07/25/2012 01:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

Collective Wisdom

Decades ago, Woody Allen remarked that the human race faced a choice between sudden mass extinction on the one hand or a slow, painful decline into warfare and the degradation of nature. He hoped the human race would have the wisdom to choose.

Are you laughing yet? There may be a third choice.

Human well-being and nature's well-being are inextricably linked. Both the soul and the soil must be nurtured for life to have meaning, generativity, and significance. Yet too often we live with notions of scarcity, that there is not enough or that competing priorities necessitate painful sacrifices.

Dr. Rocky Rohwedder is a professor of environmental science and currently chair of environmental studies at Sonoma State University. In the past few years, he has traveled around the world looking for alternatives to the kinds of fatalistic choices Allen foretold.

For Rocky, this is no laughing matter, but neither is it all about doom and gloom.

You talk about "Ecological Handprints." How is this different from an ecological footprint?

The Ecological Handprint actually expands on the ecological footprint idea. While the footprint is an important metric and becoming a standard of sustainability, it lacks a human dimension. The Ecological Handprint combines and links humanitarian goals with ecological ones.

Gandhi was quoted as saying, "Poverty is the biggest polluter." Can you give me two examples from your travels in which poverty translates into degradation of the environment?

When I ride the trains in Egypt, I see waterways in the desert, the lifeblood of agriculture and human survival, used as public garbage dumps. When I hike the rainforests of Ghana, I see the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

As I tell my students, if I were facing extreme hunger and an endangered panda went walking by, without hesitation I'd kill it and eat it. Degradation of the environment due to poverty appears to those involved as a necessity.

You've also studied cases in which this dynamic has been reversed. What are two examples of economic recovery moving hand in hand with environmental restoration?

There are hundreds of organizations, public and private sector efforts, and village-based projects that are successful at both lifting humanity and lowering our footprint. Here are two examples:

Solar Sister is a woman-to-woman peer network of entrepreneurs bringing solar-powered LED lanterns to sub-Saharan Africa (replacing those powered by kerosene). These lanterns lower monthly energy bills for lighting, eliminate toxic fumes and fire hazards, and help lower atmospheric air pollution.

City Slickers is a nonprofit urban food production and literacy program bringing fresh, affordable, healthy food to impoverished areas of Oakland, California. In the process, they restore neighborhood vitality through environmental stewardship and community gardening.

I've described collective wisdom as the choices we make for the greater good, beyond ideology. Collective wisdom is an awareness of our interconnectedness. Are the examples you are giving showing us what collective wisdom can look like?

Many Ecological Handprint initiatives are motivated by the simple desire to emerge from poverty. Everyone deserves clean water, food security, a safe home. When these are the needs of a larger collective need, they certainly may emerge from a place beyond ideology. Perhaps closest to the collective wisdom idea is the true collective benefit of Ecological Handprints, for all living things today as well as future generations.

For example, when we replace a kerosene lantern with a solar-powered LED lantern via Solar Sister, we help the global environment by lowering greenhouse gases; we help residents by removing the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day in toxic gases; we help the village by lowering the potential of a dwelling fire; we help the resident again by lowering their monthly energy bills and increasing their long-term energy security. We help women who now have jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities; we help kids who now study near a cleaner, brighter, safer, longer-lasting light; we help teachers who now have healthier and better prepared students; and on it goes. When you directly see, as I have, the synergy of all these positive outcomes, you clearly see the incredible power of the up side of interconnectivity.

You mentioned you traveled by sailboat with Desmond Tutu twice around the world for Semester at Sea. A ship is an enclosed place that brings out different parts of our personality. What is a story or something you learned from being with him that is worth sharing with others?

I have had the great honor of learning from Archbishop Tutu and his wife, Leah. We've been faculty together on two round-the-world voyages with Semester at Sea. There are so many stories I would love to tell, but here is a favorite:

One evening I was looking out at the sunset over Port Louis, Mauritius, from the railing of the ship, when three large, fancy town cars pulled up at the dock below. Out of the limos came a wide array of religious leaders, all draped in colorful robes and adornment. They began gathering together for a final photo with Archbishop Tutu. A professional photographer was all set to go and positioned the archbishop in the middle of these leaders. But then the scene had a dramatic shift.

The Archbishop told the photographer to wait, wait! Something was wrong here! He left the group and went back to each town car, where he knocked on the window and cajoled the driver of each vehicle to follow him. He brought them back to the group, positioned the drivers directly on either side of himself, and then told the photographer that now it was OK to take the photo. Immediately after the photo, he gave a simple "Bye-bye" to all gathered and jumped right on the ship. His unceremonious departure left everyone gathered there to mull over what just happened. He left behind a simple lesson about the value of every soul.

What is the scalability of the kinds of innovative solutions you've seen?

I have hope in my heart. I believe, as does Desmond Tutu, that we are made for goodness, but we are still finding our way home.

Just to stick with Solar Sister for a minute -- they've distributed over 20,000 solar lanterns, but there are 1.2 billion people currently without electricity who would also love to have a clean, reliable, and affordable source of light.

There are obvious practical reasons for the kinds of innovative efforts you've researched. Is there also a larger metaphor hidden here?

The larger metaphor is about an end to dualism. No more humanity or environment, jobs or ecology, north or south, today or the future, we or them. To me, this transcendent, integrated, nexus view of the Ecological Handprint is the manifestation of a larger vision -- a collective wisdom.