October 2010 Archives

No Pot of Gold at the End of This Rainbow


pot of gold

First green washing, now pink washing. What color of the rainbow is next? (RED)™ products. Yellow ribbons? "Cause" marketing is big business says Joanna Weiss in today's Boston Globe, writing about products draped in pink packaging to signify that the vendor/manufacturer is supporting the fight against breast cancer. Weiss quotes other cancer cure advocates who claim that the only big winners are the purveyors of pink products.

The application of pink — in the name of raising money and steering women toward the radiologist’s office — does seem to get broader and cheerier each year. Now, we have NFL balls decorated with pink ribbons and world landmarks bathed in pink light, from the White House to the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza. We have consumer products marked with pink ribbons and the sometimes-vague promise that some proceeds fund “breast cancer research."’ We can buy pink-themed yogurt canisters, pink alcoholic lemonade, pink-ribbon Roomba vacuum cleaners, and pink vibrators with the slogan “Sensuality, Sexuality, Survival.’’ There are pink rosary beads, pink mezuzahs, and pink hijabs.

The skeptics have raised their hackles particularly over a campaign at KFC promoting a pink basket of fried chicken which is tied to obesity which is in turn tied to increased risk of breast cancer. Pink washing has much in common with green washing. The consumer gets a false sense of doing something meaningful from the purchase. Often the only truly meaningful act would be to forgo the purchase entirely and donate the whole price to whatever cause is being promoted. And in the case of KFC pink baskets or sustainable or green cars, skip the purchase altogether and go with an alternate that is not as harmful.

Except for a few brands that contribute part of their sales proceeds to green causes, green items in one's market basket add to the bottom line of the maker, but have little impact on nature. Nature is the "person" that needs curing. Neither forms of "cause" marketing passes very much information about the nature of the problem. The transaction may make the actor feel good, but does little to correct the basic market failure that comes when a buyer lacks critical information about the external impacts. Impacts that are not priced and make the transaction appear cheaper than it really is.

The money collected from these marketing campaigns may reach and affect the cause. (RED)™ claims to have directed $150 million to AIDS victims in Africa. But again, forgoing the purchase and sending the savings would have a much larger impact. It's easier and less emotional and lasting to buy something you want and get a side benefit than in putting pen to paper or punching in the 12 digits of a credit card. You will at least revisit your contributions when you balance your check book, but the memory of the pink basket or where the portion of your new $145 Emporio Armani (PRODUCT)RED T-Shirt is going fades pretty fast. Money is important for sure, but it is no substitute for informed action, especially when the products involved may be contributing to the problems.

The Value of Values


education to buy

I have been reading a lot recently about how values affect and guide choice. My focus has been largely on choices in the consumption market place: cars, food, iPods, shoes, houses and so on. I can't, however, stop thinking about how values are playing out in the current political campaigns. In yet another case of synchronicity, I stumbled onto a new study/analysis, Common Cause, prepared for the WWF. I mentioned it a few posts ago.

In that earlier post, I noted only that reliance on rationality had led progressive causes astray. The research discussed in the WWF report makes a strong case for deeply held values as the more important driver for people's actions, whether buying a car or casting a vote. So much for Jefferson's informed citizens. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." (Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789.)

The implications of this finding, while not entirely new or surprising, are vast, affecting the way we educate our children, run our businesses, set government policy, campaign for any cause—-political or otherwise, and more. The facts of the matter count for less than the way one's action express the values shaping one's life goals. It's like the values are the genotype and the characteristic behaviors are the phenotype. I had a sense of this when I wrote my book. I knew that rationality, the search for the right answer, could not explain the way we actually act collectively. If it were the case, we could not ever explain the self-destructive path we are on.

Since the earlier post, I have been reading that report and related work in earnest. I guess I would be OK with this theory if I could find a way to make it work for the causes aligned with my own values. Rationally, I believe them to be the "right" causes, but maybe my rational beliefs are driven by my values, not the other way around. What I find most disturbing is the actual set of values that these researchers find in current cultures. Here is a neat way of presenting them I cribbed from the WWF report.

values wheel.png

The axes need a little explaining. Intrinsic refers to goals internal to the self. Extrinsic goals are meant to elicit rewards or praise from others. Self-transcendence refers to goals related to something "higher" than merely obtaining pleasure. Physical self goals are just the opposite, relating to corporeal pleasure. The significance of this particular way of presenting values (circumplex) found by surveys is that values clusters tend to drive out those diametrically opposite.

The values that are most aligned with sustainability (community, spirituality, affiliation. health, and safety) lie on the right hand side opposite to the set comprise the dominant cultural values in the US: popularity and image (narcissistic), financial success, and conformity. It is ironic that popularity, image, and wealth do not equate to more happiness. It is the spiritual and connectedness of community and family that show up as more important in many studies. The messages in the current campaign are mostly designed to light up the values on the left hand side.

I have only time and space tonight to present the gloomy side. The report and other works offer remedies to the present situation. More later.

10 Big Green Ideas from Newsweek

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This is the headline of the lead article in this year's Newsweek's green issue, replete with their ranking of the "greenest" 100 corporations. It's all pretty underwhelming copy. The #1 big idea is that of Blairo Maggi, who previously signed on to a 2006 moratorium to stop selling soybeans from clear cut rainforest lands. (He is known as the soybean tycoon in his native land, Brazil.) His pick as #1 is based on his recent decision to extend the ban to Amazonian beef. Brazil is now the world's largest exporter of beef.

Maggi, also previously Governor of the state of Mato Grosso, was an arch-villian as late as 2005, receiving the Greenpeace Golden Chainsaw Award as the one most responsible for Amazonian deforestation. He saw the green light at some point, but the reasons are a bit obscure. Newsweek suggests that his change came from a recognition that leaving the forests in place was the right business decision. "The entire world has come to the conclusion that the forests should be worth more standing than cut down."

I can't imagine that Newsweek could not have found a better choice. He may talk about "green beef," but with or without cutting down trees, beef raising is not usually considered to be green. # 3 is entitled, "Get Out of the Gulf." Nothing to it. Just electrify 10 percent of US automobiles by 2020. The numbers may work, but the reality of replacing so much of the present fleet in nine years doesn't sound like the cinch the the ocean advocacy group Oceana claims. #10 is a plea to replace lightbulbs by the new LED models. It may be good for business that will save on energy, enough to amortize the higher cost of the bulbs. But it is not clear that it will be good for the environment. A month or so ago, I posted a blog reporting on a study that argued that the brighter light from these lamps would raise demand for more light, eventually overcoming the efficiency gains.

rating system

The "centerfold" article is the second annual ranking of the 100 greenest companies in America. The full list of the 500 best is available from a website. I see no obvious improvement in the ranking scheme this year over the one used last year (see my earlier posts.)

The health of the environment depends on the total burden we place on it from manufacturing, agriculture, and consumption. It has little to do with policies or reputation, which make up more than half the score. The web site gives the formula "Finally, a weighted average of the Environmental Impact (45 percent), Green Policies (45 percent), and Reputation Survey (10 percent) Z scores was taken to generate the overall Green Z score." I thought about buying the whole report but thought that $1495.00 was a little steep for something that is pretty meaningless in the long run.

The rankings have more to do with competitive advantage than with reduction of the burden. There is no penalty apparent to me based on the growth of the firms from last year, or to the growth targets, or to the advertising budgets, or any other part of the business striving to use up more of the Earth's resources.

The enchantment continues with an article about GoodGuide, my candidate for proving the validity of A. N. Whitehead's pithy comment on reductionism-the fallacy of misplace concreteness. GoodGuide provides a score akin to the Newsweek ranking for a large variety of consumers products. The raw idea is a good one--to have consumers make better choices by giving them better information, addressing one of the key causes of market failure. But the devil is in the details. The inquirer gets a score on a scale of 0-10, like 8.3 or 4.7, on querying the website for the particular product of interest. It's unclear what this score means, as it, like the Newsweek numbers, is a composite of hundreds of factors, bundled into a single result, based on the opinions of experts who determine what weights are to be used in the compilation.

One of the investors in GoodGuide was "shocked by how quickly big companies have realized the relevance of GoodGuide." Shocked in the same way as Claude Rains (Louis) was to find gambling at Rick's (Humphrey Bogart) Bar. Companies spend vast sums to find ways to differentiate their brands, knowing how hard it is to find discreet characteristic to compare. Here comes an "objective" system to do the job for them. I can only imagine all those product specialists scrambling to raise their company's score from 8.5 to 8.7. If that would mean a 2.35 percent improvement in actual impact, the rankings would have a positive value. But the numbers are not meaningful to the precision implied by presenting them to two significant figures. It's pretty hard, given the imprecision of the data inputs to the scoring, to come up with one significant figure, that is, is a 7 any different from an 8 in terms of its real impacts on health, the environment and social responsibility.

Here's an example from the GoodGuide website. It's for a detergent with a score of 8.0, the result of compiling these three sub-scores:

  • 10 Health — no ingredients that raise a health concern.
  • 7.4 Environment — scores well on water management.
  • 6.6 Society — scores well on workforce diversity.

The answer depends on the weights (values) given to each of the three factors. You can do the arithmetic. What would your score be? Readers of this blog should be able to understand this process, but I would guess that most of the users of the GoodGuide site do not understand the process. Furthermore they are being encouraged to tell their friends and the producers how they made "better" choices. I try not to be too much of a cynic, but the only winners I see coming from the Newsweek rankings and from GoodGuide are big companies with well-honed public relations and brand budgets and skills. The environment and society are only sometimes, loosely-connected beneficiaries.

Learning the Hard Way

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A spectre is haunting Japan - the spectre of deflation. With this ironic twist on the Communist Manifesto, we are witnessing the downside of capitalism in Japan. An article in the NYTimes by Martin Fackler chronicles the recent decline in the economic output in Japan and the hardships it is creating. Caught in a business cycle with no upside in sight, the Japanese economy has fallen behind China's. The original Asian Tiger, even before that term was in vogue, is little more than an old alley cat.

The article paints a dark, painful picture of people living in a multi-storied home on only a few hundred square feet. In our world of mega-mansions, this is little more than a master bedroom closet.

The downsizing of Japan’s ambitions can be seen on the streets of Tokyo, where concrete “microhouses” have become popular among younger Japanese who cannot afford even the famously cramped housing of their parents, or lack the job security to take out a traditional multidecade loan. These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.

The fall from economic grace is not only depressing in financial terms but also in human terms.

Japan’s loss of gumption is most visible among its young men, who are widely derided as “herbivores” for lacking their elders’ willingness to toil for endless hours at the office, or even to succeed in romance, which many here blame, only half jokingly, for their country’s shrinking birthrate. “The Japanese used to be called economic animals,” said Mitsuo Ohashi, former chief executive officer of the chemicals giant Showa Denko. “But somewhere along the way, Japan lost its animal spirits.” “Deflation destroys the risk-taking that capitalist economies need in order to grow,” said Shumpei Takemori, an economist at Keio University in Tokyo. “Creative destruction is replaced with what is just destructive destruction.”

But against this effect of the economic downturn, the story points to another adaptive change.

Deflation has also affected businesspeople by forcing them to invent new ways to survive in an economy where prices and profits only go down, not up.

There's not much more said about this, but, given the general tenor of the story, I would expect economists to see it as a wholly negative consequence. Imagine people learning to live with less. Horrors. I am sure that this change is painful and difficult, but perhaps there is an upside to it. As a fully vested member of the sustainability club that doesn't believe that we can grow our way out of unsustainability even with expected gains in efficiency, I see this protracted period of behavioral and attitudinal adaptation as an important experiment in testing ways to shrink our material economies. I am not familiar with any sociological or psychological work that has looked more closely at the impact on individuals, but hope that some scholars might have seen this unplanned social experiment as a unexpected research opportunity. The more we can learn about the actual impact of economic stasis or shrinkage on people, the more we can design transition strategies to enable all the billions of us to live and flourish on a single, finite planet.

The Power of Being Positive

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This interview with Bob Costanza from the Yale "Visions of a Sustainable World” lecture series is one in their series of presentations of positive, concrete visions of a sustainable future. It echoes the basic message in my book. Sustainability, as Costanza says in the talk, has to be both desirable and long-lived. I use flourishing as the desirable quality. .

Empathy and Weak Ties



Maybe it's the new movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the origin of Facebook that is triggering all sorts of stories about the nature of social relationships, but, in any case, they are all over the media and the cybersphere. One of the students at Marlboro posted a podcast by Jeremy Rifkin about empathy, and today the front page story in the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe had one, "The empathy deficit," by Keith O'Brien.

Rifkin thinks the new era of distributed computing technology, with capabilities like Google Earth, will make us more connected and therefore more empathetic. He thinks that this should make us hopeful about the future. He sees a direct link between increased Internet conectedness with the growth of distributed energy systems drawing on the Sun that will replace fossil fuels and save us from eventual collapse. Empathy is the link. But, he mistakes connectedness for empathy. It's the kind of linkages that matter. He notes that soon after the first pictures of the blue Earth were made available from NASA, the striking images were pinned up on millions of walls. But judging from the decline of the Planet's health since that event, the connections haven't changed our unsustainable, harmful behaviors.

The Globe article points to data indicating that our society is getting less empathic, that is, our caring for others is diminishing. The data seem valid, but the implications of this trend are both unclear and hard to explain. The rise of the social media, like Facebook, is frequently blamed, and is the focus of the Globe article. I wrote recently of the inability of the weak ties that social media create to underpin oppositional actions. As I see it, weak ties are those relationships are less empathic or lack it altogether. The strength of interpersonal ties seems directly related to empathy: our sense of and connectedness to what another is feeling, often stated as putting ourselves into another's shoes. I would say it more about putting ourselves into another's state of mind.

Perhaps more than any other characteristic, one’s capacity for empathic concern dictates how much one cares about others. Those who score high in empathic concern, according to past research, are more likely to return incorrect change to a cashier, let someone else ahead of them in line, carry a stranger’s belongings, give money to a homeless person, volunteer, donate to a charity, look after a friend’s pet or plant, or even live on a vegetarian diet. And what’s alarming, Konrath said, is that empathic concern has fallen more than any other aspect of empathy. Between 1979 and 2009, according to the new research, empathic concern dropped 48 percent.
It might be said that it is empathy that makes us aware of others' suffering, if we think of suffering as a sense that there is something wrong that could be made right. It's that possibility that powers empathy--my caring can be converted to some action to make your world right. Caring is always about acting to making things work in some way that would perfect an incomplete state of affairs. This is the critical tie of empathy to flourishing. Flourishing is a state where suffering recedes into the background. Suffering is never gone forever, simply because no living creature is immortal, and the sense of loss is is felt by humans and other highly developed species as well. So empathy is tightly linked to sustainability: the possibility of flourishing for long periods. Weak ties lack empathetic power. Perhaps that is the way we should define them. Social media may have the ability to create strong, empathetic ties, but that's not what they seem to be doing in the main.
These students, Konrath points out, would have been born in the 1980s, raised in the ’90s on video games, 24-hour cable television, and widespread divorce, and sent off to college with laptops and cellphones — the young pioneers of the digital age. Perhaps, some suggest, technology has connected them in one sense, but pushed them away from each other in another. “It’s very shallow, a lot of these connections,” said Jean Twenge, coauthor of “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” “You don’t really have an emotional connection with someone on Facebook.”

The emotional aspect is very important. My thinking for some time and an underlying grounding for my book rest on a description of emotions as the drivers for non-routine actions. Most of our life consists of actions stored in our cognitive database that we access for all our familiar everyday activities. Empathetic encounters with others means we have put ourselves in their frame of mind and thus cannot rely on our normal resources. What happens next is attributed to emotions simply because it appears to be unexpected and not coming from one's reason faculties.

Unsustainability is a consequence of doing the expected all the time, ignoring the "suffering" being produced. Here I use suffering as seen by abject poverty, addiction of all kinds, species loss, habitat loss, leading undignified lives and so on. We able to break out of our usual routines and avoid their damaging unintended consequences only when we get into an empathetic stance with that suffering, and act emotionally, as some observers might say of us. Unfortunately, emotional responses are often spoken of pejoratively by our ultra-rational cultural voice. If we see emotional acts as driven by empathy with the suffering of whatever it is we care about, then it is exactly those emotions that are critical. No empathy, no emotions. No emotions, no creative actions--only the old, worn-out, but familiar, routines. If we accepted crying as a positive, acceptable response to certain emphatic encounters, perhaps Ed Muskie would have become President in 1972. Sustainability will not come to be without accepting and nurturing empathetic relationships, and seeing the emotional outcomes as the very creative actions we so desperately need. The weak ties of social media simply don't have the power to do this.

Unsustainable Consumption

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iny=trinsic values

Synchronicity is at work again, After posting yesterday's entry about consumption questioning the convention wisdom about why we consume as we do, this column by George Monbiot showed up on my screen. I have posted links to Monbiot before. He is a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued columnist for the Guardian (UK).

With a backdrop of suicidal cultural/economic practices, he argues we have lost our collective way largely out of an old, deeply entrenched, but incorrect, view of human rationality and behavior. He column cribs from a recent report done for the WWF which presents a very different model of behavior rooted more in our values than in the computer in our head.

The acceptance of policies which counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st Century. In the United States, blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires should pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?

The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. "Common Cause", written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology(1). It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight which now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.

Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the Enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.

A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that it doesn’t work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

I rushed to download the WWF report and have been busily reading it. Like Monbiot, I think it is a timely and important work. I am not sure I fully understand or agree with the model of behavior being elaborated, but I fully subscribe to the critique of conventional "rationality." The report is far more than a social psychological treatise, and consigns much of the report to ethical and policy implications. I think it should be "must" reading for anyone concerned about sustainability. This report plus a good treatise on complexity would serve much better than the "standard" texts as a basis for understanding today's sad state, and for designing and taking effective actions to create a flourishing world.

Sustainable(?) Consumption

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i shop therefore

I'm teaching a course about sustainable consumption at Marlboro this trimester. Our next face-to-face meeting is coming up next weekend, and I have been getting prepared. I don't like this the name of the subject at all. It's not consumption that we want to sustain; it's the possibility of flourishing. Sustainability is not about production or consumption. Sustainability depends critically on the nature of these two halves of the economic identity that says in a perfect (economic) world the two will be equal. But it is not the same, and the sooner businessmen, planners, and policy makers learn the difference, the sooner we will be able to make meaningful changes in our economy and culture.

But, in spite of my unease with the name, the underlying topic is important. In his article in the reader I am using, Tom Princen speaks about consumption (and production) "angles", arguing that economists mostly come at the subject from the production side, but that it's the consumption side that is most closely tied to sustainability. Understanding what drives consumption tells us much more about the roots of unsustainability, and provides clues about what to do about it--a way of "rethinking how humans relate to nature."

It's important to add to this statement a reference to how human relate to themselves. I think that's even more important since the determinants of consumption lie somewhere in the fuzzy area of our needs, wants, desires, cares, or other terms that describe some inner engine that powers our consuming actions. From a scholarly or pedagogical perspective, here's where the fun lies. it's clear to me that understanding what drives us to consume is of more consequence and trickier than probing issues in the making of whatever we do consume. That's also part of Princen's discussion.

But when we start to examine what kind of actions are being taken to cope with the earthly consequences of consumption, almost all take consumption as a given, and focus on making the impacts of existing patterns less damaging. That's what eco-efficiency and greening do. That's not going to be enough, no matter how much "cleantech" and sustainable products show up. One of the reasons is that the basis on which these solutions have been selected is misplaced. The consumer is left out or is considered inviolate. Consumer sovereignty is what the Declaration of Independence created and, as expressed loudly in the current political season, nobody is going to take it away.

Remember the earlier policy plank, the polluter pays principle. Blame for environmental damage was laid on the producers of the goods and services-the producer's angle. It was more convenient and politically safe for policymakers to do this than take on the consumers that bought and used the stuff coming onto the market. But it ignored or denied, just as is now the case of eco-efficiency or cleantech, the more important connection of consumption to the very problems these solutions are expected to ameliorate.

Maybe that's because the economists have been driving the policy engine for a very long time. Economists are supposed to know the right answers, as a Nobel prize in their field attests. But in spite of recent forays into behavioral economics, they haven't developed sufficient tools and knowledge to reveal the roots of human consumption. This job has been left to neuroscientists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and even philosophers. My bet would be on the latter to come up with the best understanding. All living creatures consume. Without consumption, there can be no life, but humans consume differently. It has something to do with what makes us human and not simply another highly evolved animal. None of the sciences can fully answer the question implied in the last sentence. All divvy up human life into pieces that they study, and leave out what may hold the answer. Philosophers, I think, are better equipped to probe this but today are more or less an academic curiosity. Too bad, but the days of Plato and Aristotle are not likely to return.

ps. Tim Jackson, in a most interesting TED lecture about creating prosperity and flourishing, that is, sustainability, points to the criticality of asking and answering the question, "What is it to be human?" So do I in my book.

Plus Ça Change


great depression-irony

The reappearance of Napoleon III after the revolution of 1848 in France prompted a journalist to utter the memorable epigram, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Dripping with irony, its English equivalent is, "The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing." The phrase seems to fit the behavior of consumption patterns in the US as the debris from the financial crash is slowly being cleared away. The initial severe drop in consumption spending was thought by the sustainability optimists to signal a structural change. The financial straits was forcing many to look closely at their life style and, realizing the unneed (seems like a good neologism here) for many things, begin to shift toward a lower level of consumption, making do with less. The winner in all this was to be the Planet, now able to escape from the huge burden hyper-consumption creates.

The hope of those optimists seems to be fading, as data on more recent consumption indicators show a return to the earlier, well established patterns. Daniel Gross, writing in the NYTimes, sees a return to the same old, same old.

Meanwhile, as the economy slowly recovers, there are signs that Americans are rediscovering their free-spending ways. Total consumer credit, which includes non-revolving debt like car loans, has stabilized, and it rose in both June and July. It’s back to where it was in the second quarter of 2009. Collectively, we don’t seem to have run our credit cards through shredders. Mailboxes are again stuffed with credit card solicitations. Newspapers are filled with come-ons from car dealers offering zero-percent financing. The Federal Housing Authority offers mortgages on houses for as little as 3 percent down. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve flown back in time to September 2006.

Should this come as a surprise? No. The conventional wisdom's solution to everything bad caused by the crash is growth, growth, growth, as quickly as possible. Not just growth, per se, but growth fueled by more debt--that very thing that brought down the economic house of cards. Gross writes, "The renewed willingness and confidence to spend money we don’t have is vital to the continuing recovery." Perhaps true in the isolated world of economics. But in the real world, the ability to consume tomorrow's real wealth today is a moral hazard. It creates an economic system that is unsustainable, and it makes it too easy to ignore the consequences of all that stuff on the Planet. Another epigram works to end this post. There's no free lunch.

Dreams of Sustainability

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I've been slowly compiling my blogs, and notice a few things about the movement of topics over time. The number of words amassed is surprising. The quantity is more than enough for another book, but the content wanders too widely. I find it increasingly difficult to grab an item out of the cybersphere and use it to base a post containing any semblance of novelty. The sameness of news and its implications for change is subtle when viewed day by day, but jumps out when looked at retrospectively.

Change is central to my thesis about sustainability. If the existing culture on which we base our societal, collective actions and behavior is the root cause of unsustainability--the existence of both signs and symptoms of breakdowns, deterioration and dysfunction--then that culture needs to be changed. It will always be too late and too little to fall back on remedial measures. This last sentence is true about any repetitive pattern of overconsumption or misconsumption. [These two terms are carefully discussed by Tom Princen in his chapter in the Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption]

The first of these behavioral isms, overconsumption, refers to consumption that harms a species health and applies to humans and other living creatures. Climate change is the clearest example of excessive use of fossil fuel. Misconsumption undermines the well being of the individual: addiction of any sort, say alcoholism, being a prime example. Misconsumption can and does morph into overconsumption, and thence to the undermining of a support system essential to human [and other living forms] life and social well being.

One of the causes of the recent financial meltdown was the excessive use of credit, particularly for the purchase of dwellings. This behavior was ultimately very bad for those who lost their homes or are still teetering on the brink of foreclosure. Collectively this practice contributed to the collapse of the financial system. It was not the cause, per se; the institutional greed of the banking sector was instrumental as well. The lesson for today is not in the event but in what is being done to avoid future occurrences--very little that reflects the root causes. All the foofaraw about fixing the banking system cannot disguise the virtually complete failure to address these causes. It's not that we know what they are with any great precision; we don't. But the great fixing system we call the government could not even start to look for them. Neither could the other great fixing system--business or its euphemism, the private sector.

These systems, incapable of reflection and serious questioning, can only seek and apply fixes of one kind or another. This political season is the worst in my lifetime in this respect. Neither raising taxes or lowering taxes will do anything fundamental to change the unsustainable culture. Ramping up consumption as the remedy for improving our lives and livelihood (another way of talking about well-being) is little more than giving a drink to an overstressed reformed alcoholic.

The subtitle of my book is "A subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture." Now a few years after its publication, I am no longer confident that the subtle, long-term introduction of culture-changing artifacts and institutions is the best and most effective path toward sustainability. Direct action is critical. The social media is not the right organizing tool as my post of a few days pointed out. New political movements that admit that pragmatism, not ideology, is more suited to deal with the complexity of the world are desperately needed now. An honest look at The American Dream is long overdue, especially as the limits of the Earth are becoming more and more apparent.

We are still hearing promises of "a chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot." This slogan, generally attributed to Herbert Hoover, was used by the Republican Party in the election of 1928. What followed a few years later destroyed the life and livelihood of many Americans. Dreams about sustainability--a system that brings flourishing for all life on Earth--are hidden among all the nightmares of the present times.

"When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?" (Peter Seeger)

A Small Diversion


clown face

Yesterday, I suggested that our political system here in the US was broken. Until we fix it, we will not be able to do much for sustainability. Pretty serious stuff. It's hard to find any humor in all this, but the NYTimes columnist, Gail Collins, managed to do it. Here's a recent column. Not much to do with sustainability, but if you are close to the same frame of mind I am in, it helps to see some lightness in the news.

Inequality-A Major Obstacle for Sustainabiliity


Sustainability is a property of the whole Earth system. As long as large numbers of people cannot obtain the resources to flourish, we will remain far from sustainability. Economic disparity has long been a concern. The notion of "sustainable development" arose from two sources: 1) knowledge of severe environmental impacts and threats, and 2) huge gaps in wealth between the "North" and the South." These differences still remain although the two populous economies, China and India, are closing the gap.

Often lost in the focus on the "developing" world is the state of the US economy. I recently read an advance copy of a fascinating paper (norton ariely actual vs ideal wealth distribution.pdf ) about this topic that my readers might be interested in reading: "Building a Better America - One Wealth Quintile at a Time," by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely. The data about the actual wealth distribution are shocking. The bottom 40% don't even show in the upper bar graph.

Inequality data-US.png

What intrigues me, however, is the differences between the perceptions of inequality, visions of what would be an ideal distribution, and the actual situation. The authors' abstract tells the whole story.

Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of “regular” Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to “build a better America” by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality. First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality [the middle bar]. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions [the bottom bar] that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups - even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy - desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.

Greening the economy usually refers to efforts to make production and consumption more eco-efficient. But that is clearly not enough; the capabilities necessary for flourishing must be made accessible to the group missing from the chart. The findings that all ends of the political spectrum would prefer a flatter distribution are at odds with current political behavior, especially as the 2010 elections draw nearer. More evidence that something is seriously wrong.