A Mind for Sustainable Living

Here’s an unusual aspect of sustainable living that’s rarely, if ever, in any of the media: How our adult minds work, and how that affects sustainability.

It’s an item from Arlington Institutes’ FUTUREdition Volume 24, Number 9, and may be crucial in how we solve many of the global problems we face, as well as how we might enjoy a higher quality-of-life experience … what I consider an essential part of “Sustainable Living.”  I’ll add comments afterwards.

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Why Adults Lose ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – (New York Times – April 16, 2021)

Here’s a sobering thought:

The older we get, the harder it is for us

to learn, to question, to reimagine.

This isn’t just habit hardening into dogma. It’s encoded into the way our brains change as we age. And it’s worsened by an intellectual and economic culture that prizes efficiency and dismisses play.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab; she’s also the author of over 100 papers and half a dozen books, including “The Gardener and the Carpenter” and “The Philosophical Baby.”

What I love about her work is she takes the minds of children seriously.


The child’s mind is tuned to learn.


They are, she writes, the R. & D.

departments of the human race.


But a mind tuned to learn works differently from a mind trying to exploit what it already knows. So instead of asking what children can learn from us, perhaps we need to reverse the question: What can we learn from them?

In this conversation on “The Ezra Klein Show,” Gopnik and Klein discuss the way children think, the cognitive reasons social change so often starts with the young, and the power of play. We talk about why Gopnik thinks children should be considered an entirely different form of Homo sapiens, the crucial difference between “spotlight” consciousness and “lantern” consciousness, why “going for a walk with a 2-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake,” what A.I. researchers are borrowing from human children, the effects of different types of meditation on the brain and more.

(Article includes links to both an audio version of the podcast and a full transcript.)

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Our awareness of the problems our civilization is creating has been with us for many decades. In the 1995 film, “The American President,” the two main issues that were wrestled with were “gun control” and “climate.” Our awareness of those issues was clearly established even decades before that film. So … for at least half a century, neither our corporate nor our political leaders have made a major dent in solving a problem with such major consequences.

Why is that?

I like the comments in the article about play. I recall at an early age my mother simply saying, “Go out and play.” I’d get together with other kids on my block and we’d either play a game for which rules already existed, such as baseball, or we’d simply invent our own games. And if we created new ways to play a game or created whole new games, it was fun!

As we grew and learned, we changed.

And changes were positive, even exciting.

Then I recall a quote from the film, The Accountant, in which the father of a functionally autistic kid (who grew up to be the accountant) told his son, who had experienced beatings from school classmates, that it wasn’t a matter of them liking or disliking him, but that he was different, and …


“Sooner or later, different scares people.”


The title of my most recent book, (which you can download at no cost from my www.gardenatriums.com web site,) is “The Challenge of Change.” That title came from D, and it felt appropriate because of the challenges we encountered in creating our net zero sustainable community.

We were seen as pariahs, initially. The City Planner said that while he liked what we were proposing, it was different, and he’d end up being challenged by angry citizens. The city engineer and code official were harsh and almost disappointed that they couldn’t find anything that violated their regulations. They even refused an occupancy permit, even though we were in full compliance, and we had to engage attorneys to get our permit.

However, as we completed our little development, we became a positive model … as the city was being threatened with fines by EPA. And hordes of visitors enjoyed their visits. So … when a positive model exists – and children learn from an alphabet that already exists – doing things with what exists it fine. But if we play with ideas that don’t exist, those ideas – and us, as perpetrators of those ideas – scare people.

I try to think of instances I’ve been in as an adult when play was rewarded. I recently took a class in “Creative Non-Fiction.” The professor had each of us simply begin writing something. At the next class, three students received feedback on what they were creating. So each of us would receive periodic feedback, as well as provide feedback to others. The professor had created an environment that supported experimentation … we could be as creative with words as a child might be with crayons.

Different expressions – whether most of us liked them or disliked them – became positive opportunities for learning. And if I created something that others didn’t like, I still learned from it.

Now, how do I translate that experience to sustainable living?


What can most of us do that offers

an opportunity to play – to test ideas

to see if they provide better outcomes

for Earth and for our enjoyment?


First … Perhaps enter into, or create, an environment that supports experimentation … which our writing professor did. A group of gardeners often does that – trying different plants, experiencing their outcomes, and sharing results with one another. Homeowners might similarly get together to play with ways to change their front or rear yards to areas that have greater beauty, absorb more CO2, emit more O2, and even have less maintenance demands.

Some ideas will work better than others, but … it’s all play.


Second … See if someone has already tried something different – from which you can learn … much as a child may learn the rules of baseball. If you know someone who has an electric car, can you ask how you might drive it and experience it? If you know someone who has a passive solar house, can you ask to visit it during times you think are most challenging – such as during heat waves or cold spells? You’ll be reducing your risk of failure.


Third … By yourself or perhaps with someone with similar interests, create a low-risk environment in which you can play with sustainability-related ideas. This is akin to getting together with one or two friends to see if I can hit a whiffle ball curve. At first, we might all be lousy, but we can then learn together … much as a gardeners group might experiment. Inventers such as Tesla may have needed more alone time to play with ideas, but Van Gogh found value in seeing the works of others … from which he then departed.


Elements of how to live more sustainably have been around – just as a child can begin with an alphabet that’s been around. But playing with those elements in a way that’s fun might lead to exciting outcomes for you and others. The changes we need don’t seem likely to come from current corporate or political leaders, do they? But they can come from people who can re-learn how to play and create. That’s where our best inventions have come from.  So …

Go forth and play!

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