Geeks In the Woods

I just returned from Day One of an environmental education symposium in Indianapolis. There was a lot of good stuff but the highlight was probably a keynote presentation by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods.” His book has become an essential resource for environmental educators and he was even more inspiring as a speaker, despite the (typical) webinar glitches we experienced at the conference. His basic tenant is that children (and adults) need quality time in a natural setting to be happy and healthy. The book argues his point persuasively and also provides ideas of how to overcome the obstacles that keep kids indoors. He acknowledges that it will require work from lots of different fronts – parents, teachers, administrators, governments, and even kids.

But the thing I found most inspiring about his talk was the simple message that what kids need most of all right now is to be given hope. They are constantly bombarded with messages about how the environment is being destroyed and it is easy for them (us?) to feel completely powerless and just let go. They need adults to tell them it’s not too late to connect with nature and to protect the environment.

I thought this was expressed best by a teenage video game aficionado who read “The Last Child in the Woods” and started up a website called GEEKS in the Woods.

The first thing we want to say is that we are young but we are people. We have opinions, concerns, doubts, fears, and questions about everything on this planet including wild places in the great outdoors, obesity and health issues that include the mental state of our parent’s generation because they all seem so stressed out!

Sometimes we feel like a “bug in a jar” under a magnifying glass. We appreciate that you study us and we are certain that your research is vital. But remember, you were all once young people, too. We are not a strange, unique, or newly discovered species. Whatever you really liked about nature and being outside will probably hit the mark with us in a big way as long as nature is still there!

What do we want to do outside? Absolutely nothing…unless you can show us the “YO” factor…unless you can explain how we are linked to the outdoors and the planet…unless you can make it relate directly to our life. If you make it personal and global, we will notice!

We are primarily indoor kids. Some people have indoor cats…we are indoor children. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy being outside. We don’t have to wear an air tight NATURE SUIT with a helmet and an oxygen tank to go out in the woods. However, some of us don’t know this unless you prove it to us…and prove it again and again!

We tend to be very wary of the unknown….everything from trying to watch tv without a remote control to asking our parents to take us on a hike. We probably won’t ask them, but hope they’ll keep asking us because we like to be pursued!

We love Bambi and other Disney movies but if most of us saw a real deer in the real woods we’d be terrified…unless someone shows us that not only is knowledge of nature important but that WE are part of nature. We might still be afraid (because, darn! Look at those antlers!!) but we probably won’t run away and we’ll eventually love it.

Parents, teachers, interpreters, directors, policy makers…who ever you are, please realize that we recognize sincerity. We know when you care about what you are doing and we know when you care that we care.

When you take us outside or present a program to us, please pay close attention to our reactions and our needs. Sometimes we are hesitant to tell you. We like attention. Lots of attention. (You love us, right? Right?)

We need you to experience whatever it is that we are experiencing with us…even if you’ve seen it, touched it, done it a million times before. That is the magic YOU possess to capture OUR attention!

Just make it fun!

We are a techno generation. But that doesn’t mean that we have to learn everything through technology. Oh, we like it, but don’t think you have to make it beep or light up to get our attention.

Those of us who have crossed the great barrier and realized that nature is way cool and that being outside is “sweeeeeet!!” can tell you that the sound of the wind in the trees, the oxygen in our lungs, the song of a bird, the feel of sun on our face, the warmth of a campfire or a starry sky overhead cannot be improved through technology. Oh, it can be enhanced, but please realize that you can get our attention with the real stuff.

That is what it is all about anyway….being REAL! (Radical, Environmental, All-healthy and Longterm)


GEEKs in the Woods

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Environmentalism the influential way

Robert Cialdini\'s Influence: the Psychology of PersuasionI love reading pop psychology, especially those that gather together lots of different experiments and tie them together. The funny thing to me is that the authors usually aren’t psychologists: Malcom Gladwell (a journalist), Tim Harford (the Undercover Economist), and Dan Ariely (another economist) have all written some really interesting books about our behavior as humans. Today, I read a similar book by an actual psychologist that was just as good, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.

I’d been meaning to finish it for a while, but travel plans and my always tall stack of books to read got in the way. Usually, I just renew for another three weeks, but someone else wanted it, so I had to finish it today so that I could return it. Luckily, it’s well-suited to reading in pieces since each chapter focuses on a different method of influence, ranging from time pressure to likability to context.

The part that I think might interest all of you was in the section on consistency. Dr. Michael Pallak ran an experiment in Iowa to try and get people to conserve energy (natural gas in a winter experiment and electricity in a summer experiment). For the control group, he gave his subjects some general tips on energy conservation and asked them to conserve. As you might expect, these people showed no change in energy usage over the following three month period.

In addition to the conservation tips, Pallak told the other groups that at the end of the season, they’d have their names posted in the newspaper as “energy conservers.” Unlike the control group, these people reduced their energy usage by 12% (28% for the electricity) in the next month! The possibility of public recognition encouraged people to work to be more environmentally sound. That’s pretty cool.

But here’s where it gets weird. After one month, the researchers sent their subjects a letter telling them that for technical reasons, the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names after all. The month after that, participants reduced their energy usage by over 16% (42% for electricity) from their original usage! For some reason, people were even more willing to reduce energy AFTER their initial reason was removed.

According to the author of Influence, the explanation is that once people decided to reduce their energy, they came up with more reasons why it was a good idea. They might start thinking about how good it is for the environment or how much money they’re saving, even though those reasons weren’t enough without the newspaper incentive.

Then, when the researchers revealed that the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names, this removed the only external reason. All that was left were these reasons that they’d internalized. Now, there could be no question that they were doing it for the reward (small as it was).

I find this experiment, and really the whole chapter about consistency, very hopeful. If you can get someone else to take a small first step, or take that small step yourself, then you make it easier to take the second step. In an earlier chapter on reciprocity, the Cialdini mentions an experiment that showed that signing a civic-minded petition was enough to make people vastly more likely to host an ugly safe driving billboard, even when the petition wasn’t about safe driving!

Just making a semi-public commitment can be enough to get you (or others) to start thinking about yourself as the type of person who does those kind of things.

That’s why I think Maggie’s driving promise has value, even if she doesn’t figure out what to do with the money.

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods by Richard LouvI just finished “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.  It’s on a lot of “must read” book lists and has generated a lot of enthusiasm for getting kids outdoors, while also creating some controversy.  The basic concept is that kids need exposure to nature in order to be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy but our society has made it really difficult.  Some of the major obstacles are lack of open spaces, excessively busy schedules, fear of letting children explore outdoor areas, and concern of potential liability when kids do activities where they might get hurt like (gasp) climbing trees.

Most of the book was information I had heard before and parts of it were a bit dry but I enjoyed the way he wove it all together and came up with suggested solutions that attack the issue from multiple levels – getting our own children outdoors, exploring ways to bring environmental learning into our schools, and lobbying to have more nature-friendly city design.

I was most excited about reading his descriptions of Green Towns and other nature-friendly urban planning concepts.  I have toyed with the idea of being an urban planner for many years because I feel we could create really amazing places to live if we put some effort into it.  Sometimes I think the biggest challenge is convincing people to let go of the status quo.  People seem to worry a lot that switching to more eco-friendly designs will decrease their quality of life but I don’t think it’s true.  Wouldn’t we all enjoy living in towns were we could walk to the store or to work and where we had beautiful natural spaces to enjoy?  I think we just need to let go of the idea that life is incomplete without wide roads and 100% climate control.

In the end, I have not entered the realm of urban planning because redesigning cities is a very slow process that involves years of patient negotiation with a wide variety of stakeholders – community members who have various needs and desires, governments that are interested in maximizing property tax income while minimizing infrastructure costs, developers who want to stay in business, preservationists who want to save various historical sites and buildings, transportation networks, and oh, so many more.  It is not a battle I’m ready to take on.  Not yet, anyway.  But I do believe one of the best things any community can do is to develop a vision of what they *might* look like if everything worked out right.  Not a utopia.  Not some dream of perfection.  But a semi-realistic concept of a town that integrated into the ecological landscape, that supported the needs of all living beings in the area.  Humans are definitely important but I think the way for us to protect ourselves is to do a better job protecting everything else.

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Tiny, tiny houses

Tiny, Tiny Houses by Lester WalkerIn the last episode of our house-buying saga, we learned that the house we were attempting to purchase had copious mold and foundation problems. Today, we signed the papers saying we weren’t going to buy it. The contractor who gave us an estimate said $11,000, which is already a lot, but also said it would be more, he just couldn’t tell how much more until they started digging out the foundation.

We’re now leaning most toward a place a little further out from town, although still within biking distance, that has some acreage around it. The best part (or at least the most fun part) is the little shed that the owners have converted into a tiny one-room office.

As Maggie alluded in that last post, I recently got a book called Tiny, Tiny Houses. The author is a huge fan of small spaces, from single-purpose ice fishing sheds to a full-featured inside out house with the kitchen and living areas in the woods surrounding the bedroom. I’m not sure we could live entirely within the 300 square feet that those provide, but both Maggie and I have become intrigued by the concept.

I’m bothered by the space we have that we don’t use or under-use. This isn’t a totally new idea. Southern mansions used to have an indoor winter kitchen and a separate summer kitchen. Extra kitchens require electrical and plumbing abilities, so they’d probably be pretty difficult and costly. Building a separate office room (or reading room or sun room or whatever you can imagine) would be much easier and cheaper. With a little ingenuity, I think we could do all of the work ourselves and could find most of the materials we’d need for free. For example, the billboard chicken coop could be turned into a billboard working space pretty easily.

I don’t know if we’ll actually be able to build any of these little spaces, but I highly recommend the book. It’s amazing how compact you can make things when you have them serve multiple purposes and work them into the surroundings. Many of the small houses were considered complete in their day, which blows me away. A 210 square foot apartment would barely be considered an efficiency, but Thomas Jefferson and his wife lived in a house that size for years while building Monticello. There are also several houses that were designed to be expanded as time and money permitted. Much more sensible than McMansions that require a family to overextend themselves to afford.

Even if you’re not environmentally conscious at all, you can’t help but be impressed by the ingenuity and comfort embodied in some of these tiny, tiny houses. Give it a look and let me know which is your favorite! Today, mine is George Bernard Shaw’s rotating writing cottage, but there are so many good ones that it might be different tomorrow!

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Book Review: The Education of Little Tree

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest CarterI’m kinda surprised I didn’t find The Education of Little Tree before, as it’s right up my alley. It is the autobiography of Forrest Carter, who grew up in the 1930’s living with his Cherokee grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains. He talks a lot about learning “the way” of the Cherokee and learning to live in peace with the land. They certainly didn’t have an easy life but they sounded truly happy to be living off the land in an isolated mountain valley full of deer, wild turkeys, and beautiful sunsets.

Probably my favorite part of the book was the folk wisdom, which was doled out from all the different characters. I think my favorite lesson was from Mr. Wise, a Jewish tinkerer who traveled around the mountains fixing clocks and selling bobbins of thread.

He said if you was thrifty, you used your money for what you had ought but you was not loose with it. Mr. Wine said that one habit led to another habit, and if they was loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practical everything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thrifty people was ever taken over by a dictator. Which is right.

I highly recommend the book as a comfort read, a reconnection with nature, and an inspirational tale of the simple life. I will warn you, however, that there are some very sad bits. I’ve moved past the trauma I experienced as a young child reading “Where the Red Fern Goes” but there were a few parts in the book that brought me to tears. I guess that’s part of life and it’s silly to ignore it.

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Climbing the mountain: sustainability one step at a time

Living Like EdNow that my big work push is over, I have a little more free time to catch up on my reading. I’ve started with a book Maggie got at the library last week, Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life. It’s by Ed Begley, Jr (yes, the Ed Begley, Jr. of Mighty Wind and Best in Show) and basically goes through all of the green things he’s learned to do in thirty years (!) of becoming more sustainable.

I’m not done yet, but overall the book is pretty good. It covers very simple things (recycle) as well as more labor or capital intensive things (buy a wind turbine), interspersed with comments by Begley’s wide with an “everyday joe” perspective. However, an analogy Begley makes at the beginning has really stuck with me because it resonates with some things I’ve been thinking recently.

Living sustainably,Begley writes, isn’t a sudden change. Instead, it’s like climbing Everest. You go up a little, then stop and get acclimatized before you head up some more. When you change your lifestyle, make some achievable changes then live with them for a while. You’ll usually find that it’s not a big deal. Once you’re there, you can make some other achievable changes. Eventually, you’ll be much higher on Everest that you ever could have imagined.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid pushing yourself, just that you shouldn’t look at the distance to go and give up. Even if you just change a little, it’s still making a difference. I’ve found that it’s easiest to combine different types of changes. Do something easy (putting in CFLs), habit-changing (cook more lunches), handy (making a worm box), and something long-term (save towards small solar panels). That way, you can really feel like you’re achieving something while you’re working towards the harder goals. It’s a lot like the concept of a debt snowball and I think it can work really well.

Even though I haven’t finished the book, the parts I’ve read are really good. Begley has a whimsical tone that compliments the more serious subject matter. Maggie also liked it, although I think she found most of the advice old hat.

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A book for Engineers as well as Gardeners

Better Off and Animal, Vegetable, MiracleI hope this is coherent. It’s been a long week after a long weekend and it’s not over yet. Nevertheless, I managed to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle today. The book is about Kingsolver and her family as they move to Appalachia (from Arizona) and attempt to eat local food for a year.

Although the concept is interesting, the book didn’t interest me until the end (when Kingsolver talks about the difficulty of getting people to change the world and turkey procreation), which was too little too late. I was surprised because I’ve heard great things about it from at least three people.

I’ve decided that the people who love Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are Gardeners. You know the type. They swoon over winter seed catalogs, talk about soil pH, and give away hundreds of squash in the fall. To me, though, lettuce all tastes the same, a zucchini and a cucumber are basically identical, and I like to watch Japanese beetles. I will never be a Gardener, even if I do occasionally garden. Luckily, I have Maggie around to handle that sort of thing. I’m much more of an Engineer. I like building things instead of growing them and solving problems that involve short bursts of creativity rather than marathon efforts over a season.

I must not be the only one, since Eric Brende took on a similar challenge but faced it much differently. Instead of focusing on food, Brende looked at technology and decided that it was too difficult to determine what was good and bad about it while he was so reliant on it. He took his wife to a small Amish-like community and they attempted to determine how little technology was necessary to live a happy life. The result is Brende’s book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I think my favorite part about Better Off is that Brende starts off thinking about technology and ends up realizing that it has very little to do with technology and a lot to do with him and his wife. There’s no universal answer to the question “is this gadget a good addition to my life?” This sort of introspective evaluation of a lifestyle is very attractive to me.

Since reading the book, I find myself wondering what I can do without rather than assuming that because the technology is there, I should use it. When it comes down to it, dishwashers are kind of annoying. Cars are even worse. I might not be willing to give them up, but I can figure out when it makes sense to use them and when it doesn’t.

I think even Gardeners will appreciate this type of message, although they might apply it to different things than I do. I definitely recommend picking up Better Off… if you can tear yourself away from your seed catalogs.

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Globalization is Green

Sorry for the late post, but time and migraines wait for no man.

The Undercover Economist by Tim HarfordI’ve stolen this counterintuitive title from a section in Tim Harford’s interesting economic book (and who thought that phrase would ever be used?), The Undercover Economist. The book as a whole is a great overview of economic thinking applied to a variety of topics, from finding a good used car to pricing coffee. Near the end, Harford attempts to debunk the idea that trade protectionism prevents globalization from damaging the environment.  I find most of his arguments very persuasive, although there might be more arguments against globalization that he doesn’t cover. Hardford identifies three main anti-globalization arguments: a “race to the bottom,” transportation costs, and the idea that economic growth inherently hurts the planet.

In a “race to the bottom” view, globalization encourages production in countries that have lax environmental laws. To promote production in their countries, poor areas of the world would weaken their environmental laws, leading to no environmental protection at all. Harford argues against this on multiple fronts. First, he points out that the vast majority of trade is between rich countries with similar environmental standards. Harford also notes that many of the strategies with the most environmental impact, like energy efficiency, also save money (the same is true on an individual level!). In addition to arguing theory, Harford looks at the numbers behind the claim and find that companies are much more likely to invest in polluting industries in rich countries than in poor ones. This counterintuitive claim makes sense when you realize that the most polluting industries, like Harford’s example of bulk chemical processing, require infrastructure like roads that poor countries just don’t have. Finally, Harford looks at two competing situations: the increase in China’s air quality as foreign investments increased and the increase in environmental problems (high-yeild farming, primarily) caused by protectionist agricultural policies around the world.

Even if a race to the bottom isn’t likely to happen, it’s obviously true that transportation costs are high when buying overseas. Harford agrees, but points out that the transport costs of moving a CD player from Osaka to LA is less than that of moving it from LA to Arizona. Of course, buying locally is better yet, but even then there’s the possibility that the transportation costs are very high. To combat the environmental effects of transport, Harford suggests, as he does throughout the book, that a direct cost on externalities like air pollution caused by travel make the most sense. That way, the final cost of the item will give you a direct idea of how much environmental damage it’s done, whether it originated in LA or in Osaka.

Finally, Hardford takes on the claim that globalization leads to damaging environmental growth. For the poorest countries, the environmental problems they face, things like pollution from wood-burning stoves and unsafe drinking water, can be alleviated or eliminated with trade. Developing countries do have increasing environmental issues, but Harford brings up the moral dilemma that this creates: to reduce their environmental impact, we have to keep nations poor, which leads to preventable deaths by the problems poor countries face. Once again, Harford’s solution is a tax on externalities like the US tax on sulfur emissions. This would make cleaner technology even more attractive to developing nations, helping them leapfrog the environmentally worst stages of a developing economy.

Although Harford’s last claim seems the most dubious, I’m willing to grant that it’s better to figure out ways to encourage green economic production than to keep countries from developing at all.

So maybe globalization can be green after all. What do you think?

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