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Passover Thoughts

seder table

Last night my wife and I celebrated Seder with cousins as we have in the past. I find this occasion a relatively rare opportunity for reflection on my Judaism. What I mean here is that, although age does bring more reflection, my thoughts only rarely rest on my religious upbringing and practices. This Holiday celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery under Egyptian rulers and their long journey to find a place to settle that followed. As so often, I am triggered by what David Brooks has written in the NYTimes. His column today focuses on Passover, and, more specifically on what he called “rebinding,” the passage from a set of enslaving laws to the very different set written in the Torah.

He argues that the escape from Egypt was very disorderly because Moses, the leader of the Jews was not a very orderly, organized person. It took God’s intervention in bringing ten plagues down to facilitate the hasty escape. His point seems that, once out of bondage, the laws of the Torah brought order to the lives of the Jews.

…Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people. Even Jews have different takes on how exactly one must observe the 613 commandments, but the general vision is that the laws serve many practical and spiritual purposes. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a door post, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.

The first sentence above is much in the air today where our politics in the US is riven by a strong difference about the consequence of laws that restricts one’s actions. After a period of passing laws that provide a “comforting structure’ for many—gays, blacks, poor, sick—who must wander through the desert in their absence, we appear to be backing away from what the Jews learned back in biblical times. Comfort does not mean luxurious ease, but a context free of worry and suffering. Another word to use here is freedom, as in the two negative items in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: want and fear.

The rituals of the Seder are found in the Haggadah, which retells the story of the Exodus. It contains a number of passages with the general line of God telling “you” to do something. Most of the time, this is taken in the singular referring to commands to each separate individual. But it can also be taken in the plural as directed to the community as a whole. I find the latter to be the more compelling and central to my vision of flourishing. The self that finds solace and comfort in the world is not some mystical ego or homunculus residing in the body, but a self created by reflections of the assessments of the communities in which one exists and acts.

The laws that protect one’s property, tangible and intangible, that seem to have become predominant today, are very different from the fundamentally moral laws of the Bible. There are, for sure, prohibitions agains the misappropriation of one’s property, but the more dominant theme is about behaving as a community. If there is a single lesson for us today from the Passover story, it is this. We exist by virtue of being a community with a set of moral laws that guide our communal life.

One further thought from the column. Brooks ended it with this paragraph.

The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

I completely disagree with Dessler’s quote about moving from freedom to compulsion. Compulsion is the antithesis of freedom and of the authenticity of being. The whole idea of order in society is to allow individuals to find their authentic selves. The metaphor simply doesn’t work even with the attempt to “sweeten” it. One must love simply out of care for the world of human life and nature. It is only a short distance from compulsion to love to compulsion to obey. I am a bit shocked by Dessler and Brooks’s language. Of course, this passage is taken out of its context and I may be misinterpreting Dressler’s use of the word. In any case it seems inappropriate during Passover. The passage from freedom to compulsion is the exact opposite of the Passover story.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 15, 2014 11:41 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 archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 11, 2014 4:05 AM ::

Stealing or Merely Profiting from One's Smarts

willy sutton

The news media have been buzzing with stories of the piles of money that some traders have been amassing using the sophisticated method called high frequency trading (HFT). The NYTimes magazine carried a story last Sunday about a small group that discovered the secret behind the success of HFT and set out to defeat it returning sanity and fairness to the financial world. Concurrently, the author Michael Lewis has just published a book on the same subject. I tried to work through the technology involved but got bogged down.

In a nutshell, these traders relied on minuscule gaps in the time between orders got entered into the computers that automatically match buyers and sellers and the time the orders were executed. My first thought on reading about this was that I was getting ripped off as an investor, relying on the earnings and growth of securities for my livelihood now being retired. But that’s not what is happening. The price I pay whenever I make trades (rarely) may be distorted by this practice, but than only imperceptibly. The traders made their money by the huge volume of orders they execute, talking only a tiny amount each time.

The big loser is all of us, that is the US economy and society as a whole. The money taken out of the market goes to the richest people in America and only makes them richer. If they turned around and reinvested the money or spent it, the economy would be the same size as if the funds filtered through the market and ended up providing jobs and growth. (I am not promoting growth as my readers know, but looking at just this peculiar case.) To some extent, this practice contributes to growing inequality. I do not have the data to determine how much this contributed to inequality relative to outrageous wages and benefits paid to CEOs.

From what I read, HFT may or may not be illegal. Only last week, the US Attorney General said that he was going to see if this practice broke insider trading laws. It is immoral whether currently legal or not. It’s immorality has roots all the way back to the Jewish Bible and probably to other even older cultures. The Torah has a strict prohibition against stealing and to act fairly or justly in matters of commerce. One does not withhold the wages of workers.The Talmud says that every fraudulent dealing, every gain obtained by betting or gambling or by raising the price of breadstuffs through speculation, is theft. But what is HFT if it not gambling or speculation.

From the very little I know about securities law, the point of most regulations is intended to protect some investors from being defrauded by others, using practices that give them an unfair advantage. As I noted, HFT has an insignificant impact on my investments, but it is a fraud perpetuated on the whole of American society. The idea of the stock market, a pinnacle if not the linchpin of capitalism, is to provide funds to build and lubricate industry. Those who apply the oil are entitled to profit by their efforts, but only within limits. The moral argument countering the ancient judgments on such activities is that the financial market benefits the whole society and so, on balance, is legitimate.

The money involved in HFT would otherwise be primary fodder for the economic machine that provides goods and services for everyone. It is only that aspect that offsets the old prohibitions against usury and fraud. In the case of HFT, it is quite clear that the money involved has little or nothing to do with lubricating the economy. It is purely money going in search of money without ever leaving Wall Street. These traders are using a morally justified means for immoral ends.

Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber (pictured), is said to have answered a question about why he was robbing banks with “Because that’s where the money is.” The parallel to HFT is ominously close. If you asked the HFT traders why they are taking money without doing anything to earn it, the answer would be much the same. Is it stealing? If stealing is taking someone else’s property without any quid pro quo, HFT comes pretty darn close. If there is a difference, it is only that the money they extract is doesn’t seem to have an owner. But this is not correct; the money belongs to all of us because, without this skimming, the funds would more directly add to the common pot.

That’s not the end of the story. A democracy like ours relies on a foundation of trust and fairness to function. Inequality is eroding whatever stock of trust and fairness has accumulated over time. Joe Nocera noted this in his regular NYTimes column writing, “The tactic smells to high heaven, creating an unlevel playing field that costs investors money.”

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 7, 2014 5:29 PM ::

Neither Growth nor Greed Is Good


One of the usual arguments I get after talking about Flourishing, is that economic growth is necessary for the health or a nation and of the businesses within it, and that my way to flourishing requiring an alternative to such growth is either flawed or simply impossible. Before attempting to clarify my reasoning, let me say, categorically, that I do not claim that growth is inherently bad. I argue that the state of the world is such that continuing growth is producing unintended consequences that outweigh whatever benefits accompany it. I am not attacking the neoclassical economic models that lead to the necessity of growth on ideological grounds although there are plenty of such grounds for this tack. My view springs from a non-ideological, pragmatic, systems framework.

The skeptics in the audience generally point to the unfulfilled prediction of Thomas Malthus, who claimed in 1798 that the exponentially growing population would soon outstrip the linear growth in the supply of necessary resources leading to a societal collapse. He failed to anticipate the technological spurt in productivity that would give the lie to his forecast. Another critic found this prediction stemming from the time of the Greeks, quoting Tertulian, an early Christian scholar, who wrote “our teeming population is the strongest evidence our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us from its natural elements. In every deed, pestilence and famine and wars have to be regarded as a remedy for nations as the means of pruning the luxuriance (large numbers) of the human race.”

Those who use these scholars as proof that growth has always been enabled by technological advances overlook or ignore the context in which these men lived. They lived in times when the world was “empty,” using Herman Daly’s metaphor meaning the human impact on the globe was insignificant relative to the available resources necessary to support existent civilizations. Today the world is “full,” again using Daly’s metaphor. Estimates of our consumption of the Earth’s resources, including the solar energy incident on it, suggest that we are now already using about 1 1/2 Earth’s worth, and because of the rapidly expanding economies of the tigers, we are headed for 3-5 earth equivalents.

I have often pointed to a simple demonstration that illustrates the consequences of continuous growth in a finite world. If you place some yeast cells in a beaker of sugar water, the population of cells will begin to grow exponentially, but eventually it will relatively suddenly stop growing and start to decrease until no cells are left alive. The cells begin to stop growing as the food supply starts to run out, and also because the cells are poisoned by their own accumulating wastes. (See image) A lesson here, perhaps. Air pollution in China is killing large numbers.

“But what about the growing global population,” the critics persist, “don’t we have an obligation to provide for them?” Yes, I believe we do. If we are to accept flourishing as our global objective and vision, then we must employ that concept on a global systems scope. But we must do that without relying simply on expanding the materialistic economies of the world. The whole idea of sustainable development grew out a moral commitment to share the Earth’s fruits fairly with all people living today and in the future. Economic growth is not a moral notion; it is merely a means to allocate scarce resources most efficiently. There is a huge irony in this last sentence for the scarcity of goods in economic terms is only relative to the supply and is never measured in absolute terms. But the Earth is finite and critical resources, like energy, drinkable water, or breathable air, are becoming absolutely scarce, that is, the Earth is now full.

The response to relative scarcity in economic theory is technological or institutional innovation such that productivity will leap forward at a rate larger that that driving the depletion of the resources. This kind of innovative advance did take place at the time of Malthus and for several centuries thereafter. Technological optimists, within and without the field of economists, continue to believe technology will save us. Given the damage done to the world by the destructive power of technology, Martin Heidegger said, in 1966, “Only a God can save us.” He was certainly influenced by the terrible destruction of WWII, but his words echo today in the light of the terrible state of the world at the hands of our technologically driven lifestyles. While we are still destroying lives and the land with our weapons of war, we are destroying the Earth with our means of normal existence: cars and trucks, power plants, mining, clear cutting, overfishing, etc.

We do have a moral duty to care for all life and the Planet on which it exists, but there is absolutely nothing in that statement that demands material (economic) growth. Growth requires a system to produce goods and services and another to afford the exchange of those goods among those who consume them—a market. Free markets, the kind that go hand in hand with our neoclassical models, are amoral. Robert Heilbroner, an eminent economic historian, wrote in 1993:

There are two reasons why economic driven behavior cannot become the order-generating force for any society to which the socialist* label could be properly attached. The first, often featured in critical literature, is that societies driven by the need to accumulate capital, and subjected to the pressures of the market, suffer from severe deformations, including the alienated consciousness induced by extensive commercialization, the deformation of individual character caused by the over-division of labor, and the socially harmful bias toward self-directed rather than other-directed values. A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.

  • By socialism I mean a society unmistakably disconnected from the very idea of economic determinism, severed from capitalism’s most powerful history-shaping characteristic—namely, its subordination of behavior to economic imperatives.

I strongly believe the moral and practical imperative to live within our means must be heeded now. There is no hope of a flourishing world if we do not, whether the image of flourishing is disconnected from a measure of material wealth or not. Charles Dickens was well aware of this when he gave us Mr. Micawber’s famous recipe for happiness:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 31, 2014 9:21 PM ::

Comments Welcomed Again


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Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 31, 2014 2:01 PM ::

The Real Affront to Privacy


The NSA may be snooping on me, but, at least, they do it quietly and without disturbing my conscious privacy. Whatever they may do is an affront to my right of privacy, but doesn’t affect my immediate solitude. It’s constant robo-calling that really intrudes. Not a day goes by without at least 3 or 4 calls from Rachel with her offer of lower interest credit or a nameless voice touting a “free” home security system. I have grabbed the calling number on a few occasions and reported them to the FTC “Do Not Call Registry” without any perceptible reaction from either the Registry or the caller. Just now I tried to verify the status of all the phones in our household but was told there is a system problem and to try later.

Some of my friends have resorted to the intrusions by not answering any call from a number not on their white list. But that solution is almost as intrusive as are the avoided calls. This process requires that one stop whatever they are doing and activate the answering machine or dial into voicemail to sort out the robo-calls from the genuine ones. Caller ID doesn’t help much because, by the time I get to the phone, I don’t have enough time to read the indistinct screen before the call switches to my voice mail. And the interruption has already occurred. I have, as a matter of principle, decided that telephonic interruptions from friends, family, and personal business are OK. Almost everyone has done the same thing. If circumstances make me decide the opposite I can and do simply turn off the ringer.

Both kinds of intrusions are serious, but it the latter, real everyday interruptions, that bothers me more in actuality, than those possibilities I wil be spied upon. I have written to my Senators and Representative about this with little more than a cursory response. It is certainly very important to keep our spying agencies in tow as all the bloviating in Washington indicates, but it is all out of proportion to the reality of the situation.

Is the reason for the failure to face the real privacy problem that out-of-bounds government actions gather headlines while unsolicited interruptions do not? Or it is that anything related to the “free” market is to be tolerated? Does the market have more sovereignty than the Government? Are the everyday myriad incursions of ads into my consciousness less important to my privacy than the infinitesimal chance of the government’s spying actually interrupting my life? Listening to media, it seems so to me; ads, like political contributions; are free speech. I cannot go to virtually any public place without being bombarded with advertisements cluttering up the space that creates the desired experience. The openness of the Internet now comes with a growing price; either pay to avoid the ads or suffer through them. That’s only the superficial part; “secret” big data gathering by private interests is arguably a much bigger threat to “privacy” than is the government.

I believe that unauthorized spying on me, via access to my communications, is immoral and illegal and should not be allowed. But arguments against it based on privacy are not the ones to make. We have already, de facto, decided agents of the market have a right to intrude on us without any limits or cost. This form of transgression extends to both to agents in the political and charitable sectors but they are no different, in principle. Political, and, to a lesser extent, charities, are becoming more and more just another marketplace. The flap over the NSA has only made this hidden dominance more visible. If you have been moved to action about the NSA, pick up your pen or keyboard, write your congresspeople, and complain about the lack of protection for the privacy we cherish everyday in fact, not in theory.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 28, 2014 12:25 PM ::

An Uncommon "Commons"


I used to get my inspiration mainly from two sources, my students and my books. These days, I have few if any students, so I increasingly rely on the written word. Sometimes my reading is a source for my ongoing critique of modernity, as my many posts aiming at David Brooks and other opinion writers attest to. Other times it is a light that illuminates my murky thinking and writing about what to do about the situation. Today was one of these latter instances. My work for some time has been largely critical, trying to understand why we have blown the opportunity for flourishing that seemed to come along with modernity. I continue to believe that that part of the story is accurate.

Our failure to flourish is due to our carrying around the wrong beliefs about the world and ourselves in our collective cultural consciousness, which beliefs, in turn, produce habitual behavior that is badly fitted to the context of the present world. The linkage between beliefs and habits has been known since the mid 1800s, even without the advantages of modern neuroscience, which is showing the same connection. The critique continues with a stab at what are both the errant beliefs and a new set that will turn us in the direction of flourishing. I repeat them next for those new to the blog.

The first is that we are caring creatures, not the mechanistic, calculating Homo economicus that came in part from Adam Smith and the economists of his time and has been sharpened by those that followed. Second is that the world is a complex system, not the machine, imperfectly described by scientific knowledge. As I continue to read and listen, these two pairs of opposing beliefs become increasingly rooted as the way out and the causes, respectively. I have stopped looking for any other fundamental errant beliefs, at least until something better comes along. That’s the pragmatist in me speaking.

The critique, alone, is insufficient to change our trajectory. New visions of the kinds of institutions that govern our lives and affect the world as a consequence are required. I have suggested a couple of new forms in my work, but only in very broad concept. I make few claims about knowing how to design our lived world in ways that will produce flourishing without simultaneously destroying the system out of which it emerges. I included a couple of thoughts in my first book: 1) design artifacts, like speed bumps, that wake us up in the midst of our transparent actions and, as a result, shake up our beliefs enough to let new ones creep in; and 2) design institutions to operate from pragmatic principles for the same reason—to enable new understanding to replace the old, no longer valid, ways of knowing how our worlds are working.

I read an essay today that explicated another kind of institution that would avoid the pathology of the present capitalistic political economy. I have been careful not to delve too deeply into a critique of capitalism, per se, because I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to do it properly. At heart, I do believe, however, that the two beliefs I mention above as the culprits are buried in the structures of capitalism and ultimately responsible for both its positive and negative outcomes. David Bollier, writing for the Great Transition Initiative of the Tellus Institute in Boston, proposes such an institution “The Commons as a Template for Transition,” that embodies the beliefs necessary for flourishing.

In an most readable, thoughtful essay, Bollier describes a new societal paradigm based on the idea of the commons.

This essay argues that, in the face of the deep pathologies of neoliberal capitalism, the commons paradigm can help us imagine and implement a transition to new decentralized systems of provisioning and democratic governance. The commons consists of a wide variety of self-organized social practices that enable communities to manage resources for collective benefit in sustainable ways. A robust transnational movement of commoners now consists of such diverse commons as seed-sharing cooperatives; communities of open source software programmers … As a system of provisioning and governance, commons give participating members a significant degree of sovereignty and control over important elements of their everyday lives. They also help people reconnect to nature and to each other, set limits on resource exploitation, and internalize the “negative externalities” so often associated with market behavior. These more equitable, ecologically responsible, and decentralized ways of meeting basic needs represent a promising new paradigm for escaping the pathologies of the Market/State order and constructing an ecologically sustainable alternative.

The idea of the commons, itself, is not new, but hasn’t been posed, to my knowledge, as such a broad, stark alternative to market capitalism. Elinor Ostrom, whose work on governing the commons won her a Nobel Prize in Economics, tended to look only at singular cases, and drew some general governance principles from them. Bollier and others he cites view the idea of the commons and its realization in practice as an alternate form of political economy that can avoid the pathologies that the “Market/State” creates. His critique of this Market/State is not new, but his remedy is most innovative.

While he and I use different words, we share a similar view of the possibility of a social paradigm based on a caring model of human being.

There have been commons since the dawn of human existence. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that social trust and cooperation may be an evolutionary reality hard-wired into the human species. Reciprocal altruism and collective action certainly contributed to the development of prehistoric agriculture, indigenous peoples around the world have ingeniously blended their cultural practices with ecosystem imperatives, and now social collaboration on digital platforms is becoming an economic and social norm.

In this sense, the commons is really a social paradigm, a concept that in its very essence challenges some basic premises of the economic theory developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Human beings are not essentially the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing individuals that standard economics presumes they are. Human beings have many more complex propensities that are consequential to economic activity and life. While people are surely self-interested and competitive in many aspects of their lives, they also exhibit deep concern for fairness, participation, social connection, and peer approval. All of these human traits lie at the heart of the commons. Yet most economists view such traits as incidental to market transactions, the esteemed “main act” of wealth creation, because they tend not to conform to the basic logic of Homo economicus and market economics.

The governance of commons has a second characteristic aligned with the other basic belief in my flourishing system: complexity.

Building the commons requires that we take seriously the concept of “emergence,” as described by complexity theory. The idea of evolving new forms of self-organized governance may seem absurd according to the tenets of centralized government institutions that prize maximum control, uniform rules, and formal accountability. But emergence is arguably the prevailing incubation strategy in tech-related businesses that rely upon digital networks as infrastructure… Suffice it to say that we must begin to devise distributed [pragmatic] forms of commons governance that mimic complex adaptive systems, which over time can give rise to new properties of self-organization and administration at higher levels.

I urge all who read my blog to download and read this essay. It begins to answer a question I am always asked at the end of a presentation, “OK, but how do we get to flourishing?” Here is an excellent way to begin. The essay lays out a number of obstacles, but none are insurmountable. Like other ways to flourishing, it relies on the structuration process (see the work of Anthony Giddens) to change the beliefs to those implicit in an institution’s foundations or an artifact’s design, but that process is very slow. The transformation can and should be accelerated by making the new (actually historically old, but closeted now ) beliefs explicit in other places: schools, homes, religious sanctuaries, government offices, etc. Speed bumps work only because we already have a consciousness of taking care of our cars and lurking schoolchildren.

I know that Bollier and I am on the same page when he points to buen vivir as a vision of the world commons movement can create. “Moving beyond the matrix of consumerism, debt, short-term market priorities, ecological harm, and economic inequality associated with the modern Market/State, the commons provides a framework for cultivating a new ethic of buen vivir, or ‘living well,’ a term used by many Latin Americans to describe a more humane, balanced way of life.”Buen vivir is another name for flourishing. More evidence of the universality of flourishing and its vision. Do read the essay.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2014 12:12 PM ::

A Little Bit of Philosophy Goes a Long Way.


This corruption of the familiar phrase about the power of kindness is, perhaps, even more relevant to coping with unsustainability and the continuing deterioration of both human and natural systems. What I mean by philosophy here is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language (from Wikipedia). This list is not at all inclusive. I would make the definition more general by defining philosophy as the study of any serious, pervasive (in time and space), life-nurturing or the opposite issue, perplexing problem.

I am careful in avoiding the use of solving because solving, that is, making the symptoms disappear, is generally only a temporary condition. Permanently getting rid of (some say dissolving) the problem can be done only after we understand what is causing it and, for the class of problems I have just mentioned, it takes some philosophical work to prepare us for the dissolving process. If we can solve a problem simply by applying a method, then that problem is likely not to be pervasive and does not need much, if any, study of its origins. Philosophizing, working through the great problems, always requires reflection, the ability to remove yourself from the midst of the mundane, the ongoing action, in order to step outside of the mental constraints that are always present in the course of action. The pervasiveness of the important problems comes in part, maybe entirely, from failures to do just that—to step outside of the mental models that have been guiding your action.

Many people avoid the use of the word, philosophize, because, for them, it carries an elite, academic, sometimes arrogant, sense. On the other hand, it seems more and more educators and others are calling for “critical thinking.” There is no semantic difference here, both refer to a reflective ability to step outside of the immediate, analytic context of whatever problem is being faced. More practically, systems thinking generally refers to the same thing, putting a problem in a broader context in which the root causes begin to show up. No matter what you call it, big problems, like unsustainability, cannot be effectively addressed without doing it. Critical thinkers cannot merely invoke some method to get at the core. Methods are always some representation of a fixed way of thinking about the world. If we are so lucky that the problem arises from the same context as the method, we may be able to use it to find a way out of wherever we do not want to be. Unsustainability is definitely one of those kinds.

With this preface, I am going to engage in a little philosophizing so that the core arguments I have been making about the quest for flourishing and the related, but very different problem, of ending unsustainability, may make more sense against the prevailing belief structure of modern societies.

Imagine the arrival of our species on the Earth about 200-300,000 years ago. Early humans had many characteristics that have remained a part of our species, but, at best, possessed a primitive, way of communicating, including body and vocal gestures. Language, as we know it, came along a lot later. But even early humans had to be engaged in the world in the same fundamental way we still must today. They needed to interact with the world successfully in terms of survival, and those that did could be said to flourish. Humans were social creatures, which means they possessed some means of coordinating their actions: early on perhaps, by domination with a proverbial two-by-four and, as they evolved, with forms of vocal language. They needed to make the world around them distinct in order to coordinate actions, inventing signs for objects of importance (nouns), for primary actions (verbs), and for orientation (prepositions). If we could propel ourselves back in time and observe them, we might well say, in our vastly richer language, that they are going about taking care of their world.

Care, here, being a word to describe actions stemming from a consciousness of the world and acting, within that consciousness, to create some felicitous outcome, which in their case was simple survival. Everything they knew (retained in their consciousness) about the world was unique because they lacked the ability to create concepts and universals. If they did understand anything meaningful meaning about what they observed, it was only because they could recognize their functions in practice over time.

This is probably not the same story that Heidegger used in developing his ontological description of human being as care, but I believe it gets one to the same place much more directly. He put it into the context of today by arguing that human beings are thrown into the world compressing a 100,000 years of evolution into a single lifetime, and that their coping within that world forms their meaningful existence as human beings. What separates humans from other species, even primates, is that they care, that is, meaningfully interact with the world. Early language probably had signs pointing both to actions to do and to avoid. With the expansion of language, cultures could and did become more complex. At some point, language began to have words that were conceptual in nature; they pointed to distinctions that were not embodied in the world of action.

I am not a student of language so all this is my relatively crude way of thinking about it. I often wonder when and how interrogatives came to be. How did “why” arise? Without why or how, it is hard to imagine how immaterial words arose. Once words could point to immaterial distinctions, it became possible to discover or posit the existence of universals (concepts) and add them to the vocabulary of normal actions. Human being could and did expand beyond merely caring for the material world. We started acting out toward reaching the “good” and similar concepts.

Fast forward to the present. Our actions today are largely shaped by cultural norms that have grown far, far from those that gave human beings their distinctiveness as a species. Our caring, that is, actions characterized by interactions with the world that maintains existence, have been submerged by actions governed by cultural concepts: wealth, status, power, and so on. In that process, we have lost sight of our basic humanness and no longer care about much at all. Fromm, whom I often quote, spoke about being transformed from being to having creatures. Interactions, meaning actions reflecting both the actor and object of the actions, are now only meaningless transactions. There is little or no care present. The focus has shifted almost entirely backwards to the actor with pathological consequences. No one is taking care of the Earth and it is deteriorating. No one is taking care of the myriads of suffering humans on the planet. Many are not even taking care of their own bodies.

It is impossible to predict exactly what would happen if, all of a sudden, people started to care and institutions were redesigned to enable care, but it is essential to begin to do just that. Each new born is the same as every other one. At birth, our babies are exactly as equipped to deal with the world as those of early humans. They are thrown into a more complex world, for sure, but begin life by being cared for. That’s where the comparison ends. Our modern way is to stop caring as soon as we can and begin to rely on technology or other human beings to do the coping for us. Care will not solve our problems by itself, but without the consciousness and connectedness that comes with caring, I believe strongly that we will continue down the path of increasing unsustainability. Money and technology cannot stop the trajectory, but caring just might do the trick.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 18, 2014 9:44 PM ::

The Love of Stuff. Bluff or Guff?

Rapa Nui

A colleague sent me a link to a article from Aeon magazine with the above title (without the “enough”).

The author, Nick Thorpe, sums up his thesis in a few paragraphs.

According to data aggregated by the Global Footprint Network, it takes the biosphere a year to produce what humanity habitually consumes in roughly eight months - a situation that is logically unsustainable. And yet we persevere with what the British psychologist Michael Eysenck calls the ‘hedonic treadmill’, holding out the unlikely hope that the spike of satisfaction from our next purchase will somehow prove less transitory than the last. In fact, the opposite is true. As the American psychologist Tim Kasser has demonstrated in The High Price of Materialism (2002), the cravings of consumerism tend to make us more miserable.

Most of us know this instinctively, and yet remedying our troubled relationship with material possessions is no easy matter. One knee-jerk response is to cultivate a sort of blanket disdain for consumer goods… If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?

The last sentence telegraphs the rest of the article. Well, almost. Thorpe spends several paragraphs touting the sharing economy constituted by people sharing (renting) things they own to others, which seems to me has little to do with taste. The things they share run the gamut from rooms in one’s house to small tools. Why people do this is a question? Barter economies are nothing new, but disappeared as cheap goods became readily available. Over time, the institutions that supported sharing have all but vanished replaced first by corner shops and later by Target and Walmart. But the economy of barter has not gone. For occasional use it is still much cheaper to rent, until one factors in the transaction cost—finding the item, getting it, insuring, returning it, and so on. With shrinking disposable income, the economics of sharing have begun to look more and more favorable.

My question here is does the increase Thorpe notes have anything to do with people’s aesthetic or environmental attitudes as he suggests it does. He says people who share are happier, but than what is left silent. Are they happier about reducing the material load on the Earth or happier because that have a little more money left in the pot. Or perhaps because sharing allows them to do something they could not do otherwise for lack of ability to purchase outright the necessary tools.

I found this discussion a distraction for what seems to be his main theme: if we begin to regard our belongings as “beautiful,” we will come to love them and take care of them. His example is a replica of the monoliths at Rapa Nui (Easter island) that he keeps close. It’s made from materials from the island and reminds him of the wonderful experience he had during a visit. That works for him, but not for most of us that come home with dozens of tchotchkes, made from local shells, cloth, etc. If my experience is general, they sit around gathering dust until they are sent to a local thrift shop, given to grandchildren, or eventually chucked. He had his replica especially made for him endowing it with something different from the outset. But this hardly applies to the predominance of artifacts we acquire. The manufacturer may advertise that they were designed just for me, but that’s always a lie, except in the rare case of buying individualized hand-made objects. Custom design of clothes, for example, once thought to be the new way to dress oneself, never took off. I spoke too fast, one can fly to Vietnam and have a dress made, or order a customized t-shirt online, but you get the point.

He uses these examples to argue that we do not value our belongings enough to maintain and retain them, and if we did we would hold on to them, reducing the load on the Earth. The headline metaphor, the love of stuff, seems overly strong, and set me back at first because it seems to convey a very thin expression of love. But as I write this, I have changed my mind but this takes a little explanation. When I use the word, love, I always refer to the way that it is defined by Humberto Maturana, “Love is the domain of relational behaviors through which another (person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.” That’s always a mouthful that’s hard to swallow, so here is an alternative, “Love is comprised by the actions one takes toward another living or non-living being out of the acceptance of the legitimacy of the existence of the other to be just what they are, no more, no less.” This is a mouthful too, but perhaps the active feature of love is clearer. Love, spoken in this way is not a feeling in the ordinary sense of being hot and bothered. It is an emotion in Maturana’s sense that emotions are states of the body that predispose the kinds of actions one can take. When I am experiencing the emotion of fear, I cannot extend my hand.

The emotion of love gives rise to actions that fit the definition of care, actions directed to serve the existential or emotional state of the other. For humans, empathy, the consciousness of what that state is, is an essential part of caring. Love and care, as actions, are essentially the same. There never is some economic or other calculus used as a precursor. This is the essence of Kant’s imperative. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”

It seems to be quite straight-forward to extend care of humans to care of other life and even of the non-living Earth itself. The absence of care, perhaps due to the prevalent misinterpretation of love as a psychological feeling, is certainly part of the reason we see the deterioration of our life system. The extension to manufactured artifacts, not found in nature, is a bit dicier. Do they have a legitimate right to exist? Yes, if we begin with the right of humans to tailor the earth to our specifications. The premise of private property would imply such a right. One reading of Genesis also would give us dominion over the earth.

To figure this one out is going to take more than one blog post that is already getting long enough, but I will conclude by going back to the author’s claim that, if we come to love our stuff, we will take care of it. Their significance is not clear, but some suggest they are representations of the people’s sense of the sacredness of the connection between the Earth and the Sky. The builders appear to have gone too far and undercut their own survival by deforesting the island to build them. Caring for the statues was a surrogate for caring for the Earth. The same relationship goes for many other spiritual objects.

I am as yet unable to go that far with lawnmowers and iPhones. I know my grandkids see the latter as sacred. I do agree with Thorpe that we should take care of our artifacts in the sense of keeping them in good working order for a long time for practical reasons. But maybe Kant’s imperative does apply to them after all? They certainly are means; that’s why we have have them. They do something for us, if only trigger good feelings. But if we make a connection back to the Earth from which they came, perhaps we should love them in the same way we should love the Earth, itself. What a different Planet this would be and still can become.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 13, 2014 12:15 PM ::

The Paradoxes of Sustainability

flocking birds

I have been gingerly backing away from using the word, sustainability, for some months. The reasons are several fold. First, the word has become little more than jargon and is no longer an effective call to action. It means too many things to too many people to enable the kind of coordinated action it takes to combat growing unsustainability. This problem could be alleviated by a concerted effort of everyone concerned about the state of the world to come to some consensus about the meaning. Easier said than done. A little history of “sustainability” activities and programs reveals such diverse purposes behind corporate, individual, public, NGO, and other efforts that coalescence into a relatively coherent body of aims and activities is unlikely. That’s my conclusion, but it is shared by others. After writing a couple of books focused on “sustainability” in hopes of initiating such movement towards a consensus, I have given up—given up trying to get everyone to pull together, but not, by any means, giving up my efforts to work around that obstacle and provide an alternate approach.

Now for the second reason at the heart of the paradox. Virtually every program, project, strategy, or policy to combat unsustainability is an essentially technological fix, some form of eco-efficiency. Doing better, that is more efficiently, sounds great; who doesn’t want to do whatever they do better? In this case “whatever they do” is to grow or sustain some condition essential to the actors’ missions. It is to keep on chugging, hoping that life can continue on the trajectory it has been for some time. For many, it is to become wealthier in broad material terms, whether they are rich or poor. For others, it is increasingly just trying to hold on to what they have in the way of the means to provide for themselves and families. For some it is a hope that the myths of growth and upward mobility—the American Dream—will come to them. Sustainability and eco-efficiency are a metaphor for the status quo whether it be couched in terms of the process of growth or expansion, or in the maintenance of some level of well-being.

A simple lesson in systems dynamics, as I have shown in Sustainability by Design, demonstrates quite convincingly that our culture exhibits several basic archetypal behaviors: fixes-that-fail, shifting-the-burden, and addiction. Fixes-that-fail is the pattern characteristic of repeated attempts to solve a problem by attacking its symptoms. Applying a tourniquet can stop bleeding, but cannot cure the injury. In many cases, treating the symptoms produces something unintended. Addiction is related to fixes-that-fail, but, in this special case, the unintended consequences produce a new set of problems that grow to be more serious than the ones being addressed. Eventually, the secondary issues overshadow the original symptoms. Shifting-the-burden is like addiction, but without the development of a new problem. By only continuing to treat the symptoms repeatedly, attention is drawn away from consideration of the root causes, and the actor is stuck in an eternity of fixes-that-fail.

Our initial focus on sustainability was triggered by observing the symptoms of unsustainability: signs of a deteriorating natural system and immoral human conditions. The fix proposed was sustainable development: continued growth, but better growth. The specific framework was to be a portfolio of technological solutions, big and small, ranging from recycling to nuclear fusion. We have been at this now for many decades with little effect. The symptoms are still there and, in many cases, getting worse. Our Western political economies are all built on a materialist foundation of growth. The cost of reducing global poverty, one of the primary targets of sustainable development, has been accelerating deterioration. Growth won’t and can’t solve the problem it is largely responsible for. An interesting twist on Einsteins saying, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

One straightforward use of “sustainable” refers to a renewable resource when we talk about sustainable yield as a level of exploitation that permits the resource to regenerate at the same rate of exploitation such that the stock remains relatively constant. We have far exceeded such levels regarding the capacity of the globe to absorb our wastes. Fisheries are collapsing. This use of the term seems out of place when it comes to describing the global system where no more growth is possible without depleting its resources.

This brings me to last paradoxical aspect of sustainability. If the globe were producing the conditions we set as our vision for humanity and other life, we could not guarantee that it would sustain itself. Well-being or any other quality of life, say flourishing, is just that, a quality, not a quantity. We err when we try to metricize it and reduce it to a number in the name of managing it. Flourishing is a systems property. I flourish when the conditions of the system are right for it to happen. It, like many other properties of complex systems, such as the planet, is emergent, appearing like magic. Flourishing, like the flocking of birds or schooling of fish, is a kind of ordering that occurs when the individual elements (the humans) of the system follow the right rules. I am trying to figure out what the rules might be. Maybe flourishing might come when everyone is caring for their nearest neighbors, both human and non-human, similar to the rules that produce flocking.

As I keep reading about what is being done for sustainability, I become more convinced that the efforts are misdirected partly due the paradoxical nature of the word itself in the context it is being used. I came home from a meeting today in New Jersey where I gave a talk about my book and the idea of flourishing. As in just about every similar situation, I get peppered with questions and comments about the need to measure flourishing so we can manage our way to it. Sorry folks, we just can’t. Organizations should know this from experience, but this idea of measurement that so many managers carry from their MBA education trumps reflection and more pragmatic approaches. Real unintended problems that persist in enterprises are just like unsustainability. They almost always follow fixes-that-failed. Numbers don’t help. It takes reflection and observation that the firm or organization has boxed itself out of. That’s when the consultants are brought in. They aren’t any smarter, but they are not boxed in and do not try to manage their way out of the bad situation. Unsustainability is just the same only many times more complex. Maybe my work might be more accepted if those struggling with unsustainability would think of me as a consultant. Anyway, it’s a lot cheaper to buy my books than hire the Boston Consulting Group.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 5, 2014 9:14 PM ::