Politics and Arcadia
When I commented about the way Earth Day had changed over the years, I hadn’t yet read an article on the subject by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker (April 15, 2013). The pile of unread magazines and books grows very tall over the year and only begins to shrink dramatically when I pare it down as I am about to leave for the summer in Maine. Lemann paints a disappointing picture of the current state of environmental action in the US through his review of two books and a report.
The first, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome, argues that the original idea and power of the first event has largely evaporated today. The mobilization of millions led, Rome claims, to the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s that legitimated the issue as deserving of public policy address. It was truly a social movement, local in structure. Congress recessed for the day and a majority of the members spoke during the day. Try very hard to imagine that happening today.
Even as the environmental issues community has grow over the years, it has become less effective compared to the early days. Maybe partly because there is now a raft of laws in place that have created a record of accomplishment, positive and negative depended on who is speaking. The results are largely invisible to the public but are claimed as a deterrent to growth by business. Rivers no longer catch on fire, people living in cities like Pittsburgh do not have permanent rings around the collar, and far fewer suffer from air pollution induced illness and death. But when it comes to the biggest issue of today, climate change, the green establishment has had little or no successes in the US. Rome argues that it is largely because the institutionalized remnants of Earth Day 1970 have lost their ability to mobilize s popular movement and failed to gain the position of insiders that matter in Washington politics so essential to getting the Congress to act on their issues of concern. Both Rome and Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist point to a lack of political smarts and power as the cause of failure in the climate change arena. Skocpol authored one of two reports, sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network on the failure to pass any carbon-restricting legislation during Obama’s first term of office.
The second book, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, by Aaron Sachs, a historian at Cornell University. Lemann includes it as a foil to the political themes of the other sources. Sachs presents an environmental history of America that exposes the Arcadian view that could be found in the architecture and literature of earlier periods. Central was theme of living together in harmony with nature, defined more or less as that world undisturbed by human settlements. I will order the book that read it completely, but now rely on the Lemann article and a few other sources I found on the internet. The small piece that Lemann quotes was what caught my interest.
My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places … haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.
There is no risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis here to place a value on nature as we do in our present and potential environmental legislation. Sachs sees the world, even as transformed by human activities, as a source for flourishing although he does not use that term as I do to reflect the fullness of human existence. Two critical distinctions are present in the paragraph: caring and connectedness. Both are essential to sustainability. Connectedness, in a way, precedes caring. We care only for what we perceive. Caring is an intentional action and intentions are always directed to something we perceive. Connection is a metaphor for the tie that our senses make with the world, include our own selves. But it is a tie that is active, not simply description. There is an understanding that the tie is meaningful, that we draw our existence as being a part of the world we are connected to. And because the tie is active, we must care for that to which we are connected. We cannot simply expect the world to gratuitously provide for us, as did the utilitarian philosophers. The world of nature is not merely a resource to exploit; it provides part of what makes our mere existence meaningful. Without meaning we are just another animal species.
I come to these thoughts by a somewhat different path than Sachs does. Not surprising since he is a historian and I am an engineer turned something else. I hope, as he does, that we start to get it straight and stop playing politics with flourishing. Being fully human is the only way to express whatever genetic differences created us as a species different form all others. We do a good job with those aspects of living we have acquired since the onset of the Modern era, but Sachs and I are talking about aspects we have lost at the same time. I am also hopeful about regaining then and finding our way to flourishing.
(Image: “Dream of Arcadia” by Thomas Cole (1838))
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 22, 2013 9:04 AM :: | Leave a comment (0)
No Grist for the Mill
When I began blogging now almost 5 years ago, I generally picked up something from the news or another website and commented on it, using it to make my case for sustainability. All was new to me and I had no trouble finding grist for my mill. Although I still bookmark a lot of stuff to blog about, I no longer am able to stay fresh. So little has changed. Business still doesn’t get it. I have yet to see anything that remotely suggests that firms, large and small, are doing anything other than reducing sustainability. I guess I will have to keep pushing out my own thoughts.
“Flourishing” has done a little better. I have started to see my definition of sustainability-as-flourishing slowly, very slowly, start to show up. But even then the actions around it are still focused on making the world less worse. It sure could use that, but, even with their efforts, it is only going to get less and less healthy. I have often described this continuing reliance on quick fixes as addiction to technological solutions. I am reviewing a book about teaching green engineers that calls this fixity, hubris, after the Greeks who used the term to describe unrestrained pride in one’s own answers to life’s problems that led to tragedy. Hubris is associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities. President Kennedy’s advisor McGeorge Bundy said, “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris.” True then; true today.
I would choose a more common word to describe the current situation in the world: insanity. Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Nietzsche’s words ring true today: “Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” R. D. Laing defined it as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
I see little question about this in the world of sustainability. I give high marks to my colleagues seeking “The Great Transition” or something called “sustainable consumption, or decoupling economic growth from environmental harms and on and on, but all ignore the root causes of our problems. Our politicians seem to think that doing nothing over and over again will magically transform the political economy. There’s an awful lot of hubris in Washington spread over both parties. Our culture, which we are madly trying to export everywhere in the world, is itself the problem. We simply believe in the wrong things. Not whether we need more or less government. Like flourishing the point is not about quantity but about quality.
Maybe I am just as insane as all the others, but I see the only way to break out of our dithering is to dig deep into our cultural structure. What we believe matters. C. S. Pierce, the founder of pragmatism, wrote, “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” Culture can be simply understood as a description of normal behavior or habits. And following Pierce and many others, this means cultures rest on a set of beliefs on which the institutions of that culture are built and evolve. The sociology of Anthony Giddens has much the same sense in naming beliefs as a basic part of what makes a culture tick.
Let’s get right to the point. Our culture rests on many beliefs, but two form the drivers for much of the habits we observe. One is that the world, including all its parts, can be examined, become known to us, and managed as if it were a machine. (Descartes’ ideas could be said to be the source of the hubris that has created the current tragedy of unsustainability.) A corollary to this is the claim that humans also act like machines, using their rational powers to optimize their actions. Scientific knowledge trumps all other forms of understanding. Technology, based on scientific knowledge, provides almost all the tools we use. Rationality is invoked as the standard by which we make social decisions and is the standard for normal individual behavior.
The second basic belief is that human action is driven by a set of needs or preferences that is satisfied by the use of their rational powers. This economic model of humans underpins the structure of all economic institutions. It leads to the hyper-individualism that dominates the US culture, and to models of liberty that might work on an isolated island, but not in a crowded world.
Ask yourself a couple of questions. Can you identify these beliefs deep down underneath your culturally driven habits? Are they producing the outcomes that you intend or expect? Start with ordinary activities. Do you think about life largely as a process of acquiring things, material and otherwise, like knowledge? Does this work? Does shopping really satisfy you beyond a momentary rush? Do you think driving your car has no unintended consequences. (I always use this more cumbersome phase rather than side-effects because side-effects are not side at all they are as much an outcome as the intended intention) Would become more concerned with the unintended consequences of your actions if you started to call them that, not side-effects? Unintended consequences arise out of the use of the imperfect knowledge our scientific methods produce.
Paradigms, defined by Thomas Kuhn as the constellation of beliefs and institutional structures built on them, are very stable things. They tend to hang around as long as they produce the outcomes desired by those acting within the institution. But when the intentions begin to be thwarted presistently, those committed to the desired outcomes may come up with a new paradigm that works differently. So it was with all the great scientific breakthroughs of the ages.
In a word, our present cultural paradigm is not producing its desired outcome (normative goals). Climate change threatens the very settlements we have built over centuries. Inequality keeps growing. Misery abounds in both rich and poor countries. The powers that “run” our polity are trying to fix things, but are not doing too well at it. Fixing is not the way to go. The old adage needs adjusting to “It’s broke, but don’t try to fix it.” Change it, transform it, but don’t simply try to fix it.
These same powers are not the right ones to do the job. They are all committed to the current paradigm because it is the system that gave them whatever power they have. So they are extremely unlikely to lead us into a brave new world. It’s up to us. I think the best place to start is to begin to think of yourself as made up of cares, rather as than a bundle of insatiable needs. Having is a diminished and pathological mode of life. Try assessing how you are doing through the quality, not quantity, of your experience, that is the actions you take out of care for yourself, other humans, and everything else. Then, as you begin to find that life moves towards flourishing, you can work on the culture and begin to change it. But first you have to thrust yourself into a different set of beliefs, those of the brave new world I spoke about just above.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 18, 2013 4:12 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Care, Not Need--Now
Almost everything I write is connected to sustainability, but sometimes that connection follows a winding and tenuous path. Sustainability, a word found increasingly in public conversations but poorly understood and stated, denotes the ability of a system to attain and maintain some desirable condition, but connotes a sense that the world is doing anything but that. Flourishing is the end that I assert is the best single concept for driving individual and collective behavior towards an almost universally shared vision. Flourishing creates images of full development, robustness, satisfaction, and other norms shared by humans in all cultures at all levels of economic status. The cultural beliefs underpinning flourishing, as opposed to those that are creating all that is unsustainable today, are very simple: one, humans are caring, not needy creatures, and, two, the world is a complex organic system, not a machine running on laws that we can come to know via the methodologies of science.
The objective of any institution is the creation of the conditions for which it was founded. Families are there to provide mutual both material and psychical support. Schools arose to educate, that is, produce adults capable of operating effectively in a wide variety of other institutional contexts. Religious organizations have evolved to provide access and procedures to enable intercourse with transcendental objects and forces. Every institution is constituted by and exhibits a unique set of normative ends, beliefs and procedures. The establishment of many of our present institutions occurred in the distant past arising out of and along with the beliefs and norms that existed during that era. They persisted because the structure on which they rested worked. This pragmatic idea of effectiveness is very important in understanding the development and evolution of any institution.
Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigms in his study of the history of the institution of science. At any moment the paradigm is the set of structural elements underlying the culture, that is, the normal behaviors, of an institution. As long as the paradigm produces effective outcomes, actors working within the institution go about their daily business without thinking too much about it. They simply do what one was supposed to do, until the context changes, and the old way of life stops producing the desired normative outputs. Kuhn saw that, under these circumstances, new paradigms were emerged; those that were successful stuck and augmented the old. From a pragmatic perspective, the old ways continued to be applied in contexts where they continued to work, and the new paradigm was applied to contexts where they could enable the actors to move along. In the case of science that meant to be able to explain phenomena such that the entire collective of actors, the community of scientific peers, accepted the new model.
Effectiveness is not only measured in terms of successes in producing the normative objectives, but also in terms of avoiding unwanted associated outcomes. The old Newtonian theories when applied to quantum phenomena created frustration and loss of legitimacy among scientists besides the inability to explain the causes. In other institutional domains, the negative consequences can be much larger than frustration. Taking a society, say the US, as a whole, the paradigm which worked early its history tends to grow long in the teeth and may start to fail to produce what is expected, but also begin to produce significant unwanted, unintended consequences.
Unsustainability provides strong evidence of the failure of the existing paradigmatic structure of the US society, and other similar modern polities. In doing what the culture tells us is normal, we have begun to produce such large negative effects that the society and the larger global context is increasingly threatened. Attempts to remedy the situation by treating the symptoms have not and cannot cope effectively. The problems that constitute unsustainability are rooted in the failure of the underlying cultural structure—the paradigm. These unwanted outcomes are not the only signs of paradigmatic failure. The positive objectives are not coming forth either. The pursuit of happiness is, for many here in the US and elsewhere in the world, a race where the multitudes are falling further and further behind, as measured by very high and still rising levels of inequality.
It is very difficult to reveal the root causes for the failure of the current cultural structure (paradigm) to produce both the goods we seek and to avoid the bads. Root causes are those elements of the structure which if properly redesigned cause the goods to appear and the bads to go away. They are exceedingly difficult to root out. The famous Toyota Production System used a procedure called the 5 Whys to get at the root causes of problems in the automobile manufacturing process. By asking “Why” five times in succession, the actors would get beneath the symptomatic aspects to the cause that, if corrected, would make the problem go away, not simply be solved until the next time. The number five is not magic. Sometime more iterations are needed to get even deeper into the system. Occasionally less are sufficient. Systems dynamicists use causal loop diagrams for the same purpose.
My analysis of unsustainability and the inability to produce well-being, which I define as flourishing, gets down to two primary root causes, our belief of what it is to be human and our belief in the way the world works. Both beliefs trace their origin back to the period of Descartes and the Enlightenment thinkers. Descartes had a model of the world as a vast machine that we could come to know how it worked by looking at smaller pieces of the whole though a finely focused analytic lens. By reassembling all the parts we could then predict how the whole system would behave under various circumstances, and, knowing that, design technologies and institutions to do our bidding. Unsustainability, especially the pieces lying in the domain of natural systems, is evidence that this model does not produce sufficient knowledge to design fully effective cultural and technological systems. But the second root cause is my focus today.
We have built a Western world on a model of the human as a rational (optimizing) need-driven being (being here meaning a thing or object). Our economic institutions have this model of human behavior at the roots. Smith put us on the path we still follow when he claimed that individual greed (the continued striving for material satisfaction) would produce the maximal collective well-being as if some magical invisible hand was driving the machine. By the usual measure of GDP, these beliefs have worked very well with a few major hiccups along the way.
I, among many, see evidence that the social paradigm built on these two beliefs is not working well enough to accept it uncritically. The needy model of human being eventually evolves to produce the individualistic actor that so many of our current institutions are designed to serve. The economy itself. The political system, The celebrity culture. High school sports. And so on.Its tell tale signs are everywhere. Hyper-competition is a manifestation of this model of being.
I find it very difficult to find any of our institutions that work effectively for the majority of people. Politics has become hyper-competitive, played as a zero-sum game where only one side can “win.” The common good for which the political system was constructed has gotten lost. The economic system produces, when it is running on the up-cycle, wealth, but much more for the already wealthy than those whose lives would be made materially and psychically better. Education is something to be acquired to get ahead in the world, not to become a fully functioning human being. Health care is little more than a system of economic transactions with doctors becoming increasingly robotic. The world is becoming depleted of its resources to support human and all life is the name of producing evermore goods for satisfying our insatiable needs.
That’s just a snapshot. Institutional failures stemming form this model of humans are virtually everywhere. Well, it’s time to admit the causes and stop either denying that the problems exist or continuing to apply BandAids. It is the paradigm that no longer works and it is the bottom tier beliefs that have thrown a monkey wrench into the gears of modernity. The path to a change (a revolution in Kuhn’s terms) is simple in concept but extraordinarily daunting in practice. Given a model of humans that can be shown to lie 5 whys deep as a root cause, a change is necessary, and that change is one found in history. Humans are fundamentally caring, not needy creatures. Caring means, first, that people are conscious of the world around them and have been since at least the time they exited the birth canal. And second they exhibit their humanness by taking responsibility for that world out of an understanding that they are interconnected to it. The very idea of individualism disappears.
This is not to say that one doesn’t satisfy or take care of oneself, but that satisfaction comes from the realization that such actions are working in the whole system. Taking care of oneself is a part of the structure of care, but only one part; other humans and non-humans as well must be included in the ambit of everyday activities. We may and will exploit others to get what we need to satisfy these domains of care. That’s unavoidable. We need food and energy to survive. Our economic system needs individuals to make it function. But we can act in these and in every case in a caring and responsible manner. Native Americans thanked the Earth for their food even as they killed living creatures or damaged the earth to provide it.
I am deeply troubled by the selfishness I see everyday around me and also through the media I read. The system is truly broke and needs fixing. The many ideological stalemates and battles that capture the news hardly can be said to be designed for the common good. They are manifestations of the individualistic way we hold truths. Truths are mine, not rules for action that work for the whole institution within which action is being played out. Individualism and power or domination are joined at the hip.
I have offered “solutions” only for making very small changes toward replacing need with care; competition with empathetic relationships, selfishness with compassion and more. The changes must come from out there. Atmospheric CO2 levels have just hit 400 ppm; the coming temperature rise is undeniable. Inequality is threatening to produce a lost generation or two in our country, the most affluent major nation in the world. The American Dream is being seen increasingly as just that, a dream. The answer to these disappointments and failures starts with action at the roots. All the efforts at fixing the problems at the level of symptoms may be slowing down the paradigmatic failure, but they are diverting our attention from the real cause. Wake up people. Only when you begin to figure out how to become caring and not so needy and start to act differently, does the possibility for change at the deep belief structure become possible. Only possible because there are many powerful actors that are happy with the present system and will and do oppose any changes. There is no solution coming from Apple Computer or any other super-innovative business enterprise. I wrote a few weeks ago on Earth Day to go out and hug a tree but do it out of caring for the Earth, not merely symbolically. That might be a good way to start.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 16, 2013 4:05 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
The last few weeks have been taken up with getting ready for summer, leaving not enough time to keep up the blog. The annual move to Maine is always fraught with opening one house and vacating another. There are usually a few weeks where something is in the wrong house, but it always settles down. This summer is more complicated because I have Andy’s and my new book to tend to. It’s exciting to have actual copies to send off. The worrying starts, wondering if anyone will buy a copy, much less read the book.
After three decades of opening the summer cottage and cleaning up the remnants of what the critters have left, this year we opened up to discover someone had broken in over the winter and removed a TV and DVD player. For a few moments we thought that was all but a little later I was exploring the closet and discovered that all my fly fishing gear was gone. Rods and reels, flies, tools, and lots of little, but important, items. Fishing equipment for someone like me is much like wine; it gets better with age. I will be able to replace the stuff, but not with the rods and reels I have grown to love. The new equipment is “better” than my old gear but I knew just how much it would take to drop a fly on top of a swirl twenty yards away. The stolen bag had all my flies, mostly hand tied, in it. Many hours lost. Now I have good chunk of time this summer already called for.
This short note is my apology for not showing up on the blog. Thanks to a couple of the faithful who wrote to make sure all was OK with me. Except for feeling violated, I’m in my usual state of seasonal overload. I’ll get back to posting soon. I have collected a lot of material.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 12, 2013 7:50 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Life Starts with Love
One of the longest, continuing study of human development has been in the news lately with the recent publication of George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience. For the past thirty years Vaillant has been the director of the much-heralded Grant Study, named for the donor W. T. Grant, eponymous owner of an early chain of discount stores. The Grant study, begin in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives, monitoring their physical and mental health and their successes and failures in life. Since the study was restricted to white, upper class subjects, any conclusions need to be very carefully vetted. But a few of the findings, highlighted by Vaillant, are of particular relevance to sustainability.
He claims that, “Alcoholism is a disease of great destructive order.” Not particularly startling or new by itself, but interesting in his observation that it led to, not followed, many other personal and social pathologies: divorce, mental illness and others. Coupled with cigarette smoking, it was the largest contribution to early morbidity and death. Stepping back and looking at society as a whole, I observe several analogous pathological addictions. One, hyperconsumption, like alcoholism, is manifest in behaviors. Our individual addiction to consumption as a means to well-being has created a set of societal pathologies, including crimes (theft) and misdemeanors (shoplifting), natural threats and impacts, and indirectly, inequality.
Our tight hold on objective reality and rationality as the fundamental beliefs in our societal structure reinforces the behavioral addiction to consumption. As long as we are told we are insatiable, needy people by all the ads we see and hear, and are pushed along by our dominant societal institutions (the market and technocracy everywhere), we are dragged along the consumerist flow without thinking about what it is doing to us. Those voices of society are very, very strong and restrain authentic and fulfilling behavior. Ultimately we are told by our leaders and experts that we must grow the economy at all costs, a process fueled only by more consumption.
Vaillant makes a second, very critical observation. The relationship between the subjects of the studies and their parents turned out to be a powerful predictor of their success in life and state of health as they aged. Correlations are not the same as causes, but always are suggestive. Good relations with mothers correlated with lower finding of dementia later in life, and, surprising to me, higher lifetime earnings. Similarly the warmth of their relationships with fathers correlated with less anxiety and higher subjective assessments of well-being. The important of remembered relationships is an indicator of the nature of caring activities between parent and child. While care has a general sense of acting out of concern for the other’s well-being, the care of parent, especially the mother, for their children is often called love, whereas the same kind of concern for others, say a team member or colleague, is rarely called love. Even more, to say that one loves his or her students or friends could easily be taken as breaking conventional boundaries. I was warned by my colleagues at MIT to be careful in how I spoke about my students. Years later, I have come to believe, as in my hidden thoughts then, that I loved my students in the sense of Maturana. I accepted and acknowledged them as human beings with a legitimate right to exist as they were. My role as teacher was just that: a role that I had chosen and that they expected me to play, but that was no excuse to see them as other that fully human, no matter how they struggled or prospered in my classes.
Vaillant’s findings are consistent with Maturana’s. For Maturana, love is the primary emotion that a newborn is enveloped in and, in turn, acts out of towards his parents, if only because the infant hasn’t had much of a chance to learn any other way of acting. As we become socialized into the culture, the emotion of love becomes merged into a large range of other possibilities coming from societal norms. Robert Plutchik developed a “wheel of emotions” ( see below) in the 1960s, emanating from four basic emotions, joy, trust, fear, and surprise, plus four so-called “opposites,” sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. He classified love as a human feeling, not an emotion, created as a combination of joy and trust. He follows the more conventional definition of love. The fundamental difference, an important one, is that Maturana sees emotions as the source of our actions, whereas Plutchik and others see them as a characterization of our reactions to the contextual world we confront.
The periphery of Plutchik’s wheel is dominated by what I would call negative feelings toward the world: remorse, contempt, aggressiveness, submission, disapproval. Awe and optimism are on the plus side of neutral, and only love is, for me, a fully positive category. As I noted, love is but a feeling in this system. At first glance, the impact of our modern world seems quite clear. Contempt can only be learned as one begins to assess those within one’s sphere of action.
This diagram reinforces my belief in Heidegger’s ontology of being, in which care is the structure on which our singular human character rests among all living creatures. Also my belief in Maturana’s biology of emotions, in general, and of love, in particular. His model of cognition, similar to those of more recent cognitive scientists, views us as a sort of sponge, learning as we live, that is, capturing the experience of our experience in our bodies and acting out of what we have stored. Emotions come as a sort of master determinant of our actions. If we are angry, because we observe something out there that triggers anger, our possible actions are limited to those in the “angry” storehouse in our memory. As in Plutchik’s scheme, many of our emotions tend to be dominating in connection with whatever interactions with others are involved. If not dominating, they do not offer much possibility of mutual, cooperative coordination.
Love is different. It is the basis of mutuality and care. It, more than any other emotion, opens up the possibility of flourishing. Vaillant comes to the same conclusion, but from the very different perspective of an observer of a single group of men over their lifetimes. He notes in a comment cited in an article in The Atlantic about the work that, “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points . . to a straightforward conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’”
(Image: Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 28, 2013 4:44 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Omnia vincit amor
The Marathon bombing has spawned a spate of articles about violence. I have not written much about this subject in my books and other pieces on sustainability-as-flourishing, but it should be quite obvious that the subjects are intimately intertwined. People can flourish in a culture where violence is rare and not systemic, but not in one where violence is part of the system, the culture. There is a big difference between events that are rare and random, and events that are normal, an embedded part of the cultural system. Violence is inherently a form of domination, a condition which is highly inimical to flourishing.
The NYTimes ran an oped piece on the subject of violence, asking why the US is so violent and at the same time asserting that we are.
Clearly, we are a violent country. Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries. The massacres that regularly take place here are predictable in their occurrence, if not in their time and place. Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence. We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests. We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief. Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate. And we torture people. It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.
The author, Todd May, attributes the causes of our violent culture to three reasons:
- Competitive individualism
- A decline of our ability to control events in the world. I might write a sense of national impotence.
- The hegemony of the market and a move towards libertarianism.
I believe that the first is the key cause and that the others are derived from it. The arguments I have been making towards understanding why we have come to such an unsustainable state and also towards finding our way out are based on two foundations. One is very similar to the argument May makes; our social institutions are based on an incorrect and dysfunctional model of human beings. (The other is that we have a dysfunctional view of the world, itself) Competitive individualism and its more technical counterpart, economic maximization, boil down to a model of humans as always acting to get the most they can in any giving situation, limited only by the resources they have at hand, money or otherwise. When they do not have anything to exchange, money in most cases, they resort to violence at some level, that is, they get what they want by overpowering the others involved.
I agree completely with May about the current situation, but have a slightly different explanation about how to change it towards a culture of flourishing, the antithesis of today’s violent world. He couches his approach in the language of non-violence.
To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us. That humanity cannot always be appealed to. In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant. However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution. It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other. It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others: that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.
Nonviolence is too much a reactive term for me. Just as reducing unsustainability is a reactive stance to the problems of today. Operating with a positive vision is much more powerful. That is why I believe strongly that the positive vision of sustainability-as-flourishing can really change the world where greening or non-violence cannot. Both are important but lack the power to change the culture at its roots. Increasingly, I have come to see the positive image for action as love. Love, as the acceptance of the legitimacy of others both human and non-human to exist in their ways, provides a context for avoiding violence, but more importantly the framework for responsible, authentic, caring actions. It is that care that creates the possibility for flourishing. Nonviolence can go only so far.
But to speak in terms of love is to risk being seen as a romantic or spiritual nut because the idea has become commoditized and psychologized. Love is the antithesis of conventional rationality; it’s said to be purely an emotional response that leaves a littered playing field in its wake. As we learn more about how our cognitive system works, emotions are taking a central place, starting to overtake rationality as basic motivators. Maturana calls emotions the bodily context that determines what actions we pluck out of our stored, learned collection of responses to the world. Love for him is the most fundamental of emotions, being learned from the moment of birth onwards. It is still present in our adult cognitive system, but largely overwhelmed by the competitive, selfish culture we then grow up in. It is always there waiting to re-emerge as we know by looking at the many example of authentic loving behavior captured in history. To create a nonviolent society, first we must re-learn to love. It’s a very old idea. Virgil wrote the memorable phrase in the Eclogues about 40 BCE: Omnia vincit amor—love conquers all.
(Today’s image is Carracci’s “Omnia vincit amor,” circa 1600 CE.)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 25, 2013 3:20 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Earth Day 2013
Let me begin with a reminder about the origin of Earth Day that I cribbed from the web site of the Earth Day Network.
The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.
The year of the first Earth Day mobilization, 1970, marked the beginning of the Environmental Era, as characterized by significant collective action. The first significant environment statute, The Clean Air Act, was passed that year, followed in 1972 by the Clean Water Act. Other historical forces were also at work beyond the Earth Day demonstrations. It just so happened that the chair of the Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee of the important Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was Edmund Muskie, who was looking for national exposure to underpin his unsuccessful run for the Presidential nomination. Earth Day in 1970 was the first major outpouring of public support for the Earth. Until that time, environmental concerns were limited to state and local activities.
On each of the subsequent decennial anniversaries, attempts were made to duplicate the demonstrations of public concern for the Earth with some success, but not with the impact of the first Earth day. Is it because environmental concerns have become so engrained in our social and political cultures that further dramatic events are unnecessary? Hardly. This year the theme in the US is “The Face of Climate Change.” The video put up on the the Earth Day coordinating organization shows wind machines, solar panels, pretty faces, but not a single image of the real face of climate change: floods, tornados, drought, potable water threats, ocean rise, and more. The status of the political economy on the issue can be characterized as comatose. Avoidance and denial are the primary positions of the political system in our Nation’s capital.
As an ironic counterpoint, one of the front page items on the online edition of the New York Times, today on Earth Day had this headline: “Chinese Auto Buyers Grow Hungry for Larger Cars.” And US automakers are right there getting in line.
General Motors announced that it would introduce nine new or restyled S.U.V. models in China in the next five years, and disclosed that it would build four more factories and add 6,000 jobs to accommodate its ever-rising sales here… A Chrysler executive said that his company would start making Jeep Cherokees in Changsha in southern China by the end of next year. And China’s domestic carmakers showed a wide range of S.U.V.’s, the heftier the better.
The irony and cynicism are palpable. With so much other trouble capturing the headlines, it is very hard to keep the impacts on the Earth in the headlines. I went out today to renew my driver’s license and drove right through the part of Watertown that was the epicenter of the shelter-in-place lockdown of the city last week. No sign of anything reminding one of the massive mobilization was evident at the exact spot. Not to belittle in any way the horrendous events at the Marathon and the bloody search for and capture of the suspects, they will pass and come to be seen against the larger, continuing insults to our species perpetrated in acts of domestic violence, terrorism, insurgency, and all the military responses to the foregoing. The profusion of SWAT teams in full military garb driving around in armored vehicles attests to the militarization of our domestic policing system. By the way, another headline in small print way down the front page today was “Five Dead in Apartment Shooting Near Seattle.”
All this serves as preface to what I want to say on this Earth Day. Every day we humans living in affluent, industrialized settlements create more harm to the Earth than the all the crimes reported in the newspaper accounts. Do we ever see an account of yet another species going extinct? Do we ever see a story about priceless habitats being developed for economic ends and thereby lost? Do we ever see a photo of a polar bear caught on an ice flow broken loose from the icepack and unable to feed itself? Do we ever see photos of alpine meadows in places where skiers used to come down the trails? Perhaps, if one looks at the news media of the environmental community, but not in the same places that fill us up with stories of mayhem in our cities.
This suggests to me that the consciousness raising that Earth Day in 1970 created is absent today, at least in the US. Some of the sponsors claim that a billion people will be doing something. Maybe so, but most of those are somewhere else in the world. Maybe the world has gotten too full of stories of economic breakdown, faltering political systems, wars, and so on to notice all the natural disasters that are occurring in the present and those that will surely show up in the future. Perhaps all the human travail in the news can be attributed to isolated, independent causes (I doubt it.), but the damages to the earth are systemic and intimately connected to the global socio-economic system.
Maybe that’s the reason these issues slip into the background. Our culture does a very poor job dealing with systemic complexity. We like nice precise answers to everything we are concerned about. This shows up as news that is limited to sound bites and political debates that are vacuous and banal. There are also other reasons for the lack of attention being given to the “crimes” perpetrated on the Earth. You can now read about them in Andy’s and my book which is now available. Tomorrow when you read this, Earth Day will have come and gone. No matter. Go outside and give a tree a hug. A real hug, not a symbolic one, but one that comes from your authentic, loving self.
ps. The image at the top suggests that some will never get it. We are living in a way that all the recycling and reuse conceivable won’t make a dent. It is really hard even for old hands in the environmental business like me not to get so cynical about sustainability that we wash our hands of the whole mess, and adopt Mother Goose’s famous lines, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 22, 2013 8:23 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Flourishing Is Here
No, I don’t mean that sustainability has arrived, only that I have gotten my copies of Andy and my new book. It looks great. Your copies should be shipping from wherever you ordered them in the next week or so. I am looking for comments on the book at any time.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 20, 2013 3:44 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
Facing Up to Terror
I have made several attempts at writing a post following the bombing at the Boston Marathon. It’s too close to home for me to be able to compose my thoughts sufficiently clearly to put them out for public scrutiny. But I do owe something to this blog. The word, cowardly, keeps coming up in my mind. Technology, my favorite bete noire, enables such cowardly acts by separating the actor in time and space from the consequences of whatever action is being taken. By this assertion, I do not mean to condemn technology, only to point out, as I often do, that it has a dark side. The reaction to such cowardly acts has been to double down on security measures designed to prevent the next heinous act. More technology with the inevitable result that our lives are encroached upon in some way. Again, I do not mean to make a statement about the value of such measures; only to point out that they have undesired consequences.
And this brings me to another word being used in the media, senseless. I agree that this act was cowardly, but not that it was senseless. Senseless to us, but not to the perpetrator. To the perpetrator, it is completely rational. How can one’s action be senseless and rational at the same time? With our dominant view of objective reality, we act out of a belief that we know the truths about the world and that our truths are the only ones that are correct. It doesn’t matter if the truths are the result of direct experience or some derivative idea based on the experience coupled to subsequent rational reasoning. All the cultural institutions of modernity in which we act have been constructed and evolved with this premise as the bottommost tier. Prior to our so-called modern culture, the truths that drove cultures were built on various theocratic dogma that served to explain the experiences for which science later provided better arguments.
Some cultures and some individual worldviews still rest on theocratic or dogmatic grounds. There is little point to try to carry on a rational conversational with anyone with such a basic belief in how the world works and what is the “truth.” The best that can result from interaction is an agreement to disagree at the level of fundamental beliefs. The worst is exemplified by the bombing, that is winning an argument through unmitigated force. I can offer no easy solutions as this is the subject that has engaged the best minds of humans for ages. But as the destructive power of technology continues to grow, we cannot ignore this challenge.
In a related way, unsustainability could be seen as the result of terrorism against the earth and its inhabitants. Our modern beliefs have created a culture that views the Earth, and increasingly, its inhabitants, as economic resources. For those of us that frequently characterize the way we live in the US and other affluent nations as senseless, the historical way we have argued with those perpetrating the terrorist acts rests on of some rational foundation. Rationality is the foundation of everything that has been done and is being done in the name of sustainability. This hasn’t worked and won’t work. We who worry about sustainability-as-flourishing are coming from a worldview incompatible with that of the mainstream culture. We have as much chance of winning our arguments as convincing a would-be terrorist that their plan is senseless.
We do have to talk to one another if the terrorism is to cease. By now you should get it that I am using terrorism to refer to acts perpetrated against those more or less powerless to defend themselves as were those killed and injured in Boston. But the same can be said of the habitats destroyed, the species made extinct, the poor who are made poorer, the future generations who will have a diminished Earth to inhabit and so on. And any such talk must start with the acceptance that each of our different beliefs, the truths we use to argue and justify our acts, are contingent and fallible.
Opposed to these differences that make living together so difficult is a single important truth. Human beings (I believe) are special creatures because they care about the world in which they live. If we can start with a (tentative) agreement on this belief, then I am confident that our differences can be resolved by both rational argumentation and pragmatic experimentation.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 16, 2013 7:13 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)
What’s the Matter with Kansas? Again!
What’s the matter with Kansas? Much more than Thomas Frank found to write about in his 2004 book of the same name. I discovered that he took the title from an 1986 editorial by William Allen White chastising Kansan Populist leaders for adopting policies that discouraged investors from coming into Kansas. Well, Kansas continues to act against its interests. I came upon a story on the Bloomberg website telling of a recent bill introduced into the state legislature to outlaw any public action connected to sustainable development.
Tom Randall, the article’s author leads off with:
Kansas, I love your sense of humor.
It seems like every time the Sunflower State pops up in my news feed, it’s for something like this: House Bill No. 2366, a proposed law that would make it illegal to use “public funds to promote or implement sustainable development.”
Kansas, the place where I spent my formative years skipping school to go fishing in farm ponds, is populated with thoughtful stewards of the nation’s breadbasket. It also has a habit of turning reason on its head. The state famously dropped evolution from its educational curriculum in 1999, along with the age of the Earth and the history of the universe, for good measure.
Now the state’s “Committee on Energy and Environment” is proposing a law that would prohibit spending on anything that won’t set Kansas on a course to self-destruction. House Bill No. 2366 would ban all state and municipal funds for anything related to “sustainable development,” which it defines as: “development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.”
You can find the entire bill here; it’s short, but not sweet. One thrust is to prevent any public action that could conceivably be related to sustainable development, defined according to the Brundtland report. The gist is short enough to quote here:
Section 1. (a) No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development.
The only thing left out of this section is the prohibition of even thinking about the subject. If this wasn’t enough, the bill added a section on what was explicitly not to be proscribed. I found this as instructive as the section above.
(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the use of public funds outside the context of sustainable development: … to support, promote, advocate for, plan for, enforce, use, teach, participate in or implement the ideas, principles or practices of planning, conservation, conservationism, fiscal responsibility, free market capitalism, limited government, federalism, national and state sovereignty, individual freedom and liberty, individual responsibility or the protection of personal property rights;
Apparently this bill is not likely to become law soon. The state legislature closed shop before the bill could be heard. For those who wonder why this might have surfaced in Kansas, here is a a short lesson in syllogistic reasoning:
- Wichita is in Kansas.
- The Koch Brothers headquarters is in Wichita.
- The Koch’s are deeply involved in the oil and gas business.
- The sponsor of the bill is a geophysicist with strong ties to the oil and gas business.
- Therefore …
Coincidentally, the sponsor, Rep. Dennis Hedke, refused to identify the group who asked him to introduce the bill or name their set of concerns.
I am not a fan of sustainable development, but not for whatever reasons Hedke might have with it. I find it too much like all the things that are listed in part (b). If Hedke and his backers would look closely at how sustainable development has been understood and applied, they would find that world business leaders have stood firmly behind this idea. They believe it is a very good idea for business. Unlike Kansas seems to be, these powers are concerned about operating in ways that enable them to sustain themselves.
The tenets of sustainable development are solidly grounded in the capitalistic principles of efficiency. Even the major public energy companies claim to be believers. My brand of sustainability is very different, as those who read this blog would know—based on a vision of flourishing—a vision that has been dimmed by the many excesses in implementing almost every item in the list in part (b). Tom Randall, this all may seem funny to you, but it is a deadly serious matter.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 11, 2013 8:57 PM :: | Leave a comment (0)