Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map

References

Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Search engines’ dirty secret

I just saw a reference to a New Scientist article, Search engines’ dirty secret – 31 March 2010 about the energy use of search engines, such as Google. The author, James Clarage, who is a physicist at the University of St Thomas in Houston, does some rough calculations to show alarmingly high energy costs:

Google serves up approximately 10 million search results per hour, so one search has the same energy cost as turning on a 100-watt light bulb for an hour…We’ve all heard the future of information architecture is cloud computing. It just might be a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Tim Rustige had the same reaction I did: Yes, web searches use energy, but it can’t be that much. In New Scientist 3rd April 2010 ‘Search’s dirty secret’ he runs through some more detailed calculations to show that the energy use by Google is much less, perhaps 1% of what Clarage estimates.

Neither author takes into account the energy us of the home computer or smart phone that access Google. That’s likely to be many times the cost of what Google does. When that’s factored in, along with the costs of manufacturing, servicing, shipping, and disposing computers, it’s clear that Clarage’s basic point is still valid. There is a serious environmental impact of search engines and computers, and much needs to be done to improve their efficiency.

Climate change’s OJ Simpson moment

Bill McKibben has just written an excellent article: Climate Change’s OJ Simpson Moment | Mother Jones. Although one can read it as yet another argument pro or con on climate change, it’s even more a sophisticated analysis of how the discourse has developed over the last 20 years, in the process giving a surprisingly sympathetic account of climate change deniers.

He starts by discussing the positive reaction to his first book, The End of Nature, which was one of the first books for a general audience on climate change:

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data…Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the US, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet.

But McKibben doesn’t just rail agains the deniers of global warming, or pull out reams of reports, data, and arguments. Instead, he  talks about how we all respond to disturbing news and to mountains of evidence we don’t have the capacity to sort through. I felt as if he were speaking to all of us across a wide range of complex topics in the modern era–health, economics, education.

He goes on then to show how evidence alone is not the issue; in fact, its effect can be contrary to what you might think at first:

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all.

The “OJ Simpson moment” relates to the problem that the defense faced in the OJ Simpson murder trial, in which “it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning.” How could they cast doubt, when there appeared to be no remotely reasonable doubt? McKibben shows how, ironically, one resource they had was the immense body of evidence against their client.

He also shows how ordinary language is shaped and changed. One reason the deniers of global warming are winning the debate is that they’re able to connect with our fear of change, of having to do something. As McKibben says:

The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster.

Overconsumption is the problem, not population

When we watch farmlands or forests being paved over for new housing, or see images of starving children, it’s hard not to think that there may be just too many people, that we have “exponential” population growth. This leads soon to the idea that we need to “do something” about population.

That view has a long history, including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. There may well be negative effects and ultimate limits, but most of the blame assigned to population today would be better assigned to overconsumption.

How we understand the causes of present problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, hunger, and war is important, because different causes call for different remedies. An article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, via Population: Overconsumption is the real problem – opinion – 27 September 2009, summarizes well the major issues here.

The population “bomb” is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did – mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more “doing something” about global population might achieve.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries – but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 – and many parts of Africa

Thus, even if we have too many people, the rate of growth is decreasing, and all the indicators point to further reductions accompanying development. So, if the problem is not exponential population growth, what is it? Pearce goes on to point out that

the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.

Pearce talks mostly about climate change, but his argument holds for other aspects of environmental stress, including the basic issue of hunger. Overconsumption in the rich countries occurs through waste, a diet heavily based on meat, and simply too much eating. A study directed by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, indicates that up to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest in the US never gets eaten. That amount alone is enough to address worldwide hunger needs.

There’s no doubt that we’d do better to balance our population with the available resources, but before we criticize the mote in the eye of starving villagers in Africa, we might well consider the beam in our own.

References

Copenhagen climate summit in disarray after ‘Danish text’ leak

The Guardian reports that the leak of the “Danish text” has put the Copenhagen climate change summit in “disarray” (see Copenhagen climate summit in disarray after ‘Danish text’ leak). Developing countries “reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations.” The document apparently sets unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions, allowing people in rich countries to emit nearly twice as much.

Meanwhile, James Hansen, “the scientist who convinced the world to take notice of the looming danger of global warming says it would be better for the planet and for future generations” if the talks collapse.

If our children and grandchildren can’t stop us from destroying their world, who will?

John Dewey and Daisaku Ikeda

ikeda-headshotI attended the 6th Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue yesterday at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge. The topic was John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism. The occasion was the 150th Anniversary of John Dewey’s birth.

Although Ikeda’s Nichiren Buddhism, a form of Mahayana Buddhism, may at first seem far removed from Dewey’s American pragmatism, the speakers found many areas of consonance between the work of the two. I was pleased to see that Jane Addams was brought into the conversation, too.

Ikeda CenterNichiren was a 13th century Buddhist reformer, who based his teachings on the Lotus Sutra and its  message of the dignity of all life. Like Dewey’s pragmatism, Nichiren Buddhism is grounded in the realities of daily life. It promotes “human revolution,” in which individuals take responsibility for their lives and help to build a world in which diverse peoples can live in peace.

Ikeda is the founder of the Soka Gakkai International, a movement characterized by its emphasis on value creation (soka). This implies that each individual needs the opportunity to find value in their unique path while contributing value to humanity. Soka schools have much in common with the kinds of schools Dewey envisaged (but rarely saw enacted).

At the Ikeda Forum discussions focused on connections and divergences between Dewey’s naturalistic humanism and Ikeda’s Buddhist humanism. Presentations examined how their work can be used as resources for individual and social change.

“Free parking isn’t free”

As someone who tries to walk modest distances in town, I’ve been impressed again and again with how unfriendly our cites are for walkers. There are dangerous intersections, or worse, busy roads with no designated crossing. There are missing sidewalks and senseless barriers. Making things worse is the fact that everything is so far apart. One of the culprits here is our irrational obsession with free parking, which like any addiction creates its own need.

Seth Zeren has an excellent essay on Worldchanging about why “free parking” actually costs us all a lot.  He points out that what seemed once to be reasonable zoning requirements for parking actually costs us all a lot in terms of polution, traffic, health, aesthetics, and even direct cash.

Why do Americans drive everywhere? Because everything’s far apart. Why’s it far apart? Often because there’s so much parking in between! In the end, creating bright green cities will require undoing the damage created by mandating free parking.

Free Parking Isn’t Free, August 4, 2009

The story of stuff

home-diggerAnnie Leonard has created an excellent, 20-minute video+animation that calls for creating a more sustainable and just world: The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard

The story is told in an engaging, even funny, way, very accessible to children, as it addresses serious environmental and social issues. It discusses the inadequacies of the linear model for the materials economy, which conceives stuff in terms of extraction, production, distribution consumption, and disposal. Annie shows how these mostly hidden processes affect communities in the US and abroad. It’s lively, informative, humorous, and makes us think of the stuff in our lives in a new way.

The story of stuff website has additional resources, and the book will be available March 9, 2010