February 2010 Archives

Emergence, Rules, and Sustainability

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I spent a few days this weekend teaching my course on “Exploring Sustainability” at the Marlboro College Graduate MBA in Managing for Sustainability. I’ve written about this terrific program many times now, but I am always impressed what the combination of an enlightened faculty and a group of committed students can produce. I have only limited time allotted to my course in a very busy weekend. It’s an important moment as it’s the only chance for me to meet the students face-to-face rather than read their posts to the program pedagogical website. We are reading my book as the text this term, and the latest assignments focus on complexity and its connections to sustainability. In the course of presenting a short illustrated lecture, I had a real breakthrough in my own understanding of that relationship. I hope the students did as well.

I was speaking about the phenomena of emergence: the creation of coherent patterns from generally chaotic systems or the bringing forth of some quality, like beauty or security, from a complex system. Systems that are complex in this sense cannot be described by a determinant set of equations and behave in unpredictable ways. Flourishing is the quality we seek in all our attempts to design our worlds to become sustainable, that is to continue to exhibit flourishing over long time periods. I used this short video to explain emergence.

The part I want to discuss is the first 4 or 5 minutes, but the whole video is worth watching. The key to emergent phenomena is that they follow a set of rules, but not necessary rules expressible in mathematical terms. We have such a set of rules that underlies economic institutions and economic behavior in modern developed countries. The rules have been known ever since Adam Smith pointed us to the “invisible hand.” He connected the emergence of wealth and well-being to behavior driven by self-interest as then construed as the seeking of things that brought pleasure and the avoidance of pain. No one was directing the economic system. It ran all by itself, with the exception of government setting some other rules to avoid the emergence of patterns that were not deemed good for society. We know that this scheme has never been fully successful.

This simple rule at the base of all modern market-oriented economies doesn’t produce the right kind of emergence. Yes, we do get more material output and more wealth measured by putting monetary values to all the stuff traded in the market. But we also get poverty, unfair distribution of well-being, and devastation of the natural system that supports life on Earth. And now we have much evidence that it even fails to produce pleasure and avoid pain for many, many people. As long as the economic system is designed on the basis of this fundamental rule, all the fixes that economists use cannot alter the emergent dynamics. They may mitigate a problem here and there but cannot change the basic patterns.

So what different rule might be used to replace the one that came from Smith and Mills and others theorizing at the dawn of classic economics. If human are truly self-interested in the way Mill suggested, then there would seem to be no way out of this mess. The best we can do is to apply fixes here and there until the whole system collapses into some unpredictable regime. We have lived so long with this model of human behavior as the normal one that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have suggested in my book that there is an alternative to the Homo economicus created by Mill, but named as such by Pareto and Marshall. This alternative is a model of our species as constituted by caring. Caring is the sense of paying attention to the world of phenomena and acting according to rules coming largely from experience. Caring is behind the emergence of language as the technique that has enabled humans to coordinate their action to cope satisfactorily with the world of nature, other humans, and their individual selves.

Taking my lead from Heidegger, Fromm and others, I have argued that the loss of care under the relentless attack by technology and its manifestation in economic institutions has led to the failure of modern social systems to produce flourishing and other similar normatively positive emergent qualities and to the emergence instead of dysfunctional and dystopic patterns and forms. In the same way we cannot predict exactly what the invisible hand of Smith will produce, we cannot predict the outcome of changing the rules to a system based on caring, but I am more confident that it will bring flourishing forth. Care-based cultural rules has done this in smaller societies and groups. Changing the rules can be done at all levels of society. The video shows that rules that guide individual behavior work without the need of leadership from the top. I’ll explore this idea further as I become more comfortable inside of it. But why not get started now. Let’s go.

Chemotherapy for Climate Change

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With the likelihood of any significant agreement on lowering greenhouse gas emissions coming out of Copenhagen small, attention to geo-engineering has taken a big jump. More than merely refocusing attention, this turn of events has catapaulted geo-engineering from the fringe smak into the center. I find this disturbing and fraught. In an article in Greenbiz, David Keith, one of the more level-headed people in the area of climate change, is quoted:

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.” But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering. Some people believe that it is all but certain.

The analogy to cancer is misleading. Keith says as much at the end of the article. Cancer is a disease that has invaded the body and cannot be reversed. Whatever triggered the symptoms is beyond reach and may not be known or understood. There is llttle left for the healer than to attack the whole system looking to undo the processes that are destroying the body.

Global warming and climate change are not the same and any argument based on the analogy to cancer is built on a shaky foundation. We do know what causes climate change even if that knowledge is incomplete and imprecise. The emission of greenhouse gases is the primary cause as determined by the physics of the phenomenon. This is true, even if we cannot say for certain where these gases are coming from. I am in the school that believes that the emissions from human economic activities is the primary cause of the changes we are observing. I am certain Keith would agree, having listened to him on several occasions.

So, in the case of global warming, unlike that of cancer, we have two distinct, possible routes to treat the illness. One is to strike at the cause and the other is to attack some ongoing contributor to the disease. The first is the drastic reduction in the emissions which create the changes in the earth atmosphere which then trap radiation form the sun and cause the surface to heat up. This path includes replacing carbon producing devices like auto and power plants with much higher efficiency versions or substitutes that work on non-carbon containing fuels. Carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes follow this route as does research into higher efficiency. Worried about the cost and political consequences of this approach, world leaders have shied away form endorsing or actually implementing this route.

Keith is pointing to the other path, interfering in the system, as does chemotherapy, to counteract the affects of greenhouse gases. The treatment he speaks about is a form of reducing the flow of solar energy short of impinging on the Earth’s surface. From the article:

Experts say solar radiation management (SRM), the form of geoengineering that has drawn the most attention lately, can be achieved by adding light-scattering aerosols to the upper atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds below. What makes scientists think it will work? When the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines erupted in 1991, spewing fine particles of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, enough sunlight was reflected back into space that the earth was cooled by about 0.5 degrees C, at least for a time. The trouble is, solar radiation management surely will have other consequences as well. Some are known — less precipitation and less evaporation, which is bound to affect agriculture — and others are not. “The concerns, really, are the unknown unknowns,” says Keith.

And that is the argument taken by most who oppose these “solutions.” A small error in the models that are used to design any geo-engineering technology on a global scale could have monumental, large-scale unintended consequences that create massive new problems. Global warming is, in essence, such an unintended consequences, springing from the unabated use of fossil fuel based energy production. It’s not a side effect as some would say, but an effect equally as much a result of the way the system works as the intended outcomes. It’s just one we don’t want.

Keith says, as I quoted, that given the costs and time it will take to develop alternate forms of energy production, it is unlikely that those who determine where our resources go will put the requisite effort and resources to this task. If he and others, some from surprising quarters, are right and geo-engineering gets its day in Mother Nature’s court, I expect to see another unintended consequence crop up. With the technical challenge engaging the best minds and the huge business potential engaging entrepreneurs and managers, work toward alternate energy production is almost certainly going to wane. Such forgetting is a common outcome of an excessive reliance on technical fixes like geo-engineering.

Sticking with the chemotherapy analogy, the main concern is remission at some unknown time after the problem appears to have been solved. The argument that chemotherapy, while not curing the patient, can buy time in which a cure can be found is valid largely because massive resources continue to be applied to finding the causes and in developing technologies that eliminate them. There is little evidence that we are moving in a parallel path with climate change. The seduction of a geo-engineering quick fix is beginning to woo our leaders from the more fundamental and, hopefully permanent cure.

From Washing Jeans to Caring for the Planet

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In my last post, I wrote about a survey comparing public perception of a firm's greenness and their rated performance toward climate change. Of the nearly 100 companies in the survey in all sectors the public perception leader was Levi Strauss with a score of 86 out of 100, compared to their "actual" rating of 58. To put this into perspective, Liz Claiborne got a 42 in the perception and only a 7 in actual performance. As happens so often, I came across another article about Levi Strauss at about the same time. Green Design had posted excerpts from a speech by John Anderson, Levi Strauss CEO, given at the Haas School of Business. His comments are consistent with the score they got in the survey. The key part of the excerpt was that, after performing a life cycle analysis, the company discovered that the largest impact over the life cycle of a pair of Levis comes from keeping the pants clean. He said:
But the real lesson of the lifecycle study is that some of the biggest sustainability impacts have nothing to do with processing denim, sewing jeans or shipping clothes.
They should not have been terribly surprised as this is the case for many products in daily use. The largest environmental impacts from transportation vehicles come in running or driving them. Levis response is a new care tag sewn into garment with cleaning instructions. Anderson reported that
We recently [January 2010] launched an exciting new partnership with Goodwill -- A Care Tag for Our Planet -- to spread the word with consumers that caring for their clothes can help care for the planet. . . . I don't see why a business, looking far beyond its own boundaries, can't aspire to change the way people around the world think. We want to be part of that transformation. It is one of the most energizing activities we can do.
The tag, shown in the photo, instructs the owner to wash the garment in cold water and to take it to Goodwill when it is time for a new pair. Judging from the tattered condition of old jeans I so frequently see on the street, I'm not so sure that even Goodwill will be able to recycle them. I certainly wish the company success in its new endeavor. The acts that they encourage their customers to undertake will help in reducing unsustainability. But I do wonder about Anderson's hope that they can change the way "people around the world think." He knows that something different is happening,
To me, sustainability has become the touchstone of the entire discussion about the relationship between business and the society it serves.
Anderson, like virtually all business executives, has yet to learn that reducing unsustainability is not equivalent to creating sustainability. Levis has taken a key first step toward changing values by making caring for the planet explicit on the label. Success will depend on how many people read the label. Given the long-standing washing practices of simply adding jeans to the rest of the colored clothes, or after many washings, to the whites, I wonder how many people will actually read the care tag. Perhaps Levis and Goodwill will advertise the program widely. To be really effective people have to be explicitly directed to the new tag. If a campaign is done right, it will have the potential to, as Anderson intends, change thinking about the meaning of caring beyond some mechanical act like clothes washing, but sustainability will take more than a care tag.

Perception Is Reality Except for Green Business

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I read a very interesting report recently about differences between the way the public perceives the "greenness" of companies and the reality of their green activities according to some "objective" scale. The report is the second published by Maddock Douglas, a Chicago-based business consulting firm. Here is the preamble to the report.

A sustainable image can be a brand’s best source of competitive advantage. Although there are benefits to adopting sustainability measures for other reasons (efficiency or compliance, for example), building sustainable consumer-facing brands can provide real differentiation in increasingly commoditized consumer product / service markets. Change’s first MapChange study in 2008 showed a significant difference between brand perception and product reality. Consumers thought certain brands were sustainable when they actually weren’t, while other brands weren’t considered sustainable, when they really were. This year we wanted not only to profile the difference between actual and perceived brand sustainability, but how the brands in question measure up against their direct competition.

The key finding from the survey was: "Across every sector, MapChange shows a disparity exists between the actual sustainable activity of brands, and consumers’ perception of sustainable activity of those brands." Some of the 10 industrial sectors scored higher as a group on the reality side of the ledger, labeled as brand sustainability. Reality was measured by the company's score in the Climate Counts newly released 2010 corporate climate scores. This index is limited to climate change and leaves out much of what is considered green today.

I looked at all the scores and couldn't make much sense of them. Neither, apparently, could the person in charge of the study. The New York Times published a story about the report that included excepts from an interview with Marc Stoiber, vice president of green innovation at Maddock Douglas. He couldn't explain why Wendy's had a moderately high perception rating (64), the highest in the food group, ahead of MacDonald's and Starbucks, but one of the lowest actual rating (2) of all companies in the survey. Only SkyWest Air (0) and Regions Bank (1) scored lower.

I think this whole exercise is off base. It is conceptually flawed as it uses a very narrow index of sustainable performance, based only on climate change. Not surprisingly, transportation companies have lower scores, in general, than do household products. On the other side of the ledger, the brand perception is based on a broad assessment of a firm's total commitment to sustainability, whatever that means. And that is the second big problem. Branding is a very imperfect and distorting process for depicting sustainability or greening. Each company will point to that set of factors that allows it to make the broadest claims. My reading of the whole survey is that the public is very confused about sustainability and that the way to help them is not through branding. From a sustainability perspective, it matters not at all whether Southwest Airlines is perceived to be at the top of its peer group. What matter is that consumers understand that airline travel is very bad for climate change relative to other modes of travel. Branding may give Southwest an advantage, but ignores the needs of the world out there. The survey is little more than a great selling pitch for advertising and public relations firms.

Green Valentine's Day?

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This post is partly a reminder to me to remember that tomorrow is Valentine's Day and that calls for some loving act. Valentine's day, like Christmas and Hanukkah, has become little more than a secular commercial excuse to spend money on a lot of stuff. The origins of the celebration are obscure, but most of the explanations go something like this:

Valentinus was a priest in Rome during the 3rd century and at that time rules by emperor Claudius II. It is said that Valentinus was executed because he disobeyed an order of the emperor. In fact Emperor Claudius wanted to abolish marriage and convince males to not have any intimate or emotional attachment with females.

The Emperor thought that men without wives and family are better soldiers. As such he made marriage an illegal thing. Valentinus was opposed to this and conducted secret marriage ceremonies for lovers. When the Emperor was alerted of that practice, he ordered that Valentinus to be killed.

Since then, Saint Valentinus became the symbol of love and the angel that unite lovers.

I did a Google search on the phrase "green valentine" and "gift" and came up with about 40,000 entries. Something like a billion cards are exchanged and over 100,000,000 roses are sacrificed. Tons of organic chocolate are consumed. Untold gallons of natural gunks and goos are being applied. And much more.

What's green about all this? And where is the love that Valentine is supposed to signify? There's a lot of stuff involved. Most of it has a significant impact on the Earth. The roses sold in the United States are largely grown elsewhere and flown in after passing through the flower exchange in Aalsmeer in the Netherlands. Imagine all the fuel that is consumed in flying the flowers, first from Africa and Israel to Aalsmeer, and, then, to the US and elsewhere. As an aside, I lived in the Netherlands for a year and included Aalsmeer on the itinerary for all the visitors we received. It is a mind-boggling place in terms of the number and kinds of flowers and plants that get auctioned off in a few hours every week day. It also is a great symbol for both the efficiency of free, global markets and the huge environmental costs involved in the trafficking of flowers.

Back to St. Valentine. The more serious implication for sustainability of this now material-based expression of "love" is as a sign of our increasing loss of Being and more evidence of the domination of the having mode of life. Love is fundamentally about caring and is about acting in that context and not about material displays of affection. There is nothing wrong with exchanges of gifts and other symbols of caring, except when they become identified with love itself. If you really want to be green, hug all those who you do love and do something other than merely offer some token of your appreciation. Many of the green Valentine gifts I found on the Web are much more than tokens, for example green/conflict-free jewelry costing from $200 to $15,000.

The same Boston Globe article with the information about Aalsmere reported that "48 percent of arrangements will be sent to spouses and 27 percent will be sent to mothers." Not surprising, but the next piece of data was.

And 8 percent of buyers - nearly all of them women - will be sending flowers to someone extremely close: themselves.

It's dangerous to read more into this item than it merits, but it says to me that there are many people out there living without meaningful relationships, who are trying to substitute the material symbols that have come to signify love for love itself. Not a good omen for sustainability as flourishing, or for a real appreciation of the impact of consumption, even green consumption, on the Planet.

Flourishing and Justice

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Conversations about sustainability often divide into two streams. One revolves mostly about maintaining the conditions on the Planet to support continued human development. To the extent other creatures are considered, it is usually related to some value directly or indirectly tied to their [economic] utility. Whatever normative content is present is folded into the economic framework reflected in individual (wealth) and collective (GDP) measures of well-being. Flourishing is reduced to a quantitative index. There is little in this conversation about the inherent values of life and the inanimate parts of the Earth. Normative policies are based primarily on mathematical representations of the material economy which also are devoid of the stock of these values in essence as taking them as equalling zero.

This formula for shaping collective action in modern industrial economies has worked well for centuries, with periodic hiccups and upsets, such as the Great Depression and the recent economic woes. And every time a significant upset occurs, big enough to catch the attention of those in charge of the polity, they explore the innards of the economic machine and its operating manual looking for the problem and for clues to making the right adjustment to get the machine purring again.

The other conversation about sustainability follows a very different thread. It’s not about making the machine more [eco-]efficient. It’s not about efficiency at all. Efficiency has no value in itself. It is always only about getting more of something, ceteris paribus. But what if that “more” turns out to have little value or worse may even have negative value. It makes no sense to try, then, to maintain the system or in the common use of the term to make it sustainable.

The second conversation starts with asking what should the system produce. That question can focus on outputs from the very small, like the necessaries of life, to the very grandest notions of the good life. I have used the term, flourishing, as the quality most capturing the normative character of what societies should aim to produce for the people, other life, and the inanimate world within its purview. In my book I picture flourishing mainly in psychological terms drawing on people like Erich Fromm or Abraham Maslow, or on the ontological philosophy of Martin Heidegger..

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Recently I read a review of my book that pointed to the omission any reference to the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and his focus on human flourishing as the proper normative goal of societies and their governments. He argues that governments should have as their primary aims to assure that all people have the capabilities to function and to flourish. Sen specifically avoids naming the functions and qualities of flourishing because he believes they must be determined by the people and not by some theory or elite. In this sense, I also have avoided trying to define flourishing by naming specific characteristics.

Sen has been joined in his work often by Martha Nussbaum, who also believes the normative goals of a society should be to assure that all the constituents have the capabilities to flourish. Their concepts form a theory of justice, one that is based on access to the the capabilities needed to transform the material and institutional resources into a fully functioning life. She goes beyond Sen and includes all sentient life forms in her arguments. I am struck about how close their theory of justice and the idea of capabilities tracks the way I have been talking about sustainability, although we have gotten to about the same place but by very different paths. Capabilities and possibility are similar in that both speak to being able to realize some vision of the future. Capabilities has a more instrumental connotation where possibility is a more general idea.

Nussbaum also departs from her colleague in making the constituents of flourishing explicit.

  • life, or being able to live a life of normal length;
  • bodily health, including food and shelter;
  • bodily integrity, which means both being able to move freely and being free from
  • assault and abuse;
  • senses, imagination and thought, which includes freedom to express emotion, the
  • right to an adequate education, and ability to seek pleasure and avoid pain;
  • emotions, or having attachments to things, “to love, to grieve, to experience
  • longing, gratitude, and justified anger;
  • practical reason, or the liberal goal of developing one’s own definition of the good
  • life;
  • affiliation, or living with others in meaningful social interaction, and “[h]aving
  • the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation;
  • other species, meaning living with, and with a concern for, the natural world;
  • play; and
  • control over one’s environment, in both political and material terms.

I haven’t had much time yet to explore these normative theories in any depth, but I already can see the vestiges of an answer to a question I am often asked, How can you measure sustainability/” I really don’t think one can ever measure sustainability and that this very question pulls one off the right track towards finding it or creating it. Human Being is very complex and has stymied attempts by philosophers, psychologists, economists, legal theorists and many others who have tried to reduce Being to a bundle of somethings or others. I will be reading much more of Sen and Nussbaum, now having discovered a new source for understanding flourishing and thereby continuing to refine the concepts of sustainability and ways to get there.

Seeing Nature's Design in Snow

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I came down to Washington DC yesterday to visit family and go to a Bat Mitzvah, and figured I would leave my blog alone for a few days. An epic storm changed my plans. Here we are Saturday noon and it is still coming down. I haven’t seen anything like this since the Blizzard of 78 up in Boston. It looks we are stuck in the house until, hopefully, Monday when I am due to return. The photo shows a big broken branch resting on my daughter’s car. Yesterday the grocery stores looked like an army of looters had swept through with many shelves completely devoid of anything. Nothing much to do with sustainability except to provide a couple of days with little to do but read, reflect, and admire the power of nature.

I have now seen a lot of news from Davos and the World Economic Forum. Sustainability shows up in two of ten top themes as reported by Business Week. The number one theme was a sense that the world is not in good shape. Of course, the major concern at this meeting was focused on the financial health, but issues like water scarcity and climate change found a place alongside the financial meltdown and recession. There was broad consensus that the global and national institutions need to be re-invented to cope with the complexities of a globalized community.

Sustainability was recognized as an idea whose time has come.

As one executive put it: “It’s no longer about the green economy; it’s about the economy.” Sustainability is the central issue many businesses face.” … CEOs everywhere at Davos said we’ve now arrived at the point where sustainability must be integrated into the business strategy: What is a business and how it does it operate and relate to the rest of the world? We’ll see if they walk the talk.

In a separate report coming from Davos, the author may agree with the point that sustainability cannot be ignored by business leaders, but says that there is still a lot of differences abut what sustainability means.

The disagreements aggravate the uncertainties and inconsistencies around sustainable design. If designers and the people they work with can’t agree on common standards, the quality of “sustainable” design will continue to be questionable. How can the rest of us be expected to measure the sustainable impact of the things we buy? And how can we be confident about the way in which they were designed, manufactured, shipped, and will eventually be disposed of?

The subject was designing for sustainability, a subject I certainly am always interested in. The article reported on a roundtable discussion by three of the world’s leading “sustainability” designers, who were asked to present two successful and one unsuccessful designs.

For me differences in meaning and design results were overshadowed by the inclusion of a couple of behavior-changing examples. The Japanese governments, CoolBiz initiative, broke longstanding dress codes, and got employees to come to work in very light garments so that air conditioning loads could be reduced. Reducing the stigma of breaking norms—so strong in Japan—was a key to the overall design of this program.

While important product design innovations were employed, the key element was the design of the rules of a new game. No amount of clever industrial design, such that Bill McDonough or Tim Brown of IDEO, two of the panelists, are expert at producing, will create sustainability without including innovations in the institutional context that will cause people to change their consumption habits. It will certainly help the Earth if we learn to consume better, but what it really will take is to learn how to consume less and differently. Economic growth will surely cancel green design eco-efficiency gains sometime in the future.

Away for a Few Days

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Good Hair Day for Geezers

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Most of the days I am hard pressed to feel good when I start to plan my blogging entry. (Disclosure: I have very little hair left.) David Brooks, writing his column in the NYTimes, is very reassuring to folks at my stage of life. Contrasting recent findings to the threatening ideas of Freud, Walt Whitman, or Shakespeare, Brooks paints a much rosier picture of the seventh stage of man than Jacques paints in his famous monologue: “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Developmental psychologists, when they treated old age at all, often regarded it as a period of withdrawal. The elderly slowly separate themselves from the world. They cannot be expected to achieve new transformations. “About the age of fifty,” Freud wrote, “the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.” Well, that was wrong. Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life.
Brooks, not surprisingly with his interest in sociology, points to another kind of factor.
One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls “generativity” — providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don’t.

The gist of the article is that, although these and other findings should bring comfort to the aging, the reverse is true for the younger generations. Social programs now in place take resources from the young and funnel it to the aging.

The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.

Brooks is skeptical about rebalancing the flow of public funds at the hands of the political system, and suggests that we old guys should lead the charge out of care for our families and the future. Brooks suggests not so subtly that this unbalance is not sustainable. Explicit manifestations of caring are a key feature of sustainability. So, maybe he does has something of interest to this blog’s basic theme here.

Spontaneous social movements can make the unthinkable thinkable, and they can do it quickly. It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power… It may seem unrealistic — to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize. The elderly. They are our future.

Hmm… I wonder how many of us even know that Twitter exists or have a page on Facebook?

A Serious Effect of So Much Screen Time

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More consequences of the extensive time spent in front of screens by children keeps showing up in the media. The Boston Globe today ran a column decrying the state of children’s health. The author, Terry Schraeder, a physician, points to data showing increasing signs of disease and poor health in children. Specifically, he picks out very high lipid levels—symptoms that traditionally belong to older people. This condition bodes poorly for these children because, he noters, “We know that untreated cholesterol disorders in children are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood.”

The most striking and disturbing piece in the column was the tale of his experience tending the kids at a summer camp.

Of the 850 children in attendance, more than one-third would line up daily to receive medication they had brought from home - and this was a camp for healthy kids. Medications for anxiety, asthma, gastric problems, blood pressure, blood sugar, skin disorders, and weight issues were handed out three times a day.

He wondered whether the cause was excessive pushing by the the pharmaceutical industry, normal health profiles at these ages, or some societal factor causing poor health. These same over-medicated children exhibited poor stamina, overweight, and inability to perform physical activities. “They often looked happier sitting on the sidelines listening to iPods or eating than taking part in any exercise.”

Based on the Kaiser Family Foundation report I refer to in a couple of recent posts, Schraeder suggests that the long hours spent in front of screens of one kind or another are involved. It’s hard not to come to that conclusion even for a medical layman. My previous comments have been directed to the impact of all this media-based technology on children. He, noting also that the health of children presages the health of the whole society, wonders about the future of us grown-ups. Isn’t this situation about the same as that for the environment where indicators of its poor health have been with us for a long time? Now we have more evidence that the human dimension of sustainability is in jeopardy. Popping more and more pills is not going to bring us flourishing any more than putting corks in smokestacks will do the job for the Earth.