Zen and The Art of Data Maintenance: Does Data Alone Inspire Environmental Actions?

The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Chief Seattle

Once upon a time, there was a cell in a body. This cell mainly cared about itself and not the rest of the body. One day, it had an epiphany and got outside of itself, only to notice that other cells the body mainly cared about themselves and not the whole body. This realization did not stop it from continuing to mainly care just about itself. Since the cells did not see themselves as part of the whole, the body died prematurely.

Me, me, me. Mine, mine, mine. Ego, ego, ego. This is the core issue regarding the environment. We, as humans, are all integrally part of a holistic body known as the Earth. Yet, it appears that many of us care mainly about ‘me,’ or ‘mine.’ My life, my family, my business, my comfort.

There is a great deal of data that shows that the planet (the whole body) is in distress and that we, as humans, are causing more and more distress to other humans, other species, and our planet. There are many statistics regarding climate change, rising sea levels, extreme weather, the poisoning of our ecosystem, extinction of many species, and more. There are many models showing greater and greater risks regarding danger to our entire species as well as many other species on the planet.

Yet, on a day to day basis, how much do each of us consider this data? How much do we consider our effects on the whole planet versus the effects on our own life? We could make choices to travel less, to consume less, to participate more in solutions, to take actions that lessen our carbon footprint, to clean up our environment, and more. However, every action we take like this may not be beneficial for ‘me.’ Why should I not travel on an airplane when I really want to visit my family member? Why should I not consume plastic products, when it is convenient and useful to me. None of these actions will really make a difference in the whole scope of things.

We are part of a whole. We are like a cell in a body. We are deeply interdependent and interconnected with each other and the whole. Awareness of this fact is an important step in us taking actions to help our environment and our whole society now and in the future.

How Much Does Data Matter in Affecting Our Behavior?

There is an overwhelming amount of data from so many sources regarding our environmental difficulties and the harmful consequences of this, now and in the future.[i]

How much does this data about our environment affect our behavior regarding how we act regarding our environment? What inspires action to help with our environmental situation?

Data is important. However, data alone will not inspire actions. Some research suggests that we also need to address the emotional side of things as well as our overall ‘system,’ The book, Switch[ii] is about change management and the authors, the Heath brothers, use an analogy of an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents our emotional side. The rider represents our rational side. The path the elephant and rider travel represents our circumstances, situation, environment and/or system. The authors illustrate that effective change often fails because we are not appropriately addressing these three components. They suggest that we need to direct the rider (with data that appeals to the intellect), motivate the elephant (addressing emotions), and shape the path (establishing an environment that supports change).

Thus, regarding climate and environmental concerns, in order to move towards healthier behavior for our planet, we need to focus on more than just the data. We need to also emotions and establish a system that facilitates change. What do you feel about our environment? When you look at future projections regarding severe negative consequences regarding habitability and living conditions of our future generations, what you do feel? We live in a culture where we are bombarded with so much data and things to do that it seems that sometimes there is not time to take space to deeply look at our feelings. If we can connect with our deeper feelings, then perhaps this can inspire more actions regarding healthier systems and culture regarding our environment. 

Will My Actions Make a Meaningful Difference?

Another perspective on influencing behavior is offered in the blog post “Understanding our changing behavior in response to climate change.”[iii] The blog references research about what can be done but more importantly ‘why’ people were inclined to take actions. In short, they concluded that there were 5 factors that mattered regarding why people took actions on climate change, namely:

  • The perception that the behavior will be effective
  • The belief that one has the capability to undertake a behavior
  • Past experiences of climate events leading to negative emotions, thus triggering actions to try to resolve and help
  • Social norms including sense of community
  • Socio-demographic factors such as marital status, gender, value orientations

Regarding our environment, I have heard the sentiment of “Anything I do personally will not make a difference. So why should I inconvenience myself when it won’t matter?”

In August 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, decided not to go to school one day in order to protest the climate crisis. She wrote a #1 New York Times bestseller book called, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference.[iv] Her actions sparked a global movement, inspiring millions of students to go on strike for our planet, forcing governments to listen, and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Thinking that we cannot make a difference equates to separating ourselves from others and the false assertion that we are not part of the whole.

Regarding the third bullet point on past experiences, this is where storytelling using the data can be effective in impactful change. When someone has been evacuated multiple times from their home because of raging forest fires (this happened to one of our contributors), it brings home the need to change our current environment direction and take action to improve our environment.

What Next?

This column is about applying Zen (the Japanese word for awareness) in our data world. This article is about relating Zen and data to our environment. So, what is a step that we can take?

In Zen, questions are often more important than answers.

Thus, especially regarding a complex topic like our environment, it is not about solving these questions right away using our intellect. It is about sitting with the question and experiencing deeper insights that lead us to wisdom and skillful, healthy actions.

So here are some questions from us to contemplate:

  • What do we, as humans,  choose regarding our roles and actions regarding our environment?
  • How do we prioritize our own comfort versus making contributions to help environmentally?
  • What do we care about most?
  • Are we taking actions today that will matter to our grandchildren and their grandchildren? Do we consider future generations in our decisions? 
  • How can we use data to motivate others?


Data alone cannot inspire actions regarding helping our environment.

We need to use data, context, and stories to communicate in order to invoke an emotional response. This can trigger actions to improve our environment.

So, let’s consider some important questions regarding what we choose and what really matters to us.

We need your help. If you come up with some insights or comments regarding the above questions, we, the Eco Data Group, would love to hear from you and you can reach us at ecodatagrp@gmail.com or email me at len@zenwithlen.com. If you are interested in becoming involved in our Eco-Data Group forum where we apply our data professional skills to environmental concerns, please see www.ecodatagroup.org.

Thank you to my fellow Eco Data Group associates who contributed to this article, Claudia Imhoff, Lorie Nelson, and Mark Peco.

[i] This is the second Eco Data Group article in a series. The first was ‘What’s the Truth about the Environment’ https://tdan.com/zen-and-the-art-of-data-maintenance-whats-the-truth-about-the-environment/27148

[ii] https://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard/dp/0385528752

[iii] https://aecom.com/blog/understanding-our-changing-behavior-in-response-to-climate-change/

[iv] https://www.amazon.com/One-Too-Small-Make-Difference/dp/B093LVKDLH/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=greta+climate+no+one+is+too+small+to+make+a+difference&qid=1627150897&s=books&sr=1-1

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Len Silverston

Len Silverston

Len Silverston is a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and internationally acclaimed expert and thought leader in the fields of data governance, data modeling, data management, and in the human dynamics of integrating information data. He is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which describe hundreds of reusable data models. The volume 1 book was rated #12 on the Computer Literacy Best Seller List and his volume 1 and 2 books have been translated into Chinese and in 2009, he co-authored “The Data Model Resource Book, Volume 3, Universal Patterns for Data Modeling”, which has been translated into Korean. Mr. Silverston has published many articles and has been a keynote speaker at many international data conferences. He is the winner of the DAMA (Data Administration Management Association) International Professional Achievement Award and the DAMA International Community Award. He has given many keynotes and has received the highest speaker rating at several international conferences. Mr. Silverston's company, Universal Data Models, LLC, http://www.universaldatamodels.com provides consulting, training, publications, and software to enable information integration as well as people integration. - He is also a personal and corporate mindfulness coach, trainer, and teacher and has studied and taught many forms of spirituality and life development skills for over thirty years. He has attended, staffed and/or led hundreds of days of silent, intensive retreats as well as dozens of life development workshops. After intensive practice in Zen, he was ordained as a Zen Priest in 2011. ‘Kensho’ Len Silverston provides ongoing ‘Zen With Len’ (http://www.zenwithlen.com) individual and corporate coaching, seminars, meditation gatherings, and retreats.

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