Why equality is fundamental to a sustainable future

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If we want to live sustainably within the limits of our planet, we must address global inequality in standard of living. Relieving poverty is not just a good outlet for guilty westerners who want to do something that makes them feel good, but a necessity if we want to preserve a sustainable future for ourselves.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the current global discussions around any international actions on sustainability is that it is not at all a level playing field. The unsuccessful Copenhagen conference is testament to this, as unlike in the past it was the developing countries – namely China and India – who were the most resistant.

The western lifestyle is absurdly unsustainable. The demand we place on the planet for fish, meat, fuel, electricity is extreme and proportionately far higher than the majority of the people on the planet. Likewise, the impact we have through our carbon footprint, and the poisonous effect of the excessive waste we generate is also grossly disproportionate. As quoted from the article I am going to reference in this blog, Americans ‘…make up 5 percent of the global population, but use 20 percent of the world’s energy…eat 15 percent of the world’s meat… produce 40 percent of the world’s garbage.’

That sounds quite concerning to me.

This infographic brings home just how concerning it is. Costa Rica don’t put much demand on the planet right? Well, we’d need 1.4 planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like Costa Ricans. If everyone lived like the French, we’d need 2.5 planets to sustain it (probably more if we’re taking in to consideration snails or frog legs). If we all lived like they do in the US? 4.1 planets. And that is at current rates. There are two further complications:

1) The population of the planet is increasing

2) The standard of life and demand on the planet is increasing across the globe

People across the world look at pictures of the USA on their TV screens, in the newspapers, on their computers and they aspire to that. For those of us privileged enough to live in the west, who the hell are we to tell them they can’t? What gives us the right to tell China to cut their excessive carbon emissions, when their per capita environmental impact/demand is far lower than that of us in the west. Who are we to tell them they can’t continue to increase their quality of life when 70% of its people live on less than $5 per day? I didn’t see many four-bed detached houses when I was in Southeast Asia, but I did see a lot of tin shacks that people called home.

Us humanfolk measure our state of wellbeing on relative, and not absolute terms. We look at those who seem better off and aspire to that. Most of the world is looking at the west and feeling as though they want that standard of living. As long as this is the case, those of us in the west will get almost nowhere in telling the rest of the world they need to reduce their environmental demand/impact. It’s hypocritical. It is us who need to radically alter the way we live if we’re interested in preserving a sustainable future.

Problem is, even if we manage across the world to make the enormous shift to a way of life that is clean, renewable and that places a demand that is within the planet’s limits, developing countries will not be satisfied knowing that their quality of life and per capita demand is far lower than those of us in the rich west. They will never accept that. Nor can we reasonably expect them to.

This asks some deeply painful questions. Are we committed enough to the future to be willing to reduce our material standard of living? To be willing to share more equally with the developing world that makes up the majority of the world’s population? Is this in human nature to do? I have my doubts.

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We are not Gods

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At a TEDx event last year I first saw Jason Silva’s ‘Imagination’ video. I’ve seen a few of his other videos and they’re always awesome. The guy seems like he’s on a permanent adrenaline rush, and he makes you want to get up instantly and do stuff.

 

At the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas, he was one of the speakers and the title was ‘We are the Gods now’. An appropriate venue, as this is a dangerous idea. It’s dangerous because people will believe it, and because we like to think of ourselves that way. But it’s mostly dangerous because it’s bullshit.

 

It’s easy to look at our mighty skyscrapers and our jet planes, and feel that we have the conquered the planet, that we are its masters. How do you think the Egyptians felt when they built the Pyramids? Or when Rome was erected?

 

The world looks different now, and our technology is far more advanced. However, one thing has remained constant throughout history – we are entirely dependent on the resources of our planet. We’ve gotten better at using and managing those resources over time. In fact, modern civilization’s growth is entirely down to our ability to utilize the energy stored within ancient fossil fuels; coal, oil and natural gas (sorry economists, but you really didn’t have much to do with it). Without those things we couldn’t have built jet planes, cars, skyscrapers, rocket ships, or be able to feed a planet of seven billion and rising. That last point is an interesting one, as it’s only due to significant technological advances in agriculture that we could feed a population this large (much of the soil on the planet is now in a terrible state and couldn’t sustain older methods of agriculture). That agricultural technology depends on fossil fuels to run.

 

The leaders of historical civilizations often saw that danger was coming, and yet did nothing. In fact, they began investing more resources in boasts of their own power – more monuments, treasures etc. I look at a world today in which we face a number of tipping points (climate change, declining food stocks, melting ice caps, decline of freshwater aquifers and depletion of fossil fuels) and am left in bemusement by the way that nations go around trying to show the world who has the bigger stick, rather than investing seriously in sorting out some of these problems. It’s pretty primitive.

 

It’s certainly not the behaviour of Gods.

 

We are an incredibly creative, innovative and resourceful species. I am fascinated by some of the technological developments we’ve produced, and still find it amazing that I can speak with and see my family back home thousands of miles away without paying a thing. But I shudder when people claim that human ingenuity will be the solver of all problems. Human ingenuity let down the Greeks, it let down the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Aztecs…

 

The problems we face are not a question of genius, but a question of nature and habits. Something we humans have long struggled to understand and that has proved our downfall time and time again throughout history, is a denial of limits. Or an arrogant belief that they do not matter. Exponentially increasing resource consumption in a finite world just does not work. And when you look in evolutionary terms (and our genes also go a long way to determine our psyche), we’re not even far from cavemen.

 

We’re certainly not Gods, and that arrogant belief won’t help us one bit. Who knows, a little more humility may even help us navigate some of these tricky challenges.

Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

A school from the future

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In my last blog I went to town on the current system of education and questioned what a better, more modern one would look like. Just a couple of weeks before leaving Australia my call was answered, as by good fortune a friend told me the Northern Beaches Christian School and its education innovation centre; the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. I jumped on their free tour today and checked it out.

It’s very, very impressive. The ‘learning spaces’ (not ‘classrooms’) are open and bright – one of the first things they did was knock the walls down between rooms to remove that closed feeling that I remember the rooms had when I was at school. Classes are allowed to mix with one another, and even with different age groups. They use the phrase ‘guide on the side rather than sage on the stage’ to describe their teaching paradigm. The learning is student-directed, with the teachers moving around and helping students along. For the most part, the students get on with it using their own initiative. A lot of the learning is focussed around real-world scenarios and collaboration. There is not such a feeling of competition as typically emanates from educational institutions. Students bring their own computers in to school and do a lot of the work from there, with an e-learning platform providing the template for their lessons.

As they bring in more innovation and non-traditional methods the student performance on standardised government assessment has improved. The numbers of negative behavioural incidents has dropped by 80% from the time they began adopting a different pedagogy. Their graduates adapt well to university, because they are more accustomed to self-direction and adopting their own learning structure. The skills they prioritise are ‘soft’ skills – those such as communication, self-management and problem-solving that will prove valuable no matter how much the world around us continues to change.

Those are the details. But it was the feel of the place that stays with you.

You could tell how engaged the students were. 9 and 10 year olds without a teacher supervising them and getting on with their exercises – and clearly enjoying it. You could tell that it was a place students were happy to be, rather than waiting until they could go home. No bells. No students being disciplined. The kids were quite confident chatting to the adults walking around and answering their questions. Trust was placed in the kids to learn as was best for them. It was student-centred; not teacher-centred.

I’d like to go again – 2 hours is barely a glimpse.

It’s obviously not as straightforward as picking up this system and replicating it elsewhere. A school is so complex, with dozens of staff and 100s of students you have enormous interaction and so many layers of processes taking place. Having not worked in a school myself (next step..?) it’s hard to understand all of that. They are also open that they do not currently have a ‘model’. It’s more of a series of continuous innovations. In fact, they suggest it works well because they are continuing to move forward. Not everything works, and you need good responsible staff in charge of such innovation because these are the children’s lives you’re experimenting with here.

What struck me when I was reflecting afterwards, is that of all the non-traditional schools I’ve looked at, there are some startling similarities in the themes that emerge. Student-centred. Teacher as a guide. Open spaces. Real-world skills and learning applications. Collaboration. Fostering many forms of intelligence, not just academic. It is surely no coincidence that educators have questioned the current system and looked to innovate have come to such similar conclusions as to what must change.

If schools such as this were to become the template, rather than the current traditional, industrial model of education, the paradigm shift would be astronomically complex. SCIL say that the transition from traditional to non-traditional is one of the toughest things and you inevitably see resistance when the status quo is changed. It’s not just a model for the school you need, but a model for the transition. Do you transition existing institutions? Or start new ones and let the old ones die out? And for public education (North Beaches Christian School is a private school), you need a massive change in policy around the way education is administered. That requires senior government figures with vision willing to put their necks on the line for something that will radically change the status quo and that people will resist. It requires long-term evidence-based models to compare with the outdated ones.

It’s not easy, but in my mind there’s no doubt it needs to happen. As Ken Robinson says, we are failing to make use of our most valuable resource – human potential. The role of public education in this is massive.

If you’re interested in other models of learning, Ken Robinson’s ‘Out of Our Minds’ is well worth a read. I also strongly recommend watching this:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByO41gE3dPQ

 

I’m slowly compiling a list of the great examples I come across…