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Internet Addicts Anonymous

inattention For a long time I have been asserting that technology, which has become a generic remedy for all our concerns, is a cultural addiction. We almost always look to some form of technology whenever a society-wide problem crops up, but also turn to some device to solve our individual problems. The results of such mindless, reactive practices are several-fold. First, the underlying problem is usually left unaddressed, leaving the causes in place waiting to produce more symptoms after a while. This pattern is called fixes-that-fail by systems thinkers. If the root causes persist over long periods, the behavior shifts to a more pathological pattern of addiction or “shifting-the-burden.” Here the lack of attention to the real causes creates new problems (addiction) or prevents the actor(s) from addressing them.

A second result is the potential appearance of unintended consequences. The technological artifact may not only fail to fix the problem, but may also introduce new, unintended consequences. This gets more and more potentially dangerous as the scale of the technology become larger. I am sure one of the main topics of conversation in the upcoming Paris conference on climate change will be the use of geo-engineering projects to stop or reverse the warming due to the release of greenhouse gases. These comprise huge programs, for example, to change to reflectivity of the atmosphere so that more of the solar energy impinging on the Earth is reflected back into space. If, as many claim, we do not fully understand the complex processes that cause climate change, it is utter hubris to assert that such technological fixes come with insignificant downsides, especially if we look forward to the seventh generation that Native Americans used as a standard for contemplating the future impacts of actions taken today.

The third issue with many of today’s technologies is that they problematize ethical responsibility by separating the actor from the act in time and space. Can the controller of a drone sitting in a trailer 10,000 miles for the war zone be held responsible for the “collateral damage” caused by pulling the trigger. The classical ethical criterion of knowingly causing harm has become very fuzzy as technology interposes itself between the actor and the outcome. This is, for many, one of the criticisms against introducing GMO’s into the economy.

The fourth is related to the last but focuses not on the ethical outcomes of individual acts. A technological device by its inherent nature always acts as a filter, changing the perceptions, and consequently the actions, of the user from those that would have been realized in its absence. This is not necessarily bad, as many devices are designed to improve our actions, but the system often filters out some of the meaning-giving context of the situation. I was intrigued by an article in today’s NYTime Sunday Review (November 29, 2015) that points to recent increases in “analog things” in our digital culture.

Since then, I’ve been tuned in to evidence that our digital culture appears to have a case of analog fever. The rising sales of vinyl records, for instance, have been widely chronicled. E-book sales dropped by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, but Amazon’s physical shop has plenty of company: The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,410 in 2010. You can’t scroll through a lifestyle app without finding news of a precious new print journal’s launch party; Etsy is thick with letterpress-printed offerings; and the digital-only publication Vox recently published an impassioned brief on behalf of the video rental store. The writer and artist David Rees hyped his TV show “Going Deep” by skipping Twitter and Facebook in favor of putting up old-school promotional fliers — an “analog social media strategy,” as he called it. And so on.

My quick analysis leads me to the importance of touch and to context. Most, if not, all of these items provide touch in addition to other sensory inputs. They also carry contextual meaning, missing from the digital object. Many of us older folk learned what a book was when our parents read bedtime stories to us. Even if we did not understand what we heard, we got to understand the meaning of “book.” Although many children now get a digital device in their early years, real books are still the medium that works up to the first iPad acquisition. I wish this trend would be true for the acquisition of “analog” friends instead of the digital copies found on the many social media.

A second article in the same section raised concerns over the addictive power of technology, particularly digital forms. In writing the blog post, I can see a connection between the two. There’s something about all the all the different outcomes I discuss above. The author, Tony Schwartz, described, first his addiction to the Internet, and, then, the way he used to kick his habit. He wrote:

Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.

He found that he could not stay focused on reading the pile of books that had accumulated bedside, noting that, “Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website…” He was caught up in the web that is designed to ensnare so many these days as he quoted another author on the subject.

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

This feature of digital technology was observed much earlier. In 1998, Linda Stone coined the phrase, “continuous partial attention” to describe the constant shifting from one mode and item to another. She noted the difference from multi-tasking, then also very popular, where full attention jumps from one thing to another.

I won’t go into detail into his adaptation of the AA’s twelve-step method he used to deal with his habit. Only with great effort, including cold turkey Internet-free vacations, was he able to restore his ability to focus attention on what he deemed important. The article is tragicomic, well worth reading because he is speaking to a huge and growing problem. The ending describes a scene that is, as he says, haunting.

Occasionally, I find myself returning to a haunting image from the last day of my vacation. I was sitting in a restaurant with my family when a man in his early 40s came in and sat down with his daughter, perhaps 4 or 5 years old and adorable. Almost immediately, the man turned his attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness, standing up on her seat, walking around the table, waving and making faces to get her father’s attention. Except for brief moments, she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 29, 2015 2:20 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

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 November 29, 2015 8:48 AM ::

Thanksgiving 2015


It is a beautiful New England autumn day. I am sitting in my third floor office looking out at a sunlit scene. The hammering that has been incessant for several weeks is missing. Construction is all around our house. Ruth is downstairs making pies to take with us to friends for dinner. Our family. It is a perfect day to reflect.

Being in a philosophical mood these days, the first thing that crosses my mind is, “What does it mean to be thankful?” I find this question very difficult to probe. What does it mean to be thankful? To what or whom are we directing our thanks? Is thankfulness the same as gratitude? A little research on the web and in my own library led me to a couple of thoughts. The following discussion uses information and quotes I took from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, searching on gratitude and thankfulness.

First, both of these terms are reactive in nature, that is, they express our feelings following some act of another. Much of the time the other is some general entity, not explicitly named in our expression of gratitude. Thank goodness the falling branch missed me directs our thanks to “goodness,” but that seems to me to be a euphemism for God or some mystical force lurking in the cosmic background that is protecting me from harm. Aristotle used the term to express thanks for being human and able to aspire to be god-like.

Gratitude includes an aspiration to holiness, a resolve to fulfill the commandments so that one imitates God, to the extent possible for a human being, through attaining understanding and acting in ways informed by understanding.

The other way thankfulness or gratitude appears is following an act or series of acts that provide some sort of benefit. In this case there is a human actor involved. Thank you for opening the door or pouring water into my glass are common examples. Some philosophers have argued that this kind of gratitude is a moral duty. The British philosopher, W.D. Ross, includes the duty to thank those who help us in a short list of acts to express our fundamental moral nature. According to another Brit, Peter Strawson, the reactive attitudes, like gratitude “are essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions”

I found one cynical reference to gratitude, written during the 17th century by, a prominent salonnière in seventeenth-century Paris, Madame de Sablé.

Sometimes one only recognizes a favor in order to establish one’s reputation or even to be more firmly ungrateful toward favors one does not wish to recognize” (Maxim no. 74). Rather than expressing spontaneous gratitude, public expressions of thanksgiving are a calculated expression of one’s desire to acquire social power or to elude the moral duty to recognize one’s actual debts.

Gratitude appears in the list of basic human capabilities itemized by Martha Nussbaum in her interpretation of Amartya Sen’s basic argument of what it means to be human. Sen defined a human’s ability to live a “good life” in terms of the possession of a set of existential capabilities. Nussbaum developed an explicit set of such capabilities that includes emotional expression as one. The ability to express gratitude or love is one of her examples.

So with this little background, what is Thanksgiving all about? The background as a National Holiday seems to me to fit the first definition: thanking a generalized force for providing the context for allowing me to be alive and exactly in the place I am right now. Given that the path from my birth to today has been shaped by a myriad of beneficial acts since the birth of this nation and before, my thanks, today, must go to all of them because life might be very different if even one were not there. In this period of political bickering, complaining, and dissing of the government, this sense of thanks has gotten lost. It’s like the old saw of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. None of us would be in a position to give thanks without the umbrella of a state. Even with what we do have, we seem to be testing the Enlightenment idea of a state of nature where the absence of a common protective shield sets everyone against everyone else.

For many, I suspect, the connection to the past of the nation, particularly in that the rituals tend to focus on the early days of the people that formed the nation. For many, this important expression of thanks is missing and the day is merely an excuse for families to gather. Those that arrived back home by car should stop for a minute and offer thanks for the roads and stoplights that enabled their journey to be a safe and relatively easy one. Those that flew should thank the FAA for keeping planes from running into each other. Since the list of individual acts and actors that got you in your chair at the Thanksgiving table is very long, only a blanket act of gratitude is practical, but should be explicitly made, lest you forget the care that went into putting you in your seat at the table.

Today is also an opportunity to reflect on specific acts actors for which and to which you should express gratitude. It is all too common in our inner-directed, narcissistic culture to ignore all the caring acts we have received. We take them for granted or out of some obligation toward me. We mindlessly thank people for acts of common courtesy and forget to recognize acts that come from people who genuinely care for us. These acts fit my definition of love, interactions with others where the other’s existence, with everything I chose to characterize it, is held to be just as legitimate as mine. Actions of loving care are unconditional, and are found far from the sanctum of family. I know many teachers who love their students in this way. To me such love of one’s students is essential to effective teaching.

This kind of love is not some affect; it is existential or ontological. It is a fundamental aspect of our existence as humans, beyond mere animals. It takes a break in the hurly-burly of everyday life to recognize its presence. That’s because such care is not the norm. I find it deeply sad and ironic that this Holiday has become much more about satisfying our modern having self, than our caring self. Black Friday is everywhere even to the extent of seeping backwards to corrupt Thanksgiving Day itself.

I encourage everyone to stop for a moment or more to express thanks for Being, the miracle that every human being can express in living. Flourishing is related; it is Being fully expressed through one’s taking care. Here, thanks fit the first category; being is result of forces, both mysterious and mundane, that collapse into a single indivisible bundle. This will take some work because the thanks giver is almost certainly to be in the having, not Being, mode. Words matter here; it is not enough to express gratitude for what you have even if family and friends are included in those assets. For this Being kind of gratitude, thanksgiving (small t) can come at any moment.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 26, 2015 1:27 PM ::

Finding Care in Other Places

Moore film

My wife and I belong to a Cinema Club where we see and discuss movies that are about to hit the screens. Today the film was a “documentary” titled, “Where to Invade Next.” After all the war-like occurrences in the last few weeks, I nearly left as I read the title. But I read further and saw that this was the latest movie by Michael Moore, who has brought us some terrific provocative flicks in the past. I am very glad I stayed, as the film is as good as anything he has done.

Starting with the premise that the US is in a perpetual state of war, Moore decides to “invade” a number of countries and bring back some spoils from each. Starting with Italy, he exposes their generous worker paid time-off policies with his characteristic exaggeration and satire. Leaving an American flag to indicate his conquest, he will bring back this practice with him to the overworked United States. I have already forgotten the invasion’s order, but he includes the free university system of Slovenia, the teaching of the oft-hidden past in Germany, “gourmet” school lunches in France, women’s rights in Tunisia and Iceland where women have played a key role in government and commerce. The Tunisian piece included an interview with the head of the majority Tunisian Islamist Party that had voted to include sweeping equal rights changes to their constitution. When Moore asked him why they had accepted these changes, he said simply something like it was the right thing to do and that government should not interfere with private issues. What a difference from the rhetoric that has been flying all over our media lately.

From Portugal he captured their decriminalization of drugs; Norway’s loot was their remarkable prison system based on redemption and return to society. Finland provided school without homework and the use of other humane practices that have pushed the country to the top ranking in education. An Icelandic prosecutor described the trials and jailing of the bankers responsible for the collapse of the Iceland financial system, in contrast to our treatment after the collapse of 2007-8. This was followed by a discussion of the role of Icelandic women in the recovery that has now taken place. I have already forgotten the other two or three countries or situations he covered.

In each case, he pointed to the lack of whatever he found to bring home. I am sure critics of his stance can find reasons to argue against each example. He is a master at using humor and exaggeration to make his points. As I watched I began to see a pattern emerge, whether intentional or not. Almost all the situations he used to make his points had to do with care, or in the case back here in the US, the lack of it. Several of the cases explicitly recognized the basic dignity of human beings and treated them as such. The Norwegian example was contrasted with the brutal treatment of blacks in our prisons. In each case, I can imagine arguments that we can’t act the same way here because of X or Y or Z. There is some truth in this criticism, but what got to me was the total impact of the film.

These countries, other than perhaps Tunisia, are all Western, modern societies. They share economies like ours. They are smaller and more homogeneous but, taken together, they are comparable to ours. In every country he “conquered,” the policy or practices he captured to return it to the US had to do with some variant of Kant’s moral imperative:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

For those that might offer the knee-jerk response that these are socialist responses, not to be heeded here, I would point out that all are capitalistic countries, albeit with differing histories of socialism. None are without flaws from our chauvinistic perspective, but all partake of policies that celebrate our humanity rather than attempt to deny it. If it takes socialism, even a bit of it, to wake us up to the lack of caring that exists in the US, so be it. Amen. In many, maybe all, of the cases, the practices produce positive results, not the negative projections that opponents here picture. Decriminalization of drugs, all drugs, in Portugal has not produced a nation of addicts, as many here would argue. Incidence of drug use is much lower than here.

I would have to see the film a number of times to catch all the details, but the overall impact was immediate for me. The interviews on which the whole film is based are spontaneous and unrehearsed. The cutting is designed to give the talk maximum effect, but even so, much of what was said puts the lie to our justification for how we handle these diverse parts of societal life. Toward the end, one of the Icelandic women being interviewed was asked what she had to say about conditions in the US. She thought for a time a said something like, “I would not want to live there.”

The lack of care in our institutions, schools, industry, civil society, is appalling. Much of my on-going critique reflects my rather academic perspective and my relatively isolated station in life as a retiree. I think I have discovered the roots of the ills that Moore so graphically portrays in this film, but my words lack the power of the camera and the cutting room. The film ends with the message that many of the practices and policies that Moore highlights can be traced to origins in the United States. He leaves us with a big question, “What happened to them?” My answer has been and still is, “We have forgotten to care for the world of people and other life.” I don’t know when this film will hit the theaters, but I encourage you to look for it and go. Moore won an Academy Award for another of his so-called documentaries. This looks like another winner, but not just for its cinematic values. It deserves an award for its humanistic values.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 22, 2015 6:38 PM ::

More Than Ever, We Need Reason


I have been taking a short break. Sorry not to let you know in advance. I am running a bit short on thoughts these days. I find it very hard to keep focused on flourishing when there is so much bad stuff going on in the world. Some of my more critical concepts are taking a beating. The tragedies in Paris and elsewhere perpetrated by Islamic terrorists show a complete absence of care and connectedness to the world. The best word I find to describe these murderers is inhuman. They lack any characteristics I would use in talking about what it means to be a human being. They live in a reality that might have been found in about 600 BCE.

While in no way equivalent to the events, I find the position being taken by the many politicians currently in and seeking office towards those human beings who are seeking a safe haven also inhuman. Surely, we are able to work through our fears. The risks posed by allowing refugees into America are less than those we take getting into an automobile. Accidents take tens of thousands of lives every year, many by drunk drivers, who have been described as terrorists behind the wheel.

The main difference between our Western cultures and those of radical Islam is the place of reason, our inheritance from the Enlightenment. The idea of reason and truth underlie the United States, although it is hard to find them in today’s public arena. Our laws are man, not God, made which is most appropriate to a secular culture. They, too, lie on a foundation of reason. They have served us well for some 300 years, even as we can observe their imperfections.

I am often critical of modern ideas, or more accurately, of modern ideologies. One way one can think about ideologies is as a collection of frozen reason. Another comes by analogy to current neuroscience as a cultural form of cognitive dissonance, that is, being conscious that what you believe does not fit the world you know by experience, but holding onto the belief anyway.

The same neuroscience leads many to argue that individual human beings are not reasonable. I’ve known that forever from experience, but it helps to have some evidence from scientific sources. This, however, is no argument to give up on cultural reasonableness, unless that points directly to the formal structure of scientific truth finding. Science is, like all other fixed belief systems, an ideology. It has gotten away without being tarred with the brush of ideology for a long time because so many results of using science to get to know how the world works have been important to what has gone for “progress.”

Even without the intractability of terrorism that has grabbed recent headlines, we moderns are being faced by increasingly obvious signs that science isn’t getting it all right. All the signs of unsustainability that I and so many others are concerned about are arising from the flaws in the models we are using to run the world. These models, like those driving economic policy, are flawed because they cannot accurately describe the real, complex world. But that does does preclude continuing to base our societies on reason, albeit not the kind of formal reasoning that underpins both philosophy and the natural and social sciences.

I have often cited the work of Humberto Maturana, who argues that the ideology of modern science, even with the objective, materialistic reality it reveals, is fundamentally dominating, as is any ideology. Ideologies are expressions of bodies of absolute beliefs about the world. It follows, as Maturana says that, “A claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” This terse sentence is never more relevant than in the absolutism of Radical Islam, but it is also to be found in many of the current strands of public conversations in the US.

The Great Depression was a time that taxed conventional reason, but was faced down by another form of reason, pragmatism, a method for understanding and coping with reality that eschews ideologies. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon. Its causes are manifold and highly interconnected—characteristics that deem it complex. We cannot cope with it through ideology. Nor can we cope by using socio-political conventional strategies. The sooner our leaders and wannabe leaders recognize that, the sooner we can start to understand and deal with the system of underlying causes. President Obama, by refusing to be ideological, has been labeled a pragmatist, but I would argue that he has not been enough of a pragmatist yet.

Bernie Sanders has been ridiculed for claiming that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism, but he is absolutely right on target. Terrible as have been the recent attacks, the global reach of climate change will cause much more damage if it is allowed to continue on its present trajectory. Even many cold-blooded technocrats, using conventional cost-risk-benefit analysis would agree.

Some argue that we should return to the ways of our founders and opt for a simpler form of governance. They miss the point. The world and the United States were always complex systems. We could ignore this for many years because both systems were relatively resilient. There were not so many people around, nor were they doing the levels of damage to the Planet that we, with our high levels of economic activity, are inflicting. That resilience allowed us to build our societies on the ideologies of modernity, but we cannot afford to do this any longer.

When ideologues are not getting the obedience they are demanding, they use an old fashioned strategy; they shout louder and louder. Unfortunately, the ensuing din tends to boggle the minds of those who might turn to the only path that can lead us towards the kind of flourishing world I envision. Now, as it has been for quite a while, we desperately need to return to a culture of reasonableness, but one only available through the mantle of pragmatism. Ideological demagoguery will only diminish the little resiliency we still possess and hasten the unintended and unpredictable consequences that might make Jared Diamond’s tales of Collapse look like bedtime stories.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 20, 2015 4:43 PM ::

Wake Up!

bad face

We have passed a milestone that we need to acknowledge. Slate published news about a critical event in the ongoing saga about climate change. This is not some theoretical prediction. This is real. It’s past the time to talk about climate change and get down to business. Maybe this will propel action at the forthcoming COP meeting.

On Monday, scientists at Britain’s national weather service, the Met Office, said our planet will finish this year more than one degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels for the first time. That figure is halfway to the line in the sand that scientists say represents “dangerous” climate change and global leaders have committed to avoid—an ominous milestone.

I went to the British Met Office to get the original story. Here is the key part.

9 November 2015 - Met Office data for 2015 so far shows that, for the first time, global mean temperature at the Earth’s surface is set to reach 1 °C above pre-industrial levels This represents an important marker as the world continues to warm due to human influence.

‘Uncharted territory’

Based on data from January to September, the HadCRUT dataset jointly run by the Met Office and the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia shows 2015 global mean temperature at 1.02 °C (±0.11 °C) above pre-industrial levels*. Stephen Belcher, Director of the Met Office Hadley Centre, said: “We have seen a strong El Nino develop in the Tropical Pacific this year and that will have had some impact on this year’s global temperature. “We’ve had similar natural events in the past, yet this is the first time we’re set to reach the 1 °C marker and it’s clear that it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory.”

Early indications suggest 2016 will be similarly warm and while it’s more difficult to say exactly what will happen in the years immediately after that, we expect warming to continue in the longer term. Peter Stott, Head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution, said: “This year marks an important first but that doesn’t necessarily mean every year from now on will be a degree or more above pre-industrial levels, as natural variability will still play a role in determining the temperature in any given year. As the world continues to warm in the coming decades, however, we will see more and more years passing the 1 degree marker - eventually it will become the norm.”

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 12, 2015 12:37 PM ::

Sustainability on the Campus

lecturer Last week, I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico to deliver a lecture about sustainability, I was very impressed with the degree that sustainability has spread on the Campus. They have an active program to green the campus, and many degree paths involving sustainability. That’s the good news. The downside is that, like virtually everybody doing sustainability, they are focused on reducing unsustainability. As a technological university, the underlying approach is to use technology to lighten our load on the Earth. At the same time the underlying causes for all the aspects of unsustainability—environmental damage and social distress—are mostly unexamined.

My lecture pointed to this and urged the University to augment its disciplinary structure, based on normal science (in Thomas Kuhn’s way of description) with a strong dose of complexity thinking. Here’s part of the concluding section.

But, now back to the main theme. Let me note, in closing, that technical universities like Monterrey have a very important role to play in creating a flourishing world. One way is to replace the overriding objective, deterministic mindset with complexity as the principal worldview. Of course, this would create serious impacts to the way universities are organized, educate, and perform research. There is no reason, however, not to take some baby steps in that direction. My experience at MIT taught me that the best way to proceed is through patient, continuing conversations among faculty and students around a common set of concerns. Before disciplinary barriers can be breached, they must become visible to all involved.

The fundamental principle in normal science is to isolate the part of the world to be examined from its context. This method has been extraordinarily successful in gaining knowledge about such parts, but fails to create understanding about the whole system. Exceptions to this shortcoming are systems that are minimally interconnected and lack delays along some of the connecting pathways. The systems that are most important to us do not fit this description; they are complex and not amenable to such normal scientific processes. Any system involving humans is complex, although this factor is assumed away in the social sciences.

Sustainability-as-flourishing depends on accepting the world as complex. This requires a different framework for understanding and governance in addition to the application of normal science to get to know some of the parts better. Unfortunately, the framing of complex system problems doesn’t fit the traditional disciplinary structure of universities and the way labor is parsed out in virtually all institutions. As a result, so far in the short history of “unsustainability,” thinking about its origins and ways to escape it have been force fitted to those disciplinary structures with the obvious, but ignored, result of failure to make a dent. We are now captured in a Procrustean bed of our own making.

My lecture sets this conclusion in a fabric I hope makes its important clear. For those interested in reading further, here is the whole lecture .

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 10, 2015 9:46 AM ::

The Neuroscience of Care


I am teaching an on-line class, based on my first book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. We are currently discussing the centrality of Being and care to flourishing. Flourishing and authentic Being are virtually synonymous. Both have the essential meaning as attaining the full human potential in the processes of life. Humans are constrained by both nature and nurture. Our genes set some limits on what we can do. Men, so far, cannot bear children although the current status of gender may change this. Very short women would find it exceedingly difficult to find a spot on the US Olympic Basketball team. Nurture, that is, cultural constraints, also set limits. One’s possibilities are largely limited by what can be found in the culture. While it is possible to create innovative identities and cultural artifacts, most individuals do not venture beyond what is already present.

Achieving the full nurtural potential depends on authentically choosing from the culture’s possibilities freely and owning whatever the choice turns out to be. Few individuals are up to this challenge, selecting their possibilities inauthentically by conforming to something they spot out there. In practice, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish between two people, one authentic and the other not, acting in identical patterns, but only the authentic one would be exhibiting Being or, as I write, flourishing. One difference between the two modes is the range of possibilities available to enact one’s choices. The inauthentic mode limits one to conforming with the norms as the source of action ultimately comes from outside. Conversely, authenticity has no such limits; anything is possible. Virtuosity in any form comes from this mode.

Care enters the picture as another way to think about Being. The main source for the connection between the two is in the work of Martin Heidegger, who wrote that human Being is grounded upon care. Humans are creatures that care about themselves and the world around them. He came to this conclusion solely through philosophical inquiry. Today, we can add evidence based on knowledge of how the brain works to his finding. The rest of this blog is a very brief discussion of the relationship of care to human cognition. All humans exhibit the structure of care in their normal behavior, but the source of the choices entering can be either authentic or inauthentic. In other places, I have argued that the current modernist, consumerist culture of most so-called advanced nations inhibits authentic existence, replacing it with a desire to obtain satisfaction through acquisition of goods (having) instead of acting out of care (Being). The result is the absence of flourishing. But that’s another story to be found in my work elsewhere. The rest of this blog attempts to expand the understanding of how care relates to human cognition, starting with the idea of consciousness.

Consciousness is always being conscious of something. If you do not perceive anything, you are not conscious. When conscious, we pick out something from the tremendous quantity of signals that are bombarding our sensory organs to focus our attention on as the target of our next intentional action. In essence, this is what caring is all about. We may resort to unconscious body means to realize the intentions. An example. I wake up in the morning, lying in bed. I hear an alarm. I focus on the alarm clock and decide to get up. Deciding is a word used to represent the formation of an intention. I could have decided to switch off the alarm and go back to sleep. But now, I use my muscles to switch off the alarm, get up, and walk towards the bathroom. I wash up, shave, brush my teeth, and get dressed.

If I am like most people, I declare, unconsciously, that I am now up and ready to bring something else into my attention for subsequent intentional action. All the bodily motions between my decision and my declaration of completion come from that part of the brain that has stored my responses to past experiences with the same context and “knows” what to do whenever it is aware I have decided on some particular target for action. I do not “think” about these in the usual sense of thinking, but my brain is working, using memory to pick out the steps that have worked for me in the past. Overall, I have converted an image of the future state I intend to bring forth (being “up.”) into the reality of the present moment.

This is the way I think about caring. Caring describes the whole process I just set down. Awareness (consciousness of something), selection of a future state that involves what I have just focused on (intention), appropriate steps to get there, declaration (conscious or unconscious) that I have done it. And, then, one goes on to the next intentional act, indefinitely. Here’s the quote from Husserl I used in one of my earlier blogs.

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.) That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Similarly, the process as conceived by another philosopher, Alfred Schutz, is paraphrased as:

Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.” (My emphasis)

It should be pretty clear by now, that only humans (maybe a few other animals can do parts) have the brainpower to do this. It should also be clear that language is essential to this process. I need some symbolic way of knowing that I want to get “up.” Without language, we cannot make intentional choices. Other life forms are missing the ability to decide what to do. They become aware of some incoming perceptions and react in the same way every time. They (except for other creatures with relatively large brains) cannot learn.

This is the underlying observation that led Heidegger to claim that care is what makes us human, contrasted with other species. We are aware of the world and convert our perceptions into meaningful images/descriptions that form the basis of our subsequent intentional actions. Heidegger also wrote, “Language is the house of being.” Being here refers to the acts of care that are uniquely human. In order to distinguish humans from other species, he used the word, exists, only for humans. He wrote,

The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.

The first two quotes illustrate the importance of time to care. Caring (intentional) actions convert the present situation to one that is envisioned as the end point of the action(s) to be taken. Heidegger’s magnum opus is titled, “Being and Time.” One last point. The specifics of caring actions depend on the object that is singled out for attention. Any meaningful object can be the target. And since, for Heidegger, meaningful objects are all distinctive objects, that is, things that have been encountered along one’s life history that have stood out against the whole panoply of worldly context. Distinctive means that they have some unique character that arose through one’s interactions with them. Thus everything in the world that one understands as a distinction is a possible target for caring. This is the basis for Table 10 in Sustainability by Design. And also for the claim that care is what makes us uniquely human.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 2, 2015 5:33 PM ::

Need I Comment?

bad face

Another occasional post that speaks for itself. Greenwashing is still an issue. This linked NYTimes article suggests it is still a big issue. Although the article is about the continuing practice of making environmental claims that are either false or misleading, I picked up another case of the most misleading line, the use of sustainable as an adjective.

While plenty of companies are bringing more sustainable products to market, others appear less interested in environmental stewardship and more interested in bamboozling their customers.

Automobiles and diapers have little to do with sustaining the health of the Earth. It’s all up to us. I see I have commented after all. It’s hard to bite my tongue.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 19, 2015 11:03 AM ::

Where Have All the Flowers Gone


The NYTimes carried this sad article about the disappearance of many flower species. Given the intimate linguistic connection between flowers and flourishing, I experienced a deep sense of sadness as I read the story. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Ours is one of the most colorful relationships of history: We need flowers for our very survival, and in turn flowers — the plants that exist as crop cultivars or horticultural cut flowers or potted beauties — rely on us to reproduce and spread. But all is not well in this storied partnership: We who behold or nurture flowers are condemning their wild relatives to extinction at an alarming rate, and the world is quickly becoming a lesser place without them.

The article also brought to mind a folk song by Peter Seeger that also makes me very sad. This is just the first verse. It gets even more poignant as it goes.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

You can listen to Seeger doing the whole song here.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 17, 2015 11:53 AM ::