March 2010 Archives

No-Growth is a Reality; Not a Fantasy

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Newsweek has only part of the story in a short article telling about the rise of no (economic) growth studies out of Europe in recent months. While the growing interest in no-growth is clearly evident, the reasons Newsweek gives for its rise are not the primary impetus. Newsweek says:

Take the worst economic crisis in 60 years. Combine it with the erosion of the West’s predominance. Add apocalyptic warnings of climate change. What you’ll get are some radical new ideas… One of those now swirling through the European zeitgeist turns out to be a very old one, albeit in new garb. It’s the revival of the assertion that economic development is and should be finite—limited today by scarce resources, overpopulation, and rising sea levels.
The subtitle for the article is “Europe’s Attack on Capitalism. Wrong. Plain wrong. Arguing for no-growth is not such an attack. It is rather a call to re-examine the underpinning of the neo-classical models on which capitalist economic policy is based. The author, Stephen Theil, would do well to read the documents he points to more carefully. Sarkozy’s commission argues that using GDP as the proxy for human well-being is deeply flawed. Growth once reaching a level providing basic necessities is poorly correlated with other indicators of quality of life. The British report, Prosperity Without Growth, and the book of the same title by Tim Jackson it spawned go to great lengths to find ways to preserve capitalism in the face of growing levels of unsustainability beyond just climate change.

Arguing that the authors and proponents of this new strategy are making the same mistake as Malthus, Thiel makes the same mistake traditional economists are making today. Malthus was indeed wrong about several things, He got the timing wrong and he failed to consider the extraordinary power of technology to increase the availability of all sorts of resources. But his basic idea is still sound. We live on a finite planet from which all our most basic of sources come—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume, and all of the natural resources we use to underpin our economy. As we grow in number and affluence, these resources shrink in proportion. Technology can continue to do its wonders, but with unintended consequences that now are primary causative agents in the planetary mess. The massive application of new technologies such a genomics or geo-engineering carries with it the unknowable risk of further frittering away or even overwhelming the benefits. Massive flooding and the displacement of multitudes would be overwhelming to them. Theil suggests that is Europe’s longstanding suspicion of the market that is the culprit is promoting such a terrible idea.
It’s also no surprise that the movement is now centered in Europe and led by a French president. In no other country on earth is public disapproval of the market economy, as measured by opinion polls, deeper. French children, in a widely used and by no means exceptional schoolbook, learn that “economic growth imposes a hectic form of life that produces overwork, stress, nervous depression, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.” To the 2.6 billion people worldwide trying to stay alive on less than $2 a day, the idea that economic growth causes stress may sound crazy. But in Europe, even conservatives have widely bought into the Marxist idea of “economism”—the notion that capitalism has reduced our lives to a series of market transactions.

To conflate some data about the effects of unconstrained, intentional growth with the plight of the poor of the Earth is a cheap shot. And none of the reports he quotes would neglect their needs. They are talking about the already rich nations. Part of the motivation for these studies comes from a concern that continued growth by the rich will further impoverish the already poor because of the real, not economic, scarcity of all the resources I mentioned.

Finally, he thinks the proponents of these policies ignore or greatly underestimate the destabilization that implementation would entail. There is no escape from conflict in the future unless action towards reducing growth in the affluent nations starts now. The conflicts that come as a result will be much less and easier to manage than those that are bound to come when the finitude of the Earth and the gross inequity of today’s global economic system leave us no choice but to act under the worst of circumstances.

The argument against taking this new reality seriously is the same old, same old. Growth is good because more is better. Maybe for those already near the top. But our growth hasn’t helped most of the world’s really poor people nor even many of our own population. He uses Benjamin Friedman’s 2005 book as his authority for arguing that growth is the right path. I haven’t read the book (592 pages) but found a very good review by Joseph Stiglitz (the chair of Sarkozy’s commission and a Nobelist) that suggests that the book leaves out important parts of the story.

In this major work, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman takes on such critics, positing that growth has not only obvious economic benefits, but moral benefits as well. He argues that it has the potential to improve the environment, reduce poverty, promote democracy, and make for a more open and tolerant society. But this is not to say that Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is simply a naive cheerleader for the market economy. His message is nuanced (though not, in some respects, as nuanced as I would have liked), and he realizes that growth has not always brought the promised benefits. The market economy does not automatically guarantee growth, social justice, or even economic efficiency; achieving those ends requires that government play an important role.

For another slant on the problems of relying on conventional [capitalist] economics, more accurately the economics that underpin most if not all capitalist societies, see my previous post.

Hubris and Humility

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David Brooks is beginning to get it. His last column [I fixed this link] is a critique of economics, but I see it as having much deeper implications—the issue of the very way we interpret and act in the world. His argument is that when we fail to understand the whole story about what it is to be human we make serious mistakes in any ‘science’ that rests on that understanding. He writes that we will have to rewrite the story we tell about economics.

Act I in this history would be set in the era of economic scientism: the period when economists based their work on a crude vision of human nature (the perfectly rational, utility-maximizing autonomous individual) and then built elaborate models based on that creature.

The end of the new story will come when “In Act IV, in other words, economists are taking baby steps into the world of emotion, social relationships, imagination, love and virtue. In Act V, I predict, they will blow up their whole field.”

His explanation for the shortcomings of economics is:

Economics achieved coherence as a science by amputating most of human nature. Now economists are starting with those parts of emotional life that they can count and model (the activities that make them economists). But once they’re in this terrain, they’ll surely find that the processes that make up the inner life are not amenable to the methodologies of social science. The moral and social yearnings of fully realized human beings are not reducible to universal laws and cannot be studied like physics.

He attributes this change to perhaps reflecting the “humility” of earlier times when economists didn’t get Nobel prizes. The recognition of our human limits was well-known to the great Greek thinkers who invented the term, hubris, to describe our over-reaching when we believed we knew more about the world than we really did.

A few days ago he wrote another column that began with “The United States is becoming a broken society.” I wrote about it in this blog. I don’t know if he sees the strong link between these two, but he should. The society is broken for the same reasons that economics doesn’t work well and that get us into deep doodoo when we rely on its models to design the institutions we live within.

Yes, our understanding of what it is to be human is deeply flawed, but it is not because we fail to understand human nature. The very idea that humans have a nature that can be abstracted and made into models creates the problem. Abstraction is by its definition a reduction of experience; it always leaves something out. And when that something is essential to an understanding of the world, our actions based on it will almost always produce unintended consequences. Brooks sees the flaw as giving us a broken society. I see it as giving us a broken world beyond any national borders.

So many people around the globe have noticed this situation that is has gotten its own name, unsustainability or global warming or fisheries collapse, genocide, abject poverty, injustice and on and on. All are at least in part the result of our hubristic belief that we can reduce the world to a set of laws that we manipulate to manage the globe to do our bidding. When our machinations fail, we look for new fixes, ad infinitum.

But like the drunk searching for the lost car keys under the street light, we are laboring in the wrong factory. The story about how the world works is wrong at the core. Human beings may not have the mind and nature we attribute to them via the same process we construct models in economics. Sustainability, the appearance of the threats we are observing now, can arise only if and when we change these stories to a new tale that works. Call it a paradigm change, a cultural revolutions or whatever, it is easier to fathom as a new story.

The plot of that story has to shift to an understanding of what it is to be human more like Heidegger claims, that is, being that cares about the world and copes through embodied competence acquired by the living process itself. Detached observation and reflective induction to produce abstractions is a part of that way of being, but only a special and not central part. Brooks comes close in arguing that economists need to include such human traits as love, emotions, or relationships.

Human being is only a part of the larger world of life and of nature. We may not be successful in shaping that world to our visions and aspirations, but we are not as likely to get blindsided by the unintended consequences if we accept that our abstracted models are always less than perfect and complete. The technical word for this is complexity, a belief that we can never fully write down the laws that describe occasional unpredictable behavior of living systems such as the planet and many of its subsystems.

Again pointing to synchronicity as evidence of happenings that cannot be predicted, I have been leading a course at my institute for learning in retirement (I mention this from time to time.) on exactly this general subject—the failure of abstract, objective knowledge to capture enough of reality to provide us with the rules to live by morally or mechanically. Brooks has said in a direct and accessible way what one of the texts we use—A. N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World—explores in a largely off-putting and difficult manner. His efforts are, nonetheless, memorable; it is still being read almost a hundred years after he wrote it.

Nit Picking

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I have been trying hard not to complain every day about the terribly sloppy use of the term "sustainability," but I could not pass this one by. GreenerDesign carries a story today headlined, "New Tool Assesses Chemical Sustainability." It's hard to find a poorer use of the word. Just what can chemical sustainability be?

The tool generates a sustainability-based score, based on metrics taken from the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, including health and environmental impact of raw materials and products, energy use, waste generation, safety of processes and more.

At best, a tool like this can only point to the relative merits of one chemical versus another in some application. There is nothing wrong or bad about this. The use of this tool should lead to decisions that are better for the environment than choices made blindly. But better does not have anything to do with sustainability. Sustainability rests on much more than incremental decisions. All that can be said of this system is that is produces decisions that produce less unsustainability than others. If the companies that have supported the development of this tool really care about sustainability, they should stop using the word in such a misleading manner.

Sustainability as Flourishing


In the last few days, I have had a peak intellectual experience. On successive evenings I heard Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe argue over God and morality, followed by Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein discuss “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Morality, and the Arts.” This afternoon, I listened again to the first of 24 podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus from his popular course at Cal/Berkeley on Heidegger, and finished off by watching a video of a recent TED presentation by atheist Sam Harris called, "The Price in Human Suffering of Being Open-Minded." I am teaching a course at my Institute for Learning in Retirement on the illusion of technique or why the way we come to know things may not be telling us the whole story about living. All of these fit in somehow and I am in the process of thinking about how they do.

One theme has come up in all of them and that is something related to the question of what it is to be a human being instead of an amoeba or a rock or a hammer. Harris thinks that there is some set of conditions that characterize human flourishing (his words) and that we can determine those conditions through the methodology of science, especially in fields studying the brain. Pinker and Goldstein spoke about human flourishing in the course of their talk. Wolpe and Hitchens also spoke about goodness in the same sense.

Even more synchronicity as I am finishing a syllabus on a course on the new economics of sustainability I will give to my students at the Marlboro College MBA for Managing Sustainability program. I have made the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum a key part of the syllabus. Both see the central normative goal of political economies to provide the necessary capabilities for human flourishing or, as they state otherwise, provide the means to enable humans to lead fully functioning lives.

Heidegger never uses flourishing, per se, but points to authenticity as living life according only to one's own choices, unconstrained by the banality of conforming to what the social "they" says is proper. Another way of viewing the authentic mode of being is that it offers the greatest set of possibilities available for acting in the immediate world. Sounds like flourishing to my ear.

I also have been reading the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the popularizer of the concept of flow and a major contributor to the growing field of positive psychology. He claims that there are moments in life when everything comes together:

Contrary to what happens all too often in everyday life, in moments such as these what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony. . . .These exceptional experiences are what I have called flow experiences. . . It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.

My point here is that the idea of flourishing should be the quality we desire to see produced consistently by our social/technological/natural world. It may not be absolutely universal, but can be found as a maximal goal in economics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and even cognitive science. I disagree with Sam Harris that we can prove the correctness and uniqueness (truth) of such a over-riding principle by scientific techniques. I believe moral truths are fundamentally pragmatic in nature. Their truth emerges from practice. Some are so ancient and embedded in language that they appear to be free-standing results from reason or faith.

The best example of a concrete description of what constitutes flourishing I have found to date is the set of ten central human capabilities constructed by Martha Nussbaum. I will finish today by simply reproducing her list and continue to speak about the benefits of couching sustainability as flourishing in further posts. This list is found in Martha Nussbaum (pictured above), "The Good as Discipline, the Good as Freedom," Chapter 17 in Ethics of Consumption, D. Crocker and T. Linden eds, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. This list provides a possible template for designing sustainability into our world. It's not the only only one, but it looks pretty comprehensive.

Central Human Functional Capabilities (Nussbaum)

  • Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length …
  • Bodily Health and Integrity. Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter,…
  • Pleasure and Pain. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain, so far as possible, and to have pleasurable experiences.
  • Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a "truly human" way…
  • Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us…
  • Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life…
  • Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction…
  • Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  • Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  • Separateness. Being able to live one's own life and nobody else's…in one's own surroundings and context.…

Creating Sustainability through Sharing Space


Today's Boston Globe carried a front page story about cohousing, a word I suspect very few people know or understand. Cohousing developments are somewhere between a kibbutz and a condominium. The units are owned by the inhabitants with expanded common facilities owned in common. These development are also called intentional communities because the residents make a conscious choice to join a community-oriented living place. The attraction to many is the extended family they become part of. Neighbors step in when someone becomes ill and cannot do simple tasks like walking pets. They may provide baby sitting. The group can buy groceries in bulk to save money.

Started in Denmark in the early 1970's, the idea is spreading through Northern Europe and now in the US. The UK cohousing network describes a typical community:

  • They are set up and run by their members for mutual benefit.
  • Members are consciously committed to living as a community.
  • Developments are designed to encourage social contact and a sense of neighborhood among members.
  • Common space facilitates shared activities like community meals and other amenities like laundries, heating systems, guest rooms, transport, etc may be shared.

Cohousing is built around values essential to sustainability as flourishing. The Globe quotes Joani Blank: “For me, the biggest draw is what I call social sustainability.’’ Blank, 72, grew up in Belmont, MA and lives in a cohousing development in Oakland, CA. Those who choose co-housing are not the drop-out utopians of the 60's and 70's who saw communes as an escape from the system. They are attracted by something positive beyond simply finding a roof over their heads. The website for the US Cohousing Association says:

Cohousing residents generally aspire to “improve the world, one neighborhood at a time.” This desire to make a difference often becomes a stated mission, as the websites of many communities demonstrate. For example, at Sunward Cohousing near Ann Arbor, MI, the goal is to create a place “where lives are simplified, the earth is respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety, and living in community with neighbors comes naturally.” At Winslow Cohousing near Seattle, the aim is to have “a minimal impact on the earth and create a place in which all residents are equally valued as part of the community.” At EcoVillage at Ithaca, NY, the site of two adjoining cohousing neighborhoods, the goal is “to explore and model innovative approaches to ecological and social sustainability.”

The importance to sustainability is through the strengthening of cultural values that shape behavior and restore the sense of Being. Communities like these raise the place of caring for others relative to the narcissistic values in the mainstream of US culture. The need for materialistic consumption can be satisfied by relational transactions instead. Speaking practically, this form of providing housing and other social services exemplifies the arguments made by scholars and advocates working under the rubric of sustainable consumption for localization and small-scale alternative forms of economic infrastructure. For more on the new economics of sustainable consumption, follow this link to a book review I did recently.

The Devil's Not in the Details

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The central critique of my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture, is that modern cultures create an unconsciousness in three domains essential to flourishing and thence to sustainability. Without bringing these three back into individual and collective consciousness, the culture will keep on trucking, producing a lot of road kill on the way to empty promises and the accumulation of more and more meaningless stuff.

All three are forms of caring, separated only to make analysis, discussion, and action more direct. Recognizing they overlap, the three are consciousness (care) for oneself, other humans, and everything else in the world. These three completely constitute the world we exist within. My thesis has been that all three must be addressed in any attempt to bring sustainability to the world. To raise consciousness, it is absolutely necessary to stop and reflect on the where we are right now. That is one role for opinion-makers, such as media commentators and scholars, which is one reason I so often turn to one of these as the basis for my blogs.

David Brooks, whose columns often drift to the right politically, has left his politics behind today and focuses on the state of our society in the United States. In one of the most powerful Brooks' columns I have read in quite a while, he starts off starkly, "The United States is becoming a broken society." I would disagree only with the tense. I believe the US is already a broken society. Brooks is reviewing and presenting the work of British commentator Phillip Blond, based on a recent article by Blond. It's worthwhile to read both Brooks' and Blond's articles. While never using the word, care, both rest their cases on the disappearance of care in modern societies.

Arguing that the great libertarian move to establish individual rights without associated obligations, and the more or less simultaneous freeing of the market from constraints have broken down, Blond would have us move to a decentralized, smaller-scale, localized political economy. He would have us: "remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor." In the context of Britain's party system, his ideas place him in the conservative camp. His new book is called, "Red Tory." But he admits that there is a lot of left-leaning content in what he believes is needed. Rebuilding community and association, as he says is central, is merely an institutional way of framing cultural forms built on care.

The Blond article and Brooks treatment show that the old political labels are dysfunctional and mystifying. The broken state of the world is a result of doctrinaire solutions from both sides of the political ledger. The polarized state of legislative politics in the US promises much more of the same. It's time (much too late) to look at the substance of proposals without the out-of-date labels attached, especially in the US where liberal and conservative lost any real meaning long ago. Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, for another example, call themselves conservatives, but share so many concerns with me and others of the opposite calling, that it is an utter waste of time to stop at the labels before moving to the substance.

The world, at least our world, is broken. The system is dysfunctional and producing more and more unsustainable conditions every day. That same system in fact operates on relationships at the level of individuals and small collectives. Blond's "conservative" framing would move us towards a system more resilient, more fair, and closer to the notion of sustainability--flourishing for all. There's really nothing different here from the "liberal" case I make in my book except for some details. The devil is not, however, in the details; he is lurking in the filters that prevent us from facing up to the the sad state of the world and accepting responsibility to make it work.

Hug an Automobile Today


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James Carroll, one of my very favorite columnists (Boston Globe), departs from his general political thread to discuss what has happened to the American love for the automobile. He starts by putting us into the historical context:

THE GREAT American romance is over. The automobile has gone from being the joyous emblem of what made this nation great to being the symbol of its social, political, environmental, and economic, well, car wreck.

And ends up with:

Automobiles are not the same machines we fell in love with. They are computers that move, and, instead of by the savvy mechanics of the old days, trouble shooting is done by “on board-diagnostics.’’ Hard drive has a new meaning, and so does crash. This is all to the good - except when it’s not. What’s with that fickle “check engine’’ light anyway? The car began as one kind of symbol, and has become another - a symbol of the world we are creating with machines that answer more to themselves than to us.

In between, he traces the path that took automobiles from a machine that we could understand and tinker with to a heartless device that runs as if by magic. Even the neighborhood mechanical magician, who used to diagnose every problem by listening and tapping, now needs a computer to discover what is causing that funny noise. Carroll is observing a general trend in technology that has serious adverse effects on the possibility for flourishing, that is, sustainability. Technological artifacts are continuing to morph from things that we interacted with and which collected more than a single instrumental mode of satisfaction for us to what Albert Borgmann calls devices. For him devices have a single instrumental function. One example he talks about in his important, but difficult book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, is a comparison of a furnace and a fireplace.

Both deliver heat. The furnace is significantly more efficient than the fireplace, but does nothing other than provide BTU's. The fireplace serves as a magnet for family activities from carrying fuel from the cellar or woodpile to providing a place to gather and converse. Borgmann calls such technological artifacts, focal devices, because they collect activities just as a lens collects light. Focal activities are important to sustainability because they illuminate Being. Or stated conversely, devices are bad for sustainability because they hide Being from us.

We interact with them without understanding what is inside of the almost always present black box. They are designed to do their job with as little interruption in the flow of action as possible. User friendliness is a key design criterion in most electronic and mechanical products. As we use them over and over, our consciousness of how they fit into our lives, that is what (multiple) domains of care they serve slowly fades away. They reinforce our sense that things are only there for some limited, well-defined use.

The last sentence of Carroll's insightful article echoes the concern of many, including me, that modern technology has changed the way we understand everything in the world as something existing only as a potential instrument. Nature becomes nothing but resources. Human become only tools for something. Our only goal in life is then the pursuit of more and more of these tools. There is and can be no flourishing in this mode of living. It's what happens when, As Carroll puts it, when our artifacts become, "machines that answer more to themselves than to us."

Going Skiing for a Few Days; Back Wednesday

stepping-away.gif My knees hopefully have a couple more years left before I will have to give up my usual criticism of technology and replace the old bones with titanium joints. It looks like Monday will be better for swimming than skiing with heavy rain forecast (the skier's bane), but the next few days should be nice.

Potty Training for Sustainability


The disposal of human wastes is a practice that has, of course, been around as long as we have. As long as humans wandered about in small groups, nature provided disposal facilities everywhere. But as settlements grew, some form of technology was required to keep the wastes out of places that posed dangers to health and welfare. In modern societies, waste treatment is an essential part of the infrastructure of settled areas, and carries with it large environmental demands for water and places to deposit the residuals from treatment.

Low-flow toilets came into service as water consumption started to strain existing systems.

Before the 1950s, toilets typically used 7 gallons or more for each flush. By the end of the 1960s, toilets were designed to flush with only 5.5 gallons, and in the 1980s the new toilets being installed were using only 3.5 gallons. Today, a new toilet uses no more than 1.6 gallons of water in the U.S.
The flushing quantity was set by the maximum load and pretty much hit a lower limit. But this wasn't enough for Australia with the driest climate of any continent.
In the late 1970s Caroma was awarded a Commonwealth Government industry grant to develop an effective dual flush toilet. In 1981 Caroma launched the first effective dual flush toilet. Two flush buttons operated the Caroma model - one for a full flush (11 litres) to remove faeces and the other for a reduced flush (5.5 litres) for urine. Others had previously developed a dual flush mechanism, but it was operated by only one flush button; pressed quickly for a reduced flush or held down for the full flush cycle. If the button was not depressed for long enough, the flush was not effective. Caroma also redesigned toilet bowl so that less water was required to effectively remove the waste.
The Caroma dual flush toilet was such an efficient water-saving device that all Australian states, other than New South Wales, soon introduced legislation to make the installation of dual flush toilets compulsory in all new buildings. In 1993 Caroma launched a new dual flush toilet which used only six litres of water for a full flush and three litres for a reduced flush (known as the 6/3 litre two button dual flush system).

This design has spread around the world and is even beginning to show up in the United States. It has importance to sustainability beyond its improved environmental performance. The design of this dual-flush toilet requires the user to stop, think and make a conscious choice before actuating the flush button. The interruption in what had been a transparent, automatic act opens up an opportunity for learning and changing the values that underly action. In this case, the unconscious belief is that the wastes simply go away, and so I have no responsibility for my actions. In a survey done in Metropolitan Boston years ago during the planning of a major waste treatment project, people were asked where their bathroom wastes went. The predominant answer was "away," with no sense where away was.

Now, someone has come up with an innovation that breaks through the limits of previous designs by separating the liquid from the solids, thus keeping the nutrients--nitrogen and phosphorus--from getting to the treatment plant, and from there into the receiving waters.

There has been a steady rise of low-flow and other alternatives to the standard loo in the last few years, including stylish new dual-flush toilets, a line of toilets that flush with air instead of water, and a number of incentives and awards from governments for water efficient johns.
And a new study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, finds that by and large, toilet users (aka just about everyone) are widely accepting of a new type of toilet -- the NoMix toilet, pictured to the left and at bottom.
This new porcelain throne does precisely what you'd think it does -- it separates liquid from solid waste, saving water by reducing the need to flush while simultaneously lowering the need for water treatment by keeping these kinds of waste separate from other, less polluted wastewater.

But from the point of view of sustainability, this improvement is a step forward, but also a step back from the dual-flush system, as technology has stepped in and done the job without creating any consciousness and subsequent responsibility on the user's part. The critical opportunity to change beliefs and values has gone down the drain along with the wastes. Such opportunities are rare in today's technology dominated world, especially where the devices are expressly made to avoid the need for reflection and responsibility. User-friendly usually turns out to be sustainability-unfriendly. So much for a better potty. How much better is still to be determined in any case. The developers note on their website that kids, in particular, have trouble aiming.

The "Green" House Effect

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The NYTimes carried a story on March 10 about a controversy over plans to build a very large home in Berkeley, CA. The plans which have been approved show a total area of about 10,000 square feet, of which 3,500 are for a garage. The owner, Mitch Kapor, is the founder of Lotus and has used his ample wealth for many philanthropic ends including many concerned with the environment. Perhaps he lost so much of his money in the crash that he plans to operate a public parking lot.

The controversy here rose from the designation by a city board that the house qualified as being “green.” Such designation comes via an evaluation scheme that gives points to green features of a building, for example, the use of low-flow faucets and low-volatility paint. The Kapor plan received a score of 91 points, far above the minimum of 30 needed to qualify for a green designation.

The architect noted Kapor’s environmental largess but offered no details on the process. Neighbors and others are appealing the decision to approve the plans. Another architect, William Harrison who builds big houses for wealthy clients is quoted as defending the practice.

William H. Harrison, an Atlanta architect with a stable of wealthy clients, said penalizing people for building large houses could slow the adoption of green building practices. “The people who can afford the green technologies are going to want large houses,” he said. And those innovations, he said, will trickle down to smaller houses.

Mr. Harrison said that one of his clients is planning to build a 25,000-square-foot house in Los Angeles. But he opted out of the LEED system, Mr. Harrison said, when he learned that it was virtually impossible to get the highest LEED rating, known as platinum.

“He’s a billionaire, and he drives a Prius, for God’s sake,” said Mr. Harrison of his client. “He wants to do the right thing, environmentally. And now he’s being told, ‘You’re not good enough, because your house is too big.’ ”That, Mr. Harrison said, “is about socialism, not sustainability.”

Harrison misses the point entirely. It’s not at all about goodness or intention. It is simply a matter that such large houses create enough negative impacts to overcome the benefits by implementing green features whether according to the LEED or any other scoring system such as is used in Berkeley. What this has to do with socialism is beyond me.

In a 2005 article on the environmental impact of house size in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (Disclosure: I am one of the editors of this journal), the authors, Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland say:

As house size increases, resource use in buildings goes up, more land is occupied, increased impermeable surface results in more storm-water runoff, construction costs rise, and energy consumption increases. In new, single-family houses constructed in the United States, living area per family member has increased by a factor of 3 since the 1950s. In comparing the energy performance of compact (small) and large single-family houses, we find that a small house built to only moderate energy-performance standards uses substantially less energy for heating and cooling than a large house built to very high energy-performance standards.

The article continues with data that show that the impact of house size is not linear; the impact increases disproportionately with size. A house twice the size of the average dwelling (about 2,500 square feet) would typical have about three times the impact based on the materials used in construction. Heating and cooling energy use depend on the details of the design and cannot be compared in a general way.

There’s another very important lesson here besides the substantive issues of the actual environmental impact. Green scores simply do not tell the whole or even enough of the environmental story to be meaningful. There is always an “other things being equal,” qualifier in the background. In this case it would be another 10,000 square foot house using less effective features. The billionaire’s Prius sounds good compared to a Hummer, but can’t come close to a bicycle’s low impact. I say this not as a value judgment on the choice of a large house, hybrid vehicle, or anything for that matter, but as a criticism of the utility of scores as valid indicators of greenness. Quantity or volume almost always trumps lower scores.

Engineering and Sustainability

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My trip to Cincinnati and the conference on Engineering Towards a More Just and Sustainable World was most productive and provocative. Combining mostly academics from the engineering and the philosophy world is bound to be fascinating, and this event was indeed. My presentation was designed to make the concept of sustainability clearer than it is in normal conversation within either of these two communities. The same can be said of any mixture of a profession based on positivism and on some sense of determinism, that is, the world can be described by some sort of model and associated sets of laws or rules, with another discipline accepting of complexity and some form of social construction that sees the world as created through the language used in professional conversations.

One of the participants coming from a strong engineering background with a senior position in an engineering society chided the fuzzy-headed folks in the audience for couching sustainability and justice in language that is too squishy for engineers to deal with. And, further, that if these folks want to be listened to they must find a way to talk about the subject in terms fit for engineers’ ears. My question to him was, “Couldn’t it be possible that the fuzzy heads had something important to say about sustainability and it was the engineers that needed to find new filters that would let their words through?” Of course it is some of both, but the conversation set the differences up as rather a case of right and wrong.

As long as engineers only know about dealing with complicated systems and think in terms of machines, the power of sustainability will be unavailable to them and, as a consequence, be lost to their client, large and small. Sustainability doesn’t come from machines no matter how complicated they may be. Sustainability emerges, if we are lucky, from complex systems whose components are linked together in a mesh of relationships so full of interconnections that the behavior of the system cannot be described or predicted by analytic rules. Such systems are very bad news to engineers whose competence grows out of a fundamental belief that the way to construct anything is to break it into small pieces that can be analytically modeled. That belief harkens back to the sciences on which engineering has come to be built and gets its reductionist flavor from the way science is done.

Having been trained and worked as an engineer, I can say these things from my own experience. It was the increasing frustration with the engineering framing of the problems that I was grappling with that gradually led me to take a critical look at the way I viewed the world and operated within it. It was only after I found alternatives to the “standard” models for human behavior and the way the world worked that I have been able to move outside of the massive constraints of that system of thinking.

I left the meeting very pleased to have been included in the discussion, but not too optimistic that much would result. Sustainability in the engineering world is not well-defined, but is always some kind of thing that can be measured and modeled. Ethical behavior can be reduced to some kind of standard or code, like boiler of fire codes, or to rules of practice that embody the ethical choices in the codes or practice. The engineer has only to mindlessly follow the rules to exercise his or her professional responsibilities.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, this won’t work and it will lead to more and more unsustainability and injustice. The reason is that these critical normative concepts are not the output of some machine. They cannot be reduced to numbers or fixed procedures. The engineer cannot evade the responsibility for the consequences of the work. The best statement of this problem I know is embedded in a great article (Rittel, H.W.J and M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169.) about wicked problems, another name for the challenges arising from dealing with complex systems. The authors make ten admonitions and assertions as to how to deal with such problems. The last one is most relevant to this discussion. Here it is:

10. The planner [engineer] has no right to be wrong

As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery,it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. Thishabit is based on the insight that there are no proofs to hypotheses, only potential refutations. The more a hypothesis withstands numerous attempts at refutation, the better its “corroboration” is considered to be. Consequently, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypotheses that are later refuted-so long as the author abides by the rules of the game, of course.

In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions.


I’m off for a couple of days to participate in a mini conference on “Engineering Towards a More Just and Sustainable World,” sponsored by the National Academy of Engineers in Cincinnati (my old home town). It’s part of a larger meeting—The Nineteenth Annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. I’m excited to see such an august institution take up this daunting issue.

Where's the Care in the Health "Care" Debate?


As long as I have rediscovered the centrality of care to sustainability, I will continue for a few posts. I have been teaching a course at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement focussed on the writing of Alfred North Whitehead and now a brief tour of Martin Heidegger. There is quite a bit in common between the two. Both are trying to explain how meaningful objects show up, rather than our seeing nothing but atoms and empty space. The other commonality is that both are so dense as to make reading a huge chore. Fortunately we are using a commentary on Heidegger that does a great job of explaining his philosophy, mostly in understandable language.

Both thinkers argue that meaningful objects show up out of some form of care. Whitehead uses value rather than care. Heidegger uses care and compound terms like “for-the-sake-of.” But the meaning is much the same. We exist as human beings rather than some nondescript objects because we care about the world around us and create that world through our caring actions in a kind of circular dance. Caring in this sense is not about compassion or loving, but simply about acting in a way that reflects the competence acquired through interacting successfully with the world of nature and human beings. At the bottom of every act we undertake and accept responsibility for is some form of care. When asked why we do anything, the final answer after giving all sorts of intermediate explanations is something like, “I do this for-the-sake-of my role as parent, spouse, manager, tree hugger, and so on.”

Heidegger and others, like Erich Fromm and myself in my book, argue that we have lost the ability to exist as the caring beings we are at the roots. Why is a long story and I will point to only one important reason here. Caring itself, or better the lack of caring, has an obvious connection to the sad state of the world of nature and of humanity. Although all human beings on Earth have a common bond at the level of our DNA, evidence of great disparities abound from the abject poverty of many and the consequent inability to function at a minimal level of humanity to the way we take care of people’s health in the United States.

Care of the body is one of the fundamental domains of being. When that domain is neglected, it affects everything else as one cannot care about much else when the body is not functioning competently. The central arguments in the health care debate revolve around some sort of right to some level of medical treatment and the nature of the institutions from which that treatment comes. I am not going to speak to any particular variation of this, but to the very notion of “right”

The existential notion of care gets converted into a mechanistic metaphor when some sort of “right” is assigned. The nature of our political/economic system has become such that it can only deal with mechanisms, not human beings. The health care system has become fully medicalized. Health is a holistic quality that shows up when Being is present, but is now viewed as the functioning of an assemblage of parts that show up in MRI’s and other devices, and then is addressed through some sort of technological fix. It is very difficult to hear even a distant whisper of care in all the noisy proceedings about health care reform.

I always try to tie my blog posts to sustainability even when the tie may be tenuous. But it should be clear that this current debate is very much aligned with sustainability. Health is just one aspect, albeit a very important one, of flourishing—the central quality we think about when we talk about sustainability, or more accurately when we try to do something about the sad, unsustainable state of the world. As long as we fail to see the critical place for care in the model of human Being, we are locked into thinking in terms of mechanism and empty symbols, like money, for flourishing. Contrary to the talk about health “care,” care is almost totally absent. In this case, the what for question should have the answer, “for-the-sake-of our/my [fundamental] role as a human being.” Even if something does happen soon, we will not have addressed the question of how to recover this sense of Being that creates responsibility for who we are and how we act in the world. And without that, sustainability will continue to be beyond our grasp.

Caring Pops Up in the Harvard Business Review

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I’m following last night’s post about the criticality of basing our most fundamental rules on caring with a recap of a post that showed up almost at the same time. Maybe synchronicity is starting to work, and wouldn’t that be a great omen. I follow the Harvard Business Review blog of Umair Haque quite faithfully. I appreciate his iconoclastic stance on almost anything having to do with the economy and mainstream business strategy. But this one really got me excited.

He’s blaming the current financial crisis on the absence of care from just about everything.

What really caused the crisis was the fact that we didn’t care. Bankers didn’t care about the loans they issued. Boards didn’t care about bankers. Shareholders didn’t care about boards. Markets didn’t care about shareholders. Communities didn’t care about markets. Society didn’t care about communities. No one cared much about society.

The fundamental question, then, is this: why not? My answer’s simple — and probably even simplistic. But it will serve well enough to make a point. We didn’t care because we were chasing stuff. The real crisis is a crisis of nihilism: the belief that apart from stuff, nothing else matters economically. In the name of stuff, we sacrificed what mattered: people, community, comity, trust, education, skill, quality, happiness — and tomorrow itself.

You have got to read it all. All you have to do is substitute the word “unsustainability” for “the crisis” in the blog’s headline “The Real Roots of the Crisis” and you would have the main argument of my book. Then he goes to claim, as I do, that the only solution can come at the level of culture.

That means, of course, that tomorrow’s organizations must do more than just sell stuff. They must not be economically full but culturally empty. They must culturally reboot the communities and societies which they’re part of, helping them thrive and prosper in human terms.

I would like to think he has just read my book.