Wednesday, July 14, 2010

7 Ideas to Change Our Thinking about the Environment

I recently read Guy Dauncy's report Seven Ideas to Tackle Climate Change. I subscribe wholeheartedly to where he is coming from. His ideas like "Change the Story" and "Integrate the Issues" (climate change, Gulf oil spill, etc) and "Create Descriptive Models of a Future Green World" and "Communicate with the Public" are all socially-based ways to re-organize society's ways of thinking about climate change. So much attention is given to technology fixes (which are needed) and raising awareness or disseminating information (which is also necessary) but few people I see are talking about changing the way we think and relate to the environment (paradigms). I wanted to use Dauncy's work as a launch pad and come up with some smaller scale ideas that will help Americans think about the environment in different ways. (I focus on Americans because I am one and I understand the cultural context better. These ideas may or may not be appropriate for Sweden or Ghana. Likewise, something that might work amazingly well in Brazil for instance might fall on its face in the US.)

You know, there are some people in the US who are religious. Even for people who are not, they still know some of the main stories and what the point of them are. Oral traditions like these have been society's way of strengthening social memory. They are designed to be handed down through the generations to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is a great idea! This can be a very powerful way of re-framing disaster for example and teach each other life lessons about resilience. For instance, I grew up Catholic and we were told the story of Noah's Ark. Basically, a gigantic storm surge flooded the earth and Noah built a boat and put two of everything on it and repopulated the earth after the flood subsided. Saved! This is a powerful story that has been used in relating modern anxieties about biodiversity loss and used as a comparison for ideas like seed banking. We can make up whole new morality stories about Katrina and Haiti and the tsunamis. The media does this for us a little, but doesn't complete the sentence. Journalists are good at giving us some of the "facts" during the event, showing us how some people think about it and even offering some short-term action ideas. But the media is awful at helping us process the information in a meaningful way and doesn't even attempt to establish social memory by building on past stories to inform what's going on today. Does this have to happen through the religious sector? Not necessarily. I'm just saying they've been good at doing it for a long time and we can learn from them.

Speaking of disaster, we've got to stop saying "all disasters are local." When people say that, they mean that disasters are felt the most by the people who live in that area. That may be true, but I encourage you to think more broadly. Let's take again the example for a flood. Usually during a flood, people evacuate the area. And, sometimes they don't come back. If you're focusing on the locality of the flood, you're only looking at where the flood is, not where people are going. Then people who show up at your doorstep and you are completely unprepared. My solution is that cities should build into their planning not only the ways in which they are going to take care of their populations, but what they would do if, as in the case of Houston during Katrina, 100,000 people moved in overnight. Where would you put them (libraries, churches)? What kinds of social services would be available (psychologists, child care)? Or would you turn them away because you don't have the capacity (as in the case of Gretna, LA)? First of all, the Stafford Act which disburses funds when disaster is declared at the federal level in the US does not cover expenses incurred by "receiving" or "host" cities. I'm not totally clear if and how this is changing after Katrina, but some cities should be able to make a case for it. Secondly, there are some models to look at to see how cities can plan for accelerated demographic changes. I interviewed some FEMA officials and one guy told me that Missouri is awesome at this - that cities actually get together and plan in advance where they will move people whenever the Mississippi River floods. I'm thinking this could be a good model for a "Sister City" approach where cities can negotiate in advance how they would handle it. We know that people generally stay within 200 miles, so cities can look regionally to plan for disaster. As far as long-term planning, New York City has dealt with wild demographic changes because of the amount of immigration it receives. Their education system, for example, has to handle fluxes of children as families move in and out. So, there are ideas out there to deal with this that can be translated into climate change/environmental disaster adaptation strategies, you just have to hire me to put it into action. ;)

Dear teenagers of today: I'm sorry you missed out on being a hippie in the 60s and a grunge rock star in the 90s, but we gotta end the American tradition of acting out against our elders. Now, I am all for questioning authority, don't get me wrong. But, we're not getting anywhere from dismissing each others' ideas and experience. So, I propose that we become more resilient by shrinking the generation gap. This is going to mean that youth respect adults, but also that adults respect youth. One way we might be able to do this is through age desegregation. Our youth and our adults rarely have opportunities to interact and exchange information. You can't participate in (the vast majority of) politics until you are 18. It's even getting harder and harder for kids under 21 to get credit cards, isolating them from the economic sector. This is the way our society is structured, with kids on one side and adults on the other. We can think of many ways how this came to be. But we can think of just as many ways to re-think the structure and find ways in which kids can learn to be critical thinkers and contribute to society instead of always being protected from it. We can think of ways when it may be appropriate for adults to learn from kids, especially in the internet era. Likewise, we can think of ways to aid elders in engaging with youth to transfer social memory and resilience (otherwise known as "passing down through the generations").  Would putting a kid and an adult in the same room and saying "respect each other" change anything? Maybe not. But, on the other hand, maybe it would.

Kids spend alot of time in school so most ideas of how to change the world end with "we need more education." I'm not totally clear on why this is the end of the conversation and not the beginning, but let's make the (fair) assumption that school plays a significant role in behavior and attitude development. Ergo, one solution for changing our behavior and attitudes could happen in classes. Here's an idea called "mainstreaming," or, making sustainable behavior a part of what's already established. Take Driver's Ed for instance. Now, we all know what driving does to the environment. How can we integrate ideas about carbon emissions with driver safety and gruesome cinematography? First, the name alone suggests we prioritize driving over all else (we do, but we want to change that). So, let's rename it "Transportation Ed." The new curriculum will include how to drive safely when there are cyclists and pedestrians on the road. The cycling Rules of the Road will be taught and students will learn to safely ride a bike in their town. They can make walkability maps of the city and identify dangerous crosswalks. Advanced courses may be crossed with other subjects, focusing on the chemistry of heavy metals in fuel, biological habitat disturbance of the road system, the politics of SAFETEA-LU legislation or the psychology of owning a car as a status symbol. Meanwhile, students would learn to drive a car safely, but also learn what is involved in driving and alternative modes of transportation. Will it change anything? The only way to find out is to try.

It has already been suggested by others that we return our packaging waste and reuse items to those who gave it to us in the first place - the corporations. Why are we not doing this? (ok, I know why, because Walmart doesn't want to be in the sanitation business) Seriously, though, even though I could use a little more worker love on the part of NIKE, I do appreciate that they take back their shoes and turn the rubber into basketball courts. We need to do far more of this. The only reason we ship everything to burgeoning landfills is because we set it up this way. Let's set it up a different way. Hire me.

6. RENT EVERYTHING (or, at least some things)
Okay, ownership is a very powerful concept, I get it. When we feel we have ownership over something, we tend to take better care of it. But renting has its virtues too. For example, it's a great way to share things and save money on things we use infrequently. Renting maximizes the amount of times a product gets used, which means it's less likely to be thrown in the trash before it's worn out. Think of all the things you have owned, didn't really use alot, and then threw it away. Or, have you ever bought something, decided after one use you didn't like it and then stash it away for a couple of years? What if you could have rented it instead? One system we already have as a model is a library even though it's paid for by taxes (our new store doesn't necessarily have to be). You walk into a room filled with used products that you check out, use, and return. Some people have thought about doing the same with tools and bikes, even live Christmas trees! What if we rented out experiences? For example, instead of buying fancy kitchen equipment that you rarely, you could rent out a restaurant if you wanted to cook dinner for a party. See the possibilities? I used to work for a car-sharing company, and we found that when people rent cars on an hourly basis, they drive less overall, reducing carbon emissions. And they were able to save money because the system allowed them to go from being a two-car to a one-car family household. The other thing I want to mention, in terms of being resilient, is that renting allows us to be more mobile. If you don't own alot of stuff, it's easier to move. I'm not suggesting we get rid of the ownership system altogether (although I enjoy reading Capital as would any true sociologist), I'm just saying, re-thinking ownership can be a good adaptation strategy.

Okay, I'm stretching for the 7th here. I know how this should be, but I don't have any concrete suggestions. I'm no linguist, but I know that language is key to societal structure. And quite frankly, we don't have a sustainability vernacular in the English language. Perhaps we need 7 different words for "chicken." The one that is given to us by corporations: "free-range," "organic," etc. are misused and inaccurate. BTW, kids love making up new words and ways of communicating, LOL. Maybe we should charge them with this task.

8...Your ideas?

How to change the way people live without them knowing it

When sociologists think about all the choices society gives us to choose from and which ones they make unavailable, we call this "socialization." More precisely, socialization refers to the way our institutions: (family, education system, economic system, political system and religions) shape our ideologies through positive and negative sanctions in response to norms developed by society. We do not perceive this as being forced to do something, rather, we internalize them and categorize behavior accordingly as "normal" or "abnormal." I'll give you an example.

The society you live in attaches monetary value to pieces of green paper. This would be the norm of your economic system. It would be "normal" for you to exchange green pieces of paper for goods and you would be positively sanctioned (or reinforced) when you receive your goods. Now, it would "abnormal" for you to try to exchange orange pieces of paper for goods and you would be negatively sanctioned (probably through the legal system!).

Okay, you get it. Society makes the rules. But guess what? Rules can change, and they change when society lets them. Guess what else? You are a part of society. You can't change the rules by yourself, but you can motivate others to change the rules. Sometimes this can be done through role modeling. You might do something that is considered "abnormal," like commuting by bike. You might get some negative sanctions at first, like drivers will honk at you. But some people might become curious, try it out themselves, and create what's known as a critical mass, or, basically enough people to make it "normal" ...or at least not as "abnormal." So, see, societal change doesn't have to be authoritarian, coming from the President or the CEO of a major company. Societal change happens all the time in our daily interactions with people, with or without even speaking to each other. It gets alot more complicated, but I wanted to outline this foundation to discuss some ideas about how to use this thinking to modify society to help people behave more sustainably. THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO CHANGE BEHAVIOR! THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WAY! But, I genuinely believe, that without society deliberating through interaction and coming to a consensus about how to think about change, it's not going to happen. And, the fact is, we need to change. If not to save the planet, but to improve ourselves as a species and become more respectful to each other.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Postgraduate Courses on Building Resilience to Climate Change

I'm excited to see more formal education being offered on the social science aspects of climate change. If you are interested in studying how people are impacted by and responding to climate change or the perception thereof, look for these keywords: resilience, adaptation and vulnerabilities. That will clue you in that the topic will take a social approach. Case in point:

Autumn 2010
Postgraduate Courses on
Building Resilience to Climate Change

13 September - 1 October 2010
Tokyo, Japan


15 July 2010 for overseas applicants
31 July 2010 for applicants currently residing in Japan and who are enrolled in a university.


The United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP), Tokyo, invites applications for the new intensive 3-week postgraduate programme on
"Building Resilience to Climate Change"
developed under the framework of the University Network for Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research (UN-CECAR).

The new courses, conducted at UNU-ISP, cover a range of issues on sustainability and adaptation to climate and ecosystems change. Topics include climate and atmospheric science, impacts assessment, climate and society, ecosystems resilience, risk and uncertainty, integrated solutions for mitigation and adaptation, mainstreaming adaptation into development planning and community-based adaptation. Students also will receive practical training in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and in downscaling rainfall forecasts.

Students who successfully complete the course will be awarded a certificate with transcripts from UNU-ISP. Each course is designed to be worth 2 credits and comprises of 30 hours of teaching time.


A limited number of fellowships (covering tuition fees and living expenses) are available for outstanding students from developing countries and who can demonstrate a need for financial assistance. All students are expected to pay for their own travel expenses.

The programme is open to Master's and Ph.D students who are currently enrolled in a university postgraduate programme and who have already identified their thesis topic prior to arriving in Japan.

Applicants must provide:
1) a completed Application & Fellowship Form with photo and signature;

2) proof that they are currently enrolled in a Master’s or Ph.D. degree programme;

3) a detailed proposal of their research topic, and explain how it will link their current university thesis topic to that of climate change;

4) TOEFL scores or equivalent proof of English-language proficiency; and

5) two references; one from the student’s supervisor and one from another faculty member.

For detailed information on the application and admission procedures, and to download the application form, please visit the UNU-ISP website at:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What should be the priority of climate change?

I was asked this question today. Climate change is one thing, among many, that all humans take part in and are effected by. This is how I responded. What is your answer?

Social scientists working on adaptation need to be respected as climatologists. There is still a gap in ideologies and practice, and this is detrimental. Because of the silo-ization between academic disciplines, we haven't figured out how to translate findings into public action (or inaction, in the case of changing human behavior to consume less). We want to fix our problems with engineering. We prioritize atmospheric science and hydrology. Meanwhile, our socio-economic systems determine our position in how we feel the impact of climate change and how we contribute to it. Those attracted to the "hard" sciences need to continue to do their great and important work, but there must be room at the table for those who are able to understand qualitatively how our large-scale infrastructure, technology and policies are effecting the people on the ground and especially those who make $2 a day or less. This will be hard. It might mean a sociologist will have to learn differentiaI equations and a meterologist might need to learn ethnography so they can share a common language and worldview. I see alot of lip service paid to "transdisciplinary" teams, but in practice I do not see it coming together. Until it does, humans will not be able to adapt; we will only be fighting a losing battle.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Careers in Global Citizenship? My Journey

Being a global citizen is great as a philosophy, but can it pay the bills? I have been making it my life's work to find out.

For myself, I generally look for careers in global citizenship that have a mission to promote the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of a place. Vague, right? I can only compare it to that cliche about art "I know it when I see it." Unfortunately, this is terrible branding and people often assume I don't know what I want to do with my life. Instead, I try to be flexible. You can't rule out corporate jobs because companies are starting to give their CSR (corporate social responsibility) professionals real responsibility. Plus, eco-companies are getting bigger and finally starting to hire non-entry level positions. You can't rule out the federal government due to new mandates to hire sustainability officers in different agencies. When these will actually be hired, I don't know, but it's worth it to trawl usajobs.gov every now and then (I once saw a posting for a six-figure organic farmer at the White House!) So it's hard for me to say "I am looking for X position in X company" because I don't want to be boxed in. But employers want specialists with technical skills. Save theory and transdisciplinary studies for academia. (Of course I love academia too and don't want to rule that out!) To me, a global citizenship career is one in which the professional is given the appropriate amount of space to be creative in making real social change to reduce the gap between the world's rich and the world's poor within the context of the organization's mission. Still too vague?

Without a set definition, how does one find jobs in global citizenship? Idealist.org used to be my bible, but I have found that it is a great resource for volunteering, internships and entry-level positions. At some point, a lady wants to advance in her career. I recently found devex.com. I heard of it before, but yesterday I bit the bullet and paid the $19 for the month of access to articles. You can post (yet another) profile and join (yet another) social network. If you are serious about international development, I highly recommend paying the money. I've seen other organizations charge far more than that for access to job postings, and they only have entry-level and volunteer jobs. Devex has a range of job postings and interviews with HR managers about how to frame your cover letter and resume. My only annoyance is that the articles seem to be geared for applicants who are coming from high-paying corporate jobs who need to justify why they are applying for these positions. Since I'm not one of those, I don't feel like that advice is relevant for me. Perhaps the advice is to go corporate for a few years and transfer back into the non-profit world! For those interested in climate jobs like I am, stopdodo and the climate-l listserve are two you MUST be on. They have the most exciting job postings. Of course, there is reliefweb and preventionweb.net for development jobs.

Well, those are the job listings. So what? I've been sending out my resume since the middle of March and nothing. Of course the missing piece is networking. I've been busily updating my LinkedIn account and joined some green and sustainability groups that post some cool jobs. Every time I apply for a job, I look to see if I have a connection with someone in the company. More importantly, I check my alma maters. I truly believe that tuition pays for the network you belong to when you leave the school. I cannot tell you how many leads I have had just from talking to alumni. One alum even helped my friend find an internship even though he never met me, and my friend was from a different school! (Note to self: pay it forward.) Unfortunately for me, I didn't check where alumni work after they graduate when I applied to the school. If I did, I would have seen that they do not tend to go into the sectors I want to go in, making my direct connections slim. Moral of the story: if you are looking for a graduate program, don't forget to research alumni careers!

My Journey
So far, not so good. We hear about these romantic diplomats, partying Peace Corps deploys, and hard-as-nails women sacrificing their lives to help one more orphan. Then of course you have the bright and talented folks who eschew family connections because they want to "get there on their own." What I wouldn't give for a dad who is the VP of a major NGO or aunt working in the World Bank! --I love my dad and aunts, but their jobs just aren't sexy enough for me ;) -- I thought getting some degrees would help, so I got a masters in sociology and studied international relations. That pretty much made me realize how little I knew so I backpacked through Central America. I learned alot about what it takes to live under the poverty line. Completely out of money, I signed up for Americorps whose mission is to alleviate poverty by putting people into poverty. Now, I really enjoyed my job and landed a position in Lake Tahoe, so no complaints. But I got the feeling that the program relied on trust fund kids who could ask their family for things like a car, and sorry, I grew up on welfare in a family strapped by medical bills (the really, really bad kind). I tried to travel again to gain international experience and wound up an au pair in Switzerland with a single mother who couldn't pay me. So I went back home and took up a full-time non-profit job, a part-time adjunct professorship, and some odd-jobs here and there. I absolutely loved teaching even though I was terrible at first. It took some time to get the hang of it, and really it was my passion that sealed the deal. The chair of the department gave me so much freedom, she even let me design two brand new courses (that are still being taught today!). I also loved my non-profit gigs, but I couldn't help feeling constrained by bosses. I wrangled some innovative projects but just wished I could have unleashed my creativity. So, I decided to go back to school. While there, I made it a point to publish anything I could, present at conferences and work on projects with faculty. This also expanded my network, but still not in the areas where I really need it. I decided to write my thesis on internally displaced persons after Katrina. I moved to New Orleans, and I'm applying for UN jobs. I'm asking myself "How do I advance in my career?"

If you are wondering the same, I'd love to hear your experience. Of course, advice is always welcome too!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Integrated Research on Climate Change and Hazards in the Americas

I just returned from Panama where I was a participant in "C2HEKE", Climate Change Hazards Education and Knowledge Environment. Click here for the webcast. About 35 participants from the US, Canada, Jamaica, Argentina, Colombia, Panama and elsewhere were chosen to be a part of lectures and GIS training. Most of the participants were from the fields of geography and communications. Not surprisingly, the focus of the conference quickly congealed around bringing accurate climate change science to the public. The word of the two weeks was "uncertainty."

Participants clearly assumed that the public would not believe in climate change if there was the slightest bit of uncertainty. As a sociologist (who has spent alot of time studying marketing and the media), I find this hard to believe. For example, parents are far too eager to believe that Fruit Loops are healthy (it says "fortified with vitamins" after all!) even though there is plenty of evidence that continuous consumption of junk food like this could lead to obesity. No one is really questioning that driving cars leads to climate change, but drivers still drive. As a sociologist, I have to argue that the way our cities are built and the ideas we have come to believe about how people "should" live are the root causes of people's inability to change their behavior. I personally choose to live in cities where I don't need to own a car, but this does not work well for many Americans.

Even in New Orleans where I live now, most places are within easy biking distance. However, in hurricane season, I don't want to be stranded. The public transportation system, while it exists, is not comprehensive enough. This in a city where nearly 30% of residents don't own a car AND WHERE THAT VERY FACT LEFT PEOPLE STRANDED HURRICANE KATRINA! I'm floored by America's refusal to get the connection here. People who are polluting the least are in the most danger. At the conference, Craig Colten from Louisiana State University gave a presentation on hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. He argued that much of disaster response has to do with social memory. For example, during Hurricane Betsy, the evacuation plan was to set up emergency shelters in the brick schools. They would stock up the schools with water, food and basic necessities. That way, people did not have to travel far to find shelter. In Katrina, however, that plan was forgotten. The new evacuation plan was to get in your car and drive to Baton Rouge. Did I mention that almost a third of the city did not own cars. You know what happened next.

So what does this have to do with Fruit Loops and uncertainty? The problem is we know all this. Everyone is well aware by now the dangers of climate change. We're aware that disasters suck, and they suck more for poor people than for rich people. We're even aware that what we do every day (drive, eat meat, take a plastic bag at the grocery store) contributes to the larger problem. So, for me, the problem is not better communication. You can communicate all you want about the dangers of Fruit Loops, but that doesn't make them more expensive. It doesn't put them on the highest shelf in the grocery store so you can't reach them. It doesn't make your kids throw a tantrum for organic apples. Fruit loops are cheap and easy. The problem should be re-framed as how do we set up society, our infrastructure and our ideologies, to support better choices for Americans. We can only choose from the options before us, and right now, our options suck.