24 May 2007

Breaking Out of My School-Box Thinking, Part 1

This post has been adapted to become a page on my web site:

Breaking The Classroom Habit
The classroom is an educational habit and it's a habit that is sometimes bad for children. Here's the story of how I broke my classroom habit.

What’s A Teacher To Do?

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

What’s A Teacher To Do?
A teacher who disagrees with the status quo has a big challenge, but by s/he staying focused on the 3R's of respect, responsibility and resourcefulness, sanity is possible.

22 May 2007

Honoring Teachers

(Excerpt from Attitude First)

My life is devoted to education. My path in this field was defined by my rejection of the way I was schooled but with a constant fix on my sense that the people who schooled me were honest, hard-working people doing the best they knew how. Even though I chose a different way of teaching, I am determined to honor those who taught me and insist that our system discover how to honor them, too. We do not honor our teachers by forcing them to kowtow to standardized testing. We do not honor our teachers by packing ever more students into their classrooms. We do not honor our teachers by forcing them to be dictators in a democratic society. And, we do not honor our teachers by making them behavioral managers instead of social leaders.

The first thing we can do to honor teachers is acknowledge the learner as the core around which education is organized, not the teacher. True teachers understand perfectly well that they owe their job to the fact that a learner wants their help in achieving a personal goal. And true teachers are not exclusively professional, they are parents, neighbors, friends and every caring human being who helps someone else learn. An education system organized around learning has to listen to its learners and discover their goals. From within the context of those personal goals, our society is perfectly positioned as a collaborator that can respectfully temper personal ambition in the fires of collective reality and still support every individual to thrive with whatever unique talents and challenges those individuals offer.

The second thing we can do to honor teachers is to put their relationship to students first. In schools there is nothing more important than protecting the trust a student puts in his or her teacher.

Finally, we can most immediately honor teachers by opening a democratic dialogue with schools to re-establish proper relationships throughout the school community. Empowering citizens to participate in celebrating the highest democratic ideals that this country was founded on, and for which so many people are fighting and giving their lives and loves, this is how I want to honor my teachers.

Excerpt from Attitude First

21 May 2007

Leadership for Human Survival (unedited)

This is the longer version of a letter to the editor I submitted to The Leader in response to this letter. They have a 400 word limit so I couldn’t fit it all in the version that will be published. (My 400 word version was published in the June 20th, 2007 edition, but I cannot find it online.)

What does it mean, as Rich Roberts asserts, that “the greatest military in the world” serves to “provide liberty to the oppressed, remove tyranny, and prevent illegal and immoral acts of war/terrorism”? He believes it means that we must kill people who start conflicts, but I believe it means that we have to take responsibility for being resourceful global leaders in the only home that human beings will ever have. Being a responsible leader means that you create the conditions that help everyone communicate with each other, you help prevent conflict by finding ways to ensure that everyone gets their basic needs met, and when conflict arises in spite of your best efforts (as every parent of rival siblings knows it does) then you find creative ways to resolve it.

I freely admit that I am not a parent, but after 39 years on the planet and over 20 years working with kids and families I have enough experience to know that you don’t kill the kids, your spouse or your neighbors, for being mean or picking fights. If you are a responsible and respectful adult you find ways to figure out what is really going on and then coordinating with the whole family (and sometimes the whole neighborhood) to create more peaceful ways to get everyone’s needs met.

In the world today the United State of America is in a position of incredible power and influence. But, with high technology, so are a whole lot of people that are complete strangers to our way of life. Are we going to continue to alienate the strangers to our way of life by labeling them our “Enemy” then bully or kill them before we know who they really are, what their basic needs are, and how we might work together on our common concerns? Or are we going to be responsible leaders who encourage communication, prevent conflict, and use peaceful means to resolve conflict?

There are two things that we need to do in order to address the issue of terrorism, first, get to know the rest of our human family. It is pathetic that we, the richest people in the world, are the most afraid of our neighbors and also the least able to appreciate the value of all the different gifts that each member of the family brings to our home. Our wealth is the envy of the world, but our isolation and the sicknesses that we have wrought on ourselves and the world through irresponsible and self serving use of that wealth is a shame (that we can overcome.)

The second is to discover how we can work with them to meet everyone’s basic needs. Can we be modest enough to ask how we can be of service without imposing on them how we think they need to be helped? Can we provide the assistance they have requested without imposing undue restrictions on them in the process?

I recently took a small step towards achieving all of the above without the permission, sanction, or any other deference to our government and it’s current, past, or future policies. I visited Kiva.org and made a micro loan to an entrepreneur in the third-world. I am helping to support 19-year old Djeyhun Askerov of Khirdalan settlement, Azerbaijan to expand his business. This small gesture is Do-It-Yourself foreign policy. You can read about many other resourceful individuals in Afghanistan, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and many other places, who are all taking responsibility for their lives and simply need access to some additional funds to improve their situation, and by extension improve their society.

Killing strangers who don’t understand our way of life is foolish. Of course, we have to support the policing of criminal acts through investigations, arrests, prosecutions and punishments, but we also have to be morally strong enough to put communication and cooperation with our human brothers and sisters before acting on our selfish instinct to lash out in retaliation. If you are like me, you want more strong moral leaders in the world, and less selfish and short-sighted bullies.

14 May 2007

I Have a Dream…

(Excerpt from Attitude First)

I have a dream where passionate teachers teach enthusiastic students in joyful schools. Schools where the intense energy of full engagement meets the drive of curiosity, and transforms the construction paper with crayon colors covering the cubicle classroom under a fluorescent buzz into a soaring cathedral crafted from wide-eyed wonder and devoted discipline. Where teachers share their passion for engaging with the world, and students enthusiastically choose the challenge of daily discovery. Where one and all explore reality in search of opportunities to help, exchanging the coin of their special realm—a joyful appreciation for discovering themselves in service to the Other.

Their special realm is the state of thrival. It is a land that is forever on the horizon. Every single day contains the potential for new adventures as intrepid travelers gather together to continue the ultimate journey through life itself. Their daily tools are simple: students wield the power of physical energy, emotional connection, mental focus, and spiritual alignment, while teachers direct that power through respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. In my dream, the roles of teacher and student are not assigned since the roles change constantly because everyone can be either teacher or student according to the needs of the moment.

The only thing preventing the realization of this dream is attitude, mine and yours. I can’t change your attitude, only mine. But I am asking for your help. I promise to work on my attitude, and simply ask for you to do the same. My journey will take me to different places than yours, but if we both choose to navigate by the twin beacons of education and thrival, then our paths will eventually cross. I would be honored to share the company of fellow travelers along this path to a better world.

(Excerpt from Attitude First)

Life-Long Thrival

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Lifelong Learning is Lifelong Thrival
Lifelong learning is a buzz word for something that everyone wants to achieve, but does it really mean something important?

13 May 2007

Why are Twinkies so cheap?

If you have ever wondered why it is that you can buy a highly processed expensively marketed bit of junk food for cheap this article at the Center for Ecoliteracy website gives a pretty good explanation:
You Are What You Grow

Towards an Aesthetic of Sustainability:

Fritjof Capra’s Unsung Meta-Model

The way of sustainability is an aesthetic decision, not a survival decision, for individuals. It may have survival consequences for society, but for individuals it is a question of preferred qualities. This is not a fact that should be lamented, it is one that should not only be accepted but also be celebrated. We humans have since ancient times been very clever about celebrating the opportunity for aesthetic freedom as demonstrated by, to take but one simple example, the myriad devices we have created for sitting down. We do not simply have stools and chairs, we have thrones, ottomans, couches, sofas, settees and all in a veritable plethora of styles. Sustainability deserves no less of a celebration than seating!

The Web of Life, a book written by Austrian physicist turned Eco-Literacy champion Fritjof Capra, is a cogently argued case for defining the concept of life in a new way that reflects the insights of several scientific disciplines that have only come into existence in the last 50 years or so. But, the more important point for philosophical consideration is the fundamental insight into the universe upon which the argument is based; namely that there are four principle aspects that must be explained in order for any understanding of the world to be complete. The four principle aspects of any understanding of the world are structure, process, pattern and the scale of the phenomena under consideration.

Capra was aware that he was making a contribution to philosophy, but he was focused on the specific philosophy of deep ecology which he addresses in the first part of the book. I am not especially concerned with deep ecology; I suppose I might be aligned with it in some way, but don’t identify myself with it. The greater value of his work in my opinion is the more basic philosophical assumptions he made in order to arrive at his insights into biology and by extension, his support of deep ecology as a philosophy.

Capra portrays the historical context for his insights as arising out of a synthesis of the two competing definitions of life that have historically dominated the field of biology and have been competing with each other as if they were each complete definitions that must be mutually exclusive of the other. In fact, as Capra tells it, they were each only partly complete and require a third leg to stand up, plus, a proper floor to stand on. Only when the whole stool was built would we have a solution that defines life properly and allows us to sit on our laurels. The two main competitors in the contest to define life were mechanism, which emphasized the study of biological structures and holism, which emphasized the study of biological patterns. The various champions of these two competing views generally overlooked the processes that created the structures and gave rise to the patterns. And even if they did have some insight into processes they were probably so preoccupied with the competition between views that they were unlikely to see how to make something useful out of all the disparate pieces. Essentially the real problem was that they each had a good solid stick in their hand and they each thought that their stick was the best stick, but failed to realize that what was really needed to fully understand biology was three legs and a seat.

The sitting place that Capra proposes will allow us to take a load off and really get down to the business of improving the human condition if we take from his book the philosophical insight that he built his biological argument upon. Let’s consider the four key principles of his argument and then see where they take us in philosophical terms. I will build on the claim about improving our condition in future works.

Structure is the most obvious principle. It is embodied in the objects that we can touch, feel and grasp. Structure is one of the most literal concepts we have because it is one of the most fundamental to our experience of the world. Objectivity is most solidly grounded in the study of the structure of the physical universe. No matter what other beliefs you have we can all agree on the things of the world, the things that we all touch and can share about how we experience the objects we have touched and manipulated throughout our lives.

Pattern is the next most obvious principle. Pattern is what happens to structures through time. If we have a seed and we take a picture of it then we have recorded the structure of the plant at that moment in time. If it is moist and warm then a few days later when we come back and take another picture it is no longer merely a seed, but a seedling with a shoot sticking out of it. And if we take another photograph a while after that we have a plant with roots, a stem and leaves. If you were to compare the original photo of the seed to the final photo of a mature plant without knowing anything else about how the photos were taken and never having experienced that particular kind of plant before it would be impossible to know that the immature seed structure was a previous incarnation of that mature plant structure. But when seedling photos show you the split seed casing and then the emergence of similar leaves then you have more insight about the progression of events. We all know and can agree that pattern is a consistent and fundamental aspect of our experience.

Process is much more subtle and difficult to comprehend. If we make a movie that captures ever smaller spans of time we still have limited insight. A movie just gives us more detail about the unfolding pattern before us and the truth is that if we remain at the same level of scale then watching a plant grow in slow motion is going to get really boring and will not reveal any new information. The trick to our coming to understand process was a combination of the advent of microscopy which allowed us to see the cellular structures that make up the plant at very small scales and the development of ecology which allowed us to see the plant in the context of all the other structures that also influence it’s development. These were great achievements, but it they have presented a new set of problems with our ability to connect our original movie with what we have learned at the scales of cells and molecules on one hand and ecological patterns on the other.

We know logically that each of the photos is a moment in time that had preceding and proceeding moments that connected it to each of the other photos and eventually to our present moment. We innately understand that when you put a lot of small things together they add up to a big thing. But what we have discovered about the very small is that it doesn’t just add up (and the same is also true about the very big.) There are some things at every scale both big and small that occur in ways that we are still struggling to comprehend, genetics is a great example.

We know a lot about the structure of the DNA molecule and we know a lot about its patterns, but we are just barely beginning to figure out how the process works whereby the molecular structure changes the cellular body from moment to moment as it causes the pattern of a living thing to unfold over time and at scales of magnitude many times larger than the DNA molecule itself.

So structure is essentially the stuff of the universe, pattern is how the stuff occurs through time and process is how the stuff that occurs in time gets from one arrangement to another. These are the three legs of our stool. But the problem is that two of the legs are intuitively easy while the third is a potential mind bender and sometimes completely defies our intuitive understanding of how things are supposed to work. It’s like we are holding the three sticks of wood up and since one looks a lot shorter than the other two we don’t yet see them as anything other than a random bunch of pieces.

The key to bringing it all together is understanding the similarities between a seat and a floor so that the legs can be arranged to support a seat. The concept of holons is a necessary element in this meta-model of how our universe occurs because we need to be able to talk sensibly about how to tie the different scales of our universe together when our innate methods of explanation fail us.

There is an old concept of the universe that it consists of some very small basic material units and that these basic units comprise everything in the universe. Once atoms were found, then they looked closer and found sub-atomic particles, and they keep theorizing and finding ever smaller units. Today we know that atoms are not the indivisible smallest unit in the universe and Arthur Koestler brilliantly reframed the problem by saying that the universe is, in fact, made up of holons which are not material entities, at all. Holons are units defined by wholeness and simultaneous partness such that every holon consists of smaller simpler holons and at the same time makes up larger more complex holons. An atom simultaneously consists of subatomic particles and can make up part of a molecule. We are each made up of cells and make up families, businesses, and other groups that act as a whole unit in the world. Both atoms and people are holons, the basic stuff of the universe.

But one of the keys to understanding holons is that they have emergent properties that are unique at each level of scale. Knowing the properties of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms does not give us the ability to predict the properties of water, one of several molecules formed by the combination of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. The properties of water are an emergent phenomenon of the molecular scale of our universe. Similarly the behavior of an organization is not predictable based only on an understanding of the individual people who belong to it. Because there are unique emergent properties at every level of scale then it is important to distinguish what scale of holon is under consideration in any discussion about the world. For the metaphor we are assembling holons are the flat surfaces at different scales that are held in a certain relationship by the three legs of structure, pattern and process.

The problem of the stool is in how we fit the parts together to achieve a platform for comfortably sitting our butts down without risk of injury or indignity. We have to arrange our three sticks (now legs) and a seat so that we create a very floor-like surface in miniature but raised off the floor at a comfortable height. Once we have created the idea of legs and a seat (a pattern), then we can use these concepts as an approach (a process involving activity on different scales) for creating seats (structures) in a vast array of styles and utilize ever more creative structures to manifest the basic pattern. Thus we kick-off a seating revolution that includes thrones, chairs, couches and al the rest in such a vast array of options that we can’t even remember what sitting on the floor was like.

To get back to the Web Of Life, the most important part of his work for philosophy is the meta-model of the universe that allows these four elements to fit together to create a new understanding of the nature of the universe itself. When looking through the lens of structure, process, pattern, and holons then we can analyze the world in new ways to arrive at more complete solutions.

My goal is to use these fundamental elements to assemble a new way to conceive of sustainability across the levels of scale that humans are most experienced with. Up until now we have all been standing around, lying around, propping ourselves up on sticks, or sitting with our butts on the floor. Using these four principles I will propose that we can also create a way to sit comfortably on a seat of sustainability that is essentially a small reflection of the world (floor) that has always supported us.

The advantage of sitting off the floor is the new opportunities that come from imagining and then creating ever more interesting and beautiful ways to realize this new pattern. There is no reason to be limited to a three legged stool when the pattern can be realized in a nearly infinite number of interesting ways. What I propose is not going to be functionally different from sitting on the floor, but it will be aesthetically different. The way of sustainability is an aesthetic decision, not a survival decision, for individuals like us. It may or may not be a survival decision for organizations and/or societies, and since I am writing for individuals that is not my concern right now. Not everyone will want to sit this way and no one has a fundamental need to sit this way, but for those who choose this way it provides another option that might serve as a comfort when we are tired or ill at ease. And it will certainly provide more opportunities for every individual who embraces it to express themselves in new and unique ways that are simply not available with any other option.

08 May 2007

Invest Attention!

“Pay attention!”

How often did you hear that as a child? If you are a parent or teacher how often do you say it?

Now consider how many times you have said or heard, “Invest attention!”

As a former child and as a teacher for over 15 years, I have never said it nor heard any other adult admonish a child that way and I doubt you have, either. But, why not? Isn’t the whole point of getting children’s attention their realization of the abundant physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dividends that will accrue from following the wisdom we have to share? Of course, that is the whole point and I do not expect anyone to actually start admonishing children that way, but, since children so innocently entrust their precious attention to us we owe it to them to take a closer look at how seriously we take that sacred responsibility. It’s time we acknowledge attention as the one single internal resource that completely determines exactly how we use all the external resources (i.e. natural, economic, political and social resources) in the world.

Consider “Pay”

The word “pay” invokes a rich set of concepts. The core meaning includes a person who is paying, giving up one thing, usually money, in exchange for something else. There is also an item or something of value that is purchased, and, there is someone who is receiving the payment, oftentimes representing a business or other organization. Here’s the four key components:

1. Buyer (gives one resource in exchange for getting another)

2. Given (the buyers sacrificial resource)

3. Gotten (the buyers desired resource)

4. Seller (gives the buyer a desired resource in exchange for another)

The difference between “pay” and “invest” is crucial; if you are paying you do not expect a return on the resource that you gave up, nor any form of on-going relationship with the person or organization that sold you their item. Payments are isolated transactions that do not inherently imply a long term relationship.

When I pay for a light bulb I don’t expect a return on the money I gave away, I have simply traded my money for the privilege of an electric light source. I expect the seller to provide their product and then leave me alone to enjoy it. Here is a diagram to lay this out in an explicit visual way:

Consider “Invest”

A customer gives the company money and gets their light bulb and if there is an ongoing relationship it reflects well on the company’s ability to at least fulfill, and perhaps exceed, the expectations that the customer’s payment implies. But, any ongoing relationship is inherently beyond the call of duty as defined by an individual payment. An investor also gives the company money but the nature of an investment is such that the investor does not expect a light bulb; they expect to have a particular kind of relationship to the company. A few investors, especially in public stock exchanges, may not interact with the company beyond a few short term purely economic exchanges, but most investors, especially long term investors, expect a lot of intimate information about the company and how it is utilizing the investment (without going into too much detail). The investor is an owner in the company and is entitled to develop an intimate relationship that is distinctly different from the customer’s otherwise shallow relationship. The investor has a vested interest in the ability of the company to sustain their economic viability. When I invest in the stock of a light bulb company then I expect to be able to receive dividends, have a vote in stockholder meetings and/or sell the stock, preferably at a better price than I paid for it. Investment implies a different kind of relationship.

Consider “Attention”

Attention is a valuable resource that we have the choice to direct in some ways rather than others. In directing our attention we add value to, and by extension support, what we attend to and deny support to that which we ignore. The value of the resource is based on it’s limits, in each moment we have a finite amount of perceptual bandwidth, each day we have to contend with the limit of our sleep cycle, and, ultimately we only have one lifetime’s worth. What does it mean to invest attention, rather than merely pay? So how does this apply to the idea of paying attention?

When we merely pay attention we are inherently relying on our concepts about reality rather than testing their accuracy. Mainstream entertainment media invokes our concepts of reality through the process of selecting what will keep us attentive, without need for further mental processing.

In contrast when I choose to invest attention in my world then I am deliberately opening my mind to more data in the form of fully lived experience and all the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual processing that is required to make sense of it. In reality things are sometimes boring, confusing, and have many qualities that go beyond all our concepts about them. This means that while I still invoke concepts of reality to make sense of my experiences, I am also testing the validity of those concepts against what is really true about what is happening in my fully lived experience. If the concept fails to adequately match reality, then a healthy person alters their concept to better describe reality and not the other way around.

In education and parenting this is particularly important. What does it mean for a child to invest their attention instead of merely paying? Paying attention in the classroom as the basis for learning about reality is not much different than paying attention to entertainment media.

Children have to give adult’s their attention, but the child who wants to invest should also be able to reasonably expect:

a) to receive some intimate information about how that investment is being utilized,

b) to participate in certain kinds of decisions,

c) at some point in the future to receive dividends, and

d) eventually, be able to put their resources elsewhere in a profitable way.

I will go through each of these in more detail.

a) Parents and teachers should not keep their plans and purposes a secret from children. While it is certainly not necessary to explain and defend every decision, it is crucially important to share a vision for the future and make every effort to include the child in your planning for how to bring it about. As with any organizational mission you are acting as a leader and the child, as with any follower, is quite capable of sabotaging your best laid plans if you have not succeeded in aligning the team.

Andy Stanley in his book Visioneering writes about how important his father was in aligning Andy with the possibility of living a life guided by faith. His father said to him early in childhood, “Andy, God has something very special for your life. He is going to use you in a great way.” Andy credits this vision with positively guiding him through his adolescence and when he shared a similar vision with his own children it opened up a whole new kind of conversation with them. The kind of conversation that allows him to reflect on his own path and choices, as well as helping his children understand the choices he makes with and for them.

I remember a time when I was in fifth or sixth grade and my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied that I wanted to be a professional student. That has been a guiding vision in my adult life, although it took a while after leaving the bleak wasteland of my formal schooling to regain some confidence in that choice of path.

b) The children are participating in the decision making process one way or another, the question is whether you are inviting them to do so consciously and with an aim towards reconciling the inevitable differences of opinion, or are you forcing them to participate unconsciously through decisions and choices that they make unreflectively and without the benefit of collaborative input.

c) John Dewey, in 1938, said, “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.” The primary dividend of every attentional investment is meaning. The greatest gift we can give another is to give them the opportunity to realize new possibilities for understanding who they are and how their existence has uniquely created the world as we know it. I received that gift from 8-year old Dale, who I wrote about in my post called Discovering Context. He did not know then, and most likely does not know now, that he gave me that gift. In the special moment when I received my unique vision of teaching, we were sharing intense concentration focused on achieving a particular goal of his choosing (hitting a ball with a bat) and in that moment I just happened to receive a huge windfall on my investment in teaching. Extracting the full meaning of that one moment has been paying profits for over a decade. My being positioned to make that one pitch, such that it resulted in a powerful vision, was many years in the making. It probably helps that I have had teachers in my family every generation going back over a hundred years, so in that sense it was multiple lifetimes in the making. Getting a return on attentional investments does not require a spectacular global vision, it is enough to have the skills to participate effectively in our society and make a difference in the lives of your family and friends by expressing love and compassion.

d) What children need are investment opportunities; it is not enough for us adults to simply accept that they pay attention to us and we in turn simply provide them with mental light bulbs that will turn on in their heads once in a while. We must provide access to the kind of relationships that allow them to observe and participate in using attention to create and maintain physical, mental, emotional and spiritual value. We need to help them use attention productively. We should strive together with them to generate the kind of value that encourages long term investment; that is, opportunities for reliable and consistent dividends rather than an endless series of short term gains. We must acknowledge how they participate in the decisions that shape our relationships and we must cultivate their ability to participate more and more meaningfully and effectively in making those decisions. We must also build into our planning viable exit strategies for them; methods and means for them to profitably extract themselves from us and venture forth into the wider world with a wealth of resources to support themselves and invest in others.

Consider Our Legacy

Perhaps the reason we don’t hear adults imploring children to invest their attention is because we are in the habit of expecting children to be passive, seen-and-not-heard sorts of people. The notion of invoking mutually responsible and respectful relationships between adults and children just doesn’t fit with some of the long standing traditions of teaching and parenting. Whether or not that is the case, I, for one, am not satisfied that having children merely “pay” attention to adults is enough. I want to ensure that there will be a sustainable society for them to inherit in the future and in order for that to happen I believe that it is my responsibility to invest my attention wisely, and share with the children in my care how I do it and why.

07 May 2007

Reconsidering Sustainability

The contemporary concept of sustainability came into existence because someone realized that human life depends on limited material resources. If we squander the resources that our life depends on then we will die. All the material resources that are ever going to be available to us are on the planet already. The only real question is how we use what we have already got. But let’s take the sustainability dilemma one step further and consider the possibility that there is one single resource that determines exactly how we humans will manage all other resources and that that resource is also in short supply. That most fundamentally important limited resource is attention. Death, sleep and the limitations of our body’s perceptual abilities are the inevitable boundaries that transform how you pay attention from a mundane personal decision into one that will determine the fate of our world.

What you direct your attention towards and how much attention you invest in the few things you can actually attend to will determine the choices you make. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Do you invest your precious attention in pursuing goodness, truth, beauty, and unity or do you invest your attention in addictive consumption, distracting entertainments, momentary indulgences, and divisive arguments? How we are collectively supporting each other in the use of our attention is the true issue of sustainability.

The most broadly accepted definition of sustainability is meeting the needs and wants of people of the current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for future generations to meet their needs and wants. Thus a proper understanding of sustainability requires answers to three questions:

1. What are resources?

2. How do we account for their use?

3. What is their potential for use in the future?

Consider “Resources”

re·source n. (Dictionary.com)

  1. Something that can be used for support or help: The local library is a valuable resource.
  2. An available supply that can be drawn on when needed. Often used in the plural.
  3. The ability to deal with a difficult or troublesome situation effectively; initiative: a person of resource.
  4. Means that can be used to cope with a difficult situation. Often used in the plural: needed all my intellectual resources for the exam.

    1. resources The total means available for economic and political development, such as mineral wealth, labor force, and armaments.
    2. resources The total means available to a company for increasing production or profit, including plant, labor, and raw material; assets.
    3. Such means considered individually.

The sustainability movement has, thus far, been primarily focused on the flows of natural material resources, such as oil, coal, water, minerals, etc. that are used to produce our abundant first-world lifestyles. When we produce something, the production process may preserve nearly all, some or none of the recognizable features of the original material substance.

When we use milk as a resource to bake a chocolate cake, there are no visibly recognizable features of the original milk in the resulting cake. When we think of milk we are thinking of a white liquid with a particular flavor and consistency and nearly all traces of those central features are absent in a chocolate cake. On the other hand, there have been artists who found objects, put them in an art gallery, and called it art. The only feature of the object that was changed was the context in which the object was placed. The intended transformation was merely spatial and categorical, thus the objects in question went from being junk to becoming art without being materially transformed at all. There can be an infinite span of gradations in between these to extremes of how recognizable the original materials are at the end of a production process.

The question of sustainability is not how to cease producing altogether, the question of sustainability is how to continue to produce the means for surviving, and better yet thriving, such that we also preserve the valuable qualities of our humanity and the natural world in the process. Thus we need to account for the qualities of ourselves and the world before, as well as during and after the production processes that we use to survive and thrive.

Accounting for resources is traditionally an exclusively materialistic and economic practice. The idea is quite simple, count how much you’ve got, exchange what you have for something more valuable, then count it all again to make sure you don’t lose anything. The problem is when the counting does not include the qualities that really matter. If you only count the money you paid for the oranges you bought and then compare that to the amount of money you got for selling your apples, then you may end up with a profit, but you may have lost a great deal. If your apples were produced by a local organic farmer in Washington State but the oranges were grown by a global corporate agri-business that pollutes the water and air, degrades the soil, and exploits workers, then the equation does not reflect the real values that were exchanged.

The basis of our current corporate-governed economy is measuring everything in terms of money, and entirely ignoring human values and the living systems in which we are embedded. This is obvious to those who take the sustainability issue for granted. The question is how to overcome this accounting problem. This is where considering attention as the key resource that needs to be managed can help.

What is attention as a resource?

The product that we create from attention is experience. The raw materials we have to work with include: our brains, the activity of the neural networks of our brains interacting with each other and the rest of our body, and by extension the interactions between our body and the world. Attention is the selective illumination and synthesis of raw complex informational material such that some aspects become experience, whereas other aspects of the raw information remain in the dark and are thus ignored. The cognitive sciences have shown that information is a crucial constituent of what we mean by attention, and, by the very act of calling attention to the concept of, say, “an elephant” we transform the activity of the neural networks that embody the information that encode “elephant” concepts into something completely different; recalling previous experiences of the concept “elephant” and a variety of concepts that are linked to that concept. “Elephant” was illuminated by our activating just the right neural structures.

When I activate the concept of “Elephant” in you, like the milk in a chocolate cake, there are no recognizable features of the original raw material in the final product. There are no traces of our neural networks in the experiences they produce for us. On the other hand we can see that there are distinct patterns to the experiences that result from the lighting system we call attention. As a way to examine the patterns it is useful to start with our shared biological heritage. By looking at the patterns that are possible then we can begin to formulate ways to account for the resources and begin to understand the potential for future uses.

Daniel Dennett has written about an interesting thought experiment known as the Library of Babylon. This is the library of all the possible combinations of our alphabetic language. It is a vast library and is mostly filled with completely meaningless combinations of letters, however for the sake of my argument let’s impose some organization on it and gather together all the possible books that would be grammatically correct in English. This is still a vast library that would include not only the complete works of Shakespeare, but also all the possible adaptations and variations. Consider one volume in particular, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in which they are a couple of young executives in rival multi-national corporations in the near future and Romeo sends Juliet a text message from his cell phone that says, “Wassup ;-)” Now, despite the dubious artistic value of such an adaptation this variation is plausible and would easily qualify as a potentially real example of a modernization of the original. What makes it interesting in the current discussion is the fact that this particular example of a combination of letters and punctuation in English is that it was not a valid potential combination at some time in the past. Shakespeare would not know what to make of it, nor would many grandparents today. The validity of this string is a consequence of the heritage we have created for our children, specifically the internet and/or cell phone texting.

One alternative accounting scheme that has been proposed is a “triple bottom line” that includes economic, social and environmental accounts. This is a great leap forward for businesses and organizations, but it does not help us directly to deal with the moment-to-moment decisions about what to do with ourselves and more to the point what to focus attention on. When I die will I be able to reflect on my life in that single moment and know that my impact was positive? Not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line. As I drift off to sleep tonight will I know that my day was spent productively? Not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line. In the very next moment do I know that I have made the world a better place? Certainly not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line.

So, what indicators can I look for to indicate whether I have truly made a positive contribution in my life, or just today? I suggest three primary indicators: have I earned rich rewards from the investments of my attention, have I played a significant role in co-authoring interesting stories from my life’s circumstances, and have I engaged with and provided enjoyment to others through the games I’ve played throughout my life?

How can we account for attention?

Accounting for attention as a resource can be accomplished in several ways. First, we can discern the relative increase or decrease in the quality of our states of mind. We can also discern the relative efficiency by which we attain the goals we set for ourselves. If we are at a location in narrative space and we want to get to another location we can discern whether or not we get there. If we repeatedly make similar journeys we can compare the journeys to determine how we are improving or diminishing our efficiency. We can also assess how many people join us in the game(s) we pursue. The more people who join in the more likely the game is to persist where persistence is a fair indicator of success.

The returns on attentional investment can more precisely indicated by increases in cognitive order, cognitive complexity, purpose, optimism, agency and cooperation, thus there are particular regions of experiential space that provide greater opportunities than others.

But the most accessible indications are simply whether you have successfully enjoyed your engagement with the Other. Have you confronted your fears, limitations, enemies or challenges in ways that lead to further engagement or have your confrontations lead to disengagement? Do you have a deeper understanding and more intimate connection than before, or are you increasing the distance and staying safely at the shallow edges of your relationships? All the spiritual and wisdom traditions that I am aware of point to these kinds of questions as some of the most relevant assessments of an individual life.

What is the potential for future uses of attention?

The idea of attentional investment is implicitly a personal one, therefore it raises the question of how my individual decisions about the investment of my attention are going to affect the future choices that are available in generations to come. Freedom and truth are at the heart of the issue. If we accept the idea that we are radically free to choose literally any content for our consciousness, then the obligation to pass on certain attentional investment strategies, stories and games is less compelling. However, we are not radically free, we are constrained in some ways and the constraints are a necessary component of the continuity of social systems and human interactions. This is where truth enters into the picture. Truth as it is being understood through the lens of cognitive linguistics is the measure of how well our representations match our reality as we understand that reality to be. If we can continuously delve into deeper and deeper understandings of reality then we continuously raise the bar of truth. While we can never fully represent reality, we can continuously engage with reality to discover ever more intimate details. If we can learn the truth and live freely within the inherent limitations that our individual notions of truth impose then our children will arrive in a world that inherently pushes them to overcome the illusions they inherit and discover some of the illusions they choose for themselves. The best we can do is to create conditions in which truth is valued and pursued. If we succeed then children will be joining a game played in the field of inquiry, they will learn the stories of the pursuit of truth and they will learn the strategies that have paid the largest dividends for those who invested their attention wisely.

We are co-creating the conditions in our world that we bring our children into and we know that eventually those conditions will allow them to create some kind of world without us. The conditions we are creating today will give them some opportunities and deny them others. The question of sustainability is whether or not we are creating conditions that may ultimately destroy survival as an opportunity for our children. If we continue to squander our children’s attention on a world that is isolated, impoverished, undemocratic, and unhealthy then we condemn them to a future of diminishing opportunities. I am ashamed to think that I might pass from this world leaving a legacy of ever increasing poverty, pollution, greed, crime, misery, and ultimately self-destruction. If, on the other hand, we can wisely invest children’s attention in creatively engaging with the world and support them to look ever more deeply beyond what we know to be true, then that’s a world I would be proud to introduce them to and I think they could be proud to introduce to their own children.

Doomsday Revitalized?

Giving the modern equivalent of “fire and brim stone” a second chance!

Earlier I wrote about the irrelevance of doomsday from the perspective that I gleaned from the books Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. What that post focused on was how the two authors arrived at the same principle of conscientious action from exactly opposite approaches to the theme of doomsday. The authors are generally portrayed as if they are at opposite ends of the spectrum for and against environmental doomsday scenarios, but a closer reading shows that they both accept the inevitability of doomsday, though they disagree on the timeline.

I recently read an article by Derrick Jensen in the May/June 2006 Orion Magazine entitled Beyond Hope. This is a wonderful exploration of the problem of having hope in the face of overwhelming and intractable problems. To quote the article, “Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying ‘Hope and fear chase each others tails,’ not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.” (italics in the original)

Then he goes on to describe how he, with the help of an audience at one of his talks, came to understand that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” So Jensen, a verifiable doomsday scenario artist, is promoting his art as a cure for this dreaded lack of agency caused by hopefulness. However, Jensen himself provided the Achilles heal for his own argument.

Notice the Buddhist saying that he deems “lovely” in my quote above. If hope is a curse of being taken out of the present then the problem is not hope at all, it is not being present. The same problem of fear and hope is not being fully present to what is in the moment. Thus, the doomsday scenarist Jensen is guilty of the very crime he proposes to solve. Doomsday scenarios are predictions of the future that induce fear. His publishers insist that he induce hope. He’s in a bind.

Let’s take a closer look at doomsday. It’s not just the mundane concept of personal death, but the death and destruction of everything beyond oneself. It seems to me to be the ultimate transpersonal death. Therefore, if your investment in life is based on leaving a legacy then this concept ruins the foundations of your existence.

So if the possibility of doomsday is a fact of our earthly existence then the question is, how do we utilize this dangerous gift to effectively change our behavior? How do we use doomsday judiciously in the service of fostering action, instead of preventing it?

If people were motivated by fear, then we should be trumpeting doomsday from the mountaintops. Occasionally people are motivated to act out of fear in situations involving very clear physical danger, but that is rarely true in facing large scale societal issues. Besides, many traditions warn against the dangers of acting out of fear. In my martial arts training it became abundantly clear that those who are acting primarily out of fear and anger can be the easiest to fight because they lose control of themselves. Of course, they are still very dangerous but as long as they didn’t hit you out of pure luck, they are quickly overcome if you remain in control of both your feelings and your actions.

How can we use doomsday to plug us into inspiration that puts us in touch with the present reality of our situation? The problem is neither feeling hope nor fear, so long as those feelings help us to be in touch with the reality of the present moment. The challenge is staying in touch with reality regardless of whether the stories you hear are tales of an inevitable doomsday or a rapturous utopia.

The most useful doomsday scenario would establish clear chains of causal relationships as a clear path to destruction, but also reveal a set of clear interventions into that causal chain to disrupt certain links and redirect events towards a better outcome. The greatest challenge for this scenario is the integrity necessary to present the facts in a manner that activates people’s core values in a truly meaningful way, not just their emotions.

04 May 2007

The 'C' Word, Part 2

Following up on my response to Curtis White’s Two-part Article Series The Idols of Environmentalism and The Ecology of Work

Capitalism, at face value as I understand it, is simply a system of allowing individuals to solicit the capital they need to start and operate a business from anyone they choose with a minimum of interference by the government. Global corporate interests love to use the term “capitalism” as a catch all phrase for everything good about how they got to be rich and powerful. For those who abhor the behavior of global corporate interests to demonize “capitalism” as a description of those behaviors is to fail to recognize what is really going on and give global corporate interests the advantage in talking about the issue.

I asked about the definition of capitalism earlier because I suspect that the term is pretty useless if it is merely a code-word for all the bad things done by the companies that make up just less than half of our economic system.

“Fully 99 percent of all independent enterprises in the country employ fewer than 500 people. These small enterprises account for 52 percent of all U.S. workers, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Some 19.6 million Americans work for companies employing fewer than 20 workers, 18.4 million work for firms employing between 20 and 99 workers, and 14.6 million work for firms with 100 to 499 workers. By contrast, 47.7 million Americans work for firms with 500 or more employees.
“Small businesses are a continuing source of dynamism for the American economy. They produced three-fourths of the economy’s new jobs between 1990 and 1995, an even larger contribution to employment growth than they made in the 1980s. They also represent an entry point into the economy for new groups. Women, for instance, participate heavily in small businesses. The number of female-owned businesses climbed by 89 percent, to an estimated 8.1 million, between 1987 and 1997, and women-owned sole proprietorships were expected to reach 35 percent of all such ventures by the year 2000. Small firms also tend to hire a greater number of older workers and people who prefer to work part-time.”


Are anti-capitalists opposed to the following benefits of our current system?

“In terms of social cohesion:
• small businesses serve as an entry point into the economy for new or previously slighted workers: women-owned small businesses, for instance, generate nearly a trillion dollars in revenues annually and employ more than 7 million workers;
• small businesses increasingly generate entrepreneurial opportunities for minorities, which census data show as owning 4.1 million firms that generate $695 billion annually and employ 4.8 million workers;
• small businesses bring economic activity to distressed areas: about 800,000 companies (90 percent of them microenterprises) are located in the poorest areas of the 100 largest U.S. cities;
• small businesses offer job satisfaction and autonomy: studies show that most businesses are started to improve one’s condition, rather than for lack of an alternative, with some half a million new businesses started each month.”


I would be surprised if you are opposed to these kinds of opportunities for people. The real question is not what to call the system of economics that we live with, it is figuring out if it really expresses our values.

I value respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. Therefore, I want every single person to have the opportunity to put a company together because they have the gumption and enterprise to provide goods and services to others. In a system of free enterprise, where this is true because the barriers to entry are very low, anyone can start a company by appealing to their friends, neighbors, and their entire network for the support they need, financial and otherwise. When the system respects the initiative of individuals, the individuals are supported with a clear set of legal requirements for being responsible about doing their business, and the individuals can be creative and resourceful about how they accomplish their business objectives, then I support that system no matter what you call it.

On the other hand my values are not expressed by a system that supports the cheap labor trap of slave wages that disrespect workers. My values are not expressed when multinational interests act irresponsibly by devastating ecologies and cultures. My values are not expressed by a system that uses violence and threats of violence to secure the interests of the global rich and powerful over the interests of the local and sustainable.

White’s article seems to me an exploration of a certain set of values. I found that his emphasis on “capitalism” exemplified by Weyerhauser, Monsanto, and “corporate evildoers” did not expose any useful guidance for expressing the set of values he was exploring. I get that he values work that does no harm, deepens the worker, encourages creativity, takes the collective risk for success as life, and makes good & beautiful things, but how do we recognize the forms of organization or a set of regulations on organizations that help or hinder those values?