Being sustainable

Sustainability, like Zen, is a frame of mind.

And that’s why, I think, it’s so hard to be sustainable.

Zen can be characterized roughly as a mental practise dissociated from specific religious texts or theoretical knowledge, and associated with personal experience gained through certain activities.  The word “zen” itself is loosely translated as “meditation.”  It is the pursuit of “self-awareness” which usually leads to what can be described as contentment.  The goals of Zen could include virtue, discipline, concentration, and wisdom.  “Balance” is another word that is often associated with Zen.  When you learn Zen, you don’t learn it directly; instead, you learn methods and practises that, if you follow them well, will let you find your own enlightenment.  You’re not given enlightenment; you’re only shown the way to discover it for yourself.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

A lot has been written about Zen.  You can group serious Zen writing into two categories.  First is the methodical stuff: how to perform the practises of Zen (meditation and all that).  Second is the non-operationalized description of why you should adopt Zen, what its benefits are, and how to recognize enlightenment when you finally get there.  But in neither type of writing will you find a description of the how of Zen.  There’s no 12-step program to attain enlightenment, no Zen for Dummies book, no short-cuts or weekend retreats that can fast-track you on your way.

On the other hand, when you get there – to enlightenment – you’re really there.  You get it with every fibre of your being.  It becomes are part of you, or you become a part of it, or you and it are blended in a totally isotropic, isomorphic way.

I think of it as achieving a certain frame of mind.  You don’t let enlightenment in, nor does it take you over or anything like that.  It’s more like choosing to create a new version of yourself.  And after you’re done, you can’t really imagine ever giving it up, because it would mean given up on yourself.  Once you’ve got it, it manifests in everything you do, big acts and small, thoughts and actions.  It’s the basis on which you live.

Because of all this, Zen is hard for Westerners to understand.  We are, unfortunately, far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to us.  We’re not used to just being “shown the way.”  We’re more used to guided tours complete with headsets, cushy chairs to rest, lots of extra time to get there, free Margaritas, and plenty of shopping along the way.  Zen is hard work in any event; to Westerners, it’s bloody murder.

And I’ve come to believe that sustainability is a lot like Zen.  Here’s why.

Once you get sustainability, it becomes built-in, ubiquitous in how you think and act, that you can’t imagine not being sustainable.  Indeed, once you get it, you don’t even realize you’re doing certain things.  For instance:

  • I take the time to sort my recycling, even though there’s not much call for it where I live.  It’s a habit I picked up in the UK, and it’s something that seemed so natural to me that I only had to read the sorting rules once.  The practise stuck at once, and indelibly.  Even now, when it doesn’t really matter if I sort my recycling, I feel uncomfortable if I don’t do it.
  • I can’t imagine littering; I will carry and empty bottle or a crumpled up paper bag for blocks till I find an appropriate way to dispose of it.  I just can’t bring myself to toss it onto the street or leave it atop a newspaper box.
  • I drive a small car primarily because it uses relatively little gas, and required relatively fewer materials in its construction.
  • When I shop, I actually consider the amount of packaging when deciding between different products.

Sustainability means different things to different people.  Some versions might be better than others, but they all have their merits and problems.  It’s not a competition or a race, so comparing different kinds of sustainability isn’t really going to help anyone much.  We don’t need to argue about who’s version is best, but rather recognize that any version is better than no version at all, and that diversity is good, because we can all learn new tricks from each other.  To some, sustainability is primarily an economic thing; to others its primarily environmental.  There’s a streak of political correctness in the sustainability community these days that says ecological, social, and economic issues must be treated equally.  I don’t buy it because in any one particular situation, only some of those issues will dominate.  The best answer in that case will be the one that best accommodates that particular case.

Externalizing what we mean by sustainability is hard.  Is paper really better than plastic?  Where does solar power work better than wind power or wave power or whatever else?  There are no fixed answers.  It depends on geography, on climate, on technology, on economy, on cultural and societal values, on education, and on political will.  The answers we do have are extremely coarse and based on global estimated averages.  Though this is better than nothing, it’s still not good enough to realize how sustainability works best in specific locations where those global averages are pretty much wrong.  Sustainability is a local phenomenon.  Not only local to a particular setting, but also local to individuals, and even to where individuals are in their lives.  You can’t show someone how to be sustainable; you can only show then how to find their own way to be sustainable.

Because of this, achieving sustainability is hard.  If everyone becomes sustainable in a different way, there’s no way to describe how to be sustainable.  We can only teach sustainability to the extent that we can teach Zen.  We can give people tools and information (ways to choose how to live) but we can’t tell them how that stuff will make them sustainable.  So anyone who wants to be sustainable will have to find their own way, which makes it a tough row to hoe.

…unless we make sustainability enter the social consciousness.  As I wrote in another post, I’m convinced that humanity is getting green, and that it’s pretty much unavoidable at this point that we’ll eventually learn how to live in a better “balance” with nature than we do now.  This is how we do an end-run around the hardness of Zen.  It’s a cheap way out, really, because we’re skipping the hard work.  The hard work is what makes it real.  Without it, it will just become the way things are, rather than how we will them to be.  Rather like how smoking has passed out of favour for no particular reason.  This means that a sustainable society will be relatively weak, and that, in time, the principles of sustainable living could become perverted or contorted.  It’s always easier to give up your principles if you never had to fight to preserve them.

Still, it’s better than nothing, and it’s a step in the right direction.  After all, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Okay, that’s a Tao thing, but it still fits.)

Discipline in education and social networking: a tempest in a teapot

Pondering the impact of social networking on discipline in education is a total waste of time.

This item was brought to my attention:

OJEN Newsflash: Great Debate: Student Discipline in the Age of Social Networking!
A student is disciplined for writing unkind comments on ratemyteacher.com

  • Is this a violation of students’ freedom of expression under the Charter?
  • Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?
  • How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?
  • When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?

With increasing frequency Canadian students are being disciplined for remarks made on social networking websites.  Join us on April 15th at this year’s Great Debate where debaters will argue the perspectives of the student, teacher and school board.  Expert legal commentators will lead a post debate discussion, followed by a wine and cheese reception hosted by The Law Society of Upper Canada.  Classroom resources and lesson plans will also be distributed to attendees.
The Great Debate is an OJEN Law Week program designed to enliven discussion about the justice system, particularly for high school teachers and students.  The Great Debate is filmed and a DVD version with accompanying lesson plans is made available free of charge to teachers across the province for use in their classrooms.
To attend this free event, email info@ojen.ca.

First off, the web site’s real URL is http://www.ratemyteachers.com/.  A little background research wouldn’t hurt, folks.

So we have some kid who used a perfectly legitimate web site to express an “unkind comment” about his teacher.  And the poor kid gets “disciplined” for expressing an opinion and having the guts to let himself be identified as the author.

Is this a violation of the student’s rights?  Absolutely! He can go to the corner store with his friends and diss his teacher all he wants.  He might be unkind; he might even be wrong.  But he has the right to express himself – even if he is “unkind.”  Students have been hanging out at the corner store talking badly about their teachers for as long as there have been teachers.  But it seems that only recently have teachers become so delicate and emotionally sensitive that they need protection for students’ comments.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me – unless I’m a teacher.

The fact that this case took place on the web instead of at the corner store is irrelevant.  The difference is only one of quantity, not quality.  I’m no more a murderer if I kill 10 people than if I kill only one.  Similarly, the fact that many more people are likely to see the comments on RateMyTeacher than would hear them at a corner store is not the point.  If it were, then we’d need to define the size of audience that sets a limit, beyond which disciplinary action is acceptable.  But how arbitrary would that be!  If 10 people hear/read you, that’s fine; but if 11 people hear/read you, then you’re in big trouble!

To discipline a student for speaking his mind – even unkindly – is to teach the student that his opinion doesn’t matter.  That’s not education; that’s an intellectual lobotomy.

The school should have given him a good talking to and sent him on his way.  (I assume that a good talking to is not what they meant by “discipline.”)  They may have explained to him how his sort of behaviour reflects poorly on him.  They might have explained how he might express himself differently.  They may have done a hundred things better than just disciplining the kid.

Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?  No one! Oh, what an Orwellian ring “school order” has!  The school’s ability to exert any power over students stops at the ends of the school’s property.  If the student used school computers to post his comments, then the school is to blame for not blocking that site.  (Of course, if the school does block the site, then one must then ask What are they afraid of?)  If the student was off school property, then the school has absolutely no power over him whatsoever.

And what kind of spineless and feeble teachers are we talking about, that they need “protection” from harsh language?  Obviously not the kind who should actually be teaching!  There’s a related website, http://ratemyprofessors.com/, in which I and many of my colleagues have been trashed by students.  We just laugh – indeed, some of us enjoy reading the terrible reviews we all occasionally get.  Indeed, I tell my students about the site, and show them the particularly bad reviews I’ve gotten.  It’s great fun, and it tells my students that I’m not afraid of what they think.

Do teachers really have such poor self-esteem, compared to professors, that they need all this gentleness and protection from those rude brats?  If they do, then why are we allowing such people of weak character teach our children?

How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?  To the edge of the school property, not one inch further! Schools are surrogate parents under only very specific circumstances.  Only parents have the responsibility to “discipline” their children otherwise.  This is part of the social contract in which we all participate.  A school that attempts to undermine this contract is placing itself above the society that gives rise to it, when it is, in fact, in service to it.  The school is therefore in violation of its own most basic principle: to show children how to function well and happily in society.

When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?  Never! It doesn’t matter how callous or vulgar a student’s statements may be, they all mean something more than just a crass utterance.  Since we’re talking about a site called RateMyTeacher, we can assume the student is 17 years old or younger.  Given the utter lack of education students get in how to express themselves these days, it’s no wonder they must resort to “unkind comments” to express themselves.  It’s absurd to think that the same teachers who have not taught students how to express themselves get upset when the students show a lack of that very ability.  It’s certainly got to be a slap in the face, to see your own students behave in a way that so comprehensively contradicts what you’re supposed to have taught them….

Sometimes, students use inappropriate language and behaviour to get attention.  Well, disciplining such a student is giving them a lot of attention.  Students: 1; teachers: 0.

Sometimes, they do it because they’re angry – but they don’t know why.  In my experience, anger comes from confusion or frustration.  In either case, the anger is a symptom.  Treating the symptom (with discipline) only hides the symptom but does not address the underlying cause.  Students: 2; teachers: 0.

In any case, the point is this: dealing with students’ behaviours is rarely well-handled by discipline, whether or not the behaviours are mediated by online tools.  Online tools are only that – they cause no qualitative changes whatsoever.  So this whole mess about the impact of discipline with respect to social networking is a contemptible waste of time and money.