March 2009 Archives

Design Thinking and Sustainability

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Almost everything I read about sustainability is based on the idea that we, especially in the affluent, industrialized world, can continue to live as we have by using all the new tools that will flow from the green programs engaged in by firms with and without support from the government. Given this overwhelming view that sustainability is just a matter of more efficiency and new technologies, it is a pleasure to come upon people who see the issue as much more daunting, requiring change at the behavioral level.

Chirag Mehta posted an interesting item about a form of design thinking that would aim at changing behavior. Here’s some of the post.

The designers have been designing tools, processes, and methods to support and not to change people’s behavior. In contrast designing for sustainability would fundamentally require changing people’s behavior. The behavior change to achieve the sustainability goals would mean offering different alternatives, encourage reduced consumption, make people conscious of their behavior, and leverage peer pressure and competition. The design that maintains status quo will not help to achieve sustainability goals. The design will have to be provocative and challenge user’s assumptions in many ways.

Design Thinking is about how you think and not what you know; it is about the journey and not the destination. For a problem of massive scale such as sustainability where we still know a little and the desired outcome may take years, following are some elements of design thinking that could help make world a better place to live for the generations to come.

He follows with some specifics about the design process. The elements are:

  • Ambidextrous thinking
  • Analogous research
  • Empathy
  • Holistic multidisciplinary approach
  • Be tangible and iterate often
  • Focus on journey and emergent experimentation

The post contains a description of each of these topics. It’s worth reading.

Facebook and Sustainability

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In another post about Facebook Kari Henley asks, “Are facebook friends really your friends?” The answer is by no means clear. But, in writing this column, Henley points to an important social fact—as a society, we are impoverished when it comes to relationships.

Technically then, it really doesn’t matter if you feel comforted by others online or feel nourished at church or connected at a company retreat; we all need varied experiences of friendship and community in our lives. I have written extensively about community and believe there is much to nosh on here. What’s behind the movement is essentially - we are starved for one another. That is why Facebook took off across the generations. We crave opportunities to see a friendly face and know the silly details of each others lives. It fills a void.

The experience of loneliness is a widespread societal wound. I believe, when we get down to the root, what we’re craving is not physical or cyber connections, but Meaningful connections. Humans are hardwired to gather together as a means of survival, and loneliness prompts a “desire to affiliate” according to John Cacioppo, author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. I have quoted him before as his research is so powerful.

“You can have all the ‘right’ friends in terms of social prestige, in-group cachet, or business connections, or a spouse who is rich, brilliant and fabulous looking, but if there is no deep, emotional resonance, then none of these relationships will satisfy the hunger for connection or ease the pain of feeling isolated.”

Henley is a skeptic, like me, but points to positive responses she has found in her reportage.

Plenty out there believe these sites are solid and viable resources for maintaining connections, and the wave of the future. Some of you spoke of how you enjoy the broad networks you can manage easily, as well as nostalgic components of finding old friends and delighting in renewed connections. One of our readers said she joined Facebook, met old elementary school friends she had lost touch with, and was making plans for a reunion in New York City.

I will stick with my more negative view. Facebook adds meaning to some lives. But how meaningful can the discovery of a former high school classmate be? After 30 years of neglect, does this discovery do anything more than provide a monetary rush of nostalgia? I believe that the popularity of Facebook and other computer- or smart phone-based social networking contributes to unsustainability. Sustainability has a human as well as the more talked about natural dimension.

Sustainability will not come forth until humans put aside their immersion in a having mode of life and recover the caring foundation of being. Caring comes in the cultivation of people, not as some electronic avatar, but as a living human being with whom you share more than ephemeral moments. It is difficult for me to see how Facebook can do more than produce having. Even if it seems satisfying to youth—Henley says most teens deeply crave connection—the feelings are likely to be short-lived, and the skills that enable meaningful relationships in the context of close encounters are not likely to develop. The question I have is whether the technology creates the “need” or whether the need creates the technology. Probably a little of both at first, but the tilt seems to be moving towards the dominance of the technology. That does not bode well for sustainability.

Friends and Facebook

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I am deeply skeptical about the benefits of social networking technology. My recent post on the willingness of people to dump 10 friends from Facebook for a hamburger was about the value of a friend to our youth. I have read two articles by Kari Henley that talk about both sides of this issue. I’ll save the second for another post.

The first article warns against the negative impacts that the development of the brain will be overwhelmed by the experience of constant use of Facebook and other Internet social technologies.

A child’s brain reaches its full size at age six and the gray matter is actually the thickest around age 12. Remember how the world was full of possibilities at that age? Because it truly is. After this stage, the brain begins to prune back gray matter and the phrase “use it or lose it” becomes key as certain brain cells die forever. The skills your child learns during adolescence; like sports, dancing, music or academics become hard wired. Other skills that are not being used will fall away… .

Most kid’s today don’t have a local bowling alley or soda shop to hang out, like the baby boomer generations had. They also aren’t allowed to play outside until the street lights come on as recent generations enjoyed. Hours of skipping rope, climbing trees and building forts is replaced with the tap tapping of tiny keyboards. The cyber playground has replaced the physical one, for better or worse. It is our job as parents to make sure their developing brains know how to do more than move a mouse around a keyboard and encourage more face to face social time.

We won’t know the full effects these technologies have until this young generation leaves high school and makes its way in the world. I harbor a great deal of concern for the reason raised in the excerpt. Our repertoire of responses to the world is built up during the development of the brain, significantly in this period of development, and all though our life. Social skills are a critical part of that repertoire.

But beyond concerns later in adulthood, Henley worries about how parents should interact with their children about Facebook and its ilk. Here’s her advice:

1) Be Involved - Kids will always be ahead of us in technology, so encourage them to show you how to set up a social networking page. This encourages them to share what they know and gives you access to what they are doing.

2) Be a Parent, not a Pal - Insist on knowing user names and passwords of all their social networking accounts. Explain to them it is not to be used to spy, but to have in case they were in some sort of danger.

3) Create a Balance- We want our kids to develop their own identity and become independent. Learn to trust them and allow opportunities for them to explore when it is age appropriate and set clear limits for internet use.

Sustainable Luxury--Oh, Dear

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The NYTimes ran an item linking luxury and sustainability. The reporter, at the least, recognized the irony in conflating the two concepts.

To many people, “sustainable luxury” is a term that might best be found in the dictionary under the entry for oxymoron, right alongside “postal service” and “military intelligence.” … After all, luxury often carries with it connotations of excess and waste, and it is associated with fashion, an industry prone to fads that change at least as quickly as the seasons.

It is not just the matchup with luxury that is troublesome; it is the use of sustainable as a modifier of anything. I always argue that this grammatical construction focuses attention on the noun and loses the real meaning of sustainability. But pairing sustainability with luxury has its own particular problem because it implies the desirability of maintaining the idea that wealth can and does create privilege. Attempting through acts of corporate social responsibility to offset social harms historically created in the production of luxury goods is meritorious but fails to recognize a deeper-seated issue. Luxury goods are defined by reference to great disparities in income or wealth that is in itself a pervasive symptom of unsustainability.

Increasingly, consumers are demanding that the goods they buy be made in ways that do not harm the environment or the workers who make them. They are often willing to pay more for “green” products or “fair trade” goods. And in the current economic downturn, luxury brands are searching for new reasons to persuade consumers to pay for their high-priced products… In essence, the sales pitch has gone from “treat yourself; you can afford it,” to “the planet can’t afford for you to spend less.”

Marginal practices labeled as corporate social responsibility cannot wash away the harms done in pursuing a company’s basic business, whether it is dealing in luxury goods, like diamonds, or more basic commodities, like oil or bananas. Claiming that CSR is something their clientele demands and that then responding makes everything else all right just doesn’t parse for me. Something is dreadfully wrong with this logic.

Cradle-to-Cradle Is an Idea, Not a Trademark

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This phrase, cradle-to-cradle (C2C), is a nicely put way of capturing the idea of material loop closing, a central theme in the field of industrial ecology. (Disclosure, I am the Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology) The phrase is used as a trademark by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a firm certifying "eco-friendly" products according to a scheme the firm developed. The firm has recently come under fire for trying to limit use of the idea, says an article in FastCompany:

Last November in my article "The Mortal Messiah" I chronicled the tragedy of McDonough, the star-studded green designer who keeps short-circuiting his potentially world-changing C2C concept. Well, it turns out the very limitations we highlighted--McDonough's inability to relinquish control--are again coming back to bite him. Cox informed me that he's just posted a letter on Duurzaam Gebouwd, an influential sustainable building blog in the Netherlands, pleading for McDonough to open his small private firm up to a public private partnership with the Dutch government. As others have before him, Cox has finally concluded that the Davos-trotting architect doesn't have the resources or the scale to to seize on the C2C mania that's been bubbling throughout his country.

It is a shame to see a controversy erupt over an idea that is basically available to all, and already being practiced world-wide under a variety of names. Those who are enamored by the idea and the way MBDC has packaged it can look beyond this one instance of an important general principle. The concept also has roots in the policy framework of extended producer responsibility. One of the key features of the original proposal was that if firms were required to close their product's loop, they would seek new and innovative designs that reduced environmental burdens.

Really Changing Thinking

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The WWF has a cute video on their website showing how much water it takes to produce a cup of latte. The theme is more than just about changing the way we think than about saving water. The message is to "Change the way you think about everything." Sounds pretty good, but it really is not about everything. It is only about thinking and acting more eco-efficiently. And, as I often write, eco-efficiency can at best only reduce or slow down unsustainability, the signs of stress on us and on the world we inhabit.

If you are concerned about the state of the world, then it's good, as the WWF says, to think about it and work to lessen the stress. But sustainability, the hidden message that lurks behind the action in the WWF video, is much more than reducing unsustainability. It is a positive condition of the world where life flourishes. Thinking only about humans for a moment, flourishing means healthy bodies and minds and the realization of a set of ends, like dignity, justice, and so on.

Changing thinking requires asking a different question: not how much water does it take to brew a cup of latte, but do I really need to have this cup of coffee and, if so, why?. Sustainability rests on a model of human being with caring at the center rather than need or having. Am I drinking coffee out of a habit, is it to deal with stress, does it makes me conscious of being human? Only the latter question will open one up to being. The question alone will not do the job, but it can produce reflection and probing. It can break the pattern of acting out of conformity to social norms, too often represented by advertising, and free one to make the choice authentically out of taking care of one's body. What is it that I am taking care of, which of my myriad of concerns am I addressing? If I can access the concern, I will experience the coffee differently, discovering more aliveness or other similar quality that comes forth.

It is not just coffee, but every action taking out of conformity with embodied social experiences that diminishes being. The exercise of reflection allows for a different kind of choice that is missing in the everyday mindless way of everyday behavior. Mindless, used in this way, is not a value judgment, just a descriptive term. Media messages like the coffee video say the right word, but accompany them with an overall message that misses the more important point.

Accepting Reality

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It is rare to see a political blogger, Matthew Yglesias, write about the reality of climate change behind the so-called political reality. The former is inexorable and a manifestation of Nature's power, and is largely out of our hands to stop it in the near to medium term. The latter is a manifestation of human power and takes an instant to change. According to mythic tales, the Viking King Canute failed to stop the tide with his commands, and recognized, in this event, the power of man relative to nature, Unlike the bickering politicians we must listen to today, Canute humbly removed and never again wore his crown, the symbol of his political power. We have learned little in over a millenium.

Neurons and Sustainability

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While preparing for a few presentations, I came upon a 2008 article on free will from the Scientific American. The article asks, if our actions are determined by neuronic structure, are we responsible for them?

Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free. This kind of anti-free will stance stretches back to 18th century philosophy, but the idea has recently been getting much more exposure through popular science books and magazine articles. Should we worry? If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?

Sustainability rests on restoring consciousness of caring, that is, intentionally acting to satisfy one’s concerns about self, others, and rest of the world out there. Further, sustainability rests on breaking the addictive patterns of consumption associated with the dominant “having” mode of social behavior found in the US and other consumerist cultures today. Taking-care-of is, I believe, the fundamental structure of being. Language probably arose in the context of social settings in which an actor wanted to direct the caring iteratively and created language for that purpose. Over time taking-care-of became embedded in language as a set of responsibilities.

If our actions are determined by neuronal structure, then changing habitual behavior to embody more responsibility might seem problematic. I see no fundamental contradiction, however, if one adopts a model of action based on coupling neuronal control to multiple choices, based on past experience. I imagine the cognitive system to be something like a great database with a great search algorithm, rather than the logical computer of the rationalists. It stores rules of behavior built up through experience from the moment of birth and probably in the womb as well. From my book:

In the model of Being and behavior on which this text is based, actors follow rules that have become embedded during their life. Each moment builds on the accumulated body of rules or norms. Like explicit rules in a game, for example, these rules prescribe (must rules), proscribe (must not rules), or offer options (may rules). The existence of “may” rules lends the appearance of free will to the actions of individuals. Some forms of insanity might be said to arise from the absence or suppression of “may” rules in one’s body. Patterns of behavior are then so constrained that the actor has no choice but to follow the same course over and over again, even if the concerns behind the action continue to be unsatisfied.

The important feature of this model is that by introducing interruptions in the flow of action, individuals reflect and learn. Learning is the creation of new cognitive structure that adds to the actor’s repertoire. By designing objects we use everyday and public decision-making processes we use to base social choice to force and inform reflective moments, we can slowly wean actors away from addictive patterns that leave them unsatisfied and always clamoring for more.

A Real Tragedy of the Commons

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Garry Peterson posts a great followup to my recent post about the Tragedy of the Commons. A real-life example of the way Iceland dealt with a declining cod fishery.

Consumption and Narcissism

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Connections between hyper-consumption and narcissism have been rarely reported. Slate had a nice piece today tying this personality disorder to much of our recent troubles. Here’s the lede:

The narcissists did it. Some commentators are fingering them as the culprits of the financial meltdown. A Bloomberg columnist blamed the conceited for our financial troubles in a piece titled “Harvard Narcissists With MBAs Killed Wall Street.” A Wall Street Journal op-ed on California’s economy suggested that Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desire for voter’s love (“It’s classic narcissism”) helped cause the state’s budget debacle. A forthcoming book, The Narcissism Epidemic, says we went on a national binge of I-deserve-it consumption that’s now resulting in our economic purging.

The Slate article is well worth reading. In my book, I include narcissism in a collection of psychological traits characteristic of the modern psyche that are complicit in shaping the self that is always in need of something; the having mode of life. While referring to several journal articles and books, Slate missed the section on Narcissism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), the standard used by mental health practitioners. Here’s part of the section.

Treatment for this disorder is very rarely sought. There is a limited amount of insight into the symptoms, and the negative consequences are often blamed on society. In this sense, treatment options are limited. Some research has found long-term insight oriented therapy to be effective, but getting the individual to commit to this treatment is a major obstacle.

Prognosis is limited and based mainly on the individual’s ability to recognize their underlying inferiority and decreased sense of self worth.With insight and long-term therapy, the symptoms can be reduced in both number and intensity.

That treatment for this pathology is so rarely sought is testimony to the stranglehold that addictive patterns of consumption have on societies and on our personae. The limited prognosis is potential cause for further social depression and pathology. It is impossible to consume ourselves out of the current financial crunch and cure this deep social dysfunction at the same time. Just as the prognosis for curing individual narcissism is not promising, the prognosis for curing the financial system breakdown without long-term cultural therapy is not wonderful either.

Myopia or Hyperopia?

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David Brooks wrote his NYTimes column today under the headline, Perverse Cosmic Myopia. He was criticizing world leaders for neglecting to agree on effective immediate actions to cope with the global financial crisis while focusing on future systemic remedies

You’d think if some tiger were lunging at your neck, your attention would be riveted on the tiger. But that’s apparently not how it works in the age of global A.D.D. As a tiger sinks its teeth into the world’s neck, we focus on the dust bunnies under the bed and the floorboards that need replacing on the deck. We live in the world of Perverse Cosmic Myopia, an inability to focus attention on the most perilous matter at hand… In times like these, you’d expect prudent leaders to prepare for the worst. After all, the pessimists have recently been vindicated by events. But that’s apparently too painful to think about. In normal times, leaders like to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. But now the short term is really confusing, so leaders take refuge in projects that are years or decades away.

Brooks needs to consult his opthamalogist to get his terms straight. People with myopia see close objects clearly but distant objects are blurred. The opposite, hyperopia, fits his article. People see the distant clearly but blur the close-at-hand. What is needed here are leaders with perfect vision, some thing rare in those who chose politics as their livelihood.

Business cycles are generally accepted as inherent in the current capitalist political economy, although the recent long period of relatively uninterrupted growth fooled many economists into thinking that US monetary and fiscal policy had reined in the ups and downs for good. So much for that notion. Economies, especially very large, highly-interconnected ones, are complex systems. Cyclical behavior is typical of complexity. Complex systems move in some relatively stable region as they adapt to changing conditions. As long as they remain in this region, they can continue to deliver whatever functions we want. This is what sustainability means in general. But they can withstand only so much stress before jumping into a new region where they fail to deliver the original functionality or may even collapse entirely.

Economists are seeking causes for the recent huge swing in functionality—the loss of capacity for providing employment and the ability to invest and operate businesses, among others. Over-leveraging is the technical term used to point to the use of other people’s money by financial operators to oil the machine they run to increase their own wealth. It’s a kind of legal Ponzi scheme. Systems dynamics has another model for this situation, called the “tragedy of the commons” after a seminal paper by Garrett Hardin with that title. Hardin argued that self-interest drives people to use more and more of some common resource until the resource is so weakened or damaged that the whole system collapses. Hardin and others first invoked this model to explain why fisheries and forests ecologies collapse, but it is just as valid for any complex system based on a limited resource.

The limited resource in the financial system is capital. Leveraging is a way to employ fungible capital one does not own to obtain private wealth, part of which will be used to pay off the loans. Consumer credit is another form of leveraging, using a bank’s money to buy goods and services today with the expectation of repaying the loans tomorrow. This system can work as long as the users of the resource moderate their usage such that the resource does not dry up. But, as Hardin argues, it is human nature to use more and more of the limited resource as long as the returns are proportional to the utilization. At some point in the current crisis, the amount of capital in the whole system, instead of growing, suddenly began to disappear, and the system stopped delivering its normal everyday functions: providing the goods and services people require for their livelihood.

Hardin and others argue that such conditions are inherent to systems with limited resources whether they are natural or man-made. The only way to avoid the eventual collapse is to regulate behavior to maintain the resiliency of the system. Self-control may sound good, but it is the lack of self-control that causes collapse in the first place. Greed is nothing but the lack of self-control in the face of limited resources.

Some sort of superimposed management structure is always required to keep the system healthy. The structure can be created by the players (with difficulty) or by some authoritative institution, but, in either case, an enforcement mechanism with sufficient teeth must be put in place. Failure to understand the systemic causes of the collapse, not simply the trigger events, leads to short-term solutions and the likelihood of further (and perhaps more serious) collapse in the future leaves in place. My favorite Gregory Bateson phrase fits perfectly, “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.” Self-control or self-regulation is an ideological framework, based on some untested notion whereas the systems model of the tragedy of the commons has all too much real evidence behind it.

Brooks’ invocation of myopia is itself myopic. Both myopia or hyperopia should be corrected in the leaders’ spectacles. What world leaders must do is attack both aspects of the problem at the same time. Leaders must be able to see the handwriting on the wall very clearly and read the warning signs hiding behind the horizon.

No More Waiting for a Hybrid

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Everything wasn’t green on St. Patrick’s Day, when The LA Times printed a long article articulating the rapid fall from grace of hybrid vehicles. It seems that their draw was more connected to the price of gasoline than to the buyer’s environmental values.

In July, U.S. Toyota dealers didn’t have enough Prius models in stock to last two days, and many were charging thousands of dollars above sticker price for the few they had… Today there are about 80 days’ worth on hand, and dealers are working much harder — even with the help of $500 factory rebates — to move the egg-shaped gas-savers off lots from Santa Monica to Miami.

At the end of June, AutoNation, the country’s largest chain of new-car dealerships, had only a two-day supply of Honda Civic hybrids and a 14-day supply of the non-hybrid Civic. By year’s end, the picture had flipped, with AutoNation holding 107 days’ worth of regular Civics, compared with 148 days’ stock of the hybrid version…

“The price of gasoline dictates what people buy,” AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson said. “Gas fell to $2, and now my lots are filled up with fuel-efficient cars that aren’t moving.”

I did a little checking to make sure that these reports were not correlated with the general reduction in consumption associated with the current recession. The facts do indicate that this change was largely independent of the general poor state of the auto industry. The auto makers are between a rock and a hard place. The public has stopped buying these vehicles just as they stopped buying SUV’s when the price of gas arose, but the makers are committed to alternate vehicles under the conditions of the bail-out and the political aura that surrounds Detroit and the industry everywhere.

“The automakers are in the situation of needing to pacify politicians that are in the position to bail them out with expensive fuel-efficient cars,” said Rebecca Lindland, auto analyst with IHS Global Insight. “But shouldn’t it be more about satisfying the needs of the American consumer?”

Rebecca’s question is, perhaps, the most interesting line in the article. What indeed do American buyers “need” in a car? Maybe they do “want” to have certain features, but cost is a very major factor in their decision. There is nothing new or shocking in this finding. What is new is the lack of green or environmental values connected to what has been widely advertised as a green vehicle. This finding mirrors what public opinion pollsters often find: a large discrepancy between the actual buying behavior and the espoused values as stated in surveys. Sometimes only a few cents can shift the purchase from a “green” product to a more familiar alternative. With hybrids hundreds of dollars of lost savings as gas price falls are involved. The article points out that even large cash incentives has not maintained the previous level of interest in hybrids of all brands. Does all this mean the Hummer is on the way back?

This finding is quite consistent with my argument that underlying cultural values must change before we will see any substantial change in patterns of consumption. As long as products are designed and advertised to appeal to the perceived “needs” of the customer ascertained through tradition market research, it will be no surprise that that is how they will respond. The self that is interested in buying something has been socialized to believe that its satisfaction depends on the things it acquires. Cheaper means more things can be acquired.

But if caring for the environment is perceived as part of one’s identity, then it is more likely even models based on self-interest will allow for more weight given to values outside of the narrow band presumably at play in the standard utility maximizing model. The shift from a need for things (having) to one based on caring (being) can power a change in fundamental consumption patterns that might be able to insulate “green” products from the vagaries of the cost of gasoline or the attraction of a cheaper, less green item. I do plan to buy the 2010 version of the Prius when it shows up later this year, no matter what the price of gas is at the time. (Secretly, I expect the price of gas to rise as the recession draws to a close.)

Gone Skiing

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I am away for a few days skiing with a gaggle of grandchildren.

Category Errors and Sustainability

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E. J. Dionne, blogging for the Washington Post takes the President to task for using pragmatism as a shield against any claim that he is resting on some ideological pillow.

President Obama regularly speaks disdainfully of “ideology,” says he is focused only on “what works” and loves to be described as “pragmatic.”

Well, sure. No one ever admits to being an ideologue, and as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed many years ago, democratic government should be about “the search for remedy.”

But there comes a time when first principles need to be articulated. The economic crisis has let loose a furious philosophical debate over the meltdown, its causes and its cures. Conservatives have entered this fight with guns blazing while Democrats, including at times the president, often want to retreat behind a Maginot Line armed only with the word “pragmatism.”

It’s true of course that Obama has answered many of the conservative arguments, particularly in his address to Congress last month. But he never wants to acknowledge that in doing so he is actually joining the ideological debate, and he always goes out of his way — as in his repeated insistence that he never intended to increase the size of government — to dull the philosophical edges.

Dionne makes a category error in this criticism when he implies that pragmatism is not a principle. Being “pragmatic” is frequently used to disguise the lack of some model or principle to follow when faced with a big or small problem that demands attention. But that is not its real meaning. Pragmatism is as much a principle as is the golden rule. What Dionne refers to as “principles” are statements based on some truth derived from science or simply by authority. Smaller government is better than bigger government is a principle by virtue of the authority of the speaker. It cannot be traced back to any fundamental law of nature or first principle.

Behind all principles such as these is another idea: both natural and human systems can be modeled by laws that describe how the system works and principles that show us how to get what we want from it. Philosophers call these positive rules—rules that we can prove to be true methodologically. Positivism is our society’s master or dominant ideology, and, as ideologies go, hides neatly from view.

Pragmatism is another distinct master ideology. It is not just an excuse for muddling through. It argues that positivism cannot unearth all truths because the system under the microscope cannot be described by neat principles. However, truth, that is, a description that does work in practice, can be found by repeated experiments continuing until one turns out exactly as predicted or intended.

Counterposing pragmatism against any [positive] principled argument is not a case of weaseling out. It is simply a claim that the problem at hand is not reducible to some mechanistic system that some social or technical engineer can fix. Dionne is correct when he points out that the rhetorical use of pragmatism may be putting the President on the defensive. The way to fix this is not to pick up any old principle and start a food fight with the opponents. The odds are that they will only dig a deeper hole. Dionne would be more constructive by pointing out the category error and help replace rhetoric with reason.

Almost all, maybe all, of our big societal problems—financial social, geopolitical—persist and often worsen because of this categorical error. Unsustainable conditions arise when we use models to fix problems that fail to capture the whole “truth” of the situation. Sustainability becomes a possibility when problems solvers and governors trade in their “principled” frameworks for pragmatic approaches. Pragmatism is not a blind system where anything goes. It needs both smart and wise people, and works best when those in charge combine both traits.

Greenspan Continues . . .

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Speaking at a Congressional hearing, Alan Greenspan has already recanted his formerly unassailable wisdom as Fed Chairman. Now he continues his apology, although this time in a much less personal op-ed in the WSJ. Here are a few excepts.

Global market competition and integration in goods, services and finance have brought unprecedented gains in material well being. But the growth path of highly competitive markets is cyclical. And on rare occasions it can break down, with consequences such as those we are currently experiencing. It is now very clear that the levels of complexity to which market practitioners at the height of their euphoria tried to push risk-management techniques and products were too much for even the most sophisticated market players to handle properly and prudently.

I am not sure whether Greenspan really means complexity or whether he is talking about complicated. I suspect the latter because then he says:

However, the appropriate policy response is not to bridle financial intermediation with heavy regulation. That would stifle important advances in finance that enhance standards of living. Remember, prior to the crisis, the U.S. economy exhibited an impressive degree of productivity advance. To achieve that with a modest level of combined domestic and borrowed foreign savings (our current account deficit) was a measure of our financial system's precrisis success. The solutions for the financial-market failures revealed by the crisis are higher capital requirements and a wider prosecution of fraud -- not increased micromanagement by government entities.

I cannot comment on the specifics of his analysis and suggestions as I am not an economist. But I can argue that he does not understand how complex systems behave. Success in the past is no guarantee that a complex system can or will return to its levels once the crisis has past. While admitting that new regulations (or other governance mechanisms) are needed, his recommendations sound like he is still the Fed Chair--speak softly and say nothing uncontroversial. They are self-evident and tautological. The one interesting feature is his warning that whatever is to be done should not be “heavy” or “ overly intrusive.” I agree, but not for the reasons he does.

If we are to retain a dynamic world economy capable of producing prosperity and future sustainable growth, we cannot rely on governments to intermediate saving and investment flows. Our challenge in the months ahead will be to install a regulatory regime that will ensure responsible risk management on the part of financial institutions, while encouraging them to continue taking the risks necessary and inherent in any successful market economy.

This concluding paragraph suggests that he is coming from an ideological foundation (limited government is always better) more than from an understanding of complexity in general (prudent, small steps are less risky that big ones, once a crisis has been staunched). "Micromanagement" is dangerous, again not for ideological reasons, but because it suggests that it is possible to tweak the system as if it were a machine with the parts re-oiled after they froze up. Tweaking and learning from the results and repeating this cycle is more likely to get the desired results, but at the expense of making errors along the way. Unfortunately, our polarized, dichotomous political system penalizes mistakes. Gregory Bateson had it right when he observed that, "Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished."

This IS a Test!

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Tom Friedman’s NYTimes column today had the headline, “This is Not a Test.” I know he was using the word in an ironic sense, but I think he is dangerously wrong. This—what is happening out there in the world—is indeed a test. We are all being tested to see how we react to a series of threats. We, that is, each of us as an individual and all of us as a collective society, have been living in a bubble. Not just a dot.com or housing bubble, but a cultural bubble, ignoring indisputable evidence of present and impending breakdowns and non-ideological voices much concerned about the future. Sustainability is the subject of the test and we are failing badly.

How we have become so captured by Rush Limbaugh’s ranting that we are all Chicken Little’s baffles me. Anyone willing to raise the alarm that something is rotten in the State of Everywhere has been painted as an enemy, a non-patriot, and worse. But Limbaugh’s screed’s are only the loudest and most listened to of a myriad of clones. If you think I am making a political statement here, you are wrong. My concern is that we have been tested by nature and humankind for some time, but do not perceive that from within our bubble. The social and political consequences of speaking truth to power have become so dire that breaking out of the bubble and speaking the truth has become daunting. Fortunately there a few who continue to call attention to the reality of what is happening in the world. And there are some facts out there to deal with.

The greenhouse effect is a scientific fact. If one builds a greenhouse whether made of glass or of carbon dioxide and methane, the space inside the structure will inevitable warm up. To dispute this is to deny that an apple will fall down from a tree, or that water will boil when it reaches 212º F. It is also indisputable that levels of greenhouse gases have been increasing steadily since the onset of the industrial revolution. While the when and nature of the consequences of this process are uncertain, the inevitability of some sort of significant change to the climate is reasonably certain.

Another fact is that the global supply of fossil fuel resources are finite and will run out someday. The same is true of everything the Earth provides for us. People everywhere are beginning to worry about the availability of clean water, the epitome of terrestrial renewable resources. The seas, while limitless in scope, are shrinking in their ability to support life because they are becoming so polluted and full of junk. Economists ignore the facts that Herman Daly, one of their own, has pointed out about the folly of an economic system that is build on eternal growth and ignores the connection to the Earth.

Why are we failing this test and behaving as if none of this is true? This is a question that needs to be asked at every level of society. I have been hearing repeatedly that we Americans can fix anything. It may take a while to repair the financial mess, but don’t worry, it is in our nature to fix things. This in itself is a kind of bubble we live in. This test is not about fixing things, but stopping to assess the real mess, and in the lingo, getting real. If each of us continues to believe that their happiness rests on having things, we will surely send that message to the leaders of government, universities, business, and so on. And they will listen to us and direct the intellectual, financial, and technological resources at their command to fix the problem we call to their attention.

That’s the essence of democracy. Will it work if we are all living in a cultural bubble. I am deeply concerned that it will not, and that any quick fix will only put off the reckoning to future generations. Remember future generations are not some abstract notion. They are our children and grandchildren and so on. We have put them on Earth and we are responsible to them for the kind of world they will inhabit. It’s not likely to be a wonderful place unless we burst the bubble and get real about sustainability.

Welcome Back "Science"

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Science has returned to Presidential politics. President Obama has issued a directive on scientific integrity, effectively telling all agencies to stop playing fast and loose with scientific findings. The order is short and sweet, and restores scientific knowledge to its important place in informing decisions where such knowledge has significant probative weight.

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions… The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

Much as this does restore order and even sanity to a process that was so badly distorted in the past administration, it may place more reliance on science than it deserves. The major problem in the recent past has been the deliberate masking of scientific findings when they undercut a policy position based on ideological grounds. Both science and ideology are forms of beliefs, and both have a place in policy making. But in those cases where the “truth” of science runs headlong into the “truth” of ideology, science should have some privilege.

But this is not to say that scientific knowledge is the be-all and end-all, and that that privilege is unlimited. Scientific knowledge can be accepted as true only if the underlying theories and models fit the situation, and if all proper methodological rules have been obeyed. Unfortunately many of the critical problems faced by the President and other leaders fall under the category of complexity. These problems arise out of or within systems that cannot be defined by scientific laws, and whose behavior is fundamentally unpredictable. In these cases, for example, global warming, the financial collapse, or sustainability in general, science can inform but not definitively. Wisdom, prudence or some similar quality, maybe creativity, is called for. Scientists may possess these qualities, but not by virtue of their Ph. D. degrees. Small steps reflecting the acceptance of the unknown nature of the problem are appropriate. Truth is determined pragmatically by its correspondence to successful outcomes, not by its methodological purity.

Two social scientists, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz, trying to build a bridge between the need for “truth” in policy making and the inability of conventional or “normal’” science to provide such truth in issues dealing with complexity defined a “post-normal science.” In this model the “truths” would be vetted and determined by a much wider group than the traditional peers.

The shortcoming of [social] scientific expertise related to the economic crunch was highlighted in an article in the Newsweek that came in the mail today.

One of the not inconsiderable side effects of the current economic meltdown is the demise of the economic expert, if experts they truly ever were. Experts took a quieter bath in 1989, when communism collapsed without a single Sovietologist coming near to suggesting the possibility of the demise of the totalitarian behemoth. So, too, did few economists call the global economic collapse that began last autumn. The entire Dismal Science, as Thomas Carlyle called economics, and all its practitioners seem to have been asleep at the wheel…

After being wrong so often during the current crisis, an unseemly humility is beginning to show up in economists. On television, Liz Ann Sonders, the chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, recently said, “Look, I would love to know where we go from here, but no one does.”

Conspicuous Consumption Under Stress

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There is no question that consumption will decrease during this period of financial distress. Any recession is defined by a decrease in GDP, which is a measure of consumption [and the production of the goods and services we consume]. Given the current numbers, consumption has already decreased over the past few months. From the perspective of sustainability, the question is whether the quantitative reduction will be accompanied by a change in the nature of the "needs" that economists and psychologists argue drive consumption choices. If the reduction is only the result of having less money, then there is a reasonable expectation that consumption will eventually return to the same levels as it was before the crash.

This thoughtful article from the NYTimes suggests that some fundamental changes are indeed already starting to occur. I am not so sure because the focus here is on "conspicuous" consumption

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In just the seven months since the stock market crash, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those who still have a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button.

“I think this economy was a good way to cure my compulsive shopping habit,” Maxine Frankel, 59, a high school teacher from Skokie, Ill., said as she longingly stroked a diaphanous black shawl at a shop in the nearby Chicago suburb of Glenview. “It’s kind of funny, but I feel much more satisfied with the things money can’t buy, like the well being of my family. I’m just not seeking happiness from material things anymore.”

While not explicit, the argument in the item demonstrates the power of culture to shape consumption. Conspicuousness is purely a cultural attribute. I would guess that this "need' fits in the fourth level of Maslow's five-tier hierarchy: esteem (peer recognition). But what peers recognize is determined by the current social scoring system. Right now that scoring system has been affected by the financial stress apparent everywhere in the economy. Will the same criteria reappear as the finacial system recovers? I think they probably will. My reason is that cultural change comes slowly, and the policy medicine being applied aims at a fairly quick recovery. Whether it will recover so quickly is anybody's guess.

Missing is this picture is the individual and collection reflection that it is the quality, not quantity, of our society's consumption that needs to change before sustainability can become a reality. This kind of new consciousness is just not enough.

Even some of the very affluent said they were reluctant to be conspicuous in their spending.

“It’s disrespectful to the people who don’t have much to flaunt your wealth,” said Monica Dioda Hagedorn, 40, a lawyer in Atlanta who is married to an heir of the Scotts Miracle-Gro fortune. “I have plenty of dresses to last me 10 years.”

Is it disrespectful only now? I think it has always been so. There is more awareness now I am sure. That's great. But in any case, sustainability does not come from digging into the upstairs closet to pull out old clothes to wear. Sustainability relies on understanding that things do not bring happiness in either a recession or a boom. It is never the amount of things we have that matter; it is always the quality of our caring that makes us human and whole people. Talking about conspicuous consumption is helpful, but more talk about the unsustainability of "having" is critical.

A Bum Rap

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I take green issues very seriously, but occasionally I cannot help but seeing some humor out there. I know we should be looking everywhere for ways to lessen the impact of our mindless consumption. But I can't help myself from breaking into the tiniest of a grin about this serious piece. The headline tells enough, "America's Love Affair with Really Soft Toilet Paper Is Causing an Environmental Catastrophe." Here's the gist.

Americans have been long chastised for our environmental footprints (and for good reason). But the latest report from environmental groups including Greenpeace should give us major reason to pause. The Guardian could not have said it any better:

The tenderness of the delicate American buttock is causing more environmental devastation than the country's love of gas-guzzling cars, fast food or McMansions, according to green campaigners. At fault, they say, is the US public's insistence on extra-soft, quilted and multi-ply products when they use the bathroom.

I can see the next slogan coming: "Do your duty for the environment."

The End of Long-term Thinking

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Jamais Cascio posted an article with the headline above. I agree with most of his points, but think his article still leaves us in a linguistic muddle.

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My intent, from this point forward, is to stop talking about the "long-term." No more long-term problems, long-term solutions, long-term changes. No more long-term perspectives.

In its place, I'm going to start talking about "multigenerational" issues. Multigenerational problems, solutions, changes. Multigenerational perspectives. . . The advantage of the term "multigenerational" is threefold.

Firstly, it returns a sense of perspective that's often absent from purportedly "long-term" thinking. In a culture that has tended to operate on the "worry about tomorrow, tomorrow" model, looking at the next year can seem daring, and looking ahead five years can seem outrageous. But five years out isn't very long for long-term thinking; even ten years is better thought of as mid-range. Multi-generational, conversely, suggests that whatever we're thinking about may require us to think ahead 20+ years.

Secondly, it reinforces the notion that choices we make today don't just impact some distant future person (subject to discounting), but can and will directly affect our physical and cultural offspring. . . That is to say, "multigenerational" carries with it a greater implied responsibility than does "long-term." . . . Finally, it doesn't let us skip over the journey from today to the future.

I do not think that long-term is, by itself, a problem, one that will be cleared by by changing the words we use. The problem is a mindset that cannot grasp and react to the impact of slowly occurring changes. It is the action that is missing. We, as a society, are doing very little other than trying to restore the world to where it has been, but only for a very limited number of its population. But whether we look 5 or 500 years out, it is hubris to think we can predict the outcome of whatever actions we take today. Cascio and others are still coming from a hubristic system of beliefs that suggest that we can predict the future within some bound of uncertainty.

Cascio also says "I'm increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there." But that is precisely the kind of thinking that has gotten us into the mess we are in. Throughout modernity, we have believed that the future will always be better than the past. Progress is immanent in the modernist belief in the power of knowledge to perfect our human world. But in grammar, "perfect" connotes over, done, complete, cessation. . . The process framework lacks this sense of perfect. Given a finite earth there is an end when we must say enough is enough.

Tom Friedman, writing in today's Times, seems to have gotten off his usual technology-based, Panglossian mantra that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." I hope his words resonate with our political leadership.

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

The alternative to growth and progress as a process is to have a vision of a "perfect" world and constantly monitor our convergence on that world, continuing to adjust as the trajectory appears to take further away rather than closer to our vision. That is what sustainability is all about. The vision is flourishing where all forms of life of follow their evolutionary destinies and every human being, in addition, enjoys those qualities that make us unique among all species--dignity, justice, and so on.

Oops

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Not my bad this time. I caught this statement when it was made back in October, but missed the whole colloquy with Congressman Henry Waxman. In a nutshell, this is why we are is the mess we are in, beyond the financial crunch. The way we explain how the world works, indeed, has serious flaws far beyond those Greenspan used to justify his poor judgment.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: [T]his is your statement. 'I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We've tried regulation. None meaningfully worked.'....Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to — to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I’m saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality…

ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

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In a world of complexity, any model that assumes that we can ever "know" enough about the system to manage it without rolling the dice should be treated with great skepticism. We need models, for sure, but when anyone becomes hubristic about their confidence in them, as did Greenspan, watch out! To create sustainability, we must relax our belief in all such models--those that describe the environmental world, the social world, the financial world and even those that try to explain individual human behavior. Fortunately we have alternatives to apply while designing sustainability.

Is Losing an Hour of Sleep Really Green?

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One argument used in lengthening the duration of Daylight Saving Time has been that it will save energy. Early risers can get to work at home, on the farm, or at the office without switching on so many lights. Maybe the program will not work quite that way as this article suggests.

This sounded good to me, so I did not further study this claim. However, these folks did…

What can we conclude from these studies?

Energy savings will rarely come from a provision in a law any President passes (especially former prez G.W. Bush). It is up to us to conserve energy in our homes, at our offices and schools. We can no longer take electricity for granted. It’s time to start scolding one another again for leaving lights on in an empty room. Our grandparents used to-I guess energy frugality skips a generation.

Energy efficiency cannot do its job without help from users as the article says. Habits change slowly. Without consciousness of the opportunity to save electricity and the fuel used to generate it, people will continue to switch on the lights as they hop out of bed. Worse, the tacit assumption that daylight saving will do the job for them (shifting the burden), many may relax other "green" activities.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Begins at Home

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In my book, sustainability is defined as the possibility of flourishing. This means that each species, other than humans, maintains its evolutionary population levels within an ecosystem. It does not mean that the population is constant, but exhibits resiliency — it can recover from shocks to the system to return to its historic levels. Today many species are threatened or endangered under this definition.

The human species, as a life form, is subject to the same category of threats to their existence and has responded to such challenges historically by devising technological and institutional systems to counter such threats. Because of this capability, no evolutionary baseline has been established. Population has continued to increase as food supplies have expanded and as technology provides a shield from the forces that threaten us.

But as a conscious and meaningful species, we are also subject to a different kind of threat — threats to the conditions that affect our individuality and interconnections to other human beings. Over the evolution of our species, we have come to recognize that to be human is to be able to live a dignified life, that is, a life without domination by others. The emergence of the modern era is founded in large part on the belief that knowledge and truth are the foundation of an egalitarian, non-domineering society compared to the hierarchical, dogmatic structures that preceded the Enlightenment.

Ironically, this self-same system of beliefs is fundamentally dominating. If the system of knowing what constitutes the conscious world and how we acquire that knowledge is predicated on the existence of an absolute, timeless truth, then any conversation about the world will ultimately devolve into a claim by one of the parties that their truth is the only true or right one. The “winner” of the interchange will be the most powerful — the one who can dominate the others. Of course if there is consensual agreement, all parties can leave with dignity. This is not an easy idea to accept or work with. Dignity and other similar human concerns must, however, be part of any conversation about sustainability whenever human beings are included.

Now let me make an abrupt jump to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can more closely follow the argument I am about to make by reading my book, but here I am taking a very abbreviated path. CSR is a principle that argues that, since corporations are an institution growing out of and “authorized” by cultures, they have a responsibility to fulfill whatever are those explicit or implicit aims that underlie that authorization.

Cutting a long historical discussion very short, those aims narrowed from a qualitative sense of providing necessary goods to the society to a quantitative role as [the most important] cog in the economic machine that turns out aggregate wealth. From the start, it was apparent that corporations could not provide everything a society deemed normatively important. Their responsibility for community and worker health and safety has been long an issue. These concerns have been codified in a myriad of health and safety and pollution control regulations. More recently. environmental justice has arisen as a claim that companies have an obligation not to locate plants in places where they place an undue and unfair burden on economically and socially disadvantaged groups. All of these cases refer implicitly to the ability of firms to dominate employees, neighbors, communities and, in a globalized world, people far from the home offices.

CSR has come to incorporate activities designed to prevent this type of domination and the harms it causes. Such actions are meritorious and necessary, but do not go far enough. In particular, firms, in general, fail to care for the dignity of their workers. Most of CSR is bundled up in actions outside of the corporate fence-lines, correcting situations that have grown up over time. It is time to look inside these bounds at how firms treat their employees.

First, let me continue to make a link to my opening philosophical comment that we view the world through a set of immutable truths. If you couple this to traditional hierarchical (power) structures in firms, you end up with a fundamentally dominating system. This not-so-subtle domination has been exacerbated by the increasing distance between managers’ and workers’ salaries. I am not talking about sweatshops, either. That’s an easy case. I’m talking about run-of-the-mill US firms. And it’s not just about salary discrepancies; it is about the technocratic processes that are used to solve problems and to design the practices that govern day-to-day operations.

Honest CSR programs would start at home with an honest appraisal of how the employees are being cared for. If firms cannot or do not take care of their corporate family’s dignity and other basic human “needs,” they are not going to be able to contribute positively to sustainability. Like much of the effort going to address the environmental dimensions of unsustainability, their CSR programs will at best only be able to make bad situations less bad, but not create the positive vision of sustainability as flourishing.

Oops

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A few posts ago, I used the Chinese word for crisis as meaning the combination of danger and opportunity. Gena Rotstein pointed out that this interpretation is not quite right. She linked me to an article by a Chinese language expert, Victor Mair, that explains:

There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements that signify “danger” and “opportunity.” … the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction… .

Like most Mandarin words, that for “crisis” (wÄ“ijÄ«) consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wÄ“i and jÄ«… While it is true that wÄ“ijÄ« does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wÄ“i syllable of wÄ“ijÄ« does convey the notion of “danger,” the jÄ« syllable of wÄ“ijÄ« most definitely does not signify “opportunity.”

For those who have staked their hopes and careers on the CRISIS = DANGER + OPPORTUNITY formula and are loath to abandon their fervent belief in jÄ« as signifying “opportunity,” it is essential to list some of the primary meanings of the graph in question. Aside from the notion of “incipient moment” or “crucial point” discussed above, the graph for jÄ« by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jÄ« can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings. It is absolutely crucial to observe that jÄ« possesses these secondary meanings only in the multisyllabic terms into which it enters. To be specific in the matter under investigation, jÄ« added to huì (“occasion”) creates the Mandarin word for “opportunity” (jÄ«huì), but by itself jÄ« does not mean “opportunity.”

A wēijī in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English. A jīhuì in Chinese is just as welcome as an opportunity to most folks in America. To confuse a wēijī with a jīhuì is as foolish as to insist that a crisis is the best time to go looking for benefits.

So let me take this “jÄ«huì” and express my apologies to Professor Mair and to all Chinese speakers for propagating a misuse of their language. In any case, I do believe that we are at a “crucial point” where we have to confront the failures of the ways we operate and think about the world. Those ways are not working effectively any more. Einstein’s warning about continuing to think in the same old ways is clearer right now than it has been during the many recent years where we have simply assumed everything was just fine because the indicators of well-being were always going up. There were two errors involved. One, the indicators did not really signal well-being, and, two, they did not and cannot go up forever. Whether one speaks English or Chinese, the time is ripe for reflection and change.

The Market as God

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A friend pointed me to an article in the Atlantic with this title, written by the theologian, Harvey Cox. Although now 10 years old, it is right on target. Written with a heavy dose of irony, it still makes great reading. I found the concluding paragraphs an apt coda for my last post.

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Disagreements among the traditional religions become picayune in comparison with the fundamental differences they all have with the religion of The Market. Will this lead to a new jihad or crusade? I doubt it.

It seems unlikely that traditional religions will rise to the occasion and challenge the doctrines of the new dispensation. Most of them seem content to become its acolytes or to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities, after putting up a game fight, eventually settledfor a diminished but secure status as Christian saints. I am usually a keen supporter of ecumenism. But the contradictions between the world views of the traditional religions on the one hand and the world view of the Market religion on the other are so basic that no compromise seems possible, and I am secretly hoping for a rebirth of polemics.

No religion, new or old, is subject to empirical proof, so what we have is a contest between faiths. Much is at stake. The Market, for example, strongly prefers individualism and mobility. Since it needs to shift people to wherever production requires them, it becomes wrathful when people cling to local traditions. These belong to the older dispensations and — like the high places of the Baalim—should be plowed under. But maybe not. Like previous religions, the new one has ingenious ways of incorporating pre-existing ones. Hindu temples, Buddhist festivals, and Catholic saints’ shrines can look forward to new incarnations. Along with native costumes and spicy food, they will be allowed to provide local color and authenticity in what could otherwise turn out to be an extremely bland Beulah Land.

There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, “I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough.” He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is “There is never enough.” Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.

Cox made a serious error, doubting (in the first paragraph quoted) that any religion would rise up against the market God. Al-Qaeda rails against Market and Western materialism, using exactly this argument in attempting to justify its jihad. Save this error of judgment, the article is on target and worth reading in its entirety.

Is Consumerism Dead?

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It is very important to carefully parse the headline of this recent article in Alternet.

Consumerism" Is Dead -- Can Obama Lead Us to a Downscaled Lifestyle?

Anyone that follows my book’s theses, would think I would be jumping for joy since I see consumerism as resting at the base of the present state of unsustainability. Here’s the gist of the column.

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Among the questions that disturb the sleep of many casual observers is how come Mr. O doesn't get that the conventional process of economic growth -- based, as it was, on industrial expansion via revolving credit in a cheap-energy-resource era -- is over, and why does he keep invoking it at the podium? Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. "Consumerism" is dead. Revolving credit is dead -- at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.

I believe that this headline and comments in the text I quoted are confused and misleading. Consumerism is very much alive and kicking. What has taken a perhaps mortal blow is an economy that is based on ever-continuing growth. The impossibility of such an economic foundation grows starker with every passing day.

The inherent instability of the economic system--the bubble metaphor is most appropriate--is tied to consumption, that is, the economic measure of economic output. It would be more accurate to ask whether consumptionism is dead. This questions the underlying model that is used by policy makers and financial managers to adjust the conditions under which markets function.

This is a very different "ism" than consumerism although the two strongly interact. Consumerism is a cultural attribute of people living in modern, technological societies. It is a belief that everything valuable in life can be acquired and possessed. Erich Fromm calls this the “having" mode of life. It is inauthentic and leaves one unsatisfied and unfulfilled. The response to this condition is, not surprisingly, more consumption. The pattern is a nearly perfect exemplar of addiction.

The alternative to consumerism or having is “being.” Being is a mode of living where relationships become more important than things. One’s identity becomes formed by acts of caring rather than by some measure of material wealth.

It is no coincidence that this question is being asked frequently these days. The assumption of many is that the financial collapse will force changes in consumptive behavior and that will become embedded as a permanent cultural attribute.

Grant McCracken writes:

The question is whether we might habituate to a lower level of spending. I think this can only happen if some of the deeper cultural drivers of the consumer culture fall silent. These would include competitive spending. (This is largely dead among some Millenials.) It would also include the wish to stay in fashion or in touch with the curve. (Here too some young consumers are turning their backs on fashion, especially the branded, mainstream variety.) There are positive forces: the wish to go green, to "save the planet," this has been the great staple of elementary school education and it is now on the verge of being installed in our culture as orthodoxy. (This is no doubt as it should be.) This is where we really have to do our anthropology: what are the cultural drivers that might intervene here and lock consumption habits into place.

I agree that this question is timely and offer a critique in Sustainability by Design of the present consumerist culture, and discuss the kind of cultural values and beliefs that have to change before real change in consumer behavior will show up. They are much deeper than competitive spending or fashion-seeking. These only describes the apparent cause but fail to ask why people feel the need for competitive spending and so on. Too much here for the blog. You will have to read the book.