Unsustainable Consumption

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.

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2 Comments

Ed said:

John,

You sugggest "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."

I tend to agree. As someone who is currently developing a module on sustainability for engineering undergraduate students which will include complexity, as a means of better understanding our (unsustainable) societal construct, might you have any suggestions regarding such a treatise? i.e. what publication, if any, in your opinion best encapsulates complexity?

Regards,
Ed

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Ed and others interested in complexity,

I can only suggest a few sources that I have found useful. Here's a list. The Gunderson et al. book Panarchy is a good primer with several chapters on the implications for management and policy.


COSTANZA, R., WAINGER, L., FOLKE, C. & MALER, K.-G. 1993. Modeling Complex Ecological And Economic Systems. Bioscience, 43, 545-555.
EHRENFELD, J. 2008. Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.
FUNTOWITZ, S. O. & RAVETZ, J. 1994. Embracing Complexity, The Challenge of the Ecosystem Approach. Alternatives, 20, 32-38.
GUNDERSON, L. H. & HOLLING, C. S. (eds.) 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, Washington, DC: Island Press.
HOLLING, C. S. 2001. Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems. Ecosystems, 4, 390-405.
KAY, J. J. 2002. On complexity theory, exergy, and industrial ecology: Some implications for construction ecology. In: GUY, G. B. (ed.) Construction ecology: Nature as a basis for green buildings. London: Spon Press.
LEVIN, S. A. 2005. Self-organization and the Emergence of Complexity in Ecological Systems. BioScience, 55, 1074-1079

I find the work of the late James Kay always insightful. The reference here is very good, but sometimes hard to locate. These items comes from the world of ecology; There is another whole world that deals with chaos and complexity (The Santa Fe school). I have found this less instructive for sustainability work. The main idea, stressed in my book, is that complex systems are not analytically reducible to models that predict the future behavior to some degree of precision. Complex system behavior is non-linear, and can exhibit jumps into entirely new regimes. That's why the standard ways of planning are severely limited.