Week 1: Roots of Environmental Awareness

The Valley, the colloquial name given to the stretch of Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, Colorado by the people who live there, has fertile soil in more ways than one. With an incredible amount of activity centered around gardening and environmental awareness in this area, it certainly feels like this region is a hot-spot for investigating how individuals and communities begin to develop environmental awareness. Carbondale, for a town with ‘carbon’ in its name, ironically seems to be the most sustainable of the towns. But regardless of the impression its name invokes, it certainly does, from my impression of the town after a two-day visit, seem to be the shining diamond of the valley in terms of ecological awareness. For a town with the population size of a small college campus, it contains the largest communal gardens I have seen in person. Two of these gardens were run by communal organizations, the larger one being supported by church members. One garden I helped weed and plant in during my visit was a hybird communal-and-education-based garden, with its location right next to the Carbondale high school providing a perfect opportunity for a hands-on education in cultivation. It not only contained a wide diversity of plant life, but also a geodesic dome and a second greenhouse currently under construction. The final garden I visited illustrated the effect a few dedicated individuals can have as it, sitting in the heart of Carbondale, was just an empty dirt lot and an unintentional mud pit two years ago.

The rest of the valley also exhibited its commitment to the environment. The headline story of the June 6th edition of the Glenwood Springs’ Post Independent newspaper covered the recipients of grant money from the LiveWell program, which is focused on eliminating obesity through healthy food and an active lifestyle. The project that was the recipient of the  largest grant, the New Castle Community Garden project, is focused on not only providing food for its residents, “but in teaching people how to garden and grow their own food” (Post Independent A6). Basalt Mountain, in Basalt, Colorado, contains one of the largest and oldest permaculture sites in Colorado, having been at its current location for the past 25 years. This weekend saw the town of Aspen host its fifth annual Eco Fest, advertised as “Blending Lifestyle, Business and the Environment.” (Post Independent A6).

All of these initiatives in this valley provide strong evidence for how fertile the minds of its residents are for thinking of themselves as part of the environment. How prime this ‘soil’ is for accepting the idea of an ecological orientation also has important implications for my research. As Bendik-Keymer describes in his book, The Ecological Life, an ecological orientation involves a fundamental change in our understanding of what it means to be human, seeing our humanity through the paradigm of the earth’s ecology (Bendik-Keymer 54). While this should be the goal as environmental non-profits and environmentally-aware individuals try to increase their impact on society, I fear it may be too demanding of people who are not primed to allow an ecological orientation to take root. In this valley, it ostensibly appears that much of the foundation has been laid far before my arrival and thus this would not necessarily be an issue. However, this initial impression is at least slightly misleading.

The best example I can give is in the case of the Aspen’s Eco Fest, which I attended Saturday. Arriving in the afternoon, I was initially impressed with some of its exhibits, particularly the solar powered remote-controlled car. But this feeling soon stagnated when I realized that the festival seemed to emphasize the ‘business’ aspect of the advertisement. While it had to be pointed out to me that the festival supporting and favoring local businesses was a very sustainable practice, I still came away from the event that the environmental aspect took a back seat. Of the 52 or so vendors I personally counted at the event, only around 9 actually seemed to be in the business of providing the public with information that would be worthy of an Eco Fest. Beyond that, only 10 or so other vendors were selling products explicitly advertised an environmentally-conscious way that could promote environmental awareness in those in attendance. This means less than half of the booths at the event helped to drive home the idea of an Eco Fest, at least from my perspective. While labeling the event as ‘Eco Fest’ certainly made the Aspen community seem sustainably driven, it certainly didn’t seem to live up to the billing.

In fairness, I only attended Saturday’s portion of the festival, staying for about an hour in the afternoon and returning again right before the end of the festival for that day. Regardless, within this valley there seems to be differing degrees to which environmental awareness has taken hold, and this may actually be more beneficial for this research. Rather than working with communities already well on their way to developing an ecological orientation, the variance will hopefully illustrate the evolution that takes place as communities begin to alter their paradigms so I can understand what it takes for that evolution to happen.

Taking a step down from the level of communities, I also have to consider the way paradigms become ecologically oriented on an individual level. As with many paradigms, an ecological orientation is not one-size fits all. In his definition of an ecological orientation, Bendik-Keymer describes how “our humanity includes moral identification with the universe of life” (Bendik-Keymer 55). Given the subjective nature in what it means for each of us to call ourselves a human being, it seems necessary that an ecological orientation will emphasize different aspects of our lives over others in order to satisfy our individual definition of what it means to be human. I am not saying that our definitions of humanity will differ greatly from person to person, but rather the expression of our humanity will vary as we try to contextualized who we are in what it means to be human. In this way we can maintain our autonomy while still being part of a collective whole.

The reason this becomes relevant, and possibly even crucial, is because the different ways in which we view our humanity through our individual lenses means different explanations and learning styles will go farther with some than others. Each of us surely has an experience with people, classmates, coworkers, etc., that can be given a physics problem and immediately understand the intricacies of the system, while others can be given a piece of 1000-piece puzzle and have an understanding of its place in the whole of the picture. It goes back to what is intuitive to us, because details that can be looked up via the internet in a matter of seconds matter little if you do not have a framework in which to use those individual details for a collective purpose. With this view, intuition is just an unconscious paradigm, and it is exactly paradigms and a paradigm shifts being invoked when I describe increasing environmental awareness in others and helping them form an ecological orientation. Although the key may be that it is not a paradigm shift when we appeal to a person’s intuition, but a paradigm refocusing. It is this refocusing that is what Bendik-Keymer is describing when he states, “What it is to be properly human is understood in relation to Earth ecology” (Bendik-Keymer 54). From my personal experience over the past week at Aspen TREE, it seems that appealing to a person’s intuition is a much easier pathway for refocusing paradigms and developing a mindset actively engaged in considering what is good for the environment. For example, while describing to the other interns and I the important ideas to keep in mind while tending the Aspen TREE garden, the leader of the internship made sure to note that the “biggest harvest was for the Gods.” He then went on describe how leaving the largest parts of the harvest in the garden would ensure the next generation of plants would be the offspring of the largest harvest and thus would be a form of genetic selection. For someone who is not particularly religious, his initial statement did not seem as powerful to me as his secondary explanation. At the same time, however, I can see how the first explanation could be far more appealing than the second. Both statements help achieve the same end result and, more importantly, connects what is ingrained in the individual to what is ecological.

On the surface, this may sound like it is a way to indoctrinate individuals and avoid having to having philosophical debates on the matter of ecological awareness. But, just as with pathogens trying to enter our body, the mind can also reject ideas it is not primed for and that do not already fit with our existing schema. Sometimes this can manifest itself as a bias. Another analogy is watering soil. It does the plants no good if your turn a firehose on them for a couple of minutes and then walk away; priming the soil with a little bit of moisture allows the earth to accept more of the moisture that it encounters later on. In this way, appealing to intuition means the ground work is already accomplished, but, in order to be effective in doing this, it seems that different, but equally accurate, descriptions of the same process are necessary.

It appears we need explanation plurality. If we can explain the ecological so that it appeals to a scientific sense, an aesthetic sense, a spiritual sense and so on and so forth, ideally we can allow intuition to make the process of developing an ecological orientation that much easier. I hope to determine how effective this strategy is in the coming weeks.

Works Cited

Bendik-Keymer, J. (2006). The ecological life: Discovering citizenship and a sense of                        humanity. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Pub..

Rice, Heidi. (2014, June 7). Programs aim to help locals eat, live well. Post Independent, pp.             A1, A6.