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Sustainability: Not Limited to the Environment

Past Experiences

Thus far my experience with sustainability has been limited to my studies in college, specifically within the context of the environment. It has only been recently that I have discovered that sustainability is not simply limited to preserving/conserving the physical environment, but also includes political and socio-economic components and practices. The source of this knowledge mainly came from one of my recent winter 2017 courses, Environmental Geography, and an article we analyzed. This article was Changing Conceptions of Sustainability in Barcelona’s Public Parks by David Sauri, Marc Pares, and Elena Domene, in which they discuss the variety of definitions of sustainability that include political and socio-economic components and functions as well as providing a case study on two parks in Barcelona that demonstrate changes in these concepts over time. The authors talk about sustainability as a well integrated concept that was already being implemented in the design of these parks:

A quarter of a century ago the design of public parks loosely followed an idea of integrated sustainability avant la lettre; that is, before the concept of sustainability gained public recognition the city attempted to integrate in a single project both environmental and sociopolitical considerations. The conception of public spaces, and parks in particular, proceeded according to the predominant Mediterranean urban landscape of square, paved surfaces and dirt trails, with local trees and shrubs (possibly because they were easier and less expensive to maintain than were foreign species). Planners had also an eye for social and community needs: playgrounds for children and the elderly (petanque being a very popular activity), spaces for public meetings, and the like.

This article had changed the way I viewed sustainability as being more than just the physical environment. I hope to build my knowledge upon this more integrated concept and learn to apply it to my future studies and career.

Source:  Saurí, D., Parés, M., & Domene, E. (2009). CHANGING CONCEPTIONS OF SUSTAINABILITY IN BARCELONA’S PUBLIC PARKS. Geographical Review, 99(1), 23-36.

Games as a World Problem-Solving Platform

Jane McGonigal’s idea to encourage a vast portion of the human population to solve global-scale problems such as how to function in your daily life during an oil shortage or face the rapidly approaching end of the world through innovative and realistic video games is definitely interesting considering her point that many people already spend a vast amount of their time playing online games, myself included to an extent (Hearthstone and Mass Effect 3).

However, for these large scale problem solving games to be picked up by the number of people McGonigal proposed (about half of the population, 15:20 in video), these games need to have an appeal to all of those players in the allotted population. The entertainment value needs to be high and flexible to different tastes. Some gamers may prefer to strictly play online co-op, others may play the solo options on games that have an online co-op option, while another outlying type not accounted for in the TED talk were the players who prefer to strictly play solo games. In order to successfully pool enough players together, including the solo types (which would greatly increase the gaming population as a whole), these games need to be designed in such a flexible way to draw in and provide options for both online and solo players. Ignoring the solo player population would be excluding people who have the potential to make a difference either through participation or innovation.

Once they obtain the amount of people they need, they then need to sustain interest in the game through entertainment value (longevity). People play games for entertainment. Whether it be the story line, cinematics, or game mechanics, people are drawn to games to be entertained for a period of time. Nobody wants to play a boring game, much less attack and solve global issues through one.

Video source:

Sustaining Factual Knowledge Through Open-Sourced Courses

John Seely Brown’s lecture was interesting in that he explains how classes can be open-sourced to include the students and the general public. In his example of Second Life, there were classes and group discussions being held in which the registered students could participate and listen and the general public could listen and not participate (so as not to detract from the students paying the university to be there). This method could be a very important tool in spreading a message further than the borders of registered students.

I feel this is relevant now more than ever in light of the recent events of the new Trump administration actively lowering the funds available to organizations that work to inform the public about major issues such as climate change (EPA). I am shocked in my own personal experiences whenever a peer asks me whether or not climate change and global warming is real then continue to refute any evidence I share, human-induced related or not. Since political entities have demonstrated an inability to avoid spreading “alternative facts”, in which they have a far reach due to the media, the source that the general public can trust and receive truly factual information from are from reputable universities such as MIT and other major research campuses. By having such courses that include topics such as climate change available to the general public to listen in on or participate indirectly, important and truly factual information can continue to be spread to the general public regardless of the political environment.

Video Source:

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Why are we Hating on Historians?

History as a study is based upon the written word, where the archaeologist studies pottery shards and bone fragments the historian studies writings. I feel that Smail misses this important point. The historian is not specialized to study eras or areas where there is not written record of any type. Historians consider their work as being more sophisticated than that of archaeologists and anthropologists because their source material is more accurate than that of the other disciplines. Once something is written down it is frozen in time, clear and unchanged. This is also the limitation of the historian – they cannot study the time before writing using their tools, so that is left to archaeologists and anthropologists to figure out which involves much more guess work because they are working with fragments of a picture and using them to draw a conclusion rather than having the unaltered writings of those who lived at the time. This is why historians may look down on the other disciplines because they make mistakes and may inject too much of themselves into their narratives. However, no one would argue, as Smail believes they would, that combining the disciplines makes are fuller picture and that each adds a layer of richness and detail to the history but it is simply not practical to make every paper and book a collaboration. Should they collaborate more often? Of course they should. All related disciplines should work together but they must also work separately in their specialties. Things have changed. As Smail points out, historians have largely abandoned the sacred history viewpoint. It still hangs on in the fringes of the profession and in the stubbornness of state boards of education setting out school history standards but the view point that he is railing against is mostly dead.   

Source:

Smail, Daniel Lord, Toward Reunion in History, Introduction from On Deep History and the Brain, University of California Press (2008)

Questioning the Past

At the time of this video (2000) and when Howard Zinn published his book (1980), the mindset about history was close-minded, especially at the time of the book being published due to the red scare. However, to claim that the mainstream telling of history is different from Zinn’s method of questioning is inaccurate. Today, the idea of revealing the hard truths about subjects such as Columbus and his treatment of indigenous peoples is commonplace in grade school and colleges. To believe that Columbus is an infallible hero is actually considered naive thinking outside of the mainstream. The idea of questioning a historical narrative was revolutionary 30 years ago when Zinn’s book was published, however today it is no longer shocking nor discouraged.

Americans today, young and old, are absolutely encouraged to question history. Teachers and professors now are the ones who were first exposed to this idea growing up, therefore they will continue teaching this open way of thinking to their peers and students. What Americans are discouraged from doing is questioning the present and future, not the past. When we begin to look at the past then question the present system and the future it is taking us, that is when discouragement and censorship will happen, such as the case with Noam Chomsky.

Source:

Zinn, Howard, interview on Booknotes: Book Discussion on A People’s History of the United Stateshttp://www.cspan.org/video/?155006-1/book-discussion-peoples-history-united-states

Traditional Civic Associations

In the Robert Putnam’s reading, he points out the declining trend of Americans participating in civic life, meaning Americans generally do not willingly and actively participate in major organizational groups that range from political to religious and have an effect on society as a whole. Putnam uses the example of an increased amount of bowlers but a decrease in bowling leagues to show how the American society has become more focused on the individual and strays from groups and cooperation. However, in this reading it is a response listed just after Putnam’s article that caught my attention by Katha Pollitt.

No, the whole theory is seriously out of touch with the complexities of contemporary life. If church membership is down (good news in my book), it’s hardly because people are staying home to watch TV. More likely, organized religion doesn’t speak to their spiritual needs the way (for example) self-help programs do. Putnam dismisses the twelve-step movement much too quickly. At the very least, its popularity calls the TV-time-drain theory into question. I know people who’ve gone to A.A. every day, for years. As for building social capital, my own brief experience with Alanon more than fifteen years ago is still my touchstone of ordinary human decency and kindness. What’s that if not “trust”? My membership in the P.T.A., by contrast, is motivated mostly by mistrust: As another parent put it, we join the P.T.A. to keep our kids from being shafted by the school system.

I think Pollitt brings up a great point about motivations behind members of these more civic organizations. My generation participates in what Putnam labels simply writes off as “support groups focused on the individual” because these groups showcase more empathy, acceptance, equality, and a strong drive to change the status-quo for the betterment of the group or society. “Traditional civic associations” are often occupied by people who are motivated by power and control. America has gotten to the point where these traditional civic associations are so overpopulated by more individualistic people that there is no room for those who seek to change the system. Therefore, we do not participate in these associations because it is futile and instead turn to support groups. Perhaps these “traditional” civic associations should be considered just that… traditional. Old fashioned. The old way of doing things. Perhaps our society has changed so that people no longer desire such stuffy organizations and prefer more flexible and casual options as American life is now busier and even more fast-paced due to the technology and information age pushing the standard of operating hours to 24/7?

Source:

Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp 65-78 http://archive.realtor.org/sites/default/files/BowlingAlone.pdf

Democracy: Greece vs America

The question raised in this section of the documentary is how does the democracy practiced by the ancient Athenians compare to what we in the United States refer to as democracy. There are clear differences, from how representatives are selected, how much power they have, to how they are removed. The Athenian system places much more power directly into the hands of the people; they are the final and direct decision makers. So the question then becomes, why is the democracy we practice in the United States so different? The answer to this is in two parts: origin and practicality. The origin of American democracy can be traced to the enlightenment ideas that the founders of our country were well versed in and where they got the idea of democratic government in the first place. However, where the Athenian system places the people on top, the American founders clearly did not trust the common people at all. This is evident in how the system was set up with representative rather than direct democracy. The restriction of voting early on to only landed white males ensured that only those with a lasting stake in the region could participate, traders and merchants were too transitory to be trusted and women and people to color too inferior. Few also realize that initially only members of the House of Representatives were elected, Senators were chosen by the state governments (changed by the 17th Amendment in 1913). They did this because the founders only wanted men of a certain class and education to be Representatives as only they could be trusted with the business of the nation. Even the now despised electoral college was a safeguard against populist uprisings, taking the power from the people if those in the political elite think their choice for president was unwise. So, American democracy is founded on a base of simply not trusting the people. The second reason for our democracy being so different from Athens is practicality. This is the argument most will give today on why we cannot have a direct democracy. Fairly counting the vote of every man and woman when any piece of legislation needs to pass in a country of over 300 million is simply not practical. We can hardly get people to vote every 2 years let alone vote every 2 weeks as would be required to run the states and the national government effectively, not to mention the cost involved, and electronic online voting would be too susceptible to hacking and fraud.  

While no reasonable person would argue that what is practiced in the United States is a true democracy, it is a great model of a republic. Of course it needs to function better; partisanship and gerrymandering have done great harm to the democratic aspects of our republic making it harder for politicians to be removed from power and disenfranchising millions, especially minorities. So to conclude, no, Athenians would not consider the United States to be a democracy. However, I believe they would be glad to see that the arts they lay the foundation for drama, comedy and the rest still play a prominent role in shaping public opinion and criticizing politicians.

Source:

National Geographic, The Greeks; Chasing Greatness (2016)

Are universities really not a place of true learning, free speech, and sharing ideas?

When professor Salaita was dismissed it was not based on the politics of the president of the university; it was based on the politics and opinions of the board and more importantly the wealthy donors that many universities, no matter if they are public or private, are implicitly beholden to. If this were a private university perhaps this kind of exclusivity of thought and pressure from those associated with the university could be understandable. However, the university of Illinois is a public institution with the majority of its finances coming from the people of Illinois. On that note, the methods by which the university is governed and therefore regulated could use some examination. Now it would be impractical to expect state oversight of every hiring and firing that the university executes each year but clearly some guidelines either need to be legislated or at least prescribed by the state Department of Education as far as what a fieable offence is for non-tenured professors.  Something must be done to protect academic freedom from the opinions of the few and the powerful before it gets to the stage of Dr. Salaita’s case. As far as the content of the tweets, there is disagreement and dissent over the treatment of Palestine within Israel itself and Palestinian rights and awareness groups are widespread across the United States, especially within universities. Dr. Salaita’s opinions, while they may be farther out than the center of this movement, are by no means uncommon or exceptional. However, due to the politicization of U.S. Israeli foreign policy any dissenting views are seen as fringe by the political class on both sides of the aisle. Dr. Salaita’s rights to free speech were violated by the university as a representative of the state of Illinois. Dr. Salaita has since settled his lawsuit and does not teach at the University of Illinois.

Source:

Dismissed Professor Steven Salaita Speaks Out 

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/10/7/does_free_speech_have_a_palestine

We really can’t trust our current news and information media…

Dr. Chomsky’s talk in the first portion of the interview focused largely on how the people, or at least the electorate, are manipulated by the messaging of the various political parties and in turn the media. It is through this manipulation that many people end up supporting positions that are outside of their own self interests such as subsidies for the wealthy and various large industries. The complicity of the media is highlighted in the fact that he himself is not welcome on many, even liberal, news channels. These channels stick fairly close to their respective party lines and are distracted from their political interests by their philosophical or social beliefs. This has only been amplified since then and the conservative populism that he feared has taken hold. The question of who benefits is one of the most important to ask in a democracy but when the messaging from even the media has been so obscured the majority of the population won’t find the answer without digging themselves. As for foreign policy, we have been continuously fed a “Us vs. Them” message regarding global politics since the cold war that largely ignores the majority of the world. Even in a post cold war world the only viewpoints that are considered on a global scale are those that the United States agrees to. A middle way in many cases, and as Dr. Chomsky proposes in the section on the Ukraine, is largely ignored. Of course, all countries are motivated by the welfare of the people over that of the planet, if the countries are truly democratic they are the people, but why should the interests of the people and the planet be exclusive from one another?

Source:

Noam Chomsky: Democracy is a Threat to Any Power System interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2dw7OZD-mg .

We Can Be Reprogrammed for Sustainability…and Other Good Things

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he delves into the psychology of our immediate and unconscious decision making and judgment processes, which is literally judging a book by its cover within milliseconds. In chapter three, Gladwell pointed out that our unconsciousness will make associations that follow the patterns of the dominant culture. However, he also reminds us that we are not completely doomed to blindly follow the dominant culture’s way of thinking and functioning. Through effort, consistency, and commitment, I believe we can in a way “reprogram” ourselves out of the dominant culture and into a different way of thinking and being. Just as Gladwell suggests for those who are white who wish to truly treat those with darker skin as equals to change their habits and are encouraged to frequently “expose” themselves to consistent interaction with other people, which in turn eventually creates a new routine and habit that encourages equal treatment for all. We can apply this reprogramming technique to more sustainable living habits by participating (reading, watching, volunteering) on a daily basis with anything considered regenerative or anyone who is already a member or mentor of this way of living and thinking. The idea and concept of regenerative living will no longer be so foreign or scary if you consistently expose yourself to it daily, little by little so as not to overwhelm. However, I also feel it is crucial to keep in mind that this method should only be used to reprogram yourself for your own benefit and well-being and shouldn’t be forced upon others without their consent, or that would just be doing exactly what the consumerist culture is already doing.

To further understand Gladwell’s chapter three and out of curiosity, I participated in an online Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is a test in which you categorize whatever you see on the screen based on snap judgement. I took the Presidents IAT. My results:

The sorting test you just took is called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). You categorized good and bad words with images of Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

Here is your result: Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Barack Obama over Donald Trump.

Your result is described as an “Automatic preference for Barack Obama over Donald Trump” if you were faster responding when Barack Obama and Good are assigned to the same response key than when Donald Trump and Good were classified with the same key. Your score is described as an “Automatic preference for Donald Trump over Barack Obama” if the opposite occurred.

I admittedly enjoyed this test and even laughed most of the way through considering our current political environment. To be serious however, I am not at all surprised by my results as I had gone into the test well aware of my unconscious and very conscious disliking towards Trump and my obvious preference for Obama and his family and administration. However, to put out a very hypothetical analysis: If the situation still held with Obama (positive) and Trump (negative), and my current beliefs, yet if my results showed a preference for Trump, I would be deeply troubled. That would imply that my unconscious associations with black men would be so negative that I would prefer Trump over Obama simply due to race. I hate to admit I can see how it can happen as Gladwell pointed out our pro-white culture.

If I had gotten these results instead, I would try to reprogram myself like mentioned above. The first step to remedying the negative associations is to first admit that it is a problem. Nothing can be change if the status quo is not considered an issue or wrong in the first place. Second, I would visit our campus cultural center (or any local cultural center if not a student) and make some new friends while being upfront and honest with them about how and why I came to visit. A friendship is not a true friendship without honesty. I would want them to know of my intentions of changing myself and would want them to be willing to help or have the option to decline. The third step would be consistent interaction through activities until they became habit, then retake the test after some time has passed to monitor any change. Rinse, repeat.

If only solving this world’s race issue was that easy, huh?

Sources

Gladwell, Malcolm, The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark and Handsome Men, Chapter 3 from Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Back Bay Books (2005)

Online IAT

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html