The Paradoxes of Sustainability
I have been gingerly backing away from using the word, sustainability, for some months. The reasons are several fold. First, the word has become little more than jargon and is no longer an effective call to action. It means too many things to too many people to enable the kind of coordinated action it takes to combat growing unsustainability. This problem could be alleviated by a concerted effort of everyone concerned about the state of the world to come to some consensus about the meaning. Easier said than done. A little history of “sustainability” activities and programs reveals such diverse purposes behind corporate, individual, public, NGO, and other efforts that coalescence into a relatively coherent body of aims and activities is unlikely. That’s my conclusion, but it is shared by others. After writing a couple of books focused on “sustainability” in hopes of initiating such movement towards a consensus, I have given up—given up trying to get everyone to pull together, but not, by any means, giving up my efforts to work around that obstacle and provide an alternate approach.
Now for the second reason at the heart of the paradox. Virtually every program, project, strategy, or policy to combat unsustainability is an essentially technological fix, some form of eco-efficiency. Doing better, that is more efficiently, sounds great; who doesn’t want to do whatever they do better? In this case “whatever they do” is to grow or sustain some condition essential to the actors’ missions. It is to keep on chugging, hoping that life can continue on the trajectory it has been for some time. For many, it is to become wealthier in broad material terms, whether they are rich or poor. For others, it is increasingly just trying to hold on to what they have in the way of the means to provide for themselves and families. For some it is a hope that the myths of growth and upward mobility—the American Dream—will come to them. Sustainability and eco-efficiency are a metaphor for the status quo whether it be couched in terms of the process of growth or expansion, or in the maintenance of some level of well-being.
A simple lesson in systems dynamics, as I have shown in Sustainability by Design, demonstrates quite convincingly that our culture exhibits several basic archetypal behaviors: fixes-that-fail, shifting-the-burden, and addiction. Fixes-that-fail is the pattern characteristic of repeated attempts to solve a problem by attacking its symptoms. Applying a tourniquet can stop bleeding, but cannot cure the injury. In many cases, treating the symptoms produces something unintended. Addiction is related to fixes-that-fail, but, in this special case, the unintended consequences produce a new set of problems that grow to be more serious than the ones being addressed. Eventually, the secondary issues overshadow the original symptoms. Shifting-the-burden is like addiction, but without the development of a new problem. By only continuing to treat the symptoms repeatedly, attention is drawn away from consideration of the root causes, and the actor is stuck in an eternity of fixes-that-fail.
Our initial focus on sustainability was triggered by observing the symptoms of unsustainability: signs of a deteriorating natural system and immoral human conditions. The fix proposed was sustainable development: continued growth, but better growth. The specific framework was to be a portfolio of technological solutions, big and small, ranging from recycling to nuclear fusion. We have been at this now for many decades with little effect. The symptoms are still there and, in many cases, getting worse. Our Western political economies are all built on a materialist foundation of growth. The cost of reducing global poverty, one of the primary targets of sustainable development, has been accelerating deterioration. Growth won’t and can’t solve the problem it is largely responsible for. An interesting twist on Einsteins saying, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
One straightforward use of “sustainable” refers to a renewable resource when we talk about sustainable yield as a level of exploitation that permits the resource to regenerate at the same rate of exploitation such that the stock remains relatively constant. We have far exceeded such levels regarding the capacity of the globe to absorb our wastes. Fisheries are collapsing. This use of the term seems out of place when it comes to describing the global system where no more growth is possible without depleting its resources.
This brings me to last paradoxical aspect of sustainability. If the globe were producing the conditions we set as our vision for humanity and other life, we could not guarantee that it would sustain itself. Well-being or any other quality of life, say flourishing, is just that, a quality, not a quantity. We err when we try to metricize it and reduce it to a number in the name of managing it. Flourishing is a systems property. I flourish when the conditions of the system are right for it to happen. It, like many other properties of complex systems, such as the planet, is emergent, appearing like magic. Flourishing, like the flocking of birds or schooling of fish, is a kind of ordering that occurs when the individual elements (the humans) of the system follow the right rules. I am trying to figure out what the rules might be. Maybe flourishing might come when everyone is caring for their nearest neighbors, both human and non-human, similar to the rules that produce flocking.
As I keep reading about what is being done for sustainability, I become more convinced that the efforts are misdirected partly due the paradoxical nature of the word itself in the context it is being used. I came home from a meeting today in New Jersey where I gave a talk about my book and the idea of flourishing. As in just about every similar situation, I get peppered with questions and comments about the need to measure flourishing so we can manage our way to it. Sorry folks, we just can’t. Organizations should know this from experience, but this idea of measurement that so many managers carry from their MBA education trumps reflection and more pragmatic approaches. Real unintended problems that persist in enterprises are just like unsustainability. They almost always follow fixes-that-failed. Numbers don’t help. It takes reflection and observation that the firm or organization has boxed itself out of. That’s when the consultants are brought in. They aren’t any smarter, but they are not boxed in and do not try to manage their way out of the bad situation. Unsustainability is just the same only many times more complex. Maybe my work might be more accepted if those struggling with unsustainability would think of me as a consultant. Anyway, it’s a lot cheaper to buy my books than hire the Boston Consulting Group.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 5, 2014 9:14 PM ::
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 5, 2014 4:05 AM ::
20 Years to Go and Still Counting
My co-author, Andy Hoffman, sent me a link to an article in The Guardian about some recent utterances of James Lovelock. Lovelock has been raising attention to the environment for about as long as any living person has.
Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain’s most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs, which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.
I think his Gaia model was unjustifiably criticized, perhaps because people objected to his use of “organism,” which may have appeared to attribute more life to the planet than many humanists were comfortable with. But if you interpret his model as describing a complex adaptive system, including both living and non-living components, he is smack on. Such systems behave within what appear to be relatively stable, but changing or evolving structure. They remain within that structure, changing internally to reflect perturbations. Complex theorists call this remaining in an attractor. But if the perturbations are powerful enough, the system can jump precipitously into a new structure (attractor) that may (and is likely to be) inhospitable to parts of the systems.
Geologists have a name, Holocene, for the recent stable period of the earth that lasted for about 11,000 years up to the present time. Paul Cruzen, another notable scientist, argues that we have now entered into a new era, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are significantly perturbing the system with unknown (and unknowable) consequences. We do know that severe melting of the ocean is a outcome that scientific models predict with some finite probability. The consequences or costs of such an event in terms of human displacement and misery are harder to forecast. Many people have used the possibility of some sort of doomsday as an argument for acting now, even if we aren’t certain it is coming. Lovelock clearly does as the article continues. “His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater.”
Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.
I do not agree with him at all in his conclusion that we simply need to plan for our survival. I do not think the alternative is to “go back to nature” either, although I am not quite sure what he means here. He suggests that this next catastrophe (He counts seven such events so far in human history) will perhaps transform our species so that “we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly.” It makes sense to plan for the eventually, but should do whatever we do on a global scale so the the rich do not weigh the necessary investments in their favor. If we use a formula to allocate efforts and resources to prevent and mitigate the impacts of any catastrophe, it might be based on the historical input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its residence time.
Lovelock believes that all the present efforts to avert a major impact, like recycling, renewables, etc., do not amount to a hill of beans. It’s too late to stop the juggernaut with marginal and incremental remedies, he says. I agree but I hesitate to call those who do “insane.” But I strongly disagree with his argument for waiting until the shoe drops to begin to transform our species. That’s the core of my arguments in both books I have written. We can, should, and must begin right now to exchange the two critical cultural beliefs that are at the root of our deteriorating situation with the two that will start the movement toward flourishing. It may be too late to prevent a disaster, whose magnitude we cannot know in advance, but it is not too late to start the process of rebuilding our cultural institutions around the kind of understanding, caring human who would be able to, as Lovelock says, “live with it properly.” I would add that “properly” implies the emergence of flourishing. Understanding that humans are caring, not needy, creatures and that the world is complex, not machine-like, would do exactly what is needed. We do not have to wait for the disaster; we can start right now.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 28, 2014 9:53 AM ::
My frequent source of inspiration for these blogs, David Brooks, has reached all the way back to the Christian Bible for his column today. Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son, Brooks makes an analogy to two major segments of today’s society. When the Father embraces his second son, who has squandered his life away, the hard working conscientious first son gets his nose out of joint, turning on the father for essentially dissing his high-minded life style.
Brooks makes an analogy to what he deems is our broken society today, full of metaphorical second sons who are pissing their lives away while the employed middle class is living the high-minded life of the elder son. He writes:
We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.
But. as in many parables. there is a twist when the father tells the older son that his umbrage is misplaced. His response comes out of smugness, not out of respect for his parent. Brooks continues:
The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.
As he often does, Brooks hits the nail almost on the head. What is needed is more than mere acceptance, it is love and care. Acceptance is a good step, but it is too passive. Love is active, constituted by caring actions that express the full acceptance of one’s existence as another legitimate human being. But he redeems himself when he recognizes the need for strengthening or creating community. Membership is one of the essential domains of care in my taxonomy of care (see Sustainability by Design). Community is created by the connections among its members. Community alone cannot restore the health of our society. Too many other domains of care are left unattended. Learning is one that is is bad shape as is family. But membership is a good start to awaken the essential idea of connectedness. Without connectedness, human relationships are limited to transactions: contextless interchanges devoid of care.
Connectedness is a reflection of context; a sense that all parties to what is to be enacted are part of the same world. Brooks offers some examples, including “national service projects” and “infrastructure-building.” Not bad, but unless the awareness of connectedness is made explicit, the results are not likely to be deep or lasting. Service has become something one buys these days, just another transaction. Connectedness through work, which is the essence of these projects, requires a consciousness of solidarity, another tie that has all but disappeared. In any case, Brooks piece is well worth reading.
(image: Rembrandt, The Retrun of the Prodigal Son)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 18, 2014 10:41 AM ::
Robots Win the Right to Vote
Fast forward a few decades and imagine this post’s headline, above, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal associated with the following story.
(Washington, February 13, 2030) Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the robots in a landmark case, Robots United v. Federal Elections Commission. Echoing prior cases involving corporations, the SCOTUS deemed intelligent robots to be people with a right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution. The court’s creation of new classes of persons began all the way back in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (118 U.S. 394). In the headnote to the opinion, Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote
“The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”
The long series of cases affirming this corporate right culminated in 2012 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Nothing had reached the Supreme Court since then until a group of intelligent, humanoids-the most advanced type, having lost their plea in several states finally won their appeal in the highest court of the land. Peter 247YYY, their lawyer, spoke to the press, saying, “The time for full recognition of voting rights for humanoid robots was long overdue since this class had already shown superiority over Homo sapiens in many domains.” Human-robot marriages were already a matter of established law, having won in the SCOTUS in 2025 in the case of Mary883 v. Alabama.
Commentators speaking about the immediate case believed that the Justices swung to the robot’s side, following an agreement that they would not to contribute to elections, thereby avoiding a double identity as humans under both the new rulings as well as Citizens United. It is not clear, said one of the pundits, whether sales of these highest class robots would increase or decrease as a result of the ruling.
Well, if you think this is completely outlandish, read Alex Beam’s column in today’s Globe. He began the column with:
IT WAS with some trepidation that I approached MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling to discuss her 2012 academic paper “On Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots.” I found the subject fascinating, but maybe the field of robot rights had run out of battery power, as it were.
Also there was the guffaw factor. I didn’t want to make fun of her, but that didn’t mean other people wouldn’t. I needn’t have worried. “Still super interested!” Darling e-mailed me. “Have fellowships at Harvard and Yale for robot ethics this year and am planning a bunch of experimental work on human-robot interaction at MIT.”
Robots having legal rights or privileges sounds ridiculous. But 20 years ago, the idea that the nation’s leading law schools would be teaching animal-rights courses seemed equally absurd. Now anti-cruelty legislation is quite common in industrialized countries, and late last year the Nonhuman Rights Project made national headlines when it argued that a chimpanzee had “standing,” meaning the right to sue, in a New York State court.
The chimps lost. (Perhaps that was due to the power of the creationists who argued that no animals should have such rights since they were created by God to serve human beings. Robots are not subject to that argument.) Later in the article, Beam refers to a now famous 2000 Wired article by Bill Joy, former Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems. In the article titled, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy expressed his concerns for humans anticipating the invention of super (my word) intelligent robots. Here is the gist of his argument from the Wired article.
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.
If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.
Joy had been talking to Ray Kurzweil who sent Joy a preview copy of his forthcoming book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, based on his utopian vision in which humans have gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. Joy’s Wired article followed as an expression of his great concern over the possibility of such an outcome.
Kurzweil’s vision is completely incompatible with a flourishing world. I don’t know if it would be the end of the trajectory we are on today where technology is continually replacing human interactions or an engineer’s dream interrupting the flow. Both labor-saving or eliminating devices and much of the social media are now diminishing the need for direct human-to-human interactions without which we cannot flourish. In the technology-dominated world of Kurzweil, we can exist but not as caring beings. If and when we become the tools of intelligent machines, we will have lost our humanness. We will be, against Kant’s imperative, merely means, not ends. If these robots can be made to have the same kind of emotions as humans, our uniqueness will be completely lost. An alien might then mistake humanoids for living, breathing human beings. One of my rules for raising the possibility of flourishing is to think twice about using technology for tasks that could be done through human-to-human interactions. In this case, perhaps I should say think at least five times or more.
Like Joy, I shudder at these thoughts. This robotic world of the future seems like a 3-D movie seen without the goggles. Something serious is missing. Perhaps it is the emotions we have evolved with that will prevent our merging with our non-human look-alikes. The parts of our brains that are the sources of both positive (love, compassion, empathy) and negative (anger, fear, indifference) represent the human experience over a very long time, perhaps a couple of million years. Even if machines can be made to think the way we do, I suspect that they will not be able to feel the way we do. That may be the saving grace.
(The image is the HRP-4C humanoid robot. At this year’s CEATEC Japan trade show, the new and improved ‘diva-bot’ has been unveiled with singing as her new talent. Nicknamed Miim, she was developed by the media interaction group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tokyo, The robot utilizes a new technology, Vocaloid, to mimic a real singer’s tonality. Accompanying facial expressions are generated through a system called vocawatcher, which studies a video of a singer to map the facial configurations. The synthesizing technology even picks out the sound and movement of the human singer’s breathing to operate in a more realistic and natural manner.)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 13, 2014 3:20 PM ::
Love Involves Real People
I found another arrow for my quiver in the NYTimes this morning in an oped piece on long distance relationships. Daniel Jones in a piece to be published in the upcoming Sunday Review, titled “Romance at Arm’s Length,” discusses the growing numbers of people engaged in computer-based “love affairs.” Starting with quick review of Spike Jonze’s movie, “Her.” Jones paints a realistic, but disillusioning, picture of this practice
Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.
The article is a great example of how technology always stands between us humans and the world, and inherently transforms relationships in to transactions. In the process, something always gets lost because the humans become part of the technological, inanimate system and are captured by it. A key line states “The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.” I think Jones has got it very wrong or, at least, has confused what he writes as love with some sort of narcissistic feelings. I am not a psychologist so I have to move very carefully when I get into a discussion like this.
But when Jones continues with this, I feel a lot better about what I am going to write.
We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.
Emotions are being increasingly understood as states of the brain that act as mediators for the actions that follow. When we are angry, our responses to whatever is going on around us are restricted to some set we have embedded in other similar situation. When we feel empathetic, our actions are similar shaped by our empathy learning. Love, empathy, compassion and so on belong to the family of positive emotions. I could not find a single definition that suited me, but offer this composite. Positive emotions express a sense of connectedness to the world such that the connections will build lasting resources. Conversely, negative emotions arise from a sense of deficiency or the lack of resources to respond immediately.
When Jones speaks about “finding love,” he paints it as a negative emotion whether he intended to or not. Since writing about love is his business (He has been editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade .), I have to presume he means what he says. Describing love as something ones “seeks” is the epitome of a negative emotion. Love, i this sense, is some thing, which if found, satisfies an immediate need. If love is considered a positive emotion, the whole story changes.
I often quote Maturana’s definition of love. Here’s an approximate try, “Love is the [emotional] domain [of action] in which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstances (unconditional).” Love, here, is an emotional resource to guide a certain kind of lasting relationship (see the definition, above). The idea of legitimate means the “other” has the same existential status. Without that equivalent status, there is no way the loving actor can interact empathetically or in any way that requires understanding what is going on at the other end.
Jones is, unfortunately, reinforcing the current cultural view of love as something to find, have, and keep. That’s one issue I have with the column. The other is with the subject, seeking love via the Internet. Jones notes how many find this an unsatisfactory means. Not surprising. It would be highly difficult, if not impossible to find “love,” in the positive sense I point to above. Love is about relating in the real world, stressing “real.” Hiding behind the Internet to avoid rejection or judgment is doomed from the start. Love has nothing to do with these negative emotions. It is unconditional, unidirectional and always risky. If a loving relationship does not develop to be bi-directional, it is unlikely to be lasting.
Arranged marriages are generally disparaged in the US as lacking love as the initiating agency, and therefore are inferior to those created by falling in love. They are very different, for sure, and do not always work, but then those starting out of passionate “love” have a high frequency of failure. Having returned recently from India where my wife and I celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Indian friends, I can attest to the emergence from arranged marriages of the kind of love I am described as a lasting and positive relationship.
But back to love via the Internet. Not only does this practice, driven by the reach of the Internet, trivialize one of life’s most critical emotions, it teaches us the wrong meaning of love. So does Facebook with friendship. Social media may allow us to do wondrous thing, but not with important relationships. The behaviors that create flourishing or just the more limited long-term wholeness that love provides occur only between living human beings and only in the context of real interactions. If and when technology can reproduce life fully will anyone find the satisfaction that comes from those emotions that have evolved to make us what we are. Yes, it is risky to love anyone, but avoiding the risk by hiding behind some sort of technological shield may produce some feeling, but it will never be the intended one.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 7, 2014 3:34 PM ::
Is Seeing Always believing?
I am about to spend a few days in Cleveland, weather permitting. I am doing a repeat of a class I did last year for the Weatherhead School Doctor of Management candidates. It will be the first class I have taught that was assigned Flourishing instead of Sustainability by Design. In preparing for this class, I had to carefully revise my presentations to reflect the changes that have entered my thinking and vocabulary in recent months. I use a wonderful video to raise questions about the Cartesian model of the mind as a mirror. This time as I was reviewing it, I got one of those aha moments.
The video shows a hollow mask of Charlie Chaplin’s face slowly rotating, and, as the concave backside appears, the nose sticks out instead of sticking in as it really is. The face rotates several times and each time the nose sticks out. The narrator, some droll Englishman, points out that our brain is so used to faces with noses sticking out that we cannot perceive one sticking in, even though our senses get that signal. Our brains have become so wired by our historical experience that our present perceptions are shaped by the past.
I have known this for some time. It is central to Humberto Maturana’s (and others) model of human cognition, but I have not put it explicitly into the context of my work. Our brains are plastically coupled to the outside. The neuronal structure evolves with our historical life experience. What this means is that the brains we are born with change over our lifetime. Our actions at any time result from the ontogeny of our brain, that is, our personal evolution. We start life with the built-in emotions that reflect our phylogeny, the evolution of our species. Having no experience in our neonatal rational brains to draw on, our early actions are largely emotionally driven. Another way of saying this is we begin life as an exemplar of Homo sapiens, a human being, a unique species, but unaffected by culture. Whatever we are at that point, that is what it is to be human. Our rational brain is there, but not yet fired up.
We experience need and fear, negative emotions resting in our evolutionarily older reptilian brain parts. We learn what love is via the relationship with loving parents and others that care for us. Our mirror neurons help transfer that emotion and other positive emotions into the evolutionarily later developing the mammalian brain parts and reinforce other positive emotions already there. I am reading Spiritual Evolution, by George Valliant. It would be better titled “Emotional Evolution and the Brain” because that’s what is really is all about. Valliant, drawing on his long experience and on other brain researchers and behavioral scientists, locates emotions in various parts of the brain. He has equated positive emotions and spirituality, a dubious connection. In my own phenomenology, spirituality is a more limited domain of action than those associated with all the positive emotions, love compassion, empathy, etc. But that’s a little besides the point here.
The key point about all this is that we learn, not only facts, as we live out our lives, we also learn emotions. Maturana’s simple, but elegant, aphorism, “doing is learning; learning is doing,” is wonderfully explanatory here. I had always connected it to our rational actions per se, but it is equally applicable to our emotional learning.
Returning to the Chaplin head demonstration for a moment, if we are immersed in a culture where human beings act primarily on the basis of emotional neediness, we will eventually embed that as our primary shaper of action. Maturana and others point out that our emotions come before our behaviors. They prepare our brain and body for what responses we exhibit to sensory and internally generated signals. When we are angry, our reactions are shaped by the anger. When we feel love, we act accordingly.
As need suppresses love and other positive emotions, our actions involve the obvious consequent acquisition of material objects. Our attention focuses inward. We become more individualistic. We see others more as means to satisfy our needs. Kant’s imperative to treat humans always as ends, not means, may come from a philosophical source, but it has real practical importance in today’s materialistic culture. The key point, so far, is that the dominant negative emotional context of our modern culture is not the result of our primal human nature, but comes from cultural, not biological evolution. Maturana has always said that love is our most basic emotion but has become submerged, creating a societal pathology. Science has not helped dispel that notion. Until very recently psychology, an important field of study of human behavior, focused entirely on negative emotions, dismissing love and others as mere distractions. Valliant’s book is full of excellent references to this history. Only recently has the field broadened to include positive psychology. One of its central players, Martin Seligman, has written a book about it, titled, Flourishing. Great minds
The significance of all this is that we can recover more fully and more balanced what is is to be human-what makes our species evolutionarily distinct. I have argued in the past that recovery is what it will take to make flourishing possible, but did not have such a clear pathway in mind. Those who argue that what we are today is our true nature and can’t be changed by culture are on shaky ground. We will not rediscover love and our mammalian nature while we are immersed in this modernist, need-based culture, but we can change it, albeit only with great difficulty. Need and other negative self-directed emotions did come first when we were still at the reptilian stage and still springs from the reptilian brain. Love and care developed later and became embedded in our mammalian, human brain. It is waiting there to come forth as the dominant shaper of human life. It must if we would flourish.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 3, 2014 9:32 PM ::
The Power of Amazement
I am not sure where David Brooks was going in his Jan 28th oped column about faith. He seemed to be saying that those secular folks who disparage the faithful do so because they do not understand what faith is all about. Not surprising to me because many among the faithful cannot explain what “faith” means. In spite of any vagueness, the column is worth reading just for two included quotes. The first is from one of the most human and articulate voices of modern Judaism.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described one experience of faith in his book “God in Search of Man”: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. …To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
And yet Heschel understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”
His use of amazement helps me continue to understand what flourishing means, and also makes the importance of spirituality clearer. Without amazement, most of, if not all, of life becomes humdrum. The world just something that is out there to be factored into one’s daily routines—a source of whatever is needed at that moment or a nuisance that is getting in the way of what was intended. His words reinforce my sense that spirituality is as essential a domain of care as is all others, and perhaps, more important. But as Brooks says today, a majority of Americans scoff at those who include faith in their lives.
I need to make a warning here. Faith is a very troublesome word because it is poorly understood and can take on several distinctly different meanings. Heschel is clear that is it not the same as religiosity although religious practitioners can certainly have faith in their beliefs. He warns us that when faith is missing, religion turns into a empty repetition of doctrine and ritual.
At the end he includes a famous passage from the writings of Saint Augustine.
If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world:
“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”
I read amazement into this passage in the sense of Rabbi Heschel’s words. But Heschel’s notion of spirituality extends beyond God to life in general. Looking at the stars on a clear night is amazing. Feeling the warmth of my wife’s body in bed at night is amazing. Seeing my students’ eyes light up in class is amazing. Being surprised by a seal popping up a few feet from my boat is amazing. When we carefully examine the word, amazing, beyond its trivialized use along with awesome, its connection to transcendence becomes clearer. Our basic human tendency to seek explanations to what has just entered our consciousness is left hanging in these moments. The explanation is beyond our rational capabilities. It is more than just being stumped by an intractable problem.
Amazement opens up our consciousness to what we are immediately connected to. Our habitual life stops for the moment and fades into the background. It is the connectedness that is so important. Our habitual, normal actions are mostly carried out unconsciously. Our cognitive system, in a sense, is working without our noticing. Most of life is spent in transacting one’s “business.” Transactions, as defined, are activities that do need require the reciprocal recognition of the person at the other end. Just pay the bill and move on. There is little or no room for care here and similarly little possibility for flourishing.
Spirituality, as I interpret Heschel, is a class of actions resulting from one’s amazement. Amazement is a positive emotion, as opposed to, say, fear. We naturally seek to bring more positive emotions in our life so we return to those places where we have felt amazement even though we may not experience it every time we act. We, however, are likely to remember our sense of connection in an existential sense: as a human being, we are connected to the world.
Once this belief finds its way into our cognitive system, it will stay there waiting to jump into the causal chain in other domains of action. If we begin to feel and recognize our connectedness when we work or raise our families or join in other cultural events, what have been merely transactions may be transformed into caring actions. Connectedness is semantically close to relationships. Relationships always have two ends connected by caring actions. Perhaps this process could be speeded up if we introduce a new word, caraction, to replace transaction. Flourishing in the here and now depends on such transformation: from need that is served through transactions to care that is realized through caractions. A wakening of spirituality through amazement would be a powerful step in that transformation, but perhaps not enough. It might take, in Hershel’s word, radical amazement. I’m all for it.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 29, 2014 1:01 PM ::
Richer than Croesus
I don’t tend to read the business pages of newspapers very much, but last weekend, an article in the NYTimes caught my eye. With the headline of “For the Love of Money,” it began with:
In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.
This is more than merely greed, but surely a case of what greed can become. Myth and story abound with tales of men (almost always men) who become so enamored of money that their lives slip by unnoticed or they suffer worse fates. Midas was said to have died of starvation because everything he touched turn to gold, rendering it inedible. Scrooge was not so much known as a greedy man, but rather as a miser. Somehow, however, greed drove him to hold on to his money so tightly, that he lost sight of the humanity surrounding him. Both showed signs of addiction.
Addiction is a special kind of obsessive action with two kinds of outcomes. First, the addict never can be satisfied. Second, over time the addiction produces some sort of pathological unintended consequences. For Midas, it was death; for Scrooge, it was the loss of his soul. For Sam Polk, the author of the article, it was, like Scrooge, a loss of his self. He writes
As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.
Polk was lucky, he recognized what was happening to him, and set out to “cure” himself with the help of many intervenors. Ironically, he considers himself fortunate that his early experience with drugs and alcohol helped wake him up and move him to address his addiction to money.
I can believe that addiction to drugs and alcohol may be due partly to genetic and partly to cultural factors, but I can’t see that money addiction is anything but cultural, reflecting present values. Polk adds this comment about wealth addiction.
Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.
Addictions of any kind are antithetical to flourishing because the authenticity of care is necessarily missing. Addiction is constituted by loss of control; the addict is taken over by him or herself, but not in a mindful or responsible way. Wealth addiction seems even more insidious than, say, consumption addiction because there is no limit to the amount of money theoretically possible to acquire. There is some practical limit to the quantity of goods one can buy, although that limit is being stretched by the volume of the mega-mansions many wealth addicts live in. After the garage is filled with the overflow and a few self-storage units are also crammed full, consumption addiction may become somewhat self-limiting, but no such limits exist for the additive acquisition of money.
We can condemn the degree of inequality in America today and point out that as it grows we move further away from the possibility of flourishing. We can even rail about the greed that drives the widening gap and call for all sorts of policy measures to reduce the gap. But these are only Band-Aids. The cultural values that create wealth addiction are deep seated and must change before the cultural norms will follow. Economists and psychologists will have to stop telling us and those that design our institutional that we are insatiably needy at our core. If there is a better formula for creating addiction to wealth or to the goods most of us are limited to acquire, I can’t imagine it. If we are, in fact, such needy, greedy creatures, we will need to stop talking about flourishing or “sustainability,” the word many use, as something possible. The simplest of algebra or systems dynamics archetypes would show, in this case, such an outcome is impossible.
(Image: Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 21, 2014 10:04 PM ::
Only connect … (Howard’s End, E. M. Forster)
I have been preparing for a one-day class to be given to a group of doctoral students at the Weatherhead School of Management. They have been assigned Flourishing. This will be the first time that this text rather then Sustainability by Design has been assigned. I have had to go back and revise all my materials to reflect the change in emphasis and style in Flourishing. The first task was to carefully remove just about all the references to sustainability and replace them with “flourishing.” If you have been reading this blog, you will know why.
“Sustainability” has become such a jargon word that it is effectively useless in the context of what must be done to preserve the planet and life upon it. I had hoped that by holding up what was happening to the word to ridicule and criticism, I might return some sense to sustainability. But I now admit defeat and have decided on taking a different course. Sustainability, per se, has another basic problem. It is an empty word, lacking any practical sense until whatever it refers to is explicit or at least tacitly understood by all the actors involved. Its use is especially cloudy when sustainable (adjective) is used to modify some noun, like business or luxury. No matter what was intended, this will always refer back to the noun.
Further, I began to understand that sustainability, as almost universally used, referred to maintaining the status quo, that is, continuing growth. I should have known because the word itself became popular only after the idea of sustainable development surfaced more than 20 years ago. Taken most simply, that term was defined as continuing economic growth, but growth that was eco-efficient and fair to all. The argument for sustainability was that we could continue to grow indefinitely while maintaining the security and health of the Planet and spreading the wealth more justly.
It should have been clear, then as it is now, that indefinite growth is impossible. There is no sign that our economies are becoming sufficiently eco-efficient to slow down and reverse the growing deterioration of the planet. With the global economy growing to resemble our own, this becomes even more clear. Nor is there any real probability that this will happen in the future. Our centuries old optimism about the capability of technology to solve all our problems cannot be supported any longer. The fairness of growth, especially at home, is working backwards with the rich getting the lion’s share of whatever growth has been taking place.
The time to take a critical look at sustainability is long gone, but I see little or no evidence of this happening by those who talk about it. I started using a definition tying sustainability to flourishing, even beginning to hyphenate the two words, but I found that the jargon overwhelms even this usage. Any way, there is not much flourishing around to sustain. The challenge ahead for the world is to make clear what it is we wish to sustain and to get to a point where sustain, not attain, is relevant.
For me, and now an increasing number of others, the target, flourishing, works well. It is much closer to historical and present human aspirations than any economic measure. So, I have begun to write about flourishing without any reference to sustainability. This poses a challenge as I failed to do this in both of my books. Not surprisingly because the intellectual path has been long and winding. But I do believe now that there is much more clarity with the possibility of more effective action in the future in place of the present efforts toward sustainability, Sustainability, at best, can only slow down the growth of unsustainability, a word we know only too well what its signs are.
So the change, as I note above, was the major task in preparing for the coming class. In the process, I continued to try to simplify what I know is a complicated, often academic, story. I have found I cannot unscramble the maze that we have followed to get where we are without many words and figures, but I am doing much better. I have, however, made what I think is a breakthrough is talking about what we have to do to open up the possibility of flourishing. It boils down to a single word, care. If we all would live in the context of caring for ourselves, others, and the rest of the world, flourishing should appear like magic, emerging from the complex world we are immersed within.
It would still take an economy to support such activities, maybe even a capitalistic one (although capitalism is built on many of the beliefs I criticize as causes of our present precarious situation). Care means to assure that all beings, human and otherwise, have the capabilities to fully achieve whatever their existential potential is by providing material and psychological inputs where needed. Care always involves an actor (carer) and the target of his or her actions. Implicit is this statement and the reality it represents is the idea of connection. The two ends are always connected.
But as Hamlet said, “there’s the rub.” We have become blind or indifferent to our connectedness to everything in the world. “Individualistic” is perhaps the most often used descriptor of the American people. The hegemonic idea of the “market” is based on “the invisible hand.” You can add your own evidence here. Increasingly, I believe the first task in creating flourishing is to reestablish our consciousness of our connectedness t the world out there. That sense has been there in the past, even on our own Continent. Native Americans lived with a deep sense of their connectedness to the Earth.
As I work though this poser, two possibilities come to mind. The first is to recover the meaning of love. Perhaps, many Christians are already there, taking their meaning from the Scriptures. But even they are bombarded with more dominant cultural meanings that tend to reify love as something to give, possess, or feel. Love is, rather, all about accepting the legitimacy of the other to exist as they are, and act accordingly (after Maturana). It is almost synonymous with care. But in a pure market economy, it is inevitable that love becomes a commodity, like everything else.
The second way is to begin to explicitly take care of a fourth domain besides the above-mentioned three. This is the domain of spirituality—care for out-of-the-world experiences-experiences with no apparent material causes. Spiritually was a principal domain of care for early humans as they lacked the secular, scientific, materialistic world view of modernity. I am not talking about religion, but of a sense of connectedness to everything that is unavailable in all the other three domains. Spiritual actions are directed towards our connections to “the great beyond” or some other similar metaphor.
This is not the end of what we can do to begin to open the possibility of flourishing, but it is a good start. More to come in future blogs. All this is available in Flourishing, but, as I note, not in such concise terms, but then books are not blogs.
(Image: Escher, Relativity)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 16, 2014 10:56 AM ::