January 2010 Archives

When is Forever Not Forever?

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I have defined sustainability as the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever. Each word is carefully chosen, but it is the whole definition that is important. The expression is designed to evoke an image of a positive future, but not one where everything is defined and clear. It is designed to contrast starkly with the concepts of sustainable development or greening, both of which dominate the scene and both of which are approaches to reduce unsustainability. These last two concepts are inherently tied to the past and present, but not to the future. The future is to be like the present, but without certain threats like global warming, fisheries collapse, poverty, and so on. I don’t think we can create the world we want and that provides the good life we seek by fixing up the present. We have to start from scratch at the level of the cultural beliefs and values that drive societal action. Alfred Schutz wrote that such action “transforms the world from the future perfect to the present.” Interesting how the word perfect is applies to a grammatical tense.

My definition implies and requires such a new approach; it is full of metaphors and is evocative rather than deterministic, on purpose. Let’s look at the key pieces. First the word sustainability. The earliest use of the word in regard to the concerns we all are coming from may be by Paul Ekins and Les Newby who wrote, sustainability is “the capacity for continuance more or less indefinitely into the future. (Paul Ekins and Les Newby, “Sustainable Wealth Creation at the Local Level in an Age of Globalization,” Regional Studies 32, no. 9 (December 1998): 865. I missed this article in writing my book. It would have made my arguments much stronger.) The word does not imply what that something should be.

Again, sustainability is simply a property (capacity) of a system to continue to produce something we want for a long time. I used forever rather than “indefinitely” because it emphasizes the importance of thinking far into the future. I recently read a paper that criticizes this usage. as reflecting a “fallacy recurring in the work of many environmentalists that we might call the finitude fallacy.” (The paper is “Is Sustainability Sustainable?”, by Daniel Bonevac, Academic Questions, published online January 21, 2010. I apologize that the article itself is available only to the journal subscribers.)

I beg to differ. The fallacy is normally applied to resources or, as Bonevac quotes, “material things.” It is flourishing that is the “something” that emerges from the system in my definition. But flourishing is not a material substance. We are pretty sure that life on Earth will end no later than when the sun explodes, but that’s pretty close to forever in the way that both many poets and ordinary people use the word. The two senses of forever are like the images of a parallel set of lines (going to infinity) and their vanishing point (finitude) where they appear to end to an observer.

Further, I use the idea of possibility rather than capacity to go on and on. Possibilty involves some real capacity for production, but is not the same. Possibility uncouples the future from the past. It does imply some capacity to produce, but one we cannot imagine or design with what we know today.

There is no fallacy involved in this usage. Life may indeed flourish forever, but the meaning of flourishing will surely change as things start running out. Again, there is no contradiction or oxymoronic sense here. Bonevac misses the distinction between sustainability and sustainable. The adjectival form always modifies a noun and it is the noun that makes sustainable X as in sustainable growth oxymoronic.

Flourishing can be and has been criticized as being too squishy. Again, its use is on purpose. Flourishing, like beauty or security or freedom, is an emergent property of a system and shows up only when the whole system is working properly. It has been associated with the good life for a very long time and shows up in all cultures and eras in one form or another. The moment one tries to put a dimension to flourishing, it is transformed into a thing and instantly loses its power to make life meaningful. I grant that this characteristic makes sustainability daunting to those who are at work “managing” society through business or government or whatever. These institutions still have yet to understand the distinction between sustainability and sustainable X and the importance of following separate paths towards each end. Until they do, we will see little progress.

I am often criticized as being too academic, theoretic, or philosophical. I accept this criticism, but respond by saying that the subject of sustainability demands new ways of thinking and acting that are not present in our individual or collective consciousness. I don’t see any possibility (intentional use of the word) other than asking a lot of new and difficult questions.

Is There an iPad in Your Future?


Jay Leno cracked:

Apple introduced their new product, a tablet, which will revolutionize how families ignore each other.

This would be very funny if not so true.

Screens and Sadness


After I wrote the last post, I read the full text of the Kaiser report on media use by 8 to 18-year old children. The part describing the impact on learning and feelings was especially troubling. I know that there are many who do not buy the arguments I make in my book, based largely on psychology or philosophy, that technology has the potential to submerge one’s sense of worldliness and understanding of what it means to be human. The Kaiser study provides some convincing data that this danger is quire real. Here are the key findings.

Youth who spend more time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment.

For purposes of comparison, young people were grouped into categories of heavy, moderate and light media users. Heavy users are those who consume more than 16 hours of media content in a typical day (21% of all 8- to 18-year-olds); moderate users are those who consume from 3-16 hours of content (63%); light users are those who consume less than three hours of media in a typical day (17%).

Nearly half (47%) of all heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower), compared to 23% of light media users. Heavy media users are also more likely to say they get into trouble a lot, are often sad or unhappy, and are often bored. Moreover, the relationships between media exposure and grades, and between media exposure and personal contentment, withstood controls for other possibly relevant factors such as age, gender, race, parent education, and single vs. two-parent households.

This study cannot establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades, or between media use and personal contentment. And if there are such relationships, they could well run in both directions simultaneously.

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

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I saw a couple of reports a few days ago that were quite disturbing. I know that children have been spending more and more time in front of some sort of screen, but I was shocked by the actual numbers involved. Neilsen Company, based on survey data, reports that preschoolers, ages 2 to 5, spend 32.5 hours in front of a television screen. I guess their thumbs are not yet developed enough to allow them to devote additional hours to texting.

The next older cohort, from 6 to 11, spend a little less time, 28 hours on the average. Neilsen explains the difference simply as the result of spending more hours at school. But that means that the children manage to find hours to make up for the much of the time lost in the classroom and doing homework. No data on the number and kind of advertisements that show up during these long hours was given in the studies. I have seen such numbers previously and they are staggering.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a similar report with data on the viewing habits of 8 to 18 year olds. The data are more than shocking. The number of hours per day are nearly the same as what goes for a day at the office, about 7 1/2 hours every day. Texting is in addition and adds another hour and a half per day. The time connected to a screen is even longer when the growing tendency for multi-tasking is considered. Because so many are connected to more than one form of media at a time, the daily exposure increases from 7 1/2 to almost 10 3/4 hours.

While the numbers, per se, are fraught with all kinds of implications, I find this situation tells another more ominous story concerning sustainability. The way the media work puts the viewer in a kind of mindless state. The outside world disappears from consciousness. I watch the kids walk down the street completely enrapt in their iPods and mobile phones. That the consequences of ignoring the world around is causing numerous auto accidents has become well documented, and steps are being taken to make use of mobile phones and texting while driving illegal. I also read more about people walking into holes or getting into accidents while crossing the street.

I have argued that one underlying cause of unsustainability is the loss of caring for self, others, and the world. Another way to talk about this is to speak of loss of consciousness instead of care. In any case, the hours and hours spent connected to the cyberworld push out virtually all opportunities for learning to care. Walking into oncoming cars is a stark example of not being conscious of one’s own self, and the need to keep it safe and sound. The outside world is essentially invisible when one is tied to the device in one’s hand. Not only is the opportunity to care for the world eroded away, but the world itself gets lost.

Although the time spent in contact with other people via the media may be the largest segment of time other than some form of diversion, the quality of the connections is not about caring. I have written about the tendency for media devices and programs to diminish the meaning of relationships, converting understanding what friends and other forms of relationships mean into a mechanical picture.

The data on the effects of all this time spent with these devices shows increasing deleterious impacts. School performance decreases with heavy use. Other studies show a correlation between obesity and hours in front of televisions for younger watchers. A shift from fixed TV sets to portable devices makes it easier to spend more time. The effects are age, gender, and ethnicity sensitive.

Kevin Kelly of Wired fame and others see information technology as an unmitigated blessing; one that all of us, especially we of the grandparent generation, have to accept. These data don’t convince me. Without caring, sustainability cannot arrive. It takes fully conscious human beings to understand the predicament in which we have put ourselves and Earth, and the same fully conscious beings to get us out of it. The answers are not to be found on Twitter or by IMing or even on Sesame Street.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny)

Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me

I know it will be so until it’s time to go

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again

I have no fear of time

For who knows how my love grows?

And who knows where the time goes?

Green Guilt


One of the underlying themes of my book is that unsustainability has arisen as an unintended consequences of our current cultural paradigm. For sustainability as flourishing to appear, the beliefs and norms that constitute that paradigm have to change. One of the critical beliefs to change is that of what it means to be human, from a picture of an individual as a consuming machine fulfilling a set of insatiable needs to a human whose existence is manifest by the satisfaction of a set of cares or concerns. One of the categories is care for the world which include most anything falling under the rubrics of environmentalism or greening. It has been a very hard sell to convert a technocratic, self protective response to unsustainability to one that comes from care. And where this is happening strange results are coming forth as described in the following articles.

It seems that acting out of one’s care for the world can trigger all sorts of adverse responses from family and friends who are not yet acting out of such concerns. People who tune in on family squabbles see a rise in breakdowns attributed to environmental activism and changes in behavior. Leslie Kaufman, writing in the NYTimes reports:

As awareness of environmental concerns has grown, therapists say they are seeing a rise in bickering between couples and family members over the extent to which they should change their lives to save the planet… In households across the country, green lines are being drawn between those who insist on wild salmon and those who buy farmed, those who calculate their carbon footprint and those who remain indifferent to greenhouse gases… “As the focus on climate increases in the public’s mind, it can’t help but be a part of people’s planning about the future,” said Thomas Joseph Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., who has a practice that focuses on environmental issues. “It touches every part of how they live: what they eat, whether they want to fly, what kind of vacation they want.” . . While no study has documented how frequent these clashes have become, therapists agree that the green issue can quickly become poisonous because it is so morally charged. Friends or family members who are not devoted to the environmental cause can become irritated by life choices they view as ostentatiously self-denying or politically correct.

I certainly do not advocate more strife, but this finding indicates that new values are showing up in changed behavior patters, and that is good for the cause of sustainability. But it also shows the depth of the existing cultural norms and beliefs and the high bar for change to occur. The difference in values shows up in public places as well. Another article by Stephen T. Asma in the Chronicle Review tells an interesting story:

Not too long ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that he didn’t really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked the air out of the room—I think the CD player even skipped. He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed, people’s faces twisted with moral outrage.

The author attributes this outcry to the a form of guilt closely related to the guilt that comes from religion and the self awareness of not living according to God’s rules. I think he goes a bit too far, but given the importance of creating awareness of the need for values that are driven by the demands from the Earth rather than those from the heavens, anything that works is OK.

Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had—the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity—it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming. There are also high priests of the new religion, with Al Gore (“the Goracle”) playing an especially prophetic role.

We even find parallels in environmentalism of the most extreme, self-flagellating forms of religious guilt. Nietzsche claims that religion has fostered guilt to such neurotic levels that some people feel culpable and apologetic about their very existence. Compare this with extreme conservationists who want to sacrifice themselves for trees and whales. And teachers, like myself, will attest to significant numbers of their students who feel that their cats or whatever are equal to human beings. And not only are members of the next generation egalitarian about all life, but they often feel positively awful about the way that their species has corrupted and defiled the whole beautiful symphony of nature. The planet, they feel, would be better off without us. We are not worthy. In this extreme form, one does not seek to reduce one’s carbon footprint so much as eliminate one’s very being.

Pointing out these parallels is not meant to diminish the environmental cause. We should indeed do the things in our power, and within reason, to sustain the planet. But we have a tendency to become neurotic and overly anxious, especially when we are regularly told, via green marketing ploys, that each one of us is responsible for the survival of the planet. That’s a heavy guilt trip.

I see a huge difference however. We have no way to discover why God has sent us a message about the way to live and about the perils of straying from that path. We can, however, begin to understand the more mundane messages the Earth is sending through science and our observations of how things are going. Our understanding of the behavior of complex systems provides an apocalyptic possibility without the slightest tinge of religious content. Not listening to these messages is not a sin, but it is an ostrich-like posture in the eyes of those who have come to believe action is critical. If these folks are able to invoke shame or guilt or any similar emotion in others, then I would see this more as a signal that the others are getting that message deep-down.

That’s a good sign and doesn’t need a philosopher or references to Nietzsche to explain what is happening. Anyway, the same notion of complexity suggests that each one of use is indeed responsible for the survival of the planet. Edward Lorenz gave us the important idea that the future in chaotic, complex systems could be dependent on a single seemingly insignificant act, giving a popular paper in 1972 titled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” We don’t need to be driven by guilt; self-preservation and care will do.

Beware of Rigidity in Complex Systems


The results of the Massachusetts Senatorial election are just in. The Republican, Scott Brown, trounced his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley by about 53% to 47%. This counts as a trouncing given the demographics of Massachusetts and the recent history of this seat. (Disclosure: I am a life-long Democratic voter.) I am disappointed by the results, but that is not what I want to write about.

This election demonstrates the complex nature of our political system, and the effects of rigidity on the dynamics of the system. The theory of democracy is that the majority rules unless the process would disenfranchise the minority. The founding fathers understood the resilience of this form of governance. They wanted to build a system that would not freeze up or become unstable, but that is exactly what is happening. It is what happens with complex systems in general. They work for long periods, but then some small event sends them reeling and pushes them into a new state of affairs.

This was the case with the recent financial collapse. Everything was hunky-dory for a decade or so, until the system broke down in what seemed like a mere second. Bubbles are just another name for the rigidity that can accumulate in a financial system. The solidity of capital that maintains the system gives way to paper assets, created by leveraging. Eventually the real metabolism starts to founder as the assets no longer carry the nutrients that are required to feed the system.

The financial system is critical to nurture the financial concerns of the society. When it fails, the sense of security, trust, and confidence that emerge from the healthy economy evaporate along with the real monetary wealth. The political system is equally critical to the health of the nation. When it is functioning in a resilient manner, the citizenry find security, trust, and confidence in non-financial domains that allow everyone to go about their business of life whatever it is. When it become rigid and fails to operate in the democratic way it was designed to do, those emergent qualities of security and trust go south. And that is where we appear to be heading.

This country cannot be neatly divided into two polities that oppose each other in a series of zero-sum games. We are a diverse citizenry with a broad spectrum of political and other values. But somehow, that is how the governance system has come to operate. The diversity of the real population has become replaced by a two-class distribution. The classic description of politics as the art of the possible or of compromise applies only with great difficulty to this situation. Responses to the great problems facing the nation become, as they have, polarized and what could be a pragmatic response, employing the smarts of all, ends up as narrowly constructed.

Worse, nothing happens at all, and that is where we seem to be heading. Burkean conservatives believe that this is a good situation assuming that the present is always going to be better than the future, especially if the government starts tinkering. But the world is so different from that of Burke’s time that this stance is difficult to justify. There are many serious issues that need remedy and concerted actions. Climate change, in spite of those in government who would deny its existence or seriousness, will continue to threaten us no matter how much we ignore it and take no actions to counter those threats. The fabric of the Nation rests on the rights established by the founders, which rights have become eroded in the face of terrorist activities and the inability to obtain decent medical care. Separate, but equal, in education was exposed as a fraud, so it is in the medical system.

It is hard to predict what impact this single election will have on the polity, but the difference of a few thousands of votes will be magnified by the rigidity already present. The danger is that the whole system ceases to operate. We have seen this happen when the government was shut down a few years ago, but fortunately without serious aftereffects. More is at stake here; I foresee that possibility that the whole country starts to shut down. It already has in a way with estimates of as much as 15% or more of the work force unemployed.

This country, unlike any other, was created on a moral foundation. Adherence to the moral base has been and must in my view continue to be an output of the body politic. It takes a resilient political and economic system that is working to do this. It behooves all those who claim positions of leadership in the country to restore and nurture the resiliency of the system even as they defend their own partisan positions. Hard to do, of course, but absolutely necessary.The inherent nature of complexity demands that it be this way. In many ways, this what had happened prior to the Civil War and forced Lincoln to act as he did. For those who ask what this has to do with sustainability, the answer is everything. Global sustainability requires that everything said here about the United States applies to global governance and economy. The complex system here in the US is nothing more than a smaller fractal of the global system.

Learning to Live With Technology

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On last Friday and Saturday, I taught a couple of classes at the Marlboro College MBA for Managing Sustainability in Brattelboro, VT. I’m teaching a course called, “Exploring Sustainability,” to both the entering class and the second-year group, but in separate sessions. I am using my book for the reader. It’s a chance to observe how the book works as a text. This weekend is the first of three “intensives” that will take place during this trimester. Except for these more traditional classes, the course is taught via the internet, using a pedagogical web program called Moodle.

Moodle is a Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It is a Free web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites.

This is the second time I have used a system like this to teach. The first experience was not all that positive. I have honed my teaching skills primarily through small seminar-style classes where much of the learning was serendipitous, coming from the places that the bends and trills of the conversation took us. Moodle and other similar systems require a relatively fixed format. I have already posted all the assignments and questions I have asked to be answered. I can change them as I go, but not without some upset and difficulty. I have yet to see the first response from the class; that will come this week. The main difference between the two systems is the absence of context and presence.

Facility for give and take among the teacher and the students is provided, but is also limited by the lack of context. It’s possible to add smileys or emoticons to enrich the plain words, but this is a poor substitute for context, and the interpretation of all the clues and messages accompanying the words. It’s pretty hard to tell whether I am confused.gif, sad.gif, or angry.gif. I expect some learning to take place, but not the kind of learning that I would prefer. I’ve added a running assignment to keep a journal to record the reflections arising during the readings and the responses to my questions. I expect this will add some of the missing context. If the course were focused on practical skills, I would be less concerned, but this particular course is designed to teach critical thinking regarding sustainability and to provide a base for embedding the learning from the more traditional courses.

The second place that technology enters the scene is in the basic communication means available to students scattered over the Northeast corridor and meeting face-to-face about every 6-7 weeks. The new class has already set up a couple of social media networking groups and seem very excited about what they have already gained from participation. I am, as my readers know, generally a critic of such software technology, because I believe it tends to diminish the meaning of relationships of all kinds. I don’t see this happening here, however. This group is not counting the success of the systems by the numbers of connections or participants, but by the ability to find common ground and to build a network for support and assistance to one another.

It’s sort of an anti-twitter system. What matters is not the instantaneous content that comes and goes, but the permanent foundation that will build over time to coalesce this group. The process is made easier here than in many cases since the small group of students already share a strong interest in the central subject—sustainability. I’ll try to be a bit kinder to Facebook and the rest of the network builders.laughing.gif

Rachel Carson's Legacy


I’m back from Pittsburgh and a talk to the first workshop on green chemistry in a series organized by the Rachel Carson Homestead. I haven’t been to Pittsburgh for some decades and still have badly out-of-date memories of the city with its steel mills and other heavy industry. Instead I found a very clean, imposing modern city and enthusiastic attitude about the future.

But some things never change. The chief topic of conversation at dinner the night before the talk was a massive project to capture natural gas trapped in the coal deposits in the region by fracturing the strata to allow the gas to escape. The process uses large volumes of water containing a mix of chemicals to assist the fracturing process. The spent water and some of the gas escape from the site and run along crevices in the strata and well up in unpredictable places.

Rachel Carson would turn over in her grave at this use of chemicals. I found her environmental ethic still highly relevant.

  • Live in harmony with nature
  • Preserve and learn from natural places
  • Minimize the impact of man-made chemicals on natural systems of the world
  • Consider the implications of human activities on the global web of life.

The scale and impact of this project run smack dab against this ethic. Opponents of the project object, arguing the impact of the process is largely unknown but likely to be significant. The strata have many connections to surface and ground water. My dinner companions reported that contamination is showing up in wells and streams.

The issues I heard are the same as Carson would have heard. The economic value of the projects or chemical usage are more than the ecological costs, including effects of both humans and other species. Development of alternative energy sources is critical. The region is estimated to contain around 60 years of gas supply or less if distributed nationally. Fish are particularly sensitive to pollutants in the water they spawn in. The impacts could last very much longer.

I understand the debate over the project is heating up. The weight of the industry would appear to far outgun the opponents in political and economic terms. But this is exactly the same situation as Carson faced in her battle to ban DDT. With her ghost lingering in the background, the outcome of this battle is far from certain. Tune in later.

Rachel Carson and Green Chemistry

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I’m off today for a short trip to Pittsburgh to speak at a workshop on green chemistry and other topics related to green design. The event is organized and co-sponsored by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association. It’s that connection that made this an attractive invitation. Created in 1975,

The mission of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association is to preserve, restore, and interpret Rachel Carson’s birthplace and childhood home; and to design and implement education programs and resources in keeping with her environmental ethic:
  • Live in harmony with nature
  • Preserve and learn from natural places
  • Minimize the effect of man-made chemicals on the natural systems of the world, and
  • Consider the implications of human actions of the global web of life.

Often considered to be the force that started modern environmentalism with her book, Silent Spring, Carson made her impact not only with the power of her message, but also with the power of her words. She was an extremely gifted writer having published other books, including Under the Sea-Wind, which was one of my favorites. I read this one while in high school and remember it as a significant contributor to my eventual career in science and technology.

This visit is a bit ironic as I frequently chide folks for using the word “green” or “sustainable” carelessly. Carson would never have been so imprecise. What the participants at this meeting mean by sustainable or green is some form of eco-efficiency, delivering more value with less impact. Economic balancing is always lurking in the background. Carson knew that some goods were simply wrong. While it is critical that we drastically reduce our impact on the environment, it is just as critical that we understand what we are doing and what we are not doing. Green chemistry or green soap or green anything are better choices than old processes or products made with little or no concern for nature, both human and worldly. But until people are educated as to their limits and to the fact that sustainability is more than the absence of unsustainability, they will leave the store thinking all is well or at least getting better. Carson recognized that the power of education is even more important that the intrinsic properties of technology itself.

An Extraordinary Palindrome


Watch this. It is a remarkable rendering of the choice we have ahead of us.

Back to the [Economic] Future


Jacob Weisberg has an interesting piece on Slate (Also in Newsweek) pointing to the several "causes" of the economic collapse.

There are no strong candidates for what logicians call a sufficient condition—a single factor that would have caused the crisis in the absence of any others. There are, however, a number of plausible necessary conditions—factors without which the crisis would not have occurred. Most analysts find former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan at fault, though for a variety of reasons.

I am not so much interested in the arguments per se, but in Weisberg's conclusions about them. Collecting the arguments of many experts, mostly but not all economists, Weisberg concludes that, "What these 'root causes' explanations have in common is that they don't lend themselves to practical solutions."

The very fact that there are so many different and disparate explanations for what lay at the roots of the collapse suggest strongly that it was the whole system at play. The mess cannot be attributed to any single part that led to the flip from an apparently stable state to another one, creating havoc. Weisberg misses this point just like about everyone else involved in the analysis and attempts to restore the system. He seems to dismiss the various explanations as a whole because they do not immediately indicate a "practical solution," that is, some sort of technical adjustment. In cases of systems failures, such fixes can, at best, reduce the likelihood of specific undesired outcomes. They cannot eliminate them. If those involved are really serious about fixing the system, then they must indeed fix the system, not merely its parts. This would take asking some fundamental questions about capitalism, markets, roles of governments, fairness, and all sorts of topics where leaders of business and government generally fear to tread.

Weisberg ends the piece with:

Historians are still debating what caused the Great Depression, so it's not likely this argument will be settled anytime soon. But if we haven't at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we'll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.

If we do put in new controls, we may escape returning to this "same place," but there is little guarantee that we will avoid finding ourselves in a different place we will be just as unhappy about.

The Sacredness of iPods and Guns

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Orion Magazine, one of my favorites, has a long interview with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine. I subscribed to Wired from the start, but dropped it after about a year. Not because of the content. I found the format so off-putting that I had trouble reading it. My friends assured me that disorder was the wave of the future. Reading Kelly’s comments in the interview, I probably would have dropped it at some time because of its contents as well as format. Even granting that Kelly likes to shock people, I found his beliefs about technology not only outsized, but also outrageous. His first sentence in the piece is, “My larger agenda is to bridge the technological and the holy.” This would clearly take much doing, if possible, but I wonder why anyone would want to go there.

Max Weber famously observed that technological cast of our modern world did precisely the opposite, writing, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Martin Heidegger would agree with Kelly that technology has come to dominate the way human being exist, but would completely disagree with the consequences. In a posthumously published interview, Heidegger said that he feared that, “Only a God can save us.” Both were deeply concerned about what the nature of human existence had become.

I watched a three-part series on our PBS channel this week on the subject of Our Emotional Life. Advertised as a story about happiness, it was mostly about the opposite, but whenever happiness appeared on screen, the connection to human relationships was very clear. The finale showed the narrator, Dan Gilbert, claiming that the number one factor in happiness was the quality of our relationships with other human beings. The failure of things, including money, to produce positive judgments about what it is to be human was evident throughout, with one exception. Money is an essential factor for producing happiness for the poor, but perhaps only at the first few levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Getting back to Kelly, I interpret his comments as saying the opposite. What really matters is, that is, if anything matters to us, the technology that permeates life.

When asked about the use of technology to ensure the sex of a child, something available now in India, Kelly would not prohibit the technology, but rather educate those making the choice. He ignore the failures of education to deal with addiction to drugs, which fit neatly into his idea of technology. Having more choice is his [sole] criterion of the acceptability of technology. If there moral issues should be involved, keep going while seeking a new idea that would obviate the bad outcomes. He claims that, without exception, prohibiting technology is immoral. In his zeal, he mistakes current risk doctrine. Claiming that we fail to proceed to employ new technology until we know it is safe, and that this policy doesn’t work, he overlooks the fact that almost all new technology is put into use without testing its effects of safety and environment. Only in matters involving human health and some narrow areas of the environment, do we act under the precautionary principal—withholding use until we are confident it is not harmful.

Later in the interviews, he waffles a bit allowing that he would prohibit technology that kills people, citing biological warfare agents, but exempting nuclear weapons. They are OK, but shouldn’t be used. Guns are OK too, I suppose as technology, but not as weapons. The gun lobby insists that it’s not guns that kill people; people kill people. I do not see how Kelly is able to draw the line at what is OK and what is not. This is exactly the concern that Heidegger expressed. We have come to view the world purely in technological terms. Everything is nothing but standing reserve to be used for something. Anything special about human existence eventually evaporates. Kelly does not think that this is so bad. Just the opposite. When asked about his answer to Wendell Berry who argues that technology doesn’t change the essential nature of humanity, Kelly said

“I disagree with Wendell. We have created our humanity. And I think our humanity has been created by technology. Our humanity is defined by things we have invented. Like the alphabet. Our culture is one thing we’ve created. But I also think there has been an evolution of morality. Culture and cultural inventions are part of the Technium [the technological universe]—they are technologies.

I think he confuses human existence with culture. Our species has maintained a basic set of concerns through a myriad of cultural progressions. Technology is a powerful force, perhaps now the most powerful force in shaping cultures. Yes, it affects who we think we are, but hopefully in my way of thinking, only conceals our humanness and leaves it there to come forth some day. That’s why sustainability remains a possibility.

I’ll stop here although the theological parts of the interview are worth talking about. Without his ever using the term, I would say the Kelly believes in intelligent design.

KELLY: But I don’t think the Technium is only about humans. It’s a type of learning. It’s a type of expression. It’s a type of possibility. The Technium works as an ecology. Just as evolution has a longterm direction as we look 4 billion years into the past, so technology increases complexity and diversity, with increasing power.

LAWLER: So technology is part of evolution or God—that which drives the universe?

KELLY: Exactly. Some people call this the Great Story. Roving preacher Michael Dowd talks at churches about this alternative creation story. It is about evolution through God, that which started from nothing, grew into particles that gained mass and complexity, and then clumped into molecules and then became dust and planets and so forth. And technology is the latest variety.

LAWLER: So the Technium is one of the ways in which the universe is getting to know itself? And by increasing complexity, the universe becomes more self-aware?

KELLY: Exactly. I think of God as the intelligence of mind that is increasing the complexity of the universe.

I believe Kelly is confused again in mistaking the natural evolutionary progression of the universe with the roles of human intelligence and creativity in the ever larger array of technological devices and systems that control our lives. Perhaps control is too strong, but surely we live in a constant, increasingly relentless tug of war with technology. If Kelly is correct that technology is literally everything in the universe, we are just as surely going to be pulled far beyond the center line.

No News Is Not Good News

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The real news out of Copenhagen is that there was very little news. If one looked for news anywhere but the media outlets following climate, sustainability, greening, and other related topics, news of what was going on in Copenhagen was under the radar screen. And much of was found in the general, not just the main stream media, covered the protests and other social aspects. This situation holds for all news about these subjects, not just the proceedings at Copenhagen. The world just isn’t watching. This failure to appreciate the full implications of unsustainability, far beyond the climate change piece, is ominous and promises trouble ahead.

For the first time in history, we are faced with global issues other than economic or military issues. Environmental degradation has long been viewed as a set of separate, regionally bounded problems, but now only the deniers or ostriches can continue to look past the global scope of the increasingly unsustainable Earth. Social problems, ofter relegated to the global economic market for remedy, also cannot be ignored as a set of moral issues that this market and the economic theory behind it cannot handle. Gleaning various communications from Copenhagen from the “official observers” and many colleagues and others reporting during and after the conference ended, I discovered several items that suggest that the overwhelming emphasis on the technical details of the agreement process caused some key happenings to slip through the cracks.

In spite of what most observers said about the failings and failures of CoP—15, there are several consequences that are positive and deserve, if not demand serious attention, not only in the media, but virtually everywhere. One of my colleagues, Edgar Hertwich from the NTNU, writes of the surprising (to him) attention paid to environmental equity issues. That equity, itself is a serious concern is not new, but he thought that, for the first time, it was gaining on the technological forces that have so dominated the climate change arena. Here is a few paragraphs from Edgar’s reportage from Denmark.

Our atmosphere is a globally shared, common resource that has been over-utilized by a mere 20% of the global population. In principle, all humans should have equal rights to use this resource. The climate negotiations are the only global negotiations allowing developing countries to raise the issue of unfair access to globally shared resources. Their positioning in the negotiations may at times seem self-serving, trying to extract bribes for pursuing a low-carbon development course which should be in the developing countries interest anyway, given their disproportional vulnerability to climate change. It would be a mistake not to take seriously the issue of climate justice and the connection of global resource access and economic product.  These issues must be accorded more importance by industrialized countries, which must be more willing to stop their irresponsible overuse of the atmosphere. 

Negotiations must not be a zero-sum game. Yes, we must equitably share our common resources among humans, both current and future generations. However, there is a large scope to improve energy and resource efficiency and to generate energy with much less emissions. International cooperation will in fact help us to take advantage of those opportunities, because it allows us to share technical progress and implement solutions more widely and thereby reduce their price.  Still, the climate debate has been so long dominated by technological optimists that issues of justice have been overlooked. I think it is about time to accord them more importance. We must start a debate about how to fairly share our global resources, both in principle and practically. A debate of principles is necessary to make clear to those guilty of too high emissions that the status quo is not right. A debate of practicalities is necessary to find low-carbon development options for poor countries and to avoid transfer mechanisms that corrupt developing country elites and impede development in ways that payments for the extraction of other resources often do.

Alan AtKisson, attending as part of the UN contingent, wrote

After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I came to an unsurprising conclusion… The world will never be the same.

My reading of the bulk of the news was just the opposite. Most commentators expressed a ho-hum attitude. Still business as usual in the US and in business. AtKisson continues:

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that continues to interest me, for the events in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period.  The primary outcome of the negotiations was not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will be debated endlessly in the years ahead.  The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably.  Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15. The constellation of the now-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicated something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries was, to say the least, widely noticed.

If the understanding, even tacitly, that we are faced with a massive system problem which is not amenable to the usual zero sum games grows, then there is hope that world’s powerful leaders from every sector will stop trying to maximize their selfish gains. We all have been unwilling to recognize that it is exactly that behavior that has created the current mess. But this positive outcome will come to naught without action to reduce the stress on the planet and change the cultural drivers that have gotten us to where we are. Change, not compensation, is critical.

In the Mood


Welcome 2010. I hope you bring better times to the world. As I begin another year of blogging, I am feeling pulled by many conflicting themes and moods. If I am optimistic, do I really believe it? Or if I am pessimistic, am I missing hopeful, but barely visible signs, of improvement and change? What about the cynicism that comes through in spite of attempts to hold it back. In particular, am I being too hard on the greening endeavors of business as a cultural sector? Can I stop my mood swings at merely being skeptical? Even as I start this blog, I am having a hard time finding the track to follow, based on just what I read today. Here’s some evidence.

The NYTimes reports that people are adapting to economic hardship by spending more time and money doing things, rather that buying things.

Quietly but noticeably over the past year, Americans have rejiggered their lives to elevate experiences over things. Because of the Great Recession, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll has found, nearly half of Americans said they were spending less time buying nonessentials, and more than half are spending less money in stores and online.

But Americans are not just getting by with less. They are also doing more. Some are working longer hours, but a larger proportion, the poll shows, are spending additional time with family and friends, gardening, cooking, reading, watching television and engaging in other hobbies.

This comes on the heels of many articles of a few months ago that claimed that people were indeed buying less simply because they had less to spend, but anticipated that they would return to the old spending habits when their money started to come back. Neither of these findings can be taken as evidence of any fundamental change in cultural values. The data are insufficient, so I am left to select the one or the other primarily based on my mood.

In 2009, I wrote more than a few blog posts dissing the “greening” or “sustainability” efforts of Walmart and other vendors and producers. I was (and am) still at best skeptical about Walmart’s plans to use a sustainability index to create what Daniel Goleman and others call radical transparency. The idea is simple, but the realization is very, very hard. It means nothing more than that vendors will give consumers all the information they need to make choices consistent and aligned with their values, in this particular case, their stance toward sustainability. But there’s the rub. Unlike the conventional values that economists and psychologists tell us drive individual consumption actions, (this will make me beautiful), sustainability cannot be reduced to any similar subjectively created criterion. Sustainability is a quality that will always be outside of an individual’s cognitive metering system, and a company’s scoring formula.

Should I always be suspicious, as I usually am, of the motives of such companies, claiming to do well by doing good. Jared Diamond, writing in the NYTimes, recently extolled the effort of a few big corporations—Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Chevron—following conversations with their chief executives. (Also see my earlier post about this.)

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.

Diamond is one of the most well-known scholars and writers on the development of and collapse of cultures. His arguments rest on the existence of positive feedback loops in arguing why the West gained its technological edge. In Collapse, he argues that ecological deterioration working its way through systems linkages (more feedback) eventually brought on the demise of these cultures. Yet in his short oped piece, he chooses to overlooks the role of these corporations in upsetting the global system’s ecology even as they engage in actions designed to minimize their own negative contributions. Whose interests are they serving? Should I believe Diamond and those well-informed colleagues who write positively about Walmart’s and other firms’ greening efforts, or should I pay more attention to the many critics of Walmart like the next item?

The main article on Alternet today is a screed against the monopoly that Walmart has become. Alternet is a place I know that, even before I go there, will cater to my cynical moods. Today was no exception. The main point of the story was that Walmart has so much control of what it offers on the shelves that the customers have less, not more choice, than they would have in a less concentrated and competitive array of vendors. For the policy wonks, Walmart exhibits the extremely rare pattern of both monopolistic (dominant seller) and monopsonic (dominant buyer) behavior. This is not the same as at Amazon, where you can find virtually everything published, and also other merchandise sold by a myriad of small vendors using the Amazon site as a online catalogue.

It wasn’t always this way as Barry Lynn, the author of the Alternet piece, points out.

Until we elected Ronald Reagan president, both Democrats and Republicans made sure that no chain store ever came to dominate more than a small fraction of sales in the United States as a whole, or even in any one region of the country. Between 1917 and 1979, for instance, administrations from both parties repeatedly charged the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the chain store behemoth of the mid-twentieth century that is better known as A & P, with violations of antitrust law, even threatening to break the firm into pieces.

Then in 1981 we stopped enforcing that law. Thus, today Wal-Mart is at least five times bigger, relative to the overall size of the U.S. economy, than A & P was at the very height of its power. Indeed, Wal-Mart exercises a de facto complete monopoly in many smaller cities, and it sells as much as half of all the groceries in many big metropolitan markets. Wal-Mart delivers at least 30 percent and sometimes more than 50 percent of the entire U.S. consumption of products ranging from soaps and detergents to compact discs and pet food.

Given that I believe very strongly that we are and have been on the wrong path to sustainability for some time, you can guess where I will usually come from. Reducing unsustainability, which is what virtually all these “positive” efforts are, does not create sustainability. This is still one of my mantras, but it is very important to recognize anything that is, indeed, moving in the right direction. I’ll try to keep the positive moods at the ready in case this does happen.