June 2009 Archives

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After about ten days in Europe, I am on my way home. I have about three hours to spend in Montreal before getting my flight to Boston. I have missed quite a few posts so I will use this time to compose something about my time away.

I have been quite occupied with my International Society for Industrial Ecology conference and then spending time with friends, but have been looking around and listening to activities and thoughts about sustainability. A few things are very evident. At least in the two countries I visited, Portugal and Switzerland, recycling is taken very seriously. In Lisbon, I found sparkling new collection stations sited throughout the city. Each station or ecoponto had three or four attractive metal containers for glass, plastics and metal, and paper and cardboard packaging. The areas around the containers were clean. Older stations used large plastic collectors as in the photo. The national waste management law requires one ecoponto for every 500 inhabitants.

The same is true in Geneva. They have been recycling for quite a while. Our friends even live in a recycled house. The main beam over the kitchen has the date, 1569, inscribed on the face. Some of the house may still go back that far. They live in a small village about 20 kilometers from the center, amidst many working farms. Most were growing wheat and were just starting to harvest it. Against great pressure to develop land around Geneva, the zoning restrictions are very strict. Within the villages, it is still possible to build, but it is very difficult to convert agricultural land to housing development. The setting itself certainly influences my state of mind. One can see Mont Blanc from their home and from many vantage points in Geneva, even as one stands by the edge of Lake Leman.

I can’t help but think how different our practices and attitudes are in the US. Recycling is certainly around, but not so much as something everyone does and understands why. Land is used for the highest use value the market will bear. Development can proceed almost without any serious obstacle. Public pressure can be brought to bear to protect land for its amenity value or to maintain agriculture, but only with great effort.

I sense a greater sense of the environment as part of one’s home. Being home is more than just living in a structure. The idea of the American Dream runs against the current of European attitudes. Both cultures have their good and their bad points. But the endless vistas that have been the engine empowering the US culture no longer seem quite so close at hand. They are physically disappearing as the environment becomes less able to support unceasing development, and cannot be a place to escape even in that Dream. We have much to learn from Europe where historical needs to adapt to life in cramped areas and to husband scarce lands have left the people with a heightened sense of the perils of unsustainability.

Still in Lisbon

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Still in Lisbon, but winding down. Our industrial ecology conference has to be scored as a success, at least based on all the wonderful Portuguese hospitality and food and wine. Lots of the latter substance. For all of you that attend professional society meetings, you know how they go. A few gems that make attending worthwhile. Making new and seeing old friends, as usual, turns out to have the highest value.

As I mentioned, the theme of the conference is transitions to sustainability. The keynoters have been very interesting. The meeting opened with a report by Leith Sharp, who, until very recently, managed the Harvard University sustainability program. This program has many noteworthy accomplishments, but the most interesting part for me was her discussion of her experience in introducing new ideas and practices into a very conservative culture. Judged by my knowledge of what is going on at other campuses, she was extremely successful, in large part due to her sensitivity to the change process itself. Most program managers believe that if something will reduce environmental loads and save money at the same time, getting it implemented should be a breeze. Not so. Cultures are resistant to change, even to change that is positive. And academic cultures are among the most hardened.

The following plenary was given by Jan Rotmans, a Dutch academic expert on complexity and transition management. I don’t exactly believe you can “manage” transitions in complex systems. In fact this kind of indeterminacy is part of what defines a complex system. You cannot predict the response to any perturbation, so how can you manage the system. It’s possible to use standard management techniques, but one gets easily fooled. You can measure what you do to adjust the system, and also what happens, but if you try to connect the two in an analytic fashion, you are likely to be fooled when you make the next adjustment based on the prior analysis. Rotmans stressed, however, that one did have to approach the changes slowly, and, in a form of adaptive management, learn and adjust continually. My main disagreement is that he believes you can model the process of transition more analytically than I think possible. But the basic ideas are very useful to anyone thinking about how to make a transition to sustainability.

The third plenary was presented to us in Lisbon by Rob Socolow sitting in his office in Princeton, using some very good teleconferencing technology. Reducing carbon footprint is a subject of central concern to the industrial ecology community. Socolow gave us a lot of stark facts about carbon and global warming, and the need to drastically reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide equivalents being emitted to the atmosphere. The need for reduction is not so new to the audience, but the strategy that Socolow proposed is quite novel. He argues that attempting to allocate carbon quotas or targets among nations has been ineffective and will continue to be ineffective due to the politics involved. Instead he put forth an allocation plan based on what he calls cosmopolitan ethics focusing on individuals, not nations. In the name of fairness, akin to John Rawls’s theory of justice, high-emitting (high-living) individuals would have to reduce their contributions so that those now living in dire poverty would be able to increase their use of energy. It sounds very good in principle, but such a strategy will face the same political pressures that any attempt to redistribute wealth has always had to deal with. In any case, he got the intellectual juices running. It is most interesting that this concept was introduced some 15 years ago in the first book focused on industrial ecology.

Today was my turn. The occasion was my swan song as I am stepping down as Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology after about ten years. I have held this office since the Society began. I did more than my usual preparation of a set of overheads and a minimal script, and wrote the lecture and seasoned it with what I thought would be humorous slides. The message to this group of mostly scientists and engineers was that sustainability will not come through technology. Just the opposite--continuing to rely on technology and technocratic policies will, at best, only postpone the continuing degradation of the Earth and its cultural foundations. Only a deep-seated change in cultural beliefs and values will change the present trajectory. I am told that a video of the talk will be available in a little while, and I will post a link to it. I’ll post my lecture script shortly after I clean it up a bit. The response was overwhelming and moved me greatly. I am not sure it came from what I said or was a thank you for my past service. I promised I would stay involved in the community that has spread to the four corners of the world, but I know that this will be difficult in the future. Our community has grown younger and more international over the 10 years we have existed. The energy and commitment to make the world a better place coming from this cohort lends an optimistic tone to what otherwise might be a depressing vision of the future.

(Re-)living & Loving Lisbon Life

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As I may have mentioned earlier, I am spending some time in Lisbon at a conference of the International Society for International Ecology. My wife and I added a few days at both ends to reacquaint ourselves with Lisbon where we spent 6 months back in 1999. I had a Fulbright to teach here.

Much of the City seems the same, including the pickpockets that lifted a camera and wallet from my wife's purse yesterday. I like that sameness, except for the aforementioned incident, as I always found the life here closer to flourishing than that back home. The streets are always full of people, shopping, working, or just having a coffee or drink at a sidewalk stop. There seems to be an acceptance of the world as it is without a constant complaint about how it should be or about what is missing from one's life. That positive attitude is often accompanied by a sometimes frustrating procrastination of doing something about it.

Today we walked up the back side of the Alfama, one of the two hills that bracket the commercial center. It's full of tiny winding alley-like streets like the one in the photo. To our delight we were able to find the tiny fado place we often went frequented. The same woman was running the place, now much older. Her English had gotten no better than before, but we managed to find out what had transpired. Sadly, the musicians we thought were the best around had died.

There is certainly something important about recalling past good times. The visions that come forth are almost always about doing and of relationships, like that with the proprietress, not about the trinkets we acquired. I will admit to thoughts about eating wonderful cheese and wine, although maybe also in the sense of my relationship with them. (Disclosure: I went back to arguably the best source of Port in the world and bought a bottle to bring home. The bottles still have the same dust on them)

The next few days are to be spent talking about transitions to sustainability from the perspectives of those in the industrial ecology community. I will address the meeting on Wednesday, giving the closing plenary. Much of what I expect to hear here will be directed to what I have been calling reducing unsustainability. I hope to convince the group that their future lies more in creating sustainability.

Off to Lisbon

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After weeks of hiding behind the clouds, the sun has decided to show up. Just as we are about to leave for Portugal. This trip will give me a good chance to catch up with my colleagues from Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the world. Their concerns about the state of the world tend to be much the same as what I hear in the US, but their responses tend to be different. Industrial ecology, the subject of the conference I will be attending, has had more influence in the rest of the world. The concept of extended producer responsibility, a form of the polluter pays principle, is rooted in European Union policy and practice. Closing material loops is not left to volunteers, and has become a central feature of European Union environmental policy. Starting with packaging a few years ago, the doctrine covers automobiles, electronic goods and will include more categories in the future.

I will be hearing reports at the meeting from European workgroups that have been focused on finding policies that will close the gap between sustainable production and sustainable consumption. Their whole effort towards greening seems, from my place in the US, to be more serious. I should be able to get a more accurate picture through direct contact. I plan to write the new few blog posts to reflect how sustainability is being addressed from a non-US perspective. The theme of our conference is on transitions toward sustainability.

Traveling for Two Weeks

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I will be away for about two weeks, traveling in Europe. I will try to blog from there, but am not sure I will have access to the internet.

I am going to the 5th biennial International Conference of the International Society for Industrial Ecology in Lisbon, and then a side trip to visit friends in Switzerland. I have been the Executive Director of the Society since its inception and am stepping down from this position at the meeting. Industrial ecology is founded on the idea that industrial systems resemble ecosystems in terms of the flows of energy and materials from organisms (firms), but with one big difference. The material flow patterns in ecosystems are mostly closed contrasted to the open flows in industrial systems. Most everything we would call wastes in an industrial system become feedstock in a natural system. The field began with the premise that, if product and production cycles could be designed to resemble the networks in nature, the production of goods and services would reduce its damaging effects on the environment.

It's the System, Stupid

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Sloan Management Review, the magazine of the MIT Sloan School of Business, has a new editor and a new format. Sustainability is one of the primary topics they now cover. Some months ago, they began to publish extended interviews with MIT-related people who have been engaged in this topic. (Disclosure: I was one of these people, and expect to see my interview come out shortly.) The latest one is with Peter Senge, with whom I collaborate on several projects. The subject, based on Senge's recent book, The Necessary Revolution, is focused on how firms are adjusting to the demands that sustainability, not their customers, is forcing them to rethink their strategies.

Let me start at the end and work back from there.

(SMR) You’ve been working this field for a long time. How you think attitudes toward sustainability have changed within organizations?

(Senge) In the last year or two, everything has changed. People are starting to suspect that these are really strategic issues that they will shape the future of our businesses. The specifics are all different depending on industry and context, but we’re in the beginning of an historic wakeup.

Undoubtedly, climate change has been the straw breaking the camel’s back. A lot of people think of climate change as a technical problem, something that’s going to be fixed by technical solutions. But more and more people are starting to realize that it’s not going to be fixed except as a byproduct of a real shift in how the whole industrial system operates.

I’m guessing that in the next six months people will have an even better handle on that. We’re right in a moment when the issue is moving from something marginal, something that we think somebody else needs to worry about, to something more personal.

The leading companies he talks about in the interview and in his book, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Alcoa, and others depend on natural resources, in these cases, water. They have begun to rethink their future based on models of scarcity rather than assuming that there will always be enough for limitless growth. I completely agree with Senge that there is a wake-up call being heard for the first time. My concerns are that the firms listening to this trumpet continue to think about the new set of problems basically in terms of how their firm would be impacted, without understanding the effects on the whole global system. Senge writes:

We don’t see the system because we’re habituated not to see the system. We’re organized not to see the system and we’re intellectually organized not to see the system. So it starts there.

Senge's is not a fan of the word, sustainability, and would rather use something that more clearly reflects the aspirational character he finds behind successful projects. He tries on, “All about the future.” I don't agree with his negative assessment of sustainability. Sustainability means, as I wrote a few days ago, the ability of any system to produce whatever you envision over a long time. It's that vision that pulls us forward. I talk about it as flourishing, but many other words will do. It's not enough simply to talk about the future that will face our children, without adding the qualities that future would bring. The same reasons we don't think in systems context, make thinking about the future largely constrained to how the past has worked. Yes, it's critical to look at ways to operate without using up the world, but it is just as critical to come to understand and change the cultural roots that have been driving the system. I am yet to hear this kind of argument in virtually all the recent assessments of the direction business is moving. The best efforts of individual firms, even in association with their peers, is not enough. It's the system, as Senge writes, that's in trouble.

Flourishing without Growth

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Sorry for the premature publishing of this post. I clicked the wrong button in my haste to get on the water and do a little fishing. The weather has been terrible for nearly a week and I have sat inside waiting for the skies to clear. Well, today the sun came out. But best of all, I hooked a couple of keeper-size striped bass, my first of the summer. I use barbless hooks and always release my catch.

Today, I offer up a couple of stories playing a different tune than the usual economic news, that of well-being without economic growth. It is interesting to me that both come from English cousins in Canada and in England. The first appeared in a Toronto newspaper, written by Peter Victor, a professor of environmental studies at York University. Here is the central image of the flourishing world he projects.

In such an economy, success would not be judged by the rate of economic growth but by more meaningful measures of personal and community well-being. We would adjust to strict limits on our use of materials, energy, land and waste, guided by prices that provide more accurate information about real rather than contrived scarcities. We would enjoy more services and fewer but more durable and repairable products, and we would value use over status when deciding what to buy.

Rampant consumerism would be history, advertising would be more informative and less persuasive, and new technologies would be better screened to avoid problems to be fixed later, if at all. Infrastructure, buildings and equipment would be more efficient in their use of energy and we would think and act more locally and less globally. With more free time at our disposal we would educate ourselves and our children for life not just work.

Is all this simply wishful thinking of a sort that flourishes in troubled times? I think not. The undercurrent of discontent with modern life is rich with ideas for a better future, one that is not dependent on economic growth.

Victor, like many others, offers up a vision, but not the path to get there. His solutions are too much fixes to the present economic model of the West. I do not think Victor and others with visions of sustainability fully understand the depth of the change in beliefs and values that must precede the radical change they foresee. Getting the prices right, that is, to reflect the true cost of everything, is a critical step towards stabilizing the unsustainable conditions of the present. But flourishing requires more than fixing the economic system.

Another excellent study, Prosperity without Growth, by the British Sustainable Development Commission questions the growth paradigm in great detail. It is essential reading for anyone concerned about sustainability. The language is often stark as befits the situation.

The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.

In this context, simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilise the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional. Those who promote decoupling as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence - and at the basic arithmetic of growth.

The report names prosperity as the normative end of societal functioning. For me this still sends a primarily economic message even though the authors do relate it to flourishing.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings - within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.

Straight Talk about Sustainability

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If you follow this blog, you know that I am skeptical or downright critical of almost all claims made about green this or that or sustainable this or that. It’s not that I believe that most claims are a form of greenwashing. Many are, but I do believe that most organizations making such claims intend to improve the state of the world. The problem all have, whether serious or manipulative, is that they do not know what sustainability really is, and don’t know how to talk about it. All action follows languaging, so if the words send a confusing message, the results will go astray. As Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

I used the unfamiliar word, languaging, intentionally. Human actions are coordinated through our use of language. Requests and promises create the future. Assertions establish the facts that actors use to assess choices for getting there. The transparency of action, that is, the ability of the actors to arrive at a commonly held result depends on their interpretation of the words used. When the words are part of the deeply embedded “standard” vocabulary, actions generally go smoothly, But when the words have not yet been added to the stockpile, the outcomes are less reliable.

Sustainability is clearly one of these not yet universally understood words. It is important to keep pushing for a definition that puts everyone on the same page. The primary meaning of sustainability is the likelihood that some system will continue to produce some desired outcome over time. Sustainability by itself tells you nothing about what is to be produced. It’s a meta-property of a system. To have meaning for actors concerned about the continued flow of whatever is being desired (the stakeholders), some specific set of outputs must be specified. Further, we use sustainability mostly referring to complex systems like the environment or a culture. If we want to point to a system that is merely complicated like an airplane or power plant, we tend to use words like “reliable.” We would rarely talk about the sustainability of a power plant, although, given the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island experiences, we might use it when we speak of nuclear facilities.

With this preface, it is meaningless to talk about sustainability without specifying what is to be sustained. This failing is what gets most people in trouble, and contributes to accusations of green washing. I don’t know what others mean except in a very few cases. Sustainability sort of floats in the air. My own intentions are, I hope, clear. I use sustainability to refer to the possibility that the global system will produce flourishing for all life on Earth. It's only a possibility because the present system fails to do this. For human beings, flourishing includes the ability to continue along our species’ biological evolutionary path, and to enjoy culturally produced qualities of freedom, dignity, and other normative qualities of living. For other forms of life, it suffices that they be able to continue along their evolutionary trajectories. When used in the vernacular of the moment, most people seem to be referring to preventing the collapse of the ecosystem. There are many other issues of equal importance. What about equality and justice for all? What about security? It’s an error to look for sustainability in any system that is failing to produce such qualities. Something about these systems has to be changed before we can think about its sustainability. Do we really want to keep the global cultural systems as it is now?

This linguistic construction rules out the meaningful use of the adjectival form, sustainable. When used as a modifier, as in sustainable development, sustainable business, or sustainable buildings, for example, the word refers to maintaining whatever it modifies. Those that use “sustainable anything” are banking that the word will come to mean something good is happening without any further assessments bring made. In truth, all that is happening is that less bad outcomes may result. There is danger in this usage. The stakeholders may become complacent and fail to act positively to make the present system produce what is currently missing.

Do we feel safer as an outcome of the global war on terror? Do we have more confidence and security as a result of efforts to restore the financial system? Does our political economy produce equality for all? Are we in the US healthier because we spend more for our medical care than any other society? Should we worry about and act toward the sustainability of the Earth’s environment because life itself is an emergent property of that system. If we push its limits too far, we flirt with the danger of a change to a regime where life as we know it may no longer exist. Partly because we use the word sustainability imprecisely, our discussions about what to do are incoherent. If we start to talk clearly, we can make better choices and take more effective actions. Whatever future comes depends on these choices.

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I have been finding good stuff to write about in the "Happy Days" blog of the New York Times. The latest entry was another story about how someone was able to flourish without all the bells and whistles of typical consumerist fare. Pico Iyer, the author of that article, titled "The Joy of Less," is a writer who left New York more than twenty years ago for a much reduced way of life in Japan.

. . . I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.

Iyer is honest is saying that his way is peculiar to him and not something that would work for everybody.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

He sounds like someone who took the Taoist philosopher, Zhuang Zhou (Zhuangzi) very seriously. Zhuang is said to have written, "Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness."

For some unknown reason, the blog's subtitle, "The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times," caught my eye today. Why did it take the financial collapse to make the Times write about what is perhaps the most important facet of people's lives? I use the word, flourish, rather than happiness or contentment because I think it is more encompassing of the constellation of sensibilities that make up being. And also because happiness has become reified and associated with the banality from which Iyer set out to escape. We will know that we are on the right path to sustainability when stories like this replace tales of murder and blight. Newspapers like the Times can, if they really take themselves seriously, start writing about what really matters all the time.

In Passing--Thomas Berry

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Today's newspapers carry the obituary of Thomas Berry. No one has been more articulate and evocative about sustainability, even though he rarely used that word. Ordained as a Catholic monk in 1942, Berry left the isolation of the monastery to take up an academic career, teaching at a number of leading Catholic universities. But it is his writing that will be his most important legacy.

In The Dream of the Earth, Berry tells of the power of nature to nurture spirituality in human beings, but also warned against the loss of that same "nature" to the forces of modernity. He envisioned our current stage of existence as merely a momentary event in the evolving universe, a view that criticizes the arrogance that underlies the modern view of mastery over nature. He saw the crisis we now call unsustainability as a crisis of the spirit. I write that it more than this; it is a crisis of the whole human being, incorporating the spiritual as only one of the categories of caring that make being unique to our species.

His voice is certain to continue to ring out as a clarion call to stop destroying the Earth, not only as the organic system from whence we came and provides us life support, but also as our source of spirituality.

M(u)alling Over the Future of Shopping

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Malls are, perhaps, the most obvious symbol of consumption in the US. Allison Arieff, in her By Design blog, reports on the recent convention of the International Council on Shopping Centers.

At the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers convention held in Las Vegas last month, pedestrian-oriented development was not top of mind (though in a 3.2 million-square-foot convention center, walking was a defining part of the experience). Despite a nearly 50 percent drop in attendance from prior years, most talk at ICSC was of how business as usual could resume once “things came back.”

The addictive nature of today's (maybe yesterday's is more accurate, given the economic slump) way of shopping is held in place by the belief that human beings are creatures full of insatiable needs, and also by the bricks and mortar of malls and big box stores. Cultural patterns and habits are shaped by the kinds of tools that actors have available to them. One can trace hyper-consumerism all the way back to the building of our highway system, cheap gas, urban sprawl, single-use zoning, credit cards, and the invention of malls.

Without such infrastructure, consumption patterns would look very different. Malls are still a relative rarity in much of Europe, perhaps because gas has long been expensive, and cities are concentrated with extensive mixed-use neighborhoods. In spite of many reports of reduced consumption and changed consumer attitudes, it is likely that the consumption habit will return as Arieff reports when "things come back," driven to a large extent by the rebuilding of these infrastructural elements. Little has been heard from centers of corporate or government power about solving the economic system breakdown in a new way that would not continue to fuel the fire of hyper-consumerism and its strong link to unsustainability.

In an interesting closing counterpoint, Arieff also describes an effort to build a local economy that shuns most, if not all, of the structural elements that malls signify.

In fact, I’ve already seen something akin to Crossroads City implemented on a neighborhood scale. The Ainsworth Collective, a group of some 50 households in Portland, Oregon’s Cully neighborhood that came together out of a mutual interest in sustainability and community, have created a micro-economy within their few square blocks. They’ve published a directory of services provided by neighbors (from tax preparation to massage services to cat-sitting), encouraging local transactions. They’ve instituted tool-sharing, car-sharing, bulk food-purchasing and even own a farmer’s market that sells produce, baked goods and other items made by its members. There may always be mega-malls, but developers and architects would be remiss in not exploring grassroots solutions like this.

The Ainsworth Collective is just one of many experiments in local economies that are springing up in many places. The idea of local economies, even including local currencies, is not new. For those interested in probing further, a Google search will produce a very good list. There are just too many items to list here. For readers a lot younger than my generation, I would recommend that you read E. F. Schumacher's classic, Small Is Beautiful, first published in 1973. So much of what is driving "local" thinking can trace its roots back to this wonderful, prescient book.

GM and Sustainabiity

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Again I go to David Brooks for the theme of today's post. Brooks' column was all about the GM bankruptcy and the quagmire that it has become for all those who have to deal with it. But that's not all of what I saw in the article. Brooks has focused on the culture at GM as the cause of the quagmire and infers that none of the steps that are being taken will do much to change it.

Bureaucratic restructuring won’t fix the company. Clever financing schemes won’t fix the company. G.M.’s core problem is its corporate and workplace culture — the unquantifiable but essential attitudes, mind-sets and relationship patterns that are passed down, year after year.

...The problems have not gone unrecognized and heroic measures have been undertaken, but technocratic reforms from within have not changed the culture. Technocratic reforms from Washington won’t either. For the elemental facts about the Obama restructuring plan are these: Bureaucratically, the plan is smart. Financially, it is tough-minded. But when it comes to the corporate culture that is at the core of G.M.’s woes, the Obama approach is strangely oblivious. The Obama plan won’t revolutionize G.M.’s corporate culture. It could make things worse.

Now, go to the article and substitute "unsustainability" for every negative term used to describe GM's plight. Over the years GM has grown to become a complex system in every sense of the word. The machine part of the GM system made cars (although too many) and still does, but not enough people brought them at a price that produces a profit. The system, as Brooks discusses, has become rigid over time and has failed to adapt to changes in its larger environment. And now it has collapsed, just as the financial system that formed the larger environment of GM's own complexity has fallen. Along with the ability to produce cars, emergent properties like profit, jobs, and its iconic image have disappeared.

Brooks argues that all the remedies to restore the system are forms of technocratic quick fixes. I agree. This is the same approach being take to address the larger case of unsustainability. The causes, like those at GM, rest in the culture, not the mechanics. Brooks concludes with a deeply pessimistic note.

We’ve seen this before, albeit in different context: An overconfident government throws itself into a dysfunctional culture it doesn’t really understand. The result is quagmire. The costs escalate. There is no exit strategy.

I agree in part, but not entirely with his pessimism. The possibility of change always exists. The current "GM solution" depended in part on people acting against their immediate self-interests in order to restore the system and attempt to adapt to a changed world. This is a sign that at least some of the players have begun to recognize the addictive patterns of the past. Parts of the culture at GM will be very different, even after only a few months.

My more optimistic take comes from the model of culture change I work with. In this model, culture is conservative and reinforced by normal practice, but can and usually does shift when these practices are upset by changes in the primary structure. In this case, norms, beliefs, resources, authority--all the categories of structure--will change quite quickly. The results will be unpredictable. Hopefully the monitors will not be paralyzed, as Brooks thinks, but continue to learn and adapt.

Maybe the GM system can find its own form of sustainability. I wish the same could be said for the global system. We are still only tinkering with it. If we wait until symptoms of system collapse become as real as those at GM have, it will probably be too late to restore the system by any means. Flourishing as the quality of sustainability is much more important than cars and jobs. Without it, cars and jobs won't amount to much.

Being in Philadelphia

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Once again, the NYTimes "Happy Days" blog has a great story about what being is all about. Philosopher and shrinks talk about being and happiness, but the place to find either is out there in real life. Linh Dinh, a writer living in Philadelphia, authored today's column. The lines that I found most illuminating were these coming after a lot of talk about the seamy side of Philly.

Economically, my life is one long depression, punctuated by rare episodes of relative affluence, which to me is the cash to buy any entrée costing more than 10 bucks. But am I unhappy?

Absolutely not.

To mingle and chat, experience each other face to face, is a basic human need, but in our culture, this necessity has been deformed into the virtual — Facebook, chat rooms, e-mailing, texting. Philadelphia is not immune from this or any other social malaise, but there is an upside to living in the city. I bet many people moved here, like I did, to avoid being marooned in an exurban home with 500-plus channels, a vast CD collection and a dozen porn flicks. Leaving a Philly bar, I can just stagger bedward without endangering anyone but my pickled self. Everyone I know here, I first met at a watering hole. Where else can one socialize? In America, a plaza is not a square where folks gather to mix with neighbors, but a strip mall — and don’t you loiter!

I've the same criticism of the technologically filtered relationships so characteristic of today's world. But it is pretty rare to find this sentiment coming in the Times. And then, Dinh comes up with this zinger about consumption.

Confronted by a torrent of bad news from our capsized economy, many people anticipate at least the kind of unrest that has already broken out in many countries, but we are so docile, really. Some people I know speak of heading for the hills and stocking up on canned food, potable water, guns and slugs — the bunker mentality. But instead of fleeing one another, like we’ve already done for half a century or so, shouldn’t we figure out how to be closer in every sense? Why not shorten distances and trim all excess from our lives?

More Americans are experiencing poverty by the day, and I’m certainly not making light of destitution, but it doesn’t seem to me that increasing consumption — “growth” — is the answer. My ambition was to become an artist, before I switched to something even more practical, poetry, but one need not be a bohemian to value activities that reward the mind and spirit.

It would be great to see the Times continue this blog even after the economic mess starts to get cleaned up.