Five Pieces for January

shepardfaireyUsually, at the end of each month I compile links to stories and pieces I found thought-provoking in some way. But this past month has been an inundation of news, most of it bad, and I’m reluctant to feed into the chaos by recapping it all. Instead, here are five pieces that helped me understand something differently about the state of the world:

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Who to Call About the ACA

senator-susan-collinsThey’re coming for your health care. For some, that will be deadly. For others, and for the government, expensive. What can you do about it? Despite Trump’s campaign promises, the dead-of-night fast tracking, and the bluster and crowing from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the fate of the ACA actually rests with a few moderate Republicans in the Senate. And what they do, if you live in one of their states, rests with you.

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Where We Go From Here

divided_viajenThe world seems to weigh a lot more lately. Stuck with the gravity of the situation, the rock of history, and the hard place of the coming few years, I can’t help but feel greater responsibility and greater urgency both. I thought, outside of climate change, that I had time to figure things out. Now I think I have no time at all.

So, in changing some of my focus, I also will be changing my writing. I started writing here as practice and a way to explore ideas, and I still want to do that, but the patient exploration of ideas is no longer where I can afford to spend the majority of my time. I need concrete, specific action that will have a direct impact on the world.

What that means for the time being is that I’ll post essays here only on Fridays, and I reserve Tuesdays for things I find productive in the Trump era. I need to balance my thought and my action, and so I’ll balance it here as well.

To start with, yesterday I attended (and nominally helped organize) a session on having hard political conversations in our communities. It’s a small step, and a work in progress. But, no matter what our politics, we’re all getting into those conversations, and it helps to think about how to have them beforehand. So for today, I’m posting the list of resources I helped compile, and which is going out to participants. Continue reading

October Recommended Reading

amapsAt the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. This month a lot of those were on politics, and so I’ve mostly left those out – but here are the rest!

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Rest and Exploration

P1010927We all need time to relax and reconnect, especially those of us who prefer the natural world to the built world. For me, that means seeking out remote and alien places. So I’m taking much of July off from both work and obligations to explore. I’ll resume writing here in August.

Thanks for reading!

Supporting Outdoor Education from Home

I don’t normally post others’ writing here directly, but I want to make an exception in this case. These are friends of mine doing some really excellent, socially responsible, and ambitious work in outdoor education, and they need help to get started. If you agree with the project, maybe lend a hand!

Partridge, Pine, and Peavey

DSC_0029 Me, getting excited about some big Great Horned Owl pellets

As all my blog followers know, I am passionate about teaching about the outdoors through stories and photos on this blog.For the years that I have been writing this blog, however, I have also been busily working on co-founding Maine Outdoor School. I am excited to announce that we successfully incorporated Maine Outdoor School into a real organization about a month ago! Now, I will be engaged in my passions not only in blog-land, but also with learners of all ages outdoors!

To these ends, we just launched our crowdfunding campaign with the goal to get enough startup funding to launch our first program, Inreach/Outreach, this Fall of 2016. For those of you who have enjoyed reading my posts, imagine learning all that and more in an experiential manner outdoors. I can assure you that it is a fun…

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Long Feedbacks

IMGP4225When Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, all the roads in my town were damaged. Bridges were undermined or demolished. Our dirt roads suffered major flooding and washed out for long stretches. Our one major road was catastrophically destroyed in multiple places. Those of us in the area were stranded in our town, a theme repeated dozens of times over across the state. All over Vermont, residents woke up and found that there was no getting in or out—what they had in their communities was all that was available.

Although we take for granted that we need regular connections with other parts of the world for our lives to function, most of us don’t stop to think about what that really means. Because I have some interest in complex system science, I tend to think about the structure of our society in terms of feedback loops. Some loops are long, some are short, and some are intertwined. Everything we do or buy or sell or use contributes to some feedback loop, somewhere.

To consider this more intuitively, imagine lines of dominos. First imagine a small circle of dominos standing in front of you; when you push the first domino, the rest fall in a circle and come right back to the beginning. This is a short feedback loop, where you can easily see all the consequences of your initial action.

Now imagine a longer line of dominos, going through all the rooms of your house before returning to you. You still push the first domino, but it takes a long while for last domino next to you to fall, and you don’t know what else might have happened along the way—a long feedback.

Imagine dozens of strings of dominos stretching out of your house, through your neighbors’ houses, and to other cities and continents. Dominos are falling everywhere all the time, but no one can easily tell which were started where, or by whom. This is a global system of long feedbacks. This is, for the most part, the sort of society we live in.

It isn’t precisely that we designed it this way. The process of switching to long feedbacks happened over time, and it generally does increase the complexity and potential of our society. By and large, it has been a positive thing for humanity, but it also has downsides.

One major downside is that it’s easy to rely on long feedbacks when things are going well, so when we remove those long feedbacks we find there are very few short feedbacks to fall back on. When Irene caused catastrophic flooding throughout Vermont, we were suddenly deprived of access to our long feedbacks, leaving us with only local feedbacks to rely on. The governor declared an immediate state of emergency, and the National Guard was called in for support. The prospect of even a day or two without access to our long feedbacks was unthinkable—in Vermont, a rural state with residents who pride themselves on self-sufficiency.

Similar responses to Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, show us how dependent we are on long feedbacks; to lose them is a massive disaster that sticks in our societal memory. Yet even when the tenuousness of this system is revealed, there is seldom a push to make communities more self-reliant, or more resilient in the face of catastrophic events.

Even when they work well, long feedbacks have obscure consequences elsewhere on the chain. Global feedbacks break the link between the choices of the individual and the consequences of the action. Quinoa, for example, became popular in the United States as a health food, which drove up prices and made it unaffordable for people South America who relied on it as a dietary staple.

Many people who buy quinoa in the United States don’t even know this happened, but that isn’t surprising. There are now so many long feedbacks involved in our everyday lives that we are fundamentally incapable of evaluating each one of them. Consider the things around you as you read this—each one has a history of interactions, but how many of those histories do you know? Where did the materials come from? Where were they made? Who made them, and were they fairly treated and fairly paid? What systems did they interact with en route to you? How much of that information could you find even if you tried?

A broken link between actions and consequences translates into a lack of adaptation in response. People, businesses, and nations can reap the benefit of their actions while costs are felt by other people in other places. Organizations can functionally isolate themselves from the consequences of their acts, and individuals lose the ability to intelligently change their behavior because they often do not even know what the consequences are. Is one of your old electronic devices now in a landfill in India, leaking heavy metals into the water supply? Without knowing that, you will not alter the behavior that put it there.

What can we do about this? At this point, our society simply wouldn’t function without long feedbacks. What’s more, the most impressive human achievements—like landing on the moon, curing diseases, technological progress, and the majority of scientific knowledge—would be impossible with only small feedbacks. But I think we’ve gone a little too far in the other direction. Our long feedbacks are a little too obscure, a little too unobserved. We don’t know what they’re doing when they work, and we aren’t prepared to adapt when they fail.

There isn’t one answer to that, but I think Tropical Storm Irene provides an example of success as well as failure. Residents checked up on their neighbors, shared their food, and made sure everyone around was okay. Some businesses donated food and supplies to those in need. As we picked up the pieces, Vermonters donated money to help repair the damage. Grudgingly, even the rest of the country kicked in a little via some federal funding. All of these feedbacks, small to large, are how we were able to pick up the pieces and put things back together.

It’s true that that’s all reconstruction, and maybe planning ahead isn’t a human strength. I like to think, though, that I now pay more attention to the feedbacks I’m a part of. I pick small ones when I can, because I have a better shot at seeing where they go. Maybe it’s too small to be an overall solution, but for my part I try to make it so that next time I lose access to long feedbacks, it will be more of an annoyance than a disaster.

In Defense of Open-Mindedness

via Christian WeidingerOpen-mindedness appears, at first blush, to be an unambiguous virtue. Yet I notice the ideal of open-mindedness is sometimes reduced to caricature and idol both. As with many ideals when the subtlety of practice is lost, the husk that remains is brittle and hollow. Such withered ideals withstand no scrutiny, offer no guidance, and become mere strictures.

Open-mindedness in this painful reduction is little more than an argumentative bludgeon, which betrays the very essence of the original ideal. This is the “open-mindedness” of the debater who cannot support their arguments, but decrees their opponent “closed-minded” for not accepting a baseless premise. This is an “open-mindedness” that embraces intellectual relativism as its bosom companion, suggesting that all concepts be equal regardless of truth. This is the “open-mindedness” of politicians and snake-oil-salesmen, an indiscriminate open-mindedness that considers truth itself negotiable or irrelevant.

Such misuse of the concept devalues the true ideal, but perhaps examining the subtleties can restore a little of its luster.

True open-mindedness is not about acceptance—rather, it is about consideration. To take an open-minded view on a thing is to consider all possibilities: to be willing to evaluate their truth, or their falsehood, or whatever may lie between. Open-mindedness of this sort is a crucial tool that protects us from our own biases, from our willingness to judge without examination. To do so is dangerous indeed, because to judge without examination is to declare truth without seeking truth.

This is also how the caricature of open-mindedness abandons judgement entirely. The caricature avoids hasty judgment not through the hard work of examination, but by passing judgement on judgement itself. It attempts to avoid a failure of reasoning by the sweeping application of that same failure.

True open-mindedness, by contrast, embraces not relativism but discernment. Open-mindedness brings us to a place of considering all things, and discernment allows us to sort among them. These two can and must go together. Nor is discerning judgment a contradiction, for true open-mindedness allows us to reconsider when evidence changes.

True open-mindedness considers all things, discerns among them, and reconsiders as necessary. It gives us the capacity to consider broadly without abandoning understanding or truth, and protects us from considering too narrowly, or becoming attached to our own ideas above all else.

This last is where the caricature of open-mindedness does its greatest disservice, for, when closely examined, we find that relativism is the very opposite. Rather than making us willing to consider all possibilities, the replacement of discernment with relativism forces the conclusion that all ideas are true. Biases return unchecked. Users of the caricature are free to declare their own ideas true and beyond reproach, while never having to do the work to prove them true. They call their skeptics “closed-minded,” but really it is their minds that have closed—to the idea that they may be wrong.

What a simple world it would be if all ideas were worthy of equal weight! What a delight it would be if no one could be wrong! It is an enticing idea, an attractive one; but I discern through logic that it cannot be true. There are too many ideas that conflict; some theories are proven and some theories are disproven; and there are many people who are most definitely wrong. Whatever the allure, I cannot affirm that all ideas are the same. And once we allow this, relativism fails. We therefore need open-mindedness, most desperately. Without it, how can we look beyond the ideas that are attractive to the ideas that are true? And we likewise need discernment, else the field of our view will dominate us, overwhelm us, and leave us no understanding at all.

When you go in search of open-mindedness, therefore, do not settle for its pale and popular shade. Consider all views of an issue, but do not simply view them—consider them deeply. Consider their value. Consider their evidence. Then, when you have done so, discern the best choice at present. Sometimes you must take a position on an issue. Sometimes you must reject some positions and leave others under consideration. Sometimes you must take no position for want of evidence. Always be willing to reconsider if faced with new evidence, but likewise do not let yourself be bullied into no position when one position is warranted and another is not.

Thus does open-mindedness make a companion of discernment and truth, and thus does it recover its value as an ideal worth striving for.