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


Today (7/31/15), 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 ::


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 July 31, 2015 8:48 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 ::

Tying Together Some Loose Ends

loose ends

I have a very interesting dream last night, clearly triggered by what I had been thinking about during the day. I was writing a blog post about what I discovered in doing some background research: my use of flourishing to describe successful human life falls into the philosophic domain of “virtue ethics.” My specific focus on flourishing is the central topic in a subdivision of that discipline called, Eudaimonism, the Greek word Aristotle used to describe the outcome of living a virtuous (or good) life. The equivalent English word that comes closest is flourishing; happiness is perhaps more commonly used, but philosophers (and I) prefer the more ontologically relevant one, flourishing.

I have written about this before on many occasions, but my dream pointed me in a new direction. I was struck by this sentence I found in a Wikipedia article on virtue ethics. For those interested in the topic, itself, here are a few opening lines from that article.

Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.” …Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example, a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty. Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, theories of virtue ethics do not aim primarily to identify universal principles that can be applied in any moral situation. And virtue ethics theories deal with wider questions—“How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”

Later in the article, the author writes about Aristotle’s work on ethics.

Aristotle then observes that where a thing has a function the good of the thing is when it performs its function well. For example, the knife has a function, to cut, and it performs its function well when it cuts well. This argument is applied to man: man has a function and the good man is the man who performs his function well. Man’s function is what is peculiar to him and sets him aside from other beings—-reason. Therefore, the function of man is reason and the life that is distinctive of humans is the life in accordance with reason. If the function of man is reason, then the good man is the man who reasons well. This is the life of excellence or of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is the life of virtue—-activity in accordance with reason, man’s highest function.

The bolded sentence jumped off the page and grabbed me by the corners of my mind because it made much instantly clear that has been cloudy for me. I suspect Heidegger may have had the same kind of thought since he has said one main purposes of his magnum opus, Being and Time, was to set Aristotle on his head and start from scratch to discover the “function” of human being. I am using function in a sense that characterizes the most fundamental character of any entity, one that makes it distinct from others. Aristotle saw reason as the most fundamental, and created the model on which Western thought and societal development has evolved ever since. Flourishing (eudaimonia) comes as an individual lives life virtuously, that is, living a life through reasoning.

Now, compressing Heidegger into a few words (if that is indeed possible), simply substitute care for reason. Heidegger thought the “function” of human Being is care. What made us distinct as an entity that is distinct in a world of infinite other phenomena (our ontology) is that human life is built around care for the world we inhabit. We are able to perceive that world, make sense of it, and act intentionally within it. Sounds straight-forward, but you should then ask, “How do we determine how to put our intentions into play in a meaningful way? Isn’t there another necessary step? What rules ought we invoke to make the right choice among an infinite set of possibilities?” The historical response is some form of ethics or standards of rightness of our subsequent acts. But any such criterion of rightness would have been determined by reason, taking us right back to the place we started without shedding any light.

A virtue ethic built on care neatly by-passes that problem, but needs another missing link. That link is language. Language is a necessary prerequisite to sense-making. Things make sense to us and others only if and when we can describe them in language. The distinctiveness explicitness of the world is created through language. Heidegger said “Language is the house of being.” Taken by itself, it is difficult to make sense of this sentence, but, if you replace “being” by “care,” it becomes clearer. In order to care, one must be able to bring meaning to the immediate world of phenomena, the middle step in the sequence above. Being is a very difficult word to understand, especially as Heidegger uses it; its verbal form suggests it is about doing something, that is, functioning in some way peculiar to it. Human are human because they care; knives are knives because they cut, rocks are rocks because they are hard, and so on. Such ontological statements quickly get fuzzy when entities have multiple functions.

Now to another aha moment for me. One of my major criticisms about the way modern cultures plan ahead and solve problems that arise in implementing those plans is that all of our processes involved in these two steps are based on abstractions: images and rules that have been constituted by taking them out of the context from which they relate to. But the meaning of language in practice is inherently context dependent. The same words may take on different meanings in different contexts. Although I cannot prove it, it seems to me that language itself is an abstraction from a complex world; every word we use originated in a particular context, some instantaneous, unique configuration of the world out there and in the course of some action being performed that related to that context. What I just wrote describes “caring.” It was invented and had a meaning that came from its particular context, but, of course, that context changes from instant to instant. Once the words were invented and settled into the (metaphorical) collective memory, they could be used in the process of caring by both individuals and groups, at another moment.

Language, thus, is inherently an abstraction. When ever we use it, we simultaneously create a world of meaning, but not the real, complex, highly interconnected world that is always out there and in which we exist. When Descartes codified the reductionist method of science, he merely circumscribed a particular kind of abstraction, one that was explicitly valid only within its own bounded, known context. One core of reductionist scientific methodology is control over experiments, another way of providing a singular context. Language, then, cannot fully describe the actual world in which we humans act, that is, exercise our fundamental function of caring. It only can reflect a part of it, usually that which is most familiar to us based on our life experience up to that point. Gregory Bateson must have understood this when he wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

I hope you will begin to connect the dots, as I am trying to do. My major thesis for quite a while has been that unsustainability or any other way of talking about the unintended consequences of our policies and societal structure in terms of both bad outcomes and failures to achieve our goals, is due to a faulty set of beliefs about the world; beliefs that have come from thinkers as far back as Aristotle and even farther. One is the failure to hold phenomenal complexity, rather than analytic simplicity, as our basic way of giving meaning to the world. It’s tough to do otherwise, given the abstract nature of the elements of our analytic systems that are built on numbers and words. The other is manifest in Aristotle’s virtue of reason as the fundamental nature of humans. Reason is bounded by the language used to construct sentences and cannot, thus, be an accurate and complete picture of what is means to be a human being. Care seems to be closer to our real, that is, fundamental, mode of existence.

A few last thoughts. Another sentence in the Wikipedia article also got my attention. It reads, “Judgments of virtue are judgments of a whole life rather than of one isolated action.” It’s another way to point to the necessity of finding meaning in a holistic way, some way that does the best possible job of illuminating the context in which action has taken place. One caring action does not make a caring human, but a lifetime of care might. Care is not just any old virtue. There is a strong normative, pragmatic sense to it. Humans have become the highly evolved species we are by effectively caring for ourselves and for the surrounding world over millennia.

The language we use has mirrored that effectiveness and, in a way, contains the combined experience of human life on the planet. If we can learn to put it back into its complex worldly context, we should be able to cope much better that we seem to be doing lately. If we do, human life will almost certainly be different from that of our modern world, but may support a lasting existence as the caring creatures we are. If that should happen, we will have reached the state of eudaimonia that Aristotle foresaw as the most desirable way of human existence. I would use a different, more familiar term and say that we would have found a way to flourish. By noticing that such a state is to determined over sufficiently long times to smooth the momentary vagaries of context, it also implies that the world itself must then flourish as well.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 16, 2015 5:24 PM ::

Ecomodernism is Not the Answer!

nuclear plant

Summer has finally come and with it lots of fish have arrived in our bays. I know it might seem contradictory to be a fisherman and an advocate for flourishing at the same time. I always release my catch and use barbless hooks to minimize any damage to the fish. Most time spent on the water is still and very peaceful as striped bass in Maine are few and far between. But once I have a bite, it soon turns into a battle; stripers can fight very hard. Yesterday, my rod snapped in two while trying to boat a big one. Even with that, I managed to pull the fish up to the boat and release it. It was a good one. This summer, boat traffic seems much lower than usual, allowing me to enjoy the scene in peace and quiet.

I am finding it harder and harder to write these posts and also to work on my current book. I use the time on the water to think about this. I am caught on the horns of a proverbial dilemma, maybe a trilemma. One stream of thought focuses on how to wake us up to recognize how our addiction to the beliefs and norms of Modernity have become dysfunctional and the resulting world increasingly dystopian. The second is to mount a convincing argument that the necessary replacements for these beliefs and norms are present-at-hand, that is, already out there but unrecognized as such. The third is to probe mechanisms for bringing the first two together such that the new concepts and processes actually take over in practice, not merely in theory.

I am heartened by observations that more and more people are aware of the dystopic conditions that are growing among us humans and also the rest of the world we inhabit. But, and that is a big “but,” I do not see any lessening of their attempts to change the situation by tinkering bases on the current system of thought and action. We/they are guilty of persisting to ignore Einstein’s counsel not to solve our problems by thinking the same way that created them in the first place. I could have used many other such warnings or aphorisms in place of this well known phrase. I will spend the rest of this post focused on the first of these three issues: our stuckness in the ways of thinking and acting that are at the roots of our persisting concern with sustainability as a future world that works for both humans and non-humans. One of the problems with those who worry about such things is that they have little or no ideas about how that world should be. If not made explicit, it usually is a world much like today’s except that humans and non-humans exist in two independent, functioning spheres; the latter protected from the former by a shield of technology.

The most direct conversation with this theme comes from the Breakthrough Institute and a related manifesto on ecomodernization. The Breakthrough Institute harbors a group firmly rooted in the belief that technology can provide the best of all possible world. Their “solution” for global warming relies heavily on nuclear power. The following quote is taken from a post on their blog by Mark Sagoff, titled, “A Theology for Ecomodernism: What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?”

The recently published ecomodernist manifesto, of which I am a coauthor, has much to say about how society will be able to protect the natural environment. The best way to protect nature, on this account, is for us to depend on it less and to rely on technology more to support human needs. “Nature unused,” ecomodernists argue, “is nature spared.” This manifesto is largely silent, however, on the question of what kind of nature we want to spare and why we want to spare it. Ecomodernists, along with the advocates of ne conservation, should do more to define the difference — if it is not the absence of human taint — that distinguishes the parts of nature they want to conserve from, well, everything. If all baselines are arbitrary and if all of nature has been profoundly influenced by human activity, then what exactly is the object of conservation?

Sagoff touches, as do most of those signing on to the ecomodernism thesis, almost entirely on the side of the nature of nature, omitting discussion of the condition of humanity. By bifurcating the relationships between the two, they make a serious error or, better, several errors. The first is they unconsciously continue the hubristic modern views of scientific knowledge and its offspring, technology, that Descartes, Bacon, and other Enlightenment thinkers buried deep in the western culture that followed and still surrounds our daily lives. Here’s a quote from Francis Bacon: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bid her to your service and make her your slave.”

A second error follows. The ecomodernists have, like so many, failed to think in systems terms. Nothing they propose gets at the roots of the problem. They have fallen into the trap of a common, unsystemic behavioral pattern called “shifting the burden.” In this mode of operation, actors continue to apply fixes to the symptoms which practice leads them further and further away from a focus on its roots and, often, deeper into the problem at hand. Our modernist love of technology has gone even further in systems dynamics terms, to become an addiction. This occurs when the continued application of fixes creates new problems of such magnitude that the original issues fade away. Unsustainability, as a constellation of issues/problems, has arisen, in part, from our unthinking reliance on market economics as the solution to all social problems. Technology continues to be the primary tool to improve efficiency. Unsustainability is an unintended consequence (not “side-effect”) of this addiction. Other normal practices also contribute.

Nothing much is going to happen to alleviate or eliminate unsustainability until we address its systemic root causes. These are many, but the two, I believe are most responsible for our situation, are our reductionist methods and view of the world and a related mechanistic belief in homo economicus as the model to explain human behavior. Both are firmly rooted in the ecomodernist programme. Systems thinkers know that the world is complex, and not generally amenable to analytic modeling. By using reductionist methods and tools, of which technology is an example, we fail to map human activities onto the “real” world with now serious unintended consequences.

Our stuckness, which is normal in well-established societies with well-established power hierarchies, keeps us in the shifting-the-burden mode. Our disciplines today, although powerful, are fundamentally reductionist as is the “science” on which they are based. The real challenge that ecomodernism poses for us to be able to keep one foot in our disciplines (we need an anchor), but let our minds wander into the same place where the problems come from. The beliefs that are the culprits rest in our individual cognitive systems and in the metaphorical “collective mind” of our society. If we are to change these foundational beliefs to a set that works, we must all learn to be pragmatists, as well as scientists.

There is no magic in these beliefs. They were just that, words, until powerful men (only men at the time) put them into practice whereupon they became embedded (and hidden) in the cultural structure and in our heads. They now appear to be written in stone and so we continue to accept them, unthinkingly, and operate only at the surface. There is no analytically based way to find the future we want. Analysis can, at best, only reproduce the past. We must re-invent the future, ab initio. For me that future is flourishing, a quality that defies being reduced to numbers of any kind. The same goes for new beliefs; any that can be analytically derived from the present ones will not work. We have a paradigmatically different view of reality, complexity, already available to us. It is a better in terms of fit, I claim, belief about the real world, but confounds our analytic minds. That’s why I argue to replace our reliance of positivism by pragmatism, which thinking processes can move us forward towards this vision, even if we cannot exactly describe the system we are within.

Returning to the introductory quote, Sagoff is a philosopher, who is using his discipline to find arguments for maintain, but improving, the status quo. Disciplinary thinking, whether it be philosophy, economics, engineering, science, or whatever, cannot cope with our dilemmas. All disciplines are children of Descartes’ reductionistic model of knowledge. The failure to think in systems terms is one of the most serious causes of our current problems. I’ll end today with two related aphorisms from Gregory Bateson, a wonderful and original systems thinker, who marvelously described our situation:

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

Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 10, 2015 1:01 PM ::

Sustainability and the US Supreme Court


The opinions rendered in the landmark cases of the last few days provide an example for all who are interested in and concerned about sustainability. Chief Justice Roberts argued in his opinion, upholding the Affordable Care Act, that the contested phase in question could not be understood out of the context of the entire statute that it is embedded in. Further that context clearly, in his opinion and that of his co-opining Justices, was designed to solve a social problem of significant magnitude. Many commentators agreed with him against the textualists (Scalia and others) that meaning is to be found in the particular text under scrutiny. For the textualists, only the words, themselves, carry meaning; the context in which they rest is irrelevant. I am solidly in the camp of the contextualists.

Now let’s take this interpretation and examine the word, sustainability, and how it is being used to create and justify action. Sustainability never means anything without some reference to a system and properties of that system that are to be sustained. So when we begin to examine what is being done in the name of sustainability, we must consider the system and what is to be maintained. In the case of the ACA, the system is the US society as a whole, and the health of the people and their right to decent health care is what is to be maintained. Looking at the other immediate decision about the “right” to marriage for homosexuals, again the system is the US society and the property to be maintained is dignity, as Justice Kennedy (pictured) so eloquently wrote in his majority opinion.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

In the latter case, Justice Kennedy points to the context of the Constitution as a whole and picks out dignity as the particular property to be sustained. Of course in both cases, it may take a while for the system to adjust to a point where these properties are present in sufficient amounts to be deemed sustainable. From a contextualists point of view, we must identify both the system that provides the context and the property that is to sustained, either presently or after it has been created in sufficient amount. My problem with the word and its application have to do with both pieces, context and property. The word, itself, was plucked out of the dictionary and crammed into public awareness by the 1987 publication by the UN of the book, Our Common Future (generally known as the Brundtland Report).

Sustainable development, as it proposed, would produce a future that was fair for all, metaphorically including the Earth. Its intent was to place environment solidly into the hegemonic economically driven political agendas of governments. Its context was the whole world’s socio-economic-environmental system, and the unfair history of economic growth and its concomitant use and spoilage of nature. Two tightly connected problems were to be addressed: unfair economic growth among countries and regions, and the limits of the environment to support unlimited growth now and in the future. Future generations were to be included in the system. As a policy instrument, it has been largely impotent to stop either continuing environmental predation and degradation and unfair economic development.

Of significance to current practices, the word sustainability, was not included, out of this context. But something not so unusual has happened in the almost thirty years since the report’s publication, the context has been lost. Words tend to do that, as legal and linguistic contextualist scholars tend to note. Today, when companies, particularly, or governments speak of sustainability, they look only at their own narrow contexts, not the same world of Brundtland. They presume, but fail to incorporate realistic connections, that what they do will have positive impacts on the whole system, but they have the wrong system and properties as criteria. But so did the original Brundtland report. It had the world system right, but sought to sustain economic growth, both then and now, as the system property of primary and singular concern. Those invoking sustainability, then and now, make a categorical error. They mistake a process, growth, as a system property, instead of emergent systemic properties like flourishing or justice, or many other possibilities.

The lack of justice or equity among nations and generations was one of the key reasons behind the drive propelled by Brundtland and the many actions that have followed. The failure for the Earth, comprising its humans and the rest of the system, to flourish was the other. Focus, then and now, has been on the symptoms of illth (as Herman Daly called the unhealthy state of today’s world), like habitat destruction, pollution, health, climate change, and so on. I call them unsustainability, but not in the sense of impeding growth. I refer to the inability to maintain justice and flourishing as the reasons to care about the state of the world, whether you look at it from either side of a half-filled glass. Growth is increasingly being recognized as one of the causes of illth and the the loss of capability to produce and sustain justice and flourishing. I tend to concatenate these two into flourishing as the single normative goal for the world and its manifold polities. We are surely far from being able to do that. That is one clear reason to stop talking about sustainability.

Almost all efforts carrying the name sustainability or sustainable in them look only at the system of bads we are producing as unintended consequences of our normal, dominant belief in growth as the purveyor of human happiness. Most sustainability efforts are some form of eco-efficiency or remediation, neither of which affects the critical entire system. They always focus on a mere piece of the puzzle, the company’s explicit contributions to harms, that is, these efforts are self-referential. Such efforts are to be welcomed for making, hopefully, the harms less worse, but also tend to allow the actors to become even less mindful of the systemic nature of the problems. This is why all the sustainability reports in the world cannot bring forth justice or flourishing. The are useful for discriminating among individual efforts, but not about the effectiveness of these efforts as a whole. Only the whole relates to the system.

The Dutch, some time ago, recognized the nature of this situation and allocated reduction goals to industrial sectors, who then passed along reduction targets to individual entities, using models of

“environmental utilisation space” a concept that “reflects that at any given point in time, there are limits to the amount of environmental pressure that the Earth’s ecosystems can handle without irreversible damage to these systems or to the life support processes that they enable”…The “society” for which the biosphere provides services is of course global. As defined by Weterings and Opschoor (the authors of the Dutch paper proposing this idea), environmental space similarly means the space available to humanity as a whole for utilisation of stocks and sinks. At least, this applies to stocks that are globally tradeable, and sinks that are global in extent. However, the same authors point out that the recognition of global limits forces us to face the issue of how environmental space is to be allocated between nations and regions.

While understood as only a partial answer, they made the Earth system context explicit, but we never got even that far here in the US. Those that do understand both the whole system context and the need to select one or more emergent properties, not some internal process, as the normative goal, are critical of the efforts of the US and virtual all modern polities being made in the name of sustainability. We do not question the intentions to stop the social and environmental bleeding, but are quite certain that tourniquets being placed only on a limb of the system will not do the necessary job. The implicit or explicit reliance on growth as the cure for the ills that lie within the whole system must be replaced by some other engine of social and environmental health. That’s a very hard message, but pops right out when one’s focus expands to encompass the whole system we call home.

Without that as the context for what we name as our norms and processes, we are stuck in our present retrograde trajectory. The great steps forward in American jurisprudence and American life have been made only when the whole context of our Constitutional system emerges. In the classic case that established the right to privacy, Justice Douglas wrote as a basis for the majority opinion, “In other words, the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion.” If we are to flourish, similarly to privacy as a system property, we need to recognize and act within the “penumbra” of the whole world.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 28, 2015 2:42 PM ::

Charleston Was No Accident; It Came Out of "The System"

Like so many others, I cannot get the shootings in Charleston out of the center of my mental screen, but, before I continue, it’s important to tell you where I stand on the matter of guns, even though that’s not the theme of this post. I am strongly opposed to the prevalence of firearms in the US. And I am also skeptical about virtually every proposed solution to deal with the non-obvious result of having so many firearms, the world record on non-military homicides. It is not as obvious as those who are appalled by what has been happening here argue.

The issue here is the same one I wrote about concerning sustainability. Our responses to gun violence are only aimed only at the symptoms, not the causes. Gun control measures are analogous to recycling. They aim to make the problem less worse, but have little or nothing to do with the basic causes. The most recent murderous act in Charleston had exposed this. Gun violence is deeply embedded in our culture, and so is its variant, gun violence against blacks. Until we are ready to admit to these roots and change our beliefs and values, we will still lead the “enlightened” world in violent acts. I have plotted some publicly available data on guns and homicides to see if some sort of explanatory patterns might result. I find the data do tell a unique story about the US.

The first graph plots the number of guns per 100 people against GDP. I wanted to see if there was some correlation between wealth and gun ownership. Since guns cost money, I expected some upward trend and found it as the correlation line indicates, but the US is a huge outlier, requiring some non-economic explanation. I will come to that later, but first some more data.

No 1.jpg

The next plot shows the homicide incidence plotted against GDP. The data clearly divide into two groups, the rich and the poor. The poor countries show very high rates of gun violence, but form a distinct cluster with quite a bit of scatter. Almost every South and Central American country falls into this group, that is, low wealth and high violence. India is an interesting exception with very low GDP, but homicide rates like the rich European countries that fall on the high end of the GDP axis.

No 2.jpg

Looking at that end, the US is once again an outlier with a rate of homicides about 15 times the average of other wealthy countries. The average poor country has a rate of violence almost 90 times that of the wealthy countries (without USA included) and about 40 times that when the US is included.

No 3.jpg

The last plot shows the homicide rate against the frequency of gun ownership. Except for two outliers, Honduras and the US, there seems to be little correlation, that is, the level of violence indicated by gun homicides and the number of guns are unrelated. Again we can see that the US is an outlier. The opponents of gun ownership making their arguments largely on 1st amendments rights and invoking excessive threats to life and property fail to see or simply ignore the fact that the US cannot be compared to any other country rich or poor. Any way you look at it, we have a different relationship to guns than the rest of the world.

If gun homicide frequency can be taken as an indicator of general societal threat level, we should not need so many guns to protect ourselves, as this last graph shows. The relationship between gun ownership and homicides as an indicator of societal danger is weak and fails to explain why a country with so little relative violence (measured by homicide levels) needs so many guns. I have inverted the usual relationships and used homicides, as the independent variable.

Now let me get to the point. If we want to understand and do something about the terrible consequence of gun violence, we must find something other that trying to regulate gun purchases. The NRA’s opposition to gun control is more likely a ploy to keep us focused on the wrong issues that a real concern that gun control will change much. As I argue when I write about flourishing or sustainability, the problems arise from a systemic set of causes. Recycling or carbon taxes may make the problems less bad, but have no effect on the processes that create the problem in the first place. The real culprit creating unsustainability is our culture and its underlying structure of beliefs and norms. If we do not change our fundamental, modern beliefs about the world, all our technical fixes will come to no avail. Behind every program with the name of sustainability is the intention to continue to grow economically. But growth is not the correct target; it should be flourishing. Growth, even eco-efficient growth, cannot continue forever in a finite world in spite of the flag waving of technological optimists.

Gun control is no more than such a technical fix to a problem arising from our culture. There is no rational reason to own a gun for protection against random violence. The data I showed above negate this argument. Nor is there any real threat of government suppression, but the American creation story lives still. Our nation was born out of a reaction to such suppression by another sovereign, but it is rationally so unlikely that our own sovereign, that is, we, will turn against ourselves that this argument falls flat. Against the First Amendment arguments, the right to bear arms does not mean that it is right to carry arms. If we are serious about reducing the prevalence of gun deaths in the US to the same level that other similarly modern countries exhibit, it is imperative that we examine the system within which these events occur, and find causes and solutions at that level.

Events like the Charleston massacre are not an accident as Rick Perry said. Shame on you, Rick Perry. This was the result of the white supremacy culture still deeply embedded in the old South. It is no longer politically correct to talk out of a racist mouth, but actions belie the words. The notion of supremacy is even more dangerous when coupled with the frontier mentality that still lingers in many parts of the US. The egalitarian principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence are a mockery when seen against the idea of Southern or Western justice at the end of a rope or gun. Violence is in our DNA and will continue to shape action until we face that fact and change it is we want to.

We are the arms dealer to the world. We believe we can dominate other nations, less superior to us for reasons not unlike those invoked in historic arguments about race in the US, by out gunning them. If we do not start to examine both our violent foundations and our persistent racism, we will only continue to suffer the consequences of gun violence both at home and abroad.

I find it very sad and disheartening that the conversations that accompany violent acts such as that in Charleston show such complete lack of both systemic understanding and empathy for those caught up in twisted thinking of gun owners. This extract from a Guardian article was the trigger for this post.

Board member Charles Cotton, however, strayed from the script late on Thursday, when he posted a comment online blaming the pastor killed in the South Carolina shooting, Clementa Pinckney, for the death of his eight congregants.…Cotton, who did not return a message left at his Houston-area law firm, pointed out on a Texas gun forum that Pinckney was a state senator who had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.…“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

The “script” mentioned is the practice of avoiding any comment on noteworthy killings. I find this the ultimate in proposing a purely technical fix instead of a system examination. More guns is clearly not a solution unless we want to see more and more public shootings. The data above also show that more guns are poorly correlated against violence.

So let me begin an investigation into ways to reduce gun violence in the US at least to the level of our sister developed, rich nations. Looking at the first graph, we can see a very strong relationship between wealth (or poverty) and gun violence. I suspect that gun deaths are a good proxy for violence in general. This alone is a good excuse for poverty reduction beyond the moral foundation of our Nation. Apologists for gun ownership like to point out that our outlying position, vis a vis, other wealthy nations would not be so extreme if we segregated the data from inner cities. They are correct, but that’s just the point. Our inner cities have gun death statistics similar to the cluster of poor nations. More guns to keep the minority inhabitants of the inner cities under control is absolutely the wrong solution. I know there is much written about this by scholars much better trained than I am. For me, and I hope you, it doesn’t take rocket science (or a good sociologist) to see through the smoke and haze that accompany our public discussions of gun violence and what to do about it. Let’s start with inequality and old still-festering prejudices of all sorts, racism being the name of only one.

Prejudices are part of being human. Everything that means anything to us is the result of filtering a meaningless world of perceptions through what might be called our prejudices. There is nothing good or bad about this statement. That we see a white and a black person as different beyond their skin color is the result of a prejudice. We cannot help that, but what we can and should do is not to act unthinkingly on our prejudices without further considerations. Life gets dicey when our prejudices conflict with the moral structure of society. It is clear to me that this is happening in spades. We do need, as many are saying now, a national conversation about racism and classism (which has become even more prevalent that racism writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis). Only through a process that exposes the systemic causes of the problems we want to get rid can we begin to make progress. I urge all those who believe that better gun control will solve the problem to take another look.

ps. Removing the Confederate flag won’t change anything significantly. It might make matters even worse as visible signs of a pathological prejudice would disappear, thus appearing to have dealt with the source. Relabeling a bottle of whiskey as milk has no effect on an alcoholic.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 23, 2015 10:19 PM ::

Little Words Matter


I followed a link to an article from the Sri Lanka Sunday Times entitled, “Consuming with care: The why and how.” Since care is central to my strategy for flourishing, I dug into the article. The author is commenting on the World Environment Day (just held on June 5th) theme this year: “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Sounds good but these seemingly powerful words lost something when I read the short description of the theme:

The WED theme this year is therefore “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Living within planetary boundaries is the most promising strategy for ensuring a healthy future. Human prosperity need not cost the earth. Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less. It is about knowing that rising rates of natural resource use and the environmental impacts that occur are not a necessary by-product of economic growth.

The message turn out to be little more that a plea for eco-efficiency. “Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less,” is not about caring; it’s about reducing the human impact on the Earth. Full stop! This strategy deals only with the symptoms of our malaise, that is, unsustainability. As I have often written, “Reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability (-as-flourishing). It is both true and compelling that we lessen our footprint, but that will not bring us flourishing or any other norm that we would want to sustain. Sustainability in the sense of the article pertains to the maintenance of growth, but in a way that preserves the life-support capacity of the Earth. This statement is all and only about growth as both end and means. That is a terrible combination. The proper end must be something like flourishing or another word to describe the fullness of being. Growth will not get us there; so far it has moved us further and further away, even as we have gotten richer overall.

A simple and seemingly minor shift in the theme might do much better. If the theme read, “Consume for Care” or “Consume to Care,” the intentional role of the actor as a caring being would become clear. “Care” as it appears in the theme relates to paying attention to the planetary boundaries. A good idea, but not caring in the sense of acting to support the well-being of the other. This kind of caring is close to loving the other. Accepting the existence of the other on their terms and acting from an understanding of those terms. Love and care of this sort have become replaced by affective notions, that is, about feelings in place of actions. Words like care and love, like other verbal forms arose out of observations of distinctive actions that needed labels so that humans could talk about or reproduce them by calling up the names. It was only later that they became reified and took on thing-like characters, identified by their form as nouns.

That’s the problem with the theme above. Care appears as a thing, a way of being, but not “being” directing. To regain or create a flourishing world, we must truly care for it, that is, take care of it. That kind of care requires that we understand our interconnections with the Earth and our place within the planetary system. Worrying about its boundaries is an abstraction that is hollow and lifeless. There is no love or care there. We lose sight of the real world so long as we follow some sort of gauge. We cannot measure flourishing; we can recognize it only by observing it directly. The act of care carries a sense of responsibility that is fundamental to it. Such responsibility is only partially or indirectly there when one recycles or does some other eco-efficient act. Worse, it produces a false sense of true caring, by interposing some intermediate end in the way.

At the risk of going into the clouds, the care I talk about is fundamental to being human; it is ontological, that is it is central to out distinctiveness as beings in the world. No other being, animate or not, cares. (At least we think that is the case, but we cannot be sure, as we do not understand the language of other beings.). Such care is intentional and ethical because we act out of a sense of doing something good for the other. Another word that come close is loving-kindness, a word I remember from my Jewish upbringing. It too has lost its active sense. Merriam-Webster defines it as “tender and benevolent affection,” turning it into a feeling. I cannot think of a simple, everyday adjective to make it’s meaning clear. Loving care come close as it connoted the sense of acceptance and understanding of the other’s needs.

Instead, I turn to the prepositions that are used to place care in context. Act for care, act out of care, act to care are close; none are perfect. All do a better job of adding some context of intentionality or responsibility. “To” is probably best as the preposition “to” serves to introduce action as well as direction. So, I will go with “to.” To consume is merely a form of action. So next year, perhaps the World Environment Day organizers will change the slogan to “Consume to Care.” Such acts have dual results. The other gets taken care and you feel better. When all of us have done enough caring of this kind, we will not only feel better, we will recognize that we are flourishing, living to the fullest extent of our potential.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 8, 2015 11:43 AM ::