Sustainability: A Matter of Perception

joshua bellI have “lifted” this fascinating story from GreenTeam Australia’s excellent blog, because it is speaks so clearly to the power of perception – a theme that runs through so much of my thinking and speaking.

The story takes place in Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later: the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. Suppose, for a minute, that this was a story about a place and not a famous musician:

  • what determines beauty and value?
  • why travel if have we lost the childlike wonder that would enable us to appreciate the everyday?
  • how come the same experience can generate just $32 to the provider in one context and thousands in another?
  • how can we possibly live in harmony with nature, if we see it merely as vibrations to be measured and not something sacred to be revered?

If I had to design a sustainable tourism curriculum from scratch – on a blank piece of paper – I would not start with climate change and carbon emissions; or even how ecological footprints vary and are calculated; or the ROI on alternative energy etc etc. No, I think I would start with the poetry of Wordsworth, Thoreau or Walt Whitman, or to be more contemporary, Drew Dillinger; or the cosmology of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. I would  leave my students alone in an old growth forest long enough that the blinkers fell from their eyes and they could begin to see what lay hidden from those determined to do doing over being; I would encourage them to become tortoises rather than hares and ask them to devise rituals that honoured the passing of the seasons…..

Until we are prepared to slow down, stop and drink in the magical tones of Joshua Bell’s violin when the music emerges unexpectedly  from the pavement of an underpass on a drizzly November day, we will continue to gallop towards sustainability and it will recede further to the horizon. Until we have switched our perception of earth as lumberyard or ever giving ATM machine to earth as our sacred home that nurtures us; until we have mastered Wonder 101 and can articulate how a place pulses to its own unique beat; until we can feel “her” and feel one with her, why travel at all?

11 Responses to “Sustainability: A Matter of Perception”

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  7. Anna, I practice slow travel. The vacations my wife and I take are month long sojourns to one specific place or community. While there we learn to relax, connect, engage, learn and savour. Unfortunately the opportunity to indulge ourselves in this manner only began when we decided that an early retirement was in the cards. Up until then life had been too hectic, too scheduled, too demanding.

    But,I do recall one trip with my son. While in the train station in St. Louis, Missouri, that had morphed into an entertainment/shopping hub, we sat down, and I asked him to look around and pay attention to the details. It was amazing what he suddenly became aware of, what he saw and discovered. Ever since, he has learned to stop, lokk ans ask questions. He has learned to hone his attention and observation skills.

    Such skills can be taught; they can be learned. But this remains a responsibility of parents, teachers, and in our industry, guides interpretors, animators and beyond – we have a collective responsibility to encourage people to get to know our communities, cultures and people. With advances in mobile technologies I foresee the day in which our phones will act as stoplights, encouraging us to stop, look, listen, draw attention to, and explain the details as well as the significance of place.

    Allowing and providing the means for visitors to develop a sense-of-place is essential if we are to encourage pride-of-place, the foundation on which to sustainability can be built.

    Regards, Michael


    • Hello Anna. Great article! Your thoughts are so valuable. Thank you for sharing them with us.

      After reading your article and giving the ideas some thought I believe that, yes, from a general perspective along decades, or maybe centuries, we’ve just lost a deep and natural connection with nature, in particular thinking about ourselves as small particles within it. Perhaps for this reason so many people lost the opportunity to listen to Joshua Bell in the Metro station, or in other words, to recognize the beauty in his music.

      But I do feel that we are undergoing a period of great change in which we are being forced to look for new directions. I meet so many people around that are becoming aware of the issue that “human beings are an integral part of nature” and not “the only and unique part”. It can be silly to put it into words in here but for decades we saw the world in such an individualist way that even today seems something revealing to say that everything in Life is connected and that’s the way the World and Nature are.

      And as a result I believe we are looking for ways to bring the beauty back to our lives again. Beauty, as getting in touch with the essence of nature, to “experience” the world as it is (to vibrate with it, to admire it, to respect it), to connect with other people, to laugh, to share, to love. And traveling gives us a beautiful possibility to get back the “childlike wonder” to our lives again.

      And …how about tourism? Just by now I’m thinking about:

      a) Experiences: I believe that the way we started to think tourist’s products the last years became truly an improvement in the market! We are more focused now on how to increase the tourist’s experiences instead of how to “develop successful products”. Actually, we are developing successful products (we need to do it) but we are doing it taking into account the connection between life, reality, nature and tourism. Yes, I know, not all the Travel and Tourism industry is doing the same, but it’s a start, don’t you think so?

      b) Training: this is an interesting topic. In particular this year I met several colleagues that are turning their traditional responsible tourism courses into more experimental ones. And for some of us (in Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina) the conference style of approach to the people has the tendency to be replaced by much more free ways to work with them allowing a sort of guiding and creative process with the objective to empower people and let them to find and build their own solutions. And get fun, of course! I’m not a great fan about the “You-Are-Guilty” learning process that was so present in some sustainable tourism courses the last years. Maybe it was useful at a certain point but I don’t think it is useful anymore, As a matter of fact, when I now listen to a speaker with a more apocalyptic than enthusiastic approach I run away. So, I don’t use neither that formula in my courses at all. Just in case…

      So, Anna, in conclusion, I think we are starting to slow down and change our perception of the world we are part of. That’s only my perception, of course…


  8. This is an eye opening story. Quite unbelievable, or, rather, very believable. Interesting reading suggestions. Did anyone collect books and videos of this kind and propose using them before any appropriate audience?


  9. It is so true. We need to take a good look around us and experience the beauty in people and the planet. We are a privileged bunch who can afford to travel around the world. We need to remember we are guests in another country and forge respect for the communities we visit.


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