December 2008 Archives

Sustainability Resolutions for 2009

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New Year’s imminent arrival is always a time to think about and make resolutions for the coming year. Take a moment and think about your own list. I am sure you will find almost everything is a sort of promise to stop doing things you consider to have negative consequences, even if the promise sounds like, “I will be nicer to my boss.” Now think more deeply, and ask yourself why did I choose this list of things. Almost all, although you may not use these words, will fall into the category of bad habits, and in some cases, habits that are not only ineffective in their intended results, but boomerang back to harm you. These habits are the most dangerous because they are addictive, not merely ineffective or cause unintended consquences.

Now think again about the items on your list. I bet they are very limited in scope. You probably have chosen things about yourself--I will stop overeating and exercise more… (I hear myself here); about your immediate relationships--I will be more considerate of my in-laws and co-workers…; and maybe about the larger world--I will buy more organic, locally grown food and turn down the thermostat… But I suspect you will not ask yourself why these items show up, maybe year after year. Many ineffective and persistent habits are the result of looking at the world through a soda straw and failing to see the larger context in which your sphere of action falls. Unsustainability is the result of just such habits, only on a culture-wide scale.

The most powerful resolution to make is to put aside the usual promises and dig deeper and more systemically to discover the underlying causes for your bad behavior. My guess is that most of the causes arise from failing to recognize the importance of the web of relationships you live within and the need to take care of them. The need to take care of yourself, others, and the natural world is the true core of human being. Only out of such caring can deep and lasting satisfaction come. The much more superficial idea of the need for things is a relatively recent story to explain our actions to ourselves. I believe this story comes from another related story--that of modernity, itself. At its center is a mechanistic model of the world including life forms. It takes too much space in a blog to explain the intricate connection between our core beliefs and the way we act, but my book does this.

The humanizing, civilizing history that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other living creatures rests on just such taking care of phenomena that were perceived to be important to survival and flourishing. Families and clans were the consequences of taking care of others understood by our ancestors to be critical elements in creating sustainability, the possibility of flourishing. Clothing was not just some thing to be acquired, but an object needed to take care and protect one’s body. But at some moment in history, fashion entered the lexicon, and clothes took on an additional role, the need for things acquired in conformance with social convention. In the first case, the act to invent and acquire clothing was a form of authentic satisfaction, fulfillment of some perception based on the recognition of the need to care for one’s body. In the second case, the action in inauthentic, arising out of a need to conform. Think again how much you do that is driven by conformance, propelled to a large degree by the incessant onslaught of advertising.

Consumption, the hallmark of modern, market-driven societies, plays a double role in our troubled world. The first is as a direct causal agent in unsustainability. Through our consumptive life styles, we are changing the life support system in which we have evolved in unknown, but probably pathological ways. Led by the wealthier nations, we are already appropriating more than one Earth’s worth of the resources we need. Although it is critical to stop the accelerating unsustainability, we must take a different positive step to create sustainability. The absence of the first does not mean an equivalent presence of the second.

The second is the place that consumption plays in the current story of ourselves, which is leading us ever farther from the core of sustainability as flourishing. Like all addicts, we seek more and more things faster and faster in futile attempts to find satisfaction and the realization of what is deeply buried in our unconscious and absent in the modern culture story. A simple shift from speaking about our need for X to our need to care for Y would be a first step to find authentic satisfaction and the emergence of flourishing.

Taking care of the world is more than buying green goods. Actions like this may help reverse unsustainability, but do not change the essential story of the need to take care of the world. Unfortunately and largely unwittingly, the greening movement is playing right into the hands of our addiction. We must act with two-fold intentions: 1) be smarter and more careful about what we acquire(living “greener”) and 2) ask ourselves what is it that I am really taking care of (being). The holiday season is full of examples to reflect on--do my family and friends want the objects I am giving or do they want the relationships that the gifts represent? Sustainability needs everyone to understand the centrality of the second question and then to act accordingly. We are often told in these days of crisis that innovation will be the key to recovery. Beware. The innovations that truly matter are the innovations each one of us create in changing our habits from having to caring for. The cleverest of engineers and scientists cannot do that job for us.

Greenwashing Winners


The Greenwash Brigade's (a regular feature of Marketplace) favorite choices for 2008.

My first choice from their list:

Fiji Water’s new green campaign: Yes, shipping water in container ships from a pristine aquifer in paradise is somehow green. Really?

Here's another brand, Bling H2O, that would certainly qualify for their list.

Telling It Like It Is


Bob Herbert, without mentioning the word sustainability, has a great year-end message. What he proposes is a step in that direction.

I’ve got a new year’s resolution and a new slogan for the country.

The resolution may be difficult, but it’s essential. Americans must resolve to be smarter going forward than we have been for the past several years.

Look around you. We have behaved in ways that were incredibly, astonishingly and embarrassingly stupid for much too long. We’ve wrecked the economy and mortgaged the future of generations yet unborn. We don’t even know if we’ll have an automobile industry in the coming years. It’s time to stop the self-destruction.

The slogan? “Invest in the U.S.” By that I mean we should stop squandering the nation’s wealth on unnecessary warfare overseas and mindless consumption here at home and start making sensible investments in the well-being of the American people and the long-term health of the economy. . .

. . . And, finally, we need to start living within our means and get past the nauseating idea that the essence of our culture and the be-all and end-all of the American economy is the limitless consumption of trashy consumer goods.

It’s time to stop being stupid.

It's not just stupidity. It is a deep-seated cultural blindness and denial.

Outsmarting Evolution


As human beings, we are like other living creatures, the product of evolution. Whatever we have become, we are the end of myriad adaptations. Language was perhaps the most important evolutionary innovation in our phylogenetic history. With the tool of language and our cognitive skills we have produced technology that has brought us up to and into the modern age. With all its wonders, technology exacts a cost--the loss of our innate humanity--all the attributes that make us so different from the complex machines that increasingly come to dominate our lives.

Now comes a new technological threat-- the use of psychopharmacological drugs to enhance performance. Judith Warner writes:

What if you could just take a pill and all of a sudden remember to pay your bills on time? What if, thanks to modern neuroscience, you could, simultaneously, make New Year’s Eve plans, pay the mortgage, call the pediatrician, consolidate credit card debt and do your job — well — without forgetting dentist appointments or neglecting to pick up your children at school?

Would you do it? Tune out the distractions of our online, on-call, too-fast A.D.D.-ogenic world with focus and memory-enhancing medications like Ritalin or Adderall? Stay sharp as a knife — no matter how overworked and sleep-deprived — with a mental-alertness-boosting drug like the anti-narcolepsy medication Provigil?...

...Cognitive enhancement — a practice typified by the widely reported abuse of psychostimulants by college students cramming for exams, and by the less reported but apparently growing use of mind-boosters like Provigil among in-the-know scientists and professors — goes against the grain of some of our most basic beliefs about fairness and meritocracy. It seems to many people to be unnatural, inhuman, hubristic, pure cheating.


To me this is the ultimate misuse and abuse of technology. Bill Mckibben wrote of these excesses in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, warning against trying to outsmart our genetic destinies. To be human is to be the absolute opposite of a machine. Complexity and unpredictability are features that produce our emotions and creativity. We were warned years ago by Huxley's Brave New World to beware of drugs that appear to solve all our problems

And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that's what soma is.

I'd rather take my chances, using only aspirin and naproxen for my minor aches and pains. Flourishing does not mean perfection.

Taking a Break

I'm off for a while. See you next year.

Is It Too Late?

Cardinal.jpeg Starting to write this post triggered some seasonal thoughts. Winter has come to New England. The snow has been coming down for a couple of days with only a few hours of respite. A few towns only about 20 miles away have been without power for over a week, victims of the last big ice storm. More cardinals than ever are feeding outside the kitchen window. I am thankful that we have no place to go today other than outside to shovel. The beauty and travail, all mixed up in this storm, remind me that sustainability is not some thing, but only a possibility that always shows up amidst a changing world. Change is not something to avoid or oppose, but to understand. We must build and govern our social, technological, and economic system so that they do not collapse or move into regimes where that possibility recedes or even disappears. But then. . .

Robert Patterson, a Canadian strategy consultant, reports on his take-away the latest conference devoted to the theories of John Boyd. Here is just one of the generally dismal conclusions that Patterson offers. (Hat tip to James Fallows)

The search for efficiency and the urge to consume has set us all up like a row of dominoes - there is no buffer, no resiliency. As one problem rises it causes another. As one solution is tried it drives another problem. We all pull back and the consumer economy stalls. The auto industry and credit firms feeds the media (40% of conventional advertising). Papers and TV and Radio networks, many subject to LBO's will have to fail as per the Tribune. Every sector will be laying people off. Sales of all things fall off a cliff - driving more business failures and layoffs. Cities and states that depend on sales tax and property tax and the credit markets can rely on none of these. So they too will have to lay off millions - thus making all the problems worse. National governments will be asked to save us all and of course cannot. As States and Cities get squeezed and cannot borrow, they will too lay off millions - teachers, firemen police. No one will be safe.

Paterson goes on without much relief. Failure to see the complexity inherent in modern constructed worlds is threatening to throw us into a new and different kind of world to govern, without much understanding of how to do it. To understate the challenge is very dangerous, but to fail to seize opportunities to dig deeply into the root causes and start from there would be even more fraught. My book presents such an approach.

Design for Sustainable Behaviour

WorldChanging posted an item about, "Designing Products for Sustainable Use." While noting the usual suspects in the area of green design, it spoke about design going beyond the usual thems of recyclability, organic, etc. Dan Lockton, a Ph. D. student at Brunel University in London, is working on a theory of "Design with Intent," an approach that builds in a strategy into artifactual design that will produce an intentional behavior by the user. It very encouraging to find that this design approach central to attaining sustainability in my book is showing up in schools of engineering and design. He introduces this concept as follows:

For many consumer products, the use phase is the most significant in terms of environmental impact, primarily energy use. Technological responses to mitigate this impact form a substantial proportion of work in ecodesign and engineering fields: increased efficiency of operation and reduction of waste generated are important goals.

But it may also be equally - and independently - worthwhile to reduce or otherwise alter the manner or period of products’ use, or shift the emphasis to a service approach, which imply changing users’ behaviour. Political responses, in the form of economic, legal and educational measures, often aim to address this issue, but techniques developed in a number of areas of interaction design, engineering, computer science and architecture also have potential to assist in persuading or guiding users to engage with systems in a more sustainable manner. It is an aim of this project to explore, characterise and test some of these techniques.

As I note in my book, this approach puts a lot of moral responsibility in the hands of the designers and the product development departments of firms. For the time being, I would rather see this responsibility placed in this part of the organization than the marketing department and in the executive suite. It is not that people in these corporate areas are any lesser moral creatures They have been deeply socialized and educated under a set of values that are, per se, part of the root causes of unsustainability. This is the basic reason for my skepticism about business's own view of their role as discussed in the previous post. Design schools generally come from a very different history.

Business Still Doesn't Get It


The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has just issued a report, entitled, Sustainable Consumption: Facts and trends from a business perspective. In announcing the report, the WBCSD admits that "the report says current global consumption patterns are unsustainable." The gist of the announcement and the report is that world business is going to take the lead in rectifying this situation. The report's foreword states:

It is becoming apparent that efficiency gains and technological advances alone will not be sufficient to bring global consumption to a sustainable level; changes will also be required to consumer lifestyles, including the ways in which consumers choose and use products and services.

I am skeptical. The following summary in the report would seem to say that business is going to save the world by manipulating consumers to buy goods and services that they (business) deem to be green. They fail to see that consumption, itself, is part of the problem.

The role of the consumer
Consumer attitudes and behaviors:
- Consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental, social and economic issues, and increasingly willing to act on those concerns
- Consumer willingness often does not translate into sustainable consumer behavior because of a variety of factors - such as availability, affordability, convenience, product performance, conflicting priorities, skepticism and force of habit

The role of business - mainstreaming sustainable consumption
The business case: Business approaches to sustainable consumption can be grouped into three broad categories:
- Innovation - business processes for the development of new and improved products, services and business are shifting to incorporate provisions for maximizing societal value and minimizing environmental cost
- Choice influencing - the use of marketing and awareness-raising campaigns to enable and encourage consumers to choose and use products more efficiently and sustainably
- Choice editing - the removal of “unsustainable” products and services from the marketplace in partnership with other actors in society

The challenge ahead & options for change
- To be able to lead sustainable lifestyles based on informed purchasing decisions and changes in behavior, consumers need the support of all actors: business, governments and civil society
- Business sees a need for further dialogue with stakeholders (such as consumers, retailers, marketers, policy-makers, NGOs) and between businesses to define sustainable products and lifestyles and to formulate actionable responses
- Leading businesses have the capacity to mainstream sustainable consumption and stakeholders welcome the opportunity to work alongside business moving forward.

It is going to take much more than consumer education. It will take a mindset shift in both business and consumers. The present business case, as described above, is little more than more of the same. If business truly wants to contribute to sustainability, they must question the current foundations they operate on top of, and adopt a whole new set of values and assist consumers in embodying these values. Much more than "choice editing" is necessary. In a flourishing world, consumers are more than a bundle of needs to be satisfied through the cleverness of business. Business does have an essential role, but not the one they currently foresee.

Technology, Community, and Sustainability


Community is a positive value in any transformational path towards sustainability. It stands out in opposition to individualism and to the sense of oneself as an isolated ego. Technology is painted in my book as one of the root causes of unsustainability because it tends to create an addiction to finding technological solutions to everything in the world—from self satisfaction to solving the global warming challenge. But both of these concepts can work as effective teammates towards winning sustainability if the processes by which technology is created and selected for application move from isolated expert-driven choices toward community-based decision processes.

Community choice doesn’t guarantee success or that the outcome is right, but it does bring the ultimate “consumer” of the technology closer to those making the decisions. It is interesting to me that President-elect Obama seems to be over-stressing the expert path in selecting his Cabinet and advisors, for example, putting a Nobelist in charge of the Energy Department. I am not suggesting that it is not a welcome change to see competent experts like Stephen Chu in key positions, only that more reliance on experts takes the processes further from the communities they serve. The critical attribute is competence, not necessarily technical expertise.

Community-based governance ideas are found in many places, but infrequently when it comes to technical decisions. The Loka Institute has for many years promoted the idea of community as a focus for making policy with this as their vision:

To kindle a vibrant popular movement for community-driven policies in research, science, and technology that will advance democracy, social justice, and ecological sustainability at every level - from neighborhoods to nations.

The immediacy of climate change impacts tend to narrow the focus to the environmental world. Loka, and others, argue that science and technology affect far more that the environment, reaching into all the domains that must be healthy and well-behaved to produce flourishing, as I claim is the primary manifestation of sustainability. Again, their words tell the story better than I can by paraphrase.

In this high-stakes century, community-initiated and community-directed policies for research and technology are among the most powerful new tools available to nurture the health of families, communities, and the local ecologies they depend upon. Families and neighborhoods under the most stress stand to gain the most from such social change. Research and technology policies are now primarily driven by the competitive needs of corporations and militaries - not by collaborative community efforts to address our most pressing social and environmental problems. Community-driven policies will shift public attention and financial resources from that top-down approach to grassroots priorities. They will foster far more democratic collaborations that empower communities both to address their own urgent local needs and to champion the broad public interest in national and international debates about the design and use of advanced new technologies. This social change is critical because technological advances are happening so rapidly and are having such dramatic impacts on every facet of human culture - from the engineering of food and electronic diversions from family relationships to the increasing threat that weapons of mass destruction could become widely available.

Ponzi, Madoff, and Sustainability


Tom Friedman wrote today about the ethical void that popped out of the revelations of Bernard Madoff’s colossal Ponzi scheme.

The Madoff affair is the cherry on top of a national breakdown in financial propriety, regulations and common sense. Which is why we don’t just need a financial bailout; we need an ethical bailout. We need to re-establish the core balance between our markets, ethics and regulations. I don’t want to kill the animal spirits that necessarily drive capitalism — but I don’t want to be eaten by them either.

Ethics, expressed as responsible behavior towards other human beings and the natural world, is key to a flourishing world, or better the lack of a strong ethical core to basic cultural activities is a root cause of the unsustainable state of today. The restoration of responsible care for ourselves, other humans and the non-human world is central to my book’s way towards sustainability. I argue further that the disappearance of a strong ethical core is directly related to modern cultural central values.

The hegemonic power of money as the means to acquire things one needs and then some, accompanied by the diminution of the importance of relationships, is a cultural fact. As Erich Fromm says, we have exchanged “being” for a “having” mode of existence. Life becomes mechanical and empty of the caring on which all ethics rests. If we do not care about something, there is no need to act in any special toward it.

Capitalism, especially when shaped by neo-classical economic policies that demand ever more growth and fuel the sacred place of money and other socially created forms of wealth, creates a very powerful cultural driver toward the having mode. Other people as individuals and critical parts of institutions become seen more and more as mere means to the acquisition process, and not as other human beings. Like the cars we drive, we think about them as machines. As long as they start when I turn on the key or pay back a return on my money, that’s all I ask. The high technology, lacking transparency, of current financial management only confounds the situation further. Trust is irrelevant or perhaps even impossible. What does it mean to trust my car?

I do not believe that we can restore the balance between “our markets, ethics and regulations” that Friedman mentions without asking more fundamental questions about why the ethical dimension has taken such a battering. I am not even certain that such a balance is possible when the “animal spirits” that Friedman conjures up come from the having rather than the being mode of human existence.

Pot Pourri 12/14/2008


Sustainability seemed to fade a bit this week, in spite of the so-called good news about the apparent drop in consumer spending. The news media and the blogs were full of contradictory pronouncements as to whether the data indicated a change of values or, more directly, emptier pocketbooks and credit lines. The off-and-on-again bailout of Detroit will take a lot of money that might better go to transforming our relationship to the automobile. It is not just jobs that we would be preserving, but an old, outmoded form of mobility. A better policy would be some sort of transition project that would both retrain the displaced workers and invest in alternative forms of transit. Once the politics of the bailout are settled, I am afraid the long-term problem that remains will become forgotten until the next crisis.

Gas Stations—A New Media Center

Continuing my theme of “no place left on earth without ads,” here is another great example.

Used to be I had a few minutes to myself when I pumped my gas, and it was lovely.

As the fuel whooshed through the hose and the numbers ticked over, my mind wandered, free as a dainty butterfly, alighting on whatever topic took its fancy: My, this corner of Columbia Road and Dot Ave is trafficky. I wonder whether those yams in the fridge are still OK. Are newspapers doomed? Pie is good.

Lofty thoughts they were not, but they were mine, and I was quite partial to them.

But now those reveries are history, snatched away by the little screens that sit atop the pumps at my favorite gas station.

I can’t be alone with my thoughts anywhere, because televisions are everywhere. Not just at the gas station, but in malls and elevators, too. And in airport lounges, where the anchors continuously bleating their sorry headlines make me want to eat my own head. And in restaurants, where nobody seems to enjoy chatting with bartenders anymore, preferring to stare up at the screens in silence.

Gas Station TV sends “content” through 6,000 screens in 425 cities, and its reach is growing. Each month about 20 million hapless drivers see its screens.

Getting to Know You

“The paradigm has shifted. Dating is dated. Hooking up is here to stay.” says Charles Blow, offering a comment on changing patterns of relationships among young and unattached people.

To help me understand this phenomenon, I called Kathleen Bogle, a professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia who has studied hooking up among college students and is the author of the 2008 book, “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus.”

It turns out that everything is the opposite of what I remember. Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.

I asked her to explain the pros and cons of this strange culture. According to her, the pros are that hooking up emphasizes group friendships over the one-pair model of dating, and, therefore, removes the negative stigma from those who can’t get a date. As she put it, “It used to be that if you couldn’t get a date, you were a loser.” Now, she said, you just hang out with your friends and hope that something happens.

The cons center on the issues of gender inequity. Girls get tired of hooking up because they want it to lead to a relationship (the guys don’t), and, as they get older, they start to realize that it’s not a good way to find a spouse. Also, there’s an increased likelihood of sexual assaults because hooking up is often fueled by alcohol.

That’s not good. So why is there an increase in hooking up? According to Professor Bogle, it’s: the collapse of advanced planning, lopsided gender ratios on campus, delaying marriage, relaxing values and sheer momentum.

It used to be that “you were trained your whole life to date,” said Ms. Bogle. “Now we’ve lost that ability — the ability to just ask someone out and get to know them.”

Now that’s sad.

It’s more than just sad. Sustainability rests on restoring our caring for others. It is very hard to do this when society norms stand in the way.

Keynes and Complexity

John Maynard Keynes has, understandably, been in the news these days. He invented the idea that finds must be pumped into the hands of those who would spend them quickly so as to jump start an ailing economy. Ribert Skidelsky offers an intriguing insight into his thinking. What I find most interesting is Keynes’s segue from neo-classical economics into the world of complexity.

As George Soros rightly pointed out, “The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil… . The crisis was generated by the financial system itself.”

This is where the great economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) comes in. Today, Keynes is justly enjoying a comeback. For the same “intellectual edifice” that Greenspan said has now collapsed was what supported the laissez-faire policies Keynes quarreled with in his times. Then, as now, economists believed that all uncertainty could be reduced to measurable risk. So asset prices always reflected fundamentals, and unregulated markets would in general be very stable.

By contrast, Keynes created an economics whose starting point was that not all future events could be reduced to measurable risk. There was a residue of genuine uncertainty, and this made disaster an ever-present possibility, not a once-in-a-lifetime “shock.” Investment was more an act of faith than a scientific calculation of probabilities. And in this fact lay the possibility of huge systemic mistakes. (My emphasis)

The basic question Keynes asked was: How do rational people behave under conditions of uncertainty? The answer he gave was profound and extends far beyond economics. People fall back on “conventions,” which give them the assurance that they are doing the right thing. The chief of these are the assumptions that the future will be like the past (witness all the financial models that assumed housing prices wouldn’t fall) and that current prices correctly sum up “future prospects.” Above all, we run with the crowd. A master of aphorism, Keynes wrote that a “sound banker” is one who, “when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way.” (Today, you might add a further convention — the belief that mathematics can conjure certainty out of uncertainty.)

But any view of the future based on what Keynes called “so flimsy a foundation” is liable to “sudden and violent changes” when the news changes. Investors do not process new information efficiently because they don’t know which information is relevant. Conventional behavior easily turns into herd behavior. Financial markets are punctuated by alternating currents of euphoria and panic.

The conventions that Keynes speaks of are what I have pointed out in my book as the real core of rationality. We act more out of experience stored in the body than according to isolated facts that are manipulated in the mind.

Spotting Good Quarterbacks

Continuing the thought of the last paragraph above, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the difficulty in predicting how a college quarterback will perform in the professional football leagues. My reading of his article is that men who play this position do not execute their plays according to some rational model. Successful players act more according to an unconscious repertoire built up by experience on the playing field than by some innate intelligence.

Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching….

A college quarterback joining the N.F.L., by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test—the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores—which are routinely leaked to the press—they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.

It is not only football where expertise comes from embodied experience. No virtuoso of any kind can explain in rational terms why they are so skilled. It must be that practice does make perfect. And also the reason that artificial intelligence has failed to capture the exquisite skills of real human beings.

Whopper or Big Mac?--Taste Testing in the Wild

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As the Holidays approach, I seem to be more like the Grinch every day. I guess I am looking for trouble when I read the newspaper, surf the internet, or listen to the boob tube. What astounds me is how easy it is to find it. Trouble to me is evidence of the utter blindness and deafness of the effects of our culture on everything from the climate to the size of our waistlines. And not just our waistlines, but those of other cultures, probably still pretty skinny because they have yet to adopt our eating habits.

Here’s what I am talking about. Vision for yourself, Burger King traveling to the mountainous regions of Thailand or to frozen Iniut country in Greenland to organize a burger-off, that is, a contest between a Whopper and a Big Mac for people who have never seen a hamburger in any shape or style. But if you can’t quite get the picture, you can view this on an 8-minute video on the Burger King website.

Although professing to be sensitive to the local culture, what could be more intrusive than introducing a completely foreign object to the alimentary canals of the people and to their cuisine.

Remarking on the villagers’ awkwardness in handling the burger, the narrator added: “It took them awhile to understand the dynamics of it and so that was fascinating to see because we take it for granted ‘cause we live in America where hamburgers are consumed like a staple.”
Hardly a statement of openness and understanding. I picked up this story via an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe. But worse than simply an attack on the digestive system, the fast food diet we hold sacred in the United States has serious health consequences particularly in cultures unaccustomed to it, says the article.
All this, to spread disease to developing peoples. And Burger King knows it. The Westernization of the global diet, led by America’s fast-food giants, is helping spread obesity and diabetes as it has never been seen before. It’s not enough that those diseases are off the charts with Native Americans here at home. Now we want to seduce Inuits abroad. Even if levels of obesity stay what they are now, the number of people around the world with diabetes will explode from the 171 million people of 2000 to 366 million by 2030.

The numbers will more than triple in places ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Bangladesh to Guatemala. They will more than double or nearly triple in China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. According to WHO researchers, diabetes was already responsible in 2000 for nearly 3 million deaths around the world. “Given the increasing prevalence of obesity, it is likely that these figures provide an underestimate of future diabetes prevalence,” those researchers said. Translated, even more people will die.

The only part I found amusing was the last line, spoken by one of the Iniuts. “I prefer seal meat.” I hope he gets to stick to his diet without having to pass by a McDonalds or Burger King on the nearest ice floe.

Havana Cigars and Gitanes


In today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen has written a lament about technology and modernity, couched in a sentimental comparison between Paris and Havana. It’s a wonderful piece. Having spent several years saying the same things in my fundamentally analytic way, I marvel at the way a real writer can tell a story that jumps out of the page. I am tempted to put the whole piece here to raise the odds that you will actually read it. But, trying to be a good blogger, here are a few snippets.

In Havana, I’d spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city’s sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro’s pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.

Cohen never mentions the words, sustainability or flourishing, as I do in my discussions of the impact of technology and modernity, in general, on our lives. Yet, his unspoken message about something missing is wonderfully ironic, especially to a readership that has heard little of Havana, except via the demonization of Cuba. For him, Havana has preserved its nuances and reality, even as it crumbles, while Paris, putting a veneer of modernity over its ancient charm, has lost the magic that technology always hides.

His experience is much like what Albert Borgmann, who writes about the commodification of living under the sway of technology, describes. Borgmann distinguishes the warmth and presence that a fireplace produces from that of a furnace hidden away in the basement. Look at what an old-fashioned match did for Cohen.

At dinner with people I’d known back then, I was grappling with this elusive feeling [of loss] when my friend lit a match. It was a Russian match acquired in Belgrade and so did not conform to current European Union nanny-state standards. The flame jumped. The sulfur whiff was pungent. A real match!

Then it came to me: what Paris had lost to modernity was its pungency. Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men. . . . Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.

Gone, in short, was Paris in the glory of its squalor, in the time before anyone thought a Frenchman would accept a sandwich for lunch, or decreed that the great unwashed should inhabit the distant suburbs. The city has been sanitized.

But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.

I have been returning to Paris periodically since I worked there one summer as a graduate student in 1956. I feel the same sense of loss when I return these days.

Each of us grows up in and into a singular world, our own world, shaped by our unique life history. Whatever has meaning to each of us is shaped by that history. When everything we encounter in life begins to look the same and works in the same way, the meaningfulness that enlivens us fades and we lapse into the isolation that Cohen feels. Flourishing is all about the opposite—connectedness and aliveness.

Pot Pourri 12/6/2008

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I missed a week while I was away celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. With Christmas getting nearer, the drumbeat of offers for greener gadgets has gotten louder. As I have said many times, it is almost always better to buy a greener alternative whenever you have decided to buy something. Almost always because it is still very difficult to determine what green or environmentally friendly really means. Any of these and other related labels invariably involves trade-offs between green gas emissions, toxics, recyclability and so on. But remember, the only real choice for sustainability is to leave the item on the shelf.

Another linguistic game

The Washington Post reports on a new initiative by a coalition of environmental group to correct the impression of another green label, “clean coal.”

The phrase “clean coal” was repeated by virtually every major presidential candidate this year. Now the battle over what it means is heating up… . A group of environmental organizations concerned about global warming, including one backed by former vice president Al Gore, is launching an advertising campaign this week to counter the coal industry’s efforts to promote what it calls “clean coal.” … The groups will spend millions of dollars on television, newspaper and outdoor ads, the first of which shows a factory door in the middle of a barren landscape and the slogan: “In reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ ”

The Mess in Detroit (1)

The news this week has been full of suggestions about what to do with the failing US automobile industry. Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, one of a handful of schools offering a genuine MBA in sustainability, suggests turning the industry towards making windmills, recalling the last time the industry was converted to answering a national crisis.

In World War II the American auto industry switched rapidly from producing cars to producing planes, tanks and other weapons. To bail out the car companies today, rather than handouts or loans they cannot repay, give them massive federal orders for windmills. The windmills can be erected on government land producing energy that will be sold to repay the debt used to acquire them.

The Mess in Detroit (2)

GreenBiz chimes in with their plan.

* Short-term, craft a disciplined loan program for Detroit, or a program of preferred equity injections (also a form of debt). The loans should be structured with performance conditions (to ensure accountability in exchange for financial relief) and could be structured with equity kickers, to preserve some ownership rights for the taxpayers. * Peg financial assistance to the achievement of environmentally desirable milestones, including fuel efficiency improvements. * Consider targeted tax incentives for Detroit’s creation of U.S.-based jobs, and consider extending similar incentives to other employers. After all, the end-game is to improve employment and purchasing power by American families. * Give Detroit federal contracts for research on energy-efficient vehicles and for the development of green mass transit capabilities. The government had Detroit producing tanks and other military vehicles in World War II — why not turn idle capacity to a desirable public end? There is growing demand for green cars, trucks and mass transit — now is the time for government to prime the pump.

Guilt Trip Avoidance

This headline caught my eye, “New Company Helps Golf Courses Become Sustainable” Again, simply labeling something as sustainable may sound good and make those who purchase it or use it feel better, but in its conventional usage will rarely, if ever, produce sustainability.

Golf courses: centers of work, play, and…carbon sequestration? Golf courses covered in turfgrass sequester carbon more quickly than any other urban landscape, and one enterprising company wants to take advantage of that fact… . The Golfpreserves project plans to package sequestered carbon from golf courses participating in their program and sell the resulting carbon credits… . Revenue from credit sales will go back into greening the golf industry through environmentally improved turfgrass, irrigation, and pesticide use.

In addition to making golf more sustainable, the Golfpreserves program could also make the game more attractive to consumers. According to a recent Golf Digest survey, over half of the United States population believes greener golf courses would improve the industry’s image.

Golf is one of the most visible signs of unsustainable economic mal-distribution on Earth, in addition to its highly polluting, water-intensive, unproductive, land use. C’mon.

Events Not Worth Holding One’s Breath For

Calling all designers, inventors, and green gadget geeks!

The 2009 Greener Gadgets Conference is shaping up to be an incredible event, and we’re excited to announce the details of next year’s Greener Gadgets Design Competition! Hosted by Core77 and Inhabitat, the Greener Gadgets Design Competition will award $5000 of cash prizes to extraordinary designs for green gadgets that offer innovative solutions to the issues of energy, materials, product lifecycle, recycling, and social development. Designers are encouraged to consider their design’s product ecosystem, and may focus upon a particular context, material, device, or area of human enterprise. Want to enter? (You know you do..)

How about a contest to design a non-gadget that would provide satisfaction and wake us up to why we would want what it is supposed to produce in the first place? Sustainability is all about being, caring, and relationships. Commodified goods keep us locked in the having mode of existence and keep sustainability at arms length.

How to Empty Sustainability of Any Meaning

Another headline caught my eye this week, “Tweeting Green - Why And How Eco Businesses Should Be On Twitter.” The gist of the item is that any company, worth its salt, better jump into the rapidly growing world of social network technology lest they get left in the competitive dust. What is missing is that of all the social networking software, Tweeter forces one toward expression in tiny, tiny media bites. But this is just what marketers seem to find powerful for there clients. Here’s the tale that marketing consultant, Wayne Kurtzman from Media Bullsey, spins.

Besides Twitter, there are of course a whole host of ways to reach out to your customers and engage them on a one-to-one basis. There is Facebook and Myspace as well as a fast growing selection of newer sites. There are blogs and blogger networks, as well as, shopping social networking sites. There are community forums for a variety of topics and there are media sharing sites like Flickr and Youtube… . All of these should be considered for a social media campaign, but not all should be used. Why? This depends a lot on the company and product… .

One thing on which we all agree, though is Twitter. Though less than 2 years old, Twitter is rapidly becoming the go to place for both questions and answers. Have a question on organic food? Direct message @WholeFoods, an early and excellent user of social media. Follow Seventh Generation and find updates answers on a variety of green topics.

At minimum, being on Twitter and following Tweople, (Twitter users) interested in green products, keeps you up to date on your customers interests, like an on-going focus group of sorts. It keeps you aware of when trouble is brewing and it gives you a way to communicate sales, promos and new products to your consumers.

Developing and maintaining the right Twitter presence for your company isn’t always easy, but it is easy to get started. The green Twittersphere is large and growing. Green media, green consumers and green companies are rapidly becoming a force on this social media site. Take some time to do it right though. Sign up with Twitter.

Twitter is the essence of simplification. here’s what Twitter says about itself.

Simplicity has played an important role in Twitter’s success. People are eager to connect with other people and Twitter makes that simple. Twitter asks one question, “What are you doing?” Answers must be under 140 characters in length and can be sent via mobile texting, instant message, or the web.

Sustainability or its environmental dimension loses its meaning if you compress what you are doing or thinking about it into 140 characters. That is exactly the length of this last sentence. Smart marketing like that being touted here sends exactly the opposite message about sustainability than one that is necessary. It takes much more than superficially buying green. It takes awareness of one’s role in creating the mess, and one’s responsibility in taking care of it. I defy any smart marketer to put anything like this into 140 characters.

Be Careful! Happiness Is Contagious, Transmitted by Contact


Happy family.jpg
Happiness is a clue that someone is flourishing. It's not everything that constitutes flourishing, but it seems to be a necessary condition. Happiness is not restricted to the economic well-being of anyone. Money, as it is said, cannot buy happiness. But it also appears that computer display screens with others' faces and news about them do not bring it either. A study of happiness reported in today's New York Times points to the positive effect caused by the presence of other happy people.

How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all. . . And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood. . . . So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years — happiness is more contagious than previously thought. . . .

“You have to see them and be in physical and temporal proximity,” Dr. Christakis said. Body language and emotional signals must matter, said Professor Fowler, adding, “Everybody thought when they came out with videoconferencing that people would stop flying across the country to have meetings, but that didn’t happen. Part of developing trust with another person is being able to take their hand in yours.”

These findings are important to the development of my book in two ways. First, they show the criticality of interdependence and caring for others in producing being--the foundation of flourishing--rather than having. And, second, they provide evidence for the negative role of technology in intersubjective relationships. The importance of the presence of others in producing happiness is consistent with findings that technological social networks do not result in the richness that face-to-face interchanges do.

For some, it would be unthinkable — certain social suicide. But Gabe Henderson is finding freedom in a recent decision: He canceled his MySpace account. . . No longer enthralled with the world of social networking, the 26-year-old graduate student pulled the plug after realizing that a lot of the online friends he accumulated were really just acquaintances. He's also phasing out his profile on Facebook, a popular social networking site that, like others, allows users to create profiles, swap message and share photos — all with the goal of expanding their circle of online friends.

"The superficial emptiness clouded the excitement I had once felt," Henderson wrote in a column in the student newspaper at Iowa State University, where he studies history. "It seems we have lost, to some degree, that special depth that true friendship entails."

It is exactly that "superficial emptiness" that drives the addiction to consumption that is at the core of unsustainability. it's not just consumption's impact on the environment, but its more insidious effects on the soul. "Having" more things reinforces one's identity as defined and measured by possessions. Social network technologies are really just another thing that displays data about others; it is not the same as others.

Finding Sustainability on an Auto Assembly Line


One of the keys to attaining sustainability is learning to attack problems at their roots. To continue to address only the symptoms fails to produce the desired results and often leads to serious unintended consequences. In the case of modern cultures, the result is the arrival of unsustainability. In complex systems, the unintended consequences can be very large and threatening.

It is difficult to recognize when fixes that fail have become a problem all of their own, and even more difficult to learn how to get beyond them to the core. As is frequently the case when seeking wisdom about such complexity issues, one should look to the way that Toyota makes cars. Matt May provides a wonderful example in a recent blog post about the current financial crisis..

For roughly three months, I have been watching, reading, and trying to understand the current financial crisis. I have listened and read all the silver bullet solutions by various and assorted far removed from the front line of action, and watched as a "ready, fire, aim"-"shoot from the hip" approach has been taken. I have been doing what Taiichi Ohno would do. If you're not familiar with Taiichi Ohno, he is the famed Toyota manufacturing engineer masterminding the vaunted Toyota Production System.

In the days of Ohno, a new associate in a Toyota plant would be asked to observe a particular operation while standing within a circle drawn on the floor known as an “Ohno circle." Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and make a line employee stand in that circle all day to watch the process, directing them to observe and ask Why? over and over. Ohno believed that new thoughts and better ideas do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process. Typically what happens during this exercise is that you quickly become familiar with the process, and start to see problems, gaps. Because you can’t move or take action, you start to ask Why is this occurring? Finally, you come to understand the root cause. Then, and only then, can you offer a solution. When the person would report to him what he had observed, the problems he had seen, and the solutions he recommended—as well as the rationale for them—Ohno would just look at him and say, “Is that so?”

By requiring keen observation before action, by demanding that one look beyond the obvious surface symptoms to better see the deeper causes, by never giving answers and only asking questions, Ohno taught people to stop and think. That's what I've been doing. I never met Ohno-san, he was before my time, but I learned from someone who did.

SO, what would Ohno do (WWOD) with regard to the current mess we're in? He'd want us in the Ohno circle for a while, observing and asking questions.

Mai goes on to pose questions he thinks Ohno might have asked, but wonders if they have been posed during the machinations behind the rescue action of recent weeks. Here's the last one:
If these kinds of questions relating to sources and causes of the problems have not and cannot be answered with a modicum of consensus, why have solutions been proffered and executed?
If the answer to this last question is the doctor’s stock reply of: “We don’t really know what’s causing your disease, we can only treat the symptoms,” then we’re in deeeeeep doo-doo. Because treating symptoms ALWAYS has potentially serious side effects and unintended consequences.

Gregory Bateson expressed a similar sentiment in Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, "Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished."

Electronic "Boggle" Boggles the Mind


Not satisfied with adding totally new gadgets to the enormous varieties of electronic things already available, companies are placing electronic versions of "old-fashioned" human powered games and tools on the already over-crowded shelves in your favorite merchant's store. Kate Galbraith writes about Gadget Proliferation in her New York Times "Green Inc." column.

...these [human-powered items] are far outnumbered by gadgets that have traditionally been hand-powered, but now have given in to the electronic age. These are great fun, but in terms of energy use, they are not particularly green.

I was reflecting on this last night while playing (and losing) several rounds of post-Thanksgiving electronic Boggle (sold only in Britain for about $23).

This is not the old-fashioned Boggle, with simple, hourglass timers. The game’s lights would blink periodically throughout the game, and flash madly when the time was up. Is this necessary?

She suggests that it certainly is not necessary. I heartedly agree especially when home electronics and battery-operated devices have become a major source of energy consumption. Galbraith adds:

According to a recent article in The Mercury News in San Jose, electronic devices (which include big-ticket items like televisions) now account for 15 to 17 percent of a household’s average electricity use in California. The article notes that energy consumption by gadgets “is rising rapidly at a time when consumption by other appliances, such as refrigerators and air-conditioning units, has fallen markedly.”

There's still hope, however. My several younger grandchildren do have electronic gadgets that didn't exist when I was their age, but greatly enjoy beating me at old-fashioned Scrabble and all sorts of card games. I can't imagine electronic UNO, but then the same grandchildren can't imagine a world without television.

Is There No Place on Earth Without Ads?


In my book, I discuss ads showing up on people’s foreheads. Advertising on televisions in schools has raised controversies for some time, but now we have even more intrusive advertising. USA Today reports that a teacher in San Diego is selling ads to be placed on student’s exam booklets to make up for cuts in his copying budget.

Tom Farber gives a lot of tests. He’s a calculus teacher, after all. So when administrators at Rancho Bernardo, his suburban San Diego high school, announced the district was cutting spending on supplies by nearly a third, Farber had a problem. At 3 cents a page, his tests would cost more than $500 a year. His copying budget: $316. But he wanted to give students enough practice for the big tests they’ll face in the spring, such as the Advanced Placement exam.

“Tough times call for tough actions,” he says. So he started selling ads on his test papers: $10 for a quiz, $20 for a chapter test, $30 for a semester final.

A few days ago, I wrote about my doubts that the financial crunch might curtail consumption. Here we have a different paradoxical outcome, budget shortfalls leading to more exposure to advertising, deepening the ubiquity of these messages always carrying some sort of invitation. And although “Principal Paul Robinson says reaction has been “mixed,” but he notes, “It’s not like, ‘This test is brought to you by McDonald’s or Nike.’”, the effect is still deadening. It seems to me that students should not be distracted by any sort of extracurricular activity during exams, especially when the exercises are supposed to prepare them for the “big tests they’ll face in the spring.”