog “your life is a story within stories.”  I borrowed this metaphor from a wonderful systems thinker, Michael Dowd, who wrote ”

“Each of us is a story within stories. My daughter’s life story is part of both my story and her mother’s story. The story of our family is likewise part of other stories larger than our own: the story of our town, our state, our nation, Western civilization, humanity, planet Earth, and the story of the Universe itself. Each of us is a story within stories within stories.

“There is a dynamic relationship between every story, the larger stories it is part of, and the smaller stories that are a part of it. Larger stories influence and add meaning to the stories that are nestled within them. For example, if my wife and I were to move across the country, my daughter’s story would be affected. Similarly, if my nation goes through a severe economic depression, experiences prolonged drought, or undergoes a major spiritual awakening, my community’s story, my story, and my daughter’s story will each be affected. The destiny of every story is affected by the larger stories of which it is a part.”

Get it?

As if the universe was trying to affirm this message, I opened a little book this morning which I had picked up at the library yesterday and read the first line in Hunger Mountain by David Hinton.  He wrote; “things are themselves only as they belong to something more than themselves: I to we, we to earth, earth to planet and stars…”

Hmmmmmm…..  sounds an awful lot like the image from my earlier blog.

I find meaning and purpose in my life by being useful to a system (story) larger than myself, in which my life is embedded.  This mental model of relationships helps me to know who I am and why I am here.  And it helps me choose how to invest my limited time on this planet.

Addictions are a coping mechanism

I sometimes wonder if the many addictions that humans seem to, …. well, become addicted to, result from a life focused on the little “myself” without a strong connection to the larger story.  And of course the addictions are many:

  • drugs (prescribed and illegal)
  • alcohol (at least its legal)
  • recreational sex (friends with benefits in today’s common lingo)
  • passive consumption of violent sports (football, hockey…..)
  • shopping (the number one addiction in America)

Of course, when not taken to the extreme these are normal human behaviors.  But we seem to be addicted to “the extreme.”  I wonder if these common addictions are coping mechanisms for a life lived without a sense of purpose, or a connection to that system (story) larger than the little “myself.”

I believe we find meaning and purpose in “larger” systems (in which our lives are embedded) because indeed, we are an intimate part of those larger natural systems.  This is not necessarily true however, for a human-constructed hierarchy.

We may not want to invest our lives in the next higher system in a human constructed hierarchy.  We may simply choose to “do our job” and take our paycheck home.  Many people today, seem to be willing to settle for this sort of life.  This seems a little sad to me.  I”m reminded of a Robert Frost poem, Two Tramps at Mud Time, where he writes;

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation.

I wonder how many of us are blessed with a vocation (that which we need to do) that is also an avocation (that which we love).

Frost continues:

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.

When we live within a human-constructed hierarchy, we may not be in a position to work for “heaven and the future’s sake.”  Whereas, in a natural systems hierarchy, each subsystem is an intimate part of the next “larger” system.  We have no choice but to play for mortal stakes!  Indeed, we (the organism in the graphic below) contribute to the health (or ill health) of the human population, the larger ecosystem, the planet……

When I see myself as part of a human constructed hierarchy, I am likely to be competitive and selfish.  When I see myself as part of a natural systems hierarchy, a living system, it is in my best “self” interest to work for the good of the next larger system!

We are stores within stories

There is a visual tool that might help us picture the relationship among levels of complexity within a natural hierarchy called the Mandelbrot Set.  This is a mathematical set of points with a unique and distinctive shape.  As you look more closely at the shape however, you see the same shape repeated over and over again, seemingly infinitely.

A system in nature consists of smaller systems, upon which it depends.  Likewise the smaller systems are completely dependent on the larger system.  That is, we are stories within stories or using the Mandelbrot metaphor, common shapes within shapes.

But my family or community is a mess!

If we are not blessed with a healthy family and community (and I believe that those of us that are blessed with a healthy family or community have a special responsibiltiy to contribute to the well-being of others), still…. we ALL have a common, and powerful story.  It is The Great Story, and it is the greatest story ever told!

When we see ourselves serving a human constructed hierarchy of power and control, we may become scared and selfish.  And then the addiction that seems to dominate the national dialogue in America emerges, anger.

On the other hand, when we see ourselves as part of The Great Story of the continued evolution of the universe, we may choose to be of service to family, community, the planet, the universe, or even the divine.  When we see ourselves as something MUCH larger than the little “myself” – we may recognize our larger purpose and our obligations to other beings (both human and otherwise).

I believe we have a choice……

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