On Dec 3, 2012, I visited a class on Sustainability and Collapse at Stanford. The course is taught jointly by Dr. Mark Zoback (Geophysics), Dr. Russell Berman (Comparative Literature), Dr. Nicholas Bauch (Lecturer, Thinking Matters) and Dr. Katrinka Reinhart (Lecturer, Thinking Matters) [in the Thinking Matters program, distinguished professors give lectures, but the teaching is done by postdoctoral lecturers].
The course outline is below (my novel The Hungry Tide is one of the required readings).
After my visit the students posted some thoughtful responses to our conversation. They are reproduced here with their permission.
Sustainability and Collapse
What does it mean to live sustainably? How do our different definitions of nature — scientific, literary, cultural, and historical — shape the way we answer that question?
Sustainability and Collapse will explore what people in different places and periods of time have envisioned as successful ways of living with nature and how such ways of life have come under pressure. We will focus particularly on the interface between scientific
and humanistic approaches to questions of environmental sustainability through a study of novels, historical texts, and works of biogeography. You will learn to ask how textual and visual images inform our ideas about what it means to live sustainably. We will then consider whether those ideas are in accordance with or in conflict with scientific understandings of human uses of nature. This course takes on some of the fundamental problems that presently con- front our global community.
“We still argue about when the dodo actually became extinct, but it probably disappeared about the 1660s. . . . There were extinctions before and there’s been lots of extinctions since, but it was an important extinction because that was the first time, the first time in the whole of man’s history, that he realized he had caused the disappearance of a species. . . . And it was at that moment — or in that era — when he realized the dodo was gone, that he realized the world was an exhaustible place.”
From David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo
Russell A. Berman (Comparative Literature)
Russell A. Berman studies the interconnections among literature, culture,and politics within an international framework.
Mark Zoback (Geophysics)
Professor Zoback does research on earthquakes and active faulting, optimizing re- covery of natural resources, and minimizing the environmental impact of resource development.
Readings:TED COURSE MATERIAL
The Grapes of Wrath
Essay on the Principle of Population
Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow
The Song of the Dodo
The Hungry Tide
Amitav Ghosh’s visit to “Sustainability and Collapse”
December 9, 2012
Hello blogging world!
Today, a day that started most ordinarily, turned out to be incredibly impactful. Amitav Ghosh, writer of The Hungry Tide, came to my Sustainability and Collapse lecture to share his insights and answer our questions, and let me tell you, he is quite an amazing and inspiring speaker. I gobbled up each and every one of his words as he spoke with beauty, poise, and elegance.
Ghosh’s voice echoed throughout the room as he began speaking about his experiences and inspirations for The Hungry Tide. He told a story about how seeing a dead Irrawaddy dolphin on the beach, body gorged out from a boat, left a powerful image in his mind that influenced his interests in these animals and pushed him to pursue further research on the subject. Dr. Ghosh perfectly summed up the human/environment problem commenting that the act of conceptualizing nature as the other of human is where the problem begins. From this he delved into the real heart of the issue, something that I had never thought about before.
Dichotomies between mind and body, mind and nature, human and natural world, perpetuate the problems we are trying to solve. Removing ourselves from nature in attempts to analyze and solve problems within it actually hurts the human-environment relationship. Ghosh told us it was a mistake to consider any environment completely separate from humans, and that symbiotic relationships have existed before and are entirely possible.
Another one of his points that really rang true with me was his discussion about desire. Dr. Ghosh explained that rich people have to learn to become poor. The environmental problems we are dealing with today do not stem from a lack of proper technology, but instead a deeply embedded pattern of desire that perpetuates incredible waste. Ghosh cited an example about citizens watering lawns and golf courses in arid states and countries. The importance placed on the quintessential green, perfect lawn completely contradicts our desires to conserve and live sustainably. Coming from a family that loves playing golf, I was even more surprised to hear that watering and maintaining a golf course uses as much water as a town of 40,000 people. Thinking back to my vacations to Palm Desert and Arizona to play golf, I realize that our society’s mentality is completely consumed with desire and greed.
Especially now during our nations biggest commercialized holiday season, we are taught to consume more and more each day, bombarded with commercials and advertisements of new iPhones and iPads that are almost identical to the iPhones and iPads we currently own. This pattern of material desire will need to be addressed before we begin to make any real progress with regards to sustainability.
Ghosh’s talk really left me thinking about what my family and I waste. Going into this holiday season I am going to try to conserve, to enjoy and fully consume what I have, and begin to take steps to break down my own pattern of desire.
Response to Amitav Ghosh
I remember watching the Disney movie Pocahontas as a preschooler and completely buying-in to the lyrics of her song “Colors of the Wind”:
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends
I remember thinking that made a lot more sense than the materialistic lessons my friends tried to teach me, about buying Bratz dolls and watching the Rug Rats. Nothing against these other toys, but I was a little hippy-child who preferred pretending to go bird watching (Look, Mommy, a crow!) and searching for bugs under rocks in my backyard (Is that a worm or a root?).
Now, looking back, I thank my parents for imparting upon me an appreciation of nature for its own sake. Turning off the light comes so naturally to me that sometimes it confuses my roommate (my logic: when there’s sunlight, why bother with electricity? We have a big window…).
But Amitav Ghosh’s extension of these ideas I’ve always held pushed even my innate ethic farther than I expected. He criticized the environmental dialogue that I’ve always supported, not for having the wrong ultimate goals, but for having the wrong methodology (it took a little effort not to be insulted at first, but in a good way). Technology, he told us, can serve as no more than a bandaid for the environmental calamities on the horizon—and those that face us already.
We must reintegrate with nature in a way that will completely challenge the separation forced upon us by the mindset of the monotheistic religions that divide mind and body, nature and humanity (it might help that I’m not very religious at all). The attempted removal of humanity from ecosystems, as imposed by national parks and preserves, is not the answer: this would only strengthen the separation.
No ecosystem exists that is not affected by humanity because humanity is part of nature.
I guess I did have some inkling of this already, but I’d never heard it said in such an explicit way. A large part of my environmentalist beliefs have been cultivated with the help of the song “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King, and Mufasa’s lesson to his son that “when we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Apparently I learned a lot of life lessons from Disney movies, but that’s beside the point.
The “one-ness” of all creation came through to me (no matter that I got it from a cartoon), so listening Ghosh’s lecture made me want to snap my fingers in approval like at a poetry slam. I felt like he was saying things I already thought in a way more eloquently and emphatically than I ever have.
It has always troubled me that it seems that the only way to save the planet is to sacrifice anthropological diversity and remove native cultures (people matter too!), but Ghosh showed this was far from the case. In his view, keeping indigenous people on their land and letting them live as they have may actually be better for the environment —they are, after all, part of the ecosystem, too.
I can’t ascribe to this completely. It’s the only part of his talk that I didn’t agree with and I have two criticisms to offer:
1) How can we define which cultures are truly native and which have been corrupted by the destructive form of living that prevails? I think specifically of the traditions of the Plains Indians in the American MidWest. They lived synchronously with the bison for generations, but then were introduced to horses upon contact with European settlers and the bison were all but gone in a few short decades. This horse-based culture is the one that today is defended so fervently, but can it really be called the traditional one? Certainly there are other examples like this to be found around the globe, and in such cases the maintenance of a culture cannot be defended on symbiotic grounds. Often, I’m sure, the line is more difficult to draw than in this example. But how are we to know?
2) Is there not a point where in order to preserve a culture its actions must be interrupted, at least temporarily? For example, in isolation, indigenous whaling practices would not be enough to destroy or even really dent whale population vitality. But when combined with industrialized whaling, eutrophication of oceans due to fertilizers, oil production and the threat of spills, fisheries depletion, and other human destruction of whale habitat and ecosystems, the single whale taken in a native hunt could be the one that pushes a subspecies over the brink. Sometimes specific individual whales are instrumental to the maintenance of a population’s genetic diversity. How are indigenous whalers (or anyone, for that matter, besides genetic biologists) to know which whale that is? Surely in cases like this, in order to preserve the native culture, whaling must be ceased until the traditionally hunted whales can be restored. Otherwise, indigenous people will hunt their own culture out of existence!
But don’t take these critiques to mean that I didn’t learn much from this talk. It was incredible to walk out of a lecture hall brimming with ideas and desperate to call my Mom and tell her all about it and that she just has to look up this author.
So thank you, Mr. Ghosh, for making me think. Even if I disagreed with a small part, on the whole the talk was affirming and empowering—and exciting.
Response to Amitav Ghosh
3 December 2012
True, reading is one of my favorite pastimes regardless of the context. Yet, the literature really comes to life on a different level when I am able to gain insight into the author. Today, my classmates and I were lucky enough to have Amitav Ghosh, author of The Hungry Tide, host a question and answer session during our class. We read his novel as part of our environmental sustainability course, Thinking Matters: Sustainability and Collapse.
My anticipation for the opportunity had been building for a couple of weeks, and I was thrilled to perceive how approachable Mr. Ghosh was. Questions about his views on environmental concerns, well known to be his forte, swarmed through my mind. Ever since the beginning of the course, when we read excerpts from Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Populations, I have been acutely, and uneasily, intrigued by the notion of finite resources. The water and fossil fuels that we take for granted every day to make our lives comfortable will not be here forever—at least not if we continue consuming at our current rate. What implications does this have? How should we alter our deeply ingrained habits to ameliorate the problem?
A piece from Dr. Ghosh’s blog struck me as particularly poignant. He makes the assertion that what we consider a “high” standard of living cannot be obtained by the entirety of the world’s population due to environmental constraints. The inquiry that rose to my mind upon reading this: should less prosperous populations, then, be discouraged from pursuing material abundance?
Prior to posing the question aloud to Dr. Ghosh, I had anticipated a long, deeply involved answer. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of his answer—simple, anyway, when taken at face value. His short answer was no, those less prosperous should not curtail their ambitions; it is the rich that urgently need to reduce their wasteful degree of consumption.
The response became more complicated, however, as he put forward a standpoint that had never crossed my mind. The environmental dilemmas that preclude the world’s population from enjoying a universally high standard of living cannot be solved by technology. There is no “invention” that can fix our problem of scarce resources. Rather, we must find a way to address the issue at its core. We must break the patterns of desire and consumption that form the heart of our cultural identities. But, “how?” one might ask. Dr. Ghosh admits to not yet having reached an answer. I will now find, I am certain, my thoughts straying to this new quarry…
Thank you Amitav Ghosh,
Response to Dr. Ghosh
December 5, 2012
Lawns, and the Necessity of Maintaining Heritage Between Shifts in Environmental Paradigms
Yesterday, Dr. Ghosh, the author of many books discussing themes of culture, environment, and language, came to talk to our class. I walked away from that lecture with one idea that has become a little seed in my mind, which is starting to sprout, pushing against my consciousness. I plan on becoming an architect (with a focus on sustainability), so when he talked about lawns and water use, I was interested. Dr.Ghosh talked about the paradigm of culture where we value waste and excess, pointing out that people in water starved regions of the U.S. still water their lawns. He essentially said that this was a bad custom, and the very target of the shift in thought that he wished to see globally. At first, I agreed with this. Then, I questioned it. Finally, I came to the conclusion that we need to be careful when defining what waste is in order to undergo a healthier paradigm shift.
My first response was that he was totally correct. Dr. Ghosh talked about a paradigmatic shift in our values in order to live more gracefully in our environment. I thought about the greening of the desert in Qatar, and the huge amounts of water that spill out of the cracks in the cement on the Stanford Campus every night from gross overwatering. These are uses of water that need to stop. I was hooked on the idea of rethinking how we have set up society. We should stop buying into a value system that allows this sort of waste, mismanagement, and harm. And I continue to fundamentally agree with Dr. Ghosh, in that I think that the gross excesses that result from the value systems of certain western cultures need to be removed. That is, the enjoyment of material goods at whatever cost to the environment results from our value structure, and so we must change our value structure to remove these excesses
Could this Work?
Unfortunately, that stage of response did not last forever. Recently, I read an article entitled “Leverage Points; Places to Intervene in a System” by Donella Meadows, which argued that there are certain ways to try and effect a system, including adjusting feedback loops, changing incentives, rethinking goals, and most effectively, changing and transcending paradigms. I found most of this paper convincing, but I was unconvinced that paradigm shifts were the best leverage points, because convincing seven billion people that something they have lived with their entire lives is false and something else is true, is very difficult. So I asked myself a question. Could we really see a paradigmatic shift from waste to thrift become a reality? Especially when the paradigm we intend to enter has such radically opposite beliefs from the one we are currently in. Can we really just say to people, ‘you no longer desire a nice, fast, new car’ and expect it to work?
As an Architect:
But maybe that transition could happen in time. My third reaction was to consider the proposed paradigmatic shift from the perspective of my future career, the perspective of an architect. As an architect I am essentially required to buy into the idea of comfort, beauty, and at least a little bit of excess as necessary and good. Although it could be argued architecture is pragmatic in some sense, it is also a largely aesthetic pursuit. Now, maybe I am reading too much into Dr. Ghosh’s particular comment about lawns, but what I found flawed about his statement from this perspective was that it characterizes lawns as waste. But how can we judge our material values in that way? Lawns, though I personally find them dull and useless, are very important to many people. They represent their lifestyle and make people feel comfortable. They make people feel at home.There is value here. And there are many other aspects to architecture that can be characterized as waste and yet are valuable because they provide comfort, influence emotions, or foster a better work experience. So, from an architects stand point, a watered lawn is not a waste, but simply a heritage that has costs. Most people agree on the importance of art, history, and culture, yet many examples of these could also be characterized as waste. So this shift in paradigms from
waste to thrift needs to be executed carefully. It is clear that sacrificing culture for sustainability must be a last resort.
Characterizing The Cultural Paradigm We Are Currently In, And The One We Are Aiming For
So, I realized that there were two types of ‘waste’: ‘aesthetic waste’ and ‘non-aesthetic waste.’ Art, architecture, beauty, and comfort are not necessarily pragmatic, but they all have a cultural value. They define us as humans, our quirks and our values, yet they are not essential in the sense of allowing us to live. These are aesthetic wastes, because it is the sort of waste that builds the aesthetic of our environment. Nonaesthetic waste would be things like toothpaste tubes, plastic bags, and not turning off our lights. Comfort has little to do with these sorts of wastes. Then there are the gross, unnatural excesses, such as the greening of deserts in Qatar to mimic an ethic that is not one’s own. This is a non-aesthetic waste as well, because it is hedonistic and holds no relevance to tradition. non-aesthetic waste and aesthetic waste together make up waste, but we should only target the former in our environmental efforts. In fact, this distinction may make any call for a paradigmatic shift easier, because comfort is no longer directly equated with waste. We are in a cultural paradigm where non-aesthetic waste is acceptable. We must fix this.