November 2010 Archives

Leaked Cables and Sustainability


leaky faucet

Hypocrisy, denial, trust, truth, and candor (sincerity) are words that come to mind while reading the latest news about the zillion leaked US State Department cables. Relationships among sovereign states, like those between friends and relations, require trust most of all. Candor helps to establish trust, but may be distorted on occasions where the truth would inflict unnecessary pain. Hypocrisy ultimately leads to loss of trust when actions belie the words spoken and claims made about them.

In the absence of the last three in the list, relationships lose or never find a consensual basis for action, and can only be maintained through the exercise of power. In an atomistic world, where every entity operates in the absence of constraints placed by the mere presence of the other (whether a person, a polity, or a oil-well field), power always eventually trumps cooperation and restraint. Such was the history of the human species from time immemorial to recent times. The ends of World War II and the Cold War led to the establishment of institutions, like the UN or arms control treaties, designed to mitigate power and provide a way to consensus, or, if not full consensus, to some lesser form of cooperation. In each of these cases, those in power came to realize that its unilateral exercise was a losing game.

For quite some time, much of the front page news points, not to these critical virtues, but to the first two in the list: hypocrisy and denial. The leaked cables are full of hypocrisy, evidence of our spokesmen saying one thing in public and another in private. The immediate excuse, since Machiavelli, is that statecraft has always been full of such talk, a requirement given the supreme egos and acquisitiveness of those in power around the world. Another argument is that hypocrisy or downright lying is needed to protect the Nation's secrets and strategies in order to win the Great Game of economic hegemony. These habits and norms are so entrenched in the institutions of governments that I cannot see it disappearing even after the embarrassment created by the leaked cables.

Recent political history in the US illustrates all the listed characteristics. There is lots of the first two and little or none of the last three. The most basic tenet of our country is that those elected govern with the consent of the people. So says our Declaration of Independence: ". . . Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . ." The mere act of casting a ballot does not amount to a giving of consent when those elected fail to honor their position by dealing in denial and hypocrisy. Consent, as I note above, comes only on the back of trust, truth and candor. [For the inquisitive among the readers, these three are the fundaments of Jurgen Habermas's theory of communicative action.] Without them, the utterances of individuals or collectives are always manipulative and power-laden.

So far, what I have written pertains to relations among people, but it also pertains to our relationship to the Earth. If I use the metaphor of Mother Earth, then all of the above is relevant. We require a peaceful and cooperative stance, built on truth, trustM and candor, in order to flourish. If we deny the consequences of our actions that affect her, we are, as above, using power rather than cooperation, to shape our actions. And in this case, the use of power to wrest from her everything we claim to need, is a losing game. Denial comes in the belief that we can beat her in the game by our cleverness in coming up with new tools and treading more lightly.

We are also being hypocritical about these so-called strategies. Most of what business is doing is some form of green washing. Individual green actions deny their collective insult to Mother Nature, and blinds us to the need for serious, even radical, change. When denial and hypocrisy are turned into political virtues, sustainability moves further from our grasp. The workings of the Internet has reminded us of something we always said--truth will out. Hopefully, the damage to our foreign policy can be remedied. Maybe it will become more effective because this event might force us to act less hypocritically and more truthfully. The same cannot be said of sustainability. Once we have upset Mother Nature beyond her ultimate line in the sand, she is not likely to forgive us and offer another chance.

Turkey Day



I am away for the long Thanksgiving weekend visiting my daughter and family in Northern Virginia. This Holiday has long since lost its meaning of gratitude for the plenitude of the Earth. The major event, the family dinner, is an occasion to prepare and eat enough to last through the whole four-day weekend. But even that has been replaced as the peak experience by Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year when people gather in throngs well before the stores open. Some as early as midnight. Last year, if I remember correctly, the crush of the crowd to get into one store was so great that several people died as the doors opened. All for a chance to buy one of the very special bargains for the early birds. The label, Black, took on its saddest meaning instead of pointing to the day when many merchants' bottom line crept into the positive side after hanging in the red for the many months earlier in the year.

The classic meaning of Thanksgiving is much in my mind these days, triggered often by the readings I have assigned to my Marlboro class on Sustainable Consumption. We have read several essays on how and why to reduce consumption, for the sake of the Earth and for ourselves. When consumption becomes an addiction as it has for many today who cannot stop seeking the latest in technology or something else, it gnaws away at the authenticity of action and dulls aliveness, enough though the first thrill of the new purchase creates a rush not unlike that of many controlled substances.

The pieces we are reading now tell the opposite story: how consumption is important, if not essential, to the psyche. The goods we own signal to others who we are or want to be. Their need may be deeply embedded in the culture to serve as gifts to show reciprocity for others, and signal our care for them. We have learned that voluntary simplicity is very difficult to achieve and that programs based on it are not likely to succeed.

Tom Princen, one of the authors we have read, defines one form of consumption as "misconsumption." [See my earlier post.] This refers to consumption that produces ill effects along with those for which the action was intended. Overeating is one of his examples. Thanksgiving dinners end up with this form of consumption for many, including me. I learn again the lesson: it is very hard to break old habits, and how important it always is to enlist others in one's efforts to break old habits. Sustainability, however one hopes it will come without struggle, depends on it.

I'm as Mad as Hell, and I'm Not Going to Take This Anymore!

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This now famous line from "Network" was uttered by Howard Beale, the embittered newscaster. It also seems to have been in the background of people's explanations for the choices made in this past election. Or perhaps, it was only a variation like, I'm as mad as hell at you, and I'm not going to take you anymore! It's much, much easier to take out one's frustration in these troubled times on somebody than to spend the time to locate where the "this" in Beale's cry really lies. It's never quite clear in the movie whether Beale's use of "mad" refers to anger at something or to his mental state. He had threatened to commit suicide on the air.

Beale's phrase came upon me as I was reading an article from Orion, one of my favorite magazines. The article, "World Gone Mad," by Derrick Jensen, is the converse of Network. It's the world that has gone mad, not the commentator. Jensen, expressing his disappointment about the shallowness of most everything claiming to be green, asks why no one concerned about the state of the world ever "mentions psychopathology."

Why is this important? Because those in power destroy sustainable communities?—?and not just sustainable indigenous communities. If people develop new ways to live on their land more sustainably, and those in power decide that land is needed for roads and shopping malls and parking lots, those in power will seize that land. This is how the dominant culture works. Everything and everyone must be sacrificed to economic production, to economic growth, to the continuation of this culture.
Jensen calls on the "official" definition of mental disease, section F60.2 of The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992, similar to the US psychiatric standard, DSM-IV. Here are the key characteristics of sociopaths:
a. callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
b. gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations.
c. incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.
d. very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
e. incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
f. marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behaviour.

The article is not for the squeamish. Jensen is indeed angry and provides ample examples of each of these behavioral characteristics. I'll only quote his comments after the first item in the list, callous unconcern.

Where to start? Have members of this culture shown any concern for the feelings of the indigenous as they’ve stolen their land? How about the feelings of nonhumans being driven from their homes, or those being driven out of existence? Further, doesn’t the mainstream scientific community demand that emotion be removed from all scientific study? Aren’t we also told that emotions must not interfere with business decisions and economic policy? Do chickens in battery cages have feelings? What about dogs in vivisection labs? What about trees? Rain? Stones? The culture goes beyond “callous unconcern” for the feelings of these others to deny that their feelings even exist.

He finishes the article with a rather mild call for action saying we "need to step up and call out the larger culture for the way it behaves." I do not think being mild is the right response. These days I feel more like Howard Beale. I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! I'm not at all sure where this will take me, but somewhere beyond merely writing down my thoughts and hoping people will be stirred to do something. I would be delighted to hear suggestions from you who have been following my blogging.

More is Not Necessarily Better

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supermarket shelves

My colleagues in the sustainable consumption network sent me the abstract below of a recent academic article about choice. It provides further evidence of what academic psychologist Barry Schwartz has been saying for quite some time. I've added a TED video of his to the end of this post. Schwartz's argument is simple, but elegant. The idea of freedom as proportional to the number of available choices stops working when that number gets large. At some point more choice become pathologic, and the actor, rather than being able to enjoy more freedom, comes under what Schwartz calls the tyranny of choice.

Try to feel free when you are faced with hundreds of possibilities while you stand in front of the yogurt display case in your nearest supermarket. I get frozen in place. In spite of this all too common experience, Schwartz has been sometimes criticized for failing to provide sound data to back up his claims. But here is some recent evidence.

A group of European academic researchers just published an article entitled, "TV Channels, Self-Control and Happiness." Here's their abstract:

Standard economic theory suggests that more choice is usually better. We address this claim and investigate whether people can cope with the increasing number of television programs and watch the amount of TV they find optimal for themselves or whether they are prone to over- consumption. We find that heavy TV viewers do not benefit but instead report lower life satisfaction with access to more TV channels. This finding suggests that an identifiable group of individuals experiences a self-control problem when it comes to TV viewing.

Using choice of TV channels instead of yogurt, the team found the same result. I was surprised not to find Schwartz's work cited in the paper, but it stands on its own. The empirical work was well-conceived and executed. Many things in life appear to be boundless, but show diminishing or perverse outcomes as the scale or number keeps growing. Choice, the most fundamental libertarian metric, seems to fall into this class. After some point, more is not better for the chooser or for the planet that must supply the resources and accept the waste encumbered by these choices. In most cases, the planet suffers long before the tyranny of choice kicks in.

Flourishing and Thermodynamics

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LIG logo

I'm still chewing on the question asked by one of the readers of this blog. Is the emergence of flourishing, beauty, happiness… different from the emergence of observable physical phenomena like eddies or tornadoes? Thermodynamics helps explain how emergent structure appears in systems far from an equilibrium with little order present. These structures are patterns we can discern against a context of randomness, chaos, and disorder. In the late 1980s, the idea of "self-organized criticality" was developed and used to explain the suddenness by which these structures showed up. The term, punctuated, is often used to describe the jump from one distinct regime to another--the stock market all of a sudden crashes or a species suddenly disappears.

First, it's important to distinguish between patterns that appear in nature and qualities that emerge from human social systems. The appearance of a tornado is a matter that would engender little argument because there is almost complete consensus on what constitutes a tornado or ripples on the surface of a sand dune. The fact that the parameters of a tornado or hurricane are socially constructed is overlooked because no one ordinarily questions whether the boundary between a Category 1 and Category 2 hurricane is a sustained wind speed of 95 miles per hour, according to the the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, or is something other value.

Sustainability is concerned with the continuing presence of qualities considered desirable. But not just any old qualities; the qualities we care about enough to act to produce them are mostly related to the ancient notion of "goodness." The impossibility of settling universally on a definition of what is good has spawned a host of other qualities we use to characterize the world around us. But little or no agreement on how to bound them such that we would agree on whether or not they are present exists. There's no Saffir-Simpson Scale to use to detect and measure them.

The choice of which qualities to look for depends on the context. Art critics seek "beauty." Censors look for "pornography." We know that both of these "lie in the eyes of the beholder." I focus on flourishing as the central quality we seek to produce. Others refer to well-being, dignity, health, and more. There is nothing fundamentally different in any of these qualities from beauty or pornography. They are present only if someone, who can speak with authority, says so. But that does not stop people from treating them as emergent properties like temperature that can be measured and manipulated mechanically. If it is, then, a mistake to seek them by some deterministic, that is non-subjective, system of rules, can we intentionally run the world such that flourishing becomes more likely to appear, like the eddies in a basin?

I think we can, at least pragmatically. We already know that adding wealth to a society stops making people happy after a certain point. We know the opposite that the most basic signs of flourishing don't appear until people have the means to satisfy their basic subsistence needs. Needs, like hurricane categories, are arbitrary and socially constructed, but much less consensually agreed to than hurricane categories. Maslow's hierarchy of needs posits a set of distinct regimes that are sequentially satisfied as one moves toward some ultimate state of flourishing or well being. One could say that, in his scheme, one moves from one distinct regime to another.

As I have already written on several occasions, the key concept involved in any intentional try to increase the possibility that flourishing will emerge has to come from a pragmatic foundation. Complexity and emergence are the source of these elusive qualities: elusive because we cannot enumerate the rules by which they appear from the chaos that characterizes modern, socio-economic-technological societies. I am not sanguine about creating flourishing because this basic fact, I think it is a fact, is being ignored or, worse, denied, by those most powerful in determining our collective future. Maybe it is because they believe that well-being is not like beauty, and thus can be measured and produced by a machine. Or perhaps it is that pragmatism is anathema. Maybe, they think they are being pragmatic, but pragmatism works by learning from the experience no matter how it departs from the goals, not by saying "I told you so." Our culture has made an immense investment in monetary and intellectual capital over the past four or so centuries. Complexity is telling us it's time to stop throwing good money after bad.

It's the Economy Relationships, Stupid!


relationship with nature

Sorry for the unexplained absence. I seem to have acquired a case of blogger's block, but only a mild one. I promised to continue for a while to write about complexity and its relationships to sustainability. One of the most interesting and intriguing features of complex system is emergence. The idea is quite simple, but the process is mysterious.

Emergence is the appearance of some quality that arises from the structure of a system, that is, from the relationships among all the parts. The ripples on a sand dune or the regular shape of a snow flake are one kind of emergent happening. The eddy that forms when water drains from a basin is another familiar example of emergence. But these phenomena are only meaningful to an observer who attributed significance to some ordering that stands out against the background of a chaotic or disordered context. Unlike the outcome of mechanical systems where all the system properties can be described by rules, emergent properties, in general, cannot be described by such rules and their appearance cannot be predicted in advance.

Sustainability, as I have defined it, is the possibility that human and other life will flourish for a long time. Emergence and complexity enter into the picture in two ways. Flourishing arises when the natural and social worlds that support life are working in such a way that whatever we call flourishing call be sensed by the population of the system. The combination of the natural and social worlds are complex. We cannot define them in terms of a finite set of analytic relationships. We cannot predict the future states of the system with any certainty. Revolutions appear and change regimes. Financial collapse occurs without having a time plugged into the system's alarm clock. This feature has a huge effect on how we can govern the system to behave in a beneficial and hospitable way.

But what is it that we want the behavior of the global system to produce? We want it to produce lots of "mechanical" outputs: automobiles, money, tofu, vitamin pills, artificial hearts--all things that we use to run our lives. Without these we would not survive, but these alone would not bring the qualities that give human life its meaning. From time immemorial, humans have striven to live the "good" life, a dignified healthy life, or to flourish or some other similar quality. Always a quality, less observable that the ripples or eddies, but still only meaningful to an observer. Such qualities cannot be enumerated by some completely objective methodology, like the counting out of dollar bills.

I often use the beauty of a masterpiece, like the Mona Lisa, to exemplify emergence qualities. It's the virtuosity of the master that creates what most viewers have come to agree is "beauty." The beauty is not in the painting but in the assessments of the observers. It is exceedingly unlikely that such beauty could ever emerge from a paint-by-numbers kit of the Mona Lisa. No more than Shakespeare's works could be the result of the proverbial bunch of monkeys pounding on keyboard.

Sustainability is only a possibility that we can live in a way so that the planet will work such that people will observe their life, and claim that they are flourishing. It's always only a possibility because we can never know enough about the system to reduce it to rules that we can manipulate so that we can predict the outputs within some range of certainty. This does not mean we cannot do anything at all. It simply means that we must accept that our efforts at governance are always contingent and partial. We can and must learn as we go. We cannot allow ourselves to become fooled when the Great Economy (as Wendell Berry calls the way the Earth works) appears to be obeying our commands.

That flourishing is emergent can help explain why monetary wealth does not equate with subjective well being--estimates the people make of the quality, not quantity, of their lives. Flourishing can never be abstracted from the whole complex system, and made the output of any mechanical system, however complicated. We already know something about the social system that should put us on the right track. It is that the strength of our relationships to others is a feature found when people assess their well-being to be relatively high. But our current culture is more fragmented that ever. More people live alone than ever. The number of children born out of wedlock is shocking, not from any moral standpoint, but from the absence of familial relationships. The weak ties that social media produce are no match for the strong ties of true solidarity.

This should not come as a surprise. It's the relationships among the structural components that produce emergence in any complex system. Our historical reliance on reductionist science and epistemological methodology in general blinds us to this fundamental feature. Effective family therapy recognizes the family as a complex system of relationships that must all be in working order for health and flourishing to show up. The family of human beings is much too large to fit into a therapist's office, but this obstacle should not stand in the way of accepting the need to treat the whole system and not just its parts.

The Danger of Counting on the "Truth"


complexity metaphor

I have written much about complexity in this blog, but find it remains perplexing and arcane to many. It is perplexing to me as well, but that's no excuse from working to understand this concept and its critical importance to our future. The most direct way to state that importance is to say we live in a complex world, but don't have the mental and conceptual tools to deal with it. Our culture is firmly grounded in understanding the world through a mesh of fixed rules and relationships revealed by cutting up the world in separate, distinct little pieces. The rules may be complicated, say the theories of quantum mechanics, but they only apply to a small part of our real, material universe. And we call what they say to us--the truth.

Ironically, the most important phenomena we encounter cannot be described by any of these rules. This means we cannot count on the prescriptions, policies, and remedial acts we take to resolve the problems we face. Maybe they do something positive for a while, but the messes that threaten our worlds and ways of life always reappear, often at just the wrong moments. That's because complex system are not amenable to be reduced to finite sets of rules. We can find domains where the behavior is more or less predictable, at least for some time. But then from one moment to the next, the system falls apart or jumps into another completely behavior pattern.

The financial system is an example of complexity. Economists and financial whizzes believed they could program the whole system such that it could create vast wealth for those who understand and ran the programs. And they were right for some time. Enormous amounts of wealth ran to the owners of the programs until in a literal flash, the whole system collapsed. Complexity works that way. Everything seems hunky dory until some lever gets pushed a little too hard, and the system doesn't just respond proportionately, it jumps unpredictably into a whole new state.

Obviously, this can and does produce catastrophic outcomes for those that depend on the system for their livelihood, health, or well-being in general terms. Their is no escape from this possibility, hard as those in charge or affected would like to believe. Unfortunately for all of us, this fundamental truth has been ignored at virtually every opportunity to come to terms with reality. Why? There are a couple of reasons. One is that we still believe we can find the right answer to every problem, large or small. The other is the obverse—our society won't tolerate our leaders at any level, from the White House to the school house, to admit or infer that they do not have a positive answer. All of our models used to strategize or plan for the future incorporate this infallibility. All of our institutional decision-making systems assume we know the right answer.

There is a way around this dilemma--pragmatism in one form or another. Pragmatism is a formal philosophical concept, but it has a fairly simple meaning to me. Most simply put, pragmatism argues that the truth can only emerge out of action in the world, not via theories and isolated experiments. Truth is contingent on achieving the end result being sought, say economic equality. Successful applications of practice that end up with the desired results are pragmatically true. The actors involved cannot predict the outcomes of their efforts in advance, but they can learn from their experience how to modify the next act to move closer to the target. You might even say that great artists are pragmatists at heart. They keep perfecting their techniques until beauty emerges. There's no theory to explain the outcomes, even though they may have started with technical teachings in a school of fine arts.

A political system of governance that is built around an oppositional structure cannot cope with complexity, especially through the proffering of simplistic solutions to the problems that have been refractory to such solutions, whether coming from the left or the right. This is true of all sorts of problems and normative programs. Economic growth, as THE solution, has produced benefits for many in the past, but today it is failing to create well-being to many in spite of quantitative increases in wealth, and has created a huge loss in a critical social norm, that of economic equality. Those who argue that the solutions to these and many other big problems, like climate change, is only a matter of doing it my way are all wrong. Complexity demands that arguments are limited only to the next step to take, admitting out loud that we will have to watch and learn and repeat the process over and over. The answers certainly do not lie in the loudness of the arguments.

More to come.

A Political Detour


detour signs

It's a little after 8pm and I'm already pretty sad. I guess I have taken a sea change in the Congress as a given. I might come back later and write a coda. I usually watch the ABC national news with Diane Sawyer who made a couple of comments today and yesterday I take issue with.

Yesterday, she announced that ABC would be focusing on China shortly using words close to "to understand what it takes to stay ahead of them," Today she made a gratuitous remark about watching democracy in action today. I would rather call today an example of plutocracy in action. Certainly there were serious differences at play, but the obscene amount of money being spent to influence voters, mostly with empty promises, misleading "facts," or nasty things about mostly good people overwhelms the ability of candidates to be responsive to their local electorates. The local news station showed images of previous elections, each of which was the nastiest in history, going back to Jefferson's era. But at no time has the power of the media been able to blast these messages at a decibel level and frequency such as they can today. Right now, the only good thing that has happened is that I am spared the need to listen to all these ads if I want to watch the news.

Both Sawyer's comments are relevant to my favorite topic, sustainability. Economics and political science, one with the central notion of allocating scarcity, and the other with its focus on hegemony and power, but usually related to the protection of access to scarce goods needs, to be completely rethought in a world where scarcity is real and material, not merely a measure of the gap between what people want and how much is available. Competition on a small scale may be good for the economy and for innovation, but it is deadly on the global scale. We know it leads to the destruction ofwar, and as the Earth's resources become materially scarce this potential looms ever larger. Our fellow species on the Planet know—it's in their genes—that unfettered competition leads to extinction.

Discosure: I am a life-long Democrat as well as a life-long democrat. But my inherent partisanship is not the issue that is nagging at me tonight. The campaign rhetoric overwhelmingly reduces issues that have arisen out of complexity to almost idiotic, simplistic complaints and putative solutions. Without appreciating and responding to the complexity of the modern world, physically, socially, and economically, nothing, either red or blue or green, is going to make life much better. Rather, we are likely to see all the things people believe they are going to get from our democratically elected representatives fail to materialize.

Justice O. W. Holmes is reputed to have said, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." Not only for civilized behavior, of which there seems to be less all the time, but for the public resources that any civilization inevitably rests upon. It's not the taxes that have brought such discomfort to our country, it's a plutocratic economic system that has enriched so few at the expense of so many. We can always do better in the fairness and productivity of our taxation schemes, but not when so many powerful interests reach their hand into the pot. Those who believe that no taxes, the ultimate libertarian goal, will bring them freedom are sorely mistaken. Again, perhaps this seemed to be true when the Earth was empty and there was always another place to move to.

Kenneth Boulding coined the phrase "Spaceship Earth." Tonight his words seem more relevant than ever before. Everything is indeed interconnected. We cannot hope to "win" an economic competition with China. We have not learned how to make the rich richer without impoverishing so many others. People do need one another. No man is indeed an island.

Sorry for the rant, but I truly believe that there are no winners today in the US. We are all the worse for the dumbing down of critical issues. There is much work to be done on many fronts. No one has the right answers. There are no such right answers in a complex world. Neither in blue or in red states or in any one party or another. We can move forward only by trying new ways, certainly not falling back on governance schemes that have already failed, and that will take cooperation, not competition or ideological opposition. Sustainability, the possibility of flourishing, did not fare well today.