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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #33      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      November 19, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's notes
          You Are the Network
          Networks of Convenience
    *** Beyond ecophobia (David Sobel)
          How to teach children a love of the environment
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's notes

    You Are the Network

    Personal networking always carried a hint of exploitation -- of "using" people -- but it was never quite like this. IBM and MIT's Media Lab have developed the prototype for a "personal area network" in which the people you touch are quite literally made into your network. The idea is that you walk around with a computer-on-a-card in your pocket, and it continually emits signals that travel through your body, communicating with everything and everyone you graze up against. You can give out your business card with each handshake. And your watch, pager, and hand-held computer can talk to each other.

    So the "flesh meet" as a supposed alternative to online experience suddenly becomes problematic, and the hardware "handshake" finally becomes just another handshake. Presumably you can communicate through other bodily routes as well -- the potential for redeeming certain classical communication failures by converting them into information-rich encounters is impressive -- but no further details are currently on offer.

    According to the November 18 USA Today, in which the story appeared, personal networking technology is safe: "the power generated is one-billionth of an amp and the frequency is similar to that of an AM radio."

    But the real high point of this story lies in its concluding line. Reporters, of course, are supposed to find out why things matter, so the author of the USA Today report dutifully put the question to IBM engineer Tom Zimmerman. His answer? "It provides convenience, which everyone needs."

    Now there's in-depth technology reporting for you.

    (Thanks to John Thienes for passing along the news item.)

    Networks of Convenience

    In his essay, "Marshall McLuhan: The Medium's Messenger," Mark Dery comments that "what makes McLuhan's global village a village is not so much the interactivity enabled by its virtual commons as the sense of profound involvement that supposedly flows from our electronic interconnectedness." He goes on to ask whether McLuhan was right in thinking that "the electric implosion...compels commitment and participation":
    TV's role in galvanizing opposition to the Vietnam war or, more recently, in mobilizing humanitarian aid for starving Somalis would seem to bear this out. Then again, the curious inertia of an international community awash, nightly, in graphic images of butchery in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Rwanda would seem to suggest that "commitment and participation" do not spring spontaneously from our electronic window on the world. Absent social consciousness and, more importantly, political will on the part of the global community, the wires that connect us are not ties that bind, merely plumbing for a deluge of images that initially jolts us, soon numbs us, and ultimately bores us.

    "Social service organizations and their donors complain about 'compassion fatigue,'" notes Randall K. Bush. "Not only have we seen the starving children...before, but we have also donated to relief efforts after such events before...We switch channels to something else" ("Not Global Villagers, but Global Voyeurs," The Christian Century, September 9-16, 1992). On an uglier note, the peace movement that sprang from the living room horrors of history's first TV war must be weighed against the troglodytic chest-thumping that greeted images of Iraqis barbecued alive on the Basra highway in history's first Nintendo war. The global village's epitaph is written on the Gulf War T-shirt that read, "Kick Their Ass, Take Their Gas."

    Of course, TV, we are told, is an outmoded, top-down, one-way medium; virtual communities, with their inherently democratic structure, are likelier candidates for McLuhan's global commons. Or are they? "'At first I thought this was Marshall McLuhan's global village coming to reality,' said Neil Harris, a manager at [a company] which sets up computer conferences and sells information to about 200,000 members around the world. 'But it's not that at all. It's a lot of people connecting in hundreds of small communities based around highly specific interests'" (John Markoff, "Locking the Doors in the Electronic Global Village," The New York Times, July 28, 1991).

    Jeff Salamon, writing in The Village Voice, agrees: "Contrary to grand predictions that the Internet would open up our world, it has mostly offered people the opportunity to pack themselves into ever smaller worlds, where enthusiasms mutate into obsessions, and a reality check is a parallel dimension away" ("Revenge of the Fanboys," September 13, 1994).

    You'll find Dery's complete essay (which I have excerpted here by permission) at:
    Thanks to Michael Corriveau for bringing this essay to my attention. SLT

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    *** Beyond ecophobia

    From David Sobel

    David Sobel is co-chairman of the education department at Antioch New England Graduate School, and author of Children's Special Places (Zephyr Press, 1993). The article presented here is excerpted from Orion (vol. 14, no. 4, Autumn, 1995). That issue of the magazine features a special section entitled "Generation to Generation," addressing the question, "How do parents foster in their children and themselves a connection with the world, respect for the natural world, hopefulness, a spiritual way of life?"

    Reprinted by permission of Orion. You can contact Orion at orion@bcn.net.

                                 BEYOND ECOPHOBIA
                    Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education
                                   David Sobel
    Just as ethnobotanists are descending on tropical forests in search of new plants for medical uses, environmental educators, parents, and teachers are descending on second and third graders to teach them about the rainforests. From Brattleboro, Vermont to Berkeley, California, school children are learning about tapirs, poison arrow frogs, and biodiversity. They hear the story of the murder of activist Chico Mendez and watch videos about the plight of indigenous forest people displaced by logging and exploration for oil. They learn that between the end of morning recess and the beginning of lunch, more than ten thousand acres of rainforest will be cut down, making way for fast-food, "hamburgerable" cattle.

    But what really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?...My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused and they just don't want to have to deal with it....

    Knowledge Without Love Will Not Stick

    [During the 1980s:] Concerned about acid rain effects on forests, the ozone hole, heavy metal pollution in European rivers, the aftermath of Chernobyl and other environmental problems, the Germans implemented a conscientious national curriculum endeavor. The intent was to raise the consciousness of the elementary student body throughout the country regarding environmental problems. By informing students about the problems and showing them how they could participate in finding the solutions, the education ministry hoped to create empowered global citizens.

    Follow-up studies conducted some years after implementation indicated just the opposite had occurred. As a result of the curriculum initiative, education officials found that students felt hopeless and disempowered. The problems were seemingly so widespread and beyond the students' control that their tendency was to turn away from, rather than face up to, participating in local attempts at problem solving.

    If curriculum focused on saving the earth doesn't work, what's the answer? One way to approach this problem is to figure out what contributes to the development of environmental values in adults. What happened in the childhoods of environmentalists, some researchers have asked, to make them grow up with strong ecological values? A handful of these studies have been conducted, and when Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies she found an intriguing pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, "many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi- wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature."

    What a simple solution. No rainforest curriculum, no environmental action, just opportunities to be in the natural world with modeling by a responsible adult. Chawla noted that "not one of the conservationists ... explained his or her dedication as a reaction against exposure to an ugly environment." When the Sierra Club wants to raise money for saving old- growth forests, they send photographs of denuded, eroding hillsides with their donation requests. Defenders of Wildlife raises money by showing us the cuddly harp seal being bludgeoned to death. For adults, with a commitment to preservation and a sense of self firmly in place, this technique appropriately motivates us to action.

    For young children--kindergarten through third or fourth grade--this technique is counterproductive. Lurking beneath these environmentally correct curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place, and self are still forming. Newspaper pictures of homes destroyed by California wildfires are disturbing to my seven-year-old New Hampshire daughter because she immediately personalizes them. "Is that fire near here? Will our house burn down? What if we have a forest fire?" she queries, because for her, California is right around a psychic corner.

    What's important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds. John Burroughs cautions that, "Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow." Our problem is that we are trying to invoke knowledge, and responsibility, before we have allowed a loving relationship to flourish....

    Over the past ten years, I have collected neighborhood maps from hundreds of children in the United States, England, and the Caribbean. From my analysis of these maps and interviews and field trips with these children, I have found clear patterns of development in the relationship between the child and her expanding natural world.

    From age four until seven or eight, children's homes fill the center of their maps and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks and feel protective about these creatures.

    From eight to eleven, children's geographical range expands rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are currently investigating. Children's homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the page. The central focus in these maps is the "explorable landscape."

    From eleven to fourteen the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering, places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance....

    At the same time as the child's home becomes less significant, forts and dens show up on children's maps. These special places of childhood, both found and built places, appear to be crucially important for many children from ages eight to eleven. Urban, suburban, and rural children find hidden places even in daunting circumstances, attesting to the importance of finding a place of one's own at this age. Kim Stafford describes this movement:

    Here was my private version of civilization, my separate hearth. Back Home, there were other versions of this. I would take any refuge from the thoroughfare of plain living--the doll-house, the tree-house, furniture, the tablecloth tent, the attic, the bower in the cedar tree....

    There I pledged allegiance to what I knew, as opposed to what was common. My parents' house was a privacy from the street, from the nation, from the rain. But, I did not make that house, or find it, or earn it with my own money. It was given to me. My separate hearth had to be invented by me, kindled, sustained, and held secret by my own soul as a rehearsal for departure.

    These new homes in the wilds, and the journeys of discovering, are the basis for bonding with the natural world. Children desire immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable world. We take children away from these strength-giving landscapes when we ask them to deal with distant ecosystems and environmental problems. Rather we should be attempting to engage children more deeply in knowing the flora, fauna, and character of their own local places. The woods behind the school and the neighborhood streets and stores are the places to start.

    Exploring Nature

    The challenge for parents and educators is to match activities and engagements with the periods of development in childhood. First, children need to develop emotional empathy for the creatures of the natural world. Next they need safe opportunities to explore their urban and rural landscapes, and finally, they need to have opportunities to work on problems in their local communities....

    The Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts has recently revised its science curriculum to focus on aquatic environments to take advantage of the range of watery places accessible from the school. Starting with a focus on woodland streams in first grade, the curriculum moves down the watershed to ponds in second grade, freshwater wetlands in third grade and eventually out to the ocean by eighth grade. The first grader's streams are right outside the classroom door, the ponds are a bit of a walk, the ocean is a half mile away, so the curriculum expands outward along with the scope of the children's interest and capabilities.

    The water cycle isn't something to be taught in two weeks; it is best done over the six or eight years of elementary and middle school. The water courses of the landscape are the circulatory system of the living earth, and we can only learn them by following them, literally and metaphorically.

    With this in mind, David Millstone, a fifth-grade social studies teacher in Norwich, Vermont recently began a local studies unit with a stream- following expedition. Recognizing the allure of stream following, he initiated a class expedition not knowing where the stream would lead. In a student newsletter about this expedition, one child's poem describes the passage through a long, unanticipated culvert encountered along the way:

        Cold, damp dark
        rushing water
        suddenly a waterful
        like a gray and white curtain.
        Finally light
    The children's writing for the newsletter fairly crackles with excitement about discovering something literally in their backyard. This project did not touch directly on acid rain, or groundwater pollution, or drinking water quality, or evaporation and condensation. It did, however, immerse children in exploring streams and understanding, in a personal way, where they go. Wet sneakers and muddy clothes are prerequisites for understanding the water cycle.

    Social action appropriately begins around age eleven and certainly extends beyond age fourteen. While woods, parks, and playgrounds are the landscapes of middle childhood, adolescents want to be downtown. Managing school recycling programs, passing town ordinances, testifying at hearings, planning and going on school expeditions all are appropriate activities at this point. Good school programs will also recognize the need for rites of passage toward the end of this period. Initiation signifies the transition into adulthood with the dual challenges of solitude and social responsibility....

    Though I have portrayed these stages separately, they are not mutually exclusive. Empathy doesn't stop when exploration starts. Rather, activities that encourage the evolution of empathy should continue throughout the elementary and middle school years. Exploration of the natural world begins in early childhood, flourishes in middle childhood, and continues in adolescence as a pleasure and a source of strength for social action.

    After doing the weekly shopping with my seven-year-old daughter and four- year-old son last spring, we would put the groceries in the car and take a short walk across the meadow behind the shopping center to an unused railroad trestle. My children wanted to master their fear of walking on the deck of the bridge; they looked through the railroad ties at the moving water below and saw how far each of them could walk without holding my hand.

    On the way to and fro we'd also fill up plastic bags with discarded garbage from along the side of the path. The kids named that activity "cleaning up Mother Earth." We probably only did five minutes of picking up but, week to week, it was easy to see the progress we were making. Such action seems fitting for children this age in the context of an engaging exploration. But let's watch out for the downward creep of our activist inclinations, and allow children the communion with nature that provides "intimations of immortality."

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    An expanded version of Sobel's article has just been made available in monograph form and is available for $6 from The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington MA 01230.

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #33 :: November 19, 1996

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