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Alumni Stories: Jon Kohl '92

A Man on a Mission

 by Lisa Birzen '03

"Jon Kohl threw himself into everything he did.  If he did more than most people, it was because he was capable of doing more, and because he was incapable of sitting still," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine Editor, Jay Heinrichs, said in 1991.

Jon Kohl '92, a Biology and Government modified with Environmental Studies major from Foxboro, Massachusetts, "wasn't just an environmental leader as a student; he defined, and redefined, Dartmouth environmental activism," Heinrichs went on to say.

While a sophomore at Dartmouth, Kohl converted ESD News, the newsletter of the Environmental Studies Division (ESD) of the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC), into "the first formatted magazine to be transmitted over a computer network in the United States," called Sense of Place, and subsequently increased circulation from 200 to over 1000 recipients at its height.

"I used my first computer in 1988 when I bought a Macintosh as required by Dartmouth College," Kohl said at one time and, one year later, the late Professor Donnella Meadows of the Environmental Studies Department and one of Kohl's most important influences described Kohl as a "computer wiz, and a coming media genius."

To date, Kohl has 173 published articles with over seventy of his own photographs to accompany them.

Kohl's experience on the Biology FSP in Cost Rica in 1991 and his observation of "the people and how they affected the landscape" inspired him to "study how the world worked" and, after graduation, he embarked on a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps to help build the education department at the National Zoo in San Jose, Costa Rica.

In 1995, Kohl entered the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, graduating in 1997 with a Masters degree in Environmental Management.  He focused on environmental education and international biodiversity conservation.

After graduate school, Kohl spent five and a half years in Honduras and Guatemala "developing ecotourism capacity building programs and writing training manuals and articles on ecotourism, conservation, and park-planning" and a total of seven years with the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, he explains.

Eventually, however, Kohl came to the realization that "conservation was just buying time because the trees are still coming down."

"I grew frustrated with mainstay biodiversity conservation organizations' throwing more money and programs at problems that would not yield," he explains. Organizations often assume that local residents are responsible for the various environmental problems, however untrue that may be. As a result, this misdirected blame frequently results in ineffective solutions.

In addition, Kohl grew discontented with how "in the West, we are separated from everything; we are separated from a planet that we actually depend on," Kohl says.

"Our economic system assumes there are no limits, which is why we just keep growing and growing.  But nothing grows forever," Kohl admits.

In fact, Professor Meadows, a "world leader in the sustainability field," in her 1972 book Limits to Growth, "examined the limits to growth in a finite world and how they might combine to end world economic expansion," Kohl explains.

Kohl's academic interest combined with computer models of the global system, reinforced by the reality he saw around him, contributed to changing his point-of-view; his worldview, that is.

The current predominant worldview can be traced back 10,000 years to the invention of intensive agriculture, according to Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael. Societies with early food surpluses were able to thrive due to increased population. However, more people required more food and society needed to find more land to cultivate. This desire for land expansion led to conquests of surrounding territories and eventually resulted in modern civilization as we know it today.

"Our modern problems can be traced to this origin," Kohl adds, citing Quinn.

"As my own worldview has been shifting in the past year, I became aware that a similar process is occurring in American society. The clashing of worldviews new and old erupts around us: alternative vs. traditional medicine, New Age spirituality vs. theism, feminism vs. patriarchy…" Kohl says.

"Modern society’s collective worldview is shifting toward sustainability. But for the first time in human history, the urgency of social and environmental problems requires a conscious effort to accelerate that shift," Kohl emphasizes.

By linking together the concepts of system dynamics, worldview change and sustainable society, Kohl hopes "to promote worldview change from a systems thinking perspective in order to accelerate society toward sustainability."

The world has already seen several various applications of systems-thinking in the field of policy formulation. "Systems thinking is a paradigm outside the left-right political spectrum [and] is used extensively in economics, weather forecasting, corporate planning, public management and policy, engineering, and military simulations," Kohl explains. 

The works of Daniel Quinn and Peter Senge, author of Fifth Discipline, as well as fellow Dartmouth graduates Peter Forbes ‘83, senior fellow at the Trust for Public Land and founder of the Center for Land and People and the Center for Whole Communities, and John Sterman ‘77, director of the Systems Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, all collectively inspired Kohl and encouraged him to initiate what he has called the Worldview Change Project.

In short, "the Worldview Change Project is trying to fill a niche in the sustainability field, a niche that I don't know anybody else working on anywhere at the moment. Some of that will be through the mass media and some of that will be working with institutions to change the way certain aspects of society are set up," he explains.

Kohl plans to achieve his goal through the power of the written word. Combining his writing skills and nature-guide training background, Kohl aims to produce a novel about a mysterious park interpreter guiding one family on a three-day discovery of the history of changing societies, resulting in the consequent change they experience within themselves. 

Kohl explains that "the project uses non-fiction to appeal to people's rational side and fiction to appeal to their emotional side, helping them see their mental boxes from the outside."

"Fiction permits readers temporarily to adopt a new set of assumptions without threatening the old. Only through fiction can I reach a general audience with ideas both foreign and at times complex," he says.

"The challenge of my young Worldview Change Project is that most people don’t even know that they have worldviews to change," Kohl admits.

"Part of what I do is to make people realize that they're in boxes. Everyone is so sure of their opinion that it makes learning very hard. You have to be trained to question your own judgment, to understand what your assumptions are. The more humility we have when we approach things, the faster we will be able to learn about things," he explains.

Despite an already ambitious plan, Kohl also makes time for other projects, such as a joint one with his wife to design an intentional low-impact community in Costa Rica, using alternative energy and materials and imposing on the surrounding social and physical environment as little as possible. 

"There are a lot of good local conservation stories that are highly successful…but if the battle is to be won it would eventually have to become global," Kohl acknowledges.

He advises Dartmouth students to "do programs at the Tucker foundation." In fact "Dartmouth College is one of the top Peace Corps producers," he shares.

"Get out into the Dartmouth Organic Farm and don't just stay on campus. Go on trips with the D.O.C.," he says. 

He also encourages others to understand where their food comes from "as a first and easiest step into understanding the interconnectivity of things" and suggests joining a Community Supported Agriculture initiative, where people buy into a subscription at a local farm, receive a percentage of the harvest and share in the challenges farmers face every year.

"Things are far more connected that you have to get an appreciation for," he says.  Unfortunately, "universities are very symptomatic of reductionism in society" due to the abundance of different departments.

"To be truly effective, you have to realize that these barriers are completely arbitrary," he says. "Try to take two majors; try to get different academic perspectives; try to take classes in interdisciplinary programs."

In addition, Kohl suggests the following reading list which will help others to "learn how to detect your own assumptions and identify your own biases."

"You don't change the worldview unfortunately through advice," Kohl acknowledges.  "But you can start to get people interested." He also reports that "Dartmouth just got a Sustainability Coordinator so hopefully they're headed in the right direction."

"The goal is, ultimately, to change the entire world," he says laughing. "I've been working at that most of my life. If I can get it done in the next five or ten years, then I can retire early.  Somehow I doubt there will be early retirement for me," he adds.

In 1990, Meadows foretold, "he world has not yet seen…the end of Jon Kohl's ideas" and what we are seeing now, in 2005, is only just the beginning.

For more information, Kohl invites people to visit

Last Updated: 1/13/14