Celebrations, Mirror Neurons, and Learning: The Goldman Environmental Prize

Attending the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize awards ceremony in San Francisco earlier this week made me even more appreciative than I already was of the power positive examples play in our lives—a lesson not to be underplayed by anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

When we think about the numerous ways in which we learn, we often overlook theories of how our brains acquire and retain knowledge—including the theory that mirror neurons (neurons that make us feel as if we are experiencing something we are observing) play a role in that learning process. There is little disagreement that we learn through experience, so the idea that we might also learn by feeling as if we had the same experience we observed someone else having is intriguing. And if mirror neurons really do produce this result, they were hard at work during the Goldman Environmental Prize awards ceremony as attendees heard the deeply moving stories of six individuals who, at great risk to themselves and their families, actively stood in opposition to actions that threatened the environmental health of the communities they call home.

There was Ikal Angelei, a Kenyan who has been fighting construction of a huge dam that “would block access to water for indigenous communities around Lake Turkana,” according to the program booklet distributed at the ceremony.

We also heard about—and from—Ma Jun, who,  through the nongovernmental agency he founded, “exposed over 90,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies operating in China through an online database and pollution map, bringing unprecedented environmental transparency and empowering Chinese citizens to demand justice,”  we read in that same booklet.

And there was Sofía Gatica, an Argentinian woman who began looking into the cause for her three-day-old daughter’s death from kidney failure and, through her local efforts with an organization she cofounded, exposed the connection between “indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicials in neighboring soy fields” and local cancer rates that were 41 times higher than the national average.

Evgenia Chirikova, the fourth of the Goldman award recipients, made our mirror neurons—or whatever makes us feel as if we were there—fire through the story of how she organized Russians to oppose construction of a highway that would have bisected the previously protected Khimki Forest.

Father Edwin Gariguez, a Catholic priest on Mindoro Island in the Philippines, was honored for his efforts to draw attention to a nickel mine that “was presenting a significant threat to the island’s water resources and tropical forests.” (An aside: it’s interesting, after hearing about the negative impact the project would have and about how “threats of violence and verbal harassment ensued,” to read how Intex Resources promotes the project that Father Gariguez was just honored for opposing.)

We pretty much completed our global tour of environmental activists by hearing about Caroline Cannon’s efforts to halt oil and gas leases that were under consideration in the Arctic Ocean, near Point Hope, along Alaska’s north coast.

But this was not just an armchair travel session nor an opportunity to sit back and admire others who do things we might not ever dream of doing. By watching beautifully produced videos documenting their efforts and hearing each of them speak briefly, we were drawn into the shared experience of what it means to respond to something significant in our lives. And whether our responses come from mirror neurons firing or some other form of empathy kicking in, we all walk away having learned something about how to be much stronger in our responses to the challenges we face. Much more connected to our local, regional, national, and international communities. And cognizant of how the smallest events in our lives can move us to engage in actions we might not otherwise have considered.

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