Photo Credit: Ken Ferschweiler
January 15, 2016

The Good News Effect, Part 2

This is the second post of a new series within the CBI Blog that highlights positive events around the world and discusses their significance in relation to global sustainability. In each of these posts I hope to offer insights into the potential we each have to make the world a better place, and to draw attention to the ways that people around the world already have.

In my first post, I discussed the impact Good News can have on us as individuals and on our societies; we explored the difference between change and our reaction to it, and how we can act more effectively when we recognize the influence events have on us and those we interact with. This time I’d like to talk about our viewpoints: how we form them, how they can move us either forward or backward, and how we can choose between them. Then I’ll follow up with some recent innovations in Sustainable Technology that may well completely change our impact on the planet.

Stopping and Seeing

Everything we do starts from where we stand. We see the world from right here, and how we see it becomes the basis for not only our actions but for all we perceive as possible. When you combine the “where-we-stand” with the “how-we-see-it”, you get what I’ll refer to as a viewpoint: a personal perspective coming out of one’s situation. Our viewpoints change because our situations are always changing, and though we don’t always have control over our situations, we can choose our take on them. This is important because our futures flow out of the present, so how we occupy the here-and-now and what we decide in this most opportune of moments can be of great consequence.

Admittedly it’s easy to say all that, but what about actually doing something about it? Well, let’s start by taking a close look at where our viewpoints come from, and from there determine some practical steps we can take to leverage the opportunity at hand.

Seeing or Telling

Everyone has their own viewpoint: it’s the way we frame (or picture) the world around us. But though we call them “views”, they are more like stories in that they must be told if they are to be understood, and often require a “had-to-be-there” kind of context. But our viewpoints are more than a collection of facts or personal opinions derived from our experience. They are an integration of it all. They are how we interpret our experiences, and are thus also intrinsic to how we interrelate. 

Stories work well for us because they come naturally to us: they have been with us since time immemorial, and in their telling we are able to both form new perspectives and reflect our understanding of the world. They can be as artful and elaborate as an epic poem, as powerful as a digitally enhanced full feature film, as subtle as a cultural narrative, or as simple as the similes and metaphors we use to decorate our daily speech. They are part of us, deeply engrained in us, and we are always under their influence. 

But where do our stories come from, and how have they become so integral to our lives? 

Telling through Seeing

I think stories work for us in a way that is analogous to how our brains do. Our brains have adapted to absorb and synthesize the tremendous amount of data our senses receive, so that we can navigate the sea of energy and particles that makes up our physical reality. Take, for example, sight: when we see something, what we actually perceive is a representation of our environment based on the apparent size, distance, angle, shade, etc. of the objects in our surroundings based on reflected light. Our brains take all this in and, processing whatever can be estimated on the fly, they help us interact and survive. We are hard-wired this way, but because there is estimation involved we can be tricked, for example, by optical illusions.

Stories work similarly: they help us make sense of the overwhelming complexity of human experience and behavior by giving us examples from which we establish societal expectations and cultural norms. But then we filter everything through our stories too, from the wide range of events we experience as a species and as nations, to the more localized or personal interactions we have as individuals, families and communities. Thus our idea of the world, or world view, is formed both by the stories we tell and the stories we are told. But just as our sense of sight is limited by the guesswork our brains have become so efficient at, so too is our world view limited by the extent of our awareness, education, and our depth of connection with others both near and abroad.

Stories we are Told

Let’s hear that last part again: our world view may be limited without our knowing. But why? Well, consider for a moment just how much information we absorb every day: just as our senses are always taking in sensory data, our minds are busy picking up on messages that come to us through everyday verbal interaction, micro-expressions, body language and tone of voice, and then filling in with context we get from headlines, reports, or from a charismatic speech. There’s a lot being broadcast out there, and it can be challenging to maintain an awareness of what we’re absorbing.

Then we try to make sense of it all. We respond to familiar patterns (themes or plot lines) and rely on instinct to integrate what we’re hearing until we can understand or sympathize, and from there choose a response. But because of the sheer quantity of data, we often subconsciously filter out what we don’t understand, and tend to discount what doesn’t seem to fit. We see what we expect to see, and are thus blindsided by what we don’t. 

So then, are we captive to the very stories that make our lives meaningful? In a way, yes, but there’s hope in simply acknowledging it. It brings to mind a Buddhist saying:

“The dreamer, upon realizing they are dreaming, takes the first step toward awakening.” 

Stories we Tell Ourselves

So let’s try to wake up. But where do we start? Confucius once said to a student, “Shall I teach you how to know something? Learn to recognize when you know it, and learn to recognize when you don’t”. That is no small order, in fact it’s a lifelong practice, but it starts with coming to terms with one’s subjectivity.

But before we go off on subjectivity, let me point out that it is not just a biased or errant state of mind. It’s a piece of our reality and it plays an important role in our lives; for instance, our survival. After all, who will represent one’s view if not oneself? Who else will see it your way or attend to your concerns? It’s nobody’s business but your own, and only you can “drink the water to know for yourself whether it’s hot or cold”. We must own up, or we drop our piece of the mosaic.

Subjectivity, however, becomes dangerous when it is denied in favor of the elusive notion of objectivity. There is nothing so deceiving as the suggestion that one’s own stance is objective. It’s one of the worst things you can tell yourself because it allows your bias to operate without your knowledge. 

Acknowledging one’s subjectivity is especially important in the scientific disciplines. In our search for a reliable read on things, it’s easy to mistake the results of disciplines like Math or Physics for sources of objective truth because they are driven by logic. But even the Scientific Method is only as reliable as the one who applies it, and even good results must be subject to somebody’s interpretation and analysis. In the end, numbers by themselves may offer no clue if you fail to see what they aren’t telling you, and so if you haven’t taken stock of your subjectivity, you could be filling in the gaps from your own viewpoint.

It’s one way of understanding another of my favorite sayings:

“Everything derives from mind... if one sees with confused mind, misery follows; if one sees with clear mind, happiness results”

Stories on Sustainable Technology

Now let’s take a great step back and consider a story of which we are all part. We live in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, in the midst of the Information Age on a global scale, and at the foot of what has been called the Anthropocene Era. Through a great many advancements in Science and Technology over the last couple of centuries we have begun to dramatically affect our planet. Still, though there is much yet to be overcome if we are ever to set things right worldwide, I submit that it is in the very magnitude of what we are facing that our greatest hope lays. How so? Well, consider how pervasive an impact we’ve had in so short a time, and how all of it happened while we were far less connected with each other throughout the world. But now just think what may be possible now that our awareness of our planet and of ourselves as nations, whose strengths are in their differences, is coming into focus.

Indeed, all of this seems to be happening just in time, because even now our best ideas are beginning to align with our latest technological advancements. For instance, here are some epic ideas in Sustainable Technology that have real potential to lead up to a most significant plot twist both for us and our planet. 

How about solar energy power plants? This article covers a new technique for utilizing stacked silicon wafers that absorb solar energy more efficiently, and for a fraction of the cost.

And this article reports on a breakthrough in producing the cleanest fuel yet from hydrogen, while this one talks about using solar power to convert carbon dioxide back into fuel for cars.

Meanwhile, new ideas on how to adapt our infrastructure to reduce our impact on the planet continue to emerge. Take these for example:

So all is not lost as our efforts to solve the world’s problems proceed at the speed of thought!

And that’s the Good News Effect.

About the author:
Dani Harvey
Senior Software Engineer
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