(Originally published December 2011)
I often ask myself while teaching students about renewable energy "what is the goal?" I have come to understand that the 'Solar-Show' contains much more than simply information about renewable energy. In it exists far more value than mere information can provide: face to face, smile to smile, hands on learning; real experience at a student scale with small solar cells in their hands rather than an abstract idea. The underlying intent is to provide a quality of learning that is experiential, inspiring towards curiosity and self discovery.
Labels like creativity, curiosity, generative, and kinesthetic learning are circulating themes around one central idea: learning happens best when one is genuinely curious, physically connected, and allowed to discover. Open ended discovery seems like such a normal learning experience yet it is all but replaced in school by packaged curriculum, seemingly with the good reason of time constraints and standards. What have we lost along with discovery learning? Most fundamentally, I think that we have lost the joy of learning, an ability to empathize with the real world (which has far fewer black and white answers than any text book), and the creative confidence to deal with our constantly evolving reality.
I have taught the same class to first graders and high school seniors, when I give a solar cell and small fan to elementary aged students and say, "try to make it work..." they do. Giving the same solar cell and fan to high school seniors with the same instruction they ask, "how" or "when" ostensibly looking for a prescribed learning path to follow. This is not about intellect or knowledge, rather a willingness to try multiple times while allowing that many, perhaps most of those attempts, may not work. As if the risk of being wrong, traversing an intellectual dead end, is not worth the attempt. This experience has been so stark that I correlate the grade of the students with how long it takes to 'warm them up' to the idea of trying without specific instructions.
Life seems to be defined according to successive versions, iterations, and prototypes, improved upon by each creative insight. To me, it seems axiomatic that life is about the process not the arrival. Whether it is a rock climbing route, reading a book, or solving world-wide energy challenges of the future, there is always another peak that builds on the last, each success is a milepost in a process.
I hope that by connecting with students during a "Solar Show" renewable energy, conservation, and efficiency becomes a part of their vocabulary. Most importantly though, I hope to provide an opportunity and permission to explore, try, ask, then answer questions with no expectations: creative discovery.
Which is why I am so happy I got a manila folder filled with thank you letters from Mrs. Carter's 6th grade class in Fairview Utah. Reading letters filled with enthusiasm and awareness suggests I have achieved my own evolving goals for the classroom!
(Originally published February 2012)
When computer programers develop a piece of software and publish it, the new product is the latest version. My computer uses the Apple operating system version 10.6.8. Getting the latest release assures the consumer that it is the latest and greatest product available and the culmination of their work. The latest version is also a suggestion of accumulated experience built on the successive versions that preceded it. What happened before version 1?
Otto Scharmer in his book “Theory U” describes “Principle .8” or the early pre-production prototype that tries out a creative idea, off the white board and into the world. This has been a useful concept for me to formalize, spurring me to stop thinking and instead create.
For two months I have wanted to make a solar powered water fountain. I carried the idea in my head, thinking about how I would build it, typically forgetting most of the ideas I had, good and bad ones. During two hours this morning, I built one. Its not a work of art or as fascinating as the concept of my imagination but now I have a working prototype. The ideas to advance my design are grounded in reality and my learning process is more engaged.
Another project this winter was learning to back roll while kiting. A little disorienting and scary to attempt, I carried the idea in my head rather than trying the move. Visualization helps to inspire the body to learn new movements but I was avoiding the real learning of doing. I wasn’t able to learn to back-roll until I had spent a day crashing in the water and at some point I was able to claim a version .8 prototype.
In actuality all learning is iterative, rather than expecting excellence before ‘going public’ an upwards spiral of quality seems to make more sense. I find it easier to trust an iterative process in a collaborative context, working together with everyone making their best attempts towards a common goal. During a collaborative experience, creative action is the focus rather than subjective competition. Knowing that this is not just my experience but typical of living and learning for everyone, it is much easier to empathize with my self and others. A social container for optimum learning and creative action is created.
(Originally published February 2012)
At what point do we as a country begin to talk about personal responsibility and consciousness as requirements for narrowing the divide between what our humanity wants versus the reality that exists around us? Apple products that must fit the production schedule of consumer demand by using inhumane working conditions, a financial system that requires debt to maintain living standards and government solvency, or an energy system that destroys the global environment ensuring the collapse of any oil dependent civilization. Each rely on consumers as the main driver but the right or necessity to consume is never called into question.
Jimmy Carter asked us to put on a sweater, he was the last leader to do so. Since that time, as our collective responsibility has decreased, our sense of victim hood (though very real) to governments, banks, and corporations has increased. Waiting for and petitioning large social institutions to solve our energy, financial, and social/moral crisis’ misses the point. Consumers are ultimately the largest driver of our current social-economic paradigm.
The current flap about working conditions in the Apple supply chain is the perfect pointer. Sure government is corrupt, banks are manipulative at a global scale, and old industrial corporations will lie, cheat, and lobby to perpetuate their fossilized business model but new innovative companies are paving the way to a bright future. Apple is held up as the darling of the new industrial economy that turns out creative, innovative, and seemingly magical products advancing human capacity and making a profit along the way. Apple puts effort towards ethical production practices, environmental stewardship, and production auditing. Consumers align with and pay a premium for Apple’s efforts.
The newly exposed underbelly of Apple’s supply chain has caused the conscious consumers Apple calls their base, to protest. Shocked and dismayed neo-hippies packing ipads and iphones are suddenly embarrassed. Amongst the protests, reporting, and calls for action, the basic assumption that consumers must have the newest Apple product on a 12 month schedule is never considered to be a part of the feedback loop. From what I understand of the reporting, the production conditions exist in large part as a logical symptom of feeding the 12 month consumer demand. Austere working conditions in China are nearly unavoidable when providing the consumer with the latest in Apple’s innovative magic.
What would happen if Apple consumers replaced their product every three years rather than 1 year? My apple macbook is 5 years old, still runs OSX Lion, so I know its possible. Apple wouldn’t be one of the most profitable companies in the world sitting on 100 billion in cash (with a ‘B’). The fever pitch of Chinese industrial expansion and the attending protested working conditions may not exist. The ripple effects through our service economy could show us what a house of cards we have built our lives around. Apple won’t suggest this idea, neither will the suppliers in China, retailers in America, governments reliant on the tax revenue, or Banks winning big supplying the debt to keep the whole ball rolling. The only one left, beside the reporters making the information feedback loop complete, is the consumer. The highest leverage point and your hand is on the lever, I mean wallet, I mean lever. The best part of this emerging narrative is that consumers want to be responsible, that’s why there are consumer petitions and when that doesn’t work consumer protests.
Consumers are humans, we want to breath real air, feel the pressure of real responsibility against our minds and bodies that tells us we are alive. Whether for a pet, child, faceless Chinese factory worker, or global environment, caring and acting responsibly means feeling needed and in this disjointed consumer society, we desperately want to feel needed.
There is one more underlying assumption that needs to be changed as we articulate a new narrative. Our global economic system assumes that growth is prosperity. If our houses, cars, and computers are not new the next year, individuals and societies are not growing. This is not true and now the opposite will provide for a more sustainable future. Slowing consumer growth does means increased prosperity when measured according to debt, global CO2 concentrations, worker health, and energy consumption. Yes protests from all financial sectors will be loud, this is a direct hit to the current, quarterly measured, status quo but I have a different time line that informs my behavior. I consider my prosperity to include quality living for me and following generations, not the spot price of gold, my credit score, or how many new Apple products I own.
The most basic assumption of the last 30 years must be articulated and replaced with a human narrative that steers behavior towards becoming more sustainable. These leaders will not be from the centralized social institutions that have been actively leading for the last century. Leadership now is de-centralized, coming from each of us as humans, conscious participants in our global community. Leadership from each of us will come from a vision we hold for sustainable future which we look forward to, not just for ourselves but for those that need us to be responsible, now and well into the future.
Leaders in a sustainable direction must reconsider the most fundamental blind spot and most basic assumption that has informed the last century of industrial expansion and articulate a new vision that is radically different. Growth does not equal prosperity. Prosperity equals prosperity. Consumers have power and responsibility. By so doing, we will regain our identity as citizens rather than consumers.
(Originally published November 2012)
Since the industrial revolution we have been practicing an un-sustainable narrative of human social development, using fossil fuels to establish behavior and infrastructure separate from the annual solar energy budget of the Earth. Early pioneers of the environmental movement devoted their lives to articulating the distinction and the following discord between humans and the rest of the natural world on which our society has always depended. Now, as western society is starkly un-sustainable, we are involved in the courageous act of re-telling a narrative of human behavior and more importantly creating a new structure which supports the need for human sustainability.
During the last few decades the pioneers articulated loss and possibility. Now we are involved in prototyping scalable solutions that provide a more engaging, fulfilling, and joyful alternative to the previous narrative of an industrial - money as motivation - mechanistic world view. This cultural shift is creating sustainable and efficient practices making use of our annual solar budget by leveraging technology. Solar panels and LED lights are hallmarks of this technology, as society moves forward into a future of energy frugality they work to balance social need with an annual solar budget.
Energy generation and use is more visible in this cultural shift towards a more sustainable future than ever before. During the last 60 years of industrial agriculture, food, so essential to daily life has been profoundly manipulated. A sustainable future requires that much of our social restructuring focus on recreating our food systems. The organic and local food movements have articulated a new way of moving forward and now technology is allowing new possibilities for food production. Greenhouses like the Growing Dome® can make the growing season 12 months instead of 4-5. Leveraging advanced plastic insulating panels and solar powered controls these Growing Domes do something that GMO’s never could: a 12 month growing season, organic and solar powered.
The most essential shift from an industrial society to a solar society will be the social organization of our communities. Industrial society is defined by centralized production, large businesses creating homogenous products of food, energy, and social relationships (entertainment). Each sector of society is now learning how to decentralize and reconnect communities, providing for their needs regionally and leveraging technology to make energy and food sustainable. Personal responsibility and social relationships are critical in this narrative of transition as we should no longer passively accept homogenous choice and fractured communities as normal. We must reconnect stakeholders, creating complete feedback loops between farmers and consumers, establishing mutual support for the viability of farms, and protecting the health of consumers and the community.
This progression of society is dependent on new ways of organizing business and communities along with the technology that makes it function. Not only does this require creativity and courage but lots of work and personal responsibility. As we take responsibility new businesses, relationships, and infrastructure will be developed. Socially responsible development may not be lucrative in an economic sense and industrial scale money shouldn’t be expected. As we move forward into a new social paradigm, motivation will be about meeting real human need and intrinsic motivation will be the currency of wealth for a new sustainable economy. As more of society becomes involved the momentum will become self-sustaining, financially viable, and emotionally fulfilling.