Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Status Update - Revealing my secret research project - On the Experience of Living More Sustainabily

- On the Experience of Living in a More Sustainable Manner - 

Well, life over the past 6 months has seemed like a whirlwind, not unlike the 6 months before it.

As I come to my senses, and the mental fog clears, I find myself feeling as if my family and I have been abused - sucked dry. In part, the past year or so has been the result of our own choices, and partly the results of external forces outside our immediate control. And no, I have yet to complete the dissertation, and up until the last 4 weeks everything has been pretty much on hold. However, with a little reprieve and some time for personal reflection, I realize how much hardship can teach each one of us.

For one, I think Maslow was correct in his assessment of human fulfillment.  In my case, when one's life is reduced primarily to dealing with the basic necessity of survival, higher level pursuits tend to suffer. The capacity for reflection is not necessarily diminished, but the depth of importance or relevance to one's immediate survival needs seems ancillary.

It is almost embarrassing to publicly admit this, but I know what it means to feel hunger. I know the fear (uncertaintity ) and shame (poor choices) that comes with the threat of homelessness. I know the sense of uncertaintity that comes with poverty, as well as the loss of "freedom" that comes with poverty. Instead of having the ability of choosing between a series of positive pursuits, the experience of poverty is one where the opportunities one has are severely limited in terms of the number of options one has available, as well as the quality of those options. Often times my wife and I would find ourselves having to choose between phones, power and food. Most days, we could only choose one.

(Side note: the connection between choice and the "experience" of poverty seem to resonate with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's conceptions of justice - where the capabilities one is afforded correspond to the freedom to act, the freedom to enjoy life)

Unfortunately, I am already familiar with the experience of being a young father, and a husband struggling to take care of a new family. At the age of 19, I woke to a foreign reality - Somehow I navigated through teenage homelessness, and all of the things that come with being 16, and living life on the streets. Somehow I was employed, working just above minimum wage, and a roof over my head. Still I was a high school drop out who barely completed the 9th grade, and who was suffering from a deficit of purpose and vision - suffering from a deep existential angst. However, with the reality of fatherhood and the level of responsibility that being a parent entailed, compelled - demanded a cosmic shift. I committed to finding a purpose, that ideal vision - where I could live in line with my passions and beliefs. The trick was finding out what that meant...

Fast forward 13 years, and I find that those earlier years seem like a faded dream of another person, living another life. But whether one is a homeless teen, a nervous parent to be, or a respected scholar - a convergence of events can land anyone in peril, and at any moment the feeling of powerlessness in the storm of life can overwhelm and debilitate.

On the other hand, not all is "negative" and it often seems that through the hardships we encounter in life, are the times when we are challenged and . For one, as someone who pays lip service to the ideals of "voluntary simplicity," it wasn't until I was confronted with "forced simplicity" that I learned how to watch my habitual patterns towards consumption, accumulation and the never-ending pursuit of comfort. Thinking for a moment about the "Fulfillment Curve" articulated in the book, "Your Money or Your Life," I can't help but see the parallels with my own life experience. We sought out a degree of comfort to offset the overwhelming discomfort through coffee, food, alcohol, etc. But the more we sought out these small comforts the more we perpetuated the problems of scaricity, and ultimately the problem of choice. The time, energy and worry that went into balancing the immediate needs, and immediate wants became a greater stresser than the relief we derived from fulfilling those wants. Like a drug addict, I was habituated to the satisficing of my desire for comfort, even when both my apparent obsession and compulsion had become key factors in my mental and material poverty.

Overall, I learned that although I possess the skills and experiences to start and run an organic, sustainable farm - write software, do research, run a non-profit, etc., etc. - my obsession with those more immediate comforts made it impossible to forgo these things -- despite our dreams, and our cause. After all, one of the very basis for the move was my own desire to extend beyond my "objective" research work on sustainable living and agriculture, and delve into the phenomenological dimension of what it means to live in greater ecological balance.

Sure you can read books, and study the science but to immerse oneself in the practice and process reveals a type of knowledge that is hidden through more positivist approaches to developing knowledge and insight. While one might seem to be discursive in nature, the other would seem more heuristic, and born out of immediate experience. I just never anticipated this little detour, and yet it was the act of purposeful struggle that highlighted the material, social and psychological barriers that invariably shape the character and extent of our abilities to live more balanced, or at least more coherently with our ideals.

Unlike a survey, or an in-person interview - the active engagement in attempting to create coherence between one's ideals and one's actions, a disciplined and methodical inquiry into the nature, or experience of sustainability reveals a different dimension. The process of reflection in the wake of all that has transpired highlights to me, one of the missing elements in my research. What has been missing is the personal story - the personal struggles, failures and successes.

While I have spent a great deal of time working on developing a web crawler to support my social network and discourse analysis, I realized that one critical element was missing. For me, it is not enough to merely study a particular phenomenon. In a sense, one must enter into it in order to more fully comprehend the nuanced nature of the phenomenon. This embrace and engagement is in a sense a response to the more starchy, antiseptic research endevours that speaks to a highly academic audience. While this is important in the context of research and policy, our intellectual engagement must delve beyond the specific research question and dig deeper. We must begin to consider more fully what it means to be a human living in modernity and simultaneously seeking to follow a post-modern - ecologically oriented worldview.

So far, the revelation of living (or attempting to) illuminates the contradictions of choice that emerge - contradictions that are made apparent through the limitations of time and space - contradictions that appear in light of scarcity. As I move forward in this line of inquiry, I hope to give more context to the growth in local food systems, and especially the growing movement of people seeking opportunities to grow their own food and reassert more control over their food supply. Yet, just as this project aims to reveal the opportunities and intelligence of human communities (and individuals), it is meant to show the limits that confront us. By seeing both, it is possible to create more intelligent solutions and opportunities for making it easier for people to begin living more consciously, more voluntarily, and ultimately more sustainably...

(More to Come)

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