Why This Way – In the Spirit of This Blog, a Consensus-Based Organization for Building a Healthier Society

As subscribers to this blog may have noticed, this blog, which had always only been updated irregularly, has been inactive for an unusually long time.  There have been a lot of things that I’ve been working on during this time, but the one that I feel most passionate about and that has engaged much of my creative energy is called Why This Way.

It’s a little hard to describe what Why This Way is, but in many ways, it is a natural outgrowth of the approach of this blog: building consensus between people with different perspectives, and aiming to solve problems and bring society into a healthier state of being.   I sometimes describe it as a consensus-based belief system and organization–a little like an analogue of organized religion that is structured more like Wikipedia.

I have felt encouraged and inspired by the extent of the belief system that we’ve been able to develop and agree upon by consensus, especially given the wide variety of different religious and non-religious backgrounds of the people who have become involved in the group.

The group’s name can be read as a question.

For almost three months, our group existed and operated without a name, until we agreed on one by consensus.  Once the idea for the name came up, we quickly agreed that it seemed fitting.  The name hints at both questions and statements:

  • “Why do we do it this way?”
  • “Why would one want to do it this way?”
  • “Why do it this way at all, why not do it another way?”
  • “Here’s why we do it this way.”
  • “This could be a good reason to do it this way.” etc.

The name is intended to capture, communicate, or connote both the fact that our group emphasizes questioning, and that we have extensive reasoning behind all the things that we have chosen to include in the group’s beliefs and practices.  In a broader sense, the name is also intended to draw attention to thinking about the “why” in general.  For example, our group emphasizes the idea that people tend to have reasons behind their beliefs, and that it can be helpful to draw attention to this reasoning.

Awareness of the “why” can help solidify or strengthen beliefs that people really want to hold.  But it can also help people to root out maladaptive behaviors or beliefs that are problematic or untruthful.  The group draws attention to cases when people follow practices or beliefs merely out of what we call a “vague sense of obligation”, a sort of societal pressure that is often unconscious.

Building Consensus

Why This Way is run by consensus, but more than just being consensus-run, different aspects of the group have been designed so as to integrate the philosophy and approach of consensus (and the related idea of consent) into the belief system and the way of communicating.

The group is based on basic observations that most people can agree on.  These are called starting points; one of them is illustrated here:

522459_10200868547255805_720673377_nMany of the central ideas in the group, such as the idea shown above, are ones that are pretty obvious, but that people often lose sight of, especially in situations of conflict, stress, or anxiety.  One of the ways our group works is by continually drawing attention to these points so that we can discuss things (and act) in ways that are more rational and more constructive.

When there is a point of disagreement, rather than arguing back and forth to try to prove the correctness of one view (or the incorrectness of another), the goal in our discussion is for each person present to understand the other person’s perspective as fully as possible, and to distinguish between where they agree and where they disagree.  As a group, we word our beliefs, practices, and official statements so as to describe the diversity of viewpoints as accurately as possible.

A Specific Way of Communicating

One of the centerpieces of Why This Way is a set of rules called the rules of communication.  An initial set of rules, similar in spirit to the currently existing rules, were agreed upon by consensus at the first meeting.  The group has refined these rules over time.  The rules are quite strict, and difficult to follow.  They serve many goals, including:

  • Promoting an atmosphere of mutual respect, where people don’t feel like they are being told they are wrong just for having a different perspective.
  • Promoting truthfulness in dialogue, keeping grossly untruthful statements out of the group to as great a degree as possible, and helping people to more easily discern the truthfulness of various statements.
  • Drawing attention to the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity of beliefs, and helping people in the group to become aware of exactly how and when and where their beliefs differ from others in the group.

Explaining the rules and their implications fully would take pages, but I want to summarize a few of the major ones:

  • Negative Labelling – The rules prohibit attaching negative labels to people or groups of people.  Besides prohibiting many forms of insults, this prohibits the practice of identifying people with or defining people by their flaws.  For example, we can say that a person’s words or actions are racist, but we cannot say that the person is racist.  Similarly, we can say that a person committed a crime, but we cannot call them a criminal.
  • Statements about other people’s thoughts, intentions, or motivations – One of the toughest rules to follow is one prohibiting making statements about other people’s thoughts, intentions, or motivations.  We allow for general observation and speculation about human psychology, but not the reading of specific thoughts or intentions into a specific person.  This rule has many purposes.  One purpose is to keep the dialogue focused on observable reality, as we can directly observe a person’s words and actions, but only the person themselves can observe their own thoughts.  Another purpose is to respect psychological boundaries, which can be related to issues of privacy and consent in sharing thoughts.  Still another is to prevent the reading of negative intentions into people’s actions, which can lead to demonization and conflict and can hinder progress at achieving goals or influencing people in positive ways.
  • Should statements – Our group has rules that prohibit using should statements, which include both the word “should” and ideas expressing equivalent ideas, such as “ought to”, “supposed to”, or the idea that someone “deserves” something.  Although we don’t necessarily consider the word “should” to always be problematic in dialogue, we want our dialogue to get more specific.  A statement like “we should do this” can mean: “I want to do this”, but it could also mean: “I need to do this do achieve a specific outcome.” or “I think it would be good for me to do this.”, or even “I feel a vague sense of obligation to act in this manner.”  We want our rules to help people communicate in a way that distinguishes between these different uses of the word.

What is Why This Way doing?

So far, Why This Way has mostly focused on the development of a system of beliefs and practices that the individual participants in the group can put into use in their lives.  Much of the discussion, and the writing on the wiki, has focused on things that anyone can put into practice in their daily life.

Screenshot of the Why This Way wiki

The central writings of the group are housed on a wiki in a format similar to Wikipedia.

In addition to the Wiki, the group also has some larger projects, for the long-term, which I want to mention:

  • An educational philosophy and system – Although it is in its very early stages, we have begun discussing and developing a philosophy of education that is based on our core beliefs.  This discussion has two goals: one, to help people such as students, teachers, and parents to make the best of the current educational systems in society, and two, to eventually create or inspire schools or systems of education of our own.
  • Sustainable gardening and landscaping – Sustainability is a key aspect of the system of beliefs and practices in Why This Way, and one way this has played out is that the group has designed a set of practices for sustainable gardening and landscaping.  We have begun to implement these, with planting of native plants on two different properties, with the goal of creating sustaining semi-wild environments in each case: the flower beds of an apartment building in West Philadelphia, and a suburban yard at one of the houses where we hold regular meetings.
  • Press and media – Communication is a key focal point of Why This Way, and explicit discussion of the media and press, as well as discussion of the culture of electronic communication and social media, has come up in many of our meetings.  Our group already has an extensive wiki which has a much wider reach than the people who physically attend our meetings.  In addition, many of our members are active bloggers, and have both written about the ideas in our group (Babies and Bathwater is one example of such a blog), as well as having had ideas in our group shape our writings on other topics.  We have also discussed, for the long run, the possibility of later creating news media that is in harmony with our value system.
Inkberry holly bushes in pots

After discussing and agreeing upon principles of sustainable landscaping in Why This Way, two of us used these principles as a guide to inform our purchase of plants to landscape an apartment building in West Philadelphia. Pictured here are Inkberry holly bushes from Bartram’s Garden Nursery: these are one of the native plants we chose.

We are hoping that as our group grows, we will have more resources to be able to tackle more ambitious projects like these.  I have already been impressed with what our group has been able to achieve with our current level of participation.

What can you do?

If you are interested in our group, and if you want to either learn more or contribute, there are many ways you can get involved.

  • Read our wikiOur wiki houses the most up-to-date official writings of our group.  It is a good way to both see what we’ve been resolving and discussing, as well as to get a better sense for how our value system fits together.  You can also search for specific topics on the wiki, to see if we’ve discussed them or have any viewpoints on them.
  • Talk to us – Why This Way is based on dialogue, which not only includes group discussions, but also one-on-one conversations about the group and its ideas.  Talking to people about our group and the ideas in the group is one of the best ways to learn about it, and may lead to a deeper understanding than just reading the wiki.
  • Offer feedback – Our group is based on ongoing questioning, discussion, and refinement of our ideas.  If you see something that you think you could improve, that you think is problematic, or a topic that you don’t see covered that you want us to discuss and write about, or elaborate on, please get into contact with us!
  • Get involved locally – We currently have regular meetings in the city of Philadelphia and in its northern Suburbs, as well as semi-regular meetings in northern Delaware.  If you live in this area, you can come to our meetings or meet with us to talk about our ideas.  If you live farther away, there are still ways you may be able to get involved.  Perhaps you could meet up with one or more people in our group when we travel, and we also have ways which people can get involved remotely.
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The Wishing Post: How to Wish, and My Wishes

Today is November 11th, 2011, and this post is scheduled for 11:11.  This only happens once (unless you count both AM and PM)!  This is a wishing post…a post with wishes of my own, and also a post about wishing.  In this post, you will find an explanation of how the act of wishing can produce tangible and positive results in our lives and our world.

A magic wand

We all know that wishes do not always come true, but sometimes come true.  Why wish for things?  The main motivation behind wishing is that wishing for something makes it more likely for the wish to come true.  The reasons for this are actually so simple that they are almost self-evident, without any need to resort to mysticism or supernatural explanations:

  • When we wish for something, it is primed in our consciousness.  Even when we are not consciously thinking about the wish, it is lurking somewhere in the back of our minds, and we become more likely to notice things in the world around us that are related to the wish.  Wikipedia has a detailed article on the phenomenon of priming, if you want a full explanation.
  • Once the wish has primed us to things around us related to a specific event, occurrence, or goal, we will be more likely to see or notice opportunities in the world around us that can help us make our wish come true.  We thus become more likely to make our wish a reality, through our own actions and choices.
  • Because we generally wish for positive things that make us feel good, the act of visualizing these things can put us in a more positive mood and mindset.  There is a large degree to which being in a positive mindset and mood can make it more likely for us to have good experiences.  The reason for this lies in the phenomenon of positive feedback loops.  Positive feedback loops are a characteristic feature of nearly all complex systems, and are ubiquitous both in the human mind and body, and in social networks and economic systems.  Wikipedia also has a very good article on positive feedback in systems.  In terms of how you are thinking and feeling, positive feedback operates through the way you are thinking and feeling influencing your actions and decisions in ways that reinforce the same thoughts and feelings.  This can happen both with positive and negative emotions: anger can produce hostile or hurtful actions, which can provoke more anger, causing escalating conflict, or love and generosity can bring out generous and loving qualities in others, leading to positive human relationships.  Wishes can help us leap into a new, positive place, using the power of our imaginations.

How to wish?

It seems silly to ask how to wish; most young children know how to make wishes, and do so frequently.  But, as the examples above show, the ways in which wishing operates are rather complex.  I prefer to think about wishing as a skill, something that can be cultivated and developed.  I’m not an expert wisher, but I do have a few ideas of what makes a good wish, and how to carry out the wish.  I actually want to start though with the how, rather than the what.

An unfamiliar night sky with stars, with a large, bright white object.

People often like to wish upon a star. This photo of the night sky, taken from Mars in 2005, was likely a wish-come-true for the scientists involved in the Spirit Rover project.

  • Give yourself a justification for the wish.  The justification can be genuinely spiritual, or it can be superstitious or even completely made up.  For example, I am posting this post on 11:11, 11/11/11, because this is a good wishing time, as this time is attention-getting and has a culturally accepted significance for making wishes.  Although this post is primarily about wishing, not about prayer, if you are religious or believe in God, you might also find it helpful to pray instead of wishing.  But I want to emphasize that your justification or grounds for the wish do not need to be deep or serious, and you do not need to believe in any sort of global significance to them.  The act of wishing can be fun and lighthearted, so it is often best to pick a silly justification for your wish.  Culturally-accepted events to wish upon (such as the first star you see at night, blowing away the seeds of a dandelion plant, or blowing out candles) can be good options, but you can also create your own traditions and share them with your friends and family.
  • Focus on your wish and experience the act of wishing, rather than letting it happen as a fleeting thought.  The reason for the importance of this lies in how priming works in the brain.  If we are exposed to a stimulus and ignore it, it actually becomes less likely for us to recognize (and thus act on) that stimulus when we encounter it in the future.  This phenomenon is called negative priming, and explains, among other things, how some people might repeat prayers in church, to use an example, out of rote or habit, without being mindful and focusing on them, and then go out into their lives and act in direct conflict with what they just prayed about.  Others, who are mindful of the same prayer and say it deliberately and focus on it, might find the same repeated sayings to translate into positive actions in their lives.

Now that we’ve reflected a little on how to wish, I want to move towards the question of what to wish for.

What to wish for?

I have two pieces of advice about how to determine what to wish for: look for what you want rather than what you are told to want, wish big, and make your wish something you can actually imagine.  The first of these tidbits of advice is the easiest of the three to grasp.

Look for what you want, not what you are told to want:

There are a lot of suggestions and temptations in our society of things to wish for, both for ourselves and for others.  Many of these suggestions are a direct result of marketing and advertising that we are inundated with from a very young age.  Young children are induced by advertising on television and in other media to want specific toys, or other material goods.  Adults as well are told by advertisement what to want, and we are usually told to desire material things, because this produces the greatest profit, and thus payoff, for the advertiser.  But these things are not what we really want.

The retail industry expends massive amounts of money to try to shape culture and people's desires, so that they falsely believe that what they really want is to buy more stuff. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Another source of temptation of things to wish for are the expectations and demands placed on us by other people.  Some people have parents who want them to follow a specific career path, or exhibit a certain type of “success” in life (often manifested in education, job, wealth, status, or marriage and raising children).  Other people may have a boss in a job, or a teacher, or an academic advisor, who always wants more work, better work, or a different sort of work.  Various other people face demands on their time, from responsibilities in clubs or charitable organizations they are involved in, or from friends, romantic partners, or family members.

It is generally a good thing to be concerned with other people, and it is also perfectly okay to wish for material things, as we all need some degree of material resources in order to live our lives and pursue deeper and more meaningful things.  However, when wishing, it is important that you ask yourself what you really want.  If you wish instead for what others tell you to want, you may remain unsatisfied even if the wish comes true.  By wishing for what you really want, you not only make it more likely that your wish will result in an outcome you really want, but, through the act of wishing, you will help yourself to become a more honest and whole person, more assertive and open about your own needs and desires.

Wish big:

One way that wishing can go wrong, or at least be ineffective, is if we wish for things that are too small and too specific.  Life is unpredictable, and we don’t always know what we’re going to end up with in the end.  Sometimes wishing for something specific can be empowering, such as wishing you get a job, directly before going into an interview for that job.  But in the long-run, if you wish about a highly specific job or career that doesn’t exist and is not realistic to create, you may not find it, and you may remain frustrated.  If instead, you broaden your wish, such as wishing for a fulfilling, meaningful job, you may see and be able to take opportunities that you did not notice when your sights were more narrow.

A mother and baby elephant, in the savannah

Elephants are big, but love is bigger.

I’m also a big fan of wishing big, that is, wishing for miracles, things that seem impossible, out of reach, or at least highly unlikely.  Examples of these sorts of wishes include healing or recovery from terminal illnesses or conditions that seem impossible to overcome, or broad-scale cultural or political changes that we often feel powerless to influence.  And miracles and broad-scale changes do sometimes happen, as anyone who has seen a loved one live far longer than the doctors predicted, or anyone who has seen the fall of an oppressive system like apartheid in South Africa, will testify to.

But, if wishing is to be effective, the practice of wishing big must be tempered by a third piece of advice, one anchored in realism and our limitations as human beings.

Make your wish something you can actually imagine:

One of the big cliche wishes which doesn’t seem to come true in spite of many people wishing for it is world peace.  I’m a very optimistic person, and I actually believe that world peace is possible and will some day be attained, although to be realistic, we will probably always have some form of conflict.  But why, if so many people are so often wishing for world peace, do we still have so much war?  This seems like one of those questions that is impossible to answer, but I want to offer a possible explanation.

My explanation is that “world peace” is too vague a wish, and too hard to imagine in a way that is real and relevant to our lives.  (Contrast this with a wish to end a specific war or conflict, which always eventually comes true.)  What does “world peace” mean?  Most people don’t even have a grasp of what “world” means.  We don’t have an intuition for how large the world is, and for how many people there are in the world.  And most of us know little to nothing about many or all of the places where we are supposedly wishing for peace.

Overly vague wishes are limited in the degree to which they can actually empower us to positively influence our world, in part because they do not involve vivid imagery of what the outcome of the wish would look like, to us, in our own lives.  They don’t prime us for anything directly related to the goal.  There are thus few opportunities for us to act in our daily lives in ways to actually bring our desired results into being.  If we are to wish for the end of a conflict, we need to feel some sort of connection to the people and places involved in the conflict, and we need to have a picture of what peace would look like.  Then, and only then, will we be able to let wishing do its magic, and begin to seize opportunities to actually make the wish into a reality through some sort of concrete action in our daily lives.

I want to clarify that I’m not telling people to avoid wishing for (or working for) world peace or other global goals.  But I will say, if you really want to achieve such goals, your best bet is to think carefully about vivid ways to visualize them, and make them as relevant to your life as possible.

My wish:

My wish is that people throughout the world will take time to stop and reflect on what they really want, not what consumerist marketing or societal expectations tell them to want.  And I wish that people will take time to do this not once, but on an ongoing basis, setting aside time in each day to do so, to think about the broader, longer-term things in life, so that their actions can be more purposeful in a global sense.

I wish that people will stop and look critically on the obsession that dominates not only American culture, but many cultures in the global economy: the obsession with self-advancement and competition, which manifests in working ever harder and longer hours to earn money, focusing on getting good grades in school, advancing in one’s career, and achieving other tangible material measures of success.  I wish that people will step back and take some time to ask deeper questions about what they are really working for, and do everything in their power to make choices that produce the best results for society as a whole, rather than just trying to advance themselves in a big game of status and power.  And I wish that people will become more aware of how their actions give power to or take power away from those in authority, and that, to whatever degree possible, they will give their power to those placing the best interests of society as a whole first, and find ways to keep power away from those who are merely working to advance themselves.

I think I have a good idea of what society would look like if we did more of this.  I think a large number of problems would start to solve themselves.  I also think I have a lot of ideas about how to bring this vision into being; if you want to learn more about some of these ideas, read more of this blog.

What is your wish?

Share a wish here in the comments, or write a blog post of your own about your wish!  It doesn’t matter if you missed the wishing time, 11:11 on 11/11/11.  I wrote this wishing post to open up an unlimited amount of wishing by an unlimited number of people!

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Announcing Cazort.net Photos

In case you wonder why I have not updated this blog in some time, I have been putting my efforts elsewhere for the time being.  One of these projects has been a photo album section which I added to Cazort.net.  Here is a screenshot of how the photo album looked earlier; I have since improved the formatting so that it looks a bit neater:

An eclectic photo album showing thumbnails

Thumbnails in Cazort.net's Photo Galleryaa

The photos on the site are classified by a system of tags, like this blog.  This enables a given photograph to be listed in multiple albums.  Within each album, the photos are classified by time and date.

I have included photos going back to when I obtained my first digital camera, in 2002, and the albums including pictures from three separate digital cameras, and from numerous different places I have lived and visited.

My motivations for creating this photoalbum are twofold:

  • I have published photos online for a long time, through a number of different websites.  Recently I had been uploading a lot of photos to Facebook.  Facebook benefits financially from the photos that I upload, through serving advertisements on pages containing my photos, and indirectly through the additional usage and traffic that is generated by my friends and other interested people viewing the photos.  Since taking, formatting, and uploading photos takes considerable time and effort, I wanted to reap the full benefits of my own photography rather than having a corporation profit off my own work without providing me with any compensation.  This motivated me to publish more of my photos on websites I control, rather than on websites owned or controlled by corporations.
  • When publishing on Facebook and other websites, the photos are naturally integrated with and cross-linked with other pages on the site (Facebook, or whatever site you are using).  I would rather my photos be cross-linked and integrated with my own work, writings and articles, and other websites that I choose on the basis of trusting or wanting to support.

Like this blog, the photo album serves the purpose of a sort of activism.  Each photo has not only a title and caption, but an extended written description, and, in some cases, a full-sized article.

These descriptions and articles explore many different topics, but like this blog, many of them focus on sustainability, culture, ecological relationships.  In the new photo albums and on the rest of Cazort.net, you will find the same sort of integrated approach to science, psychology, politics, culture, religion, and other topics that you find on this blog.  You will also find the same positive, problem-solving, action-oriented approach.  Many of the photos on the site are not intended to have artistic value, but rather, are intended to move or draw people to action.

My philosophy of photography:

I am not among the most talented photographers visually, but I do believe that I have something unique to offer in the political, cultural, and ecological interpretations to my photographs.  When I take photos, I do not want to create art.  I want to document and share the world as-is, and as I see it.  And I want to communicate my interpretation of how I see the world, and my understanding about the world.  For example, I do not want to engage in nature photography so much as I want to engage in ecological photography, and I want this ecological approach to extend to the way I photograph and write about my photographs of the urban, suburban, and rural environment, including not only how I view agriculture, gardens, and landscaping, but also buildings, infrastructure, public spaces, and people.

Often, when I go through my daily life, I see numerous potential points of action or activism that could easily solve certain societal problems or result in tangible benefits or improvements to society or communities.  By sharing my thoughts on the objects and events and sights I see in my daily life, I want to give others ideas and empower them to make a positive difference in the world in ways that they may not have thought of.  I also want to share my knowledge on topics on which I have knowledge that is accessible but not held by the general population.

I invite you to visit this new section of my website:

Please do check out my new photo section of Cazort.net.  You will find a particularly large section of photos of produce, photos of plants, and photos taken in Philadelphia.  The pictures of produce often are paired with discussion of the use of the various fruits and vegetables in food.

I have no idea what direction this photo section of the site will take in the future, but I invite you to check it out and come back periodically over time as I continue to add new material.  I still have thousands of pictures that I have not yet uploaded, so I will be adding not only new photographs but numerous photographs I took in the past as well.

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Neighborhood and Community Gathering Spaces

A long while ago, I heard Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, speak at Franklin & Marshall College.  His speech piqued my interest, and I read his book, in which he provides compelling evidence of the decline in America of what he calls “social capital”, a connectedness between the people in society.  Although I agreed with part of the conclusions of his book, notably that there has been a major decline in social capital in the U.S., I was unsatisfied by his causal explanation for the decline.  Putnam rightfully points to television as one major culprit, but he doesn’t fully explore why people started watching so much more television.  Could it have something to do with the neighborhoods we live in?

My feelings about community gathering spaces:

I absolutely love neighborhood gathering spots, those places where people from a neighborhood come together to socialize and connect.  There are many different types of spaces that could function as gathering spots in a neighborhood: coffee or tea shops, restaurants, bars, parks, town squares, and other outdoor spaces, churches, public-access buildings or outdoor terraces on a university campus, public government buildings like libraries, corporate office buildings with public areas, the possibilities are endless.

One of my favorite neighborhood gathering spots (which was also a gathering spot for interesting people of the Greater Cleveland metro area as a whole) is Algebra Tea House, pictured below:

People Gathered in a Tea House

Algebra Tea House in Cleveland, Ohio is a prime example of a small business that functions as a community gathering place.

I love this place because it’s the kind of place where you can easily strike up interesting and meaningful conversations with people.  If you’re feeling more social, you can sit at the counter, or if you’re in a more private mood, you can seek out a more secluded corner in the back.  People who live in the nearby neighborhood of Little Italy frequent the shop, as it not only sells coffee, tea, and baked goods, but also a reasonable selection of fresh produce, some food, and it provides wireless internet and a printer.  This tea house is convenient and is a huge asset to the neighborhood in which it is located.

The Value of Community Gathering Spots:

Spaces in which people can get together and hang out are obviously fun.  They help people to relax, and they provide a good place for groups to get together in a more public setting, or a place for single people to go if they just want to get out of their house or apartment.

But there are other values to these spaces as well.  As someone who has run one successful business and is currently working on a second, I will testify to the immense economic value of meeting people and networking for business purposes: any business owner will likely confirm this.  Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, networking and knowing people can be important when searching for a job or other opportunities.

Social gathering spaces are often one of the best ways to meet people for business networking purposes.  Just by being present in these spaces, I would naturally end up in conversations where people would ask me about what I did, and express curiosity about my business.  I picked up quite a few new clients, directly and indirectly, from these casual conversations.  While I did also join a number of groups that were oriented specifically towards business networking, I made just as many valuable business connections in social contexts and public spaces that were not explicitly business-oriented, including coffee shops, bars, at social dances, and even on buses and trains.

Walkability is central in creating neighborhood businesses:

Integral to the neighborhood character of Algebra Tea House, and many similar bars, restaurants, and stores, is the fact that it is located in between houses and apartments, in a dense, walkable neighborhood.  It’s so much easier to casually stop in a business or other gathering place, if you are already walking by it.  A person can even glance in the window to see if any friends are inside.   In car-oriented development, however, much more deliberate behavior is required in order to drive to, park, and enter a business or other space.  In this newer type of development, connections only happen when they are specifically planned.  In these businesses, where few people drop in or hang out, it’s less likely that you will strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before.

Shopping Plaza With Huge Parking Lot

Car-oriented commercial areas like this shopping plaza in Newark, DE, do not lend themselves to the spontaneous creation of community gathering spaces.

The local distribution of businesses is also important if businesses are to function as community gathering spaces.  While businesses naturally like to locate near each other because of the synergy produced by having a bunch of commerce in one place, if all the commerce serving a large area is centered in a single place, such as a mall, you will be less likely to run into someone you know when going to that place.  If, on the other hand, there are more small businesses scattered throughout different neighborhoods, you will be more likely to run into people from your neighborhood when you visit the businesses closest to where you live.

The lack of these community spaces can make it harder for newcomers to become connected into the community.  As someone who has lived in 10 different neighborhoods in 6 different cities, towns, or metropolitan areas since graduating college, being able to connect easily in new location is important to me.  But often, the lack of these spaces isn’t just something that affects newcomers, it’s something that reflects the fact that people in the community are not connected to each other!

Have these public spaces declined in America?

Yes.  Look at the style of development that has been proliferating.  Many newer areas in recent years have been developed in a car-oriented suburban style, with strip malls and shopping plazas instead of neighborhood-oriented businesses like those located in small storefronts in walkable neighborhoods.  Even the physical layout of the streets has changed, as I wrote about in The Joys of Through Streets.  Meanwhile, older neighborhoods are dying in cities across America:

Boarded-up Storefronts

Boarded up storefronts on St. Clair Ave., Cleveland, Ohio - Much of Cleveland looks like this. Many of the old, walkable urban areas have been abandoned as people moved to newer, car-oriented suburbs.

While suburban-style shopping plazas are thriving across America, older urban areas that have infrastructure that lends themselves to smaller, neighborhood- and community-oriented businesses are dying.  While there are many such areas that are thriving, there are many more that are in very bad shape, like the storefronts pictured above.  Not only does the car-oriented nature of these suburbs, and their greater distance from employment centers require more car use (and thus more fossil fuel use) and thus provide a barrier to achieving sustainability, but these newer suburbs do not lend themselves to the spontaneous formation of community.

As I explained above, community gathering places are not just enjoyable, but they have measurable economic value.  These newer suburbs are not only not sustainable environmentally, but they are poorer in economic opportunity for those who live in them!

Churches as an example of how people’s uses of existing spaces has tended away from neighborhood orientation:

The blog of St. George’s Anglican Community in Phoenix, AZ has an excellent post titled C.S. Lewis on Going to Church.  The post remarks on the phenomenon of “church shopping”, noting how C.S. Lewis had an unwavering commitment to attend his own local church, even if he was getting little out of it.  Lewis believed that the purpose of church was not for him to get something out of it, but rather, to bring something to church.

I struggle with this issue myself.  Everywhere I have lived, I have visited some of the neighborhood churches near me; sometimes I find that they mesh or resonate well with my values and beliefs, whereas other times I find these churches are more of a stretch to relate to.  But even in the churches where I haven’t found a good “fit”, I have still had meaningful conversations with people.  It is almost always possible to find the best in any situation, and if we set out to visit a local church with the intention of becoming more connected to the local community, rather than to find a church that matches our beliefs, we will be more likely to be satisfied and successful in what we set out to do.

You do not need to join a church or religious organization as a member, believe what the church believes, or even be a believer in or member of the more general religion the church or organization is, in order to attend it now and then.  In many cases, attending a church with differing views from your own could provide the additional benefit of giving you more perspective on life, or exposure to a new culture or new ideas.

Semi-Public, Semi-Private Spaces:

Not all community gathering spaces exist in businesses, organizations, or public property: people’s homes often fill this function to a degree.  The architecture of the homes is very important.  During the warm months, houses with large front porches often function as semi-public community spaces.  Neighbors may gather casually on someone’s porch to chat, and if you sit on your own porch, you will be more likely to see (and thus connect with) others in your neighborhood.

Porch of a House With Chairs

This is the front porch of the house I grew up in: it faces the street, where people frequently walk by on the sidewalk. I would frequently strike up conversations with neighbors walking by whenever I spent time on the porch.

Half-public, half-private spaces in people’s homes can take many different forms.  In some neighborhoods, people use front lawns for this purpose.  Some apartment complexes have shared courtyards.  In dense urban areas with rowhouses and no porches, people sometimes sit and chat on the stoops of their homes.  If you are creative, you can make a semi-public space out of the area you live in.

What can you do?

  • Familiarize yourself with the neighborhood and community gathering spaces near where you live and work.  Make an effort to spend time in them, either alone, or with groups of friends, in order to help keep these spaces vibrant.
  • If you attend church, try attending a church in your neighborhood at least periodically, even if it doesn’t fit as closely with your values, and even if you choose to attend another church as your main church.  Think both about what you can bring to the community in that church, and about being connected into the local community.
  • Choose to live, shop, and spend time in walkable neighborhoods to whatever degree possible.  Try to avoid spending time and money in more isolated, car-oriented areas unless you have a compelling reason to do so.  Use your spending decisions as a way to exert influence over the direction in which society develops, so as to promote sustainability and strong communities.
  • Spend time and money in the businesses that function as community gathering spaces so that they thrive.  Use and voice your support for other community spaces, such as public space in colleges and universities, churches, park space, or other space run by public/government entities.
  • Consider buying a house or renting an apartment where you will have access to a front porch, or other semi-public area, if possible.  Brainstorm about what you can do to create a semi-public area in your home.
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A Gas Tax to Stabilize Gasoline Prices

People generally don’t like taxes, and taxes on gasoline are no exception.  The rates on gasoline taxes are generally hidden from obvious view: people buying gas for their vehicles only see the price at the pump, which is a function both of tax rates, and the fluctuating price of wholesale gasoline.  Most people have no idea what portion of what they’re paying is tax and what portion reflects fluctuations in market price.

Sohio Gas Station Sign: $1.01 per gallon

Can you remember when gas was this cheap? Can you remember when Sohio had not yet been bought by BP?

What is the current gas tax rate in the US?

In the U.S., unlike sales tax which is a flat percentage, gasoline is usually taxed at a fixed rate of cents per gallon.  There are both state and federal taxes, and a few local ones as well.  The federal gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel.  The USDOT Federal Highway Administration has an excellent history of the federal gas tax on their website.

State taxes vary widely, and the taxes on diesel vs. regular gasoline also vary.  Unfortunately, I was not able to locate current figures on individual state tax rates, in one page whose figures I trusted.  The lowest tax rate is in Alaska, and the highest in New York State.  The average total gas tax is around 50 cents per gallon in the U.S.  For gas of about $3/gallon, this tax constitutes about 1/6th or about 17%.

The current gas tax is not high enough to fund road construction and maintenance:

Although federal gas tax revenues (and some states’ as well, including Ohio) are set aside mostly for road construction and maintenance, the current rate is too low to even pay for road maintenance.  Real Clear Markets published an article A Good Grade on a Possible Gas Tax in October, which points out that the federal gas tax has remained at a fixed rate since 1993.  The tax is not adjusted for inflation, nor does it rise as the price of gas rises over time.  The result is that the inflation-adjusted price of the tax has fallen, and the rate of tax as a percentage of gas prices has fallen even more.  However, road spending as a proportion of total government spending or revenue has not decreased.  This means that more funds have been transferred from other taxes and other government budgets being used for road construction and maintenance, thus contributing to the budget deficit.

Positive and Negative Impacts of High Gas Prices:

Before I propose my idea for a gas tax, I want to emphasize that high gas prices have both positive and negative effects on society.  The negative effects are obvious; most of the negative effects of high gas prices are felt immediately:

Negative Impacts of High Gas Prices:

  • High gas prices dampen economic activity, because much of this activity depends on vehicles that use gas, including travel and shipping.
  • High gas prices tend to disproportionately harm poorer individuals and families who are operating at the margins financially.

However, there are positive aspects of high gas prices, occurring both in the short- and long-term.

Positive Impacts of High Gas Prices:

  • High gas prices encourage conservation.  As gas prices rise, people are more likely to find ways to minimize their driving or gas usage.  This effect is immediate, but it continues to have a deeper effect in the long-term.
  • High gas prices discourage vehicle and road use, which decreases the need for road construction and maintenance.  This decreases costs for federal, state, and local governments alike.
  • In the long-term, high gas prices promote technological innovation to reduce gas usage.  When gas prices are high, the price of fuel-efficient vehicles soars, which makes it more financially rewarding for companies to develop, produce, and market these vehicles.
  • On very long time scales, high gas prices will change the structure and organization of communities and society as a whole in such a way that reduces gasoline usage.  For example, if gas prices remain high for a sustained period of time, living in exurbs far from employment centers will become less desirable, whereas living in urban centers will become more so.  There will also be increased demand for public transportation and walkable communities, which, over time, will lead to better public transit and communities that are designed in a more walkable way.
Old Compact Toyota and New BMW SUV

Rising gas prices will cause the fuel-inefficient SUV on the right to fall in value, whereas it will boost the resale value of the old compact car on the left. Falling gas prices will have the opposite effect. This effect can be easily observed by browsing used vehicle sales or visiting a car dealership during times of unusually high or low gas prices.

Is there a way to implement a gas tax so as to maximize the positive effects of high gasoline prices, while minimizing the negative impacts?  In order to answer this question, we need to consider something beyond just prices.  People and businesses alike are not just affected by the overall price of gas, but rather, they are also affected by the fluctuations and volatility of the price of gas.

A key idea here is that the negative impacts of rising gas prices are most strongly felt immediately, whereas the positive impacts of high gas prices are only fully realized in the long run.

Volatility of Gas Prices is More Harmful than High Prices:

Most conservation decisions take time.  On a day to day basis, a typical person needs to get to work, and for most Americans, this requires driving a car.  While public transportation may be an option for some, it is often time consuming, and takes time to learn and familiarize oneself with.  Carpooling, again, is an option for some people, but it also takes time to organize and figure out.  Gasoline prices fluctuate weekly, even daily.  When you drive to the gas station to find that the price of gas has jumped 50 cents from last week, there’s little you can do other than sucking it up and paying the extra money.

For business, the same is true.  Logistics companies can shift to rail freight from trucks as gasoline prices make trucking less viable, but this process is slow and involved.  When the prices of supplies and industrial inputs fluctuate due to shipping prices, substitute goods can be found, but this process takes even more time and is even more involved than changing shipping methods.

Gas prices that rise sharply and unpredictably thus have a much stronger negative effect both in terms of causing individual hardship and dampening economic activity, than gas prices which rise predictably over the long-run.  Both people and businesses can adapt to slower, more stable gas rises.  When a rise in gas prices is predictable, people and businesses can plan ahead and adapt to the change well before it happens, thus minimizing their loss.

A Floating-Rate Gas Tax:

If we implement a floating-rate tax on gasoline, we can stabilize the price of gasoline, making it predictable in the long-run.  The tax can work by setting a target price for the wholesale price of gasoline, using the price of oil as a benchmark, and the tax will be equal to the difference between the market price of gasoline and the target price.  The target price would be set to rise gradually, at a higher average rate than the price of gasoline was expected to rise.  In the unlikely event that the market price exceeded the target price, the tax would drop to zero.

To clarify, there would be no price fixing of the price at the pump: this would be allowed to fluctuate freely.  The tax would vary based on the price of oil which fluctuates on the open market, and which individual companies would have little control over, so they could not easily manipulate the tax.  This regime is not perfect, and there might be some caveats about how to implement it properly, but if even a crude fit was achieved, it would offer an improvement to the current system, for reasons I will explain below.

Graph of Gas Prices under Fixed vs Floating Gas Taxes

This graph shows how a floating-rate gas tax could stabilize gas prices at the pump, resulting in a steady increase (green). This graph represents a raising rate of under $3 in 5 years. The blue columns represent historical prices at the pump, from July 2006 to present, under the fixed-rate gas tax that actually existed during this time period.

Data for the graph above can be found at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)‘s page on U.S. Retail Gasoline Historical Prices.

There are numerous benefits of this tax regime:

  • The complete predictability of the price of gasoline, resulting from such a tax scheme, would minimize the negative impact on individuals and businesses.
  • Having prices rise gradually, rather than suddenly, would give both individuals and businesses ample time to adapt to the higher prices.
  • The knowledge that gas prices would not fall would allow both individuals and businesses to be confident that their investment of money, time, and other resources into reducing their gas usage would pay off in the long-run, unlike under the current system where the payoff drops precipitously if gas prices fall.
  • Having the target price rise faster than the average rise in the market price would minimize the chance that the market price of gas would exceed the target price, which could have a negative effect on business and individuals and would also result in a drop in tax revenues.
  • Having prices rise continually over time would create strong long-term incentives for conservation, technological innovation, and sustainable community design, thus promoting sustainability and energy independence.
  • Rising prices of gas would reduce the demand for and wear on roads, thus reducing government expenditures on road building and maintenance at state, federal, and local levels.  This would help close budget deficits and reduce the size of government.
  • Revenue for the gas tax could be used to reduce the rate of other taxes, or close the budget deficit, thus making the tax more politically viable.  For example, the tax could be used to offset payroll taxes for working Americans.

Numerous others, even those whom you might expect to oppose them, strongly support floating-rate gas taxes and high gas taxes:

The idea of a floating rate gas tax is nothing new.  Henry Blodget of Business Insider is a continuing advocate for a floating-rate gas tax, having written in support of such a tax just a few days ago, in the article “It’s Time For a Gas Tax“, and in a 2009 article “Time For a Gas Tax“.  There are a number of high-profile individuals who have also advocated in general for a high gasoline tax.  Allan Sloane, senior editor at large of Fortune magazine, in his article “Time to raise the gas tax“, provides a compelling argument that a higher gas tax, even one that is not necessarily floating, will still stablize gas prices and enable market forces to operate more efficiently.

Even Gregory Mankiw, an economist whose views I generally do not share, advocated in 2006 to raise the gas tax in his Pigou Club Manifesto; this article was published in the Wall Street Journal.  In 2007, Steven Levitt, best known for his book Freakonomics, also advocated for a high gas tax in his post Hurray for High Gas Prices!  Even Bob Lutz, a retired executive from General Motors, known for his stance as a global warming denier and opponent of hybrid vehicles, has advocated for higher gas tax.

Which is more important, supporting a gas tax, or making your own personal choices that promote conservation?

I cannot emphasize this next point enough:

Your support of a high gas tax is much more important than your own personal conservation decisions.

Your own personal choices affect only a handful of others, as people may follow your example; a high gas tax affects everyone’s decisions, including people who may not care about conservation as much as you do. Furthermore, a high gas tax will reward people and businesses who are living sustainably, as it will end the subsidy to road use and gasoline use that exists under the current setup where the gas tax is not sufficient to fully pay for road expenditures, and other taxes, which you are already paying, are closing this gap.

If you care about carbon footprint, sustainability, walkability, public transportation, U.S. dependence on foreign oil, pollution, or any other environmental or social issues associated with gasoline usage, you will have the biggest impact on the world by supporting a high gas tax.

What can you do?

  • Talk with people and/or write about your support of a floating-rate gas tax and a high gas tax.
  • Send this post, or the other articles it links to which advocate a gas tax, to others, letting them know that you support what the post or article is saying.
  • Contact politicians, voicing your support of a floating-rate gas tax and a high gas tax.
  • Explain to small government advocates the ways in which a high gasoline tax can reduce the size of government by reducing road expenditures, helping close budget deficits, and allowing for reduction of other taxes.
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Imagining an Ideal U.S. Supreme Court

In recent years, both Republican and Democrat appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court have stirred up considerable controversy.  Although issues are raised about candidates’ qualifications, these issues are often just excuses to attempt to derail an appointment that the opposite party opposes on ideological grounds.  The real issue is that conservatives don’t want a liberal appointed to the court and liberals don’t want a conservative appointed to the court.  Often, one or two issues become the focal point–most commonly abortion, and another major issue being gun rights.  Both sides talk about keeping the court “balanced”.

Old U.S. supreme court chamber, white dome, old seats and desks

Pictured here is the old U.S. supreme court chamber, no longer in use. The current labels of "liberal" and "conservative" do not make much sense when you look back any substantial amount of time in U.S. history. There was a time when the Republican party supported many of the ideals now seen as "liberal".

Is it as simple as justices from one wing (liberal or conservative) being “good” or “bad”, however?  And is “balance” as simple as keeping a roughly equal number of justices with each of two ideologies?  I think not.  Where is the balance in a court where 7 or 8 justices predictably vote along ideological lines?  When I look over the recent court, there are decisions that I disagree with strongly, which were divided 5-4 along liberal-conservative lines, which I disagree with on both sides of the divide:

A “liberal” decision I see as dangerous and unconstitutional:

For a “liberal” decision that I disagree with, I point to Kelo vs. City of New London, the prominent Eminent domain case.  I found this decision to be extremely distressing, as it ruled that a government is allowed to seize private property and transfer it to a private developer in the interest of “economic development”, with the “public use” being construed as the indirect tax benefits and job creation assumed to come from the subsequent development–very different from using the land for a public project such as roads, parks, government buildings, or other public infrastructure.  Clarence Thomas, a conservative justice whose opinions I often disagree with, made an insightful statement in his dissent:

“Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities. Those communities are not only systematically less likely to put their lands to the highest and best social use, but are also the least politically powerful.”

A “conservative” decision I also see as dangerous and unconstitutional:

Next I give an example of a decision that fell 5-4 along conservative lines, that I disagree with: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  This decision invalidated part of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act),  that prohibited corporations from broadcasting campaign material directly mentioning candidates in upcoming elections.  On a personal level, I found this decision disturbing because the legal ground of the majority opinion seemed to be the notion that the protection of free speech applied to corporations, not just people.  I think this goes against the basic intentions and wording of our constitution.  John P. Stevens, whose opinion I disagreed with in the Kelo case, writes a dissent here which I find insightful:

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

Although Stevens here sounds (at least to me) a bit more angry than rational, I agree with his core concern about corporations using their financial power to undermine democracy, and I think the idea of protecting corporations with constitutional “rights” like free speech, intended for people, is fundamentally flawed.

So what’s the conclusion here?  Both liberal and conservative justices have allowed some awful things to happen.  But lest we get overwhelmed with negativity, I will point out that justices of all persuasions have made a lot of positive decisions that have advanced the interests of American democracy.  They have even done so in ways that have overcome deep-seated prejudices.  I want to highlight one particularly compelling example of such a supreme court decision.

A great, historic, unanimous decision:

Let’s look at Brown vs. Board of Education, the famous decision that ended the “separate but equal” racial segregation of schools.  This decision was unanimous, 9-0.  The justices on the court were diverse, being appointed by both parties, coming from different regions of the country, and having different ideological backgrounds, and yet in this famous case, they reached a powerful consensus.  Futhermore, in 1954, before most of the major accomplishments of the civil rights movement, this was a radical decision, unpopular with a large number of Americans, and it predictably produced a great backlash and strong decisions.  But the court not only decided rightly, it did so unanimously.

U.S. Supreme Court Building - White with columns, trees, and an American flag

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

An Ideal Supreme Court:

Keeping these three example cases in mind, I want to propose a new way to envision an ideal supreme court:

  • Justices would not be easily characterized as “liberal” or “conservative”.
  • The court would encompass a diversity of viewpoints.
  • Justices would each have their own opinions, rather than being able to be divided cleanly into “camps”.  When groups of justices emerged that agreed on certain issues, they would not correspond cleanly with the mainstream political parties in the U.S. as a whole.
  • Justices would be willing to make unpopular and radical decisions, as well as routine ones, including ones that deviated from the viewpoints of the people who appointed them.
  • Justices would make long-term decisions, and would not be swayed by the political atmosphere in mainstream society.
  • The court would reach a consensus more often, reflecting its ability to hash out difficult issues and reach true and constructive interpretations of law and the constitution, rather than getting caught in partisan bickering.

What can you do?

  • Break yourself out of the political box of liberal and conservative first.  The U.S. is a representative democracy, and the first step towards creating an ideal supreme court is to stop thinking in partisan ways yourself.
  • Read a bit about supreme court decisions in order to convince yourself that achieving an ideal supreme court is not as simple as having a majority of liberal or a majority of conservative justices, and so that you will have concrete examples to give when people challenge your claims that the answer doesn’t lie in a one-sided perspective.  You may not agree with the examples I gave here, but if you start looking at enough cases, I bet that you will be able to find cases where you agree with both “liberal” and “conservative” wings of the court, and also some where you agree (or disagree) with both.  Find example cases that you feel particularly passionately about or interested in.  Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of U.S. supreme court decisions, many of which have extensive articles on them.
  • If or when you write or talk about the supreme court, and supreme court appointees or justices, make sure to talk or write about it outside the partisan ideological box.  If you lean more towards the liberal side or the conservative side, put a little more scrutiny on the candidates nominated by people who more closely share your political affiliations.
  • Contact your elected officials to let them know how you feel about the supreme court.
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Sustainability and Freedom

What is the relationship between sustainability and freedom?  Often, people use the word sustainability as if it had a narrow definition, only encompassing environmental issues, and perhaps human rights issues.  An overwhelming majority of people seem to think, write, and act as if sustainability is primarily about environmental issues, and other concerns (such as community, culture, economics, psychology) are secondary.

I think sustainability is a holistic concept, and I think freedom is one aspect of sustainability that is just as important as environmental issues.  I also think that the environmental issues are related to freedom in a way that many lawmakers and activists do not understand.


Four American Flags

The American flag is often seen as a symbol of freedom. But the message it sends is complex and not everyone receives it the same way or feels the same way about what the symbolism of the flag means.

What is freedom, after all?  In America, freedom a buzzword that is often thrown around carelessly.  I like the Free Software Foundation‘s approach to freedom, which makes a distinction between  “free like free speech” (which is the key type of freedom) and “free like free beer”.  A similar idea is expressed by the patriotic ribbons sometimes displayed on cars in America: “Freedom isn’t free”.  This sentiment, often intended to express appreciation for those who serve in the armed forces, is one I find to have deep applicability.  It could just as easily serve to bring attention to any people fighting (including non-violently) for their human rights and independence.  The key idea about freedom though is that true freedom involves some sort of sacrifice.  It’s not a free lunch.

Freedom Includes the Freedom to Make Mistakes, Including Mistakes that Harm Others:

Every parent knows this, and it is terrifying.  A natural part of raising children is the gradual gift of responsibility, allowing your children to make their own decisions, including bad ones, and teaching them how to understand and face the consequences of those decisions.  It is through this process that people (including some parents) eventually become adults.

Sometimes, however, I feel that humanity is only still growing up, that we are a global society of children.  More often than not, we behave like children, and we often treat other full-grown adults like children both by failing to take responsibility for our actions, and by not giving others the room to take responsibility for their actions.  When someone does something wrong, we attempt to punish them (often acting out of anger), and then the person who has done the wrong, rather than taking responsibility for their actions and taking actions to right the wrong, instead hires a lawyer to keep themselves from being punished.  Is this not childish on both ends?

Think of how responsible adults behave in a highly professional workplace when someone makes a mistake that harms the employer in some way.  Someone noticing the mistake promptly points it out, in a respectful manner, to the person who made the mistake; this person takes responsibility and commits extra time and work to undoing whatever damage was done, makes an apology when appropriate to those affected, and makes note of the situation so that it doesn’t happen again.  This gold standard of professionalism is a far cry from the prosecute-and-defend criminal “justice” system that our society works off of.

People Disregard Rules they See as Unjust:

We all know, from when we are children, what happens when an adult tries to give us a rule that we think is unfair.  The minute no one is looking, we go ahead and do what we want, completely disregarding the rule.  As adults, most of us are the same way: we follow most rules because we understand and agree with the rationale behind them.  But the minute there is a law people think is unwarranted, they won’t follow it.  Examples abound among people of all ages: underage drinking, tax evasion, illegal drugs, speeding, illegal use of copyrighted material–which includes music sharing.    Psychologists have studied these phenomena, and firmly established that people are more likely to engage in an activity if it is forbidden.  See Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini, Chapter 7, for a compelling exposition of this phenomenon.

IRS Tax Forms Strewn on a Bed

One year I was required to file no fewer than five tax returns, between state and local ones. The complexity of the tax system in the U.S. encourages people to cheat on their taxes, both because it makes it harder to follow all the rules, and because the complexity makes it easier to avoid getting caught.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely guilty of one of these offences, or of some other similar offense (I know I’m guilty of at least one of the above!).  And, like my example above, when people get caught doing something illegal, they often try as hard as they can to evade responsibility, sometimes by legal wrangling, or other times by hiding behind a position of authority that they hold.

Sustainability Enforced by the Iron Fist:

So what about when “sustainable” practices (such as energy efficiency, protecting the environment, not polluting) are enforced by law, under threat of punishment?  The U.S. government passes mandates for fuel efficiency of cars, and the automobile industry promptly responds by using the SUV loophole, not only to get around these, but even to give tax credits to SUV owners.  States like West Virginia are full of disturbing violations of EPA standards surrounding coal mining.  California residents bribe shops to pass the emissions test–one person posting on an internet forum even boasted: “If (you) want the name of a shop that you can bribe let me know.

Ford SUV with foggy Cleveland Skyline in Background

SUV's like this one utilize a loophole on regulations for emissions and fuel efficiency, so that they use fuel less efficiently and pollute more than normal cars, which must comply with tougher standards.

The bottom line is that you cannot use laws and regulation to achieve sustainability: the change needs to come from the hearts and minds of all the people making decisions.  In other words, you can’t achieve sustainability by taking away freedom.  In terms of the SUV analogy, the root problem is not that gas-guzzling vehicles are legal to manufacture and sell, the real problem is that people want to buy them.

Sustainability and Freedom:

Sustainability and freedom go hand in hand.  If you take away freedom, you take away sustainability.  This freedom must necessarily include the freedom to live unsustainably.  And yet we must ultimately live sustainably, if we are to survive and prosper.  To continue the analogy to children growing up, adults must learn to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet when they have the freedom and money to afford to eat only junk food.  This is the challenge: to balance the freedom to make the wrong decision with the reality of making the right decision.

If we can’t force sustainability to be achieved through law, how can we achieve it?

What do people respond to, if they don’t respond to the law?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Leadership – When people who are respected and liked lead by example, many people will not only voluntarily follow, but will go out of their way to follow the lead, even if it is costly and time-consuming for them to do so.
  • Price Incentives – People like to shop around for a bargain.  If we set up our laws and tax system so that sustainably-produced goods and services are cheaper, and unsustainable goods are more costly, people will naturally choose to live more sustainably in the course of seeking out lowest prices.  Rather than making unsustainable activities illegal, it would be more productive to simply make them more expensive.  This approach results in smaller, simpler government, as tax record keeping, as costly as it is, is much simpler than prosecution and fines.
  • Education and Knowledge – In general, the more people know about the effects their actions have on others and on the environment, the more they will make sustainable life choices.  Most people want to live sustainability, but they just make unsustainable choices because they haven’t ever thought about how these choices impact the greater world.  Rather than attacking or judging these people for their unsustainable choices, it would be more productive to encourage people to learn more, and make it easier for them to learn more about how their actions impact others, so that they naturally choose to live more sustainably.
Plants beginning to change color in early autumn

Just as these plants are only beginning to change colors in early fall, the United States is only beginning to embrace sustainability. You can do your part to advance this goal by being a leader, learning about the relevant issues, and asking tough questions to help find the best political and legal approaches to achieving sustainability.

What can you do?

  • Show your support of use taxes, carbon taxes, and other sustainability-focused taxes, as a replacement for income tax, sales tax, and other taxes that provide disincentives for economic activity.  Argue for using these taxes to replace regulations, fines, and prosecution- and lawsuit-based approaches.  This approach ensures a balance on the mainstream U.S. political spectrum, where conservatives tend to oppose both environmental taxes and regulations, and liberals tend to support both–thus making a bipartisan consensus more likely.
  • Refrain from judging or criticizing others who live less sustainably than you do.  Instead, focus on providing positive encouragement for them to start thinking about sustainability or to try out sustainability-promoting activities.
  • Do your own research about sustainability; learn how your choices and actions affect others.  Becoming more educated yourself is the best way to prepare you to help others to learn more about sustainability.  But don’t let your knowledge stop with yourself: share it in whatever ways you are best equipped to do, through writing, talking with others, through your job or career, or in any other means you find effective.
  • Be a leader in sustainability in your own life.  Make as much of an effort as you can to have a positive impact on the environment and society through your own personal choices and behaviors.  By living more sustainably, you will not only be making a direct difference, but you will be setting a positive example that others are likely to emulate.
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Casual Sex and What Makes Sex Wholesome

Over the years I’ve asked questions, and heard numerous others ask questions like: “Can casual sex ever be wholesome?” or “Is casual sex bad?” or similar questions regarding casual relationships or “friends with benefits” situations.  These questions seem rather important ones to ask, but it has proved tricky to answer them because of a lack of a clear definition of what exactly it means for sex or a relationship to be “casual”.

The term casual sex and the more informal term hooking up are often ambiguous and imprecise, as the phrases are used in radically different ways.  Wikipedia’s page on Casual Sex (as of writing this post) expresses this eloquently:

Casual sex or hooking up refers to certain types of sexual activity outside the context of a romantic relationship. The term is not always used consistently: some use it to refer to any extramarital sex, some use it to refer to sex in a casual relationship, whereas others reserve its use for one-time encounters, promiscuity, or to refer to sex in the absence of emotional attachment or love.

The word wholesome is also loaded, especially when it comes to the topic of sex and relationships.  Rather than relying on more subjective notions of wholesomeness which will vary based on a person’s individual beliefs, I think it is possible to reach a slightly more objective notion of wholesomeness by defining wholesome behavior as something that has a positive overall effect on all people involved.  People will still quibble over what constitutes a positive effect, but at least we can be somewhat closer to agreement.  One of the ways to get at the notion of “positive effect” in a slightly more objective fashion is to look at the effects of something on psychological health.

Casual Sex and Psychological Health:

“Casual sex” has been studied to some degree in a scholarly setting, with respect to its effects on psychology; however, the scholarly literature itself is guilty of failing to make the distinctions described above.  As an example, a fairly recent and interesting study was published in an article titled Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having “Friends with Benefits” Emotionally Damaging? This study made only a single distinction, between sex with a close, exclusive partner, and “casual” ones, defined as being a “casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner”.  The study found that young adults who engage in casual sexual activities (as defined in the study) do not have any greater risk of harmful psychological outcomes than those who engage only in exclusive ones with a close partner.

I am not surprised by these results, as, in my opinion, they fail to capture the key aspects of sexual connections that determine whether these connections have a positive or negative impact on a person’s psychological health.  For example, this study would not distinguish between an open relationship or people who practice polyamory, vs. people who have, for lack of better term, a “friends with benefits” sort of relationship, nor would it distinguish these sorts of connections from more anonymous one-time sexual encounters.

I would like to propose a new framework for thinking about sexual relationships, and for classifying sexual activity as wholesome or unwholesome.  The key aspects which I will talk about are consent, caring, communication, and connection.  These four factors are inextricably linked, and not just by the fact that they all begin with the letter C.  I will argue that these four C’s, and not the exclusivity or label on a relationship, determine whether or not the sexual relationship is wholesome.

Icon of man and woman holding hands* This diagram depicts a woman and a man, but the ideas in this post are not wedded to notions of gender, and also apply to female-female and male-male relationships.


Most people would agree that consent is important in sexual relationships.  Without consent, sex becomes rape and sexual activity becomes sexual assault.  It goes without saying that these things are highly unwholesome (and psychologically damaging), and that consent is thus a prerequisite (but not a guarantee) for sex or sexual activity to be wholesome.  What exactly constitutes consent?  There is, unfortunately, a lot of grey area here, and questions that are tough to answer, such as when explicit verbal consent is necessary, and what happens when alcohol or other mind-altering drugs are involved.  But the question of what exactly constitutes consent for sexual activity is beyond the scope of this post; I only want to talk about one key point:

Consent has nothing to do with being in an exclusive relationship.  It is an unfortunate fact that a person’s spouse or close romantic partner is among the most likely people to rape them.  It’s not a happy topic, but people interested in reading about it just to get convinced that it’s a real issue can visit Wikipedia’s page on Spousal Rape.  The term “Date rape” is a bit troublesome as it is usually used in a way that encompasses both acquaintances and romantic partners.  But if you type “boyfriend rape” into google and read the posts on forums and other interactive websites, you will quickly see that this is a real problem as well.


heartA lot of people talk about and debate about whether or not sex without love can be wholesome.  This debate is clouded by the fact that the word love, in English, has many different uses, ranging from the intense feeling of being in love, to a strong bond of attachment (as with family, romantic partners, and close friends), to an intense liking (“I love that!”), to a more general feeling or state of caring and concern.  I want to isolate the discussion on this last element.

Caring about other people is generally a good thing.  It doesn’t matter who they are, or what relationship you have with them.  Besides the fact that it can sometimes cause you to feel emotional pain when the person you care about is suffering, concern for other people’s well-being on its own rarely has any negative impacts on people, and can have numerous positive impacts.  But is it necessary to care about people in a sexual relationship, in order for that relationship to be wholesome?

I would argue that it is necessary to care about someone in order for any sort of sexual connection with that person to be wholesome.  Why?  If you genuinely do not care about the person, it becomes so easy to harm the person.  For one, lack of caring can completely bowl over consent, especially when the consent exists in that grey area we mentioned above.  A person who truly does not care about the other person’s well-being is more likely to justify to themselves the idea that the sex is consensual, and is more likely to attempt to pressure or seduce the person in the cases where a clear “no” is given.

But even when consent is unambiguously given, a lack of caring can cause other problems.  Depending on a variety of factors, sex can be more or less wholesome in terms of the effect it has on a person’s life.  Sex is an intense and emotionally charged experience and a person’s psychological well-being is not only impacted by the sex itself but by what happens afterwards.  It’s safe to assume that these factors are going to vary hugely from one person to the next, and based on different situations, but the core idea is this: a person who cares is going to ask the questions: “Is this sex going to be good for this person?” and is going to say no to the sex if the answer to that question is no, even if the person has given consent.  A person who cares also is more likely to ask the question: “How can I conduct myself after this sexual activity so as to have the best effect on this person?”  In short, a person who cares is going to change their behavior so as to be beneficial to the other person’s well-being, whereas a person who doesn’t care, simply doesn’t care.

Caring is not the same as an exclusive relationship.  People enter into relationships and even marriages for all sorts of reasons.  Most of us can probably mull over our stories and come up with at least a few examples of a husband or wife that did not seem to care at all about their spouse or about the health of their marriage.  It’s sad, but it’s reality that these situations exist.  Conversely, there are many people in our lives who care about us with whom we are not involved in an exclusive sexual relationship.


Communication is tricky; people study it in school, build whole careers out of it, and still don’t understand it.  Communication in human relationships can be hindered by cultural and linguistic differences, strong emotions and biases, and different ways of looking at the world, among other factors.  There is a lot of talk about different communication styles, how to communicate about difficult topics in relationships, and a whole bunch of relevant topics, and as with the grey area of consent, these topics are beyond the scope of this post.  The key idea to think about however is that communication can be better in some relationships and interactions than others, and that poor communication can be highly damaging in sexual relationships.

Two communication towers

Communication is never perfect. Just like the noise in the signals transmitted by these communication towers, when people communicate, the message is rarely received exactly as it was intended to be.

Poor communication can confound the question of consent.  The infamous “no means yes” debate, whether or not you dismiss it as misogynistic, gets at a particularly nasty form of miscommunication: if one person does not hear and accept the message of “no” clearly, consent goes out the window.  But even when consent is unambiguous, poor communication can cause other things to go wrong.  There’s the obvious problem that a lack of communication can lead to some very bad sex.  But, returning to the issue above, of caring, all the caring in the world can’t help you respect another person’s needs and wants if you don’t understand what those needs or wants are.  Communication is one of the necessary ingredients to allow consent to be clearly given, and to allow caring to translate into actual behaviors that help a person.  It is thus necessary for wholesome sex.

As the pattern is obvious by now, you are probably expecting me to argue that good communication is something that can exist with or without an exclusive sexual relationship, and a typical exclusive relationship certainly does not guarantee good communication.

Any relationship or marriage counselor will testify to the second point, but in case you’re not convinced, think about how anyone can dive head first into an exclusive romantic or sexual relationship with someone they have only recently met.  You probably can think of some examples of people close to you who have done this, and you may have done it yourself; I know I have on at least one occasion!  But the less well you know someone, the less well you know how to interpret their verbal and non-verbal communication: learning to communicate with a given person (and even assessing how well you communicate with someone) takes time.  Choosing to have an exclusive relationship does not do anything on its own to improve communication!


I think that consent, communication, and caring are not quite enough for sex to be wholesome.  One needs to look also at the role the sex is playing in the relationship between the people having it.  People can care about each other but still make decisions that are not necessarily good for each other or for themselves in the long-run.  I often hear discussion of “sex for the sake of sex”.  I don’t think this is a healthy or wholesome way of approaching sex.  I think that in order for sex to be wholesome, it must be based on the idea of becoming more connected to someone, rather than just being an isolated or compartmentalized experience.

It’s a simple fact that when you share an experience with someone, it changes your relationship with that person.  In general, if you share a positive experience with a person, it brings you together, and strengthens the connection you have with that person.  Sexuality is a particularly intense part of the human experience, and, assuming you actually want to have good sex, sex is going to bring you together with a person, and the effect is likely to be strong and intense.  In order to have sex with someone without having it change or develop or strengthen your connection with a person, you would need to close off a part of yourself.

Human connections are complex and cannot be easily described as an either-or thing or on a continuum.  It is impossible to generalize about exactly what sort of connection is necessary for people to have sex play a healthy role in their relationship with each other, and this connection is likely to vary considerably from one person to the next.  I think it’s easier to grasp, however, the unwholesomeness of sex when there’s a lack of connection.  When a person wants to have sex with someone that they’re not comfortable feeling closer to, it’s often a sign of a lack of self-esteem.  Perhaps they are afraid of intimacy, or perhaps they are so down on themselves that they don’t believe that they’d able to be find a willing partner they feel genuinely comfortable with, or perhaps they’re lacking the self-control or assertiveness necessary to define healthy boundaries in their relationships.  Whatever the issues are, pushing them under the rug and avoiding dealing with them by having sex without any emotional bond is never a healthy or wholesome approach.

Wholesome Sex:

So, what constitutes wholesome sexual activity?  It is consensual, and is accompanied by good communication and caring about each other, and it has the effect of strengthening the connection between people.  If any of these four elements are not present, it’s not wholesome.  And the wholesomeness or lack thereof is not determined by the exclusivity of the relationship.

According to this paradigm, anonymous sex (which describes some, but not all drunken hookups at college parties, as an example) is always unwholesome, whereas casual sex, hookups, “friends with benefits”, and sexual activity in a marriage or in an exclusive relationship may or may not be wholesome, with no guarantee of exclusivity being a sign that a particular sexual connection is more or less wholesome or healthy psychologically.

There is one caveat to this statement: exclusivity definitely interacts with the four C’s that are necessary for wholesome sex.  A lot of people, either universally, or during some times in their life, only want to connect sexually with people while in an exclusive relationship, for emotional reasons, religious or spiritual reasons, or other personal reasons.  People who desire monogamous relationships typically give consent with the implicit understanding that their partner is being faithful to them.  A lack of faithfulness is thus, in some form, a violation of consent, and is always accompanied to some degree by a lack of caring (not necessarily universally, but at least in the moment in which the person chooses to be unfaithful).  Also, when people are not exclusive sexually, safe sex becomes much more difficult and complicated because of the risk of STD’s–but it must be emphasized that what matters more for this purpose is whether or not people have multiple sexual partners, not whether or not they choose to define their relationship as exclusive.

How can you help?

  • Avoid using ambiguous terms like casual sex or hookup unless you clarify or explain what you mean by them.  Using the terms ambiguously facilitates people jumping to conclusions without information about the key factors that influence whether sex is wholesome or unwholesome.
  • If you write about or conduct research on casual sex and psychological well-being, consider looking at the factors of caring, communication, and consent, rather than merely categorizing relationships based on exclusivity.  Consider looking in more depth at the nature of people’s sexual relationships, rather than lumping everything into two categories of monogamous or non-monogamous.
  • Be cautious of your own biases in attaching judgments to sexual situations.  I have found that many people tend to be more likely to wrongfully label sexual activity outside of a committed relationship as unwholesome or unhealthy, whereas they tend to underestimate the amount of psychological damage caused by sexual activity (whether in an exclusive relationship or not) in the absence of clear consent, good communication, and caring.
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Completion of my 1-year Bird Survey of Phillips Park, Newark, DE

Starting last January, I decided to do a systematic survey of the birds in Phillips park, Newark (Delaware).  I followed the protocols of eBird, an online database of bird observations that is a joint effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.  The protocols for a travelling count in eBird are simple: they involve recording the date and time, distance travelled, number of people in the birding party (Thank you to the numerous others who joined me to help out!), and identifying and counting as many birds as possible.  There are general categories for birds identified to group of species but not individual species, and when possible, options for identifying age and sex, and taking other notes.

I entered all data from the survey into eBird, where it is combined with other observations and data, and viewable by the public.  The survey is now complete, with some gaps and limitations, which I discuss below.  In general, there are at least 2 observations for most weeks, and more during the spring and fall migrations.

You can view the results of this survey in eBird’s data for Phillips Park.

Light snow on the ground in a park, with bare trees on the right

Phillips Park, December 2010.

Bird Highlights:

I was astounded by the amount of biodiversity in this small city park, especially given that it has little open water and thus does not attract waterfowl.  I wasn’t quite sure exactly how many species I was going to record, but I was astounded when the count soared into the 90’s, to the current tally of 97.  I had expected something more in the 70’s.  For reference, eBird currently has records of 298 species in New Castle County.  Many of these, however, are one-time rarities and birds (mostly waterfowl) highly unlikely to be seen in the habitat of Phillips park.

I think that the majority of the biodiversity in this park is due to the presence of wild habitat where plants are allowed to grow, largely unmaintained.  There are two separate tracts of forest, and between them, a wetland.  These areas contributed the majority of species observed in the park: the playground area with mowed grass and planted trees, by contrast, contained some birds, but even there, the birds usually kept to the wild, unmaintained areas around the edge.  The pattern that is clear here, and obvious to any ecologist, is that even small wild, unmaintained areas have immense ecological value, whereas carefully controlled areas have much less ecological value.

…wild, unmaintained areas have immense ecological value…

Yellow-rumped warbler in Poison Ivy

A yellow-rumped warbler, feeding on poison ivy berries in Phillips Park, October. This species was common and abundant during October and the second half of April through the first half of May.

Unusual Species:

The most interesting species, to me, were seen in migration, including a rusty blackbird, swainson’s thrush, wilson’s warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, and swamp sparrow.  Not only did broad-winged hawks fly over, but I saw one in the park’s forest during migration.  There were also some interesting out-of-season and out-of-range birds, including a ruby-throated hummingbird that stayed into the first week of october, a few observations of the more northerly black-capped chickadees during the winter, and the biggest highlight, an American redstart in the third week of November, a full month later than this bird is normally observed in Delaware.

Red-bellied woodpecker on the top of a telephone pole

The red-bellied woodpecker is a year-round resident of Phillips park. Normally preferring the forested areas, this woodpecker is comfortable around humans and often ventures into more human-altered habitats.

Flyover-only Species:

A number of species were observed only as flyovers, including mallard, common merganser, osprey, and cattle egretCanada goose and ring-billed gull were very common flyover species; I never saw a goose land in the park, but I once saw a gull perched on a light post.

Mammal Highlights:

In addition to the birds, I also observed a number of mammals in the park, including a fox, seen multiple times, a raccoon, and an opossum.  I once saw a red squirrel, and of course, a near-infinite amount of grey squirrels, and a fair amount of rabbits.  The most exciting mammal was probably a beaver, which I saw swimming under the ice in the stream that runs through the park, just a few weeks ago.

Trends in Bird Observation and Distribution:

There is enough data to see the clear distinction between most year-round resident species, wintering species, summer breeders, and migrant-only species.  Most of these species follow the typical trends for this county of Delaware, but there are a number of species that breed in this county, only a few miles away, but only used this park in migration, such as the Northern Parula, Acadian flycatcher, and Ovenbird.  For these three species, the forest in the park is probably too small and fragmented to be suitable habitat.

Eastern Kingbird perched on barbed wire

Not all birds prefer natural habitats. Eastern Kingbirds, which breed in Phillips park and were present May through August, are most frequently seen around the power station, where the open environment and numerous perches make it easy for them to catch large insects. This kingbird has atypical plumage probably due to missing feathers.

Very evident from the data is a trend in blackbird distribution.  Blackbirds are a family of North American birds, Icteridae.  The main blackbirds observed in the park were red-winged blackbird, common grackle, and brown-headed cowbird.  These birds, especially grackles and red-winged blackbirds, were abundant in the park last winter, possibly because they moved into the city in response to the large snowstorms.  All three species were abundant april through June, but by July, most had departed and there were only sporadic observations subsequently.

Hawk perched in a bare tree

Someone sees their lunch!

Hawks, and to a lesser degree, falcons, used the park extensively.  I have seen six species of raptors hunting in the park.  The most regularly-observed hawk was the red-shouldered hawk; red-tailed hawks were less common.  Interestingly, these two species did not seem to interfere with each other: I once saw two hawks, one of each species, perched in the same tree, very near each other, ignoring each other.  Cooper’s hawks were regular but less common in the park: twice I observed a pair.  I only observed sharp-shinned hawks in the fall but I am very conservative/cautious on my IDing of these two similar and easily-confused birds, and it is likely that some of my generic Accipiter sp. observations are sharp-shinned hawks.

Limitations of the Data:

Like any birder, I’m better at observing and identifying some things than others.  There were a number of birds that I saw over the year but could not clearly ID.

Probably the largest limitation of the data, however, is due to my limited skills at locating birds.  Some apparent patterns in the distribution of certain species are actually reflecting the fact that I got better at locating birds in this park as I became more familiar with it.  For example, if you look at the records of pigeons, you will see they only start appearing from June onwards.  This is because I learned how and where to look for pigeons from the park: I mostly saw them flying overhead towards the eastern end of the park.  I also got much better at spotting hummingbirds, and realized to look for them in the wetland area, which I only learned in September.

Also, some of the apparent gaps in data in the summer are due to my taking of vacations, which makes the data sparser during these times.

However, other gaps are genuine gaps.  With only one year of data, and with myself as the main contributing birder, it’s hard to know for certain which gaps reflect a legitimate absence of species, and which are a function of my limited experience and ability to locate and identify birds.

Environmental Issues in Phillips Park:

Unfortunately, there are a number of serious environmental issues in Phillips park.  The stream running through it is often not particularly clean.  On one day, I saw a fair amount of oil in the stream, pictured below.  On several occasions, the same stream reeked of sewage.

Oil in a stream, with autumn leaves

This photograph shows a sheen of oil in the stream that runs through Phillips park.

Another issue which is less visible and largely odorless is the use of herbicides.  A while back, I wrote in my blog about herbicide use by the city of Newark, in Phillips Park.  In Phillips park and elsewhere, the city uses Roundup, an herbicide that is known to be highly toxic to amphibians.

Lastly, there is a fairly major problem with litter and trash in the park, both along the path and in the wild areas and stream.  I’ve occasionally picked up a few pieces of trash (I could do more, I admit), but I’ve also seen other Newark residents regularly (daily) picking up trash, which suggests that the litter problem is actually much more serious than one might realize just by looking at the amount in the park.

Another problem I’ve seen in this park is the dominance of invasive species in some areas.  The two main invasive species that I see in this park are non-native honeysuckle and multifloral rose, although there are numerous others present as well.  On a good note, however, the native blackberries and black raspberries seem to be holding their own against the non-native Japanese wineberries.

There is also a lack of healthy tree stock in the forest.  Many of the larger oak trees are hybrid oaks, not single-species.  Similarly, some of the trees planted are sterile cultivars, such as a seedless sweetgum.  Some of the planted trees are not native: although some are native to North America, many are not native to this particular region or habitat.  Refraining from planting and allowing native trees to come up wild is probably healthier for the forest than planting trees that will not contribute to a healthy population of native trees, although it would be nice if the city would locate and plant a few suitable native trees from healthy local populations.

This park is by no means the most contaminated or littered park around: it’s just an average city park.  In some sense, the numerous environmental problems in this park highlight problems that exist virtually everywhere in the United States.  Although it was not my primary purpose in conducting this bird survey, I definitely learned a lot about environmental issues in city parks by spending more time in this park over the course of the year-long survey.

Continuing Onward?

There are a lot of open questions and issues, and things I’m hoping to achieve by sharing this post about the survey:

  • I am going to continue to survey this park to see what happens in the coming months.  I will likely be in Newark through May.
  • I would like to encourage people to continue this survey and start other, similar surveys of other local parks.  I would like to dedicate some time to train people how to start using eBird to tally data.  Stay tuned for updates about upcoming events!
  • Hopefully, the city, its residents, and other concerned parties can take action to address some of the environmental issues in the park.  Some of them, such as the refraining of planting sterile or non-native trees, can be implemented immediately, at no cost.  I am also convinced that some of the herbicide use in the park could be immediately halted without any increased costs or adverse effects.
  • I am hoping that this survey can convince others of the ecological value of leaving land to grow wild, even small tracts of land in urban and suburban areas.  This park’s biodiversity is largely a function of its wild areas.  Maintaining property is costly, time-consuming, and destroys the ecological value inherent in land.  If this survey can convince the city and residents to spend less time mowing and trimming and more time just letting plants grow wild, I will have accomplished one of my goals.
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Working Hard vs. Working Intelligently

I once enrolled in a tennis camp, run by a character named Jim Phipps.  The camp came with t-shirts that had a clear message in bold lettering:

There is no substitute for hard work.

This statement, a quote of the famous inventor Thomas Edison, is particularly encouraging to believe in when you are working hard.  In the context of a tennis camp, it’s almost an ideal slogan.  It’s a good motivator when you are starting to get tired or bored and you want to push yourself to do just a little bit more.  And it allows you to give yourself a nice pat on the back at the end of a long, hard day.  Unfortunately, as a general rule it is not true.

Four early incandescent light bulbs

Photo by William J. Hammer, 1904, Published 1910. It is ironic that the light bulb is seen as a symbol of creativity; its inventor, Thomas Edison, had a brute-force approach to work that was in many respects the very opposite of a creative approach.

Nikola Tesla, an inventor who worked with Edison, once criticized Thomas Edison on these very grounds [Source], claiming:

His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labour.

The rejection of Edison’s principle of the necessity of hard work flies in the face of the work ethic in America and in a number of other countries (China included?).  But I have come to realize, time and time again, that the amount one learns in school, the amount of work one accomplishes on the job, and the impact or difference a person makes in the world has a lot less to do with how many hours are put in and a lot more to do with how those hours are used.  I’d like to propose a new mantra:

There is no substitute for intelligent work.

It’s my opinion that the people of the United States of America waste a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and often have little to show for it.  Ask yourself the question: do you want to work hard?  Or do you actually want results?  I don’t know about you, but I care about results, and while I’m willing to work hard when it is necessary, I staunchly refuse to glorify someone’s work ethic if it’s based on hard work for its own sake.

How to Work Intelligently:

Working intelligently has many different components.  I am going to highlight three of them: focus, creativity, and purposefulness.  Each of these points is subtle and multifaceted, and they are all intertwined in complex ways, but I find them to be useful ways to think about how to work intelligently.

Focus: Being Completely Present:

Focus is one of the most important parts of work.  We’ve all had those days when we sit there attempting to do some dreaded task, say for an hour, but getting next to nothing done as our mind wanders.  At the end of the hour, we realize that only about 25% of the time was spent working, and we have little to show for that other 75% of the time.  We often come out just as tired and stressed as if we had been churning away the whole time, and yet we are left unfulfilled and frustrated with ourselves.

Two Arrows in an Archery Target

Adapted From Photo Contributed by Wikipedia Editor Casito, Licensed under GNU FDL 1.2 or later, CC-SA 3.0

Focus, on the other hand, is immensely satisfying.  After the end of the hour, whether or not we’re finished with our task, we know that we’ve done something.

How can you improve your focus?  Taking regular breaks is well-known to have both mental and physical benefits, and often directly enhances concentration and boosts productivity even in the short-term.  If you find yourself zoning out, it’s probably time to take a break.  Being adequately rested is also important.  You may think that you can stay up late to get more work accomplished, but if you lose sleep because of it, you may pay the price in decreased ability to focus later on.  Since focus rather than availability of hours is more often the limiting factor in productivity, losing sleep to “get more done” often backfires.  And below I will give an even more compelling reason why losing sleep is also detrimental to productivity.

Your general physiological state also affects concentration.  Proper nutrition, proper posture, and being physically active can all aid concentration.  It is for this reason that physical exercises can make outstanding breaks, especially from sedentary computer or office work, or when the nature of the exercises complements the type of physical motions you make during your work.  Lastly, being highly motivated helps a great deal with focus.  Below I talk about purpose; purpose can be a great way to boost your motivation, which can have positive effects on focus.

Creativity: Finding Time-Saving and Work-Eliminating Tricks:

The value of creativity is well-understood by those who possess it, but is often under-appreciated by those who are most in need of it.  In the U.S., this phenomenon manifests itself in many ways, such as the sad manner in which funding for the arts in public education is one of the first areas to get cut when there is a budget shortfall.  I have a personal story that illustrates the potential of creativity to boost productivity, even in a seemingly routine job environment.

A small jazz combo practicing on a stage.

Creative activities like playing in this small, improvisation-focused jazz ensemble provide an important way to cultivate creativity.

My first office job was in the Lancaster County Children and Youth Agency’s fiscal office.  It was what some would see as boring, but I enjoyed it very much.  My work was a temporary job, helping the office get caught up on TANF (Welfare) paperwork.  The job often involved long, repetitive tasks such as alphabetizing huge stacks of papers or entering vast quantities of data into a computer.

Even in these seemingly straightforward tasks, I realized that certain key innovations could drastically change the amount of time required to complete a task.  Placing a stack of papers in a slightly different orientation on my desk would often allow me to work as much as 50% faster.  Some tasks I would do while standing.  I remembered a job I had had a few years before, working in Ric’s Bread Bakery.  The then owner, Ric Tribble, was constantly moving things around–often to the frustration of some of the other employees.  He would notice little things: “You can work faster if you hang this implement over here, instead of there.”  I later learned that this mindset, the desire to continually improve, is a key attribute among people who are successful in any type of job, business, or educational context.

On the computer, there was more room for innovation.  I figured out how to write a few VisualBasic Macros to speed up certain spreadsheet tasks.  Soon, I was finishing my work with a free half hour here or hour there; I used this time to teach myself Microsoft Access, which turned out to provide a key life skill, as it was my first exposure to a relational database, something I have used in some form in virtually every job setting after college.  After a few weeks, I had designed an Access Database that had automated many of the tasks I was required to do.  My job went from taking a full 8 hours a day to taking about 2.  What did I do then?  I designed a larger database to run other aspects of the fiscal office, a database they modified and built off of, and continued to use in some form for at least 7 years.

Can Creativity Be Cultivated?

How did I become such an innovator at that first summer job in college?  People often remark that I’m “smart”; while this may be true to a point, it is an overly simplistic label, not a complete answer.  Such labels ignore the ways in which a person has had to work to cultivate creativity.  In my case, I have fidgeted with computers for years (since the age of 5, learning to program at the age of 8), and I’ve also been a serious musician since 4th grade, something that I think was critical in helping me to become more creative as well as helping me to work together with people.  People see my creativity in a job or school setting, but they don’t see how that creativity did not come naturally to me, something my early music teachers will testify to.  Labelling successful people as “smart” is not illuminating or empowering to anyone who wants to develop their skills and achieve similar successes.  As such, I think that such labels represent an error of thinking that is deeply embedded in the culture of our society.  Creativity is something every person can cultivate.

How can you boost your creativity?  Are there any quick and easy ways you can do it, starting right now?  The most straightforward way, backed by solid science, is to make sure you are getting enough sleep.  The Wikipedia Page on Sleep and Creativity cites some interesting scientific studies on this topic.  Another crucial and simple way to boost your creativity is to set aside time for creative thinking.  Before you start a task, take a certain portion of time to think about how you might do it effectively or efficiently.  Then, when you’re halfway through the task, contemplate again, and do so again after completing the task.  For a brief task, your creative reflection could be as short as 15 seconds, whereas for major projects, you might want to dedicate an hour or more.  Sometimes you might even want to experiment with different ways of doing something and test them to see which methods have the best results.

Goldfinch on a Windowsill

Nature, with its endless beauty and constant flux, provides a great way to spark creativity. I never know what's going to land on the windowsill in front of my main work desk.

I have also found from my own personal experience that contact with other people and external stimuli are key factors in creativity.  Some jobs, such as teaching jobs, produce this contact naturally, whereas others (including many office jobs) often require you to seek it out.  As a self-employed person, I often work in coffee shops for this reason: I find my creativity is boosted by the bustling atmosphere, by running into people I know, and by being able to chat with the employees.  Other times, something as simple as looking out the window can provide a source of creativity.  At home, my main work desk faces a window (pictured above) looking out on trees and weedy thickets that are, on many days, full of birds, butterflies, and all sorts of strange and beautiful creatures.  It is sad that many work environments (such as the stereotypical windowless cubicle maze) have the effect of stifling, rather than nurturing creativity.  In many respects, these environments are a product of our culture’s self-destructive mythology that says that windows represents a distraction that will harm productivity, when in reality, the opposite is true, as a wealth of scientific research has shown [Source – PDF].

Lastly, consider taking up some creative hobbies, or just getting more creative with the things you already do in your daily life.  I find that music, dancing, cooking, and gardening are all sources of endless creativity for me, and they’re all things that did not come naturally to me.  Use services like Pandora to discover new music, or try new foods, and then try to cook new foods.  Start new activities and meet new people.  You may find that you start gaining strange and wonderful insights in seemingly unrelated aspects of your life!

Purposefulness: Making Sure Your Work is Accomplishing What it is Supposed To:

Have you ever worked long and hard at some task, only to realize at some point that it was completely unnecessary, or that it needs to be completely re-done?  You might lament: “If only I had known that before I started working.”  In some cases, such minor workplace tragedies are inevitable, but in many cases they are fully preventable.  From my experience, purposefulness is the easiest way to prevent such wasted effort.  When you have a sense of purpose in everything that you do, and when your sense of purpose is in harmony with that of the organization you’re working within, you will find that you often will identify a counter-productive or unnecessary task instantly and effortlessly, the minute it is given to you.  And when acting purposefully, you will also find that the relevant questions of how to do a task properly come naturally to you at the beginning, rather than having to find these questions through trial and error.

Clouds, sky, and a few trees reflecting beautifully in still water

What is the purpose of including this picture taken in Lubbock, Texas, in this post?

How do you achieve this sense of purpose?  It’s really as simple as looking for it and focusing on it.  My advice for becoming more purposeful in your work is to take the following pieces of advice:

  • Set aside time in your workday to contemplate the purpose behind the work that you are doing.
  • Converse with your coworkers about the work that they do.  Also, talk to others you come into contact with who interact somehow with your work or organization (students, customers, clients, vendors, etc.).  This will help you see how your work fits into the big picture of the organization as a whole, and will enhance your sense of purpose.
  • Read job descriptions, mission statements, and other purpose-oriented statements.  Someone took the time to write them; don’t let that time go to waste.
  • Ask questions about where your work comes from and goes to.  If you are assigned work that will be passed off or handed on to someone else (whether office work, a tangible product, or teaching students who will move on to use the class material in later classes), getting a sense of the “before” and “after” will help your work become more purposeful.

Purpose is also intertwined with creativity.  Many types of jobs are open-ended, in that a purpose or goal is specified, but the means of achieving the goal are essentially boundless.  In sales and marketing, the purpose is to connect your business with people who have a need for the products or services that your business can provide.  Discovering a new vehicle for advertising, a new avenue for networking, or finding a new way to relate to people, can often represent a huge breakthrough which yields greater results with less effort.  In education, a new way of looking at a concept may provide a much easier way to teach or learn that concept.  Without considering purpose, you will merely chug away at whatever existing methods have been handed to you.  But when you start thinking about purpose, you set off a creative brainstorming process which often culminates in ways to not just accomplish the tasks at hand, but sometimes, completely eliminates the need to do those tasks in the first place, or helps you discover much more effective ways to do them.

Sustainability and Work Culture in the U.S.:

The culture in the workplace (and also in educational settings) in much of the U.S. often ignores these facts–and I think this results in a major loss of productivity and a massive waste of resources throughout society as a whole.  Since wise use of resources is a fundamental part of sustainability, I think that work culture is an integral part of sustainability.  There are other ways in which work culture and sustainability are related, beyond just the direct question of productivity.  Thinking about purpose often leads one to think more about sustainability, and as sustainability is a purpose, thinking about sustainability also promotes more purposeful work as well.  By tackling issues of workplace culture, individuals, businesses, and organizations will not only become immensely more productive (which has tangible and huge financial benefits) but will also become more sustainable as well.

What Can You Do?

  • Work intelligently yourself, and work at learning how to learn and learning how to work intelligently.  The benefits will be innumerable.
  • When someone labels a person someone as “smart”, point out the way in which the person may have had to work to develop the skills that went into their accomplishments.
  • When someone praises a person as being “hard working”, point out the ways in which the person’s success was a function of their approach and not just the amount of hours they put in, and give examples of how they were working intelligently.
  • If you are in a position of authority, set an example of working intelligently, and work to create incentives for those under your guidance and supervision that promote intelligent work, not just hard work.  Encourage workaholics to take a break or leave work at a reasonable hour, and repeatedly emphasize that you care more about what they get done than how many hours they put in.
  • If you work in an environment with incentives that make it difficult for you to work intelligently, be assertive and work to get better incentives put in place.  Your commitment to being productive will be your largest asset in terms of getting through to people who may at first seem resistant to your ideas.  Do not get discouraged if it seems like an uphill battle.  The U.S. is currently dominated by a culture that glorifies hard work and often ignores intelligent work.  However, the the idea of working intelligently is such a common sense concept that anyone will agree with it if it is presented from the right angle.  Be persistent in your insistence on working intelligently, and those around you will eventually come to see the benefits of this approach.
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