Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mitch Hedberg The Great

Totally sweet website for downloading Mitch Hedberg recordings and memorabilia -

If you have trouble sleeping, count sheep. Do not count endangered species - you will run out!

     - Mitch Hedberg

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ruminations on Appropriate Technologies and Ecological Education

I recently submitted an application for a PhD program in “environmental engineering for developing communities,” wherein I’m hoping to continue my research activities in simple water purification systems.

For part of the application I had to make a statement about my professional and career goals. So I felt like I needed to say something about appropriate technologies, and an ecologically informed pedagogical philosophy. What follows is an adaptation from my personal statement, just for your potential reading enjoyment. Comments are always welcome!

I envision a career that spans academia and the non-profit/NGO sector as a researcher and educator in the natural sciences, focusing in the multidisciplinary fields of sustainability science and appropriate technologies. Briefly outlined below are the commitments that shape my intentions and motivate my pursuit of this as a career:

I am committed to the development of appropriate technologies that empower households and communities to meet their basic needs – such as that of safe drinking water – using materials that are ecologically apposite and naturally abundant. I strongly advocate techniques that engender local self-reliance and decentralized, democratic control in their creation and operation, and moreover, are conscientious of the local culture and traditions and thereby operate as means of harnessing and celebrating local wisdom and labor skills.

Furthermore, I am committed to facilitating the development of an ecological conscience and broadened cultural worldview among Western science and engineering students through holistic, multidisciplinary, and experiential approaches to education.

I also hope to continue my professional development within academia and in the non-profit/NGO arena through my work as director of science and research for Aqueous Solutions. I intend to be an integral part of the collaborative effort to develop the capacity, breadth and capabilities of Aqueous Solutions as a service organization.

Appropriate technologies

The term “appropriate technologies,” like “sustainability,” is a currently fashionable buzzword and is thereby in danger of becoming cliché. Hence I feel a certain responsibility to evince careful consideration and a more thoroughgoing approach in my research and advocacy of “appropriate technologies.”

As I understand it, an appropriate technology must at a minimum exercise propriety of scale; embody humility, caution and compassion; respect the integrity of local ecosystems and the limits implied therein; adapt itself to life rather than the reverse; and enable good work by humans in community and in place.

The need for a distinction of “appropriate” technologies arises in the first place given the justifiable skepticism felt by most people today about the capability of more and more advanced and bigger technologies to remedy the manifold social and ecological breakdowns which have themselves been brought about in large measure by the willy-nilly proliferation of powerful technologies over a vast (global) scale. This has occurred as a result of the industrial revolution and the industrial mindset. Today there is a growing skepticism of the conventional notion that science is self-correcting – a notion which has so far prompted the conventional industrial mind to the homeopathic prescription of more and better science and additional technological developments to cure the present ills originating primarily as by-products of past science and technological developments.

One of the principal characteristics of the modern industrial mind is its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thereby to put too much at risk. The worldwide overhauling of traditional and local economies to fit the narrow orthodoxy of Western corporate globalization and “free trade,” accompanied by the forceful refashioning of diverse local cultures into a global consumer monoculture, is perhaps the most obvious evidence and blatant expression of this tendency. From the perspective of human civilization, this is the equivalent of “putting all our eggs in one basket,” and thus ultimately puts all ways of life at risk through their homogenization. An “appropriate” technology, on the other hand, recognizes the extent to which as a species our ignorance exceeds our knowledge and therefore limits our ability to responsibly and harmlessly control. An appropriate technology respects the patchwork of diversity in human cultures and natural ecosystems and therefore is necessarily small in scale.

It is tempting, especially given our Western cultural biases, to seek giant “solutions” to the giant (global) ecological and social challenges facing human society today – but there is a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes. As Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry has written, “our great modern powers of science, technology, and industry are always offering themselves to us with the suggestion that we know enough to use them well, that we are intelligent enough to act without limit in our own behalf.” Thus the issue of propriety of scale is typically overlooked in our super-heroic quests to “save the world.” But as author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has surmised, there almost certainly will be no “silver bullet” to take out our manifold global maladies – though perhaps many “silver buckshot,” each targeting a relatively small portion of the whole.

It is for this reason that the employment of “appropriate” technologies requires our humility of spirit – in light of the expanse of our ignorance regarding the complexity of the universe and our inability to foresee all outcomes and unwanted consequences. “Appropriate” technologies subscribe to the precautionary principle, a kind of Hippocratic oath for scientists and engineers to “first do no harm,” and to limit risk as much as possible when potentially damaging outcomes and side-effects are unforeseen and frequently unforeseeable.

The contemporary touchstones of “appropriate” and “sustainable” find their mutual support when we consider the implications of limits to our economic expansion and the scope and application of our technologies. An economic system whose health is predicated upon indefinite expansion in the context of a finite planet and ultimately restricted material and energy flows is, as ecological economist Herman Daly has frequently remarked, “an impossibility theorem.” A durable economy cannot be based upon the continually accelerated degradation of its ecological base; moreover, a technology which does not support a durable economy cannot be considered “appropriate.”

Thus an appropriate technology perforce recognizes and respects ecological limits and is preservative of ecosystem integrity. It does this by adapting itself to natural patterns rather than attempting to refashion nature to suit its own ends. Innovation under the rubric of “appropriate technology,” as Wendell Berry has written, seeks to promote “a better adaptation of the human organism to its natural habitat, [the improvement] of our fundamental relationship to the earth, [and] harmony between our human economy and the natural world.” Appropriate technologies adhere to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, wherein “the role of Homo sapiens changes from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”

The last criterion for a technology to qualify as “appropriate” is that it enable good work by humans in community and in place. The common conviction in our society today is to justify nearly all work on narrowly economic grounds; in other words, any work one is paid for qualifies as “good work.” I would like to expand this thinking along ecological dimensions, and thus define “good work” as that which tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the land and the greater biotic community in which the work and the worker are situated. It is in this spirit that Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet concludes, “Work is love made visible.”

Ecological conscience in science and engineering education

The recognition of “ecological good work” and its pursuit as distinct from conventionally defined modes of social and material “success” thus implies the development of ecological awareness and an ecological conscience. Over the past few years I have attempted to give expression to these traits through my teaching and project work in the appropriate technologies program of the learning center at Pun Pun Organic Farm in northern Thailand. My ultimate professional aspiration is to facilitate their proliferation and development among Western university students of science and engineering.

In this vein, then, the term “environmental engineering” is deceptive in that it suggests that our surroundings – the environment – are what can and ought to be engineered and managed. But given the complexity of the planet and its living systems, “the environment” can never be safely “managed” or “engineered” by humans as one species among tens of millions. What might be managed is ourselves – our human desires, our economies, our built environments and communities, our modes of thinking about and interacting with and modifying natural systems.

I believe a similar inversion of perspective – from the outward-looking to the inward-looking – is required in contemporary education. It’s conventionally held that the purpose of education is that of giving students the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton identified this as “the mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade.” (Merton went on to admonish his students to “be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing – success.”)

TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Much of contemporary education is comprised by a protracted cramming of all manner of disembodied facts, techniques and information (“data”) into students’ heads. Presumably this is to equip them to more effectively compete with one another and society at large in a race to accumulate status and wealth. This, however, progressively impoverishes our society in terms of wisdom and reason, which Edward Abbey defined as “knowledge informed by sympathy, intelligence in the arms of love.”

I see education as a tool for students to use in the forging of their personhood, in their processes of discovery of themselves and the world, and in their understanding of their place in the greater biotic community. The development of ecological awareness and ecological conscience as an outgrowth of the educational process is what connects knowledge and information with context – context is that which imbues information with the qualities that permit the development of sympathy, understanding, compassion and love. These characteristics in turn augment the storage of mere disembodied facts to facilitate the accretion of authentic wisdom.

Knowledge therefore carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. My commitment as a professional educator is to imbue students with this sense of responsibility, towards their fellow humans as well as the myriad other members of Earth’s biotic community. Research and design in the field of “appropriate technologies” implies this sense of responsibility and its attendant ecological conscience and provides a situation for their cultivation and development.

Experiential education in appropriate technologies and cultural exchange

As an educator, I strive to embrace a holistic approach to learning that stresses the development of students’ worldview, philosophy of life, and connection with nature equally with technical proficiency and competence in the relevant disciplinary subject matters. Hence my approach aims to provide the requisite factual knowledge, technical tools and the scientific theoretical and conceptual comprehension within a learning environment that is conducive to students gaining key contextual understanding that situates their practical and scientific education within the complex ecological and social realities of our world.

My vision of an effective means to promote this kind of education is through the facilitation of international exchange programs between science and engineering university students and traditional, agrarian, locally self-reliant and subsistence cultures in the “developing” world. I envision myself as a mentor for university students in these potentially life-changing and transformative experiences involving international travel and working together with local communities – for example through connections with groups such as Engineers Without Borders. Such programs provide cultural exchange and opportunities for experiential education that contribute to holistic learning and the development of ecological conscience, and furthermore often profoundly affect the way students view themselves and the career decisions they face. It is my commitment as an educator to create such opportunities for students’ spiritual transformation and intellectual development.