Learning for conservation

Have you heard of MOOCs? It means Massive Open Online Courses, which are pretty much just that – plus from what I have seen they are also free. I am now taking one through Coursera.org called Social Psychology, hoping that I’ll learn more about why people and groups think and behave the way they do. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest challenges in conservation is to understand and change people’s motivations and behaviours. 

This course is Coursera’s largest to date, with 230,000 students currently registered! To take part, you sign up on the website for free, and watch the video lectures and read the assigned material at your own pace each week – the course is time-bound which is a useful motivator. Each week you are expected to complete a homework assignment. Homework is peer-assessed, so you also review at least five assignments from others in the class. The course is taught by a professor at Wesleyan University who, along with the five teaching assistants, has done an amazing job putting together clear and professional video lectures. 

It’s not too late to sign up, so if you have any interest in how people think about, relate to and influence each other, give it a try! 


When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.

“Conservation must be done differently!”

When you keep finding yourself reading articles on the same idea you start to realize it might be an issue on your mind. Just the other day I was thinking to myself, wow everyone seems to be talking about how we need new ways of doing conservation.

For example, Jem Bendell talks about the spirit of adventure that we need to tackle conservation and sustainability in a new way. Hilary Rosner on Ensia.com examines whether conservation is extinct ( ! ) and says we need a new ‘map for conservation’ but at least we all agree about that. 

And then it hit me that all these articles are popping up because that’s what I’m looking for. Currently at a transtion point with a background in species conservation, a masters in conservation leadership, and a year’s worth of spirited adventure, a new way of Julie doing conservation is definitely on my mind.

So where will it be? In the heart of a conservation organisation? In an economic one? In a company working on improving their sustainability practices? Please share links in the comments below to any other articles that may be providing you inspiration on new paradigms for conservation.


How do you rearrange the world when you tell a story?

“On the long journeys doubts were often my companions. I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take a sampling of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges it in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

I took this photo while we were having a fried-rice lunch at a roadside stand in southern Thailand. I thought this man looked very pensive. I could say he was worried. He might have been satisfied. Then again he was probably just enjoying his cigarette. Whatever I tell you it’s my mirror of reality.

The trail is the thing

“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.”

Louis L’Amour

My blog has a whole new look but in the spirit of writing, I am posting a photo from today’s trail. We ran out the front door, down the hill to Route du Soleil and then up to Clambin (the cluster of chalets where the lovely Chez Dany restaurant is). 

Reflecting on personalities here and there

Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003
Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003

One thing that can be hard about traveling is the loss of your identity. I had the same feeling when I was 14 and my parents moved our family from California to Switzerland. I didn’t speak French, but I was put into a French public school (we lived near the border) and one of my strongest memories is of the frustration of standing around at recess trying to make new friends and not finding the words that would demonstrate my personality, my wittiness.

I just read an author comment about a family in Laos, where she observed their distance from “modernity’s slick coolness” and their lack of “irony, cynicism, sarcasm, and presumptuousness“. This reminded me of the earnestness with which many people across Asia told us about their lives and asked about ours, and how in that situation you do not tell your life story with any of the witticisms, sarcasm or humor that you might here in the west. So this aspect of your personality is erased, and for the most part you repeatedly find yourself telling people “Yes we’re married. Three years! No we don’t have children [pointing to bikes] we have bikes – no room for children. Later we get rid of bikes and have children.” 

The thing is, that list of traits missing from that family in Laos are not such great things and I don’t know why we missed those means of expressing ourselves. It is easy here to be self-deprecating or critical of others or other things. When you travel you have to practice having a simpler, purer personality. It’s probably a good thing to practice. What if “slick coolness” came from being honest, generous, interested in others and excited about life?

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This is it! A video of the bike trip

Did you know that our trip is helping to raise awareness about melanoma skin cancer? I’d love it if you’d watch our video to find out why. Please also consider donating to Melanoma Institute Australia, the charity Adam chose to support. Adam is aiming to generate $5000 in donations for them, and every little bit helps. Here’s a link to the donation page.

View the This is it! video by Adam Hughes on Vimeo or right here:

A snapshot of true Tajikistan

Father and son, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

– Sal Paradise in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I took this photo the morning that we said goodbye to the family that took us in for the night, fed us dinner and all their vodka plus the neighbor’s, and made us sleep in their only bedroom while they all slept in the living room.

If you liked this post you might also enjoy reading:

Responsible happiness

The Maximiser

Detour off the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

My friends tease me for being a maximizer, a person who “needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made”. Now that we’re getting close to home I’m slowly transitioning from bike touring to ‘normal life’. I am spending less time figuring out how to get edible food, and more time wondering what a palatable post-bike touring career/lifestyle could be. Instead of asking a Chinese noodle restaurant “What is the best, cheapest dish on your menu that is typical of Sichuan province but is not too spicy and preferably does not have Sichuan pepper in it?” I’m now asking, “May I please have a fulfilling, fun, meaningful, ethical, well-paid conservation job that still leaves me plenty of time to kiteboard, rockclimb, snowboard, take photos and spend time with my family?” I know, I know, I should try to satisfice or simplify more (the healthy opposites of maximizing).

It’s not helping that I keep looking at photos on adventure sports sites like this one or this one and reading articles by people who give themselves the job title of “Adventurer / Author / Motivational Speaker”. Alastair Humphreys (the round-the-world cyclist whose book inspired my journey) actually makes a living writing and talking about his adventures. Making a living by doing what you love: I can’t say the idea hasn’t crossed my mind. But is that really what I want? Would I feel like I deserved it?

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.

– Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness

When I think about doing something I love as a career (e.g. outdoor sports) I feel like I need to justify the decision in terms of environmental benefit. I don’t know why because most people have a job that they do just to make a living. They’re not trying to save the planet or solve child malnutrition. Doing something and getting paid for it is what humans have to do, and it’s a valid pursuit in life (as long as it’s not harming the planet or others). Is it pretentious to think I will only feel fulfilled if I have a job that helps the planet? On the other hand, is it respectable to choose a job just because it seems like it would let me have a lot of fun?

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

– Leo Tolstoy

Some people think that happiness is “a trivial American preoccupation”, that it’s self-indulgent. Despite a heavy conscience of guilt for not doing more for the environment, I disagree. In fact I believe taking care of your own happiness is the first place to start to make the world a better place. Happy people are more likely to smile, to care, to give, and to think about the well-being of others. I also feel strongly that we each have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to our community – both local and global.

What I’m doing now is really fun: I love improving my kiteboarding and exploring the world by bicycle. I often laugh with glee when I manage to get my kite to pull me several meters off the water’s surface or carve a perfect snowboard turn down a powder slope. All of this makes me happy. I know I need these things in my life because they bring me happiness that gives me energy and motivation to take on the daunting task of being a conservationist. I’m close to arriving home to Switzerland but I know this is only the beginning of my journey in responsible happiness.

The books and websites that inspired this entry:

Scarred skies

The sky in Spain
The sky in Spain

I’d been away from Europe for nearly a year and in all that time I never saw a sky like this. Usually hearing or seeing just one plane overhead was enough to cause us to look up and comment.
I guess noticing this kind of sky-scape is what happens when you’ve been outside your own bubble for a while.