Ed's thoughts

"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards." - Ed Abby

Monday, July 12, 2010

Just in Time

Some things are important to do 'just in time': catch a wave, answer a phone, pick a ripe strawberry, stop at a stop light. But the era of globalization has created a worldwide network of 'just in time' supply chains that rely on cheap, abundant petroleum. Among other things, this system was designed to reduce warehousing costs which, in turn, increase profits. As long as there are willing workers on one side of the world, willing consumers on the other side of the world, and cheap, abundant oil to bridge the gap, the system works fairly smoothly.

There are three key variables in the formula above: 'willing consumers,' 'cheap...oil,' and 'smoothly.'

Willingness, over-willingness of the past has left many American and European consumers saddled with massive debt. Add to that rising unemployment and austerity measures which include cuts to social programs, and you get a significant portion of the population with less discretionary income. Without demand supply declines. Among all of the non-essentials shipped from China, there may be a few useful items such as tools, replacement parts and solar panels.

But shipping such items across the planet will become more expensive as the price of energy rises.

Even before the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico, geologists and economists accurately predict that a combination of dwindling reserves and carbon trading will force up the price of all petroleum products and everything related to them. (In other words, everything.) One result of the BP gusher is that a combination of deep water moratoria and more stringent safety measures will further accelerate the price rise. As a result, even those few useful things no longer manufactured in North America will cost more due to increased shipping charges.

Oil, which once made things cheap to ship halfway across the world, will soon make it expensive.

Economists, climatologists and ecologists (among others) talk about a 'new normal' which is characterized predominantly by increased volatility and unpredictable tipping points. Volatility is not conducive to smoothness. Global trade networks designed around a 'just in time' model rely on fluid exchange. As market instability, climate instability and energy instability increase, what was once a finely oiled machine of global trade will lose a few cogs. Supply disruption of even those few items that over-indebted Americans and Europeans can still afford to buy from Asia with higher shipping costs may become less available or perhaps disappear entirely from some regional markets. Again, these items include such things as tools, replacement parts and solar panels.

Even a crappy shovel made in China is better than no shovel not made in America.

What worries me most is that the 'just in time' mentality has oozed from the business world into the minds of most Westerners. Many of those who are aware of peak oil, climate change and the global financial Ponzi scheme act as though they can afford to wait to learn how to grow their own food until the shit hits the fan. After all, it is called 'Just in time learning.'

There are two types of learning: shallow and deep.

Shallow learning can be done 'just in time.' How do I use an automated airport check-in machine? How do I use the Dewey decimal system? How do I make a Powerpoint presentation? Fair enough.

Deep learning takes time. I've spent over a decade learning how to grow vegetables organically on a human scale with the minimum of external inputs. And I'm still learning. And I will continue to learn.

I am aware of many people concerned about up-skilling for an energy constrained world. But from my observation many of them are either just thinking about what skills they may want to learn 'just in time' when they 'need to,' or they are reading about self-sufficeincy skills on the internet. Both of these approaches are entirely inadequate, and actually a bit dangerous in that they give the illusion of up-skilling without actually learning skills.

Skills take time. Skills take practice. Skills take repetition. Skills make blisters.

I can grow my own food and I can build my own house. I enjoy teaching these skills to others. But if people are going to wait to learn them 'just in time,' then I am going surfing.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Burning Turtle

I wish a "burning turtle" was surfing lingo for a gnarly move executed only by the best of the best wave riders. It would be equivalent to baseball's 'perfect game." So complex, and requiring such skill, it would be performed so rarely that those two contradictory words would rarely be uttered in sequence. "Dude, Slater pulled off the first burning turtle of the Millennium!"

Unfortunately, it is literally what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

I am a lover of turtles and always have been. As a child I dreamed of them regularly. As an adult, I stop for turtles on the side of the road: carrying pregnant mothers safely across to lay their eggs, and mourning those already crushed by two tons of steel, rubber and glass.

I have never seen a sea turtle in the wild and fear I never will.

As a longboarder surfing a beach break, I often "turn turtle" before oncoming waves because duck diving a 9 footer is not easy. The move simply entails rolling over like a turtle on its back while the wave breaks and then turning over again and paddling like hell to get out the back before the next breaker.

Yesterday I imagined what it would be like to come up for breath meeting flames instead of oxygen. Surface you die. Stay under you die. It is a terrifying choice for turtles and for men.

What does one do when one's sorrow is so profound it can only be exceeded by tomorrow's headlines? Turn turtle? Pull in one's neck, legs and arms? Retreat into one's shell? Hide? It is one approach, and I'll admit I have embraced it from time to time. But sooner or later you have to come up for air, even if it's on fire.

Surfing is my sanctuary, but in the rest of my life I'm happy to stick my neck out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Closing Out

I grabbed my board and headed for the beach with great expectations. Offshore winds and a building overnight swell - a beautiful combination. Walking along the bush track above the cliffs I could hear the crashing of waves. My pace quickened in anticipation until I reached the overlook where my heart sank.

A single, white foamy line stretched from the cliffs seemingly to the harbor. Despite otherwise perfect conditions - wind, swell, even sunshine - the waves were closing out. Put simply, this means instead of breaking gradually along a slight angle to the shore, each wave crashes all at once more or less parallel to the tide line.

One danger with optimism is that the bigger you are the harder you fall. My question is, how many times? Personally, I can't count. As an environmental educator for over 20 years, time and again I have identified a series of world events sure to provide a tipping point - the breaking of a great wave of environmental awareness and concern. Time and again the wave closed out shy of my expectations. It happened again this morning.

After reading the headline, the following story crushed my optimism and confirmed my fears.

A Gulf Full Of Oil Can't Beat A Tank Full Of Gas


Like many silver-liners, I held out the hope that the spill, while unimaginably tragic, would at least once-and-for-all convince Americans to question their personal and collective over-reliance on oil. Maybe, just maybe, it could join climate change, peak oil and wars in the Middle East as a fourth bullet in the smoking gun. What jury wouldn't convict?

Apparently one from upstate New York. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio took his microphone to the pumps to record the disconnect. His story raises two significant points: 1) Americans love to complain; 2) Americans love to blame. It's a nation of blamers and complainers.

I can't complain about complainers because I complain enough myself.

But I can complain about blamers because inherent in blame is pointing the finger at someone else. And, I fear, American blame has an added, dangerous ingredient the flavor of which spiced up the story. My hat is off to Mr. Mann. He is a brave man. He is the man.

He asked Americans in the act of filling their gas-guzzlers if they feel any personal culpability for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. If a radio interview was the ocean, this is the sound of a wave closing out:

"Uh, no," Carpenter says. When I ask the question, he looks sort of angry.

I call this the Palinization of America: a growing swell of emotion and discontent followed by a complete denial of personal responsibility accompanied by indignation at the mere suggestion of accountability. Not only does this offer a significant barrier to meaningful change, but it also breeds greater discontent building on wave after wave of words unaccompanied by actions. It is particularly dangerous to our young people because it demonstrates that hypocrisy is socially acceptable. In other words, it is OK to say one thing and do another. When I was eight and Carter was President, I was taught that this is called 'lying.'

Words without actions, I believe, are more dangerous that no words at all. (See reference to hypocrisy above.)

Let me be perfectly clear. I am not blameless. I have a carbon footprint. But I have lived for 20 years on a small fraction of the resources used by the average American. Driving to the beach or the point breaks would be much easier for me, but I choose to walk a kilometer and a half each time I feel the need to get wet.

Closing out the conversation by taking the ecological high ground does nobody any good. But at the same time we all need examples of positive action and negative carbon to inspire us to keep going. I have been told that many people would prefer not to participate in ecological foot-printing exercises "because they don't want to feel guilty." I imagine this is the wall that Mr. Mann experienced in front of a convenience store in Saranac Lake, NY.

If we are to have any chance of a sustainable, just future, we cannot clam up and close out when the mirror is turned on us. That endangered brown pelican coated in thick, black oil is the reflection staring back. Guilt is good. It can promote action. When will we stand up and exclaim, "No feathers for oil!" After we top off once more at the BP?

I'm waiting.

And while I wait, I write, I read, I grow vegetables and, of course, I surf. Despite the unfavorable conditions, I managed to have a pretty fun session out there. I try to remain open to all possibilities.

Monday, May 31, 2010


In case you have not noticed, down-sizing has become part of 'the new normal.' My personal involvement this week was moving from a long board to a short board. The adjustment, however, like changes happening in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK (so far), was not of my choosing. It was imposed upon me by forces beyond my control.

In other words, a fiberglass patch job on my second-hand longboard reached the end of its useful life. Like many Europeans, I am not exactly sure what happened to cause the disruption in business as usual. But in both cases it is probably due to too many patch jobs on top of patch jobs...

Cutbacks, austerity measures, down-sizing: whatever you want to call it, the transition period is difficult. Switching from a 9 foot board to a 7 foot board in one day is a significant adjustment. Paddling is easier on a long board. Catching waves is easier on a long board. The fact of the matter is that life on the board became 'harder.'

But there are up-sides. Carrying a short board for over a kilometer to the beach and back is significantly easier. And, I suppose, you could save money by using less wax on a short board. Duck diving and turning are easier as well. So, with everything else in life and the universe, for everything you lose you gain something.

Like others in the strong sustainability movement, I believe the austerity measures will ultimately benefit people and ecosystems. Living beyond one's means is not healthy for individuals, municipalities, states, nations, or planets. While I always thought it would be ecological limits that humanity bumped up against first, it appears that financial limits have nosed to a win at the finish line. This, in fact, is good news.

Finance is a man-made disaster. Economics is a field of philosophy, not science. Nature bats last. Ecological limits are real. While we can speculate about them, 'speculators' do not profit from betting against nature. (Although I am sure some are trying.) It is my great hope that austerity measures imposed by the global financial crisis will aid the transition toward more severe austerity imposed by climate change, peak oil, devastated marine fish stocks, soil erosion, etc.

Money is a human invention. It is meant to be a convenient means of exchanging goods and services. Your personal wealth does not equate to the richness of your life.

I have lived at 1/2 the U.S. poverty level for over a decade. I have always lived in beautiful places and eaten healthy, organic food. I have enough to buy fair trade coffee in the morning and cheap wine in the evening. I have plenty of time to read, write, surf and grow more vegetables. I used to call my situation 'self-imposed poverty.' Now, in order to stay current, I think I'll go with 'voluntary austerity.'

By the way, NPR reported that the last Hummer H3 to be manufactured by GM rolled off the line in Shreveport, Louisiana last week. I guess things are tough all over.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Until it happened to me, I was fairly cavalier about breaking a leg rope. When it happened earlier this week, I began to take it seriously...after the fact. I was riding a beautiful right-hander that began to close out. As I came up over the lip, my body launched skyward as planned, but the board was caught in the breaking wave. I felt the familiar tug on my right ankle, and then...nothing.

My first reaction was to save the board. I did not want it to get damaged by washing violently up on the beach. My second reaction was, 'Shit, paddling without a board is really hard.' (A lovely Betty told me later that this is called 'swimming.') My third reaction was, 'Oh cool. Another wave. I'll just body surf in.' And my final reaction was, '%$&*! That did not work. Get me the @#$% out of here!'

The good news is that I reached the board before it reached the beach. The bad news is that the global financial system has come unleashed (again), and seems to have followed my four step process described above. The worst news is that this unfolding story won't have a happy ending like mine.

I hardly have to mention the cavalier attitude that governments and financial institutions have had about spending and debt and regulation and 'moral hazard' and the like. So let's get to the latest incarnation of the breaking of the leash. The leash, in this case, I will describe as an assumed level of security that, no matter how high debts become, will tether the debtor to a bailout. The belief in a safety line, or leg rope, emboldens financiers and governments to take higher and higher risks, surfing bigger and bigger economic bubbles as they roll in with the swell of so-called 'growth.' In other words, faith in the leash allows the belief in infinite growth without consequences. (Of course this is insane. In nature, only cancer and viruses grow exponentially, but each eventually kills the host.)

You are probably tired of hearing about Greece, but it does provide a suitable parallel to my recent aquatic episode. Predictably, Europe's first reaction to Greece was to save it before it hit the rocks. Next, like paddling without a board, Europe said, 'Shit, this is really hard.' So then Europe tried to do some body surfing on a wave of IMF money. And finally, we hear the cry of surrender: '%$&*! That did not work. Get me the @#$% out of here!'

The great unleashing is not confined to continental Europe. UK voters unleashed their frustration with the Labour government earlier this month, while American voters did so against almost all incumbents in primaries this Tuesday. The bears have unleashed on Wall Street in this so-called 'market correction' (By definition, doesn't that mean the market has been incorrect for the past year?), and it appears that the long anticipated landfall of oil in the Gulf will unleash a new wave of finger-pointing. And finally, Michael Ruppert (you know him if you know him) has unleashed himself to a wonderfully courageous level of blunt: http://www.cctv.org/watch-tv/programs/author-and-peak-oil-activist-michael-ruppert

I do not know where this is all going, but I do believe there is no leg rope strong enough to hold it all together. As Michael suggests, maybe I should trade in my surfboard for a lifeboat. But then again, my surfboard is my lifeboat.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fear and...Loathing?

'Bombora' is Australian surf slang for a big wave that breaks far away from the shore. A combination of large swell, offshore winds, and underwater sandbars yesterday resulted in prime bombora conditions. The good news is that I rode some of the biggest waves of my life. The bad news is that I got blasted by some of the biggest waves of my life.

As a 4 meter wave broke over me, there was a moment when I did not know what was going to happen. My mind flashed to the death of a local surfer two weeks ago, and then to the MacGyver repair job on my leash. If my pulse were not already over 120 bpm due to paddling, I'm sure it would have shot up further.

But that's probably nothing compared with the bombora that hit the markets last Thursday as the Dow dropped nearly 1,000 points. The CBOE volatility index is also known as the Wall Street 'Fear Gauge.' It rose 25% on the week that saw all markets give up year-to-date gains. The financial bombora built through a combination of concerns over Greek debt, uncertain but key UK and German elections, allegations against Goldman Sachs, and probably another thousand factors both known and unknown to the general public.

I spent a lot of time in the water this weekend thinking about what Monday might bring. The UK has a hung parliament, exit polls show Angela Merkel's party may be in trouble, more riots in Greece, and...oh yeah, the BP techno-fix big box containment plan seems to have failed in the Gulf of Mexico. The worldwide sentiment that seems to be shifting rapidly from fear to loathing is clearly demonstrated in the North Rhine-Westphalia regional election in Germany. Essentially, the Germans seem to be sending a message: Fuck the Greeks.

But there's no time for loathing here. Monday has dawned blue sky and sunshine. The swell held overnight, and the winds remain offshore. The weekend crowds have left. See you later.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Wax, Oil and Greece

After carrying a nine foot board for a kilometer to the beach and paddling out through the breakers, it is extraordinarily frustrating to slip on the first wave. First I curse myself for not checking the wax before coming down, then I resign myself to a compromised session. But in truth, there is no such thing as a bad day surfing, and I can be thankful that our coastline is not covered in oil.

While the first day of the fifth month offered me only minor inconvenience on the board, significant "Mayday" calls were issued elsewhere around the world. The historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made landfall today, and riots erupted in Greece over proposed austerity measures. On the surface these two events may appear worlds apart, but they have much in common. For both, the impact is sudden and severe. For both, external forces wield much of the power. And for both, the sudden trauma lands upon systems already compromised by years of erosion.

For those familiar with the Exxon Valdez, or other more recent spills, the sudden and severe impact of crude oil on coastal ecology is easy to recognize. In Greece, the rapid onset of the crisis has been exacerbated by European Union officials and in particular German politicians keenly aware of a key upcoming regional election. Governments worldwide have taken on an unofficial policy of 'extend and pretend' that can essentially be described as the 'Emperor's new fiscal policy.' While this approach has proven effective for short term politics, the inevitable crash, when it comes, is all the worse as a result. Greece, it can be said, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Along with the EU and Germany, Greece must also answer to the IMF, which has a long history of imposing austerity measures and policy reforms on loan recipients which result in the further loss of sovereignty. Austerity measures inevitably result in spending cuts on social programs, health care and education. All of these disproportionally hurt the poor. Policy reforms result in opening up markets to global competition and the ensuing race to the bottom for wages, worker's rights, and environmental policy. Resilience and sustainability, particularly in the areas of food production, are systematically dismantled leaving nations all the more vulnerable to price volatility caused by distant forces. This is called a downward spiral.

The coastal wetlands and estuaries of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are also at the mercy of outside forces. Of course the Obama administration wants to avoid another Katrina, and is acting quickly and decisively. Although Washington D.C. now wields considerable power over the response to the crisis, let us ask what were the external forces that caused it? Why was a rig that cost 350 million dollars to build 10 years ago (estimated to cost twice that to build a replacement today) drilling a hole 18,000 feet deep while floating atop 5,000 feet of water? With a full operating cost of about 1 million dollars per day, aren't there other, cheaper ways to get oil?

No, the light, sweet, easy to access oil on the planet is nearly gone, and oil companies are now forced to take greater risks at greater expense for lesser returns. Deepwater drilling and tar sands will produce oil, but only at greater and greater expense and higher and higher environmental costs. Many mysteries can be solved by following the money. And when you follow the money backward from the Deepwater Horizon it leads to your wallet and my wallet. We are the greatest external force that has influenced recent events in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, these twin tragedies fall upon systems whose abilities to offer resilience have been compromised by years and years of mismanagement. Greek tales of corruption, concealing debt, and largesse have reached epic status. They are well documented in the press. The cumulative effect, however, has been to strip the mediterranean nation of its ability to respond robustly. It's fiscal immune system was so weak by the time the final virus struck, there was no alternative to swallowing a bitter bailout pill.

Similarly, gulf coast ecosystems have suffered from decades of fertilizer runoff, over-harvesting and misguided water engineering projects. The result is a compromised immune response to additional external impacts. In this case the system is ecological, not economic. How appropriate that the words economy and ecology share a root in the Greek oikos. It reminds us that everything really is connected, and that in order to understand our world we might consider paying more attention to the connections.

In the case of oil and Greece, May 1st, 2010, simply represents the tipping point, or straw that broke the camel's back. These Romulus and Remus of newsbytes flashing across television screens both suck at the teet of a she wolf called 'Modernity,' who preys on the unquestioned belief of infinite growth without consequences. It would be nice to think that these twin tragedies share the maternity ward with no others, but the fact is that we stand at the brink of the great birthing of crises. While governments have been effective for a year and a half of extending and pretending, the duct tape is losing its grip. We can see daily the myths of modernity crumbling around us, and even if we are cursed like Cassandra to foretell the future but not be heard by others, it remains our duty and obligation to prepare and protect our communities from powerful external forces beyond our control.

Even though my wax has worn thin, I am still able to manage some fun rides on the day. Catching a beautiful right to finish the session, I can see the wave standing up before me. I carve left, crouch a bit, center myself on the board, and ride the whitewater all the way to the beach. While external forces may be unimaginably powerful, but recognizing their approach, bracing ourselves, and rebalancing, we can weather each storm and ride a sea of change.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Paddling Out

We are blessed here with 3 point breaks and a beach break. On small days the beach is better, and on big days the points are better. But whenever the points are working, they are crowded. Forty people in the water does not always create the best vibe. Some are locals. Some are tourists. Sometimes tempers flare.

I surf to relax, and so I prefer the beach when the points are crowded. More often that not, however, this means that the waves are breaking on the outer bar, making it harder to paddle out. On the points you can always paddle around the breakers, but on the beach you've got to go through them. This does not make for an easy commute.

Commuting was on my mind last week when I heard a story on NPR about a helicopter commuter service from northern New Jersey to Manhattan at a fee of $100 each way. At $200 for a round trip, the service represents significantly more money than I live on in a week, including rent, food, and my Wednesday 110 kilometer roundtrip commute to the University.

Like paddling through breakers on the beach, that commute does not represent the easy way out. It's starts with seven kilometers on my folding bicycle with a backpack full of books, a patch kit and pump in case of a flat. My Busit card rewards me with a $2 discount for the next 43 kilometers on Gobus, and my folding bike ensures an interesting conversation with a stranger.

Once in the big city, I've got another 5 kilometers to the University campus. The streets are mostly flat and many have cycle lanes. By now I know the shortcuts through quiet neighborhoods, and which bakeries sell day-old donuts at half price.

The return trip is much the same, except for the donuts. I do, however, arrange to stop at the supermarket next to the bus station where prices are significantly lower than at our small, local grocery. By picking up a few items there, the money saved is greater than the price of the round trip bus fare, which is just over 10 New Zealand dollars. At the average exchange rate, that's about 6 U.S. dollars. Not bad...compared to what I hear some people pay to commute.

But it's no helicopter ride, and it's not what most people would consider convenient. But convenience costs. By reducing my expenses, I reduce the need for income. Reduced income comes from fewer hours worked. Few hours worked allows more free time. More free time means more time on the board...even if it is at the beach.

Speaking of which...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rogue Wave

Of course hindsight is 20/20. But it is helpful for taking stock.

With light, offshore winds and a small swell this week, I've had ample time to sit on my board and look back over the last few years. A lingering cloud ceiling has offered protection from the sun, but it makes it extraordinarily challenging to judge the size of incoming waves. On the water, depth perception is hindered by filtered sunlight. Nonetheless, the lully sets are mostly predictable. Occasionally, however, they offer a surprise and catch almost everyone inside.

I never saw it coming.

As an environmental educator for the last 20 years, my attention was dedicated to ecological issues such as species extinction, atmospheric issues such as climate change, and in the last decade, geological issues such as peak oil. I could readily recognize unsustainability in these realms, but gave little thought to the world of finance. My personal financial strategy was extremely conservative: I paid off my college loans as soon as I could; I contributed the maximum to my retirement account; I kept my savings in bank CDs. I was a good boy. I never lived beyond my means. I was the poster child for prudence.

I saved all my money for 10 years and bought a 38 acre farm with cash. No mortgage. No personal debt. The national debt always concerned me, but whenever I brought it up, friends and family insisted it was not a significant concern.

Remember, I had plenty of other concerns: species extinction, climate change, peak oil, etc. Hindsight has proven how naive this next statement is: I had faith that those running the financial institutions knew what they were doing. Sitting on my board and looking back over the financial tsunami I have to laugh at myself...for a moment. And then I get angry.

This is why I am angry.

I played it safe. I was conservative. I did not put myself at risk, but now I am paying for the recklessness of others. Nearly every financial policy decision coming out of Washington over the last year rewards spenders and punishes savers. Beyond the big bank bailouts, they include government subsidized home buying and car buying. In other words, certain Americans get a coupon from the federal government to go shopping which is (theoretically) paid for by all American taxpayers. More likely it will simply be put on the national credit card and further saddle future generations with crippling debt.

But for me, the greatest injustice is so-called "quantitative easing." Like lawyers, economists use language to exclude ordinary folks from the conversation. Quantitative easing is simply the United States Federal Reserve creating dollars out of thin air. But it does not take a degree in economics to understand supply and demand. When the supply of something increases, the value of each individual unit of that something decreases. In other words, if you are a saver, your savings are worth less. You are paying for the recklessness of others. This choice is not yours. It has been made for you by "financial experts."

Again, this may be naive, but I feel betrayed. No good deed goes unpunished. I consider myself powerless against the unsustainable decision-making of governments and financial institutions. Unlike tea-partiers who choose to fight, I choose withdrawl. I refuse to invest my life energy into a corrupt system. The naive would say I am no longer a contributing member to society. Yes, I'm not contributing to the growing debt, but I should be thanked for that. I can also grow more food for less expense per square meter than nearly anyone on the planet. Who knows, this knowledge may contribute to society one day.

I guess I'll just have to wait and see. Wait on my board and see what emerges through the filtered sunlight. If I'm lucky, a rogue wave will carry me all the way to shore.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Surfs up

I noticed this morning that my most visited web pages are as follows: npr.org, dailyshow.com, my university email log in, and surf2surf.com. I am 41 years old and I started surfing at 40. Call it a mid-life crisis if you like. (I also have a 27 year-old girlfriend.) Along with taking up surfing, the first year of my 4th decade was marked by selling my 38 acre organic farm, moving halfway across the world, and undertaking doctoral research in environmental education.

I have been an environmental educator for 20 years. Over two decades my greatest accomplishments can best be described as token. Not for lack of effort, but rather timing. Let me explain.

My PhD research has led me to transformative learning theory. In a nutshell, it works like this: 1) the learner experiences a ‘disorienting dilemma’ or ‘cognitive crisis’ which challenges their worldview; 2) he or she goes through various stages of denial and grief and then explores alternative worldviews; 3) the learner adopts a new worldview, thus completing the transformative learning experience.

For me, the disorienting dilemma came in 1986 when I took Environmental Studies 101 at Bowdoin College. From that point on, my life has been dedicated to sustainability and environmental education. Year after year, I kept thinking one day everyone is going to wake up to the environmental crisis. One day everyone is suddenly going to get religion and jump on the eco-bandwagon. I promoted green initiatives at work and in my community that also offered cost savings. To my shock and dismay, many of those were ignored. Until, that is, 2008.

For some it was the oil price spike and for others the global financial crisis. For the first time people around me were talking seriously about conserving energy. There was a rush of interest, including a front-page article in the Sunday edition of the state’s largest newspaper about my nearly self-sufficient farm. But by the end of the year, oil had dropped to around $30 per barrel and the energy ‘dilemma’ was no longer so ‘disorienting’ for many.

Along with turning 40 and everything I mentioned above, 2008 was also the most educative year of my life. I learned, not from books or teachers but from observation, that the vast majority of people will not embrace a sustainable worldview without a dilemma significant enough to disorient their wallets. Until then, it remains the emperor’s new clothes and building a bigger house of cards.

This insight has been extremely valuable for me in a number of ways. First, it allows me to focus my energy on my research that will take up much of the next 3 years. By then, I suspect a combination of energy, environmental and economic crises will have disoriented a significant portion of the global population. By then, someone may actually pay attention to my research in transformative sustainability education.

Second, it gives me more time to refine my human-scale agricultural systems. Although I’ve been at it for over a decade, there is always more to learn about maximizing productivity while minimizing inputs. I teach courses once a month called “Holistic Vegetable Garden Design and Management.” Some months I only get a handful of students, but they are always enthusiastic learners and grateful for what I have to offer. What a joy it is to work with motivated adult learners! What makes them unique in the world right now is that the cognitive dissonance of unsustainability is strong enough at 80 dollars per barrel and DJIA in the high ten thousands to direct them towards a more sustainable worldview, the poster child for which has become the backyard garden.

And finally, it gives me more time to surf. I know that I will best serve the transition to a more sustainable world by being fresh when the big day comes. I’ve gone through multiple burnout cycles in my career and have witnessed the same in other environmental educators. I see it now in people who have recently discovered the concept of peak oil. My supervisor tells me to spend time thinking. What better place than sitting on a board waiting for a wave? I used to do my best thinking while marathon training. I don’t run anymore, and besides, marathon training is too goal-oriented. The point for me, now, is simply to wait.

The wind's off-shore. Gotta Go!