How to cultivate a healthy planet

Food cultureFood is culture. What we eat is deeply ingrained in us, is part of our culture. Yes?

Yes and no. Surely when travelling we’ve all sometimes longed for the taste of home. Yet the ‘taste of home’ has changed more rapidly in the past 50 years than in the whole history of humans on this planet.

How wonderful it would be to think we had kept the best of our traditions, and introduced new benefits; but instead it seems to be the opposite. Increasingly, new eating habits are leading to epidemics of ill-health; not only among humans but also among ecosystems, animals, and – not least – the soil.

There is good news. For instance, there is no lack of food: the challenges of feeding the world’s still-growing population are political and technical, not agricultural. There is no lack of knowledge: if best farming and fishing practices were to be globalized, there would be enough nutritious food for everyone. And if food-processing industries were to adopt common-sense rules about nutrition, even processed food can be healthy.

The problems may be global but, as usual, the solutions are necessarily local. We can use the best participatory methods to engage citizens, local authorities and business. Together we can support local farmers to restore soil and ecosystems, reduce our own food waste and turn the residue into an asset, learn and teach how to enjoy healthy food.

In other words by working together, locally, we can aim to keep and restore the best of the traditional cultures while making the most of new opportunities.

Perhaps, indeed, this is the best route to cultivating a planet that is a healthy habitat for humans – and many other species.

Compassion can be scary.

images-1If I allow myself to feel the pain of everyone on earth… or everyone I meet… or even everyone I live or work with… how will I survive?

It’s a good question. Compassion comes from empathy, the ability to ‘feel with’ the experience of others. However, it does not mean taking over their feelings – that’s just another kind of violence. How tempting is it to think, or even say: “I know exactly how you feel, it happened to me too”? It may possibly be empathy, but not compassion.

How about sympathy? It’s another case of empathy gone wrong: an outlet for my wish to feel superior to you. “Oh you poor thing, I feel so sorry for you.”

‘Taking over” and sympathizing are both ways of keeping distance. Compassion keeps no distance, while still marking the boundary between you and me. It allows me to ‘feel with’ you, as an equal, without taking on your suffering (and thus doubling it). Walking this tightrope is the way to true compassion. This is what I have come to believe.

Why should we bother, if it’s so difficult?

Perhaps compassion is a prerequisite for our survival as a civilization? Imagine a world where a teacher can feel compassion for every pupil, without burning out. Where a business leader can feel compassion for all beings, and reflect that in his/her decisions. Where every politician can ‘afford’ to feel and express compassion not only for constituents but also for fellow politicians – rivals as well as comrades. Where every doctor can meet each patient with compassion.

Scary or not: would it not be a better world?

 

Infrequently asked questions

We suffer, says Mathis Wackernagel, from a conversation deficit. The challenge is not that we don’t talk enough; rather in the quality of the questions we ask each other, the thought we give to responding, and the quality of our listening.

In fact, it comes down to intention.
• When I ask you a question, I can be ‘making conversation’, or I can be truly interested in what you have to say. “How are you?”
• When you respond, you can be on autopilot. “Fine, thanks.” Or …
2_7_giving • When I listen to your response, I can be on autopilot – “Good, good.” Or I can be truly listening not only to your words but for your meaning. “You seem extremely busy.”

There is of course a role for ‘making conversation’. I remember my mother once remarking, about an inordinately intensive and charismatic person who looks deeply into your eyes on every single exchange: “He has no small talk.” Tiring!

However I agree with Wackernagel that the balance needs to be righted. Less small talk, more real conversation. Real conversation can be sparked by good questions – liberating questions. And truly liberating questions are neutral: the wording gives no hint of what you might like the answer to be, and contains no implied criticism. Examples:
How do you feel?
What would you most like to change or improve, if you could?
How can I help?
What is the best thing that could happen?
What is the worst thing that could happen?

There are more examples here, including questions we might fruitfully ask ourselves. Don’t forget to listen attentively to the answers!

Passport to the future

Not so long ago, a passport was a traveller’s option. You applied for a passport if you wanted to be able to claim the protection of your country’s embassies. Visas were unheard of – though for some particular places you might need special permission. Like the Forbidden City in Peking? Musing on this while waiting for a visa at the Chinese consulate (one of the more helpful I’ve encountered, Against the streamby the way), I reflected on how short our collective memories are. Who, now, does NOT take for granted the necessity of a passport for international travel?

In the same way, we tend to take for granted the desirability of employment. In fact, it’s written into the declaration of human rights (article 23). But only the day before yesterday – well, less than 200 years ago – Antoine de St Exupéry could refer to ‘paid employment’ as being the second-worse fate that could befall a free man. The worst fate was of course slavery.

In a way, I find this reassuring. If we can make such rapid changes in our values and perspectives, what can we not achieve in the future? Here are some things we might imagine taking for granted in the near future:
• The role of a parliament is to support, protect and empower its people, and to help bring about their dreams of a good society
• Every person is equally important, every life is equally valuable
• The role of money is to connect actual needs with available resources
• The role of industry is to make the best possible use of available resources, without depletion, degradation, or pollution
• The role of education is to empower students and prepare them for active citizenship

Well, that’s just for starters: my preliminary passport to the future. What’s yours?

Still re-inventing wheels?

3_8_empoweringWebSustainable development is too urgent for us to keep re-inventing the wheel. We need to become much, much better at learning from experience: our own, and other people’s.

That was how we reasoned when, around 2005, we started an R&D program that has so far resulted in a methodology and toolbox called Learning for Change (L4C). It’s been so inspiring; now it feels like time to share with others (and maybe boast a bit).

The methodology is being used in several ways:

  1. For collaborative learning, by people from different projects and backgrounds
  2. For project appraisal, by a stakeholder group
  3. As a pedagogical strategy for a whole school
  4. As a tool for on-going, online learning in an international multi-year project

The first two are outlined in the little book Learning for Change, published as an iBook and as a pdf.

1. Collaborative learning workshops…
…have already been held in Sweden, Vietnam (3), South Africa (2) and India, with participants from more than 40 countries. More are planned, including facilitator training. On this development trail, our partnership with SWEDESD has been invaluable.

2. Project appraisal workshops
Several ‘collaborative learning’ participants have begun using L4C for project appraisal, with highly satisfactory results. Mostly NGOs, and their funders are expressing appreciation for the workshop reports. A Ministry of Education uses it to bring together large numbers of school supervisors. We’d like to see it used by, for instance, sustainability and CSR teams in the workplace.

3. Learning strategy for school
Gayaza High School for Girls in Uganda is pioneering the use of L4C as a pedagogical strategy for the whole school. Interim reports are encouraging (and the photos are amazing), but they’ve been so busy ‘doing it’ that they haven’t yet found time to write it up.

4. On-going, online learning
This is our next growing edge, and a challenging one. As part of CELLS, an EU-funded international program to improve sustainable lifestyle programs, we are inviting regular feedback and learning, following the L4C process, over a period of three years. Watch this space!

Development continues, both on uses for the existing materials and on further elaboration. All contributions welcome. The informal R&D group is not limited to members of Global Action Plan International – and neither are the results. We love to share.

Does truth have a future?

images

Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration: “Most Americans are indifferent to liberty and are content with tyranny. This means that truth does not have a healthy future in America.”

In their different ways, the ‘affairs’ of Assange, Manning and Snowden would seem to support his point – and not only in regard to Americans. So what happened to “The truth will set you free?”

It’s easy to say: ‘The truth won’t set you free, because it’s relative: my understanding and yours may be different, but they’re equally valid.’ Too easy: because of course it’s ‘true’; but still only a partial truth. There are incontrovertible facts, which may be inconvenient truths, and thus conveniently ignored.

I do think there’s a difference between ignoring inconvenient facts, and being fed deliberate, manipulative lies. And I do think that any real democracy – when we finally get around to inventing one – will offer access to facts: not just one facet of ‘the truth’, but several. This was the promise of the information revolution: encyclopaedic information at the fingertips of everyone. Wasn’t it? And will we find ways to maintain and enhance that access?

Our new democracies will educate in the tools needed to handle facts constructively: mental tools like critical thinking, and emotional tools to handle our own reactions. In fact: can that be where real democracy starts, rather than with structures and laws?

 

Too soon, too hard…

It appears that all this man-made global warming could be counteracting the onset of the next major ice age.

Is that good news? Not necessarily for us humans. The planet is soon due to cool down again, mainly because its orbit takes us further from the sun. But ‘soon’ in planetary terms means in maybe something like 1,500 years.

It seems we slammed the brakes on the cooling process too early and too hard. Because in the meantime we face global temperature rises of 4 degrees C or more. Soon – in more human terms, like within a century or so. It’s an open question whether humanity will survive the gap between our self-inflicted heating and natural planetary cooling.

So is it time to give up on human civilization?

Not in my view. If we all choose to act as if it’s too late, then our actions become self-fulfilling prophecies. But if we all choose to act as though there is still a chance, then maybe there is… maybe we create one.

On a cheerful note, one climate analyst suggests that “if we save the remaining fossil fuels, we could head off the next few ice ages by burning on the appropriate orbital schedule.” Now that’s true long-term thinking. Leave them in the ground, folks!

 

Indulgence and green-washing

Tetzel-indulgenceWhen I was at school we learned about the mediaeval Christian practice of selling ’indulgences’. A sinner could partake of divine grace by paying a priest. This became a major source of income for some, and the practice degenerated into commerce.

Today some companies and individuals pay money for ’climate compensation’, to make up for their ’green sins’. Or they ’invest’ in social responsibility by enabling employees to do good work in their local community – possibly instead of eliminating social malpractice from their production or supply chain.

Is this a great idea to generate money for the climate-compensating organizations, so that they can plant more trees or invest more in energy saving? To have paid employees do good work in their communities? Or is it an invitation to ’sin’ more, as long as you can afford to pay?

Not a black-and-white case, in my opinion. The closest I come to a working principle is that these kinds of indulgences should be a complement to responsible daily practice, not a substitute: the most important thing is to do everything possible to establish more sustainable and responsible practices in your company or your lifestyle.

And by the way: that expression ’climate compensation’… also has a false connotation. It implies that if I only compensate for all my current ’sins’, that’s enough. It is not enough, because we have already collectively accumulated a huge debt. What we need, to secure a habitable future planet, is not compensation but active regeneration. Regeneration of our natural resource base, our social and human capital, and our antiquated and inappropriate economic systems.

Difficult? Well, I recall a quotation from an English lord, asked on his birthday how it felt to reach the age of 93. “Quite good really,” he said. “At least if you consider the alternative.” Let’s forget indulgence and focus on regeneration!

 

Blurred lines – good or bad?

Beggar-hatNon-governmental organizations* have long been funded by membership fees and donations, by public grants, and to some extent (particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world) by grants from private foundations.

Now things are rapidly shifting.

Lifelong members are becoming a thing of the past. Those membership fees that roll in, year after year, are dwindling. We tend to engage for shorter times, in things closer to ourselves. More time spent in the parents’ association, less money for big, anonymous charities? Public funding is also dwindling. As economic recession sets in, in country after country, funds for the third sector are among the first to be cut.

So many NGOs are looking for new income streams – some through crowdfunding, others through contracts that look more and more like commercial consultancy services.

There is certainly a good side to this. For both crowdfunding and contracts you need to make a very clear case for what you want to do. No vague ‘do-good’ missions are likely to succeed.

On the other hand: you are ‘selling’ to the funders, whose interests may not be aligned with those you propose to serve, the beneficiaries of your programs. Well, this is nothing new. All of us in this NGO world have struggled to balance the demands of funders with the needs of our constituencies.

The basic dilemma is unchanged: in order to get funding to support our constituencies, we need to portray them as somehow ‘lacking’. Or, as someone from an association for the disabled put it: “If we portray our members as fully capable citizens, no-one wants to fund us or them.” So the ‘poor me’ or ‘poor them’ syndrome takes over, and we are flooded with (for example) tear-jerking photos of impoverished Africans, instead of being shown the poor but dynamic current reality of most of that continent.

Will the new hybrid NGO-consultancies be able to manage this balance better than before? Or do we risk losing our footing entirely?

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* NGOs, or ‘charitable associations’