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Getting an Empty Diploma


I get periodic announcements from Mary Ann Liebert’s journal, Sustainability. Most of the time I don’t find anything I follow further, but this time one of the free articles got my attention. The subject was academic “sustainability” program. Having placed sustainability in quotes, you should guess where I am going to go. The article, “A Review of Non-Major Sustainability Programs in American and Canadian Higher Education: Trends and Developments across Institutions,” by Madeline M. Giefer surveyed some 20 plus programs at US and Canadian universities. I followed my reading by checking in at the websites of a sample of them.

The article summarized the goals, in general terms, as

…to produce students who can become change agents to further the goals of sustainability, which involve improving social and environmental welfare while balancing economic priorities. These programs are generally intended to prepare students to advance sustainability goals in their careers, whether they ultimately work in business, government, education, or nonprofits.

The first sentence in the quoted part above is simply a reworking of the Brundtland principles of Sustainable Development, which was more challenging by including the needs of future generations. My comments below are shaped by my direct experience with several programs of the type examined, but not included. I have direct knowledge of one or two of the ones in the article.

I looked in detail at the academic offerings and requirements of several. What I found reinforces my already well developed opinion that all are misnamed. They are based on an uncritical sense of sustainability and generally are predicated upon the tacit notion that current societal structures are what is to be sustained. I saw only a smattering of course offerings that could, in any way, be viewed as critical, either questioning the sustainability of modern, market economies, such as the US, or looking at alternate systems of beliefs and norms. My usual comment is to say that these programs are designed around the premise of reducing unsustainability at the symptomatic level. But that is as empty a promise as is the word, sustainability, itself.

Without a more intensive search, I am unable to comment in detail about the various curricula. They are full of the usual suspects: environmental economics, environmental science and technology, demography, policy, leadership, strategy and so on. A few offered or required courses on complexity or systems, but only a few. Most had something about preparing the students for jobs carrying the title, sustainability X. For those few students aware and concerned that the world is not working at present, that is a dead end because these jobs are invariably about maintaining the status quo by avoiding or reducing the unintended consequences produced in the course of the organization’s activities.

If I were able to design a sustainability offering, it would have some of the same subjects, but also would have some of the following courses at its core:

SUS 101 Fundamentals of sustainability (flourishing): semantic; cultural; psychological; philosophical…
SUS 102 Critical studies of modern cultures
SUS 103 Pragmatism as method (for complex systems)
SUS 104 Human ontology
SUS 104a History of the “self”
SUS 105 Culture as an complex adaptive systems (Giddens)
SUS 106 Un-neoclassical economics or the economics of empathy/care
SUS 107 Critical study of technology (Kuhn, Latour, et al.)
SUS 108 Systems thinking
SUS 201 Decision-making in complex systems
SUS 202 Management of complex adaptive systems
SUS 203 Participatory design theory
SUS 204 “Democracy” theory (a la John Dewey)
SUS 205 Introduction to brain science (with emphasis on plasticity and continuous learning)
SUS 206 Communicative action theory and practice (a la Jurgen Habermas)

I probably should add something related to the learning of patience because anyone completing a course based on these subjects is going to have to wait a very long time to find a job with the name sustainability in the title or function. Business schools, one of the slowest places to think about sustainability as I am think about it, have lots of people who know the need for parts of the kind of thinking I advocate. Systems thinkers, like Argyris, Schön, Senge, Ackoff, Sterman, etc., are part of many MBA programs because the Deans know that businesses will always face sustainability problems, writ small, focused at the enterprise scale. Organizations always face persistent problems that cannot be solved by applying methods derived from the bulk of the courses MBAs take. Only systems thinking can deal with the complexity of life in businesses.

But it is not just businesses that live in a complex world. We all do and, consequently, face problems much more daunting than businesses do. Climate change is one example. Inequality is another. Indignity is another. And so on. Why, given the scope of these problems, do we continue to think we can solve them with only the major disciplines we acquire in schools? If MBAs need systems thinking to be competent to deal with the messes and wicked problems in business, others, who want to take on the equivalent problems out in society clearly need this and much more. To send students at all levels out into society with the belief that they are equipped to deal with the problems that concern them is mischievous and worse. It is fooling both the faculties and the students.

Change is always difficult. We humans do not like uncertainty about the futures we create through acting. That’s partly why we tend to continue to apply the same old, same old to everything we do even when the problems persist. When we fail, we call in the experts who, then, apply the same old, same old with not much better results. What I have just written in the last couple of sentences is the definition of insanity according to Einstein and others. We moderns were not always insane; for some long time our actions did produce a future that we could argue was taking toward a vision or destination that we could see. But more recently, we have caught some sort of mental disease, maybe a societal form of Alzheimer’s, that has blinded us to what is going on. The parts of our societal brain that are sensitive to the real world, and that learn and use the learning to help us get back to the correct path toward our goals are increasingly non-functional. Fortunately for humanity, this form of Alzheimer’s is reversible, but we need to apply the correct remedy. The academic program I propose above would be part of it.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 25, 2015 5:29 PM ::


spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 25, 2015 8:48 AM ::

Get a Life


The front page of the Sunday New York Times carried a very long exposé on human resource practices at Amazon. Today, the following Monday, the CEO, Jeff Bezos, responded refuting all the claims made. If true, and much of it is likely to be more or less true, given the reputation of the paper, the article makes the term, human resources, come alive in a very unflattering light. The secondary headline,”The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions,” added a particularly negative tone. We do not allow uncontrolled human trials on unproven drugs, why not also for work practices? I won’t comment on all the many details; you should go to the article for these.

This is not the first instance of Bezos and company exerting their muscle. They used their market power to extract tribute from those write and produce the books they sell. Their power is unusual in that it displays two forms of market domination, monopoly and monopsony. They are able, if they desire, to collect rents from both buyer and seller. Rents, in these cases, are the difference in cost or price from that to be found in a competitive situation. Walmart comes close but is more a monopsony, able to drive down the prices of its vendors, but it still must compete with many other retailers. it, too, has had a bad reputation in the ways it treats its employees.

I am appalled whenever I read about workers being treated as machines. While I do not understand or agree with everything that Immanuel Kant wrote, his command to treat humans always as ends, not means, seems inviolate. That does not mean that humans do not have to bend to the needs of our highly impersonal economic system, but it does set limits of the inhumanity of the system. I thought we, in the US, gave up the idea of the sweat shop, decades ago. At minimum, human beings should be treated in ways that serve their safety and dignity. Regarding the former, we do have regulations that attempt to keep the workplace safe from dangerous production practices, like machines and toxic chemicals. Even these exist in spite of eternal opposition from those who see the idea of worker protection as a government plot.

I interpret Kant’s imperative in terms of human flourishing as the manifest end he points to. The ultimate manifestation of human being is flourishing, a term that captures many other sub-traits, like dignity, freedom, health, and so on. Safety is a part of the broader term of health, which still is a fraught concept in business. The centrality of work as the means of gathering economic resources grows in proportion to the dominance of the free market. The freer the market, the more dependent are people on monetary resources since that becomes the only significant means of exchange. Work, as the source of these resources, dominates all others. Whether the employer should provide economic resources, like access to health delivery services, beyond wages is arguable, based on criteria like equity and efficiency. It seems to me that, as an employer demands more and more of a worker’s life, they should be more and more responsible for treating them as ends. The opposite seems to be happening. (It has ever since Esau sold his birthright to his brother.)

The article notes that Amazon demands secrecy from every employee. Secrecy is not bad per se; it is necessary to protect a firm’s competitive edge, but it has limits when that edge depends on unsavory or illegal practices. Insider trading has been a similar issue. It requires secrecy because it is illegal. But secrecy is not always required to give a firm an edge. Toyota has shared its famous production system widely with other manufacturers, counting on other competitive advantages. Toyota has argued that they grow as the reputation and quality of their whole industry does.

Should working conditions ever become so stressful that employees breakdown at their desks, as reported? Should businesses practice Darwinism, winnowing out the least “productive (whatever that means)” on some relative basis, ignoring whatever contributions have been made. Whatever process Amazon uses must be based on collapsing the capabilities and performance of someone to a number. Okay for machines, but not for humans. Deliberate Darwinism promotes dishonesty as Amazon employees are able to tattle privately about others with no ways to verify the content. Another subtle affront to dignity.

I found this next item particularly troublesome.

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.…In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

Becoming “one with the system” is tantamount to entirely giving up one’s dignity. It is the very same criticism we have historically made about life in totalitarian regimes. Do Kafka and Orwell live at Amazon? We know that no “system” yet invented has been able to mirror the full metaphorical essence of human being. History is full of failures of institutions that fail to enable humans to exist such as to achieve their full genetic and cultural potential. We cannot even discover what that kind of existence that is without being critical about—stepping back from—the life we do lead. Complete uncritical allegiance to the “system” dooms efforts to discover the fullness of human existence, the condition I call flourishing.

I can go on with more from the report, but I have made whatever point I am going to make. Notwithstanding all the positive arguments that were made, I find this situation to be a great starting point for those who wish to criticize raw, market-driven capitalism for its failure to accommodate human being as more than economic activity. Capitalism is supposed to be an antidote to totalitarianism. Has Bezos found a way to outsmart it?

(Kafka cartoon from the Prague Post)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 17, 2015 12:01 PM ::

Knowledge Comes in Different Ways and Forms


In my weekly digest from Newsweek, I read an interesting article about the role of science in the political campaigns, better the absence of it. It seems that the Matthew Chapman, great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, had started a project to engage presidential candidates in a debate centered on science. “Everything in my family was assessed through some form of the scientific method,” says Chapman…It was just really peculiar to see people we were going to give trust to not addressing either the scientific issues nor the method by which people assess truth in the best possible way.”

The article is mostly about his failure to create any interest among the candidates, many of whom have already expressed a skeptical or more extreme position on the importance of scientific information in political conversations and policy. Not much new so far. I found his intentions great, but not much to show for them. What did intrigue me, however, were these closing paragraphs.

Dan Fagin, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, tracks the public discourse as a professor of science journalism at New York University. He begs to differ. “There will never be a science debate, at least not anytime soon, but that’s not because of the issues are complicated. It’s because the triumph of the hard right is that they convinced too many Republicans that science is just another partisan issue, another opinion. The solution is going to have to come from within the GOP.”

As the GOP shows no signs of grappling with that issue, the endless—nonpresidential—debate grows ever more bitter. … The Pew survey found that education levels do not always correlate with trust in science, a fact scientists and their supporters might consider before assuming their adversaries are duped. “Science is not the sole source of wisdom, an oracle,” Fagin says. “It’s the most powerful tool we have for understanding the world, but individual scientists are only human and subject to error. A little more humility would do us all a lot of good.”

I completely agree with Fagin that science has become a partisan issue but only because ideology has trumped reality in the right wing of the Republican party. But I think he errs in comparing partisan differences to differences in opinion. Differences in opinion are a fundamental reality stemming from the impossibility of ever knowing everything about the world. Notice I am using the word “knowing” here, not understanding. Fagin uses “understanding” in the last sentence and that is where the troubles he is writing about originate. We possess all kinds of knowledge, each one coming from the method by which it is produced. Aristotle defined several distinct classes in this manner. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he described three different approaches:

  1. Epistêmê
  2. Technê
  3. Phrónēsis

The use of approaches is important because the main difference between these classes is the way the knowledge is obtained. Our word closest to epistêmê is theoretical knowledge obtained by our senses and abstracted into technical terms. It corresponds closely to what we now call scientific knowledge or knowing why. The method for producing bona fide scientific knowledge is rigorously defined as the “scientific method” and has become legitimated by the institution of science over ages. The word, technê, is most closely translated as craft and is derived from the acquisition of principles that relate a particular practice to its results. The context for technê is making or doing not the disinterested, abstract nature of epistêmê. It is about knowing how. Aristotle viewed technê as a less perfect way of describing nature. The third, phrónēsis is best matched with wisdom. It relates to knowledge about how to live life and how to govern the affairs of humans. He gave it a distinctly political sense.

In more recent times, the German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger, reinterpreted Aristotle’s forms of knowledge giving different weights to them. I find his interpretations much more relevant to the Newsweek and related stories. Where Aristotle placed epistêmê at the top of his ladder of knowledge important, Heidegger places phrónēsis. In place of Aristotle’s fundamental categories he uses: póiesis (creation), praxis (living), and theōria (abstracting). He argues that these represent distinct forms of human action, each of which produces different kinds of knowledge, respectively, technê, phrónēsis and sophia. (Sophia and epistêmê are often confused and are confusing terms.) Heidegger describes phrónēsis as the most fundamental in enabling human beings to live effectively in the world and to work towards achieving the fullest manifestation of our uniqueness as being human. Technê is a way of being concerned with things and principles of production and theoria/sophia is a way of being concerned with eternal principles, abstracted from their instantiated occurrences.

To these forms of knowledge, all of which have an associated method or methods, we also use another common form, ungrounded opinion. Such opinion is “knowledge” for which we cannot ground though evidence in the form of unbiased observations or reasons outside of the methods of the three above-mentioned categories. Much of life is run according to such ungrounded opinions. Philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger have made arguments for which of these is the most important in the lives of humans beings, but in our modern world we have strayed from their exacting scales and categorical bounds. And this is very serious.

Our democratic form of government rests on many principles, but, perhaps, the most fundamental is the rule of reason. We settle disputes about differences through reasoned procedures. That means we argue with each other on the basis of grounded facts, based on knowledge, a word that signifies a truth about the world. But we forget that knowledge comes in a number of different flavors, none of which have the same origin. We have learned that scientific knowledge is the best, that is most reliable, category when it come to describing natural phenomena, but, because it is made up only from abstract findings, often fails to produce results out in the real world. Technê has in many ways come to be even more important than theōria because we tend to apply its worldly form, technology and technocracy, to solve our problems without bothering to fully know why they are occurring or what the complete impact of use of technê will be. That’s because the methods of science are inadequate to deal with the instantaneous complexity of the real world.

The third form of knowledge, phrónēsis is almost entirely missing today from our public deliberations. I find it is important to distinguish this class of knowledge from all the others and usually refer to it as “understanding.” There are methods to acquire such knowledge, but all take a lot of time and patience (a virtue in short supply). Pragmatism, as I have written, is perhaps the most codified and reliable. All require living within the system from which the understanding is to come, and observing what is happening, especially if the observers are intervening deliberately or not. Heidegger saw this as the most important as it was closest to allowing human beings to gain an understanding of the kind of beings they are. The absence of phrónēsis is to me the most critical issue about the place of knowledge, not the one made in the Newsweek story.

The rule of reason, while sounding as the best way to go forward, has several serious flaws based of the limitations of the sources of knowledge that feed it. Scientific knowledge, based on an objective world produces a singular but partial, result of what is truthful, and can be and is used to dominate arguments. Technê used without knowledge of its complete set of outcomes produces unintended consequences that can even destroy or severely damage societies as many argue is happening today. Ungrounded opinion, which is more and more prevalent today, always ends up in some form of domination because there is simply no rational way of settling differences. It is behind the winner-take-all nature of politics today.

We need to seek more understanding of our situations and issues, not more knowledge of the other types. Only through understanding can any reasoned solution emerge. Theōria has a very important place as does technê. Even ungrounded opinions may be necessary, but if they are not all concatenated into wisdom or phrónēsis, we are surely not going fulfill our historic dreams. Even those dreams need a revisitation based on more wisdom as they were originally created with a privileged place for science. The research I have done over some years suggests that the failure to be clear about the sources and kinds of “knowledge” we use in our deliberations is responsible for many of our policy failures, big and small. Only if conversations have a clear understanding about the nature of the information that is to used do they have a chance of being concluded happily. Just look at what is happening around the Globe for instances of this failure.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 13, 2015 3:16 PM ::

Need I Comment?

angry emoticon

I saw this this news morning, and thought, “The points I have been making about our addiction to technology jump out of news articles like this.” I find these quite frequently, not only about technology, but also about my other cultural bête noires: out-dated beliefs and norms. That’s to be expected because the news reflects our primary norms and beliefs. It may take you more than an instant to see the folly of creating a flourishing world by continuing to do the crazy things we do. But that’s how cultures work. I will publish more self-contained items like this one from time to time without any of my added prose. If you fail to get my message, you haven’t been reading my stuff. I would love to get more links from you to articles about mistaken applications of positive science to complex systems, both the non-human and human worlds. In this evolving Anthropocene era, the two are inseparable.

This week at Yale Environment 360, science writer Nicola Jones reports on the quest to create “super corals” that can withstand rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidity related to soaring carbon dioxide emissions. As Jones explains, scientists worldwide are employing traditional methods of selective breeding to find heat-resistant corals and then transplant them to vulnerable reefs. Coral “gardening” has been taking place for two decades, but efforts have taken on a new urgency as more coral reefs die from climate-related stress. Will genetically modified corals be next? Read Jones’ report.

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think. (Gregory Bateson)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 13, 2015 8:12 AM ::

Taking on Complexity


In my last bunch of posts, I have noticed a pattern that seems worth making explicit. The hardest part of the work I have been doing is to come up with practical responses to the critical analyses. I have been seeing a tiny bit of evidence that the basis of my critique is catching on. Even if the specific remedies I have been proposing are not getting a lot of traction, the sense that something radical is needed is a recognition that our problems are paradigmatic, not merely malfunctions in the current modern culture and its machinery. Of course, misguided efforts like those behind the recent Ecomodernization Manifesto suggest otherwise, but, like those who deny the reality of global climate change, they have adopted much too narrow a frame. And that gets me to the theme of this post.

The problem with this approach to fix up the system is that it fails to recognize the complexity of the system that would be repaired. Whatever is to be done under their rubric is inevitably only a partial solution because the whole system is not included in their thinking. While the internal logic underlying the analysis may appear to be well-grounded, it is so only because important parts have been omitted. Opponents of such works are asked to come up with a better analysis and, too often, get drawn into a food fight as to which has started with a better set of premises. But that is the wrong result; neither can be better, a priori, as long as both fail to accept that the system being addressed is complex. Any analytical model is bound to be partial and abstract. How well it actually describes the system can be discovered a posteriori, that is after the system, modified as the models prescribe, responds. There is a better way to deal with such complex systems.

Complexity, as I will state in a moment, is the more common system description out there in the world, but our norm is to ignore this and treat everything as analytically tractable. If we are to begin to clear up the increasingly persistent problems showing up in both human societies and in the non-human world around them, we have to make a paradigmatic swerve and start with the presumption that all persistent problems are complex. This does not mean that we have to punt, but it does mean that we have to address them very differently.

The first requirement is that we try to match the real world out there with our mode of thinking. We have such a means at hand: systems thinking. Unlike analytic methods, there is no fixed way to proceed, but there are some very useful tried and effective practices. The first and most important is to make sure that the framing of the situation is not unknowingly constrained by analytic thinking. It’s important to start with the understanding that the “solutions” that are eventually chosen are always partial and the system will need constant observation and adjustments. The 10 principles created by Rittel and Webber in their timeless paper on “wicked systems” should be read every time a complex problem is being faced. I have listed and discussed them earlier in this blog. This link is to my introductory blog that presents their general argument and is followed by a series of posts that probe each of the ten principles they develop. The original paper, itself, is publicly available at this link.

Systems thinking has been around for a while as a subject in engineering and management. Some of its better known contributors are Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beers, Peter Senge, Russell Ackoff, Jay Forrester and Dennis and Donella Meadows. Others can be found in the Wikipedia article on the subject. One name not mentioned there is Gregory Bateson. Bateson was a polymath, whose is, perhaps, best known for his work on the mind and thinking, Steps To an Ecology of the Mind. He is responsible for one of my very favorite aphorisms, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” He says in this single sentence what it takes me pages to express.

Almost all of these systems thinkers proposes a different process to address complexity. Not surprising since the intrinsic nature of the systems precludes any single procedural method. I have found that almost all can be placed in the single framework of pragmatism, a philosophical concept related to epistemology, the way we come to make sense of the world. Although complexity was not explicitly present as the subject evolved, it was clearly hanging around in the wings. The originator of the concept, C. S. Pierce, came up with it as a means to “make our ideas clear.” Clarity was determined by examining how well the ideas fitted practical situations. The more accepted methods of theoretical logic and analysis were tossed out. The importance to complexity should be obvious. If one wants to understand and interact with complex entities/systems, what matters is that the concepts being used for both explaining and manipulating the system should be effective in practical, not theoretical, terms. Real, down-to-earth performance is what matters, not some abstract set of expressions or sentences.

What we really need to know about things like climate change is how the system works and how anything we do, deliberately or unthinkingly, affects it. Pragmatism offers a more fitting approach than does positive science, which always requires some degree of abstraction and generalization. One can use scientific methods to probe the systems, but only if their limits are always in view. Bateson argued, passionately, that Western science creates hubris, a sense of (false) rightness about the world that prevents attaining real understanding and subsequent appropriate action, the components of wisdom. Systems that involve human beings (that’s about everyone that is important) are inherently complex because human action is itself the outcome of complex human beings. The Greeks knew that it took a special kind of knowledge, phronēsis, to govern human systems, distinct from knowledge about the non-human world, epistemē. The best current equivalent for phronēsis is wisdom.

The understanding of systems that come from pragmatic thinking and investigation is more like wisdom than epistemē or its modern equivalent, objective, scientific knowledge. There certainly is a lot of bona fide pragmatic thinking around, but it is rarely identified as such. The well known and widely practiced lean manufacturing system developed by Toyota utilizes basic pragmatic principles to improve the functioning of their manufacturing systems and to solve problems that arise within them. Inquiries are performed by people involved with the system, independent of their organizational status. Solutions are held as contingent, and the system is constantly monitored to prepare for the inevitable future issues that will crop up.

The Toyota Production System (TPS), as it is called, is, importantly, run along democratic principles during the inquiry processes. Developers of pragmatism, especially the American philosopher, John Dewey, wrote that whatever group carried out pragmatic inquiries toward understanding complex systems should be democratic in composition and process. Concern for the outcome trumps general theoretical smarts. Technically trained participants need to be aware of their inherent hubristic biases. In a sense, getting to know a complex system, after Bateson, requires thinking like the system might, metaphorically speaking. That’s very, very hard for scientists and engineers or other disciplinary professionals who always come into an inquiry with preconceived methods and solutions. One of the most plaintiff essays I know on our human interconnectedness with the world was written by Aldo Leopold, is entitled, “Thinking Like a Mountain.

Pragmatic processes are messier than their nice clean academic counterparts. One can never declare the process has gotten to the end. Rittel and Webber’s corresponding Rule 3 is, “Wicked problems have no stopping rule.” No more sending the consultant home after she has delivered the report. “Efficiency” hides behind much of what today goes for institutional strategies, especially those of businesses. Pragmatism/complexity demands the use of “effectiveness” instead. It is not about cheaper or faster; it’s always about some other qualitative criterion. Often, ex post assessments are simply asking if the system is working as desired. Are its normative outcomes closer or farther from its targets?

I close today with what I hope are some practical actions to take to deal with complexity. Whenever one encounters persistent problems or failures that have resisted solution via expert-based procedures, you can be pretty certain that you are dealing with complexity. Changing consultants or computer programs will not clear anything up. It’s time to switch paradigms and begin systems thinking. Then read Rittel and Webber. Then select a pragmatically-based inquiry, planning, and implementation process. Enlist a group of thoughtful concerned participants and go. Try various of the methods out there, like the TPS, or Argyris and Schön’s double loop learning, or Senge’s Fifth Discipline, or any others. Put on your patience hat. If needed, hire a skillful facilitator but, please, not another expert. When you begin to get good at doing all this, turn away from your own problems and take on the problem of (sustainability-as-)flourishing, or more to the point, the absence of stable, universal flourishing in our complex, existent, modern world.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 10, 2015 3:29 PM ::

Capitalism is an Abstraction; It's People That Need Attention


Today (7/31/15), David Brooks writes about some new questions being asked about capitalism. He recently attended a conference devoted to this topic. He reports only on a keynote address made by his “friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas.” Anand’s comments were directed more towards capitalists than at the underlying system. He argued that the capitalist philanthropists need to be held to account for the harm they do in acquiring their wealth as well as for the “good” they do with the money. Second, he noted that the new form of labor this is growing off-loads much of the risk that should go to the capitalists. I would add that so does the whole idea of the “sharing economy” tend to shift the roles of producer (capitalists) and consumer. (See my recent post on that subject.) And, third, he notes that capitalists are increasingly removed from the community.

Anand’s speech struck me as deeply patriotic in its passion and concern. He didn’t offer a policy agenda to address these deep structural problems, but his description of them implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions than ever before.

Brooks would have none of that. Quoting Hillary Clinton and others, he writes.

Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments. Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies. There will be much more of this in years to come.

Then he lets the other shoe fall. “People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn.” He follows this with the standard conservative argument that the corrective agents in government “are not smart enough.” I agree, but not for the reasons he would offer. It is not about being smart at all, it is about understanding that the economy is a complex system, which inherently is not subject to analytic thinking. If this picture would be accepted, conventional economists and other related experts have little or no role at all. His next sentence boggles the mind. “The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason.” Capitalism does not take a dim or any other view since it is only a name for a system that doesn’t think or speak. He should have replaced “capitalism” by “conservatives.” But that would be an oxymoron since conservatives would have to reason out their conclusions.

But this next couple of sentences illustrates the serious flaws in his argument most acutely.

Capitalism sets up a system of discovery as different people compete and adapt in accordance with market signals. If you try to get technocratic planners organizing investment markets or internal business governance, you will wind up with perversities and rigidities that will make everything worse.

He is correct about his statement that capitalism works with signals coming out of the market, but maybe that’s not the point. If one abstracts the market from the society as a whole, perhaps, his statement holds up. If you examine only the flow of goods and wealth, the Smithian market conservatives love is arguably the most efficient. But to accept this as the primary governing mechanism for a society of real, living human beings is inhumane. In the days of Smith’s pin factory, efficiency was important because so many people lacked the material necessaries of life (to use an old phrase). Not so today unless you toss smartphones into that bundle of goods. What people lack today are the necessary qualities of life required for flourishing. The market cannot provide them. Indeed, the keynoter was telling us just that. Nor can a few capitalists spreading their wealth around.

So let’s look at some other institutional possibilities. Business is out since it is the primary instrument that allows capitalism to run. Churches used to be the provider of salvation, but that went out with modernity. Civil society? Volunteering and philanthropy help but enough. The military. No comment needed. That leaves only government unless I have left something out.

Since many, but importantly not all, of the qualities associated with human flourishing rely on material inputs, the market is inextricably connected to anything that the government attempts to do about life in general. Following the argument of conservatives, anything the government tries to do lessens the efficiency of the market. I will concede this point since I am unable to muster any facts otherwise. Liberals, who tend to be more concerned with life qualities than quantities, tend to frame their policies about interventions in the market, thus, fueling conservative passions, although Brooks notes that recent proposals from the left are different.

This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges. Unregulated capitalism is at odds with democracy and free market economy because it results in consolidation of wealth and political power. …But the next wave of thinking implies that it is not enough to simply give people access to capitalism and provide them with a safety net. The underlying system has to be reconfigured.…This is a bigger debate.

I really need to quote the entire column to give you the full story, but that’s against the rules of blogging. I encourage you to follow the link above and read it. He is dead on, however, about the core issue when he noted (above) “The underlying system has to be reconfigured.…This is a bigger debate.” But the debate must not be couched in terms of the impacts of public policy on the market as it has historically been in the US. If those who have the power and commitment to humanity are be successful, they must have two criteria to balance in their effects to move ahead toward a flourishing world. (As we now know, it is critical for human flourishing to have a flourishing world as well.) One piece can be the standard economic criteria like efficiency and output, but with the caveat that they are just numbers measuring the functioning of an abstract machine, and, further, that they are measures of convenience based on the relative ease of acquiring data.

The other essential piece would be criteria referring to the quality of life. You should quickly see that there is something problematic in this last sentence. Qualities are notoriously hard to measure, lacking objective standards. That’s another way of saying they cannot easily be abstracted into quantitive terms. In a society, like us and the rest of the modern world where positivism and objectivity rule, the numbers always win. There is a way, however, to combine the two. Try configuring the system, as Brooks thinks would be necessary, by applying pragmatic, not analytic processes. Add back reason, which he writes is abhorrent to the market.

Planners and policymakers and those who would implement their outputs need to start with an agreement that the entire socio-economic system is out of balance: too much GDP and efficiency; not enough flourishing, by whatever measures they adopt. Then, using their reasoning powers to settle on a putative plan, try something and check it out. Continue the process until the “underlying system” does change its shape and begins to behave as wanted. Given the complexity of the world, this may never happen, but there’s more likelihood that we can nudge the world in the right direction in this way than through the endless bickering or both left and right. Compromise is a necessary part of any pragmatic system. This fact alone suggests that part of any restructuring we do in the US must include a hard look at our political system, now stuck in perennial loggerheads.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 31, 2015 11:53 AM ::

Gratitude Is the Result of Caring


David Brooks writes today (7/28/15) about gratitude. In reading it, I learned something closely related to my constant theme of flourishing. Gratitude is a feeling or assessment one has when another has done something beyond bounds of the normal transactions. Here’s his definition: “Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.” Nice poetry, but misses the true source of gratitude.

The gist of the article is centers on two themes. One is the pleasurable sense of gratitude. The other is the general absence of the feeling in our capitalistic meritocracy.

The basic logic of the capitalist meritocracy is that you get what you pay for, that you earn what you deserve. But people with dispositional gratitude are continually struck by the fact that they are given far more than they pay for — and are much richer than they deserve. Their families, schools and summer camps put far more into them than they give back. There’s a lot of surplus goodness in daily life that can’t be explained by the logic of equal exchange.

Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures. But people with grateful dispositions are attuned to the gift economy where people are motivated by sympathy as well as self-interest. In the gift economy intention matters. We’re grateful to people who tried to do us favors even when those favors didn’t work out. In the gift economy imaginative empathy matters. We’re grateful because some people showed they care about us more than we thought they did. We’re grateful when others took an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves.

While he does discuss an important exception in today’s culture, he misses a very important point. Gratitude is the result of the caring actions of others. Without care, there would be no gratitude. It’s the absence of care that makes our form of capitalism largely devoid of human sensibilities. The idea that every action can be measured in some exchange value removes the possibility that it was done out of care, not because it was of mere economic value to the actor. I think his statement about “capitalist meritocracy” is off the point. Sure, getting only what one pays for is an important part of the context, but the absence of gratitude is primarily the result of seeing humans only as economic engines.

By taking the passive stance, that is from the recipient of care, as his perspective, Brooks’s critique here lacks punch. I guess he is trying to zing capitalism, but does so with much too limp a flail. It is not capitalism that is the culprit; it is the model of human being. He is trapped in the same chicken and egg mentality that keeps the US and an increasing number of me-too nations stuck in an unsustainable cycle. Brooks argues that it is capitalism that creates the self-centered, instrumental human.

We live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall apart if not for another economy, one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence celebrated.

I think he has it backwards. It is our specific belief about human nature that is the source of our individualism, utilitarianism, ambition, and pride (and many other character traits that stand in the way of flourishing). The institutions of present-day capitalism came later, built upon these beliefs. Adam Smith posited market efficiency, based on human self-interest, not the other way around. I often call attention to an earlier tome of Smith’s where he wrote that human nature was primarily empathy, a component of care. I believe that society has already fallen apart, not a future about to happen. Unsustainability is a great indicator that the world is far from the state we would have it be. Inequality represent our failure to care for others.

Caring is more than a disposition; it is a distinct way to view human beings. To the extent that it does show up in the ways Brooks and many others describe, it is a possible indicator that the caring way of human being is still around, but is strongly suppressed by the forces of modern culture. I don’t think those who act in ways that elicit responses of gratitude are merely disposed to act that way. They ARE that way. Disposition, as Brooks writes, is a kind of psychological tendency. Heidegger and other phenomenologists saw caring as the ontological structure that makes humans distinct from other species.

If this is so, you might ask, “So then why is the modern world full of such self-centered humans?” Brooks explains, “Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures.” Wrong! Capitalism doesn’t do anything of the sort. Capitalism is simply a description of the political economy. We “see human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures” because our deeply embedded belief structure tells us that. Our beliefs are what convert meaningless phenomena into meaningful concepts that, in turn, enable us to create the intentional, purposeful, normative culture in which we live out our lives. How society operates is the subject of sociologists who have created many models to explain it, just as economists do for a part of it.

One of the models that I find most powerful in both explaining cultures or societies and also in designing them is Anthony Giddens’s structuration model. Its key feature is the dialectical-like interplay among four distinctive elements; beliefs, norms, power, and technology. A society stabilizes over time around a fixed collection of these elements, but, as any of the four change, the others may also change, resulting in new societal structure and concomitant behavior. Capitalism is usually seen as a particular arrangement of the last three. The beliefs on which the structure of power, norms, and technology tend to fade from view, available only to critical examination. I am certainly not an expert on economic history or sociology, but I have read extensively and strongly believe that it was those beliefs about the nature of humans and the world in which we exist that powered the engine of modern cultural development that, in turn, gave us the kind of normal humans that Brooks calls to task. Rather that being inherent traits, all the features Brooks mentioned could just as easily be descriptions of normal behaviors.

To get a society of caring individuals, we first have to believe that that is our deep-seated way of being. It is more than a psychological disposition. The idea of the self-interested human was the product of thought by some very clever thinkers three to four hundred years ago. Coupled with a burst of technological innovation, it created the modern, industrial West. And though we have more of everything material today, we are still far from the promised state these same thinkers envisioned. Brooks fails to dig deep enough to find the right openings to such a future. He is, as the last quoted paragraph conveys, stuck in instrumental economic thinking, using the words of economists and psychologists, rather than those of philosophers and brain scientists.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 28, 2015 7:54 PM ::

Injecting Care into the "Sharing Economy"


Several of the online conversations I have been following have focused on the sharing economy, as well as have many articles in the mainstream news. Some are about its possibilities for sustainable consumption; others talk about the legal problems involved in the in-between nature of laborers like drivers for Uber or Lyft and other so called sharing sectors. Most, if not all, of these new economic sectors have one thing in common: the customers make use of material goods owned by the vendor of the services. They are all service-oriented—an important facet.

The sustainability folk look at these as providing services at a much higher eco-efficient level, since they use existing materials in a repetitive way. This factor is not so relevant to the car-sharing services since the primary environmental effects occur during driving whether in your own car or one rented for the moment. Much current discussion over the ecological benefits of these services is conflicted because good data on secondary effects like car ownership are either missing or not very good. Here’s a short discussion I cribbed from a conversation on the SCORAI listserv. SCORAI stands for Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative.

So, during the project, just as sharing economy was peaking in the media hype, there was a virtual conference featuring Robin Chase (a founder of Zipcar) and a few other sharing economy gurus. All of them proclaimed, without any good data, that all of the sharing economy companies were driving down enviro impacts, the next great thing. AirBNB was a focus as it was taking off. I challenged this claim offering this hypothesis: AirBnB is not just advertising alt housing but also seeking to drive the market for quickie cheap vacations. If you analyze their marketing, they are all about encouraging people to take  a quick cheap trip to some cool apartment in some cool big city. So a proper LCA must include the incremental impact of the business on increasing leisure travel. If you do this, I guessed, you may well find that the business drives a net increase in enviro impacts. My comment was treated as blasphemy, immediately dismissed by all panelists as preposterous. Next question! (Thanks to Doug Holt)

So much for the environmental benefits as the driver. There must be more involved. The small amount of research I did to follow-up led me to some very interesting stuff. Through the SCORAI website, I discovered George Ritzer and his discussions of prosumption. Although I had heard this term before, I did not really understand it. I found this definition on Wikipedia.

Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt suggested in their 1972 book Take Today, (p. 4) that with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer. In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. Toffler envisioned a highly saturated marketplace as mass production of standardized products began to satisfy basic consumer demands. To continue growing profit, businesses would initiate a process of mass customization, that is the mass production of highly customized products.…However, to reach a high degree of customization, consumers would have to take part in the production process especially in specifying design requirements. *

Car or room sharing don’t quite fit this definition although by stretching it might. To the extent that the passenger is the source of the destination, she is contributing to the production with the owner of the car. Prosumption was seen in its early days as a way of smoothing the sharp edges of capitalism by fuzzing the distinct between producer and consumer and expanding the supply of the commons—resources open to the public at large. Ritzer argues that it is becoming just another tool in the capitalists’ black hole, pulling in whatever benefits might accrue to the public. I don’t have information to take a stand on the economic context, but see it as having some highly interesting possibilities for flourishing. Remember I always define sustainability as the possibility of flourishing.

To create the (Earth) system’s capability for flourishing, we moderns must substitute new basic beliefs for the two that have become ineffective and, even, destructive. I have recently written in this blog about the first, complexity, so will refer you to the last few posts about that. The second is our belief about our human nature. I, and others, have argued, that we are destroying the capability of the Earth to sustain life and creating inhuman social conditions as a result of our socio-economic activities, which is, in turn, based on a belief that we are insatiable rational, utility maximizing creatures. Our modern life is creating unsuitability, sustainability’s polar opposite, and will continue to do so in spite of all we do in its name.

The alternative I have written about is a human nature based on care. I use “nature” here in the sense, not of some inner mechanism or quality, but of a way to understand the way we live. If we do have what we may call a nature, it is in the way we can describe the operations of our cognitive system. I find the model of Antonio Damasio most instructive. Damasio divides the brain into three, evolutionarily distinct pieces. The first, earliest in evolutionary terms, houses our basic emotions. He points to this through his label, proto-self. This part has allowed our species to survive interactions with the world as it was before civilization. The second, which corresponds to the label, core self, monitors and maintains the overall state of the body within the limits that allow life to continue. The third, and most important in this discussion, is the parts of the brain that correspond to the autobiographical self. They occupy the bulk of the brain. This self “learns” as one exists from early life until death. Learning means acquiring new structure in the brain; structure that provide the ability for future, intentional, purposeful actions. Such actions are the means by which we actually run our lives.

Human lives are meaningful. That’s true both if we refer to the presence of those “means” I just used above or whether we are talking about some story that makes sense to us. Meaningful in the latter sense always shows up through a story, accurate or not, we use to explain what we are doing, should someone ask us about it. Since most of the time we are being intentional, not responding to the other parts of the brain, it is reasonable to describe our “nature” as sense making, that is abstracting our actual experience into language we use for explaining and acting.

We might also use the word, care, for the same purpose. Care describes action in which we have converted the phenomena perceived by our senses into meaningful media (words, etc) and respond by acting intentionally. A lot of words here, but important ones as I will claim that the key to human flourishing is the acknowledgment that we are caring, not selfish, creatures. In the process of accepting that notion, we will also change the way we act towards the rest of the world. Care is the path to sustainability, or, in my terms, system-wide flourishing.

Meaning is the key. If we are to be intentional in a global sense, what we do has to work for both us and the world out there. Much of our meaning comes from language that arose before the world was like it is today in this modern age. The context for action was relatively constant. Words always have their inherent meaning drawn from the context in which they were invented. The second, core self, part of the brain needs a relatively constant context to keep us alive and healthy (flourishing). If the world is changing too fast, it may withdraw us from it and protect us by shutting us down. So too, the most primitive brain contains a set of reactions that are primal and reflect the world of the distant past.

The meaning of what we do in the world has become corrupted by the model of human nature we hold. The modern, mind/body dualistic machine we believe us to be converts meaning in the sense of what happens both to me and the world out there simply to me since I, the subject, am separate from that world of objects. When life was simpler, not much happened to that world out there, but as we have become more and more clever we have modified that world until some now believe we are shaping the geological Earth system by our actions. Like the bodies that house our conscious selves, the world is a vast interconnected system. When our intentional actions perturb it, it usually is resilient enough to maintain our necessary living conditions (culturally and biologically) within reasonable limits. Mother Earth has been so kind to us that we haven’t bothered to think and act about what we do to her. But things are different now, our actions are producing ill effects in nature and on ourselves and other humans, for example obesity, war, inequality, and so on. That’s because we are not caring fully.

There is no guarantee that caring will transform our present mindless world into paradise. but it makes much sense to me that it might. Caring, as I write here, always involves both the actor and the context in which action happens. If we accept we are part of a complex world (that’s my other key belief), then we will start to shape our intentions with some sense of how they will affect the system, as we also accept our interconnectedness. As we start to act in this way, the third part of the brain, that of the autobiographical self, will learn how to make all our actions—caring actions. Care is the invisible hand that can work toward creating flourishing, rather than the inward-pointed notion of self-interestedness. Ironically, early Adam Smith thought human nature was a kind of empathy, which would produce actions much more like the kind of care I am talking about. What a different world we would have if he hadn’t changed his mind and, later, wrote The Wealth of Nations.

So now back to prosumption. What if those Uber driver and Airbnb operators acted out of care instead of selfish economic motives? What if primary producers envisioned their work as enabling others to care? What if all of us became mindful of the effects of consumption and started to send messages to the producers beyond using the price mechanism. Such attitudes would shift the focus from a mindless, objective, meaningless world of instrumental action to one of caring, intentional, systemic acts. As the new process started up, the foundations of our thinking, both individually and collectively, would also start to replace the old, now out-dated, Cartesian, Smithian beliefs with those of an empathetic, complex-system-thinking, caring actor. The possibilities for flourishing are endless. By the way, no brain scientist has found a computer, programmed for self-interest in the brain. Our real selves are hidden away in the auto-biographical part of the brain waiting to learn how to care by experiencing life, itself. We can bootstrap ourselves into a flourishing future! We can use some of these novel economic provisioning systems to learn to care, not just for the money. Marx had a sense of this when he argued for assessing things according to use-value, not exchange value. Such a concept would come to life if use was tied to caring, not merely to some instrumental purpose.

ps. More as a note to myself. I should go back to and restudy Habermas’s idea of communicative action. In the sense of caring, he argued for a kind of meaningful, language-based, intentional acts in place of the instrumental action of economic, strategic humans. Hmm.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 26, 2015 4:01 PM ::

Stuck Inside of Language


I have been a little depressed lately; maybe I’m just feeling that I am stuck and so is the world. Two days ago, James Hansen and other climate scientists published a report that predicts ocean rise is occurring much faster than previously thought. If he is right, cities like New York will be inundated by as early as mid-century. You might think that this would be newsworthy but I found almost no news reported about it through a Google search. Only the Huffington Post and Washington Post and a handful of others appeared to have covered. Nothing in the NYTimes. Some argued that, since it is yet to be peer-reviewed, it is not newsworthy. Such hypocrisy, given the tripe that too often passes for hot news.

When this news does take hold, as I am confident it will be, given Hansen’s reputation, there will, perhaps, be a flurry of technocratic responses. I doubt if dikes will work against such a large height. Hansen includes some data suggesting that a similar occurrence took place some 150,000 years ago during the Eemian period. We still are acting as if there is a disconnect between humans and the rest of the universe. We stand outside and treat it as some sort of house we occupy. When the conditions inside of our house get uncomfortable, improve the walls. I can think of many other metaphors to describe our disconnected relationship to the world. No matter which one I choose, the consequences for the world are bad. It seems so clear to me, but why is it so hard for us to recognize that our big problems arise largely because we fail to think in systemic terms in which metaphors like walls would not be appropriate.

I have written much about this failure, generally from the perspective of complexity. Complex describes systems that cannot be fully understood by examining all of its parts independently and describing each in analytic or mathematical terms. Complex systems are unpredictable is a very critical sense. They may operate in what appears to be a normal mode, seemingly predictable, but then move into a mode of behavior completely detached from what has been observed. Such complexity is the root of Hansen’s new work. Instead of the linear models used in past predictions of warming and ocean rise, he used a non-linear model more consistent with the complexity of climate.

Most arguments trying to explain our modern society’s difficulty in thinking in systems terms or in building strategic models based on complexity go back to Descartes and his dual model of human beings. He separated the essence of humans, mind, from the material world. We became subjects gazing on and acquiring knowledge about the world of objects, including ourselves, outside the mind. The scientific method that he also developed turned this concept into a organized practice that has become the standard for truth about the world. That is until politicians and others adversely affected have found those truths inconvenient. But that is another story. I have been wondering whether a more subtle context to Descartes’ simplification might explain our difficulties with thinking systemically. And, of course I do.

I suspect our difficulty to think systematically started with the invention of language. Language is composed of particles of experience. Humans, before they invented language, experienced life as do all living creatures in some holistic way. They had to because they had no means to label any part of the world that constituted their experiences. They could call attention, in the moment, by gestures, but the meaning of that moment could not be captured as a distinction against the rest of the world. As the evolution of our species continued, at some point our cognitive powers increased such that gestures were augmented by sounds that, through repetition, would have become associated with particular objects out there. (I have no proof of this tale, but I find it reasonable and very useful.) Over time, the words that described objects, actions, and spatial relations would have become object-like and could be discussed independently from the context in which they had acquired their meaning. They acquired the property of an abstraction, but retained an association with the world of real object in space.

Later, the Greeks added a new and mind-expanding part of language, concepts: words whose meaning was connected with immaterial things. The idea of concept, per se, is abstract. They have meaning without any particular context. Now people could talk without any connection to a worldly context. Sentences and grammar further closed the worlds of language. Language became capable of describing experience completely out of the immediate context of that experience and could even invent stories about a world that did not even exist in people’s actual experience.

It makes sense to me as part of this story that people began to lose sight of and interest in the world out there as the language they possessed became richer and richer. Philosophy became the first “science,” as the pursuit of knowledge through language without the need to tie it to any real context of experience. The early philosophers used the abstractions of language to create stories about how life should be lived, again away from life itself. I could continue in this vein, but I hope I have made my point.

We may think by some mysterious biochemical processes, but we express our thoughts in verbally. Even if we are conscious of the systemic world in which we exist, we are limited by language itself to think in terms of abstractions. Complexity, itself, is an abstraction. I can describe it in general terms, but cannot describe it in any particular sense without having the real complex system in front of me. Systems thinking, like language, evolved as a result of humans’ desire to explain the world they experienced and to coordinate action within it. Systems thinking involves an inherently incomplete description of real worlds simply because it is bound by the abstract language we use, but is an attempt to expand upon the limits of the way we use language in everyday situations and in out-of-context analytical efforts of all kinds.

Most of the times, our normal rules for explaining things can tell us what to do, but complexity is different. The basic rule to use here is that no rules can be made to apply. Since we only know how to know how things work through the rules of science, this is a pretty pickle. The typical response when faced with problems springing from complexity is to deny or ignore that they are complex, and treat them as ordinary pieces of the world. We have become, over millennia, very uncomfortable when we cannot explain something or make it do what we want, even with human beings. That is because human beings are inherently complex. They often do what social scientists tell us they will do, but an awful lot of the time they do not. But we ignore this and continue building social structure based on our abstractions.

In the long run, this can’t work. We do know that because we already use another abstraction to a describe our understanding of the limits of unsystematic thinking: unintended consequences. Now I am ready to get back to the beginning of this post. Climate change and ocean rise are very serious and large unintended consequences of ordinary modern life. But ordinary modern life is the result of living in societies built upon the abstractions we have taken up since language showed up and accelerated when the Greeks breathed a new life into it.

If we want to avoid such problems, big and small, not just think what to do about them in the sense of treating their symptoms, we MUST (in caps, italics, and bolded for all the stress I could muster) do a better job about the complexity of the real world. This will require a few initial steps. One, we have to shed our highly nuanced hubris about our ability to understand the world. I use understand in apposition to know. Understand means that we can do a pretty good job in practice; knowing is some abstract way of describing the world out of the context of practice. Two, we have to start to deal with the world through pragmatism. Pragmatism, although not initially intended as such, is a method we can use to do the best job we can to understand and act within complex situations. Best here means the closest we can come to getting what we want out of the situation. Of course, if the system is incapable of giving us what we want, we are deep in proverbial doodoo. (Capitalism, hmm…)

Pragmatism, like science, is built around a method, but a method that has no fixed rules about how to proceed. Pragmatism requires careful observation, over time, about what is going on and how whatever we do to intervene works. Careful rigorous study is important. We have to observe the system in situ. Computer simulation can help determine how best to play with the system, but cannot substitute for what happens in real practice.

Third, we have to learn to be patient, both individually and collectively. Understanding takes time and mistakes along the way. A polarized society will have a very hard time accepting this, since it works largely by claims of knowledge (that’s the problem) and pointing out the other’s mistakes. We want our machines to start immediately and do exactly want we want, and expect the world to act just like a car. But if it fails to work as we wish, we cannot recall it.

Fourth, we have to rebuilt those societal institutions based on abstractions, using a worldly model of complexity. Much of what we have already created in our modern age can stay around, but only in places that do behave more or less like machines. Learning, itself, has to change. A system of knowledge based on disciplines, each with its own abstractions and methods, is the antithesis of what is needed to run the social world. Technocratic public decision and management processes are similarly not suited. Abstractions, like efficiency and cost-benefit, do not fit complex systems. Need I say that this is going to be a very big job. It is, indeed, so big that it is mind boggling, but that is a good word to use to describe complex systems of any significant size.

Fifth and last for today. We have to put humans into the same context of complexity as the rest of the world. That means that we have to understand them in the context of life, instead of as machines as we do through economics, psychology, medical science and all the other ways we now describe human beings. As I noted in the last post, Aristotle understood that one had to examine humans over a lifetime to determine if they were leading a virtuous life, otherwise stated, if they had achieved eudaemonia or flourishing. I have written much about care as the central feature that distinguishes humans from all other beings. In thinking about this post, I see that care, whatever else it means, has a pragmatic context to it. Care means acting in the comple real world of the moment to create the conditions that produce some measure of goodness in the target(s) of that action. Goodness here means some condition that is consistent with whatever potential the entity possesses. It was best expressed, perhaps, by Also Leopold in his Land Ethic.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

I have simply tried to say much the same thing in this post, but using the daily abstractions that are more common. His use of community is that of a systems thinker, far more encompassing in scope that of the forest science he practiced. But then forestry is one of the most systemic of all professions.

ps. The picture is a rendering of what might have happened to London during the Eemian Period.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 22, 2015 2:03 PM ::