Sunday, December 25, 2011

A red, orange and yellow Christmas

A lifetime of Canadian Christmases has conditioned me to think the only thing that should be hanging from the trees this time of year is icicles or twinkling lights.

It seems wrong that Kyoto is in the last blush of fall when trees back home have been bare for months. It's beautiful but it doesn't feel like Christmas.

Kyoto is a little bit like Vancouver. Both cities are surrounded by mountains where, if you get up high enough, the rain is replaced by snow. Still, there's something unnatural about walking through dry city streets and then arriving in a winter wonderland after an hour of hiking up the side of a mountain.

It's autumn at sea level and winter at elevation. Two seasons for the price of one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Deconstructing Durban

I spent the past two weeks in Durban, South Africa, at the United Nations climate change conference. I think I have recovered from the sleep deprivation, the over-caffination and the general frustration enough to put my thoughts into words.

I want to talk about what it was like to be at the conference. And I want to talk about the youth delegates, whose energy, enthusiasm and optimism blew my mind on a daily basis. But, before I do that, I want to talk about the outcome of the conference. To get the bad news out of the way first.

Durban was an incredibly complex and difficult meeting. In the end, all we got was a vague document called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. It's not a protocol or a mandate, just a "platform." It's too soon to tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing. If governments decide they want to raise the level of ambition on climate change, the Durban Platform can be a tool to set us on course. We now have an agreement to negotiate an "instrument" with "legal force." Governments can, theoretically, design the new instrument to match up with the deep emission cuts the IPCC indicates are necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The negotiations on the new instrument will determine if we are serious about solving climate change or not. So it's difficult to label Durban a success or a failure; it's what happens next that really matters.

That's the big question, what happens next? Will new negotiations actually result in real emission reductions or will it be too little, too late?

It's easy to feel pessimistic about international negotiations on climate change. Each meeting seems to follow the same pattern: all talk, no action. World governments have been talking about climate change for 20 years with very little progress. Trying to get 194 countries to move together in the same direction on climate change feels less like building consensus and more like herding cats.

Complicating matters is the fact that climate change comes with a time limit and the window to stabilize global temperatures is closing. The International Energy Agency has shown that CO2 emissions in 2010 were the highest on record; and they're still rising. Every year we don't deal with it, the problem just gets worse. And at a certain point, it will be too late to fix it. There will be too many emissions in the atmosphere and no way back to a world that isn't buffeted by uncontrollable, catastrophic climate change.

Scientists have been telling us increases in global temperatures must be kept to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to limit temperature rise to two degrees, the IPCC warns that global emissions have to peak by 2015 and then drop to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

But the latest science from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research suggests that two degrees is no longer the threshold between "acceptable" and "dangerous" risks but between "dangerous" and "very dangerous" climate change. Scientists there are now looking at 1.5 degrees as a safer target. That means cutting global emissions at least 85 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

We are nowhere near that. The Kyoto Protocol contains targets that are far too small to achieve any of those goals. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries are supposed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions a mere 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. That's not going to happen.

Part of the problem is that negotiations are complicated by fundamental differences of positions, which have yet to be resolved. Countries will have to find a way to work through several key differences, including differences of historical responsibility, differences in development and differences in geographic vulnerability to climate change. International cooperation on deeper emission cuts will be impossible unless these differences can be resolved. Compounding the problem is a lack of political will to do what is necessary to tackle climate change.

Which is why Durban -- just like each and every climate conference preceding it for the past two decades -- was an incredibly complex and difficult meeting.

A snapshot of the Durban climate conference

It's worth mentioning what it's actually like to be at one of these United Nations climate change conferences. The scale of these meetings is so big that critics often deride them as a traveling circus. (I don't like the negative connotation but it's not an entirely inaccurate description.)

Since 1995, representatives of countries from around the world have gathered at the annual Conference of the Parties to hammer out the details of international action on climate change. For two weeks each year, thousands of negotiators, politicians, heads of state, journalists, celebrities, business leaders, academics, youth activists and environmentalists converge in a frenzy of activity. Because there are so many high-profile people in one place, security is always a big concern. Passing your bag through an X-ray machine and walking through a metal detector become as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth.

The security checkpoints, scanners, X-ray machines, fences and road closures make you feel as if you are entering a gigantic hermetically sealed bubble when you walk through the conference doors. And, in a way, you are. You are entering a universe unto itself with a language unto itself. Everyone at the conference speaks in abbreviations: CDM, JI, REDD, SBSTA, SBI, AWG-KP, AWG-LCA. The numbingly dull list goes on and on (and we wonder why we're not winning the hearts and minds of the general public).

I would hate to be one of the thousands of journalists covering the conference. The whole thing is so confusing and difficult to understand that I wouldn't know where to begin. How they manage to distill it down to a succinct sound bite is beyond me.

That's not to say the journalists don't struggle. I saw a journalist crying in the women's washroom during the first week of the conference.

"It's really hard to know what to write or how to put it all together," she sobbed.

It's too bad Bill Clinton turned the expression into a cliche because there's no better way to describe it: I felt her pain.

The conference was held inside the sprawling Durban International Convention Centre, which was unremarkable as far as convention centres go. Still, Durban wins points for its creative space-saving techniques. The underground parking garage was transformed into makeshift offices for the UNFCCC, as well as the American, British and Canadian delegations. It was an airless, windowless, oil-stained, concrete wasteland.

These conferences are what I imagine being on a cruise ship is like, minus the onboard entertainment (unless you count as entertainment the small contingent of oddballs that always turns up at these conferences -- such as the woman registered as "Supreme Master" or his highness Lord Monckton, who showed up in Durban to stop the Marxists’ wet dream of global totalitarian dictatorship).

Sitting in on international climate negotiations requires a strong stomach, endless reserves of patience and a suppressed gag reflex. In Cancun last year, I watched as negotiations on a draft text to enhance public awareness and education on climate change began with 45 minutes of bickering by countries over the wording of one sentence in the opening paragraph. And this was one of the least nasty, least confrontational negotiating sessions.

It's no secret that certain countries come to the negotiating table year after year to obstruct rather than push for progress. These thinly veiled attempts to kill the Kyoto Protocol have brought negotiations to a virtual standstill. The pace of international climate change talks is now so grindingly slow it's no wonder almost nothing gets accomplished. The Kyoto Protocol is still alive but it's on life support.

And now for the good news

If we want to shift the level of ambition and political will that countries bring to the international negotiating table, we need to ramp up public concern on climate change. Without public pressure for strong action, countries will be able to continue to push for weak targets at international climate negotiations. Ministers will be able to return home from these meetings and ignore the problem until the next summit. Without public support for immediate action, international negotiations will continue to go nowhere and emissions will continue to rise.

Building popular demand for fundamental changes requires all of us to become involved. The good news is that things are already changing, with NGOs, schools and young people leading the way. I met many people in Durban working hard to make a difference. But the ones who impressed me the most were the young people.

The UNFCCC hired me to help with youth-related activities in Durban. My job was to make sure the youth delegates were able to participate in the process as fully as possible. We arranged meetings for them with high-level negotiators. We organized four slots a day for mini-side events. We gave them booths, an office, a meeting room, space to protest, logistical support, and the ability to intervene during negotiating sessions. To its credit, the UNFCCC truly understands the importance of giving youth a voice at these conferences. After all, it's their future that is up for negotiation.

The youth delegates blew my mind on a daily basis. They were an endless source of optimism, hope, positive energy and creativity -- essential ingredients in the shift toward a more sustainable future.

It was a good conference for young people. They got more media coverage than I've ever seen them get before. Three stories stood out for me.

The first was the six young Canadians who stood up during Environment Minister Peter Kent's address at the main plenary and turned their backs on him.

The second was the young woman who interrupted the speech by the U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern. Security officers eventually led her out of the room but not before her plea for action was met with long, sustained applause from the room full of delegates and negotiators.

The third was the huge protest that went on for hours inside the convention centre on the last day of the conference. Young people refused to move until they got a fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement on climate change. They didn't get what they wanted. But, still, it was an exciting thing to see. You got the sense that they are the front wave of a much bigger movement back home.

Every young person in Durban was there because they care passionately about climate change. Some came to share their views with delegates, others to raise awareness about the work of their organizations through side events.

The UK Youth Climate Coalition, for example, worked hard to let the outside world know what was going on inside the climate talks. They filmed, edited and produced several short videos that they uploaded to YouTube while in Durban.

My personal favourite Shakira's Waka Waka Comes to Durban features young people singing and dancing to the theme song of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Because the climate conference was also being held in South Africa, the youth delegates decided to make Shakira's Waka Waka their official song too.

I hate to single out individuals because there was not one youth delegate who didn't impress me. But I think it's important to give a few concrete examples of the kind of work young people are doing.

Like Danae, who is working to engage young people on climate solutions in Mexico. Her project to improve alliances among young people, governments and NGOs won a national award, which is how she ended up in Durban.

Or Anton, a 17-year-old high school student from Germany, who wrote a policy paper on sustainable transportation, which he presented at a mini-side event in Durban. What was I doing when I was 17? Getting drunk, listening to Led Zeppelin, failing math? I had neither the motivation nor the intellectual capability to write policy papers at 17. At this rate, Anton is going to be the Chancellor of Germany by the time he's my age.

Or Esther, who developed a toolkit on climate change for young people in her home country of Nigeria. Her work took her to rural schools, where she helped set up climate change clubs. She also runs what she describes as the best blog in Africa.

Or the group of kids from South Africa who are leaders of their school's climate change clubs. They spoke about their school gardens, their recycling projects, and their efforts to raise money to install solar panels on their school roofs.

Or Jordan and Curtis, cousins from Nunavut in their early 20s. They came to Durban with a strong message for world leaders: climate change is devastating their northern home.

Jordan and Curtis spoke about how the snow is arriving later and melting sooner in Canada's far north. They also spoke about how melting Arctic sea ice is hurting polar bears, which rely on ice floes for shelter, hunting and breeding. As a result, hungry polar bears have been turning up at the town's garbage dumps in search of food.

The young men have spent time documenting the effects of climate change on their community through films and blogs. Their work focuses on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (the traditional knowledge) of Elders. In preparation for the UN conference, Jordan created a film titled Experiences of Climate Change from Inuit Elders.

"I have a grandpa who likes to talk a lot," Curtis said. "We're not scientists but we know our land."

The examples go on and on. If I listed all of the brilliant work young people are doing to draw attention to climate change, I could fill a book. If these are our future leaders, the world is in good hands.

As for me, something wonderful happened on the last day of the conference. I had helped organize a high-level briefing for youth with Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC. More than 150 young people came out to hear Christiana talk about the status of negotiations and answer their questions. I was up on stage, moderating the event. We were running out of time but Christiana announced that she would take one last question. Neva, of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, was the first person whose arm shot up in the air. I pointed to Neva and she leaned forward to speak into the microphone. She explained that she wanted to make a comment rather than ask a question.

"On behalf of the youth, I just want to thank Sarah for all of the great work she's been doing. We appreciate her efforts." And then the youth delegates raised their hands in the air and wiggled their fingers in silent applause (clapping is so last century). I was so touched I almost started crying.

I gave Neva a hug afterward and told her that her comment was like a knife through my heart (in a good way). All of it, all of the sleep deprivation, the over-caffination, the frustration, all of it made worthwhile by one touching comment. It was nice to be appreciated but it was even better to have spent those two weeks giving love to the youth and getting love back. It was a moment that will stay with me forever.

Toward the end of the conference, many of the youth said they felt like they had been riding an emotional roller coaster. They vacillated between feeling inspired by the possibility of a better world and frustrated with the low level of political will to make that happen. Still, they realize a lot of the work happens between conferences, that climate change is not something the world tackles only once a year for two weeks.

Climate change is urgent but urgency does not mean panic. It means continuous, patient action to change the world, which is exactly what these wonderful young people are working hard to do. And that should give all of us hope.

You can check out the rest of the photos from Durban on my flickr page.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Halfway through writing my master's thesis I was struck by a profound realization: I was not writing a master's thesis, I was writing a love story. I was writing about things that mattered deeply to me -- love of nature, love of the universe, love of place, love of community. I'm not sure if there's room for the word "love" in a master's thesis about the current environmental crisis but love is what underpins this paper. It's about the need to touch people's hearts, not just their minds.

I had originally planned to look at how to communicate climate change in a way that motivates people to act. But my heart wasn't really in it. I had no clear hypothesis. Just a vague idea that the way we communicate about climate change wasn't working.

Everything changed six months ago when I took Professor Singer's academic writing class. She assigned us a 3,000-word paper with the freedom to write about anything we wanted to -- as long as the paper was backed by research. At that point, I was tired of writing dry, pedantic reports on climate change. I wanted to write something from the heart; I wanted to write about my love affair with the mountain behind my home. Prof. Singer could have rejected my idea but, instead, she encouraged it. And so I started to go deeper into my mountain.

But it wasn't enough just to research the mountain, I also needed to climb it. To breathe its forest-filtered air. To hear its birds sing overhead. To sink into its mud underfoot. To reach its summit and to see nothing but mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon.

The reward for all that effort was not to feel as though I had conquered the thing but to feel humbled by it -- to surrender myself to the realization that we are nothing more than an insignificant speck on a tiny planet in a vast universe whose mysteries we know very little about. But to also feel, with unwavering certainty, that we are connected to everything and everyone.

The more time I spent on the mountain, the more the focus of my paper started to shift. I was no longer writing about the mountain, I was writing about connectedness. As I got deeper into researching this ethos of connectedness, I came across a term I had never heard before: ecological literacy. I learned ecological literacy is about knowing the story of who we are and where we come from. It's about understanding that we are part of -- not apart from the natural world. That we are a species that is utterly dependent on healthy ecosystems for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

I started to see the ethos of separation as the root cause of environmental problems. Dualistic thinking divided a harmonious ecosystem into separate parts -- human and non-human. It placed us as rulers of an earth whose natural resources existed solely for our benefit.

Thinking of ourselves as being at the top of some imaginary pyramid, with everything else beneath us and of lesser value, is a scientifically incorrect and outdated worldview. It was created at a time when we didn't understand the consequences of our actions. During the Industrial Revolution, we didn't know burning fossil fuels would cause climate change. Ecoliteracy is about the shift to a way of thinking that reflects the scientific reality of the world we live in. It's about recognizing that the earth is an intricate system of relationships that we are part of. It's about moving away from an ethos of separateness toward an ethos of relatedness.

Nature does not belong to us; we belong to nature. That is ecoliteracy.

Without this basic ecological understanding, it's easy to believe the myth that we have absolute control. This delusion can have tragic consequences, as all of us in Japan now know. The Fukushima nuclear disaster exposed the human arrogance that leads us to think we can somehow "outsmart" nature by building nuclear power plants as if they were unsinkable ships impervious to the rumblings of the earth and the movements of the ocean.

Stumbling upon ecoliteracy triggered an epiphany. I immediately knew this is what my master's thesis needed to be about. I asked my supervisor, Professor Gannon, if I could scrap my original thesis plan and start from scratch. She agreed, even though it meant I would have to scramble to submit everything on time. The result is a thesis that is both the culmination of my life and the beginning of its newest chapter.

Becoming ecoliterate

David Orr writes that most people who consider themselves environmentalists tend to share three things in common: 1) They have had experience in nature at an early age; 2) They have had an older mentor or family member who shared a love of the natural world; 3) They later read some seminal book that said clearly what they were feeling deeply but could not express well.

My own story follows the same three steps. I grew up in Canada, born to parents who thought it important to instil a love of nature in their children. Every summer, we rented a cottage on the shores of Georgian Bay where my grandfather was born. Every morning, my dad made us comb the beach for empty beer bottles. When my dad would dig armpit-deep through the public garbage cans, I went silent with embarrassment. But I endured these humiliations for profit-related reasons. The more bottles we collected, the more money we got. Every night, after dinner, we would walk to the local convenience store to spend our earnings on candy. The thing I liked most about these walks was stopping at the pond along the way. The pond was filled with thousands of tadpoles and to me there was nothing more magical than watching a mass of squirming black dots grow into fish-like creatures that would sprout legs and eventually hop out of the pond as frogs. My parents set out to instil a sense of wonder in me and it worked.

My parents nurtured my love of the natural world but it was David Suzuki who made me care about it. I was introduced to David Suzuki during a high school biology class taught by Mr. Ranucci, the man of my teenaged dreams. I sat in the middle seat in the front row of his Grade 10 biology class. They say there are bats sensitive enough to detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. That was the way I listened to Mr. Ranucci -- like a bat closing in on a moth.

One day, Mr. Ranucci made us read an essay written by David Suzuki about the state of the environment. That essay changed my life. It crystallized my feelings about the natural world and put them into words. I don't remember exactly what he wrote but I remember feeling like I had been hit by lightning.

I decided I wanted to become a scientist like David Suzuki. The only problem was I kept failing math and chemistry. So I became a journalist instead. I was good at it but I hated it. I couldn't detach myself emotionally from the stories I was covering. And I was shy. I never got comfortable with approaching random people and asking them for interviews. I lasted three years as a journalist until I left for a place that was a better fit for a thin-skinned introvert.

I don't believe in fate but if I did, I'd say there was something else at work when I landed a job at the David Suzuki Foundation. I spent the next seven years working side-by-side with the man who changed my life when I was a teenager. Call it kismet.

However, it was far from paradise. The work often felt Sisyphean in nature. Just like rolling a boulder up a hill, it seemed like we were constantly offering solutions to environmental problems that fell on deaf ears. The struggle to turn policy into legislation, only to be defeated again and again, was an exercise in frustration. Caught up in daily work and deadlines, it was difficult to know if we were really making a difference. There was little time left over to step back and critically evaluate what we were doing well and what we were failing to do well.

When I applied to do a master's degree at Kyoto University, I wanted to look at how to communicate climate change in a way that motivates people to act. That, in turn, led to an internship with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year. I spent four months at the UNFCCC's office in Germany, where I compiled information for a report on what countries have (but mostly haven't) done to increase public awareness and education on climate change.

It was disappointing to see the low priority given to public awareness and education on climate change in many countries. Public support for measures to fight climate change is critical to their success. Without public pressure for strong action, countries will be able to continue to push for weak targets during international climate negotiations. Ministers will be able to continue to return home from these meetings and ignore the problem until the next summit.

It's easy to blame political leaders for the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the problem goes deeper than that -- there is very little being done to address the root cause of climate change. And while it's true that climate change is caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that's only part of the story. The climate crisis is also a crisis of worldview.

We don't live in an infinite world and yet we act as if we do. We act as if the ocean will never run out of fish or as if the ground will never run out of oil. During the past 250 years, human beings have altered the planet more rapidly than any other period in history. We have consumed resources faster than they can regenerate. We have driven thousands of plants and animals to extinction. The science is clear: a major shift in our consumption and production patterns is needed in order to live within the constraints of the natural systems that support us.

We need a way of thinking that reflects the scientific reality of the world we live in. We need to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible and to live accordingly. We need to become ecoliterate.

But what does becoming ecoliterate mean in practical terms? I spent two weeks at Schumacher College this fall in an attempt to answer that question. Satish Kumar, the director of the college, explained that ecoliteracy is about acquiring basic ecological knowledge, and then putting that knowledge into practice. I asked him how to move people toward a more ecoliterate worldview. How do you start a groundswell? He said most social movements tend to share four things in common:

1. Action. If you want to influence other people, you need to back up your words with action. It's not about being dogmatic or demanding. It's about being the change you want to see in the world.

2. Communication. Share your ideas. If 10 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 100 people. If 100 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 1,000 people. If 1,000 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 10,000 people. Ideas can spread exponentially, so start spreading them.

3. Organization. Slavery in America ended because people organized. The Berlin Wall came down because people organized. The Arab Spring spread across the Middle East because people organized. People need to come together to make their voices heard.

4. Long-term commitment. Urgency does not mean panic. It means continuous, patient action to change the world.

And while I agree with these steps in theory, putting them into practice is much more difficult. Working on environmental issues tends to leave me vacillating between idealism and cynicism. Seeing ecoliteracy in action at Schumacher College inspires me; seeing the lack of political will at international climate negotiations depresses me. But I recognize the importance of staying away from the extreme end of idealism (the naive and infantile kind of thinking that presumes people are inherently good or will choose to do the right thing) and the extreme end of cynicism (the negative and defeatist kind of thinking that constantly says "that's unrealistic").

Hope is the safe middle-ground between the two extremes. History gives me hope because history proves that worldviews can shift and people can change. Science has given us the power to destroy the environment but it has also given us the knowledge to understand the consequences of doing so. We're living at exactly the right moment in time. We are aware of the consequences of our actions. We can turn things around.

The earth is our only home. But more than that, it is the only place in the known universe where life exists, which is an amazing thing when you consider how big the universe really is. Our planet is just one of eight in orbit around our sun, which itself is only one of about 200 billion stars in our galaxy. But even our galaxy is just one of 100 billion galaxies, all joined together in an enormous web stretching out in all directions. It puts our tiny planet into perspective. In the vastness of the universe, life on earth is special and rare and worth protecting.

In the end, that's what this thesis is about. It's about everything that matters deeply to me -- love of nature, love of the universe, love of place, love of community. It's about moving beyond being a passive receiver of environmental knowledge, toward a deeper understanding of ecology and igniting the passion for change.

It is not just a master's thesis; it is a love story.

Note: I wrote this as a foreword to my master's thesis. I thought it was important to explain why I was writing this thesis and what it means to me. But, fundamentally, I wrote it for myself. I wanted to tell the story of how I got to this point. I'm not sure if my supervisor will allow me to include it in the final draft, which is why I decided to post it here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Schumacher College experience

If I had to summarize the two weeks I spent at Schumacher College as simply as possible, I would put it like this: Schumacher College is an amazing place full of amazing people doing amazing things.

I left Schumacher feeling inspired and motivated. Most of all, I left feeling like I'm on the right track with my research, my work, my thesis, my life. Everything is in line with my values. There's harmony in that, and with harmony comes happiness.

The purpose of my trip to Schumacher was twofold: 1) To take a course on ecological literacy; and 2) To use Schumacher as a case study for my master's thesis, which itself is about ecological literacy.

In case you're wondering what ecological literacy is, it's about knowing the story of who we are and where we come from. It's about understanding that we are a part of -- not apart from -- the natural world. That we are a species that is utterly dependent on healthy ecosystems for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

Thinking that we are somehow superior to, or separate from, nature is the kind of thinking that led us to create an economic system built on a foundation of limitless consumption. So ecoliteracy is about the shift to a way of thinking that reflects the scientific reality of the world we live in. In other words, it's about recognizing that the earth is an intricate system of relationships that we are part of. It's about moving away from an ethos of separateness toward an ethos of relatedness. Of course, ecoliteracy is much more than just the passive acquisition of knowledge; it is the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible and to live accordingly.

Being at Schumacher was great because it gave me the chance to learn more about ecoliteracy from both a theoretical and practical point of view. We saw all sorts of examples of ecoliteracy in action, from Transition Town Totnes to sustainable farming to ecological design. People are simply rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.

Schumacher also gave me insights into how I want to communicate about the environment. I am not interested in the confrontational "who can shout louder" style of activism. I think it's more productive (and effective) to talk about the issues in a way that is not dogmatic or demanding. No one wants to be preached at. It's better to be soft and permeable, to mould the message to the other person's interests and beliefs. To invite them into the conversation, rather than shut them out. And, above all else, to have a sense of humour when communicating about the environment. Humour is critical. Otherwise we come across as being too earnest and being earnest is annoying. Earnestness is the enemy of environmentalism.

I have a lot more thoughts, but I'm saving those for later. For now, I'll just end with some photos of the English countryside.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

London in 24 hours

I've been in the English countryside for almost two weeks now. I'm taking a course on ecoliteracy at Schumacher College. The experience has been incredible. Partly because of the college and partly because of its pastoral setting. I love the smell of cow poop in the morning. The college grounds are unlike anything I've seen before. All rolling green hills and quiet paths and stone buildings and grazing sheep. But I'll get to that later.

For now, I just want to post some pictures of London, a city in which I spent far too little time. I took the red-eye from Osaka to Dubai and then caught a connecting flight to Heathrow. By the time I arrived in London, I hadn't slept in more than 40 hours. But it's funny how being in a different country makes you feel alive and awake, no matter how tired you are.

I only had 24 hours in London from the moment my plane touched down to the time the train left for Totnes. So I bought a metro pass and hopped on the tube (I now know why they call it the tube. But I think "the cigarette" is a more accurate description. Subway trains don't get rounder or skinnier than the ones in London). I managed to hit all of the major tourist traps: Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, London Eye, Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, Hyde Park, and the dudes with the furry hats. I had dinner at a British pub, rode a double-decker bus, and wandered around the market in the morning.

But my favourite discovery was finding out that British people really do say things like "bollocks" and "blimey" and "bloody hell." It's adorable. Like a Hugh Grant movie come to life.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The beauty of the cosmos

I was walking with my friend Mai the other day when we passed by a field of cosmos flowers.

"Did you know that you can see stars inside the cosmos?" she asked.

I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

If you look deep inside a cosmos flower, she explained, you will see lots of little stars. So I pulled a cosmos close to my face and was struck by what I saw: there were stars inside the cosmos! The universe never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Learning how to bow

A degree from Kyoto University is a golden ticket to a good job in Japan. As a result, the school feels more like an incubator for salarymen than a place for higher learning. Which is why a compulsory class on Japanese business manners is part of the curriculum.

I wasn't too happy about being forced to take a class geared toward future salarymen when I wasn't planning to work in Japan after graduation. Equally annoying was the syllabus, which explained that we would learn "how to make/receive phone calls" and "how to send/receive emails." The implication was that we somehow hadn't acquired these skills before entering grad school. I love Japan but I hate the hierarchical social structure that makes it acceptable to treat grown adults like 12 year olds.

I went into the business manners class thinking it would be a waste of time. But I was wrong: it turned out to be one of the most fascinating classes I've ever taken. It was both absurd and illuminating. Absurd in the sense that we learned looking cute was more important than being competent, and illuminating in the sense that we learned why looking cute is part of Japanese business culture in the first place.

The university had contracted the class out to Smart-i, a company that specializes in teaching new recruits how to fall in line with corporate culture. Our instructor was an impeccably groomed woman by the name of Akiko Sakamoto. It was her job to teach us how to dress, how to hand out business cards, how to bow, how to smile, and how to sit in a car. It was like boot camp for businessmen.

Learning how to dress

We were told to come to class wearing business attire. All of the Japanese students showed up in identical black suits and white shirts. Most of the foreign students showed up in suits as well, but with a dash of style -- a flashy pink tie or a purple blouse. After the introductory remarks, the first lesson was about appearance. Ms. Sakamoto geared her talk toward appropriate interview attire. She told us to stand up while she walked around the room and inspected our outfits.

She praised the Japanese students and scolded the foreign students. The way the Japanese students were dressed showed they valued the group, while the way the foreign students were dressed showed they valued their individuality. Generally speaking, interviewers in Japan are looking to see how well you conform to the group, while interviewers in the west are looking to see what sets you apart from the group.

When it was my turn to be inspected, Ms. Sakamoto was blunt. My blue silk blouse was offensive ("bright colours cause a feeling of strangeness"). My flared black skirt was too showy. My red nailpolish was inappropriate (nails should be clipped short and left unpainted). My earrings had to go (absolutely no accessories). My open-toed heels were wrong (plain, black low-heeled pumps covering the whole foot were best). My bare legs were scandalous (hose is a must). The only compliment she gave me was on my hair, which was pulled back in a bun ("avoid loud-coloured hair, it can make people uncomfortable").

According to Ms. Sakamoto, the most important thing is to look "clean" and wearing white shirt (presumably one without stains) is the best way to do that. A white shirt and a black suit creates a good first impression. Almost every Japanese job seeker will wear the white shirt/black suit uniform to an interview (they call it their "recruit suit"). Wearing something other than the recruit suit implies that you are not a team player. A good employee follows the rules and doesn't make waves. It's better to blend in rather than to stand out (therefore, no earrings, no jewelry, no nailpolish, no hair out of place). Of course, these rules are for the interview process, not the job itself. We were told the rules loosen up after you've been hired.

Learning how to give and receive business cards

Next on the agenda was the art of giving and receiving business cards. In Japan, the business card (or "meishi") is considered an extension of the individual. Exchanging business cards is a formal activity; therefore, the card must be treated with respect.

You give your business card with your right hand and you receive a business card with both hands. It sounds simple in theory but it's more complicated in practice. Technically, you're supposed to put both hands on your business card holder and hold your arms out in front of you when you receive a card, while saying "choudaishimasu" ("I will accept it"). Then you have to read the other person's card out loud, acknowledging their name and title. If you receive the card during a meeting, you put the card on the table in front of you and leave it there throughout the duration of the meeting. If you exchange cards in a place where there aren't any tables, you are supposed to put it in your card holder. Shoving someone's business card in your pocket or your wallet is considered rude. Ms. Sakamoto had us practice in groups of two and four.

The foreign students weren't the only ones fumbling around. The Japanese students were also having trouble remembering all the rules. My friend Abe-chan leaned across the table and said, "Don't worry. It's difficult for us Japanese too."

Learning how to bow

There are three different kinds of bows: eshaku; keirei; and saikeirei. Deciding what bow to use depends on the level of politeness required in a particular situation.

The eshaku bow is reserved for a light greeting, such as when you say hello to someone when you pass them in the office. The keirei bow is used for general greetings, such as when you welcome a customer into a store. The saikeirei bow, a deep bow from the waist, is the most polite bow of the three. It is used when you want to express a feeling of gratitude or apology. A prolonged saikeirei bow -- often lasting longer than 30 seconds -- is reserved for extreme contrition. It's the one you see on TV when a tearful company president takes responsibility for something horrible (a nuclear meltdown, for example) and bows so deeply he almost bends in half.

Ms. Sakamoto then had us stand up and practice the saikeirei bow. First we had to stand with our hands placed in front of us, with the left hand on top of the right hand. The reason for covering the right hand with the left hand is that (in olden days) you would pull out a sword with your right hand so covering up your right hand shows you won't give any harm. Then we learned how to bow down quickly and come up slowly. We were taught to come up slowly to prevent us from coming up earlier than the other person. Coming up more slowly than the other person is a sign of respect. It was highly entertaining watching two people bowing quickly at the waist and then trying to come up more slowly than the other. Competitive bowing. It could be an Olympic sport.

Learning how to behave

Smile, smile, smile. This was Ms. Sakamoto's main message when it came to proper behaviour. Judging by the smile plastered on her face throughout the entire class, it was a lesson she clearly took to heart.

Smiling, she explained, creates an impression of cuteness. Being cute makes you seem friendly and nonthreatening. Direct confrontation is a sign of poor manners so if you are cute, you are showing respect to other people (Ms. Sakamoto's words, not mine).

She also told us that "beautiful posture" would take us far in the business world. She barked out orders like a drill sergeant. Don't sit cross-legged ("it's bad for your back and bad for manners")! Don't cross your arms! Stand up straight with your hands at your side! The line dividing business manners and military training is a thin one in Japan.

Learning how to sit

Learning how to sit falls under the broader umbrella of "order of precedence." In Japan, there is an order of precedence in terms of where you should sit in a business meeting or where you should sit in a car. The order of precedence for seating arrangements follows a set of rules called sekiji. Customers, supervisors, or people older than you should have the best seats. Such seats are called kamiza.

For example, three co-workers sharing a taxi to a meeting downtown have to follow a strict seating arrangement. Where each of these employees sits in the taxi depends on their rank in the company. The most important person sits in the back, directly behind the driver. This is the most honourable seat because it is the safest seat. The next person down the ladder also sits in the back seat. The lowest ranking employee sits up front beside the driver. This is the least honourable seat because it is the least safe seat. So if there's an accident, it's better to sacrifice the 22-year-old intern than the 60-year-old boss.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. Consider, for example, the case of four employees taking a taxi. Suppose three of the employees are equally important, with one lower ranking female employee. Technically, the three important employees should sit in the back and the unimportant female employee should sit in the front. But if the three important employees are all large men, then the female employee should offer to take the middle back seat so that the important male employees are more comfortable. The lowest ranking female's comfort and safety are irrelevant (again, Ms. Sakamoto's words, not mine).

All the rules get thrown out the window, however, if the company president is the one driving the car. In that case, the intern gets booted to the back seat and the second-in-command takes the seat beside the driver. The least safe seat mysteriously becomes the best seat. Don't ask me how this works. It defies logic. The whole thing made me feel as if we had been transported back to the 1950s.

Learning how to speak

After being drilled on how to answer the phone and send emails, the last lesson of the day was on how to speak super polite Japanese ("keigo").

Keigo includes teinei-go (polite form), sonkei-go (honorific form) and kenjo-go (humble form). Deciding what form to use depends on the relationship between the two speakers. But it's not just who you're talking to that determines the form, it's also who you're talking about. For example, when talking with the boss in the office, the speaker uses the honorific form. But when taking with a client about the boss, the speaker uses the humble form.

It's confusing. Let's leave it at that.

Overall, it was a fascinating class. I fully endorse the general goal: respect, manners, and politeness are all wonderful things. The western world could use a few lessons from Japan on how to cultivate group harmony.

But I think Japan takes the repression of individuality a bit too far. It can't be healthy to hide your true emotions all of the time. The class reinforced so many of the little things that I'm not entirely comfortable with here. Like making myself small and submissive. Or blindly conforming to the group. Or putting in 12-hour days for the sake of company loyalty. Or putting everyone else's needs ahead of my own. Or simply not being able to call out, "shotgun!" when I'm sharing a ride with my colleagues.