December 2010 Archives

Best Wishes for 2011

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I'm going to take a break until after New Years. I need some time away to get refreshed. I wish all a happy and productive 2011. But before I go, I have a few thoughts coming from my teaching at the Marlboro College Graduate Center MBA in Managing for Sustainability.

I have just finished teaching my course on sustainable consumption. The experience has been both illuminating and chastening. I have discovered that the treatment of consumption on which I based a significant part of my book, Sustainability by Design, is too simplistic to account for all the intricacies behind consumption--sustainable or not. The model of addiction I used remains convincing to me and fits the patterns that can be observed in the US and other affluent countries.

The underlying drives and motivations behind that pattern are diverse and often contradictory. The readings include explanations from the diverse fields of economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Each has a different cut on why people consume and where the roots of the motivations that lead to the nature and consequences of their choices in the marketplace lie. Economists tend to take, unsurprisingly, a rational utilitarian model that brackets the source of preferences and tastes. Anthropologists, Mary Douglas for example, see consumption as a form of communication, underpinning social actions that conform to community norms. I am convinced more by those who argue that consumption is driven more by cultural drivers than by preferences and tastes coming from some mysterious internal source.

Julie Schor recounts the French philosopher Diderot's tale of his dissatisfaction with his existing decor and furnishings upon receiving a new dressing gown. He replaced one article after another, deeming them unsuited to stand with the new acquisitions. Novelty forces the old to stand out and appear shabby in comparison. The modern version can be found in the need to replace whole systems every time a new piece of neat technology appears.

There's more but I wanted only to give you a taste of what we have covered. The students are about one-third of the way through their MBA program. Ours is a largely web-based distance learning program, with a few face-to-face weekends each trimester. Having been a more conventional teacher for some time previously, I am still learning how to teach via this so-called blended system of classroom instruction and web-based exercises. In any cases, the results this time are terrific. The centrality of consumption to sustainability comes through loud and clear. The complexity of the role and origins of consumption is understood as a warning not to take the conventional view in economics or marketing courses for granted. Useful, but not the last word.

We learned that consumption is central to cultural existence. Given the nature of the Marlboro program, many of the students have a strong advocacy background and come in with positions hostile to consumption. Now, we have learned to be more balanced. Sustainability as found through flourishing implies that people are leading satisfying and meaningful lives. To the extent (quite large in some societies) that consumption gives meaning, identity, and creates intersubjective or reciprocal relationships, it has to be considered with a much more nuanced and positive perspective. We all finished with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the social world in which we live but with a stronger basis to make that world sustainable.

Happy Holidays and a flourishing New Year.

Efficiency Does Not Equal Sustainability

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The current issue of The New Yorker has a well-developed article by David Owen (subscription needed to read the whole article) on the dilemma of efficiency improvements in energy usage. The phrase, more efficient, sounds at first like something that always should be good for us. The dilemma is that this is not always true is a paradox. Don't more efficient automobiles get more miles to the gallon? Isn't this the definition of efficiency?

The answer is yes to both. What could be bad about that? The hitch is that the potential savings are spent on doing more with the new, more efficient thing, or spending the the savings on something else. It's not like we should be so surprised. This economic phenomenon, now usually referred to as the "rebound" effect, was first noted in 1865 by William Stanley Jevons (pictured). Jevons was arguing that the new, more efficient, coal-burning steam engines would hasten, not extend, the depletion of England's coal reserves. The gist of his argument was simple: more efficient use would lead to more absolute consumption as more people invested in steam engines. This prediction was correct as coal usage grew enormously over time.

The same pattern can be found in other energy using devices found in today's homes, commercial buildings, and factories: automobile travel, air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, and more. The article delivers a lot of data to explain the causes for the outcomes, but sums it up tersely.

The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvent them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but it also make distant destinations seem closer, thereby enabling people to live in sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where they work and shop.
If the focus is on the individual, efficiency does produce more satisfaction whether measured in more miles driven or brighter lighting. And if that were all that mattered, Jevon's forecasts would not mean much. The paradox comes when you look at the aggregate effect of the resources consumed in increased activities or goods. If these were always plentiful, no need to worry. That was no more the case when Jevons wrote than it is today. The article ends with a key quote from Jevons,
At the end of “The Coal Question," Jevons concluded that Britain faced a choice between “brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.” His preference was for mediocrity, by which he meant something like “sustainability.”
Our world is different from his, but most of the central arguments of his book still apply. Steve Sorrell, who is a senior fellow at Sussex University and a co-editor of a recent comprehensive book on rebound, called “Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption,” told me, “I think the point may be that Jevons has yet to be disproved. It is rather hard to demonstrate the validity of his proposition, but certainly the historical evidence to date is wholly consistent with what he was arguing.” That might be something to think about as we climb into our plug-in hybrids and continue our journey, with ever-increasing efficiency, down the road paved with good intentions.

His choice of the word "mediocrity" needs careful thought. The industrial world in 1865 was exploding, bringing forth economic goods and services heretofore unimaginable. The promises of the Enlightenment thinkers and burgeoning technological innovations were being realized with no end in sight. Local environmental conditions were often deplorable, but nothing systematic like climate change was to be observed. Mediocre in his words was held to be a stasis along the road to unending progress. Jevons understood the inevitable choice created by expanding the economy versus the limits of the Earth's resources. His "brief greatness" has lasted almost a century and a half so far, underpinned by unheard of increases in efficiency and productivity. The Malthusian outcome of his model has been pushed into the future by the discovery of vastly larger resources that he could imagine, but in quantities more difficult to foresee today. Our present policies continue to ignore both Jevons and Malthus, at our peril.

The conditions of human beings in the modern world Jevons knew have improved to a state that few might deem mediocre, but his paradox is just as valid. We cannot build our future on the paradoxical foundation of efficiency. The growth it spawns, aggravated by aggressive economic growth policies, is unsustainable in a quantitative, global sense. We must learn that enough is enough is not just a mother's admonition to her children. Sustainability, as opposed to mediocrity, demands that we learn that what is most important to us is not more, but better.

The Commodification of College Degrees



The national news tonight featured a story about college cheating. It was not the usual talk about plagiarism, but rather about the prevalence of paying for "original" papers. The story featured "Ed," who has been making a very good living composing student papers on just about any subject. Ed counts his output over the years in the thousands.

Finding a source of papers is about as easy as buying a textbook on Amazon, the newscast asserts. Ed claims to get much of his input for the papers through Google searches and from Amazon book extracts. How lazy can the students be not to do the same searching and avoid the costs of buying something and passing off as their own. Getting caught is not the cost, as it is very hard to spot these papers. The elegant plagiarism software being increasingly used to screen for copied work won't find them. ABC News paid for a sample paper and gave it to 5 or 6 Professors to grade. Only one spotted it as a fake and only because it contained no reference to the sources used in class. She said she would have graded it anyway. It might not have gotten an A or B, but it would have ended up with a passing grade.

The cost is in the failure to learn. What matters more and more is the transcript, attesting to the skills obtained in a professionally oriented college degree program. It matters little whether there is any embedded knowledge that accompanies the piece of paper. College students are primarily responsible and accountable for what they take away from college, unlike children in secondary schools. These younger students are being short-changed by being treated mostly as test-taking machines, not as knowledge-hungry real people. I would not be at all surprised to read a paper someday that shows a strong correlation between high school education driven by testing and cheating in college.

These are not isolated cases. Some 70 percent of college students admit to some form of cheating, the story continues. Ed reports that the parents of some of his clients are paying for the papers and are not only cognizant of what their children are doing, but are completely complicit in the racket.

The sad thing about this story is the implication that many college students see themselves as mere commodities, preparing for a employment market where their value can be reduced to a piece of paper. I do not mean to completely devalue the importance of performance, but only to point to the failure to take anything away when one passes off somebody's work as their own. Flourishing is central to sustainability, as I write about it. One of the prime features of flourishing is authenticity--the ability to act on one's own deep-seated values, rather than been driven by the cultural voice of the crowd. These inner values take time and work to develop. They come, among many other sources, from the hard work of writing, and probing the meaning of whatever is at hand. It is very hard for these values to get embodied against the pressures of that crowd. Cheating completely short circuits the process and send the wrong signals to the place where authenticity dwells on our bodies. This is another example of what goes wrong when the market turns people and things into commodities.

Looking for the Christmas Spirit



Christmas season is always a time of contrasts. The Holy versus the commercial. The pious versus the semi- and non-believers. Bach and Handel's magnificent liturgical music versus Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. My own Holiday is Chanukah, which fell so early this year that it is already come and gone. I may well be blinded by my awareness of the contradictions about Christmas that I fail to see the similarity with Chanukah. The musical analogy is missing and the commercial aspect is perhaps more muted, although the serious observers offer gifts on every one of the eight days. But the gap between the believers and their opposites is to be found in both bodies of celebrants.

Gift giving is an ancient ritual used to signal reciprocity among members of one's extended family and community. The French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, developed an important theory on the importance of "the gift" in his book of the same name. The following few paragraphs are heavily edited extracts from the Mauss entry is Wikipedia.

Mauss argued that gifts in earlier cultures are never "free." They give rise to reciprocal exchange. Mauss's work began with his question,"What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?" His answer is that a gift is a social mechanism, imbued with "spiritual mechanisms", engaging the honor of both giver and receiver. Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost "magical ." The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them." The act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving - the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one's own liberality, honor and wealth.

The identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given and causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. It is never separated from the giver's being (inalienable) in the way a bought object becomes the property of the recipient (alienable). Because gifts are inalienable, they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Gift exchange leads to a mutual interdependence continuing over time between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, a "free" gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Mauss's argues that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange.

The most evident of Christmas rituals in the US is the purchasing and giving of gifts. Mobs of buyers jamming the malls on Black Friday is usually the leading feature of that evening's news. The profits of many retailers and their suppliers depends on sales during the holiday season, which has been extended backwards from Christmas day to Thanksgiving time and shows signs of starting even earlier.

The impoverished rituals of giving compared to Mauss's stories of earlier times are another sign of the diminished interpersonal ties and lack of solidarity marking our culture today. Mauss and his followers used the word "inalienable" to distinguish the kinds of interchange of goods that retained the spirit of the giver. Contrast this with the way the word is most present in our historical context: The inalienable right to life, liberty, and happiness. But it is not so widely known that "happiness" was substituted for "property" in the verbal voyage from John Locke's earlier declarations of the rights of man, and the Virginia Declaration that preceded the Nation's by only a few weeks. But the sense of the word is just the opposite of Mauss's usage. Property is delineated by ownership only, without regard to its source.

Fast forward to today and it becomes clear why it is so hard to find the spirit of Christmas in any place other than the mug of eggnog that has become the traditional quaff. I googled "Spirit of Christmas" and got little but tales of popular music and commercial endeavors. When I added "true" I got a collection that began to depart from the commercial character of the results of the first search, but not far. The ones that seem most relevant to me have to do with generosity, not of the value of the presents, but of the richness of "one's loving presence."

In this sense, one gives of him or herself, with no expectation of return. It might seem that this form of giving is not quite the same as Mauss's notion of reciprocity, but I believe that it carries the same significance. If I truly give someone a piece of me, I have created a tie that that will last forever. It is almost impossible to return that piece back to me without leaving a bit of it in place. And unless we become separated, and, even under those circumstances, I will get a piece from the recipient in return some time. Thus, as Mauss has told us, strong ties are created, building solidarity among us. This process is the true Christmas spirit, but cannot be found in the diminished exchange of the commodities we now call gifts. Although we return to Dickens's Tiny Tim at this season, we tend to watch it amidst a flurry of advertisements. Can we, in this era of commercialization and alienation, learn from Scrooge's transformation that the spirit lurks everywhere, waiting to be freed by the simplest of acts--the giving of gifts.

Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa Gets It Right

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Vargas Llosa

I saw this short statement by Mario Vargas Llosa, who is in Stockholm awaiting the award of his Nobel Prize for Literature.

Vargas Llosa, criticized "today’s fast-paced information society, saying it limits peoples’ depth of thinking and is a major problem for culture," singling out the the entertainment industry for producing what he called a culture of “banalization, frivolization, and superficiality."

“I think the audiovisual revolution, which is fantastic from a technological point of view, has introduced the idea that the main goal of culture is entertainment."

"Of course, culture is also entertainment, but if it is only entertainment, the result is the disappearance of long-range vision and deep preoccupation for basic questions . . . I think it is a major, major problem."

This came right on top of reading my students' assignments on the impacts of current consumption patterns. Many of them commented on the lack of depth is relationships, echoing Vargas Llosa. Objects in our lives serve many functions--mediating co-ordination with others, constructing our identities, serve as bridges to our distant ideals. The three characteristics mentioned by Vargas Llosa have little or no power to do anything like this, and function in a way to lower the possibility for sustainability. Changing the culture seems critical, but is excruciatingly difficult.

Narcissism and Normal Behavior

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The NYTimes recently carried an article about the debate about leaving or omitting narcissism in the forthcoming, updated version of the American Psychiatric Association’s influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM sets forth the authoritative criteria used by medical professionals to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Narcissism, the article points out, falls into the class of "so-called personality disorders." People with this characteristic behavior are "severely" disabled.

Narcissism was always a natural. Its technical definition describes a devastatingly vulnerable person, compensating for a deeply imprinted inadequacy with a desperate need for admiration, and a grandiose self-image. “When you see extreme examples of this or other personality disorders, you sit back and say: ‘Wow. It’s just stunning,’ ” said Dr. Darrel Regier, research director at the psychiatric association and co-director of the team updating the DSM. “But all of these disorders are on a continuum with more normal behavior, and people will immediately pick up on some of more annoying traits in the definition and run with it.”

The DSM criteria rest on the delicate balance between "normal" and "abnormal" behavior. This form of behavior draws its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome youth who, in escaping the seductive pursuit by the nymph Echo, came upon his reflection in a still pond. The goddess, Nemesis, responding to Echo's anguish on being rebuffed earlier, had directed Narcissus to the pond. Not knowing it was his own face he saw, he fell madly in love with it. After realizing it was himself that he saw, he beat himself, rent his clothes, and ultimately died of what was inevitably to be unrequited love. The fate of Narcissus is extreme, but the disease can cause much suffering in those diagnosed with it.

It is not clear to me what criteria are being applied in the decision to retain this behavioral "abnormality" or leave it out. The work of the panel revising the DSM is still going on. In any case, my take on this has to do with what is deemed normal and what is not. It is easy to spot a few actors displaying distinctly different behaviors in the hoi polloi, and assess them as abnormal. But as the number of the crowd displaying that behavior grows, what is abnormal gets more and more difficult to single out and what is deemed "pathological" rests on a certain degree of relativity. R. D. Laing, who saw mental illness as culturally dependent, famously defined insanity as a "perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world."

Cultural norms have been shifting for a while, driven by underlying beliefs and values, towards more autonomy, more independent actions, more selfishness, and other traits entirely consistent with what might be seen as narcissism by professionals. I wonder if the dilemma being faced by the redactors of the DSM is based on some set of "objective" factors, or, rather, on the fact that narcissism has become a culturally normal behavior? The political conversation in the US could easily be interpreted as a bunch of clones of Narcissus talking to one another.

The Magic in Smallness


big is better

I think the picture has it backwards. Fritz Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful has much to offer still 37 years after it was published. Perhaps the most persistent remnant is the concept of appropriate technology, developing and using tools fitted to the local culture. His concerns were mostly about the importing, then and now, of technology willy-nilly to the developing world without regard to how it would be used in practice as opposed to the designers' theory, and how it might negatively impact local cultural structure. He was one of the first to point to the weaknesses of GDP as an indicator of social well being. Implicit in much of his work is the idea that scale is important, and specifically that small-scale institutions are more appropriate for flourishing than the huge, complex systems of modern, industrial nations. Chapter 4, "Buddhist Economics," which remains the most memorable for me grew out of his examination of small, local economies.

Although Schumacher did not point explicitly to complexity as a, perhaps the, underlying constraint to governing large economies and polities to produce flourishing, I find it everywhere in his writing. In continuing to think about complexity as a subject for this blog, the importance of small scale is evident. Frances Westley, writing a chapter about managing real complex systems in Panachy offers a critical lesson for those who would take on complexity in their work towards sustainability. Within this largely theoretical and conceptual treatise, Westley writes of the exploits of a successful natural resource manager, Evan Karel. The article presents a careful analysis of why Karel was successful; a rare combination of personal commitment, perspicacity, political skills, and ability to adapt.

I add to this analysis an aspect not explicitly raised in her analysis: overall size of the system. The area Karel managed was a relatively well bounded ecosystem. It was small enough that he could observe the consequences of his efforts to manage in sufficient detail to discriminate between what seemed to work and what did not. He could speak with enough authority and legitimacy to convince those in positions to provide tools and institutional support to enable him to to modify the governance regime at critical junctures.

The scale of this system was small enough to allow learning and adaption, the essence of pragmatism. As scale gets greater, the system begins to exceed the capacity of the governor's ("manager" has too much of a mechanistic sense to use here) capacity to learn and understand the system, without having to reduce that learning to a set of deductively derived rules. Local economies, following Schumacher's notions, work to a large part because those involved can learn how the system works through practice, and can move continuously towards sustainability within the bounds of their economic community.

The recent health care reform legislation has a part designed to allow small-scale experiments designed to settle on bundles of practice that achieve what is defined as sustainability in the health care system: stable costs, positive health outcomes, and equality of access. A few have noted that this portion of the extraordinarily complex package may be the most important. I agree, and see this general approach as critical in moving toward sustainability in the larger context.

Even as I am becoming more and more aware and convinced that small-scale is essential(necessary, but not sufficient), global institutions continue to grow by leaps and bounds. Walmart, my bete noire and epitome of massive scale, this week announced their bid to obtain a controlling position in Massmart, the third largest distributor of consumer goods in South Africa. The monoliths continue to march along.