May 2009 Archives

Moving to a New Server



For the next few days, I will be unable to post new material. The site may become unavailable for a short period. I should be back in full swing by mid-week. Everything you need to link to the site stays the same.

Continuous Partial Attention


I have become much more conscious lately of the omnipresence of Blackberries, iPhones, and other smart phones. (Disclosure, although I am a techie in most realms, I still hold on to my most basic cellphone, in spite of all sorts of incentives to upgrade.) Couple this awareness to the many articles on the web discussing, extolling, and critiquing the use of Twitter, and I land squarely on Linda Stone's concept of continuous partial attention. Here's what she says about it.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

. . . Like so many things, in small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

Stone sees the positive side of CPA and, implicitly, of all the devices that contribute to it. I am, at the least, skeptical and more often quite critical. Matt May, who's one of my favorite bloggers, sees the idea as elegant (the theme of his book and blog). But he is talking about the idea of Twitter, not its effects from use. And that is what concerns me.

Stone's blog begins with this line, "I believe attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit." I agree completely with the underlying idea, but I would use different words to express this thought. Attention provides visible evidence about what we care about. What we do and how we do it are the best evidence that we are taking care of whatever concerns us at the time. Stone carefully differentiates multi-tasking from CPA.

[CPA] is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We're often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing.

The failure to understand that caring is the most basic quality that makes us human and not just some other living species is, I claim, one of the fundamental roots of unsustainability. The state of world in both human and environmental terms is unsustainable. And while virtually all attention today is placed on dealing with the environmental aspect, I believe that is the human side that must be addressed first. If we do not recover our consciousness of caring as the basis for our cultural life, we will continue to be "havers," not beings, and will always turn to some sort of technological means to deal with everything.

Twitter is exactly one of those means. Stone points to the feeling of being "alive" that Tweets bring. Perhaps, but what sort of aliveness is she talking about? She notes in the last paragraph I quoted that the experiences also produce a feeling of powerlessness. The momentary aliveness is ephemeral, but the powerless sense lasts. I equate feeling alive with the idea of flourishing, and, further, that sustainability is the possibility that we shall flourish for more than some instant. Another way to recognize flourishing is a sense that we are taking care of our multiple domains of caring: self, others, and the world.

CPA runs exactly counter to that. Twitter and all the other systems and devices that flash in and out of our perception contribute to our becoming very good at practicing CPA. But the more we excel at this art, the less we will be able to pay full attention to the real concerns we have, even if we split our attention among several tasks simultaneously. There's still another down side and that is that this kind of practice gets to be addictive. We end up spending more time twittering and less time on productive work. I don't mean just the tasks we deal with at home and work, I mean the challenging work learning who we are as human beings that leads to flourishing.

Try Living Without Emotion

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The hubbub over Judge Sotomayor centers as much on her mental processes as it does on her legal positions. Fueled by the remarks of the President stating that he was looking for Justices that could put themselves in the shoes of others and by his use of the word, empathy, a few earlier remarks of Sotomayor's has created a firestorm.

Credit David Brooks with writing his column arguing for a sensible way of understanding empathy and the role of emotion in the way we think and act. If you can put the immediate political context of this subject aside for a moment, let me try to connect what he has said to sustainability. Brooks' central argument is that emotion is that part of our cognitive machinery that reveals to us and others what we care about.

People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

The standard argument against emotion has been developing for hundreds of years, beginning with the Enlightenment philosophers who were building the case for reason and rationality. For them, reason trumped emotion. Kant wrote, "To be subject to emotions and passions is probably always an illness of the mind because both emotion and passion exclude the sovereignty of reason." More recent research, using methods unavailable to Kant and others, finds reason and emotion coexisting, residing in different parts of the nervous system.

Excluding emotion as a legitimate basis for human action is part of the roots of unsustainability. Without emotion, we lose the central driver of caring, and see everything through a context-free set of senses. Further, every individual is presumed to have the same rationality circuitry wired in the brain. And even further, that circuitry is supposedly programmed to maximize the utility of everything we do. Our actions are guided by the facts of the world, and if we err it is because we have distorted these facts through an emotional lens. Ultimately, with this conceptual model, we become machinelike and see the world only as material to feed into our utilitarian calculus. That's why, in this much abbreviated argument, we become “havers”, not beings, and have created our hyper-consuming culture. We now see the effects of this culture on the world, and are turning to find sustainability.

Humberto Maturana, who I often draw upon, says that emotion is the most fundamental of human traits. It is what makes us distinctively human. We learn about caring from the moment of birth. We continue to add emotional content to our bodies as we encounter life and make choices and invent ways to cope. Maturana also argues that the most fundamental emotion of all is love, which he says is the complete acceptance of and caring for others for what they are, not because there is something you want from them. Love and the social nature of human consciousness are intimately intermingled. Without love there could be no social interaction with people or anything out there. It is from these interactions that we learn how to live. Most of our actions are based on this learning. It is only when we encounter an unfamiliar scene that we fall back on "reason."

Those who fault Sotomayor or anyone for acting in the context of empathy or out of emotion misses the point. The actions that underpin the competence of the actor have come from these sources. Emotion is what makes Sotomayor and others effective judges, according to standards that bear on real life. It's not that individual cases are decided on emotional grounds; it's that the basic care that always accompanies real competence springs from emotion, not reason. Those who argue for some completely objective process may end up with a result completely consistent with the body of laws, according to their "theory,” but largely divorced from life experience. Even in this case, their stance can be traced back to some emotional foundation, indicating more care for some abstraction called law, rather than for the people for whom the law is designed to serve. It is the same sort of technocratic behavior that has created much of the unsustainability appearing everywhere. Only when we begin to care again will we be able to work our way toward sustainability. Our leaders need to understand that both reason and emotion are critical in solving big and small problems. It’s only when one of these modes of being pushes the other completely out that we get into deep trouble.

Be Careful with Adaptation

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In Environment 360, the Yale Environmental Journal, Bruce Stutz writes about adaptation as an increasingly legitimate response to global warning. The begrudging acceptance of this strategy reflects a growing beliefs that we are moving too late to prevent significant temperature rise along with all its consequences.

“My view is that we’ll be lucky if we can stop CO2 at 600 ppm,” says Wallace Broecker, a geoscientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “There’s no way we’re going to stop at 450. Impossible. If we’re going to double CO2, we’d better prepare what we’re going to do about it.”

If Broecker and many of his fellow climate scientists are right, the planet will experience myriad far-reaching changes to which humans, plants and animals will need to adapt: higher sea levels, the melting of glaciers that have long supplied hundreds of millions of people with water, drought-stressed agriculture, more severe storms, spreading disease, and reduced biodiversity.

Many are now taking seriously the need for seawalls, massive irrigation systems, water diversions and other technological ways to counter the effects of climate shifts.

City planners are modeling the risks and working with New York citizens' groups and city agencies to develop a coordinated approach to protecting vulnerable roads, tunnels, water supplies, transit, sewers, and water treatment plants. One firm has proposed a concrete tidal barrier that would stretch across the neck of lower New York Bay, similar to one that the Russian government has already commissioned to protect St. Petersburg from rising levels of the Baltic Sea.

I have been among those who have cautioned against this approach as only a quick fix--one that defocuses attention away from changing the socioeconomic-technologic system to radically transform the way we obtain energy and use it. The urgency of action to control climate change shifts attention away from the long-term, fundamental energy problem--converting fossil to renewable sources based on solar irradiance on the Earth’s surface. Of course, it’s a twofer. Every kilowatt-hour gotten from the sun offsets the release of greenhouse gases.

There’s a second defocusing associated with a turn to adaptation. The need for a radical adaptation of our culture gets pushed far into the background. Adaptation via technology is almost always an ironic choice as technology is almost always one of the major causes for the problem to be addressed. Global climate change is a consequence of the massive economic development accompanying modernity. Most of that development is a product of technological innovation.

Unsustainability of which climate change is only one, although perhaps the most threatening, sign, also has other cultural roots, which in a vicious circle of embedding over centuries, has diminished human Being. We have come to believe that the world is out there for us to master and use for our purposes. Another irony--the technology we have used to gain mastery has created problems of magnitudes never before encountered in modern times. We must quickly realize that the most important adaptation is that pertaining to ourselves and our modern culture. We are fortunate to be able to adapt by adopting new beliefs and practices relatively quickly. Other species must adapt according to a Darwinian time schedule, and that will be too slow for many faced with the rapid onset of climate change. We are heading for a sixth massive extinction wave argue some scientists.

Being able to adapt is, however, not the same as acting now. President Obama is already overloaded with crises, but needs to turn his attention to this absolutely critical set of concerns. Technological Band-aids are obviously important and useful, but only if they provide enough time and resources to turn to the central issue of culture change. The engineer I was trained to be is very pleased with Obama’s elevation of science and technology to its rightful place, but he must not become lulled by its siren song. Maybe he and his advisors will have to plug their ears with beeswax, just as Odysseus forced his crew to do, to escape its lure, and move on to deal with the real problem--transforming our culture.

Finding Happiness Under a [Philosopher's] Stone

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A few days ago, I started to follow a blog in the New York Times called Happy Days. My first post features an article by Daniel Gilbert about how people react to uncertainty. The bloggers at the Times publish articles that look at how people are finding or not finding contentment in their lives under today's difficult circumstances. While contentment does not equate exactly to flourishing, it suggests the same sort of positive reflections. Enough of what I have read in the column so far depicts a realization that contentment is not tied to having, but rather to Being.

Happy Days published a number of the comments it received in response to the Gilbert article. About half disagreed with Gilbert and claimed they had been able to find some form of contentment in times with great unknowns. These paragraphs from the first commenter are very revealing.

A recent photo essay of people living in a hospice caught my eye. One woman in her forties had lived a hard and difficult life and was in the last stages of a terminal disease, with no hope of recovery. And she said that she was, for the first time in her life, happy.

How could that be? For the first time, instead of worrying what might come in her future, she was living each day for itself. Literally, she was glad to be alive and enjoying every minute of it, the way someone with a very great glass of wine might slow down and savor the last few drops.

It would be very difficult to describe this woman as flourishing, but she had discovered Being, and was able to come to an understanding of what it is to be authentically human. Heidegger wrote that we cannot become fully human beings until we face the finiteness of life. Whenever we accept the inevitability of our own death, our experiences begin to fill with meaning.

Today's Happy Days column, written by philosopher, Simon Critchley, starts with the question, "What is Happiness?" Critchley, responds to his own question with a philosopher's answer:

For the philosophers of Antiquity, notably Aristotle, it was assumed that the goal of the philosophical life — the good life, moreover — was happiness and that the latter could be defined as the bios theoretikos, the solitary life of contemplation. Today, few people would seem to subscribe to this view. Our lives are filled with the endless distractions of cell phones, car alarms, commuter woes and the traffic in Bangalore. The rhythm of modern life is punctuated by beeps, bleeps and a generalized attention deficit disorder.

Without using the language of having and being as I do, he is making the same point.

Happiness is not quantitative or measurable and it is not the object of any science, old or new. It cannot be gleaned from empirical surveys or programmed into individuals through a combination of behavioral therapy and anti-depressants. If it consists in anything, then I think that happiness is this feeling of existence, this sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency that is bound up with the experience of time.

I would add that happiness or flourishing is certainly not bound up with the materiality of the world. What Critchley calls "this feeling of existence" is very close to Being. The woman speaking in the first excerpt was full of such feelings even in her dire state of health. Sustainability, the possibility of flourishing, needs a way to teach us about happiness or contentment or satisfaction--a way that does not require one to be either a philosopher or be facing imminent death.

. . . and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics


Every so often, I read something that reminds me that I can’t quite shake off my academic leanings when I write. Today I ran across just such an article in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine section. In many fewer and more evocative words, "The Case for Working With Your Hands," by Matthew B. Crawford captures much of the concept of Being that I was painfully able to write about. Crawford turned his back on a hard-earned Ph. D. to become a motorcycle mechanic and in doing so found a deep satisfaction that was missing from his short career in the “information/knowledge” industry. Shades of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics. Crawford has many traits similar to Pirsig's "Narrator."

Another important theme in the article is what learning and understanding are all about. Echoing the line from my book that learning is doing and doing is learned that I gleaned from the work of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, he contrasts the reality of what he learned from his practice with what he had learned in “school.” I strongly encourage anyone interested in understanding more about flourishing to read the whole article.

Almost every paragraph in the article has something to remember. I have selected a few to give you a taste.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja that was practically brand new, while performing its first scheduled valve adjustment. I escaped a complete tear-down of the motor only through an operation that involved the use of a stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands and the sort of concentration we associate with a bomb squad. When finally I laid my fingers on that feeler gauge, I felt as if I had cheated death. I don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed.

Moments of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.

The lesson for me is that Crawford sees his job as a set of relationships--with the machine itself, with the customer, and with other mechanics. And it is out of those relationships and experience that he has learned whatever it is that makes his work successful and spill over to the rest of his life. He says, “What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.”

The words, “ethical” and “responsible” punctuate much of the article. Calling it the Tao of Sustainability in my book, I collapsed the strategy for creating sustainability into three domains: recovering our sense of what it is to be human, our sense of ethical behavior (responsibility), and our sense of our place in nature. Crawford has found an intriguing way to address the first two of these domains in his work. Although he does not address the third explicitly, he alludes to it in this short passage.

One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

His story brings to mind my own experience working with a group of companies that had formed a Sustainability consortium under the egis of the Society for Organizational Learning. Two of the firms were Nike and Harley Davidson. Conventional wisdom might suggest that Nike would score higher on some sustainability scale. But on the scale of flourishing, I rate Harley as the higher. Motorcycles provide their riders a more authentic experience, albeit a noisier one, than does a pair of pricey Nike Air Yeezy sneakers. The Harley participants, arriving in their jeans and leather jackets, were easily as much concerned with sustainability as those coming from Nike.

It took me at least 10 chapters of my book to tell my story about Being, aliveness, responsibility, ethics, learning, understanding, authenticity, flourishing, relationships, community, caring, and more. Crawford does it very neatly in just over four pages. As I said above, you should read the whole article. But not as an excuse for not buying and reading my book.

Good Bubbles


We have all learned that bubbles in the market make us feel good while they grow, but then become the cause of our economic woes. I discovered another kind of bubbles that seems to have only a positive effect—homemade ginger ale. Champagne can do the same if drunk in moderation (Champagne—the drink divine; A dollar’s worth of bubbles and a dime’s worth of wine). I suspect that ginger ale’s contribution to sustainability is vanishing small, but it sounds like a step in the right direction. The Dining and Wine feature of the New York Times reports this:

At Stand, a New York bar and cafe that offers a variety of traditional beverages, ginger ale is prepared to order using seltzer from old-style bottles… Homemade sodas seem in step with the growing menu trend toward simpler, more natural foods, as well as a rising interest in locally made artisanal products, said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association… “Nothing’s more local than things being made from scratch,” Ms. Stensson said.

I don’t know why Stand and the others don’t make their own fizzy water. When I visited my daughter a few months ago, I discovered a seltzer maker in the kitchen. Just place the special reusable bottle filled with water straight from the tap in the device and push the charging button. This releases carbon dioxide into the water turning it instantly to seltzer. This device is a variant of the seltzer bottle my parents used for the same purpose. It was a heavy glass container swathed in metal mesh with a valve top where a “sparklet” filled with carbon dioxide was attached. A push of a lever and voila instant seltzer.

The NYTimes article described other places and drinks based on home-made ginger ale.

Typically less sweet than store-bought sodas, the handmade ales get an added zing from fresh ginger. At Stand, it is peeled and put through a strainer to make juice, said P. J. Bodoy, the general manager. The juice is steeped with lemon juice and simple syrup. When a customer orders a ginger ale, this base is topped off with seltzer delivered by Walter Backerman, a third-generation seltzer seller.

A glass of plain ginger ale costs $6. The soda also serves as an ingredient in mixed drinks, at $9 each, like the Mr. Sunshine, made with rye, and the Dark and Stormy, made with dark rum… [Atlanta’s ]Drinkshop also offers the London Buck, which has gin, ale, lemon and, in a nod to Atlanta’s local fruit, peach juice. The cocktails run $13 each.

At these prices, homemade ginger ale and the cocktails that use it may make a miniscule contribution to ecological sustainability, but aren’t going to help those families that are hard pressed economically, but still in need of a drink.

Sustainability by the Numbers


The Greener by Design conference has produced a stream of reportable articles. I plan to post my thoughts on these from time to time. Today, a presentation by Rand Waddoups, senior director of business strategy and sustainability at Wal-Mart popped up to the toop of the pile. Reported by Amie Vaccaro in a post titled, "A Metrics Driven Approach to Sustainable Business," Waddoups described a system Wal-Mart is using to drive their whole system toward "sustainability."

[Waddoups] described Wal-Mart's four part journey to sustainability, beginning with consensus building around need for sustainability, moving into an evangelist phase, and then to a clear recognition of the business case of sustainability. The fourth step, where they are headed today, is the ability to measure and track progress with sustainability metrics. They've found that suppliers that provide poor products are often also mistreating their employees, and cheating when it comes to factory compliance. So holding suppliers to a higher standard is good for business.

I put sustainability in quotes because what he and others at this conference mean by sustainability and what I do are entirely different things. Waddoups and virtually all of the speakers at this and other similar conferences suffer from what Alfred North Whitehead called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." They all speak about sustainability as if it were some object that can be realized by applying standard management practices, specifically by pursuing a set of metrics that, if put into proper play, will bring sustainability forth. Sorry, but this is not going to happen.

As Waddoups did say, metrics can identify serious problems and force "higher standards" on suppliers. All this can ever do is to make the world less bad or in this conversation, less unsustainable. This end is certainly a good and important result, but has little to do with producing sustainability. Believing that metrics will bring us sustainability is an error; the best metrics can do is buy us time to learn how to listen to the other story.

Sustainability is a system property. All the good efforts of Wal-Mart or any other firm cannot bring it about unless the whole global system is working right. If the current kinds and quantitiy of consumption is a primary cause of unsustainability (I believe that it is), then there is little that Wal-Mart can do for sustainability unless it fundamentally changes its business model. Incremental improvements along a continuous scale will be eventually overtaken by the incremental, but steady, growth our present economic model demands.

Please do not read this as a screed against Wal-Mart. They are doing what the same system we want to produce sustainability is telling them to do. That's our dilemma. We listen to two conflicting messages, but the one that responds to the immediate world always trumps the one that murmurs about some unclear future. That's seems to be the way we have been wired since our ancestors learned to avoid the perils of primitive life. Other parts of the brain can be trained to react to subtle threats, but only if we explicitly work to turn them on. Sustainability by Design offers some ways to do just that.

Fear and Trembling in America


I just noticed the the New York Times has started a blog devoted to discussing the impact of the recession on people's psychic and other parts of their lives. Here's their own description.

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed.

Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

Today's entry is entitled, "What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous." So what's new? Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard university psychologist, says it's the uncertainty about the immediate future, not the damage that has already been done that is creating waves of anxiety in the public's psyche. I thought fear and anxiety were a result of not having some coping strategy at hand, even when the situation is dire and the probable outcome not wonderful.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

The key to maintaining some sort of equilibrium is the presence in our body of some set of coping strategies, even simply waiting patiently until the situation changes to a state we can deal with. Can someone flourish in the middle of a metaphorical mine field? I think so, but not if their embodied coping strategies are limited. And that's exactly what happens when having replaces being as the over-riding leitmotif. In having, coping strategies are largely based on the use of technological objects, including money, and, unfortunately, people appearing through an instrumental lens. When this kind of system breaks down due to changes in the outside world, the remedies are limited because the functions of all the elements are restricted. Currently, the big societal breakdown is the evaporation of money, causing a cascade of troubles including many that cannot be predicted. Hence, the anxiety according to Gilbert.

In the being mode, satisfaction comes more from the relationships of the central (less anxious) actor with things and people understood more for their own characteristics rather than merely as providing some function. The central actor is able to develop richer worldly understanding, and can deal more broadly with the uncertain without producing fear and trembling. In spite of this, the being mode has been, according to cultural norms, less desirable.

Much of the news about the recession and its impacts on people is focused on issues like that in the Gilbert piece. How are people holding up? Will they return to the same state after the inevitable (but uncertain) recovery? My guess is that the answer to the first question is badly, and to the second, yes. Having is a form of addiction. Many addicts (in the guise of consumers and Wall Street moguls) have experienced the shock that forces them to confront their habit--the first step in recovery. But there is no 12-step program out there to guide them any further. Only a societal message that everything is going to be all right. Exactly the wrong thing to say to an addict. Rahm Emanuel had the right idea when he said, just after the election, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." I am afraid that this "opportunity" is being missed by those who are able to mold our societal beliefs and values.

Know Thy Audience Before Saying "Global Warming"

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Departing a bit from the usual posts, I thought the report I talk about here is so important that it merits special treatment. Given the clamor that always accompanies any "political" conversation about climate change, carefully gathered and analyzed data on public attitudes is invaluable. Much of what goes for survey data is suspect and presented by some group way to one side of the issue or the other.

But now we can turn to an extremely carefully executed study of attitudes done by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The title is Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis. Here's the Executive Summary.

One of the first rules of effective communication is to “know thy audience.” Climate change public communication and engagement efforts must start with the fundamental recognition that people are different and have different psychological, cultural, and political reasons for acting - or not acting - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This report identifies Global Warming’s Six Americas: six unique audiences within the American public that each responds to the issue in their own distinct way.

The six audiences were identified using a large nationally representative survey of American adults conducted in the fall of 2008. The survey questionnaire included extensive, in-depth measures of the public’s climate change beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, motivations, values, policy preferences, behaviors, and underlying barriers to action. The Six Americas are distinguishable on all these dimensions, and display very different levels of engagement with the issue. They also vary in size - ranging from as small as 7 percent to as large as 33 percent of the adult population.

The Alarmed (18%) are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The Concerned (33%) - the largest of the six Americas - are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally. Three other Americas - the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%) and the Doubtful (11%) - represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America - the Dismissive (7%) - are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This report introduces these Six Americas by briefly describing each audience and highlighting how they differ from one another; it concludes with detailed demographic, attitudinal, and behavioral profiles of each group. This research provides essential knowledge that can be leveraged by climate educators and communicators throughout American society, including local, state, and national governments, academic institutions, environmental organizations, businesses, faith groups, doctors and scientists, and the media. Successfully addressing this challenge will require a diversity of messages, messengers, and methods, each tailored to meet the needs of different target audiences. This research provides a solid foundation, grounded in social science, to facilitate the changes required to achieve a transition to a low-carbon future.

This work can fine tune analyses previously reported in this blog that criticize environmentalists for painting climate change in stark terms, for example, talking about "global warming." Hardly frightening to me, but maybe to some of the groups segregated in the Yale-GMU report.

Venti of Troubles


Starbucks is more than just another corporate headquarters to Seattle. It's the story of hometown boys make good, even if the real genius of their explosive growth, Howard Schultz, was an import from the East. Now the storybook company is facing grande challenges to its growth and health. The Seattle Times wonders if the recession has made a permanent dent in the popularity of Starbucks. Same store sales are down, a very ominous sign in the retail trade.

I am a bit surprised by this change. After all, part of the marketing genius of Schultz was to see each Starbucks as a place for people to wander in and connect. With the recession upon us, there are many more people with time on their hands, looking for the companionship lost via layoffs. Of course, these wandering spirits have less money in their pockets to blow on lattes, especially at their steep prices. Maybe they are going to McDonalds instead. The Seattle Times columnist, Jon Talton, writes of the threat from McDonald's.

It caught his [Schultz's] company not even halfway into a turnaround. And for all his sniffing at the idea that McDonald's could be compared with his premium brand, the House of Ronald is indeed a clear and present danger. Go to the Seattle Center Mickey D's and the drive-through has a recorded message hyping espresso drinks. Right here in our house.

There's a lot to be learned here. I could interpret this as meaning that comfortable chairs, free WiFi, and smiling baristas aren't worth the extra change it takes to get one's shot of caffeine at a Starbucks. I thought Starbucks was heading south after Schultz replaced the traditional European espresso makers with a pushbutton machine some years ago. I still walk into the center of Lexington on many nice days and pass our local Starbucks by to get my coffee or tea in Peet's. Same WiFi, less comfortable chairs, but there's something about sticking with the handmade drinks that lends an air of authenticity to me. And as I have become more of a tea drinker, there's no comparison between Peet's teas and Starbucks offerings.

The Seattle piece went beyond the local aspects of Starbucks to ask whether its downturn was going to be a permanent consequence of the recession.

Maybe the worst nightmare is this: What if Starbucks is an artifact of an economy that's not coming back? A time of rising, if fleeting, American affluence as we moved from dot-coms and telecoms, to day trading and house flipping, all based on the biggest run-up of debt in the history of the world. For this venti, triple-shot America, it might have been the quintessential bubble drink.

I kind of hope that the Starbucks phenomenon doesn't come back. In some ways Starbucks is like Facebook. It is based on a technological premise. Use a coffee machine and comfortable chairs to lure lonely people, looking for some sort of comfort and satisfaction, into the shops. Add WiFi to sweeten the draw. Whenever I go into one of the stores, I see many, if not most, of the chairs taken by someone, alone and busy with a laptop. My hopes are for a marketplace that worries less about growth and more about serving the authentic concerns of the citizen/consumers, far beyond providing Internet access.

Winning (Is It Everything?) in Business.


I often find myself going to David Brooks's op-ed pieces in the New York Times for "inspiration" for my posts. Brooks, as I wrote earlier, is intrigued by sociology, as I am, and intersperses columns with a sociological frame with those on political themes. Today he is writing about what makes CEOs successful, based on earlier research by a team from the University of Chicago and other research correlating performance with personality traits.

It seemed to me that he was selecting and stretching the data to get to the point he finally made in the article.

For the same reason, business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leaders possess precisely those talents — charisma, charm, personal skills — that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.

We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won’t be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.’s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

He may be correct in his concerns that businesses will perform differently (and he implies badly) with the government in the foreground as well as in the background. But his story does not get us to that point. I went back to the articles he cites in his column and found a different tale.

First of all, the study he cites was limited to CEO candidates being hired by venture capital or buyout firms. The authors are quick to point out that this is a very limited set of data and will be difficult to generalize. Buyouts are limited to firms that are deemed to be underperforming in the financial marketplace, but are seen to have intrinsic value. So it makes sense that strongly-focused hires are sent in to cut costs and get the ship to an even keel. Venture hires are made when the founder or entrepreneur has taken the firm as far as his or her skills allow.

Brooks points to the part of the analysis that suggests that people with hard (analytic) skills outperform those with softer (relational) skills. But the authors’ own data shows that neither does particularly well. The hard-drivers among the subjects of the study were deemed to be successful less than half the time.

But my real concern is the implication that business needs a special kind of leader. Brooks lists some of the qualities he has selected. “Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.” The research may tilt toward that classification, but, if it does, the correlations are admittedly weak with many exceptions.

But it just such anal-retentive folks who brought down the companies they were leading. AIG might be said to have failed because its boring CEO lacked the people skills needed to judge the single trader that did in the firm. I would guess that these results and the conclusions are what statisticians call self-consistent. Companies have become machines run by power-driven hierarchies driven by the numbers, instead of enterprises with missions to provide for the concerns of its employees, investors, and customers. So it is inevitable that men (yes, CEOs are still mostly men) that fit the type-A profile will preferentially succeed.

What these traits do add up to is a certain ideal personality type. The C.E.O.’s that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.

For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

But is this really success, given the collapse of so many of the giants of American business and the financial mess that our business leaders have created.

I could spend a lot more time and space arguing that the narrowness of these leaders is strongly correlated with unsustainability, in this case, of the economy. Maybe what is really needed is more teamwork and true collaboration among the hard and the soft. Steve Jobs may be anal-retentive, but he is also a dreamer, an artist.

Getting back to the financial crisis, I find this short squib from the Washington Post suggests a different side of this issue than Brooks. David Walker, former Comptroller General of the US says:

Studies have shown that women tend to [be] somewhat more risk averse and future focused than men. More emphasis on both of these attributes likely would likely have served to reduce but not eliminate the economic and other challenges that we currently face.

These traits are consistent with the values that underlie sustainability in a complex world. Sustainability, as the possibility of flourishing, is a vision that must be realized by pulling into the future, not by manipulation of the past.

Ecological Intelligence (continued)


Following on the heels of the last post, I found this review of Goleman’s book on the Financial Times. Most of the review follows the line in his interview with Moyers. Sample:

Goleman argues that we can train ourselves to think differently - to develop an innate flight instinct when confronted by, for example, a shampoo that contains methylparaben, or a garden chair made from tropical wood.

Helping the consumer along the way are new websites which drive “radical transparency”. Skin Deep, a “cosmetic safety database” evaluates the chemical content of more than 50,000 different products and rates them on a score of one to 10.

An even more ambitious website,, rates everything from yoghurt to toys and laundry detergent. It gives products an overall mark out of 10, with subdivisions for its health, environmental and social impacts. Companies will seek to improve their ratings, and all will be well - or at least not quite so bad.

Goleman is quite honest about adding some caveats about the quality of the information. Even with such somewhat incomplete and perhaps even misleading data, he believes that the widespread use of such information will drive consumers to become more conscious about social and environmental issues. As I noted yesterday, I part company at this point because I think this kind of practice simply creates a sense of I’m doing what I should and the rest is up to others. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

The FT picked up on its own concern than “radical transparency” is not powerful enough to lead to widespread change in the culture to offset the threats we face. They quote a part of his book reporting an interview with me.

But the big problem - which Goleman does not get to grips with - is that this is unlikely to be enough. Towards the end of his book, he undermines much of what has gone before by noting that John Ehrenfeld, a founder of the field of “industrial ecology” has concluded that gains delivered by efforts towards increasing the eco-efficiency of business “are too small as yet to offset the growing threats”. Ehrenfeld wants innovations that “radically reduce the amount of stuff that humans all over the globe use to produce well being”.

Both the Financial Times and Goleman need to understand that two distinct paths must be followed—a big challenge as the two do not run parallel. Radical transparency, or any activity that pushes consumption in a direction resulting in lower impacts (reducing unsustainability) is one of these. The other (producing sustainability) requires a much deeper change—bringing our basic human concerns to the surface and shifting from the having to the being mode of living.

Feeling Good With


Running through my RSS feed reader tonight, I spotted an entry in Bill Moyers Journal referring to an interview with Daniel Goleman about his new book, Ecological Intelligence. I just got a copy of the book from the author as a thank you for a short passage in it, summarizing a conversation we had while he was writing the book. I haven't yet had a chance to read it, but I draw today's post from watching the interview video.

I came away with a mixed impression. With this book, Goleman has done more to publicize the use of life cycle assessment (LCA) than all my colleagues in the field of industrial ecology have been able to do over many years. This is certainly the first "popular" book to discuss and applaud this technique for estimating the environmental impacts of all sorts of products and processes. He is absolutely on target with his argument that LCA's can provide information that help researchers, product developers, marketing departments, consumers, and others make choices among closely related alternatives. But he goes overboard when he jumps to the popularization of the technique through a couple of websites that offer ratings based in part on LCAs. He claims that these websites lead to radical transparency, implying that, with them, consumers will make the right choices that will lead to less harmful impacts on the world.

I disagree with this characterization. I went to the website he spoke about in the interview,, to see what is offered and how the the ratings shown are determined. I must admit, that as an old hand in the LCA business, I went in with some biases as to what I would find, and, indeed, found what I expected. Goodguide collapses a set of scores for environmental, social, and health performance into a single number. Any such system is fundamentally non-transparent because the myriad assumptions and weights used to aggregate the individual impact categories are hidden from view. The single number displayed is based on a compilation of some 90 plus individual categories. The outcome depends on the specific weights used. The website offers a way to dig down a layer or two, but never to the very bottom. Somewhere I saw a note that said that users could put in their own weights, but I doubt if anyone would ever work through all the hoops.

Yes, the system will probably work when facing the choice between a product with a score of 2.4 and one with a score of 8.3. But there is no honest way to prefer something with a score of 7.3 relative to one with a score of 7.2. Further, choosing the highest score available appears to be right thing. That's where the feeling good kicks in. The consumer leaves the supermarket or department store believing that she has done the right thing for the world, but she has only chosen among a few closely related products.

The real choice for the world is to ask herself why is she buying the stuff in the first place. This behavior is a prime example of shifting-the-burden, the cultural pattern that has been a major cause of unsustainability. I do credit Goleman with telling Moyers that, at some level, all this is a mirage (his words). Everything leaves some footprint out there.

Goleman's the journalist and has a way with words; and I'm not. Mirage sure beats shifting-the-burden in creating a mental image, but I doubt if I could ever get away with using mirage in my world of academia.

Flourishing in Maine

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I need to take a day off from the serious stuff I try to post. My wife and I are settling into our summer routine in Maine. Starting in May, we move gradually up to our cottage in Brunswick, or as the Mainers would say we head downeast. Every spring we hold our breath as we open up, wondering how the place fared over the winter. The mothballs that local folklore says keeps the varmints out seemed to have done their job this year. But we always lift up the blankets to make sure that some family of mice hasn't spent the winter building a nest.

I'm waiting until the tide comes up a little more to drag my dory down to the dock. We set our daily schedule pretty much by the movement of the tides which span from 9 to 14 feet. There is as yet little life on the bay. The ducks are out there but haven't produced their broods yet. The male eiders in their white plumage are still here. Soon after the ducklings hatch, the males disappear from the local scene. Even the omnipresent gulls are few and far between.

I dissolved some sugar and filled the hummingbird feeder. I don't think it was even 20 minutes later when the first hummingbird showed up. So far today we have seen hummingbirds, a tufted titmouse, and a couple of chickadees and goldfinches, already in their gold summer coats. I have this belief that the hummers (birds, not cars) are the same ones that came last year.

The same goes for the chipmunk that appears shortly after I throw some sunflower seeds on the porch. After a few moments of stuffing the seeds into its cheeks, the wee animal looks just like the one in the photo. Some years ago, we were able to identify the chipmunk that befriended us. He (or she) had a stubby tail, having lost part of it somehow. Over time, it became very tame and would eat from our hands, and was a great diversion for our grandchildren who exhibited patience we rarely saw otherwise. Stubby, named for his characteristic tail, returned every summer for about 5 years and then disappeared. There's no way I can now tell whether or not it's the same chippie that comes back. But like the hummers, I do want to believe it is.

I am about to unpack my fly rods and rig them for the season ahead. There are reports that the stripers have come as far north as the Saco River, and are a week or so away from getting up here and into the bays where I fish. But hope springs eternal and I will go out today or tomorrow and look for the first fish of the year.

The farmer's market has started up and we went over there quite early this morning. I go early so as to be able to buy, before they run out, my week's worth of eggs from one of the farmers that sells the most enormous eggs. They disappear very quickly. I love the ones with two yolks for breakfast. Even with the availability of cage-free eggs in the supermarket, I find that farm-raised eggs have a different and more delectable flavor. The same wonderful bakers are here again. I couldn't pass by the organic bread man who brings only a small supply of delicious cinnamon rolls. Since today is my birthday, I gave myself permission to have one. The field was bustling even as early as we went. I see the same folks bringing their dogs for an outing. We bought some herbs to plant in our little garden in front of the cottage. A new stall offers goat meat. I sampled a tad of goatburger, and think I will stick with more traditional fare.

Most of my book was written here over a couple of summers. I have learned much about flourishing here in Maine. There is a kind of permanence to the place, but at the same time every day is perceptibly different from the one before. Maybe it is because the tidal cycle shifts about an hour each day. Maybe it comes from the stillness that I feel, even as I listen to the crying of the gulls and the screeching of the herons. It's impossible not to become aware of connection between myself and the world that surrounds our cottage.

Marshmallows and Sustainability


The connection between the two words in the title is a bit tenuous, but it is real. I've just finished a great story in the New Yorker about connections between delayed gratification and performance in school and similar milieus. The marshmallow serves as the object used to measure children's degree of self-control in a psychological test. Children are shown a marshmallow and given the following instructions to choose among:

1. Eat the marshmallow right away.

2. Wait 15 minutes until the examiner returns, at which time they will be given an additional marshmallow.

3. If they can't wait that long, push a buzzer and the examiner will return and they can then eat the marshmallow, but will not get another as a reward.

The results are all over the place. The children were highly inventive in their responses.

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.

Some years after the first set of experiments were performed the researcher, Dr. Walter Mischel, began to follow up on the life experience of the test subjects. Interestingly, he found that the results correlated with success in life.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Mischel found that he could train the subjects to extend their self control. He is still studying this behavioral pattern some 30 years later.

Mischel is . . . preparing a large-scale study involving hundreds of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City to see if self-control skills can be taught. Although he previously showed that children did much better on the marshmallow task after being taught a few simple “mental transformations,” such as pretending the marshmallow was a cloud, it remains unclear if these new skills persist over the long term. In other words, do the tricks work only during the experiment or do the children learn to apply them at home, when deciding between homework and television?

Recently, a related research team has begun to study the cognitive responses of the original subjects using very sophisticated methods based on fMRI. This tool illuminates the portion of the brain that is activated by the subject's activities.

Mischel and his team hope to identify crucial neural circuits that cut across a wide variety of ailments. If there is such a circuit, then the same cognitive tricks that increase delay time in a four-year-old might help adults deal with their symptoms. Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. “This is the group I’m most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.”

But there is more than research involved. The KIPP charter schools have begun to include self control training in their character strength program. They believe that this training will lead to higher academic skills.

Imagine what might happen if they or other educational and training programs used these techniques directed toward buying behavior. Impulse purchases would likely be reduced. Consumers might take more time to ask themselves if they really need to buy whatever they were considering. More positively, they might ask themselves what concerns were they aiming to satisfy with the purchase. The inauthentic and addictive consumption behaviors that underlie unsustainability could be revealed and slowly dissipated. I believe that the deliberate strengthening of self control could become another powerful tool for transforming our consumer culture, a change that is essential to produce sustainability.

On the Road Again

I'll be back on Friday. I am in the middle of moving my base up to Maine as I do every summer. Nothing I need is where I can find it.

Happiness is Love. Full Stop


When David Brooks stays away from partisan politics, his columns generally make interesting reading. Brooks has become a diligent amateur sociologist (like I am), and now often writes about complexity, post-normal science, and non-Cartesian models of human consciousness and action. Today, he reports on a fascinating study that tracked some 200 Harvard men from their graduation through the rest of their lives. For the past 42 years, a psychiatrist, George Valliant has been overseeing the collection and analysis of the data.

Brooks drew his column from an article about the so-called Grant Study to be published in the next issue of the Atlantic, and now available on the Internet. Here's the header for that article.

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

The study was to use the most up-to-date scientific tools to reveal the factors that produced both positive and negative outcomes over one's life.

Exhaustive medical exams noted everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists. They stripped naked so that every dimension of their bodies could be measured for “anthropometric” analysis, a kind of whole-body phrenology based on the premise that stock character types could be seen from body proportions.

The individual tales summarized in the Atlantic article are full of pathos, joy, success, happiness, and failure. But the most stunning thing about the whole story is the terse concluding comment of Dr. Valliant in a video embedded in the article. (I would put it here, but I still don't know how to do it.) He simply said the words that headline this post: "Happiness is love. Full stop." So much for all that science. Brooks also thinks so. His last line is, "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute." If those seeking sustainability would also come to this awareness, we would not go down so many blind alleys.

Still Pursuing Happiness


Happiness is in the air these days. Maybe it’s just that spring has finally sprung in New England. Or maybe it’s that I spent last night in our Maine cottage for the first time since we closed up for the winter, even though the electric blanket was on high and we added an extra comforter.

A few days ago I spotted news that the government of Bhutan has officially changed their primary policy metric from the familiar Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to their own, unique concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). They are developing a system to characterize the new index, but, unfortunately, are being forced to follow the rules of the institutions of the developed, Westernized world.

“Once Bhutan said, ‘O.K., here we are with G.N.H.,’ the developed world and the World Bank and the I.M.F. and so on asked, ‘How do you measure it?’ ” Mr. Dorji said, characterizing the reactions of the world’s big economic players. So the Bhutanese produced an intricate model of well-being that features the four pillars, the nine domains and the 72 indicators of happiness.

Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.

All of this is to be analyzed using the 72 indicators. Under the domain of psychological well-being, for example, indicators include the frequencies of prayer and meditation and of feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calm, compassion, generosity and frustration as well as suicidal thoughts.

Not quite yet a proper indicator of the holistic quality of well-being, but, at the least, the change signals a recognition that purely economic measures are grossly inadequate.

Closer to home comes a different kind of story about happiness. The main feature article in the Ideas section of the last Sunday Boston Globe, entitled Perfectly Happy, suggests to me that we here in the US could be just about to jump from the frying pan into the fire. The subtitle tells the story in a nutshell, “The new science of measuring happiness has transformed self-help.” I could write a whole book about this subject, but the headline shouts out the fundamental error. Human well-being is not something that can ever be put under a microscope and measured. Scientific surveys that ask respondents, “Are you happy?”, are bound to elicit responses constrained by the question. No respondent is likely to ask first what do you mean by happiness and no one is likely to fail to respond.

One theme of the article is that subjective happiness surveys give results that suggest individuals do a poor job of assessing their state of happiness. Lottery winners are not significantly happier than some normal set of people. Paraplegics are only slightly less happy than the control group, surprising the researchers who had expected a larger gap. The “scientific” conclusion is that people don’t do a very good job when asked “How happy are you?” Could it be simply that happiness is a poor indicator of a person’s sense of how their whole self is doing. In spite of this, legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein, now overseeing all new regulations in the Office of Management and Budget, has written several books and papers arguing that our policies and legal procedures should incorporate findings from this new science of happiness. He would have the experts designing policies write them to sidestep the real, observable behavioral patterns of people, and substitute their own beliefs about how they should behave.

Toward the end of the long article after discussing the data that scientific surveys have produced, the writer quotes Rick Swedloff, a visiting Professor at the Rutgers Law School.

"Thousands of years of philosophers have struggled to define this term," points out Swedloff. "Do we mean, 'How do I feel right now? Am I in a pleasurable state or in an unpleasurable state?' Or we might mean, 'Am I flourishing? Am I becoming the best that I could be?' A heroin addict who's just had a fix, there's very little doubt that she's happy, but is she flourishing?"

As a result, studies in which quadriplegics report themselves nearly as happy as when they had the full use of their bodies, Swedloff argues, may be revealing as much about the limitations of our communal emotional vocabulary as about the subjects themselves.

Having defined sustainability in terms of flourishing, I am “happy” to find it mentioned here. I believe human actions are not the outcome of some kind of cognitive computer that is wired to maximize well-being along some unitary axis, in this case, happiness. Happiness is too ego-centered a concept to explain everything that everyday actors do all the time. We normally act to satisfy something only loosely associated with happiness. Our actions, rather, are directed to satisfying a bundle of concerns. Further, it is meaningless to lump these concerns into a single measure. How I feel about taking care of myself in the domains of body, spirit, leisure, and so on cannot be simply conjoined with how well I assess my inner reporting channel about taking care of my family, my friends, and the world I live in.

Although, as I said, it’s good to see some thinking that purely economic metrics are poor ways to determine damages or fine tune social policy, the substitution of yet another unitary measure, even with some 72 components really doesn’t go much farther. It is the result of our cultural need to simplify and metricize everything. A common mantra of many business gurus is “If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it.”

Flourishing is something that should be neither measured nor managed. It is simply present or not. Maybe that’s why people with disabilities give answers that confound psychologists and behavioral economists. Flourishing only shows up when the whole system is functioning coherently. We can never describe any complex system sufficiently to permit us to use a single metric, however complicated, as the standard by which we intervene in the workings of that system. Holistic standards, like flourishing, can, however, be used along with pragmatic, adaptive governance processes, to move ever closer to a state we would then agree is producing flourishing.

The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you'll never find it. C. P. Snow

Melting the World's Highest Ski Run

Ski run.png

I don't normally publish articles about the impacts of climate change. There is already plenty of information around already. But, being a skier, I couldn't pass this one by. The photo shows the current extent of the snow field at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Glacier.

[The] Glacier, once known as the world’s highest ski run at 17,388 feet, has completely melted away, serving as a vivid example of the effects of climate change on the glaciers around the globe.

Click on the link to see the changes over the years.

Still on the Road


I'm still away from home at the kick-off meeting of the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability (ARCS). The meeting venue is in the brand new, Leeds-certified quarters of the Ross School of Business at UMich. The pleasure of seeing my former students emerge as leaders in this emergent community is hard to describe. I guess the most important sign of success for a teacher is to see one's students excel. As I wrote a couple of days ago, the ARCS group is striving to establish sustainability ever more deeply in the curricula and research activities in schools of business.

My time to post today is quite limited so I will finish with a book review just published on the web. The book is Capitalism as if the World Matters, by Jonathon Porritt, adviser to the UK Prime Minister. Although described as a new book, it was published in 2007, but the message is, if anything, even more apropos today. Here are a few excerpts from the review. Echoing the theme in Break Through, the more recent critique of environmentalism by Nordhaus and Schellenberger, Porritt says:

. . . the first step towards implementing change is to alter the approach to conventional environmentalism. To win people over and get them on board, he suggests focusing on the positive. “Change will not come by threatening people with yet more ecological doom and gloom,” says Porritt. “The necessary changes have to be seen as good for people, their health and their quality of life - and not just good for future generations.”

The review concludes with a very positive assessment of the book, but finishes with a reference to the threat, contradicting Porritt's earlier statement.

“Capitalism as if the World Matters” offers real-world solutions to the ‘destruction of the world’ problems that our global society faces. Porritt has put his experience to work, outlining frameworks for sustainable capitalism and pointing to the initiatives some governments and businesses are already beginning to follow. As Porritt so adroitly points out, unless conventional environmentalism throws its weight behind this type of progressive political agenda, the planet will continue to face steep decline.

The American Dream


The NYTimes published the results of a poll it recently ran, asking people how they felt about the "American Dream" in these bad times. The answers were paradoxical.

72 percent of the respondents expressed confidence that it was still possible to wake up to find the American Dream of becoming rich realized, but only 44 percent thought that they were already there. A similar poll taken four years ago found that only 31 percent thought they had made it. But the future outlook was down.

Compared [to an identical] poll taken four years ago, fewer people now say they are better off than their parents were at their age or that their children will be better off than they are. . . So even though their economic outlook is worse, more people are saying they have either achieved the dream or expect to do so.

The explanation for these seemingly conflicting results was provided by a sociologist, Barry Glassner, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, who said:

“You want to hold on to your dream even more when times are hard,” he said. “And if you want to hold on to it, then you better define it differently.”

The original definition is said to have arisen during the Depression.

In his book, “The Epic of America,” the historian James Truslow Adams wrote, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”

The people polled expressed a variety of non-materialistic visions, many centered around freedom and opportunity. This is good news for sustainability. The more people shift to a qualitative vision coincident with flourishing, the easier it will be to instill a new value system.

MBAs and Sustainability


I'm about to leave tomorrow for a conference of business school faculty members who do research on the subject of business and sustainability. It will be a trip of much joy as the organizers include several former students who studied with me at MIT before I retired. It's with mixed feelings that I accept my role as a greybeard in this group.

When I began doing research in what was then business and the environment (sustainability was just coming on the scene), faculties at almost all the leading business schools had to keep their interest in environment under wraps. Only a few outspoken senior faculty spoke out about the importance of the issue and the need for the schools to take it on as a distinct area, not simply another subject for the government relations course. Junior faculty risked their careers by showing interest.

Now some twenty years later, the story has changed dramatically. It is hard to find a serious school of business that does not advertise some sort of sustainability program. Student interest is high with clubs like NetImpact active on many campuses. I went to a terrific sustainability event at MIT a week ago, completely organized by students. I would estimate that 250-300 people from MIT and outside spent the day.

A few days later I spent a day at a faculty retreat at Marlboro College in Vermont where they are about two years into a new sustainability MBA program. Marlboro is one of a handful of schools that are focusing their programs on sustainability. BGI in Seattle is another that is a few years ahead of the rest. I have taught there on several occasions.

The energy for all of these courses comes from both students and faculty. But the students are doing a lot of the pushing at what have been the traditional top 20 or so business schools. The demand has emboldened many faculty who had been afraid to align themselves with what had been considered too partisan an issue.

In any case, the timing is most propitious. Given the severe impact of the financial crisis, many companies are looking for younger managers that bring new ideas. Greening is hot these days with virtually every serious company doing something about it. Although I am critical of greening when it becomes the whole sustainability program (as it often is), the broad acceptance of environment, climate change and corporate social responsibility as bona fide concerns of a business can only be a very big move forward.

Making Happiness Happen


I have just discovered a blog that is inching up on sustainability as flourishing. One of Slate's blogs, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin focuses on happiness. While not synonymous with flourishing, the way she talks about her topic follows my line pretty closely, with occasional lapses into reducing happiness to the outcome of following rules. Here are a few excerpts that imply that happiness and authenticity are closely related, and that happiness comes from relationships. I would say that these articles are helping to recognize that being, not having is at the roots of flourishing.

What's Essential to Happiness

“It is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.” --Bertrand Russell

That's why the first of my Twelve Commandments is to Be Gretchen.

How To Be Happier: Stay Connected to Your Past

Philosophers and scientists agree: If there is one element that is the key to happiness, it’s having strong relationships with other people. Many of my happiness-project resolutions are aimed at helping me build or strengthen friendships: Show up, Make three friends, Join or start a group. (Here are some other tips for making new friends.) Also, remembering happy times in the past is a great way to boost happiness in the present.

How To Be Happier: Know Yourself. It's Harder Than It Sounds.

In my studies of happiness, I’m always asking myself, “Is this bit of happiness wisdom a universal truth, or is this just true for some people?”

I haven’t identified many universal truths, but one of them is “Know thyself.” You can’t build a happy life if you don’t recognize and acknowledge the things that make you happy. That's why the first of my 12 Commandments is "Be Gretchen." This doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Yet I’m continually astonished how difficult it is to do. One reason that it’s challenging is that we’re so judgmental. We judge others, and we judge ourselves.

There is a fine line between "happiness" produced by following a set of rules and happiness emerging from the satisfaction realized by taking care of the self, others and the world. In an analogy between unsustainability and sustainability, following rules can, perhaps, relieve signs of unhappiness, but can't produce happiness. Happiness is a sign of flourishing and emerges only when someone is taking care of all of these three important domains. But, if one can stop focusing on the absence of "happiness," the possibility of creating the more encompassing quality of flourishing opens up. Gretchen's blog makes good reading for anyone committed to flourishing.

Sustainability and Faith


Following a book talk I gave last week in New York, an audience member exclaimed to me that I was presenting a religious argument for sustainability. This was the third time someone had made a similar comment. Each time I struggled with a response. But after three times, I have been thinking more seriously about this. I found this Wikipedia definition helpful in reflecting: “A religion is a set of tenets and practices, often centered upon specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, and human nature, and often codified as prayer, ritual, or religious law.”

Then the law of synchronicity kicked in. I have been reading Stefan Zweig's book, Erasmus of Rotterdam, for a book club. Then this morning I clicked on the periodic column Stanley Fish writes for the NYTimes, and found it focused on the same questions that has underpinned my book. Fish was writing a critical review of a new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton, a British social critic. Fish quotes a key sentence from the book to start off, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” I presume some form of this question was behind the inquiries I had gotten.

The gist of Eagleton’s book is that the secular bases for modern culture that guide our collective behavior are failing to produce the “progress” that they promise, and that, failing to find an earthly salvation, people turn back to the supernatural. He calls the idea of progress “a superstition.” His evidence for failure is “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine.” (I have taken these quotes from Fish’s article.) In my book I lump all of these outcomes and others, particularly damages to the natural world, under the rubric of unsustainability as a measure of the lack of progress. I find the same cultural roots at fault as do those who Eagleton argues seek faith in a God.

Where Eagleton focuses on explanations for why faith in the form of religions and the existence of God are replacing this modernist secular creed, I take a more positive view and find alternates within the secular tradition. As did Erasmus, I have faith in the ability of humans to strive for perfection, but not through some transcendent vision. For me flourishing is enough of a vision to become a ingathering of the aspirations and caring that make us human. Some might say that caring for the world is a form of love and that it follows then, that I am only preaching a God-like message disguised is earthly clothes. That would be wrong. I follow the work of Humberto Maturana, a biologist, who claims that love is a biological consequence of our evolution as the species, Homo sapiens. Our cognitive abilities and the consequent consciousness we possess turns our attention to the world in a self-reflective way that leads us to care for what we perceive exists out there. Taking care means to act in some way that produces satisfactory outcomes and reflects whatever has appeared in the consciousness of the actor. It is, then, a simple matter to make a linguistic leap from this objective description of human activity to invoke “love” as some transcendent quality we possess.

I do have faith in our species to take care of ourselves and the world and so I have written a book that reminds us of our powers, and added some practices that can help us recover from the mess that the beliefs Eagleton criticizes have created. Is my story based on some article of faith at the bottom. I would have to say yes? I have chosen, however, to look at ourselves as the source of that faith, not to the heavens. If my questioners are asking about faith in some conventional religious sense, especially one that includes God, my answer would be no. If they are asking can I prove everything I say based on reality and reason, I would have to say no. But then I should ask them are they not also operating on faith at some foundational level. Erasmus saw faith in human beings as a source of the possibility that they should flourish, using words characteristic of his time and place on earth. What’s wrong with this? Is there ever another way?

Messages from the IHDP

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One of the key events in the sustainability world is the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), just completed in Bonn, Germany. One of the thematic statements from the meeting website sets the context that, although more knowledge is always welcome, the importance of action on what we already know is growing.

The increased understanding of the challenges we are currently facing has shifted the focus in yet another way, from understanding the dynamics of global environmental change to using that understanding to devise ways to meet the challenges that we see emerge. This has pushed the scientific community to pay more attention to the relationship between science and policy, to include more use-inspired and policy-relevant research, and to improve communication with government, business, NGO’s and the civil society at large.

Beatrice Crona, writing on the Resilience Science blog, summarizes a few key outputs of the conference. The sense of urgency has deepened with one prominent scientist, Roger Kasperson, suggesting that the horizon for effective action to forestall major social and natural upsets is of the order of 20 years. That's the bad news.

The good news is that this community of researchers working inside of their traditional disciplinary silos recognizes the need to break out and engage in interdisciplinary conversations about what to do. They signal that understanding of the world as a complex system, not reducible to separate pieces nor amenable to analysis, part by part, is slowly becoming acceptable. To create the institutions, common language, and concerns necessary for engagement adds to the burden, but effective solutions to cope with growing global unsustainability cannot be found without taking these steps.

Getting the Message Right or Getting the Right Message?


I came across this article, appearing way down in the on-line edition of the NYTimes. The article, "Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus," refers to a study of the impact of the language used in getting the attention and commitment of the public on environmental issues. Framing is important as it shapes the images for and meaning to those who hear the messages. This article focused on global warming, but the same is true about any issue.

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”

I find this whole approach ominous. I do understand the importance of using language that can easily slip by the filters in our receiving apparatus. But using soothing metaphors like "deteriorating" also induce an unconsciousness to the reality of the situation and to the need for action. I found a quote made years ago by Harold Geneen, then President of ITT, the company that made conglomerates popular. Geneen said, "In business, words are words; explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.

Performance means actions taken to change the present reality to a future that fits the vision of the actors. Obscuring the present reality is bound to produce actions that will produce the desired world only by chance. In any case, the words we use in talking about global warming and related aspects of unsustainability should induce people to stop and think. Context matters as well as the words. If someone has a deep-seated distrust of people advocating for the world, it isn't going to make much difference if that person asks them to pay attention to the "deteriorating atmosphere" or to "global warming."

The way out of this form of deafness is not through the clever choice and manipulation of words, but by restoring the consciousness of everyone's place within and as a part of the global system. If we do not care about what is being spoken (or seen), the words we hear get directed to the body's trash heap. If we do care and if we judge the speaker to share our concerns, we are likely to listen carefully even if we do not agree with the specific content of their words.

Swine Flu--From the Mouths of Babes


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I know it's not on my list of topics, but this is too good to pass by.