Submitted by staff member, Mike Madigan, at College of the Atlantic.
I am a walking, breathing contradiction.
On one hand, I hold deep beliefs about our moral obligation to actively create a just and sustainable world. Simultaneously, I see myself as a unique individual, and as a walking, breathing member of Leopold’s biotic community; an operating bacterium in the gut of Lovelock’s Gaia. From this perspective I realize that my individual actions affect a larger whole that repeatedly provides examples of being overtaxed and in distress.
When I view the world (and my place in it) from this perspective, big ticket issues like global climate change, overpopulation, and a cultural imperative that mandates a “go, go, go / more is better” culture strike me as societal choices we make each day that intensify this global distress. These observations and understandings guide me to live as just and sustainable a life as possible, where reducing my personal contribution to this distress guides my decisions and sense of moral obligation.
At the same time, one of my primary responsibilities here at COA is international admissions. In my short time at the college, I have travelled significantly, all over the world, engaging students in explorations of the realm of possibilities that exist for them here. These interactions are mutually valuable, as the students have the opportunity to learn more about the directions they might take with their educations here, and for me, a telling glimpse of the student’s passion, sense of direction, personality, and academic ability. The admission committee then uses this information to guide our decisions during the application process. And while I maintain my loyalty to the mission of the college, and recognize that my travels are valuable for both the student and the admission committee, justifying the substantial expense of resources is a source of moral indigestion for me.
This moral dilemma looms larger given the mission and values of COA. I know that each of us takes a different posture in our definitions of human ecology, but at the core, it seems to me that this broad philosophy strives to realize and develop healthy positions regarding our relationships with the larger wholes that we belong to: our families, our neighborhoods, our countries, our ecosystems, our economic systems, our planet. When it comes to humanity’s attempt to understand the complexities of these various relationships, COA occupies a prominent spot on a short list of organizations that are well prepared to act with justice and sustainability in mind.
But, no matter how hard I try to stick to my guns, I cannot keep from waffling on this.
Because COA has such a strong base in the value of understanding these relationships, we have what seems to be conflicting responsibilities. When it comes to our Rio+20 delegation, my heart tells me that our student and faculty presence at the event is counterproductive. The valuable lessons in bureaucratic stagnancy and in the inability of world governments to act meaningfully, cohesively, and decisively could be learned just as well, in Bar Harbor’s town hall, the State House in Augusta, or, at times, the college’s All College Meeting.
I am moved by the delegation’s ability to clearly define and articulate its values, positions, and frustrations, and I am inspired by their fire and passion. But at the end of the day, their demands for the world they wish to see fall mostly on deaf ears. I suppose my environmental ethic, coupled with my lack of faith in (or maybe just a lack of belief in the importance of) the abilities of the global decision-making process to act fruitfully, leave me thinking that our students will be best suited to make meaningful change in the world by directing their energies on activities that provide more direct results; activities that, through direct action, make the world more just and sustainable. Think global, act local, right?
Right. But I contradict myself yet again.
I was reminded today that, “Beauty in a garden is not the same as Yosemite.” Thanks Julia. This is undeniable, and is an angle I nearly overlooked. The development of my worldview, and the awakening of my sense of interconnection would not exist, if not for my experiences of the Sublime. My direct experience and exposure to the big picture have shaped my recognition of the importance of acting locally. It’s been through my experience of the massive, the beautiful, and the grotesque, and the aggregate that I have come to this place of understanding. Can I deny this experience to others? Should I? Do what I say, not what I do, right?
I still come to the same conclusion that the world cannot sustain itself, if everyone lives my explorative lifestyle. I suppose it is a privilege of privilege, but I still come back to the necessity of culture and individuals to reduce our impact as much as possible; for us, as individuals, to act locally to create a just and sustainable world.
And we do a very good job of providing students with opportunities to engage in the “think global / act local” way. We do it very, very well. Everywhere we turn, there are students, staff, and faculty actively engaged in making our diverse and local communities stronger, healthier, and more resilient. We are striving to better our local communities, whether those communities are in Bangor or Bangalore. But I just can’t help but wonder if it’s enough, if it’s the right thing to do.
From my sophomoric historical perspective, I recognize that there was a time in history deemed the Dark Ages that eventually led to a great Enlightenment. I’m quite encouraged that massive change does happen… that the ship turns slowly, in its own time. Often, I think that we have a responsibility to take a vigorous, active role in ushering in our own historical change, given the current state of our environment, population boom, global poverty and hunger, etc., which leads me to believe that the best way this can happen is for us to act locally to institute the changes we’d like to see made real worldwide.
If we cannot eradicate the injustices that trouble Hancock County (an area with a comparatively abundant availability of resources), then how can we possibly manage the same task globally? Maybe I should be satisfied with the level of progress we have attained locally, and instead take a utilitarian approach, striving to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. There is certainly solace in knowing that any good work, provides good to the whole.
Oh, but I waffle again.
Perhaps, I should take refuge in the certainty of uncertainty as professed by Lao Tzu or Socrates. Maybe all of these problems take care of themselves in time, and my primary responsibility is to develop and nurture habits of a peaceful heart, mind, and body. Be the change, right? I’m reminded of Anne Lamott, who says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” It’s apt. Maybe I should just mind my own business and let everyone come to their own conclusions. As for me, I am still without a solid sense of direction in all of this. I can’t be the only one struggling with this, right?
So, in the meantime, I have a trip to Asia to plan. India, Singapore, and Hong Kong, this year. I’ll fly around the world again, ever conscious of my deepening footprint. I’ll meet some of the world’s most impressive students; students who are steeped in environments that provide them with foundations to create justice and sustainability. I’ll tease out of them their passions and abilities, and engage them in explorations of how they might weave these together to create their very own way. Maybe they’ll think of something that’s not been thought of before. And I’ll watch their eyes shine brightly as I explain that they might be the next Juanca, Anjali, Nathan, Khristian, or Anna.
After our conversations, they’ll dream about saving the world, and I’ll just hope that I’m shining brightly enough, and with the right kind of light.
I’m a philosopher by nature, and an admission counselor at the college. I like to instigate and nurture lightbulb moments in the students I interview. Mostly, I facilitate their explorations of what could be…it gives me a sense of scope that no number of Rumi or Wendell Berry quotes on the internet ever can. I’m also a bartender and a shuttle driver…they always want to hear my stories, and I’m usually pretty happy to oblige. I like writing in first person. I like the idea that everything and everyone and everywhere is all connected together in some giant, pulsating orb of life and energy, and I cherish those rare moments when that truth is absolute. Every now and then I write songs and sing them to my dog. He listens patiently, and sometimes, dances.