Monday, November 21, 2011


Halfway through writing my master's thesis I was struck by a profound realization: I was not writing a master's thesis, I was writing a love story. I was writing about things that mattered deeply to me -- love of nature, love of the universe, love of place, love of community. I'm not sure if there's room for the word "love" in a master's thesis about the current environmental crisis but love is what underpins this paper. It's about the need to touch people's hearts, not just their minds.

I had originally planned to look at how to communicate climate change in a way that motivates people to act. But my heart wasn't really in it. I had no clear hypothesis. Just a vague idea that the way we communicate about climate change wasn't working.

Everything changed six months ago when I took Professor Singer's academic writing class. She assigned us a 3,000-word paper with the freedom to write about anything we wanted to -- as long as the paper was backed by research. At that point, I was tired of writing dry, pedantic reports on climate change. I wanted to write something from the heart; I wanted to write about my love affair with the mountain behind my home. Prof. Singer could have rejected my idea but, instead, she encouraged it. And so I started to go deeper into my mountain.

But it wasn't enough just to research the mountain, I also needed to climb it. To breathe its forest-filtered air. To hear its birds sing overhead. To sink into its mud underfoot. To reach its summit and to see nothing but mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon.

The reward for all that effort was not to feel as though I had conquered the thing but to feel humbled by it -- to surrender myself to the realization that we are nothing more than an insignificant speck on a tiny planet in a vast universe whose mysteries we know very little about. But to also feel, with unwavering certainty, that we are connected to everything and everyone.

The more time I spent on the mountain, the more the focus of my paper started to shift. I was no longer writing about the mountain, I was writing about connectedness. As I got deeper into researching this ethos of connectedness, I came across a term I had never heard before: ecological literacy. I learned ecological literacy is about knowing the story of who we are and where we come from. It's about understanding that we are part of -- not apart from the natural world. That we are a species that is utterly dependent on healthy ecosystems for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

I started to see the ethos of separation as the root cause of environmental problems. Dualistic thinking divided a harmonious ecosystem into separate parts -- human and non-human. It placed us as rulers of an earth whose natural resources existed solely for our benefit.

Thinking of ourselves as being at the top of some imaginary pyramid, with everything else beneath us and of lesser value, is a scientifically incorrect and outdated worldview. It was created at a time when we didn't understand the consequences of our actions. During the Industrial Revolution, we didn't know burning fossil fuels would cause climate change. Ecoliteracy is about the shift to a way of thinking that reflects the scientific reality of the world we live in. It's about recognizing that the earth is an intricate system of relationships that we are part of. It's about moving away from an ethos of separateness toward an ethos of relatedness.

Nature does not belong to us; we belong to nature. That is ecoliteracy.

Without this basic ecological understanding, it's easy to believe the myth that we have absolute control. This delusion can have tragic consequences, as all of us in Japan now know. The Fukushima nuclear disaster exposed the human arrogance that leads us to think we can somehow "outsmart" nature by building nuclear power plants as if they were unsinkable ships impervious to the rumblings of the earth and the movements of the ocean.

Stumbling upon ecoliteracy triggered an epiphany. I immediately knew this is what my master's thesis needed to be about. I asked my supervisor, Professor Gannon, if I could scrap my original thesis plan and start from scratch. She agreed, even though it meant I would have to scramble to submit everything on time. The result is a thesis that is both the culmination of my life and the beginning of its newest chapter.

Becoming ecoliterate

David Orr writes that most people who consider themselves environmentalists tend to share three things in common: 1) They have had experience in nature at an early age; 2) They have had an older mentor or family member who shared a love of the natural world; 3) They later read some seminal book that said clearly what they were feeling deeply but could not express well.

My own story follows the same three steps. I grew up in Canada, born to parents who thought it important to instil a love of nature in their children. Every summer, we rented a cottage on the shores of Georgian Bay where my grandfather was born. Every morning, my dad made us comb the beach for empty beer bottles. When my dad would dig armpit-deep through the public garbage cans, I went silent with embarrassment. But I endured these humiliations for profit-related reasons. The more bottles we collected, the more money we got. Every night, after dinner, we would walk to the local convenience store to spend our earnings on candy. The thing I liked most about these walks was stopping at the pond along the way. The pond was filled with thousands of tadpoles and to me there was nothing more magical than watching a mass of squirming black dots grow into fish-like creatures that would sprout legs and eventually hop out of the pond as frogs. My parents set out to instil a sense of wonder in me and it worked.

My parents nurtured my love of the natural world but it was David Suzuki who made me care about it. I was introduced to David Suzuki during a high school biology class taught by Mr. Ranucci, the man of my teenaged dreams. I sat in the middle seat in the front row of his Grade 10 biology class. They say there are bats sensitive enough to detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. That was the way I listened to Mr. Ranucci -- like a bat closing in on a moth.

One day, Mr. Ranucci made us read an essay written by David Suzuki about the state of the environment. That essay changed my life. It crystallized my feelings about the natural world and put them into words. I don't remember exactly what he wrote but I remember feeling like I had been hit by lightning.

I decided I wanted to become a scientist like David Suzuki. The only problem was I kept failing math and chemistry. So I became a journalist instead. I was good at it but I hated it. I couldn't detach myself emotionally from the stories I was covering. And I was shy. I never got comfortable with approaching random people and asking them for interviews. I lasted three years as a journalist until I left for a place that was a better fit for a thin-skinned introvert.

I don't believe in fate but if I did, I'd say there was something else at work when I landed a job at the David Suzuki Foundation. I spent the next seven years working side-by-side with the man who changed my life when I was a teenager. Call it kismet.

However, it was far from paradise. The work often felt Sisyphean in nature. Just like rolling a boulder up a hill, it seemed like we were constantly offering solutions to environmental problems that fell on deaf ears. The struggle to turn policy into legislation, only to be defeated again and again, was an exercise in frustration. Caught up in daily work and deadlines, it was difficult to know if we were really making a difference. There was little time left over to step back and critically evaluate what we were doing well and what we were failing to do well.

When I applied to do a master's degree at Kyoto University, I wanted to look at how to communicate climate change in a way that motivates people to act. That, in turn, led to an internship with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year. I spent four months at the UNFCCC's office in Germany, where I compiled information for a report on what countries have (but mostly haven't) done to increase public awareness and education on climate change.

It was disappointing to see the low priority given to public awareness and education on climate change in many countries. Public support for measures to fight climate change is critical to their success. Without public pressure for strong action, countries will be able to continue to push for weak targets during international climate negotiations. Ministers will be able to continue to return home from these meetings and ignore the problem until the next summit.

It's easy to blame political leaders for the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the problem goes deeper than that -- there is very little being done to address the root cause of climate change. And while it's true that climate change is caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that's only part of the story. The climate crisis is also a crisis of worldview.

We don't live in an infinite world and yet we act as if we do. We act as if the ocean will never run out of fish or as if the ground will never run out of oil. During the past 250 years, human beings have altered the planet more rapidly than any other period in history. We have consumed resources faster than they can regenerate. We have driven thousands of plants and animals to extinction. The science is clear: a major shift in our consumption and production patterns is needed in order to live within the constraints of the natural systems that support us.

We need a way of thinking that reflects the scientific reality of the world we live in. We need to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible and to live accordingly. We need to become ecoliterate.

But what does becoming ecoliterate mean in practical terms? I spent two weeks at Schumacher College this fall in an attempt to answer that question. Satish Kumar, the director of the college, explained that ecoliteracy is about acquiring basic ecological knowledge, and then putting that knowledge into practice. I asked him how to move people toward a more ecoliterate worldview. How do you start a groundswell? He said most social movements tend to share four things in common:

1. Action. If you want to influence other people, you need to back up your words with action. It's not about being dogmatic or demanding. It's about being the change you want to see in the world.

2. Communication. Share your ideas. If 10 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 100 people. If 100 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 1,000 people. If 1,000 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 10,000 people. Ideas can spread exponentially, so start spreading them.

3. Organization. Slavery in America ended because people organized. The Berlin Wall came down because people organized. The Arab Spring spread across the Middle East because people organized. People need to come together to make their voices heard.

4. Long-term commitment. Urgency does not mean panic. It means continuous, patient action to change the world.

And while I agree with these steps in theory, putting them into practice is much more difficult. Working on environmental issues tends to leave me vacillating between idealism and cynicism. Seeing ecoliteracy in action at Schumacher College inspires me; seeing the lack of political will at international climate negotiations depresses me. But I recognize the importance of staying away from the extreme end of idealism (the naive and infantile kind of thinking that presumes people are inherently good or will choose to do the right thing) and the extreme end of cynicism (the negative and defeatist kind of thinking that constantly says "that's unrealistic").

Hope is the safe middle-ground between the two extremes. History gives me hope because history proves that worldviews can shift and people can change. Science has given us the power to destroy the environment but it has also given us the knowledge to understand the consequences of doing so. We're living at exactly the right moment in time. We are aware of the consequences of our actions. We can turn things around.

The earth is our only home. But more than that, it is the only place in the known universe where life exists, which is an amazing thing when you consider how big the universe really is. Our planet is just one of eight in orbit around our sun, which itself is only one of about 200 billion stars in our galaxy. But even our galaxy is just one of 100 billion galaxies, all joined together in an enormous web stretching out in all directions. It puts our tiny planet into perspective. In the vastness of the universe, life on earth is special and rare and worth protecting.

In the end, that's what this thesis is about. It's about everything that matters deeply to me -- love of nature, love of the universe, love of place, love of community. It's about moving beyond being a passive receiver of environmental knowledge, toward a deeper understanding of ecology and igniting the passion for change.

It is not just a master's thesis; it is a love story.

Note: I wrote this as a foreword to my master's thesis. I thought it was important to explain why I was writing this thesis and what it means to me. But, fundamentally, I wrote it for myself. I wanted to tell the story of how I got to this point. I'm not sure if my supervisor will allow me to include it in the final draft, which is why I decided to post it here.

1 comment:

Lauren Noel said...

Well, at least one thing was sure with your revelation – you do love writing your MA thesis. I think people forgot that thesis ideas for education purposes can also be for happiness for other people, like you. I do hope everything ended up with what you planned.