February 2009 Archives

Is There No Place on Earth Without Ads? (ctd.)

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One of the factors behind the rampant hyper-consumerism that so characterizes our culture is the ever-increasing presence of marketeers and the corporations that employ them. Ads appear everywhere -- even as tattoos on shaved or bald heads, as I pointed out recently. Now Gail Collins, writing her regular op-ed column in the NYTimes, discusses the increasing use of product placement and mentions on television shows.
We have long since gotten used to the idea that movies are awash with product placements, that the basketball game we’re watching is part of, say, the Doritos Home Classic at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Reality shows on television exist in part to get ratings and in part to remind you that the “Top Chef” contestants are cooking on G.E. appliances.
Collins' point is that scripts now are beginning to mention specific products as part of the action. She quotes a few lines from a recent episode of "One Life to Live."
Todd: What kind of soup is this?
Tea: It’s Campbell’s. It’s healthy, good for your heart.
Todd: (spooning away) Yeah, it’s good.
What I find most interesting and disturbing is her explanation of why we are seeing more and more advertising superimposed on what has been one of the very few places to escape from the din of the everyday world -- entertainment. Amusement is defined as something that is diverting, that is, taking one away from the ordinary hurly-burly world. It's not supposed to keep you there. But that is exactly the intent of the advertisers. They producers of these shows argue that they have to accept advertising to keep the shows alive.
Daytime dramas are swimming in choppy waters these days. Ratings are down. Shows are getting canceled. “They’re struggling to find a business model that works,” said Leahey, in a remark I have heard a time or two lately in other contexts.
Putting Collin's cleverness and irony aside, I find this practice insidious and very damaging to sustainability. When the producers of goods and services we buy start to show up in the very places we go to escape their incessant messages, we have lost another precious spot where the voice that says consume, consume, consume is silent. Changing habits is hard enough in any case, but almost impossible while in the midst of the milieu that supports and reinforces these habits. Shifting from the having mode of life to the being mode is the cornerstone of a new foundation for first individual, then cultural transformation. Companies, such as Campbell's, that claim to produce healthy and green products are feeding the addiction to consumption at the same time.

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.


Here's the skinny on a both widely debated and widely ignored topic.

Talk about an energy drink. The first comprehensive and peer-reviewed energy analysis of a bottle of water confirms what many environmentalists have charged. From start to finish, bottled water consumes between 1100 and 2000 times more energy on average than does tap water.

ScienceNow, the news magazine of the AAAS reports on a new study by Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, and a colleague, Heather Cooley. Not only does this report confirm the outrageous disregard for the fundamental wasteful practice of drinking bottled water in situations where tap water is clearly an equivalent alternative. For those that argue that they need to carry bottled water with them while they jog or otherwise are isolated from the tap, please fill up an empty bottle before you leave the house.

For those who want to dismiss these results because they disagree with the assumptions and methods used by Gleick and Cooley, the report continues with a comment from a disinterested academic well respected for his knowledge about life cycle analyses. Even with his qualifier, there is no question about basic issue here--bottled water just doesn't hack it environmentally:

"They've done a pretty good job of modeling the bottled-water side," says environmental engineer H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But he also says they didn't do enough modeling of tap water to make an adequate comparison between the two. Gleick says that, although the energy for purifying and delivering tap water varies, even in the most expensive cases it is hundreds of times less than for bottled water.

Some of my recent posts have been targeted to bottled water offerings on the web.

Bottled water consumption has skyrocketed over the past several years. In 2007, some 200 billion liters of bottled water were sold worldwide, and Americans took the biggest gulp: 33 billion liters a year, an average of 110 liters per person. That amount has grown 70% since 2001, and bottled water has now surpassed milk and beer in sales

Those who make green claims would be well advised to read Gleick and Cooley's whole report and go back and rethink their marketing and business strategy. The data above show that there's no question that bottled water marketing has been very effective. But to intimate that your brand of bottled water is remotely green is the epitome of greenwashing. And to those who fall for the message: never, never tell a market researcher that you care about being green.

Beginning to Get It?

Although I blanch at the overall idea of Greener Gadgets, it is encouraging that the sponsors of this year's Conference recognize that what they are promoting is only relatively better that what is now available in the marketplace. A couple of years ago, this conference would almost certainly have been advertised as Green Gadgets. The program itself is not so discerning with sessions on MEASURING YOUR HUE OF GREEN and GREEN DESIGN FOR GOOD. Maybe in a few years, these folks will recognize that gadgets are part of the problem, not the solution. It is probably too much to expect technologically adept innovators to question the contribution of the fruits of their genius to the hyperconsumerism that ironically leads to the need to produce greener gadgets and so on and on in a ever-tightening circle.

Rube Goldberg drainage system image courtesy miniature brainwave.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Begins at Home

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Here's a novel way to start putting CSR into play. The writer, Scott Cooney, was suggesting a strategy for dealing with the economic crisis. Cooney calls it a counterintuitive strategy.

Try this: empower your employees. Give them even more reign over your company. Task them with righting the ship. Elevate them, during this time of crisis, to the level of partner. Ask them to think like an owner.

It may not resemble the usual CSR programs, but think about it--isn't this the essence of responsibility to one of the critical set of stakeholders, the employees. I don't think it is counterintuitive at all, just not normal. I find it quite the intuitive way to run a firm that sees itself as contributing to sustainability. I have said for a long time that the place to start CSR is within the firm, not somewhere outside. There is plenty of need and opportunity to right the wrongs of the world, but, with the exception of a very small number of firms, the concept of CSR will not get into their DNA until it is practiced in place first.

Crisis = Danger + Opportunity

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Reading Ben Barber’s piece, A Revolution in Spirit in the Nation, questioning the future of capitalism, as we know it, woke me to an situation that was not available to me when I wrote my book. My underlying strategy in the book for transforming our present hyper-consumerist culture is a modest, subversive process to change present beliefs and values by encoding a sustainability set into commonplace artifacts and collective decision processes. My argument, a few years ago, was that there was no big crisis apparent in the public consciousness. I did believe such a crisis of unsustainability was indeed present, but, because our social psychologists tell us we can only react to imminent events, the persuasive power of impending gloom and doom was not available to me or others arguing for serious action.

Now such a crisis has presented itself, and, as the Chinese define the term, it is a combination of danger and opportunity. But as Barber warns, we are overlooking the opportunity and focusing only on the danger. I agree, and have been making a similar argument on this website. Yet we are trying our damnedest to put things back pretty much as they were when the system broke down. Sounds like a version of Einstein's warning that one cannot solve problems by thinking the same way that was used to create these selfsame problems.

Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.

If you substitute “sustainability” for capitalism in this paragraph, you put yourself right into the center of my argument in Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Consumption is the most evident factor causing the unsustainability of the industrialized economies whether they be free market, social democratic or mixed socialist/capitalist. But consumption is only a symptom of an underlying cultural malaise and the end of the slow conversion of the existential form of human life from being to having as Erich Fromm wrote.

Barber moves from the nuanced strategy I used to one relying on a top-down replacement of unsustainable cultural practices.

. . . Or better yet, take in earnest that insincere MasterCard ad, and consider all the things money can't buy (most things!). Change some habits and restore the balance between body and spirit. Refashion the cultural ethos by taking culture seriously. The arts play a large role in fostering the noncommercial aspects of society. It's time, finally, for a cabinet-level arts and humanities post to foster creative thinking within government as well as throughout the country. Time for serious federal arts education money to teach the young the joys and powers of imagination, creativity and culture, as doers and spectators rather than consumers.

Recreation and physical activity are also public goods not dependent on private purchase. They call for parks and biking paths rather than multiplexes and malls. . . . Of course, much of what is required cannot be leveraged by government policy alone, or by a stimulus package and new regulations over the securities and banking markets. A cultural ethos is at stake. For far too long our primary institutions--from education and advertising to politics and entertainment--have prized consumerism above everything else, even at the price of infantilizing society. If spirit is to have a chance, they must join the revolution.

Calling the breakdown an epic moment, Barber calls for our political leadership and especially President Obama to save capitalism from itself. Again, if one substitutes the word sustainability for capitalism, Barber's call to action resounds more loudly as a call to change not only our political economy, but also the very fundamental beliefs and values that are locking us into a deeply pathological culture. Capitalism has its roots in the rationalization and mechanistic view of the world that followed from the works of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Barber points to the need to fix more than our failed marketplace, and asks if we are ready to join in the struggle, but fails to provide critical details.

Today we find ourselves in another such seminal moment. Will we use it to rethink the meaning of capitalism and the relationship between our material bodies and the spirited psyches they are meant to serve? Between the commodity fetishism and single-minded commercialism that we have allowed to dominate us, and the pluralism, heterogeneity and spiritedness that constitute our professed national character?

The struggle for the soul of capitalism is, then, a struggle between the nation's economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit--with prudence, pluralism and those "things of the public" (res publica) that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.

Is the new president up to it? Are we?

As I have written, I do not believe we have much, if any choice, here. We have been given a sign, as in the mythos of antiquity, that all is not right with the world. Our evolving understanding of complexity warns us that is is more than the displeasure of the gods that is the cause. The world cannot be set right by fixes of any size. Whatever is to be done must come from both top and bottom. It will take much practice of the human skill of caring--long forgotten, but embedded deeply in our human heritage. Spirit, as used by Barber, captures the essence of what I call flourishing. Even as the world appears to be in dreadful shape, the possibility of recovery, transformation, and the realization of a vision of a flourishing world can power us into the future.

Taking Care of the Earth--But for the Wrong Reasons

The New York Times magazine had a fascinating story this week about the effort that is going on to preserve the whooping crane, long a threatened species. The story covers tales of people dressed in crane suits and guiding young cranes by flying ultralights along their migration route. These are cranes hatched and raised for quite a while in a strange sort of captivity, being cared for, but at the same time being kept away from contact with human beings, at least from human beings not outfitted in a suit designed to mimic the cranes. The story about the cranes is certainly interesting on its own merits, but what caught my eye was this comment about threatened species in general.
The whooping crane, David S. Wilcove, a Princeton ecologist, told me recently, “is just about the most charismatic endangered species in America.” By 1941, only 21 wild ones remained. Today there are 381, enough to make it one of the most uplifting success stories in a field where the bar is admittedly sinking rather low. By now, one biologist told me, “work on any endangered species is certainly a very severe, rear-guard effort.” Twelve percent of the world’s bird species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature — so are a fifth of all mammals, and almost a third of all amphibians. In other words, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and sustaining the world’s wildlife will require progressively more systemic interventions from here on out. “Many of those species, probably most of them,” Wilcove said, “are in a certain sense wards of the state. Now and for the foreseeable future, they will be dependent on humans for their survival.”

Operation Migration exemplifies the kind of ingenious, unwavering work that needs to be done — and that we’ll need to keep doing, maybe forever, even as the strenuous administrative challenge of micromanaging so much of the natural world begins to blur the line between conservation and domestication. Already, it has come to this on planet Earth: men dressed like birds, teaching birds to fly.

Our experience with flight has come full circle. From Daedalus and Icarus learning to fly by mimicking birds to teaching birds to fly by fooling them into thinking that humans in airplanes are their mothers. Technology [and development] that has led to the destruction of their habitat is ironically being used to preserve the species. Hopefully it is Daedalus reborn as a faux crane, not Icarus. It boggles the mind.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

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From the New York Times February 23, 2009. On-line edition front page about 10pm.

How Green Was My Valet?

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Joel Makower began a recent piece with this question:

What is it with pollsters and green consumers? Why do nearly all of the surveys seem so gushingly optimistic, even during pessimistic times? That's a question that's been nagging me the past few weeks.

He starts to answer his own questions, pointing out that the results of many of the survey results he lists are suspect. Some were done by companies with a strong interest in the outcome. And there are some that are simply misleading or so badly articulated that the happy outcomes reported may be figments of the poor writing skills.

But he asks an important question still. Are American consumers shifting their buying behavior in a fundamental way towards goods and services that they believe will have a lower impact on the Earth than those they have become accustomed to purchase? The answer comes in two parts. First, have their values changed? Has caring for the Earth crept up a notch in the preference ordering? Or are behaving in an inauthentic way, responding to the dominant social conversation that whispers "no no" in their ears as they reach for old box of Tide instead of the concentrated washing detergent?

The second part of the question has to do with the "green" goods and services these consumers are buying. Are these really significantly better than the ones they have replaced? Are the purchasers asking themselves about more fundamental life style changes that might have much bigger impacts than the choice of detergents? Or are these purchases actually putting off such conversations and potential consequential actions by lowering the level of guilt or other reactive drivers.

My sustainability thesis is that good and services must be redesigned to help our lost consumers find themselves again. People must care for the Planet in a meaningful, authentic way before they will act beyond buying green goods to preserve the environment. There is nothing about these reports that suggests that consumers have any sense that feeding the "having" mode of existence (consumption) is itself at the root of the unsustainability crisis. Even the current financial crunch might be traced to the addiction to consumption and having, driven by a handful of people for whom having billions was not enough.

Green artifacts are almost always manifestations of ecoefficient alternatives. Natural goods are means to provide equivalent or greater "value," but at a lower impact. These solutions are always temporary. Ten percent increase in ecoefficiency is completely lost when the economy increases by the same ten percent. And I am quite sure that all those buying green goods are very interested in seeing the economy recover and keep growing.

At the end of his article Makower asks again:

What's the truth behind consumers' seeming irrational exuberance for green? I'd love to know.

Joel, I think the answer, with, of course, the usual qualifier that people's behavior runs all over the place, is that these polls do not provide an accurate description. The message in the marketplace we call our economy (or at least called it until a few months ago) is still "consume to make yourself happy," now coupled to another one, "buy green and you will be even happier." My model of social behavior splits behavioral explanations into two parts. One is the embodied rules coming from the societal milieu that do the real job; the other is the explanation we give when asked why we did or do something? It s only coincidence when the two are the same. Economists discovered that the technique called contingent valuation, asking people how much they would spend under a hypothetical situation, gave untrustworthy results. Market researchers rarely ask questions that expose "real" behavioral drivers.

With green so much in the news these days, I do not find it at all surprising that people express "exuberance" when asked by a market researcher how they feel about buying things. They are seeing and hearing about "green jobs" every day. Climate change talk is ubiquitous. Increasing gasoline prices and the Detroit "bailout" chatter center on "green' cars. I am sure these social conversations are strong influences of action in the market place because that's the only place the the green images in the body can get played out. There are no green cars or green jobs available to be had yet.

Bathing in Carbon Dioxide

Andrew Revkin has another not-to-miss piece. The message is stark and not to be put off even as the global economy keeps cratering. Flourishing has little possibility to show up until we put the Earth back into working order. The nub of Revkin's piece starts with a quote from Todd Stern:
"This not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong. It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions."
Todd Stern, the new United States special envoy on climate change, clearly understands the “bathtub effect” that experts say makes the rising human contribution to the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect such a thorny challenge.
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The "bathtub" effect is pretty simple. Think of the atmosphere as a big bathtub with all global emissions of greenhouse gases coming out of the spigot. Now think of the drain pipe emptying some of the accumulated gases. Only when the flow from the spigot is less than or equal to the flow out of the drain, will the bathtub stop filling up. Even if all the countries in the world reduced their emissions to the levels they have currently promised or suggest they will, the bathtub will keep filling up, and the temperature will continue to rise in the future. No world leader has been willing even to hint at the level of reductions that would limit, much less reverse, the increase that is already going to happen in our children's lifetimes. Even the most generous estimates of what seems to be politically tenable fall short of maintaining the level in the bathtub at the amount that most scientists consider to pose reasonable levels of risk. Picture Nero fiddling away while . . .


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My wife looked at my recent post about Twitter, and said it reminded her of a story by E. B. White she used to read to her students back when she was teaching long ago. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, White wrote about the need to condense what was being written everyday into ever shorter pieces so that readers could keep up with writers. The ultimate result should be obvious, but here are a few paragraphs from the essay to savor. The whole essay, titled Irtnog, has been posted elsewhere. It appeared in 1927 in a collection of his essays, entitled Quo Vadimus?
There was a tremendous volume of stuff that had to be read. Writing began to give off all sorts of by-products. Readers not only had to read the original works of a writer, but they also had to scan what the critics said, and they had to read the advertisements reprinting the favorable criticisms, and they had to read the book chat giving some rather odd piece of information about the writer—such as that he could write only when he had a gingersnap in his mouth. It all took time. Writers gained steadily, and readers lost. . . Then along came the Reader’s Digest.
By 1939 there were one hundred and seventy-three digests, or short cuts, in America, and even if a man read nothing but digests of selected material, and read continuously, he couldn’t keep up. It was obvious that something more concentrated than digests would have to come along to take up the slack. . . .It did. Someone conceived the idea of digesting the digests. He brought out a little publication called Pith, no bigger than your thumb. It was a digest of Reader’s Digest, Time, Concise Spicy Tales, and the daily News Summary of the New York Herald Tribune. . . . [But still] readers felt themselves slipping. Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word “Bang!” and reduced a long article about the problem of the unruly child to the words “Hit him.”
It was not until 1960, when a Stevens Tech graduate named Abe Shapiro stepped in with an immense ingenious formula, that a permanent balance was established between writers and readers. Shapiro was a sort of Einstein. He had read prodigiously; and as he thought back over all the things that he had ever read, he became convinced that it would be possible to express them in mathematical quintessence. He was positive that he could take everything that was written and published each day, and reduce it to a six-letter word. He worked out a secret formula and began posting daily bulletins, telling his result. Everything that had been written during the first day of his formula came down to the word “Irtnog.”
. . . The effect on the populace was salutary. Readers, once they felt confident that they had one-hundred-per-cent coverage, were able to discard the unnatural habit of focusing their eyes on words every instant. Freed of the exhausting consequences of their hopeless race against writers, they found their health returning, along with a certain tranquility and a more poised way of living. There was a marked decrease in stomach ulcers, which, doctors said, had been the result of allowing the eye to jump nervously from one newspaper headline to another after a heavy meal. With the dwindling of reading, writing fell off. Forests, which had been plundered for newsprint, grew tall again; droughts were unheard of; and people dwelt in slow comfort, in a green world.

White was prescient about many things. Is Irtnog just another word for Twitter?

A Dangerous Mix of Natural & Human Unsustainability

On the NYTimes Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin writes:.
Two reports out today on conflict and the environment mesh in a disturbing way. One, from the United Nations Environment Program, asserts that persistent conflicts within states most often relapse when the root cause is scarce natural resources and environmental issues are not incorporated into efforts to forge peace. The other study, “Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots,” has been published in the journal Conservation Biology. The authors find that “more than 80 percent of the world’s major armed conflicts from 1950 to 2000 occurred in regions identified as the most biologically diverse and threatened places on Earth.”

So there’s potentially a vicious loop here, as resource-based battles drag on in the world’s last bastions of biological bounty.

Sustainability requires that we take care of both the human and the environmental condition. The global system will remain in an unsustainable state until both are addressed.

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Welcome to Twitter Nation. What was once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls is now a growing part of the social and media landscapes, with Twittering tentacles reaching into the operations of major newspapers, networks, corporations and political campaigns.
With this lede, Alexander Zaitchik launches into a welcome screed about the impact of Twitter. Readers of this blog will already know that I am very skeptical that computer-based social networking technology produces positive outcomes. In spite of claims that Twitter radiates messages that reveal how the twitterer is doing or feeling, the tweets lack any significant reflective content. Getting a picture of what one does, even over long periods, will tell you a lot about behavioral patterns, but conveys little or nothing about who the person is and what he or she cares about. Maybe one of those shrinks that claim to psychoanalyze people by watching them on TV might venture a judgement.

But isn't a social network really about caring. Community, family, companies, baseball teams, and other relatively stable groups of people operate around common purposes, that is, what all share in taking care of. Meaningful communication is never easy, especially when the context challenges the conversants' skills. Superposing a rule that the flow must come in bite-size chunks of less than 140 characters makes little sense. Zaitchik suggests the reasons behind the tremendous growth in twittering in spite of this apparent short-coming,

There is evolutionary logic to the building Twitter surge. The progression has been steady from blogs to RSS feeds to Facebook. But Twitter brings us within sight of an apotheosis of those aspects of American culture that have become all too familiar in recent years: look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity. When 140 characters is the ascendant standard size for communication and debate, what comes next? Seventy characters? Twenty? The disappearance of words altogether, replaced by smiley-face and cranky-crab emoticons?
. . . What's more, say Twitter's defenders, haters like me focus on the banality and chirpiness of tweets because we are ignorant of the wonderful personal and social benefits of regular Twitter use. The company's founders go so far as to call it the ultimate civilizational feel-good experience. "It is about the triumph of the human spirit," Twitter CEO Biz Stone recently told New York magazine.
The article is worth reading in its entirety. The strength of Twitter's rapidly expanding presence and popularity (The Dalai Lama has started twittering.) signals more acceptance of toys that amuse us, just another object to own, rather than evidence of some marvelous tool that can expose one's true being. Knowing what was on someone's radar screen yesterday can fool you into believing you understand who that person is today. Meaningful relationships are one of the foundations of sustainability.

Zaitchik writes about one of the most vocal champions of Twiitter, "Clive Thompson, who has been on self-appointed Twitter guard duty since 2007. . . ."

Thompson relays the story of the time he met a friend for lunch. Even before sitting down, he already knew from reading her Twitter feed that this friend "was nervous about last week's big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and [was] addicted to salt bagels." . . . Thompson gushes that Twitter not only melds a group of individuals into a near "telepathic" unit of kinship, it is the ultimate Socratic app.
The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you're feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It's like the Greek dictum to 'know thyself,' or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute.
Again, Thompson instructs us to put up with thousands of idiotic and maddening tweets in order to "get" the full beauty and bounty of the site. Only after we burn swaths of our lives reading mindless tweets will the Twitter oracle reveal the wisdom it reserves for dedicated supplicants. Thompson doesn't explain why having an audience makes self-reflection "even more acute," whatever that means. Nor does he betray any concern that 140 characters might be enough space to state a tiny fact about a Liz Phair song, but not enough to reflect or meditate on it by any meaningful definition of the words.
I stubbed my toe tripping over my headset cord just now. I know I should have gone wireless. (92 characters)

Damn it, I'm out of tissues again. My nose is dripping on my keyboard. (70 characters)

My neighbor's cat just peed on my window sill. I really don't like them. They moved in a couple months ago. (107 characters)

I hope Anne Hathaway wins it. She's just like a girl I once knew. My domineering mother intervened. Maybe that’s the cause of my stuttering. (140 characters)

Tweet, tweet, tweet. (20 characters)

Time to Smell the Roses

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Maybe the light of sustainability is beginning to dawn. With the economic system collapsing more and more in spite of the biggest infusion of new capital ever, and the environmental world becoming sicker everyday, people are starting to realize that both losses play havoc with their psyches and their ability to flourish in general. A couple of articles today focused on this growing human concern, but from two different perspectives. Both illustrate the importance of the human dimension of sustainability as flourishing, and recognize the interconnectedness of our health and that of the environment.

The first raises questions about the treadmill economy that has been revealed to many who have been knocked off of it, not by choice but by the loss of jobs. The writer, Colin Beavan, wonders if we should think of reducing our consumptive lives beyond what is needed to preserve the environment. It begins with some disturbing data: the US sports the highest frequency of mental disorders on the globe.

I asked a psychiatrist friend if the fact that the United States sports the world’s highest rate of depression (not to mention, by the way, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorders, which together affect another 18 percent of Americans) is related to problems with our individual brain chemistries or problems with our way of life.
Although it may have to do with individual differences, that alone cannot explain why our rates are so large. That leaves our culture as the probable cause. After pointing to another US fact--we work harder and longer than any other industrialized people--Beavan wonders about the potential of cutting back. Maybe smell the roses.
We tend to think of using fewer resources for the sake of the environment as some sort of belt tightening, a sort of deprivation. But what if using fewer resources meant needing less money, meant having to work less hard, meant less depression and anxiety? What does such a possibility tell us about how we should live our lives? What does that tell us about the possibility that living environmentally might be better for us as well as for the planet?

Of course, this begs the question of what our priorities should be on a personal level. I, for one, am going to try to let go of my attachment to achievement and take time to take care of myself. But it begs big policy questions, too. The overarching economic policy has always been to increase economic throughput — and therefore planet-destroying resource throughput — on the assumption that this would bring greater happiness to the greatest number of people.

Of course, in these times of such economic distress, we can't be cavalier about the importance of economic throughput. But at the same time, the question becomes: should it represent the be all and end all of Government policy? Perhaps — again, with the exception of those who are in economic distress — our policy should not be about getting more money into everyone's pockets but more time into their lives.

That could be one way to help deal our epidemic of anxiety and depression. It might also help us use fewer resources and save the planet.

I think it is more than just a "might also." It is critical to recover the caring or being quality that underlies our species uniqueness. We must take care of ourselves before we will be able to care for the planet. The next article today reveals the circularity of this problem. We need a healthy planet to flourish as human beings.
Humans have evolved within the context of their natural environment, and in these last few centuries- even the last few decades, really- the environment has been dramatically sullied and changed. It makes perfect sense to me that this would put undue stress on our mental and physical states, as we are unable to physically evolve as quickly as our environment, and that we as a species would react with aggression and fear.

However, I am also heartened to learn that the human animal is resilient. These studies indicate that we are able to derive physical, psychological and social comfort from whatever natural spaces we encounter, even in the heart of a city.

Simply being near trees, noticing the buds as they bloom, or taking note of the flight and song of backyard birds, is rejuvenating and essential. What is required of us, as parents and citizens, is to make sure that some sort of green space is available to everyone, and that we make time to spend time in them.

Is There No Place on Earth Without Ads (ctd)?

Front and center on the online Times today is a story headlined, "The Body as Billboard: Your Ad Here." The copy speaks for itself.
TERRY GARDNER, a legal secretary in California, returned home from work recently to find two police officers waiting. They said her brother had told them he thought she might be having a breakdown because she had shaved her head.

Ms. Gardner, 50, said in a telephone interview that she had told the officers that she was fine and had shaved her head for an advertising campaign by Air New Zealand, which had hired her to display a temporary tattoo. She turned around and showed them the message, written in henna on the back of her head: “Need A Change? Head Down to New Zealand. www.airnewzealand.com.”

Ms. Gardner was among 30 of what the airline calls “cranial billboards.” For shaving their noggins and displaying the ad copy for two weeks in November, they received either a round-trip ticket to New Zealand (worth about $1,200) or $777 in cash (an allusion to the Boeing 777, a model in the airline’s fleet).

There is even more.
In 2005, Andrew Fischer, then 20 and living in Omaha, set up an eBay auction offering his forehead as a site for a temporary tattoo advertisement for one month. Green Pharmaceuticals’ Snore- Stop won with a $37,375 bid, and Mr. Fischer appeared on national programs, including “Good Morning America,” and in scores of newspapers and Web sites. Soon afterward, Mr. Fischer sold his forehead a second time — to Golden Palace — but got just $5,000 and scant media attention. His forehead has remained ad-free since. . . “For 40 grand, I don’t regret looking like an idiot for a month,” said Mr. Fischer, when reached by telephone. “But it’s not like the most fun thing in the world to walk around with a big ad on your face.”

Golden Palace has gone the farthest in testing the boundaries of taste. In 2005, through an eBay auction, the casino paid Kari Smith, of Bountiful, Utah, who was then 30, $10,000 to permanently tattoo its Web address on her forehead in large block letters. . . . It has also paid several pregnant women to display temporary tattoos on their rounded bellies, which they agreed to bare at malls and football stadiums.

All this is just another case of turning the body into an object for sale. A modern rendition of the world's oldest profession. Treating the body in this way is related to all the coverage of A-Rod's use of performance enhancing drugs that has captured headlines this week. More complex is the issue of surrogate birthing. But all have the common feature of selling the body as a thing, rather than treating individuals as human beings. Some economist will eventually use the data from Mr. Fischer to compute the value of an inch of forehead space.
(Image credit to Edward Carreon for Air New Zealand)

Who Will Tell the People?

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David Brooks wrote today in the Times about the American Dream, as he often does. He was summarizing the results from a Pew survey asking "where Americans would like to live and what sort of lifestyle they would like to have."
The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would rather live in a different type of community from the one they are living in at present.

In short, Americans may indeed be gloomy and hunkered down. But they’re still Americans. They are still drawn to virgin ground, still restless against limits.

Interested choice of words by Brooks. I doubt the report used "hunkered down, maybe "restless." I don't know how far back or deep the unwillingness to recognize limits goes, but it is a major contributor to present unsustainability. The recent election of a black President is often invoked as evidence that anything can happen in the United States. This may be true in the social or political world, but it is certainly not in the physical world. We are bumping up against limits that cannot be supervened by hard work, will power, or choice. There is only so much space on Earth for growing food and only so much atmospheric capacity for absorbing our greenhouse gases and so on. Restlessness is a sure sign of denial in this sense. He continues further down in his column:
If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

Somehow this picture of natural beauty does not produce the expected image of a world where sustainability has much of a chance to appear. This is the kind of life style that is ephemeral and empty, and is the heart and soul of consumerism. Sporting friendlier neighborhoods and slower lifestyles (than what is not offered in the piece; I presume crowed urban centers), but noting dependence on cars raises for me the question, "how friendlier are these cities?" And does the survey represent all of America? The closing comments left me with a completely opposite sense to what I read into Brooks' words.
The folks at Pew asked one other interesting question: Would you rather live in a community with a McDonald’s or a Starbucks? McDonald’s won, of course, but by a surprisingly small margin: 43 percent to 35 percent. And that, too, captures the incorrigible nature of American culture, a culture slowly refining itself through espresso but still in love with the drive-thru.

The results may not satisfy those who dream of Holland, but there’s one other impressive result from the Pew survey. Americans may be gloomy and afraid, but they still have a clear vision of the good life. That’s one commodity never in short supply.

I do not find the question about preferring MacDonald's or Starbucks the least bit interesting. To associate this finding with the "good life" in the next paragraph is the essence of banality. How can any culture that is "refining itself through espresso" ever rediscover what is means to truly flourish? Maybe Brooks had his journalistic tongue in his cheek, but I don't think so. This verse from a poem by Rebecca Campbell, angrier than this column merits, nonetheless asks a critical question left unwritten in this column.
Who will tell the people
That the culture they import
Of fast food chains and fighter planes
Fertile customs will abort.
The glamor that they clamor for
Is the habit of the whores
Who sell their souls to meet sales goals
On a binge for ever more.

The Power of a Milking Stool


I mentioned in a blog a few days ago that I participated in a workshop on Learning and Leadership for Sustainability, sponsored by Society of Organizational Learning and led by Peter Senge. I was part of the resource team and offered a short discussion of the concept of sustainability developed in my book. Other than that I was just like all the rest of the attendees. Now some 10 days later I have had time to reflect and gather my thoughts. I took home many lessons, but one in particular stands out as reinforcing something I already had come to believe. The key to creating sustainability is learning.

If we are to get ourselves out of the deep hole we have created, we must change the way we behave at a deep cultural level. This kind of change is the essence of learning. It is not about more knowledge; it is about changing behavior so that the actions we take produce the results we want without dangerous unintended consequences. Pretty straightforward but not easy to do. Senge’s model of building learning competence rests on three legs, just like the image of the antique milking stool, above. It takes aspiration, reflective conversations, and an understanding of complexity. I have posted quite a few entries about complexity, but little on the other two factors. Without aspiration—a vision of what a flourishing world would look like—most actors would be content to treat only the symptoms of today’s problems. Exactly the process that has permitted the deeper causes of these symptoms to remain unaddressed for perhaps a few centuries.

The third factor, reflective conversations, are essential to revealing the presuppositions, mental models, filters, or whatever one calls the cognitive structure that turns our sensory perceptions into the story we tell to explain what we are doing and why. Reflection is somewhat of a lost competence in today’s very busy, noisy, hectic world. New technology protects us from that world and does its best not to cause any breakdowns in the flow of daily life. We have to go back to “leadership and learning school” to learn to value breakdowns and to use the silence to probe our selves. I am quite conscious of the need for reflection. Much of my book is aimed at designing tools and processes that initiate reflective opportunities. A few days, however, with a master like Senge makes me realize the power of reflection and restores my ability to step out of the hurly-burly commotion of my ordinary life.

Post-Valentine Day Thoughts

I've noticed that most of my posts are focused on the environmental facet of sustainability. It's not hard to explain; it's relatively easy to access the world of environmental concerns. They are vast, but relatively focused. Complexity, the other story of how the world works, is not easy to embody but it fairly concise. But when it comes to a new story of what it means to be human, the sustainability story is much more diffuse and hard to pin down. But as I have said in my book, it is the human side of sustainability that needs to be addressed first.

The human story starts with an idea we all already know, but tend to diminish it to the point of meaningless. It is that we are caring, not needing creatures. Care is at the center of our human beingness. Care here is not the same as we mean when we say simply, "I care for you." It is more about recognizing one's connectedness to and paying attention to the state of satisfaction of other people and to the health of the world. One also needs to care for one's own self as well. It is difficult to talk about this aspect of human being without using the word, "need." When I speak of need without scare quotes, I am speaking of the need to do something (being) as opposed to the need for something (having). The difference may appear trivial but it is huge. It is a primary root cause of the present state of unsustainability. When we fail to care in this way, our human bodies become emptied of aliveness and over-stressed and the world out there becomes neglected and also over-stressed.

I will be looking for articles to post and for other sources of wisdom in this domain. My list of blogs is heavily focused on "green." Today, I will point to one that touches on the work of Humberto Maturana, one of the people who has most influenced me in my search for understanding of what it means to be human. Juanita Brown, a cofounder of the World Café together with David Isaacs, wrote about her thoughts after attending a workshop in Chile with Maturana. She captured the essence of the teachings in these paragraphs.

"As humans we are born in the trust of loving and in being loved-within an ecology of the natural world and within the larger living cosmos." Love is the legitimate co-arising of the other in the relational space between us. What we understand as humanness are relations conserved on and in love over many generations of our co-existence.

Humanness is not a genetic mutation. It is a manner of living where there is pleasure in each others company, sharing food, nearness, caressing and tenderness - nor is the capacity for language a genetic mutation - it is an evolutionary drift emerging from the intimacy of human community and the coordination of actions in language together. It is in the intimate community where humanness arises as a network of conversations that is conserved over generations as a lineage through the raising of children over hundreds of generations in manners of living that are conserved in that lineage. Humanness did not arise in competition, struggle etc. It arose in intimate family/community co-existence.

We live in the braiding of emotions and languaging in our manner of living together. In this coordination through language, certain consensus or agreements appear as"reality" and the objects we understand as "real" appear.

Words are not trivial - words are the nodes or elements of networks of conversation. Language is the coordination of doings, not a symbolic act as we commonly understand it. With one word I can follow one path and with another a different path. Our languaging distinguishes a way of inhabiting a human community and culture.

As human beings we find ourselves living in communities in recursive coordination of doings, generating different worlds and realities as different manners of living together in networks of conversation.

A person who reflects creates new worlds. All distinctions are made by an observer. Our capacity for reflection in language is one essence of our humanness. We are human beings that emerged with the capacity to reflect in language and conversations and in that we generate worlds.

Maybe it is the closeness to Valentine's Day that triggered my thoughts about love and language. But please do not mistake the kind of love Maturana speaks about with the pale, commodified version that comes in the form of the chocolates and roses one can send as a gift for pledging to the local NPR station.

A Sustainability Valentine

Connectedness is part of the new sustainability story. I heard the Kingston Trio sing "Let's Get Together" first about 1965. Later the Youngbloods made a hit out of it.
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Love is but a song to sing
Feels the way we'll die.
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry.
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may know not why.

Oh! Come on you people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now
Come on you people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now.

Some may come and some may go
He will surely pass.
When the one that let us heal
Returns for us at last.
We are but in the morning sunlight
Fading in the grass.

Oh! Come on you people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now
Yes! Come on you people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now.

(Lyrics by Chester Powers)

Synchronicity at Work

On the heels of finding the new website featured in the last post, I came on this story in WorldWatch about Buzz Hollings by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Hollings is a pioneer in developing models for describing and governing complexity. He calls the framework "adaptive management." I prefer to call it adaptive governance because complex systems cannot be "managed" in the usual sense of the word. Complexity is a central part of the new story of sustainability. Maybe the discovery of two excellent discussions of the subject in the course of only a day is a sign that this story of how the world works is taking its place alongside the old one based on traditional, reductionist science and the associated belief that we can explain everything through mathematical and other forms of laws. Both ways are only stories we tell to make sense of the world. Sometimes one works better; sometimes the other does.

Homer-Dixon includes a segment of a conversation he had with Hollings. I thought it very much worth repeating here. Note carefully that this took place before the current financial system collapse. (Hat tip to Garry Peterson)

Homer Dixon started the interchange with Hollings with this question: "Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?"

There are three reasons," he answered. "First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I've also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.

Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That's a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.

A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers," I offered, "where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.

Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn't have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It's the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth's biosphere-that's particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they'll reinforce each other's collapse.

The third reason," he continued, "is the rise of mega-terrorism-the increasing risk of attacks that will kill huge numbers of people and produce major disruptions in world systems. I'm not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it's partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism. But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that's particularly worrisome.

This is a moment of great volatility and instability in the world system. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain.

Panarchy describes complex systems containing nested adaptive cycles operating at diverse scales of time and extent with a web of interconnections between the separate cycles. The image above depicts this arrangement.

A New Website about Resilience and Complexity

I recently discovered People and Place, a new website for complexity mavens that is well worth a good look. Here's what the site says about itself:
About P&P

Some relationships are long familiar. Boy meets girl. Summer turns to fall. Other connections are newly recognized or scarcely affirmed. The DNA we share. The biosphere that supports all life.

What are the ties that draw people together and to place? How have these connections - and our understandings - evolved over time? What social-ecological relationships support a more reliable prosperity? How is meaningful change accelerated?

Part weblog, part web-based journal, People and Place hosts an inquiry on ideas that connect us.

Behind P&P

P&P publisher Ecotrust believes that our fundamental challenge is a broader understanding of the intimate relationship between the human condition and the health of all living systems.

The site has a close relationship with the Resilience Alliance. If the content of this first edition is a sign of what is to come, this site is certainly one to bookmark. For example, here is a bit of one of the featured articles--"Six Habits of Highly Resilient Organizations" by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz.
Most companies live fast and die young. A study in 1983 by Royal Dutch/Shell found only 40 corporations over 100 years old. In contrast, they found that one-third of the Fortune 500s from 1970 were, at that time, already gone.

What differentiates success and failure, resilience and collapse? The Royal Dutch/Shell study emphasizes shared purpose and values, tolerance of new ideas, financial reserves, and situational awareness.

More recently, Ceridian Corporation collected best thinking and strategies to publish an executive briefing on organizational resilience. They highlighted the paradox that successful, resilient organizations are those that are able to respond to two conflicting imperatives:

  • managing for performance and growth, which requires consistency, efficiency, eliminating waste, and maximizing short-term results

  • managing for adaptation, which requires foresight, innovation, experimentation, and improvisation, with an eye on long-term benefits

Most organizations pay great attention to the first imperative but little to the second. Start-ups often excel at improvisation and innovation but founder on the shoals of consistent performance and efficiency. About half of all new companies fail during their first five years.

The image above is the adaptive cycle attributed to Buzz Hollings and his colleagues to describe the life cycle of typical living complex systems. It is described more fully in one of the site's internal links.
The figure of the adaptive cycle represents the growth, release and renewal of complex systems - from cells to ecosystems and human societies. During the slow, front phase of the cycle, connectedness and stability increase. The backloop represents a rapid phase of release and reorganization, which leads once again to a time of exploitation, or growth.

The Clock Is Running Faster than We Thought

New data about the state of the world are making the conclusions of the 2007 IPCC report look conservative. Michael D. Lemonick, writing in Environment 360, the Yale Online Magazine, describes new data that indicates that the effects of warming are coming faster than the IPCC consensus predicted.
Unexpectedly rapid melting of the vast ice sheet in Greenland, for example, suggests that sea level could rise between 1 and 2 meters (roughly 3 to 6 ½ feet) by the end of the century — nearly triple what scientists projected just two years ago. A surprisingly rapid round of melting around the North Pole suggest that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice-free in summer within two decades or even less — at least 20 years ahead of the most pessimistic FAR [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] predictions. West Antarctica, whose ice cap is bigger than Greenland’s, is warming up faster than anyone thought, and a major ice stream in West Antarctica — the Pine Island Glacier — is sliding into the sea at the astonishing rate of two miles a year, adding its mass to steadily rising global sea levels.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is spewing into the atmosphere faster than any model anticipated, with the IPCC forecasting that if nothing is done to slow greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could be as high as 900 parts per million — triple pre-industrial levels — by the end of the century. That could boost worldwide temperatures by an average of more than 4 degrees C (7 degrees F).

To put this in perspective, I spent three days last week at a workshop offered by the Society of Organizational Learning on "Learning and Leadership for Sustainability," where one of the exercises was a simulated global-scale negotiation of carbon reduction targets. The baseline was the current CO2 reduction commitments or positions of nations. These numbers were plugged into a computer model that tracks CO2 atmospheric levels, temperature rise, and sea level rise over time. I don't remember the exact results of the simulation, only that they were shocking to the point of numbness.

The computer model was a simplified version of the kind of models used in developing the FAR. Given these new data reported in the article I quoted above, even these projections were likely to be on the conservative side. Two more rounds of negotiations among the participants, broken down into groups representing different groups of countries, finally got the projections into the range where the risks are considered by the experts to be manageable. The clear and indisputable conclusion of the whole group was that there is no time to lose. Drastic reductions are needed now.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers in relying on massive technological solutions such as seeding the atmosphere with aerosols to reflect back more of the sunlight impinging on the Earth. Efficiency improvement is an important, but only incremental, remedy. Only a deep-seated shift in values and norms is likely to bring about a cultural life-style that is not fueled by fossil fuels quickly. Innovation is essential, but will take time to become widely implemented.

It would be a social and political nightmare to move quickly toward an economy that produces satisfaction through relationships and quality instead of through material good and quantity The looming nightmare of the consequences of not doing this, however, seems even more to be avoided. In saying this, I want to stress that I am not a pessimist, rather a realist. I am convinced that what I am talking about is all too real. I do believe that it is possible to avoid the worst, but only if we open our eyes, wake up, and get cracking.

The Biggest Band-Aid of All

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It has taken me a few weeks to catch up with this blockbuster report. Researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK have published a report analyzing the potential of several geoengineering schemes to reverse the projected increase in global temperature due to the greenhouse effect. I have not been able to obtain the whole report. This summary comes from ScienceDaily. Geoengineering refers to massive applications of technology to change properties of the earth on a large-scale and produce counter-effects to those of continuing emissions of greenhouse gases from economic activities. The key findings include:
  • Enhancing carbon sinks could bring CO2 back to its pre-industrial level, but not before 2100 - and only when combined with strong mitigation of CO2 emissions.
  • Surprisingly, existing activities that add phosphorous to the ocean may have greater long-term carbon sequestration potential than deliberately adding iron or nitrogen.
  • On land, sequestering carbon in new forests and as ‘bio-char’ (charcoal added back to the soil) have greater short-term cooling potential than ocean fertilisation.
  • Stratospheric aerosol injections and sunshades in space have by far the greatest potential to cool the climate by 2050 - but also carry the greatest risk.
  • Increasing the reflectivity of urban areas could reduce urban heat islands but will have minimal global effect.
  • Other globally ineffective schemes include ocean pipes and stimulating biologically-driven increases in cloud reflectivity.
  • The beneficial effects of some geo-engineering schemes have been exaggerated in the past and significant errors made in previous calculations.
The lead author of this report, Professor Tim Lenton, was careful to note that “We found that some geoengineering options could usefully complement mitigation, and together they could cool the climate, but geoengineering alone cannot solve the climate problem.” One of my concerns with this and other similar projects is that proponents will omit the last clause. An over-reliance on technological fixes has contributed to the current state of the world as people everywhere turn to the technical experts and expect them to solve the problem of environmental and social collapse.

A second concern is that however massive the models used to predict and design these geoengineering "solutions," they cannot "understand" the real complexity of the systems they will profoundly interact with and change. Such solutions are reflections of the arrogance of modern science and engineering in the face of complexity--a reluctance, either deliberate or unconscious, to accept that systems as big as the globe behave in ways that we cannot fully describe, that is, know. In such cases, it is prudent to move slowly such that we can learn as we go and be able to apply mid-course corrections. Geoengineering requires that we do the opposite and start at heroic scales. The findings above note that the interval between the time of application and the realization of the effects can be as much as almost a century.

It might seem morally correct to apply such remedies if no other course appears available that will save the many, many lives that are predicted to be lost as the globe heats up beyond the level considered to pose reasonable risks. But missing in this argument is the presumption that life as we know it today in the affluent nations will continue more or less as it is today. And is it morally correct to make decisions today that will not take full effect for several generations? If it is true that our way of life is a contributor to the threat of global warming (and I do believe that it is), isn't the moral path to reexamine deeply how we can live and flourish in ways that will not continue to damage the world and its inhabitants, especially those who will suffer from our profligacy far into the future.

Misery Loves Company

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Here’s some evidence that sustainability needs more than environmental remedies. I have written in my book that the first line of attack on unsustainability should be to restore our sense or consciousness of self or being. Only then will be able to muster the caring for our fellow human beings, other species, and all the inanimate, but critically important, parts of the world we inhabit that sustainability demands. In a polemic, but attention-getting article, Joe Bageant, writing for Alternet, argues that our American way has spawned a culture of alienation and loss of being. And further, that misery has become “commodified” as the delivery of medicine has become corporatized. First, his claim about the miserable state of affairs.

I used to think it was just some melancholic germ of my own that made me see a slowly increasing American alienation, anxiety and inner sadness over the span of my 62 years. Now however, I’m pretty convinced there is a national pathology at work, one that author Arthur Barsky called the “pathology of American normalcy.” Sounds accurate to me.

In fact, this psychic poverty has been around so long that it has become something of a norm. Despite that we have not resorted to cannibalism, single-payer health care, or god forbid, socialism, we long ago passed into the realm of what we like to call an “unhealthy society.”

Might not America’s psychological malaise be the result of knowing deep inside that life can hold more meaning — be more joyful? More emotionally rewarding and fulfilling? In a word, healthier?

He follows with a screed aimed at capitalism which you can buy or not, but it is hard to argue against the consequences of relying disproportionally on pure free markets and privatization which produce the commodification of most everything. From local choice to Wal-Marts, from Joe’s Diner to Starbucks and MacDonalds, and from individual maladies and cures to mass misery and treatments.

Whatever else can be said of capitalism, it is miraculous stuff, pure alchemy. It can privatize and corporatize any damned thing under the sun, turn a profit on it, and then make it a bulwark of corporate state control to boot. Even human misery and oppression of soul and mind.

Psychological practice and its institutions benefit greatly from this. After all, they are in the alienation business. It is entirely in the profession’s best interests that it treats us as if our lives are lived in a vacuum, our loneliness and despair are entirely our own, as if there were no such thing as context, much less American society’s corrosive and toxic environment in which so many of us live out our lives.

Put another way, it acknowledges our misery, then privatizes it, then administers lonely, alienated “treatment” for our emptiness in a private void, one among tens of millions of like emptinesses in similar voids that are in no way supposed to be societal. No matter that there are enough sufferers to constitute an entire society in themselves

My last post mourned the loss of authenticity of friendship and the emerging pathology of commodified relationships made via the Internet by using Twitter, Second Life, and other social networking technology. Bageant’s article adds another facet. The symptoms are not only showing up in the patients. Primary physicians, the ones that are the first line of defense, are leaving the normal practice to form boutiques where only the affluent can enter. New mental maladies pop up along with new pills to treat them. Now we are talking about smart pills that can raise test scores and similar feats of intellect. Pretty soon we won’t have any idea what a plain old vanilla human being is. The kind that used to inhabit the Earth. Too bad.

Lost in Cyberspace


One of the most basic themes of my book is that the use of [modern] technology always distorts reality. Humans first confronted reality with only the most basic of tools available to them. Today technology not only does much more in getting in our way, but can even create virtual realities. Nick Carr had a recent piece about avatar anxiety. An earlier post introduced the subject. Here’s the money quote from Carr’s earlier piece.

Your online self … is entirely self-created, and because it determines your identity and social standing in an internet community, each decision you make about how you portray yourself - about which facts (or falsehoods) to reveal, which photos to upload, which people “to friend,” which bands or movies or books to list as favorites, which words to put in a blog - is fraught, subtly or not, with a kind of existential danger. And you are entirely responsible for the consequences as you navigate that danger. You are, after all, your avatar’s parents; there’s no one else to blame. So leaving the real world to participate in an online community - or a virtual world like Second Life - doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-consciousness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed.

Carr’s later post anticipates the conversion of pangs felt by those for whom twittering is always hanging over them to a full-blown pathology.

So far as I know, avatar anxiety has not yet been declared an actual illness by the American Psychiatric Association, but I have no doubt that it will eventually make the grade, particularly after reading a brief article by Steven Levy, called “The Burden of Twitter,” in the new edition of Wired. Levy says that he “adores” social networking but that at the same time he is consumed with guilt and remorse over the activities of his online self. The guilt comes when he fails to participate - when he doesn’t post to his blog or when he lets his tweetstream go dry. “I worry,” he writes, “that I’m snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donation.” That’s not so surprising. Much more interesting is the remorse, which he says he feels when he does participate …

I would describe the process as addictive as the subsequent appearance of psychological abnormalities become ever more embedded as the pull of cyberspace continues. It’s not only the result of twittering but immersion in any social network in which one exposes parts of themselves to people that they do not know or have meaningful relationship with. This outcome is a very serious threat to sustainability seen as flourishing. It is critical to regain the sense of caring that is fundamental to being human; not retreat further into a virtual world. Social networking technology is very seductive and lures people into its clutches, eroding their essential capacity to build caring relationships. Quantity can never become quality.

Life Has Been Around the Planet for a Very Long Time


Ecoworldly reports that life on the Planet has been here for a very long time, some 650 million years, although in forms unlike those existing today. Life on Earth may and probably will continue for just as long, but probably not dominated by our species as it is today. It seems we may be hurrying the process these days.


New research in the South Oman Salt Basin shows evidence of animal life dating back much further than the first appearance of other significant life forms.

Chemical traces of the minute marine sponges, called demosponges were observed by a research team led by the University of California, Riverside geochemist Dr. Gordon D. Love. Desmosponges include the species most consumsers are familiar with: the bath sponge. These over 500 million-year-old sponges however, were probably much smaller due to a lack of oxygen available during their geological period. The fact that they existed 200 million years before plants appeared on land, shows just how very old they are.

One of the researchers, MIT biologist Roger Summons remarked, “There is a great wealth of evidence these sponges were the first multi-cellular organisms to exist.”

Photo credit to: Rochester Academy of Science, 1968, Getting Aquainted (sic) with the Geological Story of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Areas.”

A Sustainability Parable

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A friend sent me this tale.

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

“Not very long,” answered the Mexican.

“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.

The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the Mexican.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middleman, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.

“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.

“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?” asked the Mexican.

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

And the moral of this story is: ……… Know where you’re going in life… you may already be there.

"Sustainability: The Rise of Consumer Responsibility"

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This is the title of a report just issued by the Hartman Group. Here is how they describe themselves.

Consumer Insights. The Hartman Group specializes in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles and how these lifestyles influence the purchase and use of today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace.

Market Research. The Hartman Group holds to an unwavering belief in the power of the consumer to drive the marketplace. We study consumers in their natural environments - their homes, their stores, their lives.

A short summary of the report can be downloaded. The report itself costs $15,000, which fact might explain why I haven’t read the whole report. The heart of the report seemed to lie in their summary of Chapter Two.

Chapter Two introduces The Hartman Group’s world perspective (i.e., the World of Sustainability), consumer attitudes toward sustainability and triggers to developing a sustainability frame of mind. Using a world perspective allows us to conceptualize consumer behavior within a world of activity, such as sustainability. Consumers are not simply “born” into the World of Sustainability. Participation in the World of Sustainability is a journey that begins attitudinally and eventually manifests through behavior. In other words, before consumers ever express their participation through behaviors and purchases, they first must develop a frame of mind to even participate in the World. As it was a year ago, we find that the notion of risk is still an important facet of sustainability consciousness for many individuals. Many consumers are concerned that something they value — be it the condition of the environment, the economy, the ethical treatment of others, and so on — is indeed at risk. Although the notion of risk is an element influencing attitudes in the realm of consciousness, risk is not the whole of sustainability consciousness. Our recent conversations with consumers reveal that consciousness may also be inspired by a sense of hope for the future, and a desire to do and to feel good.

One way of interpreting this paragraph is the idea that consumer choice is shaped by the cultural surround. I do think so and what then is critical for sustainability is exactly the “frame of mind” consumers develop. I have argued in my book that this frame of mind or set of cultural beliefs and values today lies at the root of unsustainability. The behavior it eventually creates has eroded our collective sense of our responsibility to take care of nature, other people, and ourselves. So I am quite surprised by the next paragraph from the report. I am sure that the respondents of Hartman’s surveys did utter words pointing to “the greater good.” But I am not at all sure that these speakers had much real understanding of what all this means with respect to sustainability.

The Rise of Responsibility: Regardless of whether or not consumers are acquainted with “sustainability,” or can supply a formal definition for it, we find that they often point to words and phrases that reference the greater good. Recurring terms such as “responsibility” and “doing the right thing” emerged from interviews as ways described by consumers to achieve the greater good and link economic, social, and environmental issues important to them. Thus we find that sustainability is reflected at the consumer level in a myriad of behaviors, from purchases and non-purchases, to voting and volunteerism. The notion of responsibility underscores the idea of connectedness, and addresses consumer beliefs that the right thing in one area has effects in other areas. Consumers say today that for something to be truly responsible in one way, it should not cause great detriment in another.

Responsibility as a Response to the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow: As detailed in the report, a tremendous range of topics falling under the rubric of “sustainability” link by dotted and solid lines to this unwieldy concept. While concepts and ideas like “local,” “Fair Trade,” “cruelty free,” and “transparency” can now be said to be fully operating in the cultural domain, the consumer notion of doing the right thing for the common good is an even stronger guiding principle that establishes hope, even in what seem to be hard times. Importantly, we see consumers seeking out those products, services and retail outlets that they feel represent forward-thinking, higher domain experiences within which sustainability has profound connections at personal, social and global levels. Going forward, what we find fascinating, and of great value to manufacturers, retailers and service providers, is that many of the core beliefs and aspirations surrounding sustainability behaviors represent personal journeys for consumers: These philosophically and objectively-driven travels are inspired by not only individual hope for higher quality experiences and standards of living for themselves and their communities, but are quickly becoming a broadly focused expectation to find such qualities reflected in the stores, employees, brands and products they buy, interact with and use on an everyday basis.

If everything in the parts of the report publicly available does truly represent the attitudes and behavioral norms of many consumers, then perhaps we are starting on a new path toward sustainability. I remain skeptical simply because consumption itself is a symptom of the unsustainable culture we live within. To do good through consumption is probably only a case of doing less bad. Sustainability rests on shifting the “higher quality experiences” from connectedness with goods to connectedness with others and the world.

"Cutting Through the Green Fog"


Orion Magazine always comes out with classy articles. This one, by Randy Olson, about communicating environmental messages struck a chord. I struggle with finding words to capture the attention of general readers and then to get them to accept the seriousness of threats to present state of the world. I don’t feel so bad when real professional communicators complain about the same thing.

“HOW ARE YOU GOING to cut through the green fog?” The radio interviewer was referring to the glut of environmental media these days. And as a filmmaker, I knew what he was getting at; last year, independent film distributors developed a “no mas” attitude toward films that aim to save the planet. Unless they are amazingly entertaining, the distributors just don’t see a market for them… .

I took to heart the admonition that successful communication relies on much more than simply reciting the facts in an accessible way. I have spent much of my life in places where most of the time was spent in convincing everyone that I was holding the right set of facts. But Olson added that stories without sincerity and passion fall short. “The object is to move the message out of the head and into the heart with sincerity, into the gut with humor, and if you’re skillful enough, all the way down to the lower organs with sex appeal.” That’s not easy for those of us that come out of the academic world as Olson did earlier in his life.

Taking risks to protect the environment is not just about standing up in front of bulldozers in a forest. There is a courage needed for mass communication, too. You can stick with only the facts and figures, but they will never reach the heart of a mass movement. To truly motivate the nonacademic public, you have to take some chances, come down out of your head, and reach for the other organs of the body.

Figuring that out is essential to saving nature.

Taking a Short Break



I am off at a workshop on Leading and Learning for Sustainability. I’ll be back in a couple of days.

Systems Thinker Wins a Much-delayed Prize


This year’s Japan Prize was awarded to Dennis Meadows for his contributions to the 1972 shocker, The Limits to Growth. Shocker, that is, only to those who saw the world through a soda straw.

After pointing to other accomplishments, the award statement adds:

Based on the foundations established in “The Limits to Growth” over the past 30 years Dr. Meadows has consistently proposed, through model analyses, efforts aimed at forming a sustainable society. He has continued to exert a large influence on the entire world. This, it is believed, is highly praiseworthy and deserving of the 2009 Japan Prize, which is intended to honor contributions in the area of “Transformation towards a sustainable society in harmony with nature.”

Congratulations, Dennis.

No more outdoor grilling

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I don’t know whether to cheer or cry after reading this story about a rather unusual way to combat global warning. At least, it’s not one that shows up among the usual suspects. Instead of burning up charcoal briquettes in our backyard barbecues, we need to turn our grass cuttings, pruning waste, and everything organic to charcoal and bury it. Farmers and foresters are the key players, but here’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the reduction of unsustainability. The photo shows soil with a very high carbon content (terra preta).

The article is an interview with James Lovelock of Gaia fame, soon to be 90. Here’s a few gems from his interview.

Q. Your work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led eventually to a global CFC ban that saved us from ozone-layer depletion. Do we have time to do a similar thing with carbon emissions to save ourselves from climate change?

A. Not a hope in hell. Most of the “green” stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning… .

Q. So are we doomed?

A. There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Q. Do you think we will survive?

A. I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it… .I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings…

He gives nuclear a bit of a boost along the way, but it’s hard for me to find any real optimism in his answers. (Hat tip to Garry Peterson)