Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Environmental Psychology and the Quest for Eutopia Lecture 3 Part 1/4: Steps toward a Mercy Sustainability Center

Steps toward a Mercy Sustainability Center
Dr. T.H. Culhane

15 Minute Video lecture part 1 here:

Transcription of Video found here:
Part I: Be the Change You want to See

Greetings, fellow voyagers in Environmental Psychology and the Quest for Eutopia,

As you know, this class is about finding solutions to the age-old conundrum of how to live sustainably on the only life-bearing planet we know of.

I've often given presentations with the title “Saving the Planet: It starts at Home” and this mantra, whether we are talking about Climate Change or Saving Energy or Preserving Wildlife or Keeping our Air and Water Clean and our food healthy, echoes the Ghandian saying “Be the Change You Want to See in the World”. You may also be familiar with the quote from Margaraet Meade, “Never doubt that a small dedicated group of individuals can change the world, in fact it is the only thing that ever does.”

We ask in this class for you to come up with your own version of Eutopia, describing to us the changes you would make to make the world a better place. We ask you to be as realistic as possible and to start with your own home and neighborhood and community – things you have at least some influence on. We ask you, rather than just thinking globally and acting locally, which is good, to approach it from the other way around – think locally and act globally, meaning, think about how to solve problems you understand and are experiencing, and share your solutions with others and have faith that your individual and collective actions here on the ground will have an impact all over the world, because the basic problems of survival are common to us all.

What differs are some of the finer bio-regional details. And since you can't assume to know what the environment of other people around the world is, you have to start with bio-regionalism in your development plans, thinking locally, before you can presume to think globally. When you can solve the problems in your own backyard (doing what our President Barack Obama called “Nation Building here at home first”) then you might be able to assist folks in nation building abroad. But you can't think for them, you can't really think globally – remember from our previous lecture that “the map is not the territory” and unless you grew up somewhere or live somewhere you can never really know the place and the needs of the people. But you can act globally, by sharing the solutions you came up with at home with people who live in other environments and allowing them to adapt your solutions to their circumstances.

James Scott, whom I've referenced before, in Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, was among the first to bring attention to the distinction between two very different types of of knowledge: Techne and Metis.

Brand and Karvonen (2007) in their article “The ecosystem of expertise: complementary knowledges for sustainable development” (
explain the difference by saying,

The problem of competing formal expertise is exacerbated by the existence of experiential, local, or tacit knowledge that arises from personal experience and exploration outside the confines of educational institutions and without full adherence to the scientific method. Scott (1998) refers to these different forms of knowledge in his distinction between techne and metis. Techne “is characterized by impersonal, often quantitative precision and a concern with explanation and verification,” while metis represents indigenous knowledge, meaning, experience, and practical results. Similarly, as Lane & McDonald (2005) explain, Levi-Strauss and Feyerabend are sig nificant among the scholars who have observed that the “construction of [indigenous] knowledge is holistic, territorially oriented and concrete, whereas western science is abstract, reductionist, and separates the human from the natural.” Lane & McDonald sum up their perspective on technical knowledge by stating that “technical knowledge simultaneously sharpens our focus and obscures our vision.”

Techne was usually something development agencies tried to bring to a given developing country -- the immutable universal; Metis was usually something development agencies tried to supplant -- the endlessly variable, mutable, local specific. Techne was "one size fits all" -- easy to replicate and ship around the world. Metis was intensely place oriented -- custom solutions for custom problems.

One of the great problems of formal education institutions has been their emphasis on techne to the exclusion of metis. And since one of our tasks in this course is to have each of us come up with our own vision for eutopia, I thought I would offer you mine by starting very locally and imagining what Mercy College could look like if we created a Sustainability Center that seriously integrated Metis into its curriculum and see how we might link it with the Mercy Global Center and truly make it possible to learn how to think locally and globally and act locally and globally in a sustainable way.

I invite you to share this vision with me now:

Imagine a center you could go to to learn how to 'design with and for the other 90%' . Imagine a place you could go to and use your education to immediately make positive changes in your own neighborhood and with others around the world.

The Mercy College Sustainability Center would be a new kind of educational initiative that would draw part of its uniqueness from the power of collective intelligence and current trends in crowd sourcing and citizen science combined with the philosophies of the Cooper Hewitt 'Design for the Other 90%” exhibit and the United Nations “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES” exhibit (Ironically, curator Cynthia Smith's exhibits are on display at the Mercy Corps Action Center; we know Cynthia through our Solar CITIES board directors Kenneth and Diane Miller who are also on the board of the Smithsonian and Cooper Hewitt Museums; we can expect a good synergy with them. See

The Mercy College Sustainability Center represents another important “experiment in the cost-effective use of technology in teaching” (to paraphrase Dr. Saul Fisher) placing an emphasis on the “Do-it-Yourself”, “Try this at home”, “Home Depot” or “Local Hardware Store and Recycled Materials” approach to environmental technologies.

It embraces the time-honored tradition of the American “tinkerer”, of the backyard and garage entrepreneur, and the indomitable spirit of the inventor. It uses hands-on learning and lived experience to inspire in students a feeling of certainty for the truth spoken by one of America's greatest heroes, Alexander Graham Bell:

Wherever you may find the inventor, you may give him wealth or you may take from him all that he has; and he will go on inventing. He can no more help inventing that he can help thinking or breathing.” Alexander Graham Bell
Bell also famously said, “A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with – a man is what he makes of himself.”

A Sustainability Center that is founded on this can-do ethic would indeed be truly sustainable. It would foster a keen eye for endless improvements and higher efficiencies, for getting ever bigger bangs for the buck, for doing more with less. It would train its trainees to think outside every box and yet be able to integrate and package diverse systems into one functioning, problem solving whole. It would help students make of themselves the very best they can be in service to themselves, their families, friends, communities and the greater society and the ecosystems of the planet.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and its catastrophic impact on New York and so many other parts of our nation and with the impending threats of more unnatural and natural disasters to come, our mandate is making a Sustainability Center that is as useful as possible to the people of New York in particular, and to the US and the World in general, and that is capable of weathering not just the weather, but economic crises and instabilities as well.

We recognize that Mercy College, as a small liberal arts college with a majority of Pell grant eligible students and very modest financial means, has limited space and facilities. Nonetheless it occupies great strategic locations, particularly the Dobbs Ferry campus overlooking the Hudson River in sight of Manhattan. If it positions its sustainability efforts in the traditions of technological pacifist leader Mahatma Gandhi and British economist E.F. Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful”, if it follows in the footsteps of the pioneers of appropriate technology, and if it utilizes Ghandi's development philosophy where “everyone is considered an education resource, the teacher as well as the student and the literate as well as illiterate” then we can create something as appealing to students and funders as it is unique, and something that will grow and endure.

It will also teach meaningful cross-disciplinary and applied science, and prepare Mercy students to be leaders in research and development (R&D) and in regional and international development, in disaster preparedness, crisis prevention and emergency management. Our students will have the confidence to enter the new 'green' job markets, and to join international aid and relief efforts and start social entrepreneurial businesses at home and abroad.

In India the educational approach to sustainability I'm suggesting for Mercy's Sustainability Center is often called “The Barefoot Approach” (

Its success over the past 40 years in “Empowering the Rural Poor to Develop Themselves” was noted at the International Symposium on Lifelong Learning 2011 in the keynote address “Demystifying Education: The Barefoot Approach” ( and it can apply to urban dwellers as well. It is in alignment with Mercy's PACT approach, giving educational self-determination priority over externalized attempts at 'standardization' and sidestepping the techno-politics of what Timothy Mitchell (2002) called the “Rule of Experts”. Applied to urban and suburban education in a developed country like America that nonetheless has to deal with severe environmental and socio-economic challenges, this approach would yield dramatic positive and appealingly unconventional results and multiplier effects.

Models for Mercy to Follow:

My recommendation is that we follow, in many regards, two existing models for sustainability centers. One is the Barefoot College in India, the other is the Arava Insitute for Environmental Studies in Israel.

The "Barefoot College" Model from Tilonia, Rajastan, India, which I visited with the India Youth Climate Network in 2009. has proven the efficacy of the 'bricoleur' or tinkerer education approach, now emphasized in the World Bank Education Strategy 2020, since 1971. Barefoot College's visionary founder Bunker Roy showed us his answer to sustainability education: teaching people from whatever background (in the case of his college a deliberate selection of illiterate women from around the world who were between 35 and 60 years of age) how to build their own renewable energy, water purification, pumping, waste management and food production systems at the home and community scale and then empowering them to go back to their countries, train others, and start micro-enterprises to solve local problems that could scale up and become more sophisticated with greater capital investment.

A visit with the women, conversations with them and observations of the results they obtained, convinced me and others in our educational technology group that this approach has the highest chance for success in our times and produces the biggest bang for the buck.

There would be extreme merit in adapting the Barefoot approach for Mercy College, keeping in mind that despite the fact that we, like Barefoot College, have no engineering faculty at the school, that there are no physics or chemistry classes or laboratories and that we have no dedicated building or equipment for such activities, we can nonetheless create a sustainability program of the highest quality, one that is of broad appeal and one that can garner Mercy College high visibility and attractiveness for student recruitment and funding opportunities.

The fact is that the kind of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) skills needed to effectively build and install, implement and operate sustainable environmental technologies, can be learned by almost anybody anywhere. The construction skills required are already resident in a huge number of individuals in almost every community, and the theoretical and applied science background can be easily delivered and understood because it is relevant to peoples' survival and taps into deeply encoded attention structures.

At Mercy we would be one of the first East Coast institutions of our size to formalize the kind of informal learning that puts science and engineering to work for community benefit.

Creating a hands-on Center for student learning of both the theory and the practice of sustainable development (“sustainability praxis”) at a small liberal arts college with no facilities for such activities could be seen as huge challenge, but in another sense this can be seen as an ideal opportunity. In the Barefoot College approach the assumption is that students actually come from impoverished areas with no technical background and that they normally face severe material constraints. The emphasis is then on learning how to build solutions to life's existential challenges using local and found materials and becoming savvy in how to obtain critical components from the market and do the necessary systems integration to achieve success.

And achieve success they have – becoming famous the world over for turning out students who go on to become entrepreneurs and community leaders. In an article on the website ( it is pointed out that

“To date, the Barefoot College approach has benefited 900 communities, not only in India but also in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Mali.”.

Having seen many of these successes overseas with my own eyes, I've asked myself, “where are students being trained in America to handle the real challenges of sustainable living?”
Many of our students gain valuable field experience in the Peace Corps or doing missionary work, but there are very few places in America where college students get trained to not just become aware of the challenge of sustainability in a textbook sense, but adept at solving those challenges with their own hands.

In Israel this kind of education has been taken up by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies where I have given several workshops and for whom I was the keynote speaker at their alumni conference in Aqaba, Jordan. To end the conference, after a lot of talk about sustainability, a group of us headed back across the border to Eilat and spent a day at the Intstitute building biodigestors on the campus to turn its food waste into energy and fertilizer for new food. Arava brings Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and international students together and gives students opportunities to innovate their own solutions to the problems of survival (water, energy, shelter, pollution) that exacerbate political tensions.

The Arava, situated on a Kibbutz in the arid south of Israel, takes Praxis seriously and trains its students to be able to solve environmental problems in their home country as well as sending them to other countries to be involved in relief efforts, creating peace through local and appropriately scaled environmental engineering.

Mercy College in particular and the New York City and Suburban landscape in particular, offers much much more in the way of “out of the gate' opportunity, materials, and possible subsidy or seed-funding than Barefoot College had when it began in the remote part of Rajastan where it is situated or than the Arava had when it started in the deserts of Israel. My thought is that we as Americans should be able to achieve the same successes as India and Israel has been able to achieve if we put our hearts and minds to it.

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