About Don Shafer

I'm a broadcaster, community activist and pretty average guitar player. I studied English & Psychology at the University of Texas and Communications & Journalism at the University of Southern California. I completed my MA at Simon Fraser University in 2018 and in my 3rd year with UBC working on my PhD with the Social Justice Institute.. My research explores the words we use and how people talk about climate change and its interconnectedness with settler colonialism, white supremacy, and other intersecting social justice issues. I'm interested in how people talk about climate change and its psychological, cultural, and political components in other areas of daily life. His work explores these intersections and how these conversational ecosystems influence our thinking and meaning-making. I argue that many of these issues sit on the same foundations and that there are tipping points in conversations that open up or shut down how we talk across difference, which include race, gender, culture, politics and climate. I hope to find out if we can learn to speak to individuals and communities from different social, economic, religious, political or cultural backgrounds and fill structural holes where we can build trust and bridges of understanding.


Heart beat line end of life

This paper speaks to multiple near-death experiences (NDE’s), the conversations we have with ourselves as well as with others, and the profound changes that can occur at the edges of that steep drop into unconsciousness. These are personal reflections that my supervisor encouraged me to write about that speak about the need for a vulnerable reciprocity in the way we have conversations about life and death, what I learned from a local cardiac team in Vancouver, and how taking notice can shape our thoughts and deeds.

NDE (Near Death Experiences)
My heart surgeon called to let me know that the team at St. Paul’s Hospital was ready to replace my aortic valve and perform a quadruple bypass. I’m not sure if that’s more about genetics or the wear and tear of a life well-lived, and simply the luck of the draw for having a childhood heart murmur. Regardless, for all the well-intentioned platitudes and reassurances from family and friends that all would be well, my stoicism only goes so far as I join a cohort of roughly 10,000 heart patients in BC annually. I’m not doing the happy dance, wondering if I’ll be returning to consciousness, anticipating the feeling of having been hit by a truck, and months, perhaps years of recovery, wondering what my new normal might look like. And this assumes that it will all go well. But what if doesn’t? Mourning the near-death of yourself seems like a journey without any direction. This paper speaks to multiple near-death experiences (NDE’s), the conversations we have with ourselves, and the profound changes that can occur at the edges of that steep drop.

We have a funny definition of death being when all your physical processes stop and your brain and heart flat line, then you are considered dead. The UDDA asserts that “an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” That is unless someone can revive them, and then I suppose they really weren’t “dead” after all. So, where did they go? Given that near-death experiences happen with limited warning, they seem almost impossible to test. Nevertheless, stories of remarkable experiences on the threshold of death have been reported since ancient times and described today by many people who have a traumatic, life-threatening event. My own experiences suggest that this is a vehicle for renewal and a stimulus to inner exploration and that our idea of death may be more of a journey than the end of the trip. Joseph Campbell may have said it best. “I think the idea of life after death is a bad idea. It distracts you from appreciating the uniqueness of the here and now, the moment you are living for.”

These near-death experiences occur when the body is injured by the blunt trauma of an accident, explosion, fall, heart attack, and other life-threatening events. Many of them impact how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. For those of us who have experienced various traumatic events, our brains and bodies may make some dramatic physical, psychological, and spiritual shifts. Kathy Briggs was the co-founder of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator and once said that the only thing that can shift or change our personality is a major traumatic event. Many who experience these events also share other commonalities, such as allowing the participant to eventually become pain-free, reunited with departed family and friends, seeing a bright light at the end of the tunnel, being detached from this physical world and in some other magical place. The stories are endless, and these occurrence’s almost always shift how we see and feel our way in the world. Joni Mitchel’s lyrics to “Both Sides Now” remind us of the many things that we know so little about and the self-doubt and insecurity that can be amplified from a traumatic experience. “I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose and still somehow, it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.”

The risk of not surviving open-heart surgery is small in the 21st century, as only 2% of heart surgeries are fatal. St. Paul’s does approximately 1,100 heart surgeries of the 10,000 performed in British Columbia annually. That means about 1,078 patients survived, and 22 or 200 in BC didn’t. Good odds, but try carrying that around with you for a while, knowing that you’re next and that your surgeon is going to disconnect your heart from your body! On the day of my surgery, I asked about these statistics and learned that most of those who didn’t make it were usually much older with recurring heart issues (I’m 74). They were having catastrophic complications that couldn’t be fixed. Of the 98% of us who make it, there are still ongoing complications that put pressure on these stats, and like every person who has had a near-death experience, there are countless questions about life and death and how they change us. Where one person may get up and dust themselves off and keep on going, others struggle with the fragility of life.

As a young kid, I never forgot the feeling of choosing a brick wall in a nearby driveway over an oncoming car in the soapbox the kids on our street made. Our homemade racer exploded when it hit the wall throwing me twenty feet into a neighbour’s yard. The world stopped as I regained consciousness, wondering where I was and how I got there waking up to the smiling faces of my friends. That time between impact and being back in the world is lost to me now. However, I have always wondered where I went and what the edges were between consciousness and unconsciousness.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “edge” as a noun or a verb and is often described as the outside limit of an object, area or surface. It’s that place next to the steep drop, the point before something unpleasant or momentous occurs, a thin linear thread or a thought that holds the edges of time between this and that, then and now. These edges are transitional or “liminal” spaces that exist in everything known. They occur every day and in every moment, and they have throughout time. They are often unannounced as they gently take shape around and within us, often unconscious as we don’t recognize them at first, sometimes for decades. Others make a momentous entrance defining the beginning or end of something such as a birth or death, a change of direction, the end of war, or hitting that wall in my soapbox.

I think consciousness is a state in which brain information processing is organized and coherent. Anything that disrupts the coherence of processing produces a state of altered consciousness or unconsciousness. I doubt there has ever been a time on our planet where there have been so many alternate realities for both. Allah knows I tried to alter my consciousness often in the ’60s, meditated with Baba Ramdas in the ’70s, and I’m still looking for the Buddha within. So, while some might argue that there is essentially only one type of fully conscious state, like an on or off switch, I believe that there are an enormous variety of possible conscious and unconscious places, depending on the nature of the disruption and the self-awareness of an individual. According to Freud, thoughts and emotions outside of our awareness continue to influence our behaviours, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences. Conscious is to be aware, intentional and responsive. Unconscious, on the other hand, refers to being unaware or doing something without realizing it.

Carl Jung believed that there are no such things as accidents, only patterns that we don’t yet recognize. This analysis followed my near-fatal “accident” in 2015 as a simple journey home became a life-changing experience that accelerated my exploration of self. If not an accident, this became an existential search for personal and spiritual meaning in life as my Jeep lost control in the mountains of British Columbia. In an instant, the icy highway let go of my vehicle as it rolled and flipped erratically out of control into oncoming traffic. In this dance with death, I was thrown unceremoniously to the back of the overturned wreck, unconscious to the world, bleeding profusely from shrapnel and glass. It would be ten minutes before I would hear the voice of a nurse speaking from a distant and surreal place with words of care and concern as she busily went about saving my life; “Don, can you hear me? You’ve been in an accident. You’re bleeding; please don’t move!”

I’ve never forgotten the kindness nor the seriousness of that distant, ethereal voice as she pulled me back to consciousness. I often wonder if I had a choice to stay or go somewhere else other than returning to this world. I’m sure I was with my daughter who left us a few years earlier, when she lost her fight with Cancer. Was there another reality or another path available? While trying to find a way back to the surface in this unfamiliar place, strangers went about choreographing how to save my life. With a head full of voices asking questions about why I was still here, Seneca’s words echoed in my head that death should have arrived, and yet it didn’t.

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile, death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for it.”

I don’t have many soapbox memories from my youth and doubt that I could spell existential then anyway. For months after the Jeep accident, even now, I think about it as family and friends ask how I’m doing? I recognize their silent and unspoken request for a short and casual reply that many humans put out there when encountering uncomfortable conversations. I would politely respond then, as I do now, that “I’m fine” with an emphasis on a short and optimistic narrative. Few care to have a deeper conversation to learn the truth that is different and far more complex as the hangover from my concussion fades and the scars become less visible. Martha Nussbaum noted that we humans don’t like talking about these messy bits that force us to feel our way into conversations.

Many of the foundations of my life were moved in that near-death experience, and I’ve been busy reshaping them since in a search for meaning and purpose. I can hear my father telling me to “suck it up and get on with it,” but who’s lurking in the shadows of this entity known as self? Was I a fraud at the crossroads of a profoundly personal and spiritual discovery? Was this a second chance to undo those wrongs and say the things I needed to the people I love? Was a second chance gifted to revisit and improve those parts of myself that deserved attention that I had sent away years earlier, or was this an opportunity to ensure that I would be ready the next time death arrives? The task of transformation upon re-entry into life and society has been an unexpected process of vulnerable rediscovery.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman presents a classic model which describes the healing process of people who struggle with traumatic experiences of all types. Stage one is about finding treatment, understanding and how to manage suffering. Establishing safety and a path for healing is then put in place. Stage two is often referred to as remembrance and mourning and involves working through the experience to lessen its emotional intensity and find meaning in one’s life. Working through and understanding grief is a large part of this process. Stage three focuses on reconnecting with people, activities and other aspects of life. While there are three stages, they are seldom linear, and they often overlap. Throughout all of these stages, there are numerous psychological themes and dynamics that address various issues such as helplessness, powerlessness, anger, regret, loss, dissociation and guilt. Where one person may show initial symptoms that diminish naturally over time, another may have long-lasting symptoms that make it difficult to carry out everyday activities.

With my share of traumatic events and an awareness of having passed my best before date years earlier, it’s not lost on me that the front of the line is getting closer. That is, I still have “stuff” to work on and preparing for heart surgery was less about booking three or four months off and getting on with life, as it was another opportunity to prepare for a deeper understanding of life and death and finding peace just in case the odds weren’t in my favour. I recall that Ernest Hemingway sent a letter to his parents when he was severely injured in World War I and wrote, “Dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death, and really, I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did.”

Confronting our own mortality is the origin of philosophical reflection dating back to Plato. In the Hagakure, an 18th-century samurai manual, Yamamoto Tusunetomo writes about how a warrior should live consciously, ethically, and with an awareness in life. Tusunetomo advocates that the samurai should meditate on death every day and imagine being ripped apart by dogs, pierced by arrows, dying of disease, falling from a thousand-foot cliff, and committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. He believed that by meditating, on one’s death, by acting as if one is dead, by accepting that and moving into it, then you can act with freedom because you’re no longer beholden to fear.

Unlike my previous skirmishes with unconsciousness, my heart surgery was premeditated and purposeful! No dogs, arrows, or the need to jump off a thousand-foot cliff. No traumatic injury of a stressed heart – only a surgical date subject to change due to Covid 19, the best science of the 21st century, the friendliness of a caring cardiac team, and the knowledge that if I passed that near-death threshold, I would never know that I’d hit another wall, or hear the screams tumbling across the highway. Hemingway may have had a point that dying is a very simple thing!

Strangely, I remember a gentle return to consciousness following heart surgery and the realization that I hadn’t passed that threshold. There was only a soft, warm welcome from the intensive care nurse at my side and the team around me in what appeared a space-age cocoon, all abuzz with technology, tubes, and wires. This was one of those surreal moments where my body, perceptions, thoughts and feelings felt alien to me, yet somehow, I felt safe, alive, and very much in the moment. I remember being wheeled into surgery and struck by the warmth and care the surgical team created. We shared stories about our families, school, good books, how much they are appreciated as they prepared me for my journey, explaining what to expect on the other side while gently easing me into that unconscious place again. I think it was Propofol, a fast-acting anesthetic that works by slowing brain wave activity and induces a deep level of sleep and sedation. It allows a patient to wake up calm and alert, unlike old school anesthetics, which left patients feeling disoriented, worn out, scared and often screaming.

I don’t recall anything in that liminal space between leaving and returning, however, in the eight days before discharge, I ran the gamut of behavioural, cognitive, and emotional changes as my body adjusted to the feeling of having been run over by that truck. St. Paul’s cardiac team carefully eased me through my roller coaster ride of depression, fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness and anger. They kept me moving, comfortable, fed, and cared for. The level of care was profound, palpable, and it seems a non-negotiable component of healing. In the backdrop of a pandemic and global chaos, this was a life-changing experience to observe firsthand front-line medical staff and workers providing an intimate and more personal approach to health care. I watched their actions and conversations reduce trauma, ease suffering, and contribute to healing. I’m reminded that these life-changing events almost always shift how we see and feel our way in the world, and I am struck by how they provided a new lens for me to consider of how we can change our conversations simply by caring.

Discourse theory proposes that the way we speak with each other in our daily activities is shaped by the structures of power in our society. Because our society is defined by struggle and conflict, our discourses reflect and create these conflicts. This has never seemed more evident in our daily news, social media doom scrolling, and many daily conversations that family and friends are shutting down. Yet, considering the growing polarization all around us, few conversations would appear to have adopted a lens of caring, such as the one at St. Paul’s Hospital. I’m reminded that language is a powerful tool when we’re not arguing and actually listening to each other as it allows us to influence, regulate, persuade, and learn how to trust each other. Their cardiac team seems to have perfected the science of caring by listening with child-like curiosity and the ability to ask generous questions that allow for multiple outcomes bringing out the best in them and their patients. This science of caring offers a unique holistic approach to healthcare and the mindful delivery of authentic patient-centred care. From what I learned, this is an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates both the art and science of nursing and frequently utilizes concepts from the fields of philosophy, ethics, ecology and mind-body-spirit medicine.

I’ve been having conversations with people for over five decades on and off the air. As a broadcaster and now as one of the older students on campus, I’ve become intrigued by the science, psychology, and cultural and emotional components of conversation. I’m curious what they have in common to improve on our existing knowledge of how we engage with each other, whether about climate, race, gender, culture, politics, or social justice issues. I observed firsthand how this diverse team can move patients from the edges of death and helplessness. By listening and changing the way we think about ourselves and the world we live in. Their practice of care is transformational and changes outcomes and, no doubt, futures! I’m grateful to still be on the other side of that steep drop, to work on my many insecurities and questions about life and death, and to approach more questions and the conversations that I have with greater care.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
R. D. Laing

[1] St Paul’s is an acute care, teaching and research hospital located in downtown Vancouver home to many world-class medical and surgical programs that had to make way for Covid as our world changed.
[2] The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) is a piece of model legislation (non-binding statutory text meant to serve as a guide for lawmakers) which provides a more concrete definition of death for legal purposes.
[3] Joseph Campbell. Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. Harper Perennial, 1995. (pg 104)
[4] Kathy Briggs was the co-founder of the MBTI Personality test. https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/
[5] Joni Mitchell. Both Sides Now. https://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=83
[6] Seneca On the Shortness of Life, Fragments of Words and Thoughts. Penguin Books, 2013 (p13).
[7] Ernst Hemingway. Letters Home. http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-wounded-ernest-hemingways-letter-home.html
[8] Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure, The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai. Tuttle Publishing, 2014.

Fire, Denial, and Hope

Othello Canyon, British Columbia.

As the west coast burns and fires erupt around the world, news headlines paint an eerie landscape of our future as smoke chokes the planet. Experts are confident that these events are just a glimpse of what’s to come as we get ready for more extreme weather conditions, unreliable rainfall, violent storms, reduced agriculture, and increasing deaths. As if this wasn’t enough, we also face a long list of social, economic, and political issues.

Homelessness, racism, and isolation are just symptoms that indicate something is very wrong and getting worse as more people around the world are thrown into uncertainty. It doesn’t help when Paul Gilding tells us to stop worrying about climate change and that we need to brace for impact, or when David Attenborough and Jane Goodall tell us that the earth would be better off with less than a billion people, or when the U.S. Department of Defense predicts confidently that there will be more climate change induced wars in the next 15 years. Is there any wonder why so many people are anxious and in denial?

We have a growing list of global problems and one of the largest is that we require about fifty percent more earth to sustain our current way of life. Distribution is only part of the problem. While we talk a good story about how we can gently transition to a highly efficient, knowledge-based economy transformed by science and technology this is likely magical thinking. It seems more likely that when the carbon bubble bursts, financial markets will spiral out of control, there will be more wars, collapsing governments, shortages of food and water, and huge unemployment around the world. While Project Drawdown may provide the blueprint, significant change is not likely to occur until something awful happens. Perhaps Rilke is right that great sadness brings us closer together.

While climate changes become more severe the instability of our world is no longer out of sight and out of mind as we run out of resources and one billion people come looking for a new home. We shake our heads and wring our hands over growing homelessness around the world, refugee camps and children in cages, but we tolerate them to the degree that they become normalized. The path ahead is indeed a daunting one. Perhaps David Whyte is correct when he says that “denial is underestimated as a state of being. Denial is an ever-present and even a splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on. Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate: children are not meant to know they will one day die and older adults are never meant to tell them. Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.”

It’s easy to understand why many people embrace denial rather than give in to fear and hopelessness. That denial comes in many shapes and sizes or “faces” is not surprising. Whyte believes that most human beings are at war with reality at least fifty percent of the time. He speaks of walking into our lives fully, and that when we do so we start to realise that we have manufactured three abiding illusions; that we can somehow construct a life where we are not vulnerable; that we can somehow be immune to all the difficulties of ill health and losses of the natural world; and that somehow we can plan our way to the end. These illusions can be for ourselves as well as our community, whether locally or globally as denial is pervasive.

Climate change is only one pathway that may invite new conversations. Climate change, colonialism, capitalism, racism, poverty, hunger, overconsumption, and other issues are all part of what Naomi Klein calls a “five-alarm fire.” The anxiety and stress that comes with how to fight these fires and our inner dissonance and denial can be overwhelming. Can we save ourselves without something disruptive happening that forces us to change? What must occur within each of us first before we turn our attention outward?

While disheartening, it seems that the public needs to be presented with a different message to be moved to action. Conversations with many different thinkers and activists speak to an urgency, as well as a need, to change our divisive discourse from liberal or conservative, right or wrong, good or bad, and broaden the edges of these dialogues. Meg Wheatly urges people to get more involved in their communities and get to know their neighbours. While the doing is important, finding entry points into a conversation that open hearts and then minds seems an essential part of this process. Paul Graham suggests in The Hierarchy of Disagreement that while divisiveness has spread throughout our society there is a way to move public debate forward without invoking anger and shutting down conversations. His Hierarchy of Disagreement provides an outline of understanding in what happens in conversation’s and how to recognize new entry points.

American Journalist and author, Krista Tippet, suggests that there is an art in starting new kinds of conversations that create new departure points and outcomes. She urges that we let go of old habits that are ingrained in establishing winners and losers. This may have its place and value in civil society, but it can get in the way of caring about each other. Alternately, exploring the world with generous listening and asking better questions to start new kinds of conversations can change hearts and minds. When we ask beautiful, heartfelt questions we open up a conversation and reach beyond veils of doubt and defences.

The silver lining in the irrationality that has descended on the U.S. has sparked a growing movement to promote scientific evidence and science-based solutions through thousands of daily conversations and initiatives around the world. As technologies change, fossil fuels, mining exploration, government corruption, social justice, and human rights are coming under more scrutiny. Nuclear power costs more to build and operate than to decommission while renewable energy sources are gaining momentum, albeit slowly. As humans become more self-aware it seems more important than ever to get off the couch and join movements large and small, to march, walk, talk, and get busy changing conversations in homes, workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and perhaps most importantly, our hearts. These conversations are not just about climate change but about how we treat each other, animals, and our planet. Regardless what the face of denial may look like, it would seem that the way to reach it is not just with facts and figures or more information, but with a genuine curiosity and caring through deeper conversations. Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Hoffman, and others suggest that asking beautiful questions that open conversations may allow us to build bridges and move from denial to action changing each other and our world.

There are unsuspecting movements, acts of bravery, activism, and love that may carry the day. The chaos theory deals with complex systems whose behaviour is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions where the smallest alterations can give rise to great consequences. Similarly, we know from history that social, cultural, or political change does not work in predictable ways or on predictable schedules. Humans don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and in that uncertainty, there must be room for hope. There have been great moral causes that have advanced humanity’s prospects that have all been based on hope and fundamental truths that were resisted and denied and fought against. Some examples include the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the broader women’s rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the effort to stop the toxic phase of the renewed nuclear arms race, gay and trans rights, and more recently, the gun control demonstrations that started in Florida.

Is it possible to prepare for climate change and avert the worst effects of it? Perhaps, but to do so, we need to understand why climate change is happening and to make informed choices as individuals and communities based on scientific evidence and our ability to reframe a new definition of the good life. We need to be able to confront our frailties and be open to challenge our beliefs. Information alone is not enough for us to choose appropriate policies and strategies to prepare our society for the changes that are well underway. Without understanding the basic causes and various complexities of climate change and ourselves, we will be unable to make informed decisions that will affect generations to come. This crisis is about much more than the science. Humans are being asked to go deeper, to find that existential part we play in change and how all of us can make a difference.

One of my first and, ironically, last interviews for this project was with Tzeporah Berman. She is a Canadian activist known for her work in Clayoquot Sound and Burnaby Mountain, former Greenpeace director, and author of This Crazy Time. She shared a story about returning from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 which was a “disaster” as countries could not reach a global agreement, and scientists and experts from around the world were crying as the latest reports about the earth’s climate were devastating. She pointed out that the UN Secretary-General opened the conference by saying that “we either do a deal here, or we are sentencing humanity to oblivion!” Returning home depressed and thinking we are doomed, she wound up spending time with her ninety-year-old grandmother and shared her disappointment. Her grandmother smiled warmly and reminded her of how much the world had changed in her lifetime and that she was confident that the world will change even more in hers and that these issues can be addressed. Tzeporah admitted that when she gets overwhelmed, she is reminded of this loving moment with her grandmother. She is now certain that when she speaks to her grandchildren “about this crazy time in history,” she is convinced that “they won’t believe her, as the world will be such a different place from when we dug in the ground to get oil, chopped down the last old growth forest to make catalogues, or that we actually filled our cars with gas.” Prior to turning the microphone off as our second interview came to an end, I asked Berman if she was still as optimistic as her grandmother while demonstrating against the Kinder Morgan pipeline and she replied, “more than ever!”

“Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” .

Rebecca Solnit

Dialogue, discourse, disjunctures: Building critically affirmative politics in radio

Minelle Mahtani
University of Toronto Scarborough and Roundhouse Radio, Canada

Don Shafer
Simon Fraser University and Roundhouse Radio, Canada


In this short commentary, we dissect shrouded dialogues of complex negotiation that are produced and consumed in public media spheres. We explore the possibilities and limits of dialogue by investigating how the medium of radio creates a geographic space for us—a professor of geography, and CEO of a radiostation—to engage in more productive dialogical practices toward anti-colonial representations.

dialogue, discourse, epistemology, geographical knowledge


Climate Change And The Many Faces Of Denial

Simon Fraser University GLS Thesis/Project: Defended July 16th, 2018


Despite growing evidence, there seems a general reluctance to accept the seriousness of climate change or that human activity is a prime cause. While there needs to be a substantial change in humanity’s relationship with the Earth, evidence confirms that we have done very little about it. For many, this reluctance manifests itself as a kind of denial. For others, their reluctance is embedded in cultural, religious, or tribal beliefs. This human ability to ignore those things that conflict with one’s values and beliefs, or that are so unimaginable that one can’t deal with them, as they can often increase our anxiety.

This project explores the inaction around climate change, as well as the impact of that inaction on people and communities. It explores why some people are in varying degrees of denial about climate change, and how climate change relates to social., political and economic issues. While it may not be hopeless as some experts suggest, it is deadly serious.

This is a narrative-based inquiry that considers the narrative or storytelling format as a non-neutral, rhetorical account that aims at “elocutionary intentions.” This approach follows a recursive, reflexive process of storytelling that subsumes a group of approaches that in turn rely on the written or spoken words or visual representation of individuals. This approach utilizes field texts, stories, journals, interviews of over seventy experts, and personal observation and experience as the sources to understand this complex topic better.
Keywords: Climate Change; Denial; Culture; Religion; Capitalism

Available in the SFU Library: http://summit.sfu.ca/item/18305

Asking Beautiful Questions

This is a draft proposal for a project that I am interested in researching from my work in media and studies at SFU. I would appreciate your comments and feedback as well as any suggestions to help improve it.

Whether news about our climate charged with the impending apocalypse or politically and socially charged events that challenge our cultural and tribal beliefs, they are all part of the “five-alarm fire” that Naomi Klein talks about in a shrinking and ever more challenging media landscape. We need more narrative or literary based inquiry and engaging, heartfelt conversations and storytelling that unpack the difficulties of our age and encourage citizenry to become active participants in our future. Where our public forums should be open and honest, media on all platforms is challenged with a toxic mix of polarised rhetoric, propaganda, and miscommunication. Thus the need for more creative ways to share stories that make a difference, that can compete with the trivial, and constructed through a particular lens and arrangement of events that begin by asking questions that touch our hearts and heads.

A beautiful conversation is an expression of the human heart. Like precious works of art, they bring us closer together as we share stories about ourselves or a particular time in history that can leave an indelible record behind of humankind. Painting, sculpture, music, weaving, mosaics, storytelling and other arts are thought to be the soul of society’s collective memory and very much alive over the centuries. Our conversations allow people from different tribes, cultures and different times to communicate with each other with ceremony, ritual, and imagery. It’s no wonder that our conversations are more important than ever in our interconnected world.

Jonathan Haidt wrote that “morality binds and blinds us. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” This project will assist in helping us find new ways to ask important questions that want to be asked in different ways by identifying our personal biases and embedded beliefs. By identifying our own triggers and psychological distancing that can get in the way we can bring our conversations, interviews, and stories alive, reaching hearts and minds, and encouraging positive social change.

Rationale / Background:
Many believe that we have lost touch with each other and that important stories are replaced by trivial distractions or the latest Trump tweet. Media on all platforms is challenged to find those spaces to share untold stories. As public relations expert Jim Hogan points out in I am Right and You’re an Idiot “a dark haze of unyielding one-sidedness has poisoned public discourse and created an atmosphere of mistrust and disinterest.”

As a broadcaster, researcher, and student of media, I have learned that the best conversations are those where the ability to listen and to ask generous questions brings out the best in those asking, as well as those answering. Being able to move beyond a public discourse of certainty or absolutism and understanding why achieving common ground does not have to be the goal. By letting go of the smaller questions and enlarging our language by going deeper, becoming more vulnerable, the conversation warms and opens as it goes below the surface. A beautiful question then is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we feel, perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about positive personal and social change as we share the stories of our time.

Confirmation bias can often get in the way of how we share these stories as it says much about human behaviour and reasoning. Humans have a tendency to look for or accept information that’s in line with their existing beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. These beliefs can get in our way before an interview, or a conversation begins. Our overall progress as a society is predicated on our learning and how to control these emotions and make decisions based on facts. However, it would appear that fact-based decision-making has not made as much progress in our society as it deserves because many decisions are overwhelmed by emotions or other dynamics such as our genes, ideologies, or beliefs which are substituted for facts.

Understanding our own bias and those of others can allow for new departure points within conversations and build bridges to more engaged storytelling and narrative or literary based inquiry. This project strives to illuminate the heart of an issue or point of view, and that place between science, fact, and embedded beliefs. Do we have the capacity to disagree with someone in a way that isn’t designed to shut them down? Can we find a common language around values and beliefs around particular issues that open up a conversation? Can we learn to speak to communities that can’t speak to each other and fill what Andrew Hoffman calls those “structural holes,” where we can build bridges and understanding? This project will allow me to explore how we build those bridges in our conversations and interviews.

This project will: (1) look at specific types of narrative-based inquiry and storytelling. (2) Showcase the best practices on different platforms and formats and explore who does it well. (3) Illustrate the many types of conversations and questions that close or open a dialogue. This work will go deeper reviewing the work of Paul Graham who has developed the Hiracaary of Disagreement derived from heated social media conversations; Dan Kahane and the Cultural Cognition Project who examine the impact of group values on perception of risk and related facts and how these impact our conversations; Andy Hoffman, Krista Tippet, David Whyte, Johnathan Haidt, Katharine Hayhoe, Naomi Oreskes and others who all have something to offer about the art of conversations and learning how to ask generous and often difficult questions.

The challenge it seems with the changing voices and platforms in media is how to find more bridges between science, logic and fact-based journalism and to reach beyond various cultural and tribal beliefs, the left or right, winners, and losers, that get beyond right or wrong. This project will provide that opportunity.

Anticipated outcomes:
This project lends itself to lectures, as well as interactive seminars and workshops. This work will benefit anyone who wants to get better at having deeper conversations whether personal or professional. Anyone who feels uncomfortable discussing difficult issues with another person; and anyone wanting to develop the skills to ask beautiful, generous questions with a view to expanding the trajectory into the heart of a story/conversation!

Identifying key works, best practices, findings from research and field experience. This will be compiled from hundreds of hours of personal on-air interviews and examples from some of the best journalist’s/interviewers in the world on various platforms such as Associated Press, The Toronto Star, National Public Radio, BBC, CBC, and others.

Interactive courses/discussions that can be designed in modules to review: The psychology of questions, formal and informal styles of communication and when to use each. How to develop empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; the power of silence and when to use it. Understanding and identifying manipulative and persuasive questioning techniques, the various channels of communication and how to recognize which channel is appropriate. How to recognize multiple persuasion styles, how to work and manage virtual teams, how to communicate cross-culturally. How to build bridges with words and pictures!

To facilitate open, spacious workshops that invite discussion about existing projects within various cohorts and working groups to overcome obstacles or existing barriers and to provide deeper pathways that assist in bringing the project and story alive.

Suggestions? don@donshafer.com

Michel Mann (June 22, 2017)

Michael is an American climatologist and geophysicist and the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania University. He is the author of several books including the Madhouse Effect. We discuss how climate change denial is threatening our planet and what can be done about it.


David Whyte is a professor and poet who believes that the courageous conversation is the one that we don’t want to have. It’s the one that we hope isn’t true and that we could have another one instead. This is one of those conversations.

I’ve been a broadcaster and journalist most of my working life. I’ve sat in many chairs at radio and television stations in the United States and Canada, as well as apprenticed with a few century-old newspaper groups, the Los Angeles Times and the Toronto Star. I have witnessed the Cold War in Turkey, the not so cold war in Viet Nam, the Gulf War, the Watts Riots, Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) protests, “love-ins” with John and Yoko, Standing Rock, and now Kinder Morgan. These moments in history didn’t last long and will likely not come again as they are eclipsed by our changing world. They have helped shape my curiosity and passion for developing communication platforms and programming that matters, that share the stories of our community, and that help bring our world a little closer.

A television application for “Hometown Television” with Eric Rothschild failed in front of the regulator because they didn’t think a one-hundred-year-old newspaper group like the Toronto Star had the chops to establish a three-market, community-focused, multi-platform television and internet experiment. Fifteen years later around a table in the Alibi Room, three of us came up with a simpler, perhaps more elegant radio application that won the hearts of the regulator as well as the Vancouver community, and Roundhouse Radio went on the air October 15th, 2015. A commercial radio station with a community focus that to date has shared over ten thousand interviews and stories from the residents of this magical city. All twenty plus neighbourhoods, artists, chefs, fire eaters, professors, politicians, comedians, not for profits, musicians, a few animals, and regular people doing amazing things.

Thirty months later, the most difficult day of my career arrived when I announced to our staff that all of us were being given working notice to the end of the month. While we may have achieved our programming objectives of reaching our community, the commercial support needed to allow these voices and stories to be heard fell millions of dollars short of what was required. The families and investors who initially saw promise were exhausted. The days that followed were like those of any terminal diagnosis. Similar to the death spiral of a loved one all twenty-seven of us rode this wave of grief as we tried to make sense of our successes and failures. Elizabeth Kubler Ross provided the guide as we wept, embraced and shared our stories, committed to completing our final days as honourably and professionally as possible. Our goal was to create the most memorable and meaningful programming that we could in our final hours. As our staff meeting ended our final notices were handed out, those not present, staff and part-time hosts near and afar, received theirs via my phone call or email. Our resident journalist and geography professor Minelle Mahtani read hers while landing returning from a conference in Rome. Award-winning chef Nathan Fong read his at a sustainability conference in Hong Kong. Terry David Mulligan was at a campus radio fundraiser for CKUA at the University of Alberta and Jenn Smith was in Toronto looking for investors. The word was out.

“Did you hear that Roundhouse Radio was going out of business” read the first tweet. Followed by a heartfelt recounting from our afternoon hosts (Janice and Cory) which brought on a groundswell of media attention from Vancouver is Awesome, Business In Vancouver, The Globe and Mail, The Courier, The National Observer, Vancouver Sun, FYI Music, and many others. They were warm, compassionate stories that spoke to the need for independent media and the need of these diverse stories from our community. They spoke to the work of our staff helping to bring our City closer and about the impact they have. They asked for help on our behalf, to find an angel investor that would be willing to assist us, extending our runway to allow the station more time to get known and establish a financial model to fund its mission. The community and the country rallied as the story reached across Canada. Thousands of social media posts and emails wrote accolade’s and shared their sadness. Thousands of people reached out with ideas and offered to help. Hundreds came to our studios in Vancouver’s East End to ask how they could help, or share with our staff what their work meant to them. A few reviewed financial packages considering how to be in the radio business. Would someone reach out while Gene, Jody, Cory, Kirk, Jim, Muli and our amazing team boldly carried on?

I’ve listened to many experts talk about what they thought we should have done differently, what we needed more or less of. Comments ranged from technical issues suggesting the need for more power to reach all of the Greater Vancouver Area. That we aired too much talk and not enough music. All conditions of license that allowed for a low power FM radio station to find a unique place in the City. Other comments spoke to the content being too narrow and allowing too much time to those other things that allowed us to reach deeper, asking beautiful questions of each other. Perhaps we just ran out of runway as Bruce Allen suggests.

In five decades of building media platforms whether AM, FM, digital, audio or video, I have never shut one of them down, so this is new. We will go “dark” which is an industry term for going off the air. Our staff didn’t win the lottery that would save us. There will be no last-minute tug as someone pulls us back from this abyss to keep on keeping on. A new buyer will wait for CRTC approval and then try their hand at local radio. Perhaps something different?

As I read my email, the heartfelt responses from friends and colleagues and the continuing support from other media, I am humbled and touched by the impact our team past and present has had in such a short period of time? They brought our station and our city alive and put their heart and soul into its mission. The passion that they brought to this work reminds me that there is a greater need for independent journalism on all platforms large and small. That we need those places that allow for spacious conversations, where all points of view are welcomed, and dialogue encouraged. Somehow, I am confident these voices will be heard if we listen closely for them.

Sunday May 6th at 6 pm PST we will end where we began with a magical mashup produced by John Masecar, Dave Dhillon and Amanda Boland. It’s admittedly long, with voices from the City and from around the world. If you like great radio production it’s worth hearing, maybe even saving. It begins and ends with the first song ever played at our Roundhouse and Tracey’s fave, Angel by Sarah McLachlan who was very much “live” in our studios. It was an aspirational piece in 2015 when we went on the air and online. You can decide if we lived up to our ambition of giving everyone in our City a voice.

It’s been an amazing opportunity. These past few weeks could become a book, perhaps a course somewhere. I have learned so much from you that words often fail me as I begin to dig a little deeper into these difficult conversations. Heartfelt thanks for being with us.

BIV Article
The Georgia Straight
The Globe & Mail

Naomi Oreskes (April 17, 2017)

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of The History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is the author of six books and wrote the introduction to the Encyclical by Pope Francis. This conversation wanders through her career, books and thoughts about our climate.

The Secret to Life

A few of us stayed late last night at the radio station to interview John Wood who lives in Hong Kong. Skype helped us bridge sunrise and dusk from different parts of the world. John is the Founder and Co-Board Chair of Room to Read as well as a teacher, speaker and author. We were discussing his latest book Purpose Incorporated: Turning Cause into Your Competitive Advantage. It will air this Saturday at 1pm PST and be available in the Impact archives.

John Closed with a haunting comment and quote that has been on the edges of my consciousness for awhile; When talking about Jeff Balin, a Kellogg MBA who cut his teeth in the Starbucks management-training program and at the same time was studying Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism, and other spiritual sources.

When asked if he had ever pondered the secret to life, he paused thoughtfully and replied: “The secret to life? For that, you need to look to the teachings of the great spiritual traditions. Many of the teachings would suggest that we should do one simple thing. Just one. Figure out what you want to say on your deathbed, and work backwards from there. If what you want to say on your final day is in alignment with how you’re currently living your life, then just get back to living. But if you’re not in alignment, then you’d better start making some adjustments before much more of life passes you by.”

John’s final question to me at the end of our hour, and now you; Do you know what you want to say when you look back on your life? Is your current life in alignment with that? And can purpose play a role?