About Susan Roberta O Brien

I am a marine educator from Brazil, an Environmental Education Ph.D. candidate who is passionate about the fascinating world of ocean sciences, informal education, and capacity building for science communication. I am also a mom, just as passionate about experiencing nature through the curious and adventurous eyes of my two daughters. I am a diver and the ocean is where I feel most at home.

Jose-Antonio Orosco, an associate professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, wrote an inspiring piece about Dr. King at the “Common Dreams” newscenter website (https://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/01/06-2). According to him, the Climate Justice Movement has the potential to prove King was right in believing that human beings can build the necessary insights to avoid mass destruction and develop activist resources to radically change morality as it exists in the world.

Change such morality, in order to build harmonious communities, means fighting the evil triplets Dr. King named racism, militarism and materialism. In this sense, ecology and sociology are not dissociated. They are intertwined in different forms of materialized injustice that make some people in economically fragile areas and countries more immediately vulnerable to climate change effects. What is the moral cost of climate change? That was the burning question of the “Philosophy Talk” radio program recorded live at OSU last year, where the hosts discussed the aspects related to changing our ways of life, rethinking life as we know, moving out of social/cultural inertia.

These are pragmatic challenges that have much to do with value placement, as the true costs of climate change are not just economic. Justice then is not just about mass protests in action; it is also about getting to the root of the problem as to build ethical alternatives to social and environmental issues. This morning I attended the 32nd Annual Peace Breakfast and listened to an inspiring speech by Walidah Imarisha, a professor at Portland State University’s Black Studies Department.  She talked about the MLK legacy and about a “revolution of values”, only possible when we break silence and unite in powerful voices.

Much like we have been discussing the divide between questions of science and philosophy, here too there is a divide to be bridged between environmentalism and social justice. The climate justice movement may in fact become the vehicle for dialogue and action grounded in such dialogue. Dialogicality, as we have been discussing in the work of Bakthin, is the key for meaning making.  This is a parallel a see fit here, as reflecting on moral premises for social and environmental change is a business much intertwined with meaning making. It is not only nature that needs healing, but our social and spiritual essence as well, and that requires a vibrant dialogical relationship among humans and with non-human nature.

So, in the spirit of this special day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and OSU celebratory theme “Uniting our Powerful Voices”, lets foster that dialogue and get involved. It is not about what will happen if we do get consciously involved in such dialogue, it is about what won’t happen if we don’t.  Find your call (if you haven’t already); understand your affinities as to where and how you can make meaningful contributions for a better beautiful world and for a better social world.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)


Note: There are many activities going on right now at Oregon State as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Here is a link for the calendar of events (http://oregonstate.edu/oei/mlk-events).

It is that time again when the wheel of life spins very vividly and consciously in our minds. Another year has gone by and we turn to reflect on the things we did, did not do or wish we had done. It is a time of great emotional upwelling and energy renewal to continue this journey we are all in together, as we hold high hopes, expectations, wishes and commitments we have made to the future.

Have we moved forward in our professional lives? What were the stepping-stones we have jumped across? How many mountains are we still to climb? There is always going to be another one on the way. So it is important not to do it alone, and I think our group is unique in the sense that we really do it together, maybe not in synchrony but nonetheless together. I am grateful to have had everyone of you to share this turbulent academic life with.

Have we grown and learned as persons this last year? We are all individuals full of life and wonder, who bring so much meaning to life around. Were the meanings you constructed this year what you wished to construct? Maybe or maybe not, it does not only depend on you. We are in constant dialogue with ourselves and everything else around us, as Shawn discusses in his dialogicality explanation, the meanings we construct are not solely and absolutely meanings of our own.  Nonetheless they have real implications in our practical lives and I hope, when you look back in time today, you will feel your lives were indeed full of meaning.

What is 2014 reserving for us? We will never know until we come across it along the way, if there is something reserved at all. So build your wishes from the ground up, don’t get disappointed if your wishes are somewhat transformed along the way. Find meaning in all moments that come along, happy or sad, easy or frustrating, fulfilling or unrewarding, grab on to those pieces of an “out there” meaning puzzle for they are to become part of your own “meaning puzzle”.  Keep puzzling because that is what keeps the wheel going.

We are all in different places now, as some stayed home for the holidays, wherever home is, and some traveled to see family and friends in other states. Some will arrive at 2014 first as others wait in celebration, and we all will be celebrating in different ways. So I wanted to send you this New Year’s wish, a wish for an extraordinary time of making meaning and cherishing the people and the things around you contributing to that meaning.

If I was in Brazil at the beach today, I would be joining others in ritual and jumping waves at midnight for good luck, dancing our wishes and holding the hand of strangers in the hope for a better year and better times. I will close my eyes at the turn of the year and imagine I am jumping those waves. What will you be doing?

Have a wonderful day and see you all next week!

After reading Jen’s blog about her relationship with podcasts during her weekly commute between Eugene and Corvallis, I got inspired and decided to check out her suggestions and got hooked on a few. I also have a few suggestions of my own that I think can be interesting to you if you are into podcasts.

A podcast really does represent some kind of ultimate free-choice learning – it’s not tied to any particular time and place, you decide what you want to listen to and when, you pace your time on it yourself like Jen said, no one is there to make sure you are paying attention or drifting in and out, and with the huge number of podcasts out there, you can delve as deeply or as shallowly as you want into almost anything that interests you.

To feed the science geek inside, “stuff you should know” is a good podcast to explore concepts in any discipline. Their slightly irreverent approach to everyday knowledge answers all those questions we had as kids, but somehow forgot were important to us when we become adults, like why the sky is blue. It is really about stuff we all should know. “Bytesize science” demonstrates the relevance of science in daily life situations, much like what we talked about in our weekly theory meetings when our group was reading “Everyday Cognition” and investigating the how everyday activities shape and are shaped by all kinds of mathematics thinking. “A history of the world in 100 objects” is my attempt to become more knowledgeable about the world and its development. Each episode is shaped around a single object from the British Museum as a historical landmark. “The writers block” is for those of you who love writing because, lets face it, who doesn’t? “The Naked Scientist” is a podcast to keep up with the scientist within. Finally, of course I could not forget “All in the mind” to dive deep in the human mind, brain and behavior.

In a recent podcast I listened to they talked about people’s notion of happiness and of a meaningful life. One would think both would normally positively correlate, but not always. In fact, some people who say they try to live a meaningful life are not always happy. The point is that people who are happy are normally “takers” and people worried about building a meaningful life are largely “givers”. So, in the spirit of the solstice and the change with the new year, I recommend you listen in to that one and think about giving and taking and what it means for making you happy and for making your life meaningful.

Thanks Jen for sharing and inspiring me to share some meaningful resources.

Happy New Year Everyone! Or should I say Meaningful New Year Everyone!

In the spirit of the New Year to come and the incredible need for change in the world as I see it, I have decided to blog about feelings. I know I know… not very objective here, but wanting to provoke a bit of thinking about the role of informal education in a world in crisis.

Earth is feverish fighting human disturbance. The education landscape is a force to help change such condition. Many authors in the environmental movement talk about cultural, economical, political and social forces as conditional modes to influence patterns of natural resource use and development. With that in mind, it is my opinion that our environmental education programs need to go beyond teaching about the natural systems to incorporate teaching about these other forces as well. It is time to venture a bit out of the objective fence of empiricism, to pay a little attention to the socio-cultural-economical parameters that influence our land use.

The cosmopolitan bioregionalism really spoke to me as a possible way to move in this direction by being a framework for governance representing a “profound cultural vision, addressing moral, aesthetic and spiritual concerns” in an attempt to change the contemporary political economy. In many different ways, we all are knowledgeable, moral, aesthetic and spiritual beings, and the dynamics of our cultural and ecological diasporas have much to say about our sense of place. If we want to give others the tools to develop a sense of place, we have to give the first steps towards a new culture of education, with multiple voices and interpretations, where the end goal is not just reaching desirable learning outcomes based on a preset of standards, but do more than that and more than entertain. Building a sense of place needs more than instruction, it needs provocation.

Is our education system ready for this? Are science museums ready to embrace a shift this big? One can think it would be impossible to do for many political and economical reasons, but if there is anything I learned in my academic endeavors as I learn more and more about environmental sciences and social movements, is that change is possible, it may take a long time, but it happens. I think that a new culture of nature is on the making now in many forms of empathy and manifest. We are in transitory times, fighting controversial views, when environmental movements and initiatives abound. It is the worse of times given the catastrophic environmental problems we may be facing, but it can also be the best of times if marked by the beginning of a new cultural and ecological era. Can the museum really act as a cultural broker in this sense?

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 
(Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac, 1948)

The quote above represents the essence of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. Because of its applicability and efficacy in face of current environmental problems,  Leopold’s land ethic has become the mark of North American contemporary conservation movement. One can argue such ethic became so important because of its congruent points with the common Western worldview that considers utilitarian values, as well as its rejection of a paradigmatic view of man and nature to favor the concept of a biotic community, much more in line with a “stewardship” emergent worldview.

Some traditional worldviews resonate with this ethic in some aspects; some do not; some give rise to different ethical considerations; some don’t express an environmental ethic at all.  In his book Earth’s Insight, environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott argues that achieving environmental conservation may not be feasible without an environmental ethic, enriched by traditional worldviews, to animate and reinforce its practices. Simply, we need to embrace considerations embedded in traditional ways of living and the affordances it gives us in the linking of ethical environmental considerations.

 Callicott makes an allusion to Buddhist thought and the “Jewel Net of Indra” to elaborate from the word “Network”.  He says:

“The worlds indigenous and traditional systems of thought must create a network of environmental ethics – each a jewel, with its own unique color and composition, reflecting the light of all others. Connecting all the eyes of this biospherical network of recovered traditional and indigenous environmental ethics  – binding them into a coherent whole – is a common thread, the emerging post-modern worldview and its associated evolutionary ecological environmental ethics. “

In such diversity and richness lays the means to conserve the world’s natural resources. Where is the informal education landscape in this “network”? Are we at all moving in that direction and directly contributing to this emergent ethic? Are we finding ways to blend culture and science in a philosophical debate? Yes, people need to learn about the bio, geo, chemical and physical process of the world we live in, but I think its also imperative that they learn about the relationships between man and nature and arrive to their own self-realization. Education to me can be the “light” distributed throughout all dimensions of this “network” Callicott talks about and the bond supporting the reflection of all lights.

In the first day of class, my philosophy professor asked us to think about and report if we were in agreement, or not, with the notion of a largely increasing environmental crisis. There was a diverse array of responses, ranging from an absolute yes to a negation of it in the support of a view that nature will fix itself and technology will provide solutions for everything. My first reaction was one of disappointment, how can people still deny the huge humanly produced chaos we live in right now? But as we move further in the term I am diving in deep philosophical thoughts about how history, economical modes, culture and religion contribute to this interrelated chains between various worldviews and perceptions about the relationship between humans and non-human nature.

As radical ecology poses, getting to the root of the problem is not about negating one view or another, dwelling on what is true or false, or on what is scientifically valid or not, but about learning from diversity and filling in the blanks toward an environmental ethic that is respectful and concerned with both the human and non-human life, with social and environmental justice. The multicultural/partnership worldview is an emergent view in a world long dominated by egocentric and homocentric ethics, which are focused on a mechanistic view of nature that creates an “otherness” in regard to who we are and how we fit within the web of life on earth.

We discuss mainstream environmentalism, the group of ten, the greens, deep ecology, spiritual ecology and social/socialist ecology, ecofemism, etc., all within the historical and current social, cultural, political and economic contexts. We talked about influential people from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to contemporary philosophers and ecofeminists as Carolyn Marchant and Kathleen Dean Moore (former OSU Philosophy professor). We debate the concept of wilderness, the dichotomy between man and nature, the notions of spectacular nature and spectacular violence as opposed to the slow environmental violence going invisible to most. We discuss activism in the first and third world. We talk about fear, hopelessness but also about empowerment and success. This all to me touch on education in many different dimensions of people’s life. Then the Talmud saying speaks to me… “You are not required to finish the job, but you are not at liberty to quit”.

J. Baird Callicott wrote in his book “Earth’s insight”: “We are in fact the dominant species on the planet; we do in fact hold the fate of the earth in our hands; and we are indeed moral beings in a largely amoral world. Without taking the Bible literally, one may feel, further, that somehow there is more to haven and earth than science can know and tell and that humanity is somehow a uniquely privileged but uniquely responsible creature among creatures

This passage comes to mind when I remember my days doing research at an isolated little island in the Atlantic Ocean, standing upon terrain where Darwin once stood, as we drove through the Rocky Mountains this summer, as I took students through the many sunsets and sunrises at the Amazon forest, as I flew through the Sierra Nevada yesterday, every time I dive, and multiple other times when spectacular nature is presented to me. But I also think of it when I see my daughter play with bugs in the backyard, collect rocks on a neighborhood walk, and when I go to conferences and get inspired by people “who do not have the liberty to quit”.