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

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!


  1. after such thoughts, i often comment to folks that "we're a short-lived species" - meaning that we haven't been here that long, relatively speaking, and based on our current course - well, it would be good to become a horseshoe crab. the amazing thing is how many folks look at me like i'm crazy when i say this. but, we chip away...

  2. Really enjoyed your story Nelson. We set up a solar powered village in the 1980s, I've been out in the mainstream, and now back to the land. As a teacher, I find your comments about "transformative learning" very interesting, that people need a shock of some kind to go through a paradigm shift in thinking..... Keep up the good work!