Everybody Loves Us…Almost

Editor’s Note: This is one of my weekly columns for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I use it regularly to help facilitate transformation in our city, and to point out some of the wasteful and unsustainable practices of our council.

The last two columns told stories about our first interns, John and Amy, and how they helped us transform an abandoned villa and section full of rubbish and weeds into a little paradise of sustainability. Along the way, the process of working with us provided vital steppingstones for each of their own transformations to more sustainable worldviews.

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Transformative learning, as I pointed, is a learning theory often applied to adults that seeks to explain changes of perspective that differ drastically from those held previously.

As I have pointed out in this column with regards to Castlecliff Beach, the potential for change can be scary, and so many people resist it. Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order to undergo transformation, learners must experience a “disorienting dilemma” or “cognitive crisis.”

In a nutshell, either of these conditions present the learner with the perception of mixed messages about the world and their place in it. For example, one message might say, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” while another message says, “Western consumer lifestyles are harming the planet.” Then she or he may choose to seek out learning experiences that help change their perspectives and lifestyles accordingly.

The mixed messages that most of us observe and some of us internalize are also sometimes called “cognitive dissonance.” For example, one can smoke cigarettes while believing it to be unhealthy. Psychologists suggest that those who experience such inconsistency (dissonance) are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Well people, I’m here to say I’m psychologically distressed. No, I don’t smoke. Nor am I living a consumer lifestyle. Here is the nature of my distress.

During any week, half dozen strangers will stop me on the street and say something like, “I read your column. Keep up the good work.” Or something like, “What you’re doing is so important for Whanganui. Don’t stop.”

Additionally, our work has been praised by leading permaculturists across the country and around the world. Our Eco-Thrifty projects have been featured in national and international magazines. We have been invited to other cities to present our work. Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.06 PM

Meanwhile, it appears that certain elements of Wanganui District Council does its best to ignore the work that Dani and Verti and I do to help make our community more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Please note, I have been advised not to make blanket statements about “council”, as it is a large and diverse organization. I recognize that many council staff may feel their positions have little or nothing to do with sustainability, and that they are not the ones making what appear to be unsustainable decisions for our city.

On another level, I suppose an argument can be made that it is not the role of council to help people live healthier lives while saving money and protecting the environment. Indeed, a senior staff member indicated such in a letter rejecting funding for a Community Contract with which I was involved.

Our council cuts heritage trees, dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and spends tens of thousands of dollars pushing sand to windward on the beach while other councils around New Zealand support innovative and successful sustainability programmes that help people and the planet. Does this explain the cause of my psychological distress?

Leading up to the elections last year I asked the question in this column if “sustainability” and “environment” were dirty words in Whanganui because almost nobody standing for office used them. Evidence of council decision-making certainly supports the suggestion that they are. But this begs the question, WHY?

Given the amount of good will that comes my way and the number of people that ask me to stand for office, it would appear there is a quiet majority of citizens – including some council employees – who recognize and appreciate the win-win-win thinking that I share in this column.

Silence over the last three years on our work appears to indicate the positions of those recently re-elected politicians, but the good news is that two of the newly elected councilors have indicated an interest in sustainability: one has contacted me via Facebook and one recently attended a local Green Drinks gathering.

Could it be the early signs of transformation for WDC? Time will tell.

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