January 2011 Archives

In God ??? We Trust

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I read an intriguing story in Citizen Renaissance the other day about the upward trend in trust for institutions in the UK, but not in the US.

The shift of Trust in institutions from West to East continues, as the emerging economies of Brazil, China and India begin to translate their economic strength and authority into tangible Trust numbers. Meanwhile, the US - now officially a sceptical nation - dips to a new Trust low, pretty much alongside Russia. Together with the UK and Ireland, the US sees a (not unexpected) freefall in Trust for its Banking Sector since 2008 (with Ireland scoring an all-time Barometer low of 6% in this regard).
Overall, NGOs score well and ‘most trusted’ of the four major institutions of Business, Government, NGOs and Media. Of these, once again, Media is the big loser.
Trust builds when people make positive assessments of the way other individuals or the institutions they stand for keep their promises. When we have no personal experiences to guide us, we can rely only on the voices of society, telling us stories about used car salesmen and the like. When promises are broken, for any reason, trust takes a nosedive. At the same time, the potential for angry responses to disappointments and serious interruptions in the flow of everyday life goes up. The two are inversely correlated. Loss of trust is a sign of broken promises in the past. Anger shows up when a broken promise in the present triggers memories of those unsatisfying moments in the past. The target of the anger is generally clueless as to why the party blew up, much less as to how to cope with it.

Whole societies can rise up in anger under the worst of conditions, as we are seeing in Egypt right now. Without condoning Mubarak’s response in any way, he may be asking himself, after a protracted period of disconnect with people whom he asked for their trust, why they are so angry, and is probably at a loss to find an effective way to quell the anger. Whatever he promises now will not be heard as legitimate. From a purely ontological perspective of anger and its causes, not a political one, Mubarak hasn’t a chance of remaining in office except by a strategy of repression.

There’s a warning here for the US, although by no means is our situation the same as in Egypt. There is a danger in invoking the American Dream as a promise of a life that all citizens can attain. Failure to keep the promise, an outcome that is virtually certain in the short span of electoral terms of political leaders and parties, creates anger that can be assuaged only by blaming the one who made the promise or is the symbol of the institution that did. There is a strange irony at work here. The most articulate leaders are more at risk than the mumblers and bumblers. Their promises are easily lost.

The Citizen Renaissance story adds some support to my continuing rant about the dark side of many social media that work on creating friends, like Facebook. Trust among users of these shows a downward trend in the polls on which the story is based.

A further trend, first noted in 2009 and 2010, sees a dip in peer-to-peer trust, as friendship takes a bit of a hit. This is a consequence maybe of The Zuckerburg Effect - an exponential rise in the number of (on-line) friends creating more distance (and, ergo, less trust) in the core friendship itself.

I have argued that this unintended consequence has lasting effects on particularly the young users who are still developing their innermost sense of trust. They do not appear to be developing the strong ties that friendship can provide whenever others are needed to rescue someone from a bad place. Although I cannot point to explicit data, I expect that this failing will play out as lack of trust in social institutions, as these young technophiles grow older and enter the flow of public life more fully.

We learn and embody our general assessments about trust through experience. The ties that Facebook and other similar social media create are “weak” because they do not engender trust and empathy, two critical qualities in “strong’ ties of friendship. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel empathetic toward someone out of view. Putting yourself in another’s place to understand what is going on over there and then respond, defines empathy. It is, perhaps, impossible to be empathetic when only hearing the words, but not observing the body. Weak ties are not effective builders of trust because they do not serve as primary conduits for the exchange of requests and promises, the two linguistic prerequisites for the generation and destruction of trust. A flourishing society simply cannot be build other than on a strong foundation of trust.

Another Slant on "Winning the Future"


I am not the only one who questioned the idea of winning the future. Jamais Cascio, one of the best-known futurists on the Web, agrees. Here's a bit, "When thinking about the future, 'winning' is a terrible metaphor." His whole piece is at Open the Future.

Reflecting after the SOTU Speech

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spaceship earth

The themes of the President's State of the Union speech that stood out most for me were: we can win the future and many references to the American Dream. I voted for Obama and am a loyal Democrat, but I cannot accept all this rhetoric as a positive steps toward the goals I believe I share with him. I appreciate the need to tread lightly upon the steps of political correctness, and offer a positive image at the same time.

But "win the future" is a very poor rallying cry. Ontologically and grammatically, it is doesn't work. We might be able to win in the future, whatever winning means. It would be more accurate to say something like the future is in our hands to create. But even that doesn't work in a complex world where the outcomes of our well-intentioned and carefully designed plans are only guesses.

So many of the troubles of today's world are tied to its complexity. It is increasingly difficult to predict outcomes of policies put into play. We cannot dictate that future by either economic or military hegemony, as we might have been able to do for a brief period after the Soviet collapse. The "American exceptionalism" mentioned several times during the speech is not any longer a rallying cry strong enough to force whatever is exceptional on other parts of the world. We are different for sure from much of the world. So winning, a prediction that suggests we are in a battle for something, doesn't offer, after a moment's reflection, anything connected to that Dream.

The Dream of America is most simply put as a society where all citizens enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are far from realizing that. Holding it out as a promise will certainly create anger and disappointment in those who cling to it as a magnet to pull them out of their dire straits when it fails to materialize in the near future. The Republican response, if I remember accurately, belittled the European countries that are imposing burdensome austerity programs. The only difference I see is that these nations are doing what must happen now where we are leaving the burdens to be borne by future Americans.

In our finite globe with limited resources that are showing stress and whose years can be counted in terms of decades or less, talk of winning is misleading at best. Green technology and eco-efficiency can't be counted on to solve the problems of a world with growing demands for these materials, backed up by claiming their moral right to share them. The sustainable development goals of the Brundtland Commission are trashed in the idea of winning. The best we can do is to figure out how to share the world with the other 95% of its inhabitants. Keeping waving the Dream before us makes moves toward such sharing even more problematic than they already are.

It's maybe too much to ask a sitting President faced with an angry and obstreperous opposition to tell the truth to his country. In times past in an empty world with fewer mouths to feed and less cars on the road, it might have been actually possible to win, in the sense of some bounded economic game, like Monopoly. The State of the World, as opposed to the Union, is not strong as Obama claimed at the end, like so many Presidents before him have said. Is it healthy or flourishing? Do its citizens live dignified lives? Are all realizing their inalienable rights? Is it the fair society that also anchors the American Dream?

Before talking about winning shouldn't, we be talking about staying in the game? The idea of winning should have disappeared the minute we saw the magnificent photo of Planet Earth from space. The Sputnik moment that triggered the program that enabled the photo was not only a rallying cry, as Obama use it; it was the spark that ultimately has forced us to accept the finitude of Spaceship Earth as Kenneth Boulding named our planet.

Still Trying to Go One Up On Nature


genome cartoon

The Boston Globe carried a story yesterday about a the efforts of a group of scientists working to release the secrets of plant genomes. The aim, says the author Carolyn Johnson, is to figure out what makes dark chocolate so good and solve other mysteries of taste and flavor.

“We can breed potentially for types of plants with higher levels of a certain kind of flavor — fruity notes, raisiny notes, nutty notes . . . it will help us to understand the genetic basis of flavor,’’ said Mark Guiltinan, a professor of plant molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University. “Especially the gourmet, high-end chocolate manufacturers are interested.’’

Not so fast. Why are we still spending time and money to gain knowledge to improve on the food we eat? Even without knowing the genome of tomatoes or strawberries, plant breeders have managed to do away with all the taste I remember from my long-gone youth. Maybe we will grow cacao beans that taste like spinach. I, for one, am happy with plain old ordinary produce. The money being spent on these projects would be much better spent on social science that could reveal why so many people suffer from malnutrition in spite of our overstuffed supermarkets, or why so many people go to bed hungry all over the globe.

The scientists Johnson quoted are a bit defensive about the brouhaha that already surrounds genetically-modified organism. They make an argument that genetic information will allow breeders to develop strains that are more resistant to natural stresses.

Instead of using the genome as a resource for making genetically modified foods, many researchers are focused on finding ways to use the genetic information to breed better plants. With greater information about the genetic basis of different traits, breeders might be able to make more informed choices about which plants to select and cross-breed.
The biggest opportunity may come in breeding plants that are naturally more resistant to disease, pests, or droughts — allowing farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides or allowing a crop to thrive in different types of environmental conditions.

Monsanto must be reading every paper being published in this area, if not funding much of the research. I can see it coming: Roundup-ready, square strawberries that taste like vanilla milk shakes. Wendell Berry, whose work I am using in a couple of course, would be horrified I believe. Asked about GMO's a few years ago, he said,

"The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. And the kind of agriculture we're talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can't do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us to do here? That's the critical issue."

Anyway the tastiest fruits I know come from my wife's blackberry and raspberry picking in the Maine brambles.

Unfulfilled Promises


pippa passes stone

Picking up from the last post, the second question David asked a few blogs ago was to clarify my statement, "Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world of unfulfilled promises." I need to lay out a few premises underlying this statement first. One clue comes from this famous verse from Robert Browning's poem "Pippa Passes" that I used to lead off the first chapter in my book.

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!

(Incidental intelligence, I discovered a tiny town in Kentucky named Pippa Passes. Its founders believed they had discovered heaven on Earth.)

First a rather obvious, but important, observation. If all were right with the world as it is now, our attention would not fall on what is missing. If, in this wonderful romantic poem, only the flight of the lark were missing, we might focus on trying to understand why, and then act to bring it back, but would not pay attention to anything else. We would not begin to think about failures of the larger system to provide us with the rightness we were expecting from the world. An Edenic image, but one that helps to explain my statement.

If we can bracket the idyllic image for a moment, Browning is saying when we realize, that is, are conscious of the presence of everything that makes life "right," we may simply become one with the world, and let our cares go. Pippa, a worker in a silk mill, has but a single day off from her labors each year, and walks through the woods on that day singing this song. As she wanders along, she comes within earshot of several groups of unhappy or unsavory characters who, upon hearing the song, turn away from their errant ways towards the world of Pippa's song.

The rightness in “Pippa Passes” is metaphorically equivalent to my use of flourishing. Both refer to a state of being where one's cares disappear. The only consciousness present is that of Being. There is literally nothing to take care of. In Pippa's case, we may assume that this state is momentary, and will vanish when she returns to the hardship of labor in the Victorian English mill.

Although rightness is a holistic, all encompassing emergent quality, as is flourishing, it is, similarly, constituted by many elements. The first seven lines of the poem tell us what these are for Pippa. These specific worldly features did not just appear magically at the time of her walk in the woods. At earlier times, Pippa must have learned, through direct instruction or by listening to the voices of culture, what was needed for such rightness to appear. A logically equivalent way to state this is that, if these conditions were to show up, then all would be right with the world. Over time, this understanding is transformed linguistically into a set of promises. If "A" becomes present, then "B” will follow, or I promise that “D” will follow if you do “C.”

It is only a very small jump to the statement I made. The “I” in the last sentence above becomes the voice of culture, rather than any single source. From a cultural perspective, our everyday life is created by following a set of norms and beliefs. Some are idiosyncratic and singular to individuals, but others are widely shared throughout the culture. At the top of what might be deemed a cultural scale of importance are those distinctions that refer to the good life and to the rightness that would constitute it. From early age, everyone is, explicitly or not, being promised that our world will be “all right” if all would do this or that.

Leaving this poetical source, I often call upon the work of the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz to ground my theories of human action. Referring to his work, the planner, R. S. Bolan wrote, “Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.”

The last phrase is equivalent to saying the purpose of action is positive in the sense of bringing into existence something that is missing in the moment. We are always acting to correct what is wrong or to obtain what is not present (that we believe is promised to us). The conventional driver for action in our society is the satisfaction of needs. To need something is to say I have to act to make it appear in the present. The idea of “need” is tightly bound to the notion of insatiability--we will always have needs to satisfy. The trap of this vicious circle should be clear. The world can never be right for us; something will always be missing. I cannot flourish in the sense of being fulfilled or living in a moment when I am not driven to act toward to fill up an empty space in my life. The Buddha came to understand the treadmill of this existential reasoning and the suffering it causes. Eventually, the Sisyphean consequences of the treadmill will lead to some form of suffering.

Now imagine, that one becomes conscious of not just one or two but many missing pieces in the puzzle of life that brings flourishing only when it is complete; so many missing pieces that the task of completing the puzzle looks impossible. One common response is to give up the dream of completeness, stuff it, and suffer. Another, moving toward my statement at the beginning being addressed, is to ask for help. If only a few pieces are missing, the sources of help may be known, but if the puzzle is in great disarray, the only choice is to utter a cry in the wilderness and hope to be heard.

For centuries, that call was answered by the voices of various faiths promising satisfaction in the present or afterlife. The Enlightenment came along with its promise of creating the world of goodness or flourishing through reason. Then came the modern era merging these with a new promise that technology and other fruits of our newfound scientific knowledge would do the job. By widespread common agreement, “All’s not right with the world.” Some claim to know the causes and offer specific paths to fix things. For many others, the “wrongness” or the absence of rightness (flourishing) is pervasive and without known causes, or with so many interwoven causes that they are overwhelmed without a clear path to follow. They can only broadcast their concerns to whole world.

So now I can complete my explanation. Sustainability is nothing new. It pertains to a generic property of systems to produce something we want over long periods. People, like me, looking for a way to attract attention to these cries being broadcast to the world fell upon the word, sustainability, to capture the longings for what has been promised over the ages. Sustainability is not the primary goal; it is flourishing or rightness or goodness or any measure of the whole. Without these promises in the background, the recognition of the missing parts of life would never happen, and the emergence of “sustainability” on the global agenda would not have happened. Smaller parts of the puzzle do not give to concerns over “sustainability.” When the financial system collapsed, the calls from the public were mere to fix it right now. The intensity of these cries, and those heard whenever the present moment needs attention is always in proportion to the weight of the broken promises in the background.

(Thanks to Ruthette for the photo)

Domination Keeps Flourishing at Bay

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maslow pyramid

David commented on the last post asking me to expand on two statements:

1) Flourishing needs a non-dominating culture to appear.

2) Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world of unfulfilled promises.

I'll take on the first one today. Flourishing, as I have been using it, refers to a state of Being in which the individual realizes a sense of wholeness or completion or perfection. The cares of the world recede for a moment or more. The positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihali defines it as "flow," a condition of "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

In my book, I use an example from the work of Abraham Maslow to describe a state of being. His attributes include, among others, justice, aliveness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, self-sufficiency, and another handful of similar qualities. I also refer to a description by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner speaks of what I would call flourishing in his own language, "people hunger for a world that has meaning and love, for a sense of aliveness, energy, and authenticity. For a life embedded in a community in which they are valued for who."

I do not think it is much of a jump to argue that such states of being cannot be found in any social system in which substantial numbers of people are dominated by others, acting on behalf of the state or any other institution demanding obedience forcing a person to act in contradiction to "who they most deeply are." They may possess many of the material trappings that satisfy the first few tiers of Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, but they cannot, with only a very few exceptions, rise to the upper level of self actualization. Very few human beings have been able to make it to the top under severe conditions of dominating oppression. Nelson Mandela managed to maintain his dignity (another facet of flourishing) even as he languished in jail. Vaclav Havel kept his spirit of flourishing alive under the repressive Soviet period in Czechoslovakia. And so have others across history, but the mass of humanity lack the inner being to flourish under such dominating circumstances.

Lerner speaks of authenticity, which is also a key feature for me. Authenticity means acting, as he says, out of a sense of who you are. It is very difficult to do that in a culture, like our present one, that exerts pressure, sometimes relentless, to behave according to the prevalent social norms. Social norms are critical in any civilized society, and are needed to establish the basic rules of that civility. But when they come to dominate everyday behavior, they produce inauthentic action that cannot produce the sense of being such as I list above.

There is a categorical difference between a norm that is grounded in a moral imperative, such as "Do not kill," and one that tells me I need to keep up with my neighbor or risk losing my identity. I cannot breech the first without vacating my place in the society. But I have two choices in the second case. If I do what they tell me out of conformity, I act inauthentically, and become dominated. If I do what they say completely as an act of my own, I become authentic and can avoid the domination of the cultural they ("One does . . ," or "They say to do . . ."). Escaping the domination by the cultural world we inhabit today is very difficult given the massive assault from media voices to do and believe whatever they say.

There is a third dominating force at play which operates very subtly, even in the absence of these first two dominating contexts. The most basic belief modern societies carry in the culture is that of reality. In our culture reality is built on an objective Cartesian world, positivism, and other analogous descriptions. I have argued in my book and elsewhere that that system of belief is fundamentally dominating. The objective world is one of absolute truths. The Earth is flat until it scientists tell us round. We understand the world through our scientific prowess.

This notion that there are truths to be found has spilled over into the sphere of everyday actions and to the opinions and assessments we make to coordinate our actions with others. Civility is possible only with coordinated acts reasonably free from coercion or domination. But if there is only one truth out there, then unless all parties agree on it there is no way to act together consensually. Any action short of consensual is dominating to some degree.

I often refer to the work of Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist, who has developed a novel theory to explain how living organisms acquire knowledge about the world. One sentence from his work sums up one of the most important ideas he has produced. Maturana says ". . .[in the world of objective reality] a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience." The consequences of this deep-seated cause of domination on flourishing are clear. We can work to remove the structural causes of domination (power and compulsive social norms) in our western world, but we will still not flourish until we expand the way we talk about what is real and true.

Anger, Violence, and Shame

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football violence Matt Bai, writing in the NYTimes today, asks a question that is on many minds in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, "Is the Anger Gone?"

For anyone who hoped that the tragedy in Tucson might jolt the political class into some new period of civility and reflection, suddenly subduing all the radio ranters and acid bloggers, the days that followed brought a cold reality.

He, like many others, is referring to the superficial tone of all public, not just political, rhetoric. If it were more civil, it would enable a wider range of responsiveness, but the apparent civility would only hide the angry tone of life in the US that continues to rumble beneath the surface.

Bai asked why we do not seem to be able to experience the kind of national epiphany that emerged from the "Army-McCarthy" hearings of the 60's.

Not all transformational moments entail violence. John Lewis Gaddis, the pre-eminent cold war scholar and Yale professor, sees a national turning point in 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy testified before a Senate subcommittee in what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The interrogation of McCarthy by Joseph Welch, an Army lawyer — “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” — resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.

“The whole McCarthy moment — the air just went out of it altogether,” Professor Gaddis says. “McCarthy was politically dead at that point and physically dead in three years.”

Bai's longing builds on many mistakes about the meaning of anger, violence, sham, and decency; mistakes that may help explain our apparent powerlessness in responding to a political world that seems to have gone over the top, to use today's vernacular. First, let's look at anger and violence.

Agreements to tone down the political rhetoric would be wonderful, but would not address the underlying causes of widespread anger. Temperate conversations always allow, but do not guarantee, more possibilities for agreement and coordination of action without coercion or domination. [This is the tie to my work on sustainability. Flourishing needs a non-dominating culture to appear.] Anger is a recognizable pattern of behavior that surfaces in situations where actors cannot find any ready and proven action held in their inner toolbox of possibilities that would serve to break the evident deadlock. By common agreement we call that pattern, anger, and label it as an emotion. It is very important to distinguish the emotion from the act that generally accompanies anger. Violence describes such an act, but is not the same as anger.

Violence can be and is all too frequently used as a tool of ideology with no emotion involved. Violence is at the extreme of many classes of action designed to get someone to do your bidding. Other means include reasoned arguments, compensation, pleadings, and so on. Anger does not always lead to violence, either. We talk about stuffing one's anger, meaning that we simply grit our teeth, restrain from responding to the immediate emotion until it subsides (at least superficially).

Anger arises in a situation where one party is demanding the other do something to resolve a breakdown in the action. It shows up when the flow has been relatively uneventful until a moment when it suddenly shifts to what would be described as anger by some observer, either an onlooker or either of the actors involved. The phenomenology, not psychology, of anger that I fall back upon in trying to explain human behavior suggests that the anger comes from a sudden emergence into consciousness of a prior unsatisfying experience that metaphorically (or similarly) pops into the present moment. The past becomes the present, and the party on which the anger is visited takes the place of the one present in the memory.

There is no way for that party to abate the anger because he or she hasn't a clue of where it is coming from. It's not in the scene at hand. The anger arises because the lack of effective responses at the moment in the past becomes the same for the present moment. With no strategies or tools stored in the body appropriate for the moment, emotions of all sorts become present. Fear accompanies sudden situations where one lacks coping capability. Strollers flee from the appearance of bears in the forest. Rangers may leave hurriedly, but not out of fear.

A long discussion for a blog, but a necessary one to begin to open up the meaning and origins of anger. If we want to defuse the violence that anger triggers, we must uncover and deal with the accumulated unfulfilled set of cultural and personal promises or dreams that reappear when the normal flow of action is seriously interrupted. And until we begin to delegitimate the use of violence in angry encounters, we will continue to see events like that in Tucson. Anger will be with us as long as people carry dreams or other forms of unrealized promises, presumably forever.

But violence, as either a physical or speech act, need not be the action of choice in angry moments. For that to happen, the existing normality must be replaced by something more benign. Not just a momentary armistice; a long period of cultural change is necessary. Such is the strategy in my work and book. Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world full of unfulfilled promises. Its prolonged absence has fueled anger strong enough to ignite revolutions. When the culture itself in the cause of the unfulfilled promises, then there is no other way but to change the culture. Anger management by any quick fix cannot work.


To finish this long blog post, the comparison to McCarthyism and the enormous impact of Joseph Welch's remonstration asking, Have you no sense of decency?" is not valid today. Shaming works only when there is a recognized societal norm that can be called upon when its absence becomes dreadfully present. McCarthy built his case on inflating the "Communist menace," and on adopting a bullying set of tactics. The times were gentler then. The embryonic television programming was full of unrealistic, but blissful, domestic situations. Walter Cronkite was the metaphor for calmness in the media. Violence, of course, was present, but it was not a norm in today's sense. The absence of publicly condoned violence set the ground for the immediate and powerful impact of Welch's statement. People, especially our leaders, were expected to act decently.

Shame has little or no power in a culture where violence is accepted as a normal part of public speech or of entertainment on the playing field and the many screens we watch today. To what extent shaming might work today, depends on the existence and power of a different and more benign norm. Norms are nothing more than widespread agreements on ways of acting in public (and in private). It is clear that no such norm exists. The public's ownership of 250,000,000 guns, designed only to do violence, is more than enough proof. So any form of shame aimed at violence simply will not work.

In any case, shaming has nothing to do with the anger that leads to violence. We must, if we are to avoid the tragedies of Oklahoma City or Tucson, engage in a widespread period of deep personal and public reflection to uncover and deal with the mass of unfulfilled dreams and promises that show up all too often with such tragic consequences. Those who would continue to keep these lingering, potential sources of anger alive, but have no real intention of or lack the capability for realizing them must be held as complicit in whatever tragedies occur in the future.

So Much for CSR


loan shark

I often write about the failure to move towards sustainability in spite of the best intentions of the actor. What is advertised as some kind of greening activities or a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) turns into greenwashing whether intended or not. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel prize for creating and providing microcredit, a rare and outstanding example of the business sector providing a model with the primary goal of alleviating poverty, one of the most critical steps in moving towards sustainability. Yunus's model, which was build on a new form of bank that he founded in Bangladesh, was not only a pure form of corporate social responsibility, but a profitable one at the same time. But now the underlying forces within capitalism have worked to turn the model 180 degrees and have put profit before social responsibility, threatening the system Yunus put into play.

Yunus writes in the New York Times,

In 1983, I founded Grameen Bank to provide small loans that people, especially poor women, could use to bring themselves out of poverty. At that time, I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks.

But it has. And as a result, many borrowers in India have been defaulting on their microloans, which could then result in lenders being driven out of business. India’s crisis points to a clear need to get microcredit back on track. . .

Commercialization has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance, and it indicates a worrying “mission drift” in the motivation of those lending to the poor. Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.

Yunus continues to explain this turn and to plead for some form of regulation to limit the entry of banks with a stronger motive to prey on the poor rather than assist them. He admits to have missed this possibility when he got started. There's a force at play here much like the one that subverted the "public" intentions of the US financial system, and was a factor in its recent collapse. The public purpose of the banking system is to provide capital to businesses so that the economy can prosper. That is their primary social responsibility. But when that goal was overwhelmed with the drive for profit, the system was undercut and eventually collapsed.

Although the circumstances are very different in Bangladesh, the pattern Yunus describes is much the same. And the same lessons can be gleaned. One is that social systems are complex, always with the possibility of all sorts of unintended consequences that may eventually subvert the very processes originally designed to keep the system healthy. Another is the fragility of the whole concept of corporate social responsibility in a capitalist system. The echoes of Milton Friedman's phrase, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” still reverberate long after its appearance in 1970.

Free Will and Violence?


free will The aftermath of the Tucson shootings continues to demonstrate that our [public] understanding of why people do what they do still rests on an old model. To say that people's actions are entirely internally motivated is to ignore much evidence to the contrary. I am not writing this to take aim at the specifics nor partisan aspects of the discussion, but to argue that all are off target.

To say that one is not responsible for the consequences of some action is not the same as saying that societal norms play no part. Anthropologists and sociologists have long noted that community norms are very strong motivators of private acts. In many of the cultures these scholars examined, the norms are relatively clear to all and form a coherent package. That is not the case with our highly diverse culture in the US. The libertarian end of the political spectrum would perhaps voice only a single norm--mind your own business--my life is mine to do anything I want other than what is illegal, and I question the legality of much of those laws. But others that create and maintain our norms have a more varied story to tell.

The point I want to make is that there are a lot of conflicting norms flying about. Some people will listen to and heed one set; others will follow another. My amateur sociologist side tells me that the louder and most authoritative presented norms will be the ones that show up more in action often than others. The shootings are an example of conflict resolution, gone terribly badly, but not so abnormal as to entirely dismiss the role of society in Loughner's acts.

Conflicts of all sorts are an inevitable consequence of social life. Private property and the laws associated with it emerged as a general way to avoid and settle arguments over material goods. But when the conflicts are over ideas, it's a different game. There are few laws to guide the arguments and counterarguments. As long as the conflicting parties claim that their idea is the only possible truth, the conflict can be settled only by the exercise of some sort of power. The Inquisition and religious wars were all justified on the defense on a particular interpretation of God's word.

But it not only the case for big conflicts; it is the same for two individuals that cannot coordinate actions toward a common goal. In the case at hand, the common goal is what kind of government should we have. There has never been a consensus on this. There has always been and always will be differences. Our democratic form of government was designed to live with this context without always going to war or to the use of some alternate form of coercion.

It has become different today. The arguments about what to do about governing have become increasingly full of strident and absolutist claims about what's the right (correct, not the opposite of left) answer to everything needing attention. The stakes in winning these arguments are immense in terms of control of the vast economic machinery of the US. We have seen an extraordinary period of conflict in our political system and expect to see even more in the few years ahead.

Now look at what are the norms to settle conflicts of all kinds. Violence has come to play an enormous role. On the big scale, we have become the warrior of the world, settling our differences at the end of a gun or lately via a drone. Our news media, the institution that was important historically for informing the nation, now shouts and rants as the norm. The content of much of goes for entertainment is filled with violence. Many, if not most, of the video games played by the young are based on violence. Bullying, both a physical and verbal form of violence, has reached a point where legal intervention is called for. And so on. It is not just the violence that matters; it is the message that one settles differences with a stick.

So back to Loughner. We do not and may never know what difference of opinion he was driven by, but that he chose a violent means to resolve it should not be surprising. The omnipresence of guns (some 250,000,00 in public hands according to the NRA) adds normality to the use of guns as a means of resolving irreconcilable differences. Armed robbery is a case where a robber believes that private property laws have no weight and, so, what you have should be mine.

All of this is not a defense of Loughner. I argue that the prevalence of guns and the degree that violence is promoted as the means to settle things contributes to individual acts of violence. We are not entirely free to act. We are always acting out of our own history. The history of insanity and its role in societal abnormal acts hinges to a large degree on the extent to which someone claims to be compelled to act. To claim that a societal context of violence, including speech, is not part of the "cause" of "senseless" acts is to ignore much of what we have learned about being human.

I have not become a political commentator all of a sudden. The way this terrible incident is being played out in all sorts of places is closely related to the "causes" of our unsustainable state of the world. The failure to recognize the cultural roots of actions and the role of norms has created institutions that produce pathological outcomes for both the humans and for the Planet. We are consumption addicts, not because we want be by free choice, but, at least in part, because the cultural voice keeps saying more, more, more. . .

It's the same process that promotes the use of violence to win arguments. We do need governments to keep us civil. We have known that ever since Hobbes wrote about the state of nature, where life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." If we are not to return to that kind of society, we need is a culture than replaces the norm of violent settlement of differences by some other non-violent way. It's almost January 20th, Martin Luther King Day. It's ironic that we will celebrate his life at the same time we are shutting our eyes to the prevalence of just the opposite way of settling differences, large and small.

Why are we so angry?

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David Brooks argues today that it's a mistake to attribute the shooting in Tucson to political vitriol. The shooter, he writes, shows every sign of being a violent schizophrenic, motivated by something other than the current angry political rhetoric. Thus, it is a case of overkill (intended) to blame one's political opponents and their spokespeople in the media for the tragedy. He writes,

In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it. Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin. Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

I agree with Brooks on this point, but, in his and others defense of political speech, he misses a much larger and important point. Angry acts arise, not from the moment of the action, but from a much older story of unfulfilled promises. It is something in the present that triggers the angry act, sometimes but not always the perpetrator(s) of the dissatisfaction carried in the stories of the past that shape action in the present.

The shooting puts a spotlight on the angry context of politics in general. The important question we should be asking is why does something that exists in the culture of many polities without creating so much rancor produce so much anger in the US. It's not just in political speech that we see the signs of anger. Murder, the epitome of anger, is about three times higher in the US than in our neighbor to the North, Canada. The ratio of gun ownership in the two, measured by percent households owning guns is about 4 to 3. There is no clear correlation with gun ownership, so the large number of homicides in the US would seem to come from other sources. There are many arguments for gun control, which I share, but this shooting, by it, adds little to these arguments. It would be more meaningful to examine the 70-80 deaths caused by guns everyday for all reasons, with suicide and murder roughly equal as the more relevant data.

What I see getting lost in the instant punditry is a focus on anger itself. Where does all the anger shown in political rhetoric, domestic violence, entertainment content, road rage, and other places in our culture come from? There is so much anger everywhere that anger management has become a big business. I found thousands of articles like the one quoted below pointing to services to "manage" anger. Many touted their programs leading off with something like, "Anger is a normal emotion, but . . .

One out of five Americans has an anger management problem. Anger is a natural human emotion and is nature's way of empowering us to "ward off" our perception of an attack or threat to our well being. The problem is not anger; the problem is the mismanagement of anger. Mismanaged anger and rage is the major cause of conflict in our personal and professional relationships. Domestic abuse, road rage, workplace violence, divorce, and addiction are just a few examples of what happens when anger is mismanaged.

I believe that this is all based on a misconception of the phenomena of anger. It is the same error made in managing the environment through greening. Neither program addresses underlying causes. If these root factors are not exposed and addressed, any management program can have only momentary effectiveness. In the model of human behavior on which I build my arguments for sustainability, emotions come forth when the immediate situation causes a breakdown in the flow of action so serious that there is nothing available to the [angry] actor to restore the flow toward the end that was envisioned in the first place.

Anger comes when the breakdown raises a story from the past about some other unfulfilled promise, linked to the immediate scene. The actor is driven by a desire to have that old promise fulfilled in the present. Often, as in many domestic interactions, the anger is visited upon the same person that is present in the old story. But in the case of stories that are based on some impersonal or diffuse cultural story, the anger alights on some person rarely involved in the inner story. That is why we label so many acts of political or other acts of public violence as senseless. I expect we would find unfulfilled promises at the root of all if we could probe the psyche of these angry. It may help to defuse the anger with some form of behavioral discipline, but the story of unfulfilled promises will still linger to show itself again in the future. It might help to recognize that it is always an observer (including the actor) of the action that labels the [emotional] act as anger. The cause is not the ascription of anger, but the unfulfilled promise that rose from the unconscious and entered the room.

The Tucson shooting again raises the issue of guns, but the more important issue to address is what's the source of all the societal anger. In my last post I used the American Dream as a metaphor for the set of promises underlying our political-economic-social system. That Dream is voiced mostly through political rhetoric, but lies deep in the psyche of Americans. When this country was born, it might have been appropriate and realistic to speak of such a dream, when there was so much of the Continent still empty in terms of space and cultural structure.

Is it still realistic? Some dream, perhaps, but not the same old story. The limits of the Earth are increasingly setting bounds on our efforts to find happiness. The doors to an equal share in our prosperity are slowly closing. The American exceptionalism that fueled the Dream is disappearing with the rise of many other countries. As long as our political system continues to generate stories that are full of empty or unrealizable promises, we will see more acts of political violence in the future. It is inevitable.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

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Shakespeare foresaw the tragedy of unmitigated anger to innocents caught in the ties of family conflicts. Gabrielle Giffords was a member of the extended political family we call our two-party system in the US. Political, like family, feuds can end up in bloodshed and harm, whether real or fictional. Anger is a powerful emotion that is commonly ascribed to action that leads to violence and produces harmful results.

According to many observers, we live in a particularly angry time. Stories of domestic violence or global terrorism are daily news. Efforts to calm seem less and less effective. One reason for this might be rooted in President Obama's comment following the shooting in Tucson when he said, "We will get to the bottom of this." He said something similarly after the financial system collapsed. But our fact-funding methods cannot do this job effectively. Nor can our systems of punishment, remedy, or compensation.

The problem lies, in part, in the failure to understand complexity. This tragedy and other sudden catastrophic or tragic events have no bottom. The causes lie somewhere outside of the analytic sphere. There is often no reasonable explanation why these events happen. But there may be if one looks at complexity as the context for the actions. Sudden shifts occur in complex systems when the system is stressed or stretched to a point where its stabilizing linkages (negative feedback) can no longer keep the system in a more or less stable state. In an instant in its relevant timescale, something snaps, in terms of a common metaphor for such noticeable changes.

The common error in analyzing catastrophic events is to stop whenever some part of the system appears to be the culprit. In the financial collapse, excess leveraging, was singled out as a principal cause. It may have been a major contributor, but surely many other factors were involved. Reading the stories about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, the cause is already presumed to be anger. Our politics is said to be full of vitriol or bile, ancient signs of anger, rooted in the body. The earliest healers had the right idea, based on their theory of humors, that the way to rid the patient of symptoms was to drain the appropriate humor. That their basic model of humors was wrong could explain why so often the patient failed to recover or improve.

So it is with anger today. We have the wrong model. We look for the cause of an angry act as an emotional response tied to the act itself. But anger does not come from the immediate context: it lies buried in the stories of the past in the actor's unconscious. What might the symbols in Palin's map (shown in the photo) have meant to the shooter? If he saw these as a target in the cross hairs of a scope would his interpretation been deemed abnormal? The metaphorical equivalent of a scope was everywhere in the political rhetoric of the past few campaigns. What led to the shooter's action will be the subject of much amateur and professional psychoanalysis. But that it took place in a political context, best typified by anger, strongly suggests that the roots causes lie much deeper than the aspects the news media and the fact-finders probe, especially at a time when instant answers are expected.

I don't know what the roots of the broad, societal anger are, but they are certainly deeper than unhappiness over health reform, taxes, the deficit, big government, and on and on. Anger management by throwing a slavering dog a bone won't work. In this case, the bone is usually some political promise to assuage the symptoms. It may work for a time, but the roots of the anger will linger and will trigger some action again.

I will hazard a guess where the roots lie, coming from my work about sustainability. Anger always comes from some unkept promise whether spoken by a real person or coming from the cultural voice. The American Dream is an example of the latter. These unspoken promises are the more serious in provoking anger because the person on whom the anger is laid is never the one that made the promises. I'll stick with the American Dream as the culprit, but only as a surrogate for whatever promises of the future we hear coming from the culture. The American Dream is the end of a process taking shape over many historical eras. Every culture has its dreams, the stories that constitute these cultures.

My book and its explanation for the unsustainable state of the world is based fundamentally on the failure of moderns to recognize that the stories that fuel societal action are just that, only stories. Two primary consequences follow. One is that most people live unsatisfying lives, never able to step off the treadmill of modern societies. The second is that the dissatisfaction eventually shows up as angry acts. Why is the United States the most violent domestic culture in the world? Maybe for this reason.

Polities as large as the United States cannot make promises they can keep. Even small families struggle. Anger is inevitable, but can be managed better than we do at present. Superficial efforts at turning the dreams to reality can't and won't work, except momentarily, perhaps. The dichotomous political system of the US cannot do more than offer Band-aids. Finding solutions in the dead words of the Constitution or of Adam Smith or Montesquieu is bound to be fruitless. Whatever these meant to the original speakers is now woven into the fabric of a different and ever-changing complex world. It is virtually impossible for explanations and solutions that might have worked far back into the past to work today.

Getting to the bottom of the system that causes angry and other untoward breakdowns in our cultural system will take coordinated and prolonged work. Getting to bottom of what causes anger in individuals will take a hard look at the story we use to create our identities and to justify our actions. I have written that the source of unsustainability is rooted in an existential error in the way we moderns believe we think and operate in an objective world. This shooting adds to the evidence that our system is broke and needs fixing, but not in the way we have been going. We are not Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, Americans or Afghans, rich or poor, Jew or Christian. We are simply human beings, seeking to discover what that means, and finding ways to flourish in a world full of all sorts of obstacles: some real and others manifest only in language--the stories we tell to ourselves. The tragedy in Tucson shows how far away we still are.

The End of Consumption[, as We Know It].



Ali commented on the last post that reducing consumption will not solve the problem of over-consumption, defined as consuming at rates that cause significant damage to the environment. His argument is that reducing consumption, ceteris paribus, has to be accompanied by increased savings that, unless they are stuffed into a mattress, re-enter the economy and produce more consumption somewhere else.

This appears to be a variant on the Jevons paradox or rebound effect where efficiency gains show up as increased consumption. Again if all other things were the same, reduced consumption can be viewed as a kind of personal efficiency gain: deriving the same level of satisfaction with less expenditure in the money economy. If this is set in stone, then there is little to do but wait for the waves to ash over Manhattan.

The only way out of this paradox, then, is to look at the ceteris paribus qualification, and ask what kind of change in the economic context might make the paradox vanish. The proponents of steady-state or no growth economics, Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and others, claim that the economic system does not need to grow forever. I am not enough of an economist to spell out the consequences of such a shift. One thing does seem likely: the role of banks would change, or at least the role of debt in the society would be drastically less than it is today. No growth does not mean no change. There could still be plenty of room for investments in innovations that improve life quality.

I accept that there are many problem and obstacles to creating and then maintaining such an economy. Getting there would require a massive redistribution of wealth among and within nations. It all seems so distant that we, like Ali, stop short of looking further at the ceteris paribus clause. Sorry, but we cannot avoid a serious examination of the foundations of modern culture, and expect to envision and and attain sustainability.

The absolutely necessary condition is that we re-conceive of what it means to be human. The model I have used in my book and teaching is a model of human action as oriented to caring, defined as finding satisfaction (perfection or completion) in a number of non-overlapping domains of concerns. The figure, taken from my book, shows these domains.


The key to the paradox is to recognize that concerns in virtually all these domains can be satisfied through transactions in the money economy and, alternatively, by activities that fall outside the conventional economic framework, that is, they are not priced. In conventional terms, all of the latter activities are deemed either leisure or unpriced work, giving a special place to leisure as superior to unpriced labor. I think this is an error. Leisure, in my scheme of things, is only one of the 11 categories. It makes more sense to me to split time into two kinds: time spent in the conventional economy as a producer or consumer, and time spent otherwise. Let me call this other time, "concernful" time."

We have become so used to and dependent upon market-based consumption to satisfy our basic human strivings that we have largely forgotten how live otherwise. We spend so much time on the treadmill of wage work that we have no time for concernful time. Everyone of the 11 domains suffers. That suffering shows up as psychological distress, unfulfilled relationships, disenchantment, etc. That's the source of the addiction. This is not a screed against consumptions without qualification, We must eat to live. Mary Douglas writes that consumption is the means by which we signal our intentions to others. Interestingly, she speaks about consumption, especially in non-market economies, as means to satisfy concerns in many of the domains in the figure. Maslow's hierarchy assumes that as we rise through the levels we gain more satisfaction from non-economic activities.

This argument is nothing entirely new, but gets lost in the complications of thinking about steady-state economies. I've run on too long for one day. I will continue in the next few posts. The take-away: if we continue to use homo economicus as the ontological structure of humankind, we are stuck in a paradox with no exit. Only if we replace that ontological foundation with one based on care, homo concernicus, will we be able to act out life as humans must, without destroying ourselves and the world in the process. Strong words, but critical ones. I'll expand on this in the next few posts, but not for a couple of days.

Electric Vehicles May Be Good But They're Not Perfect

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nissan leaf

The new all- electric vehicles from Chevrolet and Nissan are attracting a lot of attention, as is appropriate for such a new entry into the automobile market. There's no question that they are better for the environment than a Hummer, but not as much as most of the articles I have read claim. Slate reports:

According to the EPA, the Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon—106 MPG in the city and 92 MPG on the highway, with an estimated annual electricity cost of $561. That would make the Nissan Leaf (shown in the photo) about twice as efficient as the Prius. More important for its long-term viability, though, is that it's twice as fun.

I don't know how EPA makes the calculation, but it seemed to confuse the author of the piece when later in the story he wrote:

Electric motors are simply far more efficient than gasoline engines; the internal-combustion engine uses only a fraction of its fuel for forward motion (most of it is wasted on heat), while electric motors are 90 percent efficient. Today, that kind of efficiency sounds out of this world, and as you drive around in the Leaf—mine included an ostentatious "zero emission" sign plastered on one side—people will certainly notice you. I

"[T]hat kind of efficiency" is indeed out of the world. The author, Farhad Manjoo, failed to account for the energy lost in the production and delivery of the electricity to the car. I don't have these numbers at hand, but when the whole life cycle is considered, the apparent efficiency gains shrink. And as for the advertising of zero-emissions, Nissan should be hailed into liar's court. The PR people at Nissan conveniently overlooked emissions at the coal- or other fossil fuel-fired power plant. Great for the neighbors of the car owner, but not good for the neighbors of the generating plant. It's possible that they assumed the electricity would be coming from a hydroelectric or solar-powered plant, but there's not enough to matter.

This example of the mechanics of the car itself and the kind of faulty reporting about it that so often goes along with stories about some form of clean or green technology is a form of greenwashing that will do little or nothing to the creation of sustainability. In the long run, the those who are lulled by the 100-mpg EPA rating and by the promise of zero emissions may sit back and relax, assuming they have done their part for sustainability. No way. The connection of electric vehicles to sustainability is very complicated. The relative performance of different powertrains--internal combustion, all-electric, or hybrid--depends on what measure is being used. If you are concerned about global warming and greenhouse gases, the hybrid is the best because it generates some of the energy from its inertia and uses less CO2 producing fossil fuel. If you are concerned urban smog, the all-electric is the best.

If you really want to contribute to sustainability: walk, ride a bike, or use public transportation.

Growing Inequality--An Addendum to Yesterday's Blog Post


In another example of synchronicity, I stumbled into this excellent series of articles on inequality by Timothy Noah. The link is to the first of 10 separate articles. The whole series is available as a pdf. Noah presents a lot of good data showing the growth of inequality since about 1979. The gist of the trends are nicely displayed in a short slide show.

There is much too much in the series to reduce to blog size. Noah ends with these couple of paragraphs.

I find myself returning to the gut-level feeling expressed at the start of this series: I do not wish to live in a banana republic. There is a reason why, in years past, Americans scorned societies starkly divided into the privileged and the destitute. They were repellent. Is it my imagination, or do we hear less criticism of such societies today in the United States? Might it be harder for Americans to sustain in such discussions the necessary sense of moral superiority?

What is the ideal distribution of income in society? I couldn’t tell you, and historically much mischief has been accomplished by addressing this question too precisely. But I can tell you this: We’ve been headed in the wrong direction for far too long.

Sustainability demands that we reverse direction. It's long past time for all those touting their environmental sustainability initiatives to look much more seriously at their contributions to the continuing rise in inequality in the US. To be green, although better than not being green, is not enough to create environmental flourishing. More to the point of this blog, it says nothing about human flourishing. Like the upward carbon dioxide trends in the data from Mauna Loa, the inequality trends for the US continue their upward trend. There is little doubt that the policies of the new Congress will tilt the curves even more steeply upward.



Both the global system and the human societal systems are complex. There are limits to how much stress they can tolerate without jumping to some unknown new regime. "Let them eat cake," a perfect metaphor for inequality, still serves to connote the instability of social inequality. The carbon dioxide data are indisputable. Knowledge of the science of the global system suggests the possibility of a similar "revolutionary" shift. The time to address and reverse these trends is long overdue. They are graphic warnings that the possibility of flourishing is receding. To deny this possibility is to court unnecessary human and global catastrophe.

Out With the Old, In With the Old?

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Another year, another yowler. I looked back at the year-end and beginning blogs from the last two years as a jumping off place for this new year. Not much solid ground right now, so whatever jumping off I do has to be quite modest. Sustainability still has not entered our collective consciousness in spite of the torrent of its use and that of its distant cousin, green. The world of business and government moves merrily along selling its meager efforts as sustainability, avoiding any meaningful appreciation of the phenomena involved or any actions that would make a difference.

Meanwhile signs of unsustainability continue to add up to a pile that is already threatening to topple over and send this Planet into some unknown, but probably unfriendly place. Nicholas Kristof, in his New Year's weekend piece in the NYTimes, pointed to the evils of inequality, referring to the important book, The Spirit Level, a careful study of the correlation of social and individual harms and income inequality. Here are a few key quotes from Kristof.

John Steinbeck observed that, “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”

That insight, now confirmed by epidemiological studies, is worth bearing in mind at a time of such polarizing inequality that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent.

There’s growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.

It's no coincidence that James Carroll chose inequality for his first column of 2011. The statistics provided by Carroll are shameful.

If a just society is defined by the relationship between the well off and the very poor, we have big trouble. US Census data for 2010 show the widest rich-poor income gap on record. In 1968, the top 20 percent of Americans had about 7 times the income of those living below the poverty line. By 2008, that disparity had grown to about 13. By 2010, it had grown even further, to more than 14. The poverty level in 2010 was put at $21,954 for a family of four. In 2010, the percentage of Americans living below half of the poverty line (or about $11,000) had grown from 5.7 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent. That the rich get richer while the poor get poorer can seem a timeless cliché, yet something is steadily corroding America. The mythic land of equality has the largest income disparity of any Western nation. How can that be?

The once sensitive and dynamic political system in the US has aged badly and suffers from hardening of the arteries. The American Dream, always a myth, is no longer even a possibility. The enabling structures, education and access, for upward mobility are in a sad state of disrepair. The material structures, factories, roads, bridges, public transportation, that facilitate the economics of those that base their livelihood on real work are old and in need of rejuvenation. The financial, entertainment, and sports oligopolies that produce much of the inequality get a disproportionate share of the national wealth, continuing to make matters worse. Thomas Franks asked in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, wondering why so many people voted contrary to their own interests. A more apt title for today would be, What's the Matter with the US?

Much more was written in 2010 about global warming than about inequality and failures of social justice. I expect even more this year as the deniers and know-nothings take control of half of our legislative machinery. The incoming Chair of the House Science Committee Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) declared his intention to use the House Science and Technology Committee to investigate the "false statements" of climate scientists, and "subpoena" those who don't appear willingly. Sustainability requires that we put both our societal and environmental houses in order.

Neither of these rebuilding processes will work without leaping off of the path we are on. The twin grails of finding more oil and gas and making the energy system efficient enough to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for energy are mere chimaeras. The above-mentioned Congressman Hall also said about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the same interview in the Dallas News.

"As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out - all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week - that was tremendous to me," he said. "That we could deliver that kind of energy out there - even on an explosion."

As I wrote just before the holiday, efficiency is not the answer either. But efficiency drives business. It is a central tenet of the economic models used to plot public policy and business strategies. Growth depends on efficiency improvements. But growth cannot be the long-run strategy. There simply isn't enough Earth to allow for continuing growth in material terms. And certain not if growth adds to rather than reduces inequality.

These are a few very simple, pretty obvious truths about the world of today. Yet we are living out a new American dream (no caps this time). This is not a dream with the usual metaphorical expansiveness and promise of the American Dream (caps). It is the unreal visioning that comes from the illusions that ideology of all and any sorts inevitably create. It promises a false freedom based on unlimited choice and the ability to build walls between one and the world. The life-sustaining power of relationships and strong ties to others is enervated by social practices that lessen cultural bonds and destroy community.

I hope I can write about these inconvenient and unpleasant truths and their opposites in a convincing way this next year. To flourish, the quality that signals the presence of sustainability, we have to live in truth, as Vaclav Havel so eloquently wrote. These truths have a Janus-like quality. One face is the truth that looks back at the world as it is: staggering under the load of our species' excesses. The other is the vision of the world as it should and could be: one where flourishing is everywhere. The New Year begins with the month of January, aptly named for this god of myth.

The promises around which so many now construct their lives in our modern worlds are mostly false. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There may not even be a rainbow if the environment continues to collapse. Novelty and unlimited choice are, even if only passing fancies, full of hidden harms that erode our inner peace and satisfaction. I thought for a while that the vision of sustainability alone might be enough to promote a change in the culture, but I do not believe that it is close to being enough. It takes a Jason-like attack. Both sides of the truth are necessary. It's no fun being a Scrooge. Sustainability is not humbug, however. I will try this coming year to keep up a two-pronged attack, pointing out the folly (yes, folly) of our ways while arguing that there is another flourishing world out there waiting for us to create it. I look forward to all my readers' help in doing this. I just do not want to wait until that inconvenient truth becomes undeniable.