The Trouble With Assimilation

Western settlers came to this continent and conquered the land and the peoples living there. As a matter of course and component of the genocide, they also worked to eliminate the culture and practices of those peoples. Those cultural practices based on discovered ecological knowledge came from thousands of years of cultural and biological evolution in those ecosystems and therefore were a part of the ecosystem’s homeostasis as the human culture.

Those practices and traits co-evolved within the ecosystem in which each of those peoples had lived and evolved for thousands of years. Enter the European immigrants whose cultures and practices evolved in a different ecosystem on a different continent. They observed the indigenous tribes’ practices such as planting corn, beans, and squash together. These three plants cooperated to grow together and helped to maintain the homeostasis of the soil in which they grew. To the European immigrants, this resulted in fields that looked like an uncontrolled, uncultivated mess. It did not match their worldview of conquering and subduing the beast that was their view of Mother Nature.

Fast forward a few hundred years and the genocide of the peoples’ culture and ecosystems are nearly complete. All have been conquered. Those left are expected to assimilate to this new worldview of domination = civilization. Those cultures, individuals, practices, and members of the ecosystems that cannot adapt are expected to fade away, die out, or leave. Indigenous peoples were expected to adapt to the new worldview economy, Western agricultural practices, education, and religion. Those new practices did not evolve in this place—in this ecosystem—and while those being discarded did. Therefore, I wonder if this imported culture can ever be in true ecological homeostasis. What if we are doing it all wrong? All of it. Instead of expecting the indigenous peoples and rest of the native ecosystems’ organisms, interactions, practices, cultures and all that resulted from thousands of years of evolution in this place, to adapt to this new worldview, it should be reversed. It’s as if we forgot how to live in the world.

Maybe homeostasis can never be reached in these “new world” ecosystems until all its inhabitants begin enacting the worldview, culture, and ecological practices that are the result of thousands of years of cultural and biological evolution in those ecosystems. Maybe, instead of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World assimilating and adapting to the new Western/European world view, culture and practices, it is the conquerors who need to assimilate and adapt to the old ways evolved on this New World.

Maybe the genocide (cultural and ecological) will not end until this shift occurs. Without this shift, maybe destruction of all is unavoidable. First the last of the indigenous peoples and cultures, then the stability of the native ecosystems, and then the conquerors will fade away. This will only leave behind an ecosystem pushed so far from homeostasis and equilibrium that a new homeostasis will be found, but not one that supports us. It will take millions of years of biological evolution and ecological succession, but Gaia will restore her balance for those species that can adapt biologically to the new homeostasis. But, that rate of evolution and balancing is far too slow for us and our culture to survive.

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And Then They Marched

children climate marchThe children marched last Friday. It might have been the ultimate teenage rebellion. I’m troubled, but not surprised by some of the disrespectful, hateful responses to the march, and to Greta Thornberg in particular, from a few right-wing commentators and politicians. The majority response has been positive and even expressions of hope in this next generation of kids. Though, should not the adults be providing the path forward?

While many cultures have ceremonies and rituals to treat this transition from child to adult with great importance, others, at times, treat acts of rebellion like a pathology to be squelched—often for good reasons over concern for safety. However, “rebellion if given proper reverence, is a necessary confrontation with society that ensures our sustainability…young people [must] be invited to contribute their disagreements to our shared aliveness” (Turner, 2017, Loc 249). The danger of dismissing or squelching teenage rebellion is driving the passion felt into shame and repression. The energy and passion still exist and then can be expressed in truly dangerous and self-destructive behaviors (Turner, 2017).

Maybe the anger felt by some of the “adults” is in part a natural reaction to teenage rebellion. “Sit down and be quiet.” I think it is also a reaction of fear and shame. No one likes to be scolded and in large part the intent of the march was a global scolding. We don’t like that their rebellion is not turning towards the typical dangers in early independence, but instead pointing out our own failures—pointing out that the danger is actually us! The older generation is hearing the younger generation and what we are hearing is an evaluation of how we’ve done. It isn’t a positive performance review.

GretaOften-times in folk tales, literature, and movies the rebel ends up being at first an outcast and then a leader for change. These children, and Greta Thornberg in particular, are outcasts and we do not like what she represents as an outcast because what it really shows is what we have cast out.

We’ve worried they never go outside. We’ve worried they are addicted to their phones. We’ve worried they spend too much time alone and won’t know how to do anything or interact with others. And then they marched.

We cannot now criticize or dismiss this as just an act of rebellion and tell them to sit down and be quiet. It might be time for the adults to shut up and listen for a bit, but just a bit, and then take action by taking leadership away from those in the way of necessary work to secure our children’s future and very existence. That’s what you do when you are the adult. They marched. Now, we act.

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Turner, Toko-pa (2019) Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. Her Own Room Press. British Columbia, Canada.

Photos: March is from the independent.ie, Greta Thornberg from globalnews.ca

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Is This Really a Choice?

earth from space

Despite a current increase in concerns about environmental issues, at least the most important one in the climate crisis, I believe most people still view nature as separate from them and as a resource valued for its utilitarian purposes. It’s ours to do with as we see fit to maintain our modern lifestyle. As I wrote on September 19, I would venture a guess that many individuals have an ecological identity of disconnection with the ecosystem in which they live even though they are biologically infused with the air, water, and soil of where they live. We’ll recycle, and reduce the use of plastic bags, straws, and the like, but we’re not going to change the behaviors that required those resources but instead will rely on alternative fixes to maintain the lifestyle. When asked by the conservationists/environmentalists, to make these sacrifices, they are often met with derision. “Come on, really, I can’t use a straw in my drink?” We haven’t even gotten to the impact of the single use cup or plastic lid yet!

Because of this, conservationists are categorized as overly emotional, unrealistic, and even hyperbolic by the developers or polluters (and then the general population). Sometimes the hyperbole is unwarranted and sometimes it is probably out of frustration. The more the conservationist’s arguments are dismissed as too emotional, I suspect the more hyperbolic they become, maybe not as a conscious tactic, but simply due to frustration and fear for future state of the natural world. And so, we get in this positive feedback loop of conservationists getting louder and the developers dismissing them out of hand. However, since conservation is viewed as an emotional plea while the argument for utilizing or developing the natural resource (and often destroying it and other aspects of nature in the process) is based on objective needs and reality, the objective argument wins in the end and we continue our destruction of the natural world. This puts us in our current reality where conserving is nice and feels good when we can do it, but progress cannot be stopped.

This dynamic has created an unequal playing field for the two “sides” of the debate. There really is only one side, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Because conservationists are viewed as coming from an emotional and even an ideological paradigm they are not allowed to compromise their ideals. Therefore, if they drive their hybrid car to the airport to take a flight across country, they are labeled as hypocrites for conserving fuel with their automobile choice but criticized for the large carbon footprint of flying in an airliner. I guess, if you are going to pollute, go all out. However, the developer who might have a record of being a polluter in their business practice, can drive his gas-guzzling truck anywhere (including to the airport) and receive no criticism since he is consistent in his ideals. When that same developer compromises his ideal of maximizing profit and development of a resource for conservation he is praised for this act (which really is an act of hypocrisy since counter to normal practiced ideals). This demonstrates that deep down we know it is correct to preserve and conserve, but we are no at the present willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so and so we continue to lose the argument for conservation.

Conservationists have begun to shift strategies. While it is still an impassioned argument, it is now becoming one from a utilitarian paradigm. Our very existence and way of life (within a generation and no longer a distant fear) depends on the preservation of the natural world. The danger of this strategy is that if we rely only on the utilitarian argument, then we will only save what we need. This requires that we understand each component’s role in the health and sustainability of an ecosystem and that each component is therefore necessary for our survival as well. Each new discovery and new set of data clarifies that all aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected. There aren’t extra pieces we can remove and keep the ecosystem stable. It’s not an Ikea bookshelf with a few extra screws included. Therefore, we may end up not saving a crucial aspect necessary for the stability of an ecosystem and also then for our survival because we do not understand its utilitarian purpose for our survival. In the end, for our survival, there really is only one argument—we need to conserve it all.

Of course, I’m realistic that as individuals we are trapped in a modern society that is built on energy consumption and destruction of natural resources. We cannot return to a time when there were less than a billion humans all living in small communities based on local agricultural practices or nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. There does have to be compromise. We can rely on technological fixes to greatly mitigate our ecological impact, but those technological fixes only work for a long, sustainable future for our species (and all others frankly) if we do make significant societal lifestyle changes and eliminate getting energy from non-renewables and consuming natural resources in the form of single-use items. It will not be easy, and my generation will most likely not see the results of 276687.binour efforts, but our children might. If we don’t make the effort, then I fear one of the many dystopian futures predicted by our modern authors and filmmakers will become the norm—a continued decline and positive feedback loop of dwindling resources, increasing hardship, conflict leading towards extinction. Is this even a choice?

As always, consider subscribing to this blog and sharing on social media. Tusen Takk.

1 – Earth From Space image from http://www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov

2 – The Road movie still from http://www.independent.co.uk

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The Ecological Identity Concept

I’m in Norway this week and next as part of sabbatical research and learning. I acknowledge and am thankful for my privilege and fortune! One reason I came to Norway is to further explore the concept of, and how to teach, ecological identity. This term was originated by Mitchell Thomashow, has been influential in much of my thinking, teaching, and research, but is also admittedly not widely used within the field of education, environmentalism, or ecology. But I think it should be.

We all have an ecological identity whether recognized or not. Our collective and individual identity is rooted in the ecosystem in which it evolved and within which we live as individuals. Most people do not use this term, and possibly have not thought about their place, role, or culture as rooted in the ecosystem in which they live. Many people may not even consider that they live in an ecosystem!

I believe this disconnect, literally, from the ecosystem or natural world is foundational to our many looming environmental crises. By “natural world” I do not mean specifically wilderness or undisturbed nature as might be found in a national park. Downtown New York City is still in the natural world (though maybe has squished it like a stepped-on grape) and the individuals are still as literally connected to that ecosystem as American philosopher Henry David Thoreau was connected to Walden Pond or Norwegian philosopher Arnie Naess was connected to his cabin, Tvergastein. No matter where, all living beings are deeply connected to their place by the mere act of breathing, metabolizing, exhaling and excreting—in other words, by living.

A person not able to understand or think in these terms, I would argue, would have an ecological identity of disconnection. The opposite might be an ecological identity of strong understanding of understanding one’s connection to the ecosystem. Neither, however, translates directly into behaviors or actions that could be qualified as good or bad for “the environment.”

An individual can feel a deep connection to the ecosystem in which he or she lives through participation in recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, etc. but behave in such a way as to consume considerable energy while producing prodigious waste and pollution, having what we might call a large “ecological footprint.” Conversely, one could live in a high rise in downtown NY, Oslo, or London and behave in ways that minimizes energy consumption and waste production, and therefore have a small “ecological footprint” without ever setting foot in nature.

In both cases, the behaviors might be purely rote-learned behaviors not consciously thought about in the context of how it is an expression of his or her understanding of one’s place. I contend, however, that one’s biological, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical being all evolved within the ecosystem from which they and their “people” are from. Those aspects of their personhood (their identity) are rooted in and come from the ecosystem in which they live and can trace their ancestry to.

This brings me to Norway and the influence of Norwegian Philosopher Arnie Naess. He wrote extensively about the process of developing a personal philosophy deeply rooted in one’s place, and because of the connection to place, labeled this an “ecological philosophy” or (“ecosophy”). Out of the exploration of his ecological philosophy he introduced the concept of “deep ecology”. Deep ecology has these eight principles1:

  1. All living things have intrinsic value.
  2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
  3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.
  4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
  5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
  6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
  7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
  8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the necessary change.

You can see that none of these above principles have anything to do with being outdoorsy or active in nature but could be influential aspects of a person’s behaviors and their identity. I choose the term “identity” over “philosophy” as I think it makes the concept of thinking about one’s place more accessible. This may be a product of growing up in and American culture and writing to an American audience.

Regardless, I don’t see any hope for working our way out of our current environmental crises and looming, dramatically-altered future climate, until individuals begin to think more purposefully and deeply (okay, philosophically, to honor Arnie) about their ecological identity and understand their connection to the natural world. Otherwise any behaviors intended to address environmental issues (i.e. recycling) are too little, too late as they are merely rote-learned behaviors as a result of reactionary policies coming as a means to fix a problem instead of preventing it in the first place. We should not have to legislate rules requiring ecological buffers between bodies of water fertilized lawns or agricultural fields to prevent fertilizer runoff, but instead individuals should know enough to ask and anticipate, “what happens if..?” Until we can do this individually and then collectively through political decision-making structures, we will always be chasing our tails.

To explore what this might mean for teachers and their role in guiding children to explore ecological identity I refer you to this recorded presentation of mine titled Educating for Ecological Identity.

As always, if you appreciate this blog, I invite you to subscribe to and share this on social media. Tusen takk.

1 – Introduction (2008). Alan Drengson in The Ecology of Wisdom: The Writings of Arnie Naess. (2008). edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall. Counterpoint Press. Berkeley CA.

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A Generation Ago

Eighteen years ago today I was teaching first period AP Biology when I was interrupted by the superintendent’s administrative assistant. Her office was next to my classroom. She came in and said we needed to turn on the TV. She did not have a TV in her office. We turned on the TV a few minutes before the second plane hit the World Trade Center Tower.

I spent the rest of the day watching the ongoing coverage with each class, and processing what we were seeing. It’s difficult to believe that was now a generation ago.

A couple of days later I heard the story of a FDNY Chaplain giving last rights to victims at the base of the tower. As a means of processing those images, I wrote a song. I never really liked how it turned out. Today I took a crack at rewriting the lyrics and some of the melody line. Here it is. Not Dead Yet.

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In a Groove or Stuck in a Rut

The Tuesday after Labor Day has typically been the first day of classes. Even years when I started teaching the week prior to Labor Day, it still felt the like the true end of summer and beginning of the academic year. This week is the first since 1993 when I wasn’t starting a school year as a teacher or an administrator.

Being on sabbatical, my routine is significantly different—more the routine of an independent writer. This is a very different “groove” to be in. Groove is good. In music terms, it is the rhythm, pacing, and overall “feel” of a song. A good song has a distinct and easy to identify groove. A groove dug too deep, however, becomes a rut. The trick is to find a groove, but not get stuck in a rut.

I know that I have not always found my groove in my teaching career, but it is safe to say that I don’t get stuck in ruts. Let’s review my history; five years teaching 7th grade life science, then shift to 4 years of teaching high school science; a year not spoken of lost at a small private school; five years starting and running a small charter school; five years at a private boarding school; five years teaching on campus and serving as department chair (four of the five) at Bemidji State University; then a shift to the distance program at BSU. I sense a pattern; I’ve made a change about every five years. No ruts here, except maybe a rut of professional wanderlust.

Now I am on sabbatical and working on two significant writing projects. Here’s what I have learned so far. One of the appeals for me of being a teacher is the opportunity for change and starting over each year. Conversely, one of the stressors of being a teaching is the opportunity for change and starting over each year. While from year to year I was often teaching the same courses, each year was new because I was teaching a new set of students in a slightly different world. Context is everything in learning and so it was always necessary to adjust and (hopefully) improve my teaching each year with new ideas or new approaches to old ideas. That ongoing change and evolution of ideas is energizing for me. At the same time, I started of each year as an overwhelmed introvert sure that there was no way I could ever get to know up to 150 new individuals. And, unfortunately there were some where all I managed was getting to know their name.

The preparation for, and then the delivery of curriculum and the development of the interpersonal relationships with students is emotionally exhausting. Ready or not, they were there everyday with the same expectations of me. There is no break from that expectation of preparedness and positive interaction from the first day of school and on. It doesn’t matter if you’re even there or not! The kids still are there and require your attention (even if from afar and through a proxy), the expectation and responsibility does not wane. The absence of that stress and anxiety this year has revealed to me how I was preoccupied with those anxieties in the past.

Teaching requires the ability to provide your full attention to teaching the day’s lesson and meeting the immediate needs of students while at the same time planning for the next day, week, month, etc. These are very different kinds of tasks. Without the extended time of the summer break to step back, do something different, recharge, and plan for the next year with the luxury of time to do some research, attend more training, and just have time to let ideas bubble an boil for a bit, I would have very quickly gotten stuck in one groove of what and how I taught it would have become a rut.

My lesson so far is that there must be adequate time to shift the routine and focus enough to evaluate what and how you are doing what you do to remain positive, productive, creative, and emotionally healthy as a teacher. I suspect this is true for any profession, however. I believe this time is necessary to allow one to not only enjoy the result of one’s labor (the task or maybe even just the paycheck) but also enjoy the process of one’s labor. That’s where the “groove” can be found.

One week into my sabbatical and I’m still trying to find the groove. I’ve decided a routine that will help set the rhythm is to post a new blog every Wednesday. So, look for that and I invite you to subscribe to the blog and share on social media. I promise that each week will not be focused just on teaching. Who knows what conversations might get started.

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Elusive Happiness and the Lure of Passive Leisure

We are living in a stressful time.  Maybe it only seems so due to 24-hour news cycles and giving opportunity for anyone’s voice to be heard around the world without any editing or gatekeeping—mine included! My anecdotal observation of the impact on our daily lives is that we rely more and more on passive leisure. Passive leisure requires little psychic energy (attention, not crystal balls) to order thoughts, overcome challenges in understanding, and thus further developing skills or understanding about something of importance. How often by the end of the day do you feel like you need to just “shut down” or maybe continue to operate in “safe mode”? While passive leisure does have a place in our daily/weekly routines, a pattern of mundane work and passive leisure does not result in Happiness (with a capital “H”—overall happiness and feelings of living a fulfilling life, not just a moment pleasure).

Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi has conducted considerable research on how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves and were pursuing careers in which they spent their time doing activities that they preferred (musicians, athletes, chess masters, artists, surgeons, etc.). These were individuals who were fortunate enough to find what they loved doing and turn that into a career. From this research, Csikszenthmihalyi’s developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of Flow.

Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Flow occurs when doing activities that require the psychic energy avoided and absent from passive leisure—great concentration and effort to overcome challenges to develop new skills and understanding. Most of us are not fortunate enough to made careers out of activities that produce flow, but according to the research, those who’s leisure activities result in flow do have more times of enjoyment and more Happiness. These leisure activities can of course be frustrating and in the moment not pleasurable. For me this is music—playing, singing, and writing it. I’m not very good at it, but I can always get better. And when I do, it does brings pleasure and during those times I am Happy.

In learning theory and pedagogy we call this engagement, but it’s the same thing as flow. When learners are totally engaged, they are using the same psychic energy as those associated with the concept of flow. While it can be frustrating and difficult, it can ultimately lead to an overall sense of Happiness and juxtaposition to apathy. If you teach (especially teenagers) you know what apathy can look like. You also know what total engagement in learning looks like too, I hope.

It could be that an increase in apathy connects to an increase in passive leisure as a result of feeling like life is just too damn hard and stressful. According to Csikszenthmihalyi (1997), “if you fill your leisure time with passive leisure you won’t find much enjoyment, but you will also avoid getting in over your head. Apparently this is a bargain that many find worth making” (p. 68). Could it be that the lure of passive entertainment is the result of living in such a stressful world where daily existence, survival, and work overwhelms us so that we don’t have the energy left to participate in leisure that results in flow, leading to overall Happiness?

This creates a positive feedback loop in which work (or school) does not produce opportunity for Happiness as there is no flow involved, just mundane task completion which does not stimulate creativity and flow, but leaves us feeling exhausted anyway, so we retreat to passive leisure. This of course further depresses our psychic energy for concentration, contemplation and creativity (thus reducing flow and opportunity for Happiness), and so increased inertia against doing anything but go to work or school and come home to collapse again and veg.

At this same time in our society, where work (or school) is divorced from flow for many or most individuals, we have “professionalized” the arts, crafts, and athletics to such a degree that us normal people relegate ourselves to the role of spectator because we cannot possibly complete with that level of artistry, craft, or athleticism. Those activities, once the leisure of many that provided times of flow are now experienced only as passive leisure.

Many of these types of activities are defined, according to Csikszenthmihalyi (1997) as “Folk art—the songs, the fabrics, the pottery and carvings that gave each culture its particular identity and renown—is the result of common people striving to express their best skill in the time left free from work and maintenance chores” (p. 75). The loss of which in our modern culture very well might be problematic moving forward as “It is difficult to imagine how dull the world would be if our ancestors had used free time simply for passive entertainment, instead of finding in it an opportunity to explore beauty and knowledge” (p. 75).

Modern society has evolved to devalue these folk arts and instead put all value in work that is work for the sake of earning money. This contrasts a time when the work that one did was a craft that also generated Happiness because it was an activity that resulted in flow. This was also a time where school did not exist as the prime means of teaching individuals the skills necessary to participate in society productively (i.e. get a job). Trade skills were passed down from parent to child or apprentice to mentee. Of course, this also limited a person’s options to a specific caste or role in society, so I’m not suggesting a return to that model of education and job training. However, what was produced by one’s labor was tangible and for many required creativity, concentration, development of skills and knowledge and so was even often “artistic.” Now we have the reality that many people don’t use this kind of psychic energy in their work lives.

If one can find leisure activities (often folk art, crafts, or trades) to do outside of work they have potential for sustained Happiness. Therefore, they can view and accept the mundanity of work, be it adding one component to a tractor on an assembly line or doing whatever it is people do on Wall Street to earn gobs of money, as a means to allow for the leisure that contains flow. They become, in a sense, their own “patron” for the arts/athletics/activities.

How does this relate to what we do in the educating and raising of our children? If we view school as the “work” of children, which is a common view, then might we be condemning or preparing them for a life of mundane work and passive leisure. This may be the beginning of that positive feedback look that leads to inertia preventing Happiness. I’m not saying that school/learning should be only entertaining and fun. That is passive entertainment and has the same impact on Happiness as it lacks flow/engagement. I’m saying that school curriculum needs to be designed so that students are required to use the psychic energy that results in flow: creativity, concentration, etc. This kind of activity would be then pushing students just to the upper edge of what Lev Vygotsky describes as their Zone of Proximal Development—their upper limits of their developmentally appropriate cognitive/skill functioning—thus resulting in growth. Of course all teachers reading this are responding, “But this is what I do everyday in my classroom.” If this was the case, then we wouldn’t be seeing so many students disengaged and apathetic.

Children need to be learning about things that are meaningful to them and using the psychic energy related to flow. These might be traditional skills of the “folk arts,” but also could be new skills/tangible results (which might be considered folk arts in the next century). Using psychic energy to learn math and reading decoding skills absent of context does not produce flow and engagement. They must be used for purpose of tangible results that matter to the learner now, not for an abstract future. Otherwise it is just work to be endured and possibly then exhausts the child leaving them feeling too overwhelmed to overcome the lure of passive leisure entertainment when done with school (their work) for the day.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books. New York

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