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Wikimedia Commons/Gregory H. Revera

Before I met my intentional community,  Upstart , I went through what you could say were some dark nights of the soul. Several years after going back to school and getting an Environmental degree, I still hadn’t made the difference that I had so desperately wanted to make and this was difficult to take to say the least.

Not able to find a way out of this, I found my myself going through prolonged periods of feeling profoundly depressed and confused, greatly disillusioned about what was happening to the environment and what my purpose and role in all of it was meant to be. During these times, nothing seemed to offer any hope or meaning and I would at times become almost paralyzed as to what I might do or how I might respond.

Although I had a loving group of family and friends (including especially my partner, Richard) who helped me heal so that I largely got ‘better’, these feelings lingered for quite a while, even after the darkest periods had lifted for me.

Making a shift

While it would be an oversimplification to say it was the only reason, my feelings started to shift more significantly for me when I got involved with Upstart. There I found a group of people who would listen to me, and appreciate all that I had to say, no matter what I had been through or where I was at. This acceptance, as I came to understand, was encouraged in the community through our practice of the post-judgement and post-grievance mindset which I talked about earlier.

I also learned through my involvement with the community about collaborative thinking which encourages the adoption of these mindsets, so as to help people work generatively together towards creating a world in which we can not only survive, but also thrive. As I started learning about these ideas, I started to see their potential power to bring about the impacts that, as we say in the community, we deeply want, need, and value.

In coming to understand the power of these ideas, I began to find a sense of meaning that had been missing in my life. That is because slowly started to realize that I wanted to not only practice these ideas in my own life, but also be part of a culture of such practice that also seeks to share these ideas with others.

Internalizing the change

In addition to the amazing sense of acceptance that I experienced with Upstart, another important reason existed as to why I wanted to be part of such a culture. It was because I began to see that protecting the environment was could not be achieved just ‘out there’ by stopping those who I saw as degrading the planet from doing so. Instead, I started to see that changing human behaviour was a complicated process and that being angry at, and judging, those I saw as acting in ways that degraded the environment would not help the situation.

Rather, I came to also understand that my anger against, and judgment of, these so-called degraders was just the ‘same side of the coin’ so to speak. That having these feelings was only perpetuating environmental destruction that so horrified me, because it got in the way of me from forming connecting relationships with those people in my life who I deemed to be less environmentally concerned with me. Without that, how could I even begin to start thinking constructively about how the human population as a whole might work more effectively together to protect the environment?

heartSizedIn seeing my role in it all, I came to see the idea that NO lines of struggle exist, that there really are no ‘good’ and ‘evil’ sides anywhere. Which includes the struggles going on inside the human heart. By thinking otherwise is to be in the coercive, and thinking this way, whatever side one is on, only creates more of the same poor thinking that is destroying our planet to begin with.

Rather, real change starts to happen from the inside out, when there is a shift in our very own *hearts* and we are able to see those who offend us as real human beings, also needing the same love and care that we would give to those we identify as ‘us.’ This was a profound realization in me, one that I will unashamedly share I am still in the process of fully internalizing.

Change possible everywhere

I had an exciting realization with this shift in my thinking. If I was also contributing to the challenges facing the world, then I could also play a role in turning the situation around. Not by forcing other people to do what I thought they *should* do AND by learning how I could achieve this through modifying the ways I interacted with others.

With this, I saw that the work of change making can happen anywhere, with each and every person that I encounter.  It could happen in my home, when out visiting friends and family, at my daughter’s school and dance studio, at the grocery store, at pretty much any place that I went! To put it another way, as I did in my last post, change can happen in and around the kitchen sink!

In becoming aware of this, I saw that I did not have to necessarily perform public, grandiose acts to cause change. For instance, I did not need to go on an environmental march or to protest, or even necessarily attend environmental meetings or visit a voting booth, as important as all of those activities can be. I could simply connect with others wherever I was at, and let change unfold organically and naturally from there!

Back to the micro

microscopeSizedThose that have read my previous post may realize that I am touching again on changes that are possible at the micro level. To reiterate for those that did not read that post, I talked about how making changes at the micro-level can provide the training ground for bringing about changes at the macro-level.

For me though, leaving it there doing so does not even begin to fully shed light on the matter. This is because, as I have come to believe, working at the micro level in one’s more private life is about more than just learning about how to increase one’s effectiveness at change-making in more public arenas. It is about this embracing the amazing, self-expanding idea that you CAN be a change-maker no matter who you are. That you will not, and cannot, be held back!

It doesn’t matter one @#$&! bit that you are only making small changes and are not having the broader impacts that others seem to be making. You can make change and that is all that matters! Bringing this back to myself, I no longer needed to feel, as I have in the past, left out or on the outskirts of environmental activity happening in the world. Rather, the possibility of change, and consequently the hope and meaning that I have so longed for previously in my life, exists everywhere I go, just waiting for me to see it!

While I had believed all this, I had perhaps not believed it so deeply until the falling of my family’s Christmas tree. With that experience, I got to witness firsthand the incredible impact of practicing at the micro. If doing the “work” can have such an impact on my family, I do not care how small and insignificant my contributions to bringing about change seem to be. To the environment or anything else that I care about passionately for that matter.

The igniting of hope

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Photo provided courtesy of fotomoments.

As a result of that experience, I have found a sense of great hope re-igniting in me. Perhaps this is also due in part to the time of year, which I feel brings with it a strong sense of expectation and excitement with it. For me, I will say that I almost had a sense that a feeling of hope was hanging palpably in the crisp, cold winter air a few days ago when my family went to see Christmas lights at a park.

Part of it is also an awareness of the long process of learning that my family has been on to get to the point where were able to respond as we did. And, I cannot also help but acknowledge that taking the time to reflect on how what happened connects to my work with Upstart has heightened my sense of hope for the possibilities of what are doing as a community.

Yet, there is more. More that I would like to try and share with you before leaving my reflections on the falling of my family’s Christmas tree. More that I would like to share about what this experience has stirred in me with regard to the current environmental state of this planet, thoughts that I would like to do so in a deep and meaningful way. So, if you will be just a little bit more patient with me, I would like to do so in my next posting, which I an planning to provide soon…

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At last! On New Year’s Day no less with the holiday season nearly over, the time has come to try and finish telling you this Christmas story! The time has come for me to reveal to you why I shared with you the hopefully enjoyable story about the falling of my family’s Christmas tree and my work around the collaborative with my intentional community (which I will call here  “Upstart” for short).

After years of exploring these ideas in my community, I am so excited to get to this point! At the same time, I will share with you for reasons that will become more clear, that I am also feeling quite terrified because for me doing so is, well, deeply personal. Yet, nothing, absolutely nothing could be more central to my view of what is needed to deal with the current ecological crises on this planet.

Unearthing my reasons

soilSizedOne of perhaps the most obvious, as well as important to me, reasons why I chose to share this story on my environmental blog is this: what happened with the Christmas tree ‘calamity’ at my house is just a micro example of what ideally could be happening at the meta-level on the world stage.

I say this because just as my family sought to manage, mitigate and learn from the situation, humans might handle the cumulative effects of smaller actions (e.g. engines burning fossil fuels), and larger environmental disasters (e.g. oil spills) occurring around the world in a similar fashion.

That I would feel this way is not a surprise for me. My intentional community makes a practice of looking for macro applications of micro examples. In fact, this is so much the case that we frequently say that change happens at and around the “kitchen sink.” By that I mean, the way we do the dishes, or put up a Christmas tree for that matter, can help prepare us to handle bigger, more complicated challenges in bringing about the changes we deeply want, need, and value.

These changes include for me nothing less than saving and restoring entire ecosystems, in at least as much of their existing and/or potential biophysical complexity as possible. Along with caring for the species in them, including the one species that perhaps stands the greatest to lose with the environmental changes underway, namely humans our selves.

Through the eyes of a child

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A picture of Liliana that I particularly love. © 2017 Alisa McClurg

As impossible a goal as that may sound, other reasons have inspired my writing, reasons that could help further make possible the protection and restoration of earth’s ecosystems. This includes a consideration of the amazing impact this I felt we had on my daughter by treating her in a caring and non-judgmental (or as my community might also say, collaborative) fashion when our tree fell. Rather than punishing her for what happened, we found ways to, as we like to say in Upstart, nudge and nurture her learning in the situation.

For me, this experience stirred an even stronger recognition of the importance of treating all children in this way. Which is so important, because after all as the saying goes, the future of our planet depends on them!

While this notion is not unique, being involved with my intentional community has really driven home that point for me. In part this is because our work greatly focuses on how to interact with children in ways that make deep sense. Consequently, books (including the one I mentioned earlier, Honey I Wrecked the Kids) on child psychology and child development are common reading in my community. Far from being just theoretical ideas, I can truly say this and other aspects of our work has had a profound impact on us, if only how my daughter has been so enthusiastically welcomed into and cared for in my community.

Nurturing ourselves too!

Another, perhaps even more inspiring reason has caused me to share with you what I have so far relates to how the learning that my partner and I have done. For me this has been through my direct involvement in Upstart, and Richard largely through a process of sort of osmosis where I have been sharing with him what I have been learning. I believe that this gradual nurturing of our learning enabled us to respond in the way did.

I find this pretty exciting because it suggests that other adults could go through a similar learning process about how to how to respond to the world in ways that make deep sense. I feel passionate about this because, while children may be our future, WE are the ones with the power to alter that future, with all its pressing environmental and other issues, right now. Children simply cannot afford for us to wait for them to do all the work for us.

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As much as this idea is also not unique, my involvement with my intentional community showed me just how possible it is for even adults to learn how to modify their behaviour. That is because my community is, you could say, a motley collection of mainly adults. We are of varying ages (some of us who have joined in their teens while others are older, if not in their senior years). What is more, we have been engaged for quite some time in what you could call a selfishly altruistic fashion to bring about our own personal transformation, in order to help us bring about the type of change that we want to see in the world.

Preparing to Dig Even Deeper

As I considered all of these reasons that inspired me to share what I have here around the falling of my family’s Christmas tree, I can see their appeal to me. Far from being nice ideas meant just to be considered in our quest for environmental sustainability and resilience, I believe they are precious jewels of wisdom that need to be brought along with me always in my journey.  And yet, something more to do with my passion for the environment has inspired me to share what I have, if you will only give me a little while longer…

Though I haven’t quite finished this Christmas story yet, I do believe I have a bit more time as the holiday season has not quite ended. As my daughter reminds me each time she sings the tune, really as we are still in the “Twelve Days of Christmas”! Hoping you will stay with me just a while longer so that I can finally finish my telling of this story for you.

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For those that have kept reading up until this point, I really appreciate you doing so! And I realize that, niceties around how my family handled our fallen Christmas tree aside, suggesting the adoption of a post-judgment mindset as I did in my last post might sound far-fetched. After all, how can a society without a moral compass of what is right and wrong even operate, let alone not just fall into total chaos?

With this in mind, I will explore here the main reasons I have come to believe that adopting a post-judgment is so powerful and effective. While I by no means aim to exhaustively explore this topic, I hope to at least to provide an introduction into some of the key ideas my intentional community focuses on around this topic.

Discarding what we don’t want

One of the most important reasons for adopting a ‘post-judgment’ mindset is that it can free people from the stranglehold of unwanted guilt and shame that being labeled in a negative way can experience. These feelings can be challenging to deal with, if not severely crippling. Ironically, rather than ‘correcting’ unwanted behaviour, this practice is often counterproductive by creating anxiety and other unwanted emotions in the one being labeled.

Because thinking clearly in a state of distress is so difficult, the application of such labels can give rise to more of the same behaviour that led to the labels being assigned in the first place. Furthermore, assigning negative labels to others wastes valuable resources that could be used to get at the root causes of why they are acting in the way that they are in the first place.

Taken to the extreme, the anger that comes with this labeling can give rise to hateful, divisive, if not long-lasting, grievances. This in turn wastes even time, because grievances prevent us from being able to work in relationship with others. This is a concern for us, given as I talked about in my previous post how working in with others is a critical part of how my community tries to bring about the change we seek. So important is getting beyond grievance that my intentional community had adopted the term ‘post-grievance mindset’.

The final letting go

While negative labels are dangerous, positive labels are as well. This is mainly because positive labels can cause us to elevate our self-image to such a height that almost inevitably we will experience fear and anxiety over some anticipated mishap or misfortune which could knock us down from our ‘pedestal’.

Of course, those being labeled still have the choice as to whether to accept them. They can decide to continue operating from a judgmental mindset and assume those labels apply to them, and thus set themselves up to experience all the possible accompanying unpleasant emotions that come with that. Or they can choose to operate from a post-judgmental mindset and decide to not see themselves in such a way.

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Wikimedia Commons/Mylius

While whether the one being labeled is able to do this is uncertain, one certainty exists: no one who embraces a judgmental mindset when assessing his/her sense of self-worth is safe, or at least safe for long. Those who operate from it find themselves like a pet hamster on an endless treadmill where they are constantly running from, or keeping at bay, failure. Escape is simply not possible!

Because adopting a judgmental mindset causes people to feel themselves being controlled by some authority external to themselves, whether tangible, such as in the form of a person like a teacher or police officer, or an abstract one, such as pre-determined views of morality and how society should operate, my intentional community refers to this mode of operating from coercive thinking. Or simply the coercive. Those who adopt a grievance mindset are also acting from the coercive, because they feel that they have the right, based on some similar authority, to hold a grievance against another.

The gift we can all give

As I talked about in my last post, we as a community seek instead to be accepting both our selves and others, in whatever state or situation that we find our selves and/or others to be in. Freed of guilt, shame and all the other unpleasant emotions that come with judgment, and the similar undesirable emotions that come with grievance, we are able to make clearer choices about how to act in ways that make deep sense. Which, to repeat what I also mentioned in my previous post, means acting in ways that have the impacts that we want, need, and value.

Having said this, withholding from judgment and grievance does NOT mean that we in my community believe we can do just do whatever we feel! Far from it! Doing what makes deep sense means that actually we seek to respond to situations with great care, in ways that bring to bear the full resources of our learning and training. What is more, as I’ve said earlier too, we often connect with others in our community to help us in doing this, because they can bring added knowledge, understanding and other resources to a situation.

Given that this approach helps people to work together better to achieve the impacts they want, we in my intentional community call this collaborative thinking. Or simply the collaborative. And I believe others in my intentional community who practice this mode of operating will also tell you that its freeing qualities for both themselves and others make it truly a gift! What is most wonderful about all this is how it is practice we can ALL undertake, and give freely to one other!

The long awaited revealing

As for how all of this relates to the events regarding the falling of my family’s Christmas tree, it is this. How we responded when our Christmas tree fell enabled us to manage our impacts on each other, and thus get us in the end what we deeply wanted, needed, and valued.

To achieve this, the focus was on not judging or developing a grievance against Liliana for what happened, and so not assigning labels on her such as ‘bad’. Instead we focused as a family on what impacts we wanted to have, dealing with the situation at hand by calmly cleaning up the mess and eventually putting the tree back up. Well, ok, Richard did most of the clean up job. AND we as a family worked together to create the container for this to happen more easily by holding space for ourselves to deal with the feelings that arose in the situation, Richard’s, Liliana’s and mine included.

Liliana was provided with natural consequences for what had occurred so to inspire her to ‘pitch in’ and learn how to help in this and future situations. This is as opposed judging her and providing a punishment, which as I talked about earlier, could have made her feel inadequate, or even worse, resentful or revengeful. That would have only led to later challenges down the road in working with her!

While we did share our feelings with her about what had happened, we did so in a way that would help her develop empathy and thus better equip her to manage her impacts in the future. In other words, our impacts would affect her future impacts!

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In short, together we were able to move to a place beyond judgment and grievance so that we could quickly put the situation, or at least the unpleasant parts of it, behind us. Consequently, minus the lack of a new tree stand immediately, (and even managing to get that eventually!), we were able to find our way to a real life happy ending. And that, I feel, is perhaps the greatest gift that my family too could give each other this Christmas!

I know, I know! I still haven’t got to the part about how all this relates to the environment. That is coming in my next post, so you won’t have to wait long now!

 

 

 

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daytimeTreeSizedJoy to the world! Our Christmas tree, which I talked about its falling in my last blog post, has been resurrected! We found, a new stand, so the tree, could be put back up! To us, it looks just as beautiful as before, minus the loss of a few ornaments and bits and bobs here and there. If Scrooge could be here now, it might warm even his cold heart.

Hope you enjoyed my story about this, AND I realize that, besides the part about how we fixed and reused our tree, the link to what exactly this has to do with the environment is not clear. As to then how exactly this all relates, well…I will get there. First though I will ask you for some patience while I share why this story is so important to me.

Present-ing my intentions

The telling of my family’s story about our Christmas tree is, to be honest, a “coming out” of sorts. It is a coming out for me to talk about my intentional community, the “Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing” (which up until now I have mentioned only briefly).

In case you have never heard of an intentional community, generally speaking such communities place an emphasis on social cohesion and the sharing of resources and responsibilities. While some types of intentional communities involve living together, as in the case of eco-villages, that is not the focus of my intentional community. Facilitated largely by our key “wisdom-keeper”, Jean Robertson, our aim is instead to create a common cultural ‘platform’ (about which I’ll describe in a moment) from which to operate. Our shared intentions around this are what make us an intentional community.

As to what is the goal of this cultural platform, it is nothing less than to be able to collaborate effectively together to work towards bringing about a world in which we not only can survive, but also thrive. To me, nothing could be more exciting!

Developing our gifts

The “work”, as we call our efforts to develop our selves and our community, is impossible to completely describe here. Especially since, in order to effectively bring about the change we seek, we place a strong emphasis on learning from a wide range of material. Psychology (including the book on child psychology I referenced earlier, Honey I Wrecked the Kids), anthropology, human physiology, economics, business management, philosophy, and systems thinking are just some of the topics we explore.

We also tend not to think of our learning as happening on an individual basis in ‘silos’, and rather as an activity that we do together. Doing so provides perspective, understanding, and both accelerates the process and maximizes the impact of what we are learning given how we can ask each other questions when we are feeling confused as well as share what we have learned with others in the community.

So much do we recognize the importance of learning in community that we often refer to it as ‘co-learning’. In a similar vein, my community sometimes refers to the work that we do together as co-practicing and co-generation of value, to further emphasize how our impacts can be amplified by working together.

The gift of acceptance

Just as with our learning, maximizing the desired impact of all our efforts is important to what we do. In fact, to say this would be an understatement. For us, a central piece of the work is learning how to better manage our impacts with each other by responding to situations in ways that makes deep sense.

By responding in ways that make deep sense, we mean doing so in ways that bring about the results we truly need, want, and value.  For us this is based on what I said previously, as to how only by doing this, can we create the world in which we not only survive, but also thrive!

giftSmallerA central guiding principle to help us manage our impacts is to try and avoid the tendency, so pervasive in mainstream culture, to judge both others AND our selves. My community aims instead to adopt what we call a ‘post-judgment’ mindset, in which we try to *accept* others, and ourselves too, as they/we are without ever assuming that we are better than than anyone else.

In the process, we withhold from assigning judgmental labels to people such as ‘good’ or ‘bad/evil,’ ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and ‘success’ or ‘failure’ etc. Which, having personally been on the receiving end of this acceptance from others in my intentional community, I can tell you is truly a gift!

More to come…

Although I could say more about this, I hope for now though that you will understand that exhaustively exploring the ideas presented here in one post is simply not possible. My aim though is to provide more on all this soon, along with eventually how all this relates to the environmental theme of this blog.

Suffice it to say for now that my community aims to ensure that no one, (sorry Santa!), gets put on the naughty list! That includes Scrooge, and a few others that may come up too. Not to mention, of course, my daughter, whom I could say was quite happy to see that Santa still visited her this year!

Before finishing here, I’d like to explain why we still talk about Santa in our home despite me having these ideas. To that I will say I try to talk to my daughter about how Santa and his elves (Yes! She has an elf too!) are more concerned with her welfare than deciding whether she is being naughty or nice.

I will admit that, at times, I wish I could take such a shortcut to getting the behaviour from her that I want! AND I want her to be developing a central locus of control within herself, because eventually she will need to be able to determine what makes sense to her on her own without my guidance!

 

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As though Ebenezer Scrooge himself had descended upon our household, this December I found myself overcome with a sense of compassion and sadness for my six year old as she sobbed, “Mommy! Is Christmas cancelled? Is it?!? Is it? Christmas is ruined! This is the worst Christmas ever!”

What had happened was simply this: for the first time ever, our Christmas tree had fallen down. Our many years reused, artificial, found in the crawlspace when we bought our house, yet beautiful-to-us, ornately decorated tree that my daughter and her daddy had only just happily put up earlier that afternoon.

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Surveying the damage

While it took a while to sort out what happened, eventually my daughter told us that she might have accidentally brushed up against the tree while she was playing behind it. In the process the Christmas tree stand snapped which meant it couldn’t be put back up right away.

My initial urge (once I allowed myself to get over my initial feelings of horror and panic) was to wrap her up in my arms and tell her everything would be all right. And, as much as I wanted to, I knew this was a valuable learning opportunity. An opportunity to learn what it means to ruin something she really, REALLY cared about, and not have anyone rush to the rescue and make it all better.

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So I waited a minute, simply offering her a loving presence while she felt her grief. While eventually cradling her in my arms, I still was careful not to sugar coat the situation. So when asked me, “Will Santa still bring me presents?” and “Do you think he will understand?” I did not rush to answer her. Not out of a desire to make her feel guilty, AND wanting to give her an opportunity to introspectively look inside and consider what had led to what had occurred, I asked, “What do you want Santa to understand?” She looked back at me with confused and wondering eyes, not sure what to make of what I had said.

Picking up the pieces

While it would have been easy to act out of frustration, and I will share that I too in the past may have struggled to manage mine in similar situations, I am happy to say that is not what happened. My husband, Richard, who had done the bulk of work in erecting and decorating the tree, had responded initially by saying, “Liliana, I’m very upset with you! You know you are not supposed to play behind the Christmas tree!” That, though, was as tense as things got.

Moments later, in his typical practical way, after surveying the damage, he said, “The tree stand is broken. The stores could still be open. They might have one, although probably not, because they don’t make stands like this anymore.” On that faint hope, out the door he went.

bulbsWhen he returned with no stand, the Christmas tree could not be erected and the holiday could not as a result be ‘made right’, at least not yet. He did though get a box and asked Liliana to put the bulbs that had fallen off of the tree into it. Which delighted me. This giving to her natural consequences instead of punishment, that is. Meaning letting children experience the natural fallout that occurs as a result of their actions.

A framework for dealing with the fallout

The reason I was so excited about the giving to Liliana natural consequence is as follows. With the several parenting books that I had been reading (and sharing with Richard I might add), I had come to learn that punishment (in any form, no matter how mild) does not work. Punishment only breeds resentment, revenge, or feelings of inadequacy in children, as discussed in Honey, I Wrecked the Kids by family therapist Alyson Schafer. None of which I, or I imagine any parent, wants. Liliana’s sense of what needs to happen in this and future situations would most ideally be driven internally by what she most deeply wants and cares for. No amount of reprimanding or lecturing from her parents could bring this about.

If either of her parents had rushed in to ‘fix’ things and comfort her in her early moments of despair, she would not have had the opportunity to develop her internal ability to comfort, hold and regulate herself in the face of life’s adversities. She might have gathered the takeaway that somehow mom and dad can be relied upon to make everything better, and that she does not need to try and regulate her own self.

By us also remaining relatively calm and not acting from a place of anger, Liliana was experiencing others not judging her and consequently also not becoming wallowed with grievance. The latter of which, for clarification, can be defined as “a wrong considered as grounds for complaint” or “a complaint or resentment, as against an unjust or unfair act” (dictionary.com). Whereas a grievance lingers on, we were showing her that we could get past our anger, pick up the pieces, and move on.

That did not mean withholding from letting her know how we felt about what happened – it was only natural and important to let her know that we were upset and hold space for those feelings. How else could she learn empathy for others’ feelings if her parents never allowed themselves to show her theirs?

A time to move on

The impact of all of this on Liliana was nothing short of incredible, at least as far as I was concerned. At first she was nervous to talk to her daddy after what had happened, given that in the past he might have been still upset. However, Richard too has been working on learning many of the ideas I have been studying. Seeing how he was approachable, she went up to him on her own and said, “Daddy, I’m sorry about the tree.” And happily, he accepted her apology. (I had suggested to her that she say was ‘sad’ about what had happened. Sorry implies feelings of guilt, as though the one harmed has the right to feel a grievance against the harmer. And at least they were communicating, which, considering the disaster that had just happened, made me ecstatic!)

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The fog of what had occurred gradually lifted from our household, and by day’s end, Liliana and her dad were laughing and goofing around like they often do at that time. The damage was only material while the emotional connection was still alive and well. She ran to me joyfully later in the evening and said, “Mommy, when I was playing with daddy, I forgot all about the tree!”

That, I must say, was fine by me. A time exists for crying, experiencing growing pains, and reflecting. And a time exists for laughing, playing, and being in the present. What is more, I feel great happiness, or you could say glad-itude, for the universe giving us the opportunity to experience both. Glad-itude for how, despite life’s inevitable challenges, we were able to manage our impacts on each other and create the loving, wonderful time around Christmastime, that we so deeply want. And I feel deep wonder at the mystery of life and how it unfolds as a result.

As for why I posted this on my environmentally-focused blog, I will share with you that I struggled with whether it made sense to do so for quite a while. I feel I have good reasons why I did this though, and will explain in a couple of posts to follow. I look forward to sharing these posts with you soon!

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Joined hands

Photograph provided courtesy of Fred Hunsberger

This June I am planning to go to a gathering put on by the Tamarack Institute in Hamilton called, “Re-Imagining Cities~ Re-Engaging Citizens.” And I am excited! So much so that I feel absolutely full of ideas and have decided to blog again about a host of different things. To start, I’d like to explain a little bit more about what will be happening at the Tamarack gathering, why the theme of this gathering speaks so powerfully to me, and how I feel this is something our communities need right now.

The skinny on what’s happening

First, let me give a brief overview of what will be happening. The overarching theme of the gathering will be exploring how to smartly engage with community members in the creation of strong cities, starting at the smallest level of individual neighbours and moving up to neighbourhood groups and other community organizations. And, not to just attempt this, or go through the motions, but to create needed change intentionally, strategically, and in a shared way, in order to harness the full resources of the community.

Specific topics that will be explored include establishing strong citizen-municipal partnerships, and how the ways we relate affects our communities. We will also get to the nitty-gritty of community building by thinking about its relation to regional food systems, and the impact of community on social isolation and loneliness. This wide-ranging agenda is targeted at anyone concerned with deepening community, including community builders, neighbourhood leaders, policy makers, planners, and researchers.

Given the gathering’s theme, it is appropriate that President of Tamarack, Paul Born, will be speaking at the event, sharing insights from his book Deepening Community. As the name of his book suggests, he explores the need to develop deep community, by which he means places where we get to know and care for one another, celebrate our common stories and diversity, and develop a belief that we are all ‘in this together.’

My journey of community engagement so far

I am looking forward to this gathering for a number of reasons, but the greatest one is that I like how it will be taking issues down to the micro level of communities and neighbourhoods. I think it is partly my long-time commitment as an environmentalist that draws me to this work. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the adage ‘think globally, act locally,’ and believe that trying to make changes in this world starts at the community level.

My enthusiasm might seem a bit surprising, given that I am an Urban Planner and that planners often create legal instruments like laws and policies that shape, at a high level, how we live. And indeed, I have done this both as a planner and a community organizer, examining for example how federal trade agreements could affect local food procurement and the influence of the provincial legislative framework on pit and quarry management. I have also attempted to make other grand sweeping changes by speaking on global climate change, presenting on the importance of pollination, and running workshops on local food production. Throughout this work, I have been thinking a great deal about what is needed to make broad changes throughout the country, if not the world.

But to be honest, I am more hopeful about working to bring change from the ground up at the community level, and getting involved by sitting on my city’s environmental committee to make municipal level change, coordinating a community garden, or simply caring for the woods behind my house (removing invasive plants and litter) and making soup for people I care about.  My conviction that change IS possible at the local level is so strong that I even helped organize a three-part resiliency series for my city in partnership with Jean Robertson at the Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing, the then Mayor of Waterloo, Brenda Halloran, and various other community organizations and individuals. By resiliency, I mean the ability to deal with changes, stresses, and shocks, such as a shortage of food.

Moving towards deep community

There are many reasons why I feel we need to move to a deeper sense of community where we know and care for one another. In economic terms alone, we all end up paying for a lack of deep community. For example, providing housing is actually cheaper than leaving homeless people on the streets, because it costs less than funding shelters, emergency care and correctional services for them, with one report showing that costs can be three times less.

Another economic reason for building deep community is the effects of helping children early in life. Examples can include investment in early learning or home learning, all of which can have benefits to society as the children grow up, such as increasing their likelihood of holding down a job or volunteering in the community.

At the deeper social and emotional level, lack of community can lead to a host of challenges including mental health problems, fear of crime, and the previously touched on debilitating sense of isolation. Moreover, even if we are not experiencing these problems ourselves, we are impacted and can suffer when we witness the suffering of others. Although more from of an environmental perspective, Joanna Macy talks about this sort of thing in her book, World as Lover, World as Self, with how people often end up feeling discouraged, depressed or overwhelmed from witnessing the troubles going on in the world today.

Next steps

Attending this Tamarack gathering on “Re-Imagining Cities” will be a big step for me compared to what has occupied me mainly of late. In addition to the various community level activities listed above, what I have left out up to this point is that my time has been occupied at the extreme micro-community level with caring for our young daughter. It is also for her that I feel going in June makes sense, because I have a strong belief that major change is needed for her to have the kind of future I wish for her. This change will require more than what I can do on my own, and calls for an intentional connection with others in the community.

Out of this wish for my daughter and my commitment to deepening community, next steps for me following attending the gathering will be to report back on what happened. It is my intention not only to listen and learn, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to network, connect and share my ideas. If this excites you as much as it does me, stay tuned for my upcoming blog posts. This way the dialogue around how we might create deep community can continue and broaden, to include those unable to attend – for the benefit of us, our neighbourhoods and cities, and the planet as a whole.

This article was originally posted on the Tamarack Institute’s site, www.seekingcommunity.ca.

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Yes. Sometimes all you can do is sit tight and wait… On this crazy, wind-swept ship of life that is.

Please excuse this overused metaphor and let me explain more. I am not suggesting an approach of doing nothing. There are lots of things that painfully need addressing in the world, and a laissez-faire approach will not help. It is just that I am finding much can be observed, learned and ultimately achieved by taking in the landscape of where one is at. Whether that be at a family gathering (where I was at a few weeks ago) or any number of places (party, movie theatre, hairdresser, sitting at home etc.)

To be honest, I am feeling much more inwardly peaceful and becoming (I think) much more outwardly effective by taking into account the direct sphere of my potential influence and seeking to genuinely connect (i.e. making meaningful eye contact, listening, and relating) with people. This is opposed to more-or-less running out onto “street corners” (aka environmental events) in a proselytizing, Greenpeace-like fashion and trying to lure, herd, and browbeat people into changing.

To be honest, looking back I don’t know where I was exactly trying to get to or what I was trying to accomplish with all the environmental networking I’ve been doing in the past. Who was I trying to meet? What was I hoping to get done? How did I think change would happen?

Not that my past efforts have been a waste of time — I learned a lot and formed many important friendships. Nor do I think that people who do this are necessarily making poor choices, as I honour where they are at and what they feel they need to do. Just that there are so many people that I see on a daily basis that I can form important relationships with and work with to help bring about change. Even if that change is, sometimes, just in myself.

So, to bring this back down 20,000 feet, a few weeks ago at my family gathering I talked to my brother about why he likes firecrackers (yes, firecrackers!) and made plans to go on an important, family- and relationship-building walk in the woods with him and his children. And my sister-in-law’s father opened up to me about his grocery shopping habits and preferences, which is about the first time we’ve ever spoken at length. I met a little friend that my niece made today and in the process met the friend’s grandmother, who seemed like quite a caring individual although wanting a bit more company. Finally, my mother-in-law, who has been caring for my father-in-law with dementia, shared with me that she is looking forward to some time by herself next week (thanks to a community program that my father-in-law is getting involved in). I found myself greatly treasuring all these encounters and exchanges.

So, now, feeling now much more at peace with the swarm of oftentimes seemingly misdirected and insane activity going on around me. And much more prepared and willing to continue helping adjust the sails, if only a little bit, to shift humanity’s course. As a mother who spends a great deal of time nursing, cleaning dirty hands, and changing wet nappies, to name a few things, I take great comfort in this. And for this reason I share this deep meta-reflection with all of you.

Sow with cub, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. (c) Ron Niebrugge

Sow with cub, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. (c) Ron Niebrugge

I have decided to try and come out of hibernation. Yes, that’s what I said. Out of hibernation, with winter just beginning. As an environmentalist and nature lover, I attest this really does makes sense, given how the seasons are all mixed up with global climate change. And as an expectant and ultimately new mother (yes! I was blessed to become a mother this past year) my time and energy has largely been required elsewhere to, of course, the most important job of all.

As a re-entry point, I thought I would blog about what I have been up to over the past while and where I think I may be heading (I did admittedly manage to write a short blog post about the nastily invasive plant, garlic mustard a while ago. But that was meant to be informative, without any personal reflection or such). For better or for worse, a fair number of things have been going on in my life, thanks largely to my wee one’s good temperament and my very supportive husband. Here they are in brief below.

Waterloo Mayor’s Forum Series on Building Resilient Communities

This three-part event series (held during the winter and spring of 2011) was a highly-ambitious project, involving a partnership between TransitionKW, The Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing and other groups. We set about to shape no less than the very thinking, at the community level, about how to create a more resilient (meaning the ability to deal with changes, stresses, and shocks) community. We sought to achieve this by helping participants 1) understand the barriers to environmental and social change, 2) identify ways to overcome these barriers, and 3) explore what a more resilient future would look like.

What were the outcomes? Well, we forged a lot of great friendships and had a lot of fun. in the process, I believe we really got people pondering (myself included) what needs to happen if we want to stop heading towards the train-wreck of environmental, social and economic problems that we’re heading towards right now.

Tough Questions around Aggregate Mining

Yes, the rock, gravel, cement, and sand that we use to build our homes actually must come from somewhere, and the results can be quite contentious. My volunteer involvement with these matters started with the Melanchton mega-quarry, for which I made a presentation to the City of Waterloo Council, requesting that they petition the province for a full environmental assessment of the project.

The request was turned down at the municipal level (though it was eventually permitted at the provincial level), but continuing my work on the broader issue of aggregates in general, I presented at a PitSense event last April and later an all-party provincial review of aggregate extraction this past July.

What have I learned from all this involvement? Well, the topic of aggregate extraction is a highly contentious one, albeit falling under the radar of the general public. Whether it is possible to reach some sort of agreement amongst the various disagreeing parties remains to be seen. I believe a crucial step involves opening up the conversation to the broader questions of “Why do we feel we need so much aggregate?” and “Is the world we want to live in compatible with continuing to use it at the rate we have been?”

Increasing an Appetite for Local Food Resiliency

My involvement with TransitionKW (for which I have held various positions including Facilitator and now Ambassador, to allow time for other things) and its focus on permaculture, that seeks to grow food and generally live in a manner with as opposed to against nature, led to giving a presentation on pollination for a Jane Goodall event this past March. My takeaway? It turns out that by planting wildflowers, we can not only protect bees, but increase the productivity of our gardens, orchards, and fields!

My growing awareness of matters related to food helped prepare me for another presentation in May. This one was related to food security and global climate change for a Connect the Dots event in Waterloo. (This event was meant as a follow-up to the 350.org rallies that happened the year previous, meant to raise awareness about growing levels of C02 in the atmosphere and the need for action by worldwide leaders convening in Copenhagen). Instead of focusing on climate change mitigation though, this event sought instead to explore what is and could be done to prepare for and adapt to the changes to weather that are and will continue to happen. This again was a great experience – providing me an opportunity to sit down and think about all the ways that we can make our food system more resilient as well as recognize the myriad of things being done in our community already.

With this taste of the complexity of issues we face relating to food, I eagerly jumped at the change to speak to an urban planning class at the University of Waterloo about local food resiliency. I should perhaps mention at this point that my knowledge about food has been developing also as a result of my involvement with the Community Garden Council of Waterloo Region (for which I was Communications Lead and am now a Member-at-Large) and KW Urban Harvester (for which I am a coordinator).

The experience of giving a presentation in an academic setting was so exciting, and I was so grateful for all the help that I received, that I made the presentation publicly available. Not wanting the presentation to go to waste, I shared it with all the candidates running for the Kitchener-Waterloo provincial by-election this summer, and ended up working with the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable in an effort to review all the candidates on their opinions on food. Unfortunately (and to be fair, at least partly due to issues of it being a quick election), I only managed to interview Green Party candidate Stacey Danckert, the recording of which I have now just posted.

With a more solid understanding of food issues beneath me, I also ended up volunteering to facilitate a workshop on access to healthy, environmentally safe food. The workshop was for an Environmental Justice Convergence event by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) at the end of this past August. It involved a panel discussion with various people involved in community gardens, followed by a conversation café. While the turnout was not very large, I was very happy with the event including the quality of questions that were asked. My favorites were, “How do we raise awareness about food issues to the public at large?” and “How do we share this information without making people defensive?” Important questions all.

As of now, I am continuing to further my understanding of food issues by becoming engaged in conversations about the Canadian European Trade greement (CETA) and its potential impact on local food procurement policies. I have been doing so with the Waterloo Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee (WCEAC). More to follow hopefully in the days ahead as to what develops on that front.

Tapped out on bottled water

This is another interesting issue. It both brings the promising potential for an immediate lessening of our impact to Mother Earth, while at the same time raising sharp criticism from industries like Nestle (with a bottling plant no further than nearby Guelph). As part of a single-use bottled water subcommittee of WCEAC, I have been helping to raise awareness about the issue in the city of Waterloo. The latest formal presentation on the matter was made to the City of Waterloo Council on April 23 of this year.

Political, Internet, and Just Plain-Old Democracy

The Greeks claim to have started it, and nearly two and a half millennia later we still do not seem to have gotten it right (for recent commentary on this, see the Sarnia Observer). Groups like Fair Vote Canada are still pulling out their hair as to why we can get majority governments with only a minority of the vote. In environmental terms, I know many would agree that this has meant that parties with a ‘greener’ agenda have not been able to get their concerns acted on (let alone their voices heard).

Conversations like this inspired myself and a few others to organize a Democracy Café last fall. While not a huge turnout, we had some interesting discussions. Perhaps my favorite was the idea of a citizen-driven governance system, where leadership is encouraged and developed from the grass-roots up, and feeds into higher levels of political decision-making. Is this the solution? Well, maybe not entirely, but it would sure help a lot I think.

As for Internet democracy, you are probably wondering what at all this has to do with environmental protection. And I felt the same way, until I started thinking about it a bit. But there are increasingly looming threats of Big Brother surveillance and the already existing ‘silos’ of information (i.e. in academia, commercial businesses, government) preventing us from solving the problems we so desperately need to address, to name just a few issues.

These matters motivated me to help organize an Internet Democracy Café this past month and start a blog where I have summarized my thinking on the matter as well as provided some references on the topic. My hope is that this will help motivate us ‘environmentalists’ to get out of our silos, and start connecting-the-dots between the myriad of issues we are facing.

***

Well, that about sums it up. Except to answer the question perhaps as to why on earth I have been doing all this. I will answer to say that it’s not that I have had some sort of ‘master plan.’ My philosophy on life, that emphasizes the importance of the process by which we do things, causes me not to approach things like this. But I am fascinated by the learning opportunities created by opening ourselves to new experiences and ideas. And of course, by working and aligning ourselves with different people, we can achieve even more.

No doubt these initiatives largely feed into helping me with my chosen profession as an Urban Planner. I have had plenty of opportunity to research, assess policies, review development proposals, explore the merits of processes, and so on, with everything I have been up to. All of these things have been great learning ground to become a fully accredited planner.

I hope though that as I re-enter the workforce, I can maintain my sense of adventure for learning new things and having new experiences. I believe also that this wide array of activities should give me a broader basis to consider questions around planning and how we can more effectively manage our community resources for the public good.

There are some other ideas that I have on the fire, but for now ‘nuf said’ as they say. This is one mamma bear who just might head with her wee one back to the den for a moment to ponder things a bit more. After all, there’s no point in being too hasty and you can never exactly predict what will happen next. Just look at the weather…

Phto by Fred Hsu. From the Wikimedia Commons.

We face many environmental problems today. So many that the situation can appear overwhelming. For some, the tendency may be to act like an ostrich, by “burying one’s head in the sand”, and ignoring it. Others can choose to do the opposite, and rush around in a frenzied mayhem, attempting to address every single issue.

Those falling in the first camp may end up only further contributing to the situation. This is because they choose to block out their concerns by chasing consumerist rewards (i.e. a new car, big house) that further tax the planet. They may also choose careers that harm the planet, justifying their actions with the attitude that “If they don’t do it, somebody will.”

As for those in the second camp, while they may make some progress in the short-term, eventually they will likely become burnt out. In the process, they leave the strands of many unfinished projects in their wake. Which can leave those who were working with them feeling more discouraged than when they started. This is because all their efforts would seem for naught.

So where is the balance? How should we respond while avoiding the problems of both the “ostrich” and the frenzied project organizer? I cannot claim to have all the answers, but as a starting point I strongly recommend reading Stephanie Kaza’s inspiring book, Mindfully Green. In this book, she advocates following the “green practice path.” A Buddhist inspired text, undertaking this path is explained to basically involve 1) gaining a wider view of how our actions may be harming the planet and 2) finding ways to reduce this harm.

Kaza gives the example of how this relates to food. Eating food such as meat can cause water pollution, cause animals to suffer, harm the consumer through the causation of heart disease and cancer, and so on. However, it may be that for certain reasons (e.g. living in a colder climate, or I would add having a certain body type) you may find it necessary to consume at least some meat.

The key thing is to start asking the difficult questions about how much you can realistically do to lead a more ethical life. Embarking on this process is something that Kaza informs us is referred to as a “koan.” Based on Zen Buddhism, this is a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. “You live with a koan,” she says, “you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it…”

Food as well as other basic daily activities, such as water consumption and waste production also cited by Kaza, can be a valuable starting point. After all, we all eat, drink, and make purchases.

However, I would suggest there are many other applications. For instance, how do the relationships that we form, and how we interact with others, affect a desire to not inflict harm? How do our choices about whether to have a family affect the planet? And one that I referred to earlier and that I often grapple with is, what impact does my chosen career have on the earth?

These are difficult questions and one cannot expect to come to answers immediately. “If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions,” she says. By the same token, do not expect to find absolute answers to all your questions. Instead, quoting poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Kaza reminds us that we must “learn to love the questions.”

There is much else I could say about Kaza’s book. Such as the need for self-care, to ensure that we have the energy to carry out our work (e.g. balancing the need to put bread on the table with a desire to help the planet). The helpfulness of considering joining a group, where others may have answers to the questions you are seeking. And, finally, the importance of commitment, or in other words taking a “vow”, to prevent harm to others and the planet. For, as Kaza states, “the pledge…helps to strengthen that intention.”

If you wish to learn more about the green practice path, I would strongly recommend reading Kaza’s book. However, for my purposes here,  I would like to end by saying I feel it is important that we consider taking up this path. We may not have all the answers or know where it will lead. But what can be more important than reducing harm to this planet and its inhabitants? It may be frightening, taking that first step. But once started, I believe many shall find that it is essential to finding a truly meaningful and rewarding life.

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Forget the “wisdom to know the difference.” There are real problems out there that need solving, and adopting serenity will do nothing to address that. That is the claim of a wonderful book I read this month called Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et al.

Why do I think this book is so wonderful? Well, because this book seems to offer solutions to many of the environmental issues that we face. And despite the work of many committed individuals, the message about the seriousness of the environmental problems we’re facing does not seem to be getting through. At least in a manner that is mainstream and quick enough to be truly helpful. As testimony to this situation, the very book I am discussing does not pause even once to consider its application to environmental matters. Weight loss, worker productivity, disease control in Africa, and so on, sure. But not the environment.

To ensure this invaluable book does not escape the radar of those wishing to bring about environmental change, I would like to summarize its main points and recommendations.

  1. Verbal persuasion alone rarely works. There are many reasons people resist change, and without addressing these reasons, any efforts to change people’s actions through the simple use of words will be unsuccessful.
  2. Identify the behaviours in need of changing. To rephrase the authors’ words to an environmental issue, people need to know that they should drive less rather than just saying, “Global Climate Change is coming! Global Climate Change is coming!” Doing the latter will do nothing but create worry.
  3. Inform people which behaviours are in greatest need of change. As an example, identify actions that can reduce the most garbage, whether that is through recycling or composting.
  4. Change personal motivation. After all, people will not alter their actions unless they desire to do so. A person may ask, for instance, why should I stop driving my gas-powered car even if it contributes to acid rain?
  5. Create opportunities for direct experience. For instance, provide people with the opportunity to participate in a community garden to learn as an aside about all the friends and acquaintances they can make. To encourage participation, why not make it a competition? As an example, see which city can reduce their per capita water consumption the most. In the process, it becomes fun to take a short shower, rather than being something that one deprives oneself of.
  6. Generate vicarious experiences. As an example, if someone is nervous about cycling in the city, let them see someone who is doing it. Or tell a story that does so. Stories can also help people envision ‘what if’ scenarios. An example that comes to mind is the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, that made vivid the potential impacts of global climate change. Stories are helpful because they provide the concrete, vivid and often emotional detail necessary to get ideas across while still maintaining people’s attention.
  7. Connect a desired behaviour to a person’s sense of self. Another way to influence personal motivation, an example would be to instill in children a love of nature. That way they will naturally want to protect it.
  8. Make people feel like they can positively answer the question, “Can I do it?” Without feeling enabled, people will give up in despair. This is tough for big issues like global change. But organizations like 350.org and the Transition Town movement which provide people with something to organize around can really help. They instill in people a feeling of hope that they are not alone and will eventually succeed.
  9. Harness the power of opinion leaders. The book cites how over 85 percent of people will not adopt a particular behaviour until leaders in their circle of peers do so. Clearly, environmentalists would do well to seek out opinion leaders in their community if they wish to effect change.
  10. Enlist the power of social capital. This basically means working together in a group to tackle problems that can seem daunting when working individually. That’s because people in groups can come up with solutions, see ‘blind spots’, perform tasks, and achieve solidarity (see point #8) that individuals alone could not. For instance, why not form a co-op to purchase solar panels in bulk, thereby reducing the price?
  11. Use incentives wisely. Provide rewards that come soon, are desirable, and are clearly tied to desired behaviours. An example could be a company that pays its employees not to drive to work, and instead arrive through alternate means. Despite the seemingly insurmountable problems of air pollution and global climate change, employees are given an immediate reward for helping address the problem.
  12. Employ punishments sparingly. Be careful when providing negative reinforcement. Although results may be achieved in the short term, eventually people may push back. Examples relating to the environment can include littering and car idling. People may become resentful for being reprimanded for such behaviours and just end up performing them still in secret.
  13. Change the structural environment. Three pieces of advice here: i) simplify, simplify, simplify; ii) make the “invisible visible”; and iii) bring people together. For instance, make the recycle bin accessible. Report people’s monthly water usage and run newspaper articles on ignored environmental problems. And finally, run events where people can get together (a rare occurrence nowadays in our culture of ‘cocooning’) to start identifying and working on solutions to environmental issues!

There. Whew! That about sums it up. Excuse the length, but there was a lot of material to get through.

What’s the basic message? Well, there’s no ‘magic pill’ to getting people to take action to fix the environment. But don’t give up and meekly accept feelings of serenity. Rather, boldly and thoughtfully seek to bring about change. The methods at your disposal are many and the potential benefits are endless!

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