Self-realization: from awareness to action

Swiss Alps 2011by Elizabeth Schoessler

With each topic that my University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Honors class covered on the Limits to Growth, my faith in humanity decreased, and simultaneously, my faith in myself. I have the intelligence and educational background necessary to analyze and synthesize the facts. This class, along with my sociology and anthropology courses, demonstrated that for many, ignorance is truly bliss. The characteristics instilled in me by virtue of being an American make me feel guilty. Although I have a significant amount of information at hand, I have yet to overhaul my life or spark a change in others. I cannot help but ask myself what type of future lies ahead, and why can’t we change our behaviors?

Granted, I’m typically pessimistic, but I’m not the only one with a dreary outlook on the world. As recently as a decade ago, people envisioned a shiny chrome future with flying cars and technology embodying every aspect of their lives. Today there’s an expanding “end of the world” interpretation of coming times, with a more common vision of an apocalyptic and dystopian future. Despite this popular belief, people have not generally changed their actions and fully assess the severity of the current state of the world.

One problem lies in people’s conditioning to hearing “the world’s going to end” at this or that date, since the world has yet to meet its doom. This raises a significant degree of doubt towards any doomsayers. We disregard warning signs because previous experiences show otherwise. We have developed a false sense of security, causing us to falsely lower our guard. With that mindset, even when confronted with supporting evidence, any warnings about the future of humanity are something to be discussed but not taken as warnings that require action or change.

The quality and source of evidence for these warnings often comes into question. In the 21st century we find ourselves constantly bombarded with information, more than we can manage to sort through and test. People are unable or unwilling to draw their own conclusions because sifting through the vast sea of information is difficult and we compound that complexity by relying on the media and the internet for information. The aim of the media and the net isn’t necessarily to relay accurate information, but rather to generate a profit, entertain, and promote ideals–facts are irrelevant.

Even when people believe there will be an eventual downfall of society, the word “eventual” is emphasized to avoid present changes in attitudes or behaviors. It is simply more comforting to think that this is a matter of the future rather than the now, and, even more importantly, it precludes even acknowledging that present actions are determinants of the future. No one wants to take responsibility and realize that people, including ourselves, are the cause and that the inevitable consequences of our decisions will affect generations to come.

We-will-never-grow-beyond-the-blind-spots-in-our-lives.-e1347988702177While we may change our views of the world, these changes in viewpoints are not changing the world because people are not changing their behaviors. We need to recognize the gap between oblivious and aware, but the most significant gap is the one between being aware and having that reflected in one’s actions. It is relatively easy for someone to comprehend a particular bit of information and its consequences and then to judge or interpret moral rights or wrongs. Even when the information impacts a routine part of our lives, and we are able to pinpoint that the behavior is something we do, and interpret that action as “wrong”, we continue to carry out actions that are deemed immoral by our own standards. The ability to apply knowledge to our actions and create a change in our lifestyle is more significant than the ability to recite information to others. Whether a person is standing in the dark with eyes closed or open it is still dark inside a cave. It takes knowledge that there is light just outside and when we apply that knowledge to ourselves, we can find our way into the light. Without a behavioral change people are sheep; whether smart or dumb sheep, in the end they are still  sheep.

FeelingsPinterestThroughout this course, I found myself playing the blame game. Whether it is capitalism, corporations, the government, Republicans, the American consumer, ignorant people, or whatever target–they are the ones at fault. If only they knew what I knew and applied it, the world would be a better place. But then it hit me. With my peers and with adults I discuss politics, economic systems, the negative effects of corporations, the idea of buying on credit, the best ways to conserve resources, new forms of energy, social and economic inequality, oil, population growth, education, consumerism related to waste, and many other topics. I can find fault, and then suggest a possible solution. At the end of each conversation, we have developed a righteous anger toward the entity we believe is at fault, labeling them as individualistic and greedy. We pride ourselves on finding the culprit, we feel disgusted with our country, and, sometimes, indulge in a little guilt ourselves, but the guilt eventually wears off and we go back to our daily routines.

As I write this there are 110 canned or plastic bottled beverages sitting under my desk. I was completely unaware that I possessed such a daunting number until I actually sat down and started counting. After I bought 40 Red Bulls using my meal plan, and then attended class last Tuesday where we listened to the statistics about aluminum can recycling, I felt like there was a special place for me in Honors Hell. Despite the guilt, I had 80 or so meal allowances to spend that would not roll over to the next semester. I created the justification that if UAA was going to rip me off by requiring me to buy an expensive meal plan, I would try to  soften the blow with a Red Bull shopping spree, and that I was just trying to make the best out of a bad situation and try to not lose money. The blame initially went to UAA, but now I feel it rests on both us.

whatwesaveI’m not the only student in this situation. People talk about how funny it is watching students do the same thing every year; buy massive amounts of anything trying to salvage their money’s worth out of their meal plan, then trying to see if they can even carry their goods out the door. People with the meal plans complain to each other about how much they dislike this system, but no one has actually done anything about it.

The highest maximum return value for those living in the dorms was 75% of $1800 (second largest meal block) and 69% of $1700 and $1750 (first and second smallest meal blocks). This return rate is ridiculous. It is even worse for other dorm rooms that have a kitchen because they are still required to buy a dinner plan with a 56% return rate. I have the $1800 block including 150 meals and $600 dining dollars, but I found that I only used about 20% of my meals just a few weeks before the semester ended. I feel that I can spend my $1800 better elsewhere. Even if it was $1800 in Wolfbucks, I would be happier because at least I could use them to buy textbooks and supplies. When I return next fall, my roommate and I decided to live off campus mostly based on this dilemma, but now this is something I want to change and feel strongly about, one of many situations on campus where the system creates waste.

Overall, for most of the semester, I felt pretty good about myself. I used biking as a primary means of transportation until the winter when I transitioned to the shuttle. I had one of the lowest carbon footprints in the class, had a firm grasp on all the material, and felt I was benefiting by gaining the facts. At the end of the day, I was relatively greener than most my peers and that gave me a temporary feeling of content until I looked back and saw that just because something is relatively smaller doesn’t mean it is huge. I was a sheep, a smart one, but a sheep nonetheless. Unfortunately, the dominant image in my head is of a smart sheep who contradicted herself by telling others to abandon the herd while unknowingly walking with the group.

Peace Mural, Mountain View, Anchorage
Peace Mural, Mountain View, Anchorage

This class not only taught me the big picture and how to look at distinct elements and their roles, but how to zoom in and out. I taught myself ways to create an art gallery of my life, and I learned about the palette required to put the colors on the painting. Sometimes big picture vistas continue to enlarge to the point that the view seems too broad, becoming overwhelming. It may be the little actions that I never thought twice about until they were brought to light that make the most difference. When awareness surfaces, those small behaviors are always in the back of my mind. It just took a spark to move that knowledge from a place where it just lingers to somewhere that I can use it directly.

justlikethatIt is ironic that in class we developed the story of the journey of the aluminum can, but then what sparked my awareness was cans that have traveled the same journey as the ones in the story of Life of Can. It took counting up 110 of them to make me question what I have done this entire time. These little tidbits of knowledge came together and hit me all at once, triggering an entire slew of emotions. When I interpreted those emotions, I realized that is what drives activism and creates real change. It is something that clicks inside that serves to motivate. We need something in our lives that drives us. Simply being shoved does not work because the first reaction is just to push back.

In the wake of this paper, I reviewed and listed all my life goals. I considered why I am pursuing them and what it takes to reach those goals as well as what systemic impacts those goals create, and then weighed the pros and cons. The more I learn, the less I feel I know, and, at this point, although I thought I had my entire life laid out, I now realize I am pretty lost on how I want to live my life now or where to go from here. However, I will view this as a fresh start and the chance to break from the herd into a new pasture. portfolio-items/personal- transformation/

Header from Biocadence.

  • David MacLeod

    Well done, Elizabeth. I think you’ve very well captured the angst that I sense is common among the segment of the college student population that is aware and engaged. It would be interesting to know the title and outline of the class to which you are referring.

    • Liz has probably bolted for the hinterlands, David–she is fisherfolk. It was an Honors Humanities seminar focusing on the directed reading of a book of enduring significance, Limits to Growth.

      Here is the list of readings and assignments:

      Read Klein, D.R. The Introduction, Increase, and Crash of Reindeer on St. Matthew Island; Come prepared to model the system on St. Matthew Island

      Read Limits to Growth (LTG) Chapter 1-Overshoot

      Read LTG Chapter 2 –Exponential Growth

      Read Catton, W. (1982). Overshoot; The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse.

      Read Oilman. The Long Fingers of Petroleum

      View Bartlett, A. Arithmetic, Population, and Energy The Crisis of Civilization

      Chris Martenson on Energy Budgeting-but ignore the numbers presented, which are grossly inflated

      Read Hall, C.A.S., Balogh, S., & Murphy, J.R. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? This is long, just read pp. 25-39.

      Read Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places Intervene in a System

      Read LTG Chapter 3 The Limits: Sources & Sinks

      Read Tainter, J.A. et al. Resource
      Transitions and Energy Gain; Contexts of Organization Conservation Ecology.

      Take the Oil Quiz

      Guest lecturer- Dr. Paula Williams on Willingness to Adapt

      Read Diamond, J. Environmental collapse/end of civilization

      Calculate your ecological footprint

      Read LTG Chapter 4-World 3 The Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World

      Read Pollan, M. Farmer-In-Chief

      Read LTG Chapter 5-Back from Beyond the Limits: The Ozone Story

      Read Hardin, G. The Tragedy of the Commons

      View The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard

      Guest Lecture-Mr. Chris Rose of R.E.A.P. on Renewables for Alaska

      Read Daly, H. Towards a Steady-State Economy

      Read: Orlov, D. The Five Stages of Collapse

      Read: LTG Chapter 6-Technology, Markets, and Overshoot

      Read Kawagley, A.O. An Alaska Native Perspective on Technology and Sustainability

      Read LTG Chapter 7-Transitions to a Sustainable System

      Read Odum, Energy, ecology and economics

      Read Smil. Moore’s Curse / Great Energy Delusion

      The Power of Community-DVD

      Read LTG Chap. 8-Tools Transition Sustainability

      Assignments included community service-learning group projects with presentations, four essays, seminar and online discussions, and assorted other small learning exercises, with the goal of critical thinking, writing, and speaking on the subject of a trans-disciplinary, systems, macroscopic view of the world.

      This is the last time I”m teaching this course. Over the span of five years that I have taught the course, the amount of time needed to explain our quandary has contracted as our economic problems deepen and empirical evidence expands. It now takes two or three class periods to convey our situation to the students. After two weeks, they get it completely, and are ready to “do something!” As we begin to descend, LTG is no longer an appropriate tool for talking about the PWD, since the book focuses on the problems rather than adaptation. The college students get it, and they want action. We are already in descent, and they recognize it.

      • David MacLeod

        Mary, that makes sense. I am reminded of when our Transition Initiative held its first awareness raising event, featuring 3 short lectures on peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. This was planned to be the first of several events of this nature, but the message we got was “yes, we know this, and we want to see some action.” So we shifted gears, and the next event was titled “Lets Walk The Talk.”

        Great reading list there, by the way!

  • Doug Salzmann

    Mary, please tell Liz for me (when she returns from the wilds) that sharing her honest introspection, self-examination and uncertainty is the act of an especially thoughtful young adult. I’m impressed.

    That the LTG honors course is making this sort of impression on students is also very impressive.

    Finally, Liz makes UAA’s student meal plan system seem a masterpiece of corporate craftiness, guaranteed to provide the kids with less than they pay for. Is it, by any chance, run by concessionaires?


    • Yes, concessionaires–who knows where our bagels come from, and at least until recently, UAA Food Services served on disposables and used styrofoam. A system focused on profit develops feedback loops to create more consumption to allow for more profit, creating more inequities and hardship as resources diminish.

      Whenever I gave my students their heads, with open-ended assignments without control, the results were amazing. Their last essay was open-ended. This series of posts resulted. There will be three more posts from students sometime in the next month or two; one on Cuba’s special period in comparison to what we might expect in the US, one on the 6 Rs of recycling, and one on sustainable businesses.

      That more than anything gives me hope for the future. How do we get out of the way for the younger generation, who get it, and given half a chance, could, would, and will change the world, eventually? But the Corporation has to get out of the way, first. In the meantime, this generation is waiting for the world to change. As the economy worsens, societal emphasis on technological tools such as iphones may have shortened and simplified the trophic levels on Maslow’s hierarchy, perhaps not in a good way. We crave connection, while the system creates disconnection and faceless isolation at an increasing rate. A number of students danced around the topic of changes in Maslow’s hierarchy in their final essay. How have fossil fuels changed our prioritization of needs, and what does descent mean for those changes?