25. Information Integration and the Ability to Change Our Habits

I’m coming to believe more and more that our choices each and every day are affected greatly by the availability of information and our ability to process it. At least for me personally, the more specific information I have on issues that are important to me, the more likely I am to act on that information.

I was just reading an article about seafood and this one man’s attempt to start a technology revolution that would actually track where your seafood comes from. Seafood sourcing and labelling is infamously terrible. Estimates show that potentially 1/3 – 33% – of the seafood we eat is mislabeled. Much of the time, this is no accident. Business flows to where the money is. If people are paying for fish, then importers will provide it. These importers might not include with the fish information about where that fish comes from, what species of fish it actually is (there is a lot of fish forgery), or the conditions of the fishermen who caught the fish (human trafficking is leading to fishermen essentially enslaved on their ships is a substantial and growing problem).

Now, would you eat quite so much seafood if you knew about this? Would you eat quite so much seafood if you knew how the oceans are increasingly depleted of fish and how many high-demand species are getting driven towards extinction? Or that fisheries are killing sea turtles, dolphins, and other well-loved marine species simply because those animals get caught in their fishing nets and then are simply disposed of and labelled as bycatch? I haven’t been able to. I love seafood as much as the next person, but the more information I attain about the current sate of the oceans, the less seafood I consciously consume. I have now mostly avoided seafood altogether. I say mostly because I will still order a seafood plate if it seems to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so. (See: ordering lobster ravioli in Malta during one of my two nights there.)

I think this same type of reasoning and information availability applies to just about any issue you can think of. At first, we aren’t aware of the effects we, as consumers, cause. We aren’t aware of the full range of implications of our choices. Then, maybe, at some point, we slowly start gathering information about that issue. If we choose to, we can then begin to assimilate that information into our stream of consciousness. This is the point where we can then begin to consciously analyze our decisions before we make them because we are finally aware that the true implications of our individual actions are far larger than we ever imagined they could be.

Of course, if we all thought this way about every issue of every moment of every day, it would be completely and fundamentally overwhelming. Instead, I think the trick is to incorporate small decisions over time. That conscious thinking about, say, not ordering fish starts getting built into neurological muscle memory. Give it enough thought and enough practice, and eventually you won’t even have to think about avoiding seafood, or whatever activity you are focused on. Eventually, you will consciously have to override what has become habit in your thinking if you want to go back to your old ways of thinking and doing.

Once that one conscious thing you have decided to focus on becomes habit, your brain and consciousness become open again to new sets of information and another opportunity for changing thinking habits. Give it enough time, and you can integrate all the information you choose to integrate into your life.

Yes, you have to to work at it. Yes, you are going to struggle at first. No matter if it’s adopting certain diets, walking or taking public transportation to work more often, buying less non-recyclable goods, or reading a little more on your given topic every day, it will become easier. I promise. Changing our habits with information little by little is not the easiest thing to do, but it will be worth it. If enough of us engage in this direct grappling with issues and topics near and dear to us, I believe this is how we can save the world.

24. The Malta Chronicles: Prologue, Traveling, and Initial Impressions

As many of you may have seen on my social media over the past couple of days, I just spent those past several days in Malta. It was an incredibly beautiful place. Why Malta, you may ask? And why only for two days in the middle of October during the middle of the week? I left so soon I really never even got a chance to sightsee other than walking around to find dinner both free evenings.

The answer is the ocean. Or, to be more precise, the Our Ocean conference.

Prologue
To give a background to this story, back last October I found out through Georgetown that there was going to be an event at main campus called Our Oceans, One Future, an event where John Kerry, then Secretary of State, and Adrian Grenier, actor and co-founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation, would be speaking. So I, along with one of my classmates, missed Bargain (Contracts + Torts) that morning in order to go to main campus and attend this amazing event. It was so inspiring to sit there and listen to the head speakers talk about the current issues facing the oceans and the slow upwelling of commitment towards figuring out a way to save them. Heads of states, including ministers from Europe and South America, also talked at a panel at that time about their different states’ commitments and achievements over the past year.

Then, in March, I was a liaison between Georgetown Law’s Chapter of the UN Association and Georgetown main campus’ Sustainable Ocean Alliance, or the SOA. The SOA was started a few years ago by an undergraduate student at Georgetown to help bring youth voices into the ocean discussion. So in March, the SOA had their annual summit at main campus and I went and attended and tabled a table promoting Georgetown Law during the lunch break.

Fast-forward a couple of months and I get an email from the SOA announcing they were then taking applications for the Our Ocean Youth Leadership conference in Malta in October. I looked at the application, figured I would qualify since a) I was a “youth”, and b) I’m planning on going into ocean conservation and want to be involved in as many ocean-related things as possible. So I applied and got accepted. I booked my ticket for Malta. A few weeks later I booked a spot at a hostel that multiple other people attending the conference were staying at. And otherwise I tried to brush it out of my mind that somehow I would be going to Malta against all expectations in October.

Traveling & Initial Impressions
Monday night, I packed a small carryon suitcase of business professional clothes and books to take along in my book bag. I slept only 4 hours that night because of last-minute homework assignments and work early the next morning. I went to the morning portion of a hearing on dumping of solar cells and solar panels from other countries at the International Trade Commission, ran back to the EPA to tell my supervisor about it, and then ran home, showered, kissed Ricardo and Rumple goodbye, and drove to Dulles airport.

My plane left from D.C. at 6:00pm. I arrived in London Heathrow at around 6:00am. I ate at Pret, camped out for a few hours, and then flew to Malta. I arrived in Malta very motion sick around 3:00pm and proceeded to half-consciously ride a bus for an hour all the way to the hostel I was staying at. I’m still mad at myself for being so motion sick, because that hour-long bus ride was probably the best view of the city as a whole that I would get during the daytime, but I was so miserable I could barely keep my eyes open. I finally found Boho Hostel after taking two wrong turns and wheeling/carrying my little roller suitcase up a series of steep stairs and narrow sidewalks.

The thing about Malta roads is the sidewalks are barely wide enough for one person for the most part and there are very rarely crosswalks anywhere. So you just have to run across the street and hope you don’t get hit. I could never be a driver in Malta; I would be far too terrified to run into people or cars parked on the sides of the roads or the sides of buildings, since the streets are so narrow. However, I will admit I love the architectural style. For the most part, most of the buildings are made out of this yellow stone that I assume is abundant all across the island. The buildings are all square – almost cubical – with their chief adornments and character created by the railings, balconies, and windows that are attached to these cubical structures. It’s very economical and efficient, I think. The cubical structures mean all the buildings use the most amount of space possible in a very space-limited region; after all, Malta is an island surrounded by the Mediterranean on all sides.

Back to Boho. I’ve never stayed at a hostel before, so I didn’t really know what to expect, other than the fact that I knew several other youth delegates were also staying there. The whole hostel is a hippy little world tucked right in the middle of a neighborhood, with hammocks and palm trees and little Buddha statutes in the yard and walls painted with maps of the world and inspirational boho-style quotes about traveling making one rich. The staircase leading up to the bedrooms (3 bunk beds to a room) was decorated entirely by shoes hanging all over the railing. There was a little female cat there that had similar colorings to Rumple but definitely had an island-y look about her.

I checked in and right as I was doing so, a group of younger people all dressed professionally were assembling. I assumed they were about to head out to pick up their badges for the conference and from there go straight to the reception. (It was 5:30pm by then and the badge office supposedly closed by 7:00pm, which is also when the reception for us youth delegates started.) I was right, and they were all kind enough to wait for me to change really fast so I could head out with them. We walked for a good 20 minutes and during that time found our way to the coast of Malta. Saint Julian’s was this magnificent church we passed that was right on the bay and the waves crashed upon its base in a glorious display. We snaked our way around the marina, where picturesque boats all floated tied up in the water. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a picturesque place in my life as that marina. The boats were all brightly painted, the buildings around the marina were beautiful pastels, and the clouds and the ocean were all this glorious harmonization of greys and purples and blues.

We met up with some other youth conference members at the inside edge of the marina and everyone took some time meeting one another and taking photos. While walking to the marina, I met two friends from Paris, France, a girl from Germany, and a girl from Spain. (I’m not going to put names here for privacy’s sake.) Very early on into the evening, it became impossible to learn any new names or remember where everyone you met had come from or how exactly they were working on or wanted to work on ocean issues. Regardless, all 100 of us selected were passionate about the oceans; the oceans were what brought us all together. I cannot tell you how amazing it was to be surrounded on all sides by fellow ocean lovers from such diverse backgrounds and places of origin who all came together for a common cause. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The original Boho group ran up to the Hilton and got our badges after going through security. We then joined outside to take photos in front of the #OurOcean sign in the fountain and the Our Ocean illustrations everywhere. We then made our way across the hotel to a bar that was more reminiscent of the inside of a ship than a bar for the opening reception for the conference. The room was round and had the zodiac illustrated as if a night sky on the ceiling. On the walls were mirrors and inlays of ship motifs, while the floor was a giant marble compass rose.

We all got a drink, ate hors d’oeuvres (which there were not nearly enough of), and just spent the evening mingling and getting to know people. It was fantastic. People were from all different countries. There were a lot of Europeans, which makes sense because it was much easier for them to get a plane ticket to Malta: see Spanish, French, German, Danish, Serbian, Italian, British, Scottish, etc. There were a few Americans, mainly from D.C., California, and Duke University, to be specific. And there were also people from Thailand, Peru, and Brazil, among others. It was an incredibly diverse group of people.

Some individuals were still finishing their undergraduate degrees. Many had masters or were currently in the middle of pursuing masters in oceanography, marine biology, marine law and governance, and policy work. There was an economist, a few budding and full attorneys, and some engineers. Overall, the amount of diversity was one of the most inspiring things about the entire trip for me. Also, there was a freedom to follow one’s dreams, whether that meant moving to another country or learning another language or pursuing a completely different type of degree.

I realized that night at the reception that Americans tend to be close-minded about living in other places. I don’t know if close-minded is the right term, but Americans just don’t think about actually moving abroad and staying there for a number of years. It seems to me that many other countries, especially in the European Union (to be fair though, it is easier since their citizenship automatically enables them to work or go to school in any other EU country outside of their own), have a bigger sense of freedom about exploration. During this conference, I’ve met more people than I can count who have actually lived in more than two countries. To be fair, the individuals who attend an ocean conference in Malta are probably some of the most exploratory and open-minded individuals, so the conference definitely did have a demographic bias. Nonetheless, I have been so inspired.

The Boho group left back to our hostel shortly after 9:00pm. We were all exhausted and had to be up at 5:45 the next morning in order to make it to the conference in time. And thus, we walked back to the hostel, said goodnight, and fell immediately asleep.