February 2011 Archives

Back to Basics 2 1/2: More about Concepts


My most important critic, my wife, told me that the last post was too complicated. What I was trying to say is important, so here is another try.

Flourishing or whatever normative end the actors are seeking are:

  1. qualities, not material things.
  2. not produced like widgets by machines.
  3. likely to be contested or disputed because concepts like these have no fixed constitutive basis. They are subject to varying definitions by different actors or groups of actors.

ideas head tree Sustainability, when spoken or written without reference to flourishing, well being environmental integrity or health or a similar end state is literally meaningless normatively. There is no reason whatsoever to act toward sustaining something unless and until you agree or declare what it is you are aiming at. So corporate or other organizational statements that talk about sustainability with no further description of what they aim to take care of are empty of meaning. My reading of the media and of corporate statements in general suggests to me that this is indeed the case. They see that they must add sustainability to corporate jargon or get left behind but are unclear themselves of what this really means.

There is enough consensus around the usual suspects to expect that this means the organizations have some sort of eco-efficiency program in place, less frequently a corporate social responsibility effort, and maybe something else. But they are not thinking or acting about the cumulative overall impact of business, the roles that consumption play human and environmental degradation, the impossibility of always growing, etc. In other words, they are not acting in the domain of sustainability which is, no matter what normative concept is being used, a condition of the whole system. This means they continue to be part of the problem, not the solution. Worse, their use of the term sustainability deflects their attention and that of others away from the root, systemic causes, allowing to conditions of the Planet to continue to deteriorate, perhaps getting closer to a point of no return.

Another serious consequence of the lack of consensus and contested nature of flourishing or other ends is that the coordinated efforts needed to cope with the problematic, unsustainable state of the world are virtually impossible to mount. Until actors agree on the meaning of the norms they are trying to achieve, they will always end up at cross purposes. That’s one of the challenges to the efforts of grass root organizations. They can be effective alone in a limited geographic or topical sphere, but have difficulty in joining forces.

The last point I want to make today is related to item 2 in the above list. Flourishing or again whatever is the agreed upon end can’t be produced by managing. Managing implies some sort of analytic knowledge and the belief that, by using this knowledge, a system can be controlled to produce the desired outputs. Maybe all right for widgets, but never for flourishing. Some sort of pragmatic framework is essential. Hopefully, actions that move the whole system to the place where flourishing will emerge can be found, but understanding how and if these actions work successfully or not is available only by observation after the fact. Truth, in the sense of what works, may eventually out, but only through wise and prudent hands and observant heads.

Taking a Week Off


I will be off-line until about March 7. We are heading south to escape the still very large piles of ice and snow that surround us here in Lexington. If I have time I'll leave something here tonight.

Back to Basics 2: Essentially Contested Concepts



Now that you have read my post claiming that sustainability has no meaning without naming what it is you want to sustain, let me move to the next step and name the thing. Well, not quite, because what we mostly talk about is not a thing at all; it is an immaterial quality. In the case of sustainability, I choose “flourishing,” But before discussing this quality further, I want to talk about other similar qualities and point out how common they are in everyone’s value set.

Here’s a few that comes quickly to the forefront: Liberty, Freedom, Love, Beauty, Security, Confidence, Justice, Fairness, Democracy, Obscenity, Health, Peace, and Happiness. None have any materiality. We cannot send a package of love or justice to our friends. We can and do ascribe derivative and constitutive measures to these, but at some point each one has meaning only as an appraisal or assessment of workings of some real system. Many of these are treated as if they were things and are spoken about as if they were. We watch William Holden act in the movie "Love is a many-splendored thing." Patrick Henry’s famous line, “Give me liberty or give me death,” alludes to these qualities as things. When we stop worrying about what to consume next, it is usually one of these kinds of concepts. President Bush tacitly alluded to a few of these when he told us to go shopping after the shock of 9/11. It's a sad commentary on our culture that we believe we can purchase these qualities in the marketplace.

Every one of these qualities is emergent from the workings of a system, and then only under certain circumstances. The many parts of the system have to be coordinated properly for the quality to emerge. All qualities in the list above require the involvement of human agents. None can emerge from a mechanical system alone, that is, from a machine. Security cannot be produced by technology alone, although it can assist the human agents inevitably involved in the system.

A second feature of these is that they are non-quantifiable, but they can be and are appraised all the time. The beauty of piece of art is a critical aspect of determining its price in the market or its place in a museum. The determination of what is a work of art in the first place fits into this category. Because these qualities involve human judgments, they often, maybe always, are contested or disputed. W. G. Gallie coined the phrase, essentially contested concepts (ECC), to describe them. [His paper, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 56 (1955 - 1956), pp. 167-198 is available only through libraries or, on the Internet, by paying for it.] Here are a few of Gallie’s own comments (He was a British philosopher (1912-98):

Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly " likely ", but as of permanent potential critical value to one's own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival use as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human peril of underestimating the value of one's opponents' positions. One very desirable consequence of the required recognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be expected to be a marked raising of the level of quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties. And this would mean prima facie, a justification of the continued competition for support and acknowledgement between the various contesting parties.

But as against this optimistic view the following darker considerations might be urged. So long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means. But once let the truth out of the bag-i.e., the essential contestedness of the concept in question-then this harmless if deluded hope may well be replaced by a ruthless decision to cut the cackle, to damn the heretics and to exterminate the unwanted.

All ECC’s have an internal richness.They cannot be evaluated along a single axis. The evaluation must be focused on the system as a whole. It is impossible to locate the single spigot from which justice flows. The individual properties that constitute an ECC can be determined, but the weights and ties to the overall ECC will be part of the disputations. The disputants’ values and beliefs are not fixed in time but change as the circumstances change. If any sort of consensual action is the goal, the agents must understand, reasonably, the other’s values and beliefs. Any agreement by the parties is conditional and may change in the future. Disputes cannot be resolved by reasonable, that is logical, argumentation, but continue unresolved based on “respectable” discussions. In practice, significant arguments over ECC’s appear only in discussions of what to do or in assessing how well a system is doing concerning the ECC. Arguments usually will be aggressive and defensive. The differences among agents is not due to confusion as may be claimed in the heat of the “battle. Even if consensus in far from present, continued discussion and argument assist in understanding the origins and currency of the ECC better.

A close reading of this discussion would provide those embroiled in the current political give-and-take much more understanding of the nature of their differences and of the inadequacy of the processes being used to come to a sufficient meeting of the minds to allow action. Such a process is the cornerstone of bipartisanship. Understanding the nature of ECC’s might explain the Glenn Beck’s of the media world or the anger of the Tea Partiers, but not help in actually moving toward common ground.

I will come back to some of these details in future posts because a clear understanding is “essential” in the sustainability world. Sustainability, in spite of being defined and discussed in hundreds of differing terms, is not an ECC. It is a straightforward definition connected to the performance of systems (See my previous basics post.) It is a concept without a core value. We should not but do, in practice, speak about sustainability without holding we want to sustain in mind. The confusion and disagreements that so often accompany discussions of sustainability usually relate to the quality to be sustained. Most of the time that quality is unnamed. Is it about social justice or about climate change or about whaling or whatever? Coordinated action is impossible with an agreement over what the actors want to sustain.

A second important issue surrounds the disassociated use of sustainability. Actors assume that their efforts to take care of some concern, say climate change, are being served by their actions under the generic rubric of sustainability (or green) offered up to them in the market or on the web or at a seminar, etc. They become satisfied that they are being effective in their caring, unaware that the actions they take may be far from aligned with the specifics of their concerns.

I have used flourishing as that quality to sustain. Others use terms like well-being or the good life or quality-of-life. All are ECC’s and fit the earlier discussion in this post. I prefer flourishing for many reasons. Its etymology connects it to natural origins: to the world from which our species evolved. We are part of the Earth’s web of life. It avoids the reification that has diminished the use of well-being and quality-of-life. These terms have been appropriated by economists and political scientists, and turned into things that can be measured, thus missing their qualitative, essentially contested nature. The "good life" is too anthropomorphic and applies only to our species. Flourishing with its natural world root applies to all life and even the inanimate world. We can speak about the flourishing of the oceans and be understood by others.

I will leave exploring the constitutive elements of the word (what do we mean by flourishing) for another post, but want to stress the importance of using and contesting this word here. ECC’s only rise to the level of public debate when some parties are concerned that ECC is not being taken care of. If we agree that are all free, there would no longer be a dispute and we would live happily ever after, until some recognize that they are no longer free.

Right now, many people all over the world recognize that neither they are nor the world is flourishing. Even more they realize that the absence of flourishing differs from our experiences, some going way back into distant historical eras. Attempts to restore and sustain flourishing (or its equivalent) have been ineffectual due to a lack of consensus on what these terms mean and on the constitutive conditions on which their emergence from the whole depends. We are most unfortunately stuck with the wrong model, that of a very complicated machine. Almost all actions toward “sustainability” are mistakenly aimed at only a part of the machine.

Meaningful, effective actions to enable flourishing to emerge from the Earth’s complex system rest critically on coming to a full understanding of the nature of ECC’s and of complexity with its derivative features of emergence and holism. Hillary Clinton made the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” famous. It will take more than a village to restore and maintain flourishing in our world. This cannot happen through the uncoordinated efforts of today. Sustainability must stop being used, without being specific about what we mean, as a marketing tool and a base for policy. There are many good intentions at work out there, but the actors cannot act in a coordinated fashion until their collective heart stops fibrillating.

EPA and Lehman Brothers


EPA seal


I certainly hope that Congress fails to cut the budget of EPA to the point where the Agency's capability to pass and enforce environmental regulation evaporates. I know that is the intent of the current mischief. Memories are very short in DC. Some of the newbies haven't a clue about the need for regulation. I am not a regulatory freak; I am just as opposed to "unnecessary" regulations as these folks. Regulations are essential to maintain the efficient operation of the market. Just about every free market economist, with the exception of the early Milton Friedman, accepts the need to move toward efficient, perfect markets. I have tried to outline a non-ideological argument that this intention is folly, and dangerous folly to boot.

  1. Markets fail to produce the Panglossian optimum outcome ("all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds") for many reasons. The desideratum is technically a Pareto efficient outcome (not a Panglossian world) that even the most conservative economists seek as their Grail. The irony of Pangloss's cheeriness is overlooked by most economists.

  2. Regulation is a standard economic instrument to restore Pareto efficiency to the market. Regulation is not only an instrument to obtain an efficient outcome. It can mitigate distortions that allow some to prosper unfairly at the expense of others. The EPA came into being because producers of goods were dumping their wastes into the environment for free. But it wasn't free. Those wastes harmed humans and the living and inanimate parts of the environment. Banks were regulated to stop unfair and inefficient practices. Insider trading gives a few access to information that others in the market lack, giving them an obvious and unfair advantage.

  3. Without regulation, small market failures can grow into big and ornery ones. The recent market collapse (failure) can be traced to many causes, but the weakening of regulations is accepted as one of the more important factors. The demise of Lehman Bros. is often used as a metaphor for the whole mess.

  4. Environmental regulations have a similar role. The environment, like the financial system, is a technically complex system. We can't understand it the same way we know how an automobile works. But we do know a lot about it, especially because, since the 1970's, we have gained more and more understanding of how much our well-being depends on having a healthy world. Regulations help keep the environment (a meager name for the web of life of which we are but a small part) from losing the capability to support us and to maintain its inherent wholeness. Arguments about the details of any regulation hinge on the cost of implementing the new rule and the benefits gained thereby. That's not the point of where I am going.

  5. When we let a market run completely free, we run the risk of collapse. We are facing, with the antics of the Congress, the possibility that the environment is to be freed from the regulatory restraints that have worked against much opposition and efforts to throw them away.

  6. In a sense the environment is a kind of market. I don't really think this of it way, but for the sake of my argument I'll let this image stand. We "buy" services from the market. We get the air we breathe; the water we drink, the fish we eat, and just about everything we use to live by. Nature donates most of this to us. We pay her back by restorative projects, but these are infinitesimal. Governments, who generally claim that they own the natural resources inside their boundaries, give or sell the right to get these goods from nature to extractors, fishermen, farmers and others. They in turn use them to produce all the goods and services we consume.

  7. Early on in the "environment era, the natural system was being stressed, but generally without showing systemic deterioration. A fishery lost here or these; a few lakes dying; oil spills here and there. But now the situation has changed. The impacts of our human economy on the natural world have begun to equal or outweigh historical change mechanisms. Some argue that we have moved into an entirely new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, named to indicate that human activities are significantly affecting the Earth's ecosystems. The Earth's climate, like the financial system, is complex. We know that there have been historical changes of geologic regimes. There is little argument over the existence of the Ice Ages. On the other hand, there is much argument over the current possibility of a major change in climatic behavior due to the emission of greenhouse gases. (Disclosure: I am a believer in the distinct possibility of such a regime change.)

  8. The parallels between the arguments used to justify the loosening of financial regulations and that being used to gut the EPA are striking. The environmental market can stand no more distortions and stresses than the financial world can. Both are complex and can collapse in an instant in spite of our beliefs that we are in control. There is one critically important difference. We think we can restore the health of the financial world by playing around with all sorts of economic tools. It is pure hubris of the most dangerous kind to assume we will be able to restore the Earth's health by playing around with analogous tools. The consequences of possible changes are huge in terms of life and livelihood. Once Lehman Brothers closed its doors, it was gone from the scene along with trillions in wealth. We simply cannot afford to take a similar chance with the world. The Earth won't go away, but it may close the market I spoke about above to many of its inhabitants. The environmental market needs regulation like all others. It is the most important market we have. Should it collapse, the loss of wealth would be immeasurable.

Back to Basics 1: What Does Sustainability Mean?

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dickinson possibility

I write occasionally about my classes at the Marlboro Graduate Center where I teach in a distance-learning-based MBA program in Managing for Sustainability. I am not altogether happy with the name as I tell the students and others that you cannot "manage" sustainability; you can only attain and maintain it. Manage has too much connection to control in suggesting that one can make a machine, system, or organization behave strictly according to some model. But this MBA program has, like only a handful of others, a curriculum and vision that is open to the idea of sustainability in the way I write and talk. While I teach there, I am reminded that it has been a long time since I went back to some of the basic ideas in my book and other writings. So I am starting a back-to-basics thread: posts that will show up from time to time.

Sustainability is a badly abused and misused term. It's almost always misused because those who speak it and act in its name do not understand what it means. It's abused when it is used by agents that know they do not understand it, but attempt to fool their customers and stakeholders in thinking that they do. The most important characteristic about sustainability is that it refers to nothing in particular. It is a generic property of some, often complex (more about this in another post), system describing the capability of the system to continuously produce some desired or interesting output over a reasonable length of time. It gathers meaning in a practical sense only when that output is named.

Sustainability is not customarily used for systems that are entirely machine like, for example, a mainframe computer. We might say these exemplars are durable or reliable but it would be very unusual to describe them as sustainable. Systems like this are amenable to being controlled when we believe we know how they respond to changes in inputs and environment (within limits). Sustainability is used in cases where the system is producing some desired output, but in a way we cannot describe using the kind of models and rules we can for machine-like systems. These rules and models may be very complicated, that is, hard to unscramble, but this is not the same as complex.

Sustainability carries a normative reference to whatever thing or quality we are interested in or, more importantly, care about and has no practical meaning without naming the output. Sustainability, except in an abstract, academic context, is meaningful only when something about the system being observed matters to the observers.

Since we cannot manage or control the (complex) system with confidence that it will respond to our interventions designed to change the outputs or to counteract perturbations affecting its workings, sustainability always comes wrapped in hopeful garb. We can do X or Y, but only hope they will keep the system going as we wish it to. Some operators and managers, mistakenly, put confidence limits around the expected behavior. This is not possible for complex systems. Another way to describe this is to say that sustainability refers to a possibility that the system will start or continue to act as desired.

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

Emily Dickinson (#657)

Further since we cannot attribute the interesting outputs to known rules and laws, we say that they emerge from the working of the system as a whole. They are "emergent properties." We can speak about the sustainability of a relationship between two people, using love as the output to be observed, or the sustainability of a masterpiece to produce beauty. Note that the output needs to be observable to count. If it were of no interest to anybody, sustainability would never arise as a concern. Also notice that in cases of complexity, the interesting output is generally some immaterial quality, subject to the assessment of the observers. The Mona Lisa is beautiful only so long as it evokes a response deemed, by cultural consent, to mean beauty.

The financial system of the United States is complex in the sense I describe above. It has some machine-like characteristics, but it is complex in its entirety. Those who learned how to reduce the system to a set of rules made a lot of money, but in so doing that they undid the internal set of relationships that had made the system sustainable for quite a long time. The machine stopped operating and the money stopped flowing for most. Some people continued to keep their buckets under the right spigot and kept getting richer.

Complexity showed in the loss of a few important emergent properties--security, confidence, and trust. When the system collapsed, that is, moved into a disconnected regime where the behavior was distinctly different, these normative outputs disappeared. Although the machine has been fixed to a degree, these very important societal qualities have not fully reappeared.

I can't remember anyone using the term, sustainability, with reference to the financial system collapse, perhaps because so much concern was riding on the material output, money. So, what is it that is so interesting or matters so much that lots of people are talking about sustainability? It's not clear, judging from the dither and fuzziness in so much of what is written or spoken under the umbrella of sustainability. That's going to be the subject of my next post in this series.

What David Brooks Did Not Say


social media bandwagon

Following my last post, David (not Brooks) commented that Brooks misses a bigger point. I had picked up only on his argument that lower material pursuits by today's workers could be a contribution to explanations for the jobless recovery from the Great Recession. David comments that materiality is still around; even in all the communication devices that Jared (his exemplar for this demographic cohort) covets still require resources from a world that is already overstressed. These electronic devices require scarce minerals, some coming from Congo and fueling the violence there.

The important message is that consumption has already reached a level far in excess of what the earth can continue to provide. The Jared's of today may (I see little evidence) be placing more importance on quality than quantity, but still remain in a state of blissful ignorance about the endangered state of the Earth. Focusing on such cultural shifts without harping on the underlying issue of a global footprint that fills at least a planet and a half adds to the general unconsciousness or plain denial that drives our political economy. Brooks's omissions create the same complacency that green labels and sustainable branding exercises do.

The focus in Brooks's article on electronic gadgets also misses the point that the connections these devices create quite easily cannot substitute for the strong ties that are the most important factors in the life quality that Jared claims to be seeking. The cultural messages he is getting about relationships have hidden the sources and meaning of true satisfaction--flourishing as I call it. As long as consumers consume based on what the cultural "they" say, rather than out of authenticity, the quality of life will be limited to a thin veneer. Beginning to understand that the quantity of materiality in life does not equate to well-being is a necessary first step to recovering the authentic self. Until the Jared's also begin to understand that the foundations of flourishing are built on care, not need, and on acting, not owning, their sought after well-being will continue to be fleeting.

On a closer reading, Brooks's article is confused. I think he has failed to see that one set of inauthentic goals (Sam's) is categorically the same as those of his grandson's (Jared).

Jared lives a much more intellectually diverse life than Sam. He loves Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and his iPhone apps. . . For Sam, income and living standards were synonymous. But for Jared, wealth and living standards have diverged. . . Jared’s other priorities also produce high quality-of-life gains without huge material and productivity improvements. He practically defines himself by what university he went to.

There is no difference between defining identity by the college one attended and by the income one earns. They are both based on external cultural norms. Sam's goal at least was pretty universal; Jared's smacks of elitism. I can find no inkling of a change in basic values over the two generations. Loving Facebook doesn't sound very satisfying to me, but I am closer to Sam's generation than Jared's. The symbolic icons used to position one in the cultural ladder are clearly different today from 1930. But if identity is based on such icons, it is very difficult to act in the authentic way commensurate with a high state of well being.

Away from Materialism?

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David Brooks continues to write thoughtful op-ed pieces in the NYTimes. This time he wrote about a shift in culture over a few generations from wealth seeking to looking more at the quality of experience. Using an example of a grandfather (Sam) and his grandson (Jared) and the ways they looked at the economic life, he argues that today's young wage earners are seeking different values.

First describing life early in the twentieth century, Brooks points to Sam:

Sam wasn’t the most refined person, but he understood that if he wanted to create a secure life for his family he had to create wealth.
Then jumping over a generation, he compared Jared's outlook:
But for Jared, wealth and living standards have diverged. He is more interested in the latter than the former. This means that Jared has some rich and meaningful experiences, but it has also led to problems. Every few months, new gizmos come out. Jared feels his life is getting better. Because he doesn’t fully grasp the increasingly important distinction between wealth and standard of living, he has the impression that he is also getting richer. As a result, he lives beyond his means. As Cowen notes, many of our recent difficulties stem from the fact that many Americans think they are richer than they are.

He raises this trend as an alternative explanation for the current economic stagnation to that proposed by Tyler Cowen in his eBook, “The Great Stagnation." Cowen argues that the economy has been stagnating since about 1974 when the last of the low-hanging economic fruit was plucked.

Brooks’ point is that the stagnated economy and consequent loss of job opportunities may be partly attributed to this change in values away from almost pure materialism of Sam where wealth is the primary indicator of status, rather than the disappearance of the low-hanging opportunities.

Even if what Brooks says is true, Jared is not yet in the mainstream if one pays attention to what our leaders and policy makers are saying and doing. We are still using the same economic policy models and indicators that were used in 1974, perhaps even more tilted toward wealth accumulation for the rich and powerful with little left over for the masses. I would like to believe Brooks is on target, but my non-scientific, but active, listening to consumer culture indicates otherwise. Malls are still the number one destination for many. People like Jared have little alternative but to seek satisfaction from non-materials means; their plans to keep up with the neighbors have been put on hold. Even Brooks notes that the Jared's out there are confused about how to make economic choices.

There is much circularity at play today. People are seeking alternate non-material means of life satisfaction because they have fewer resources to play in the consumer market game. To the extent they do go shopping, they tend to buy goods made in low-wage countries, adding to the forces of stagnation. Shifts away from goods in general and especially those made in the US leads to more job loss and pressure for lower wages. And, without some form of intervention, this cycle goes on and on. Not a pretty picture even for the new Jared's and their appreciation for the quality, not quantity, of life.

Finding Your Soul on Facebook

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The Huffington Post aired an article with the strange (to me) headline: "Facebook: A Spiritual Experience?" The author, Kelley Harrell, advertises herself as a Neoshaman and Priestess, ordained by Global Goddess, among other titles. Her webpage describes her practice as "an intertribal shamanic practice for Universal wellbeing..." It's important to have this background to understand the article and my response to it.

I think it is important to see the author's own words. She uses a vocabulary that is quite foreign to me.

Who sees what of you is one thing. What you see of others is another. The foremost insight Facebook gives into others is through status updates. Some use this blurb as an opportunity to keep others abreast of their morning coffee selection, what film they saw, or how they feel about sitting on the front porch. Some users are decidedly candid, sharing intensely personal insights. All of these are perfectly fine, though I often wonder if people considered that every status update they enter alters the collective consciousness of the planet, if they would say something more authentic? Because it does. If more people observed such, perhaps their updates would convey their soul's words, rather than their ego's. No contention, mind you. I like to know if my savvy friends think a film sucks, or they posted some gem about our healthcare system. But if the Internet is a manifestation of the collective conscious, and Facebook is its most prolific platform, could we improve how we thrive here if we chose to make social networking a more spiritual experience?
The thing about Facebook is that for it to be a social networking success, it demands radical honesty, as does spiritual growth. Indeed, that honesty can be selectively doled, based on privacy settings, interests entered, and the choice not to friend. Even in that closed scenario, I've known people whose pasts were still skillfully unearthed from the bowels of Facebook by some haunt, throwing them into a moment of panic. I think it is in that moment that the real life of Facebook thrives, not in the choice to friend or ignore, the celebrity who friends you, or the smackdown you give your old boyfriend. Certainly those things can be empowering and bring closure to karmic patterns. I think the real power of Facebook is that it's a cutting edge, worldwide awareness, within which the Universe holds up a mirror, as we all know it does from time to time, making sure we really do know where we stand on the trials, paths and joys of our lives. We can look into the bytes of our past and make an empowered choice based on the free will of our soulful present.

In any number of posts to this blog, I have been saying quite the opposite. Social networking technologies and the software that runs them subtracts an essential part of the context necessary to interconnect at the level of soul, if we can ever connect that intimately. I should start by saying I do not believe in a cosmic consciousness, and in any case, I don't see its relevance to the arguments Harrell is making. The primary feature of all of social networks is their facility in creating interconnection. There is no argument with that. These technologies have introduced a means to connect to a veritable myriad of others and pass information throughout the web at the speed of light.

To claim that they can create a spiritual experience seems to me to be too much. Using spiritual in the same breath as Facebook sounded strange to me so I went to the Internet to see what others say about it. I try not to use Wikipedia as the source of all knowledge but, in this case, their description captured well what I found in general.

Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality; an inner path meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; such practices often lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature cosmos; or with the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”

The closest I could come to connect this description with the Huffington post piece was through the reference to "connectedness with larger reality." I don't believe a network of people fits this description. Yes, it is larger in number but not in going beyond the everyday dimensions of reality. Relating to or caring for friends (Facebook's jargon for other people in your life) falls in a different domain from spirituality.

I have considerable doubt that entering anything on Facebook "alters the collective consciousness of the planet." It changes the reality of the cyberspace because some server has a new set of bytes, but that doesn't mean there is any new sense of consciousness. Maybe the cosmos can sense that, but to have any effect on us, we humans have to enter into that consciousness. Can interaction with Facebook change our consciousness and provide access to our souls? I do not believe in the existence of souls but accept the word as a metaphor for a sense of our self that we cannot describe other than as an expression of our being.

The author more or less equates authenticity with the soul. Authentic in my lexicon relates to action, not to a state of one's body. It means not acting mindlessly, conforming to some cultural, parental, peer, or other norm. It means doing something not because the "they" tell me to but, rather, from a free choice. It's exceedingly difficult to detect authenticity in someone else's actions. A hug is still a hug whether it comes from an embedded custom or from an expression of the "soul."

I think that to "say something more authentic," as Harrell does, is an incorrect use of the term. Saying anything is just that: saying. Is the choice of words what makes it authentic? If anyone is to know that another is acting authentically, it's virtually impossible without being present. The words alone can never convey the state of being. Authenticity shows up by its presence. Not in the cosmos as the article says, but in the immediate space of the actor or speaker. Speech is, after all, just another form of action.

The author does seem to recognize that most interactions with Facebook are inauthentic. Its users are keeping their friends "up-to-date" because that's what everybody is doing these days. I agree that the experience of Facebook would be richer if the entries came from some place deeper in the body but I believe it is an error to label that the spiritual. One can come face to face with his or her soul (using the metaphor from the article) though many disciplines. If that collision occurs through meditation, I would agree that it might slip into the realm of the spiritual. In our western world, the awakening is sought more often through some form of psychotherapy. But in any case I cannot label an encounter with Facebook as fitting into either of these two areas of practice or any other that comes to mind.

Authenticity comes in the way a human acts out their care for the world, including themselves and other humans. How does baring your "soul" to others on Facebook produce care? What is the soul-barer taking care of? Facebook friends fall into the "other humans" category. But is Facebook the place to take care of friends? I don't think so but I may be wrong here. I say no because I believe that authentic behavior entering at one node of the Internet will lose its authenticity by the time it pops out at the target IP address. Authentic behavior toward another human being always involves an interaction in which the responses of the receiver continuously provide feedback to the consciousness of the giver, and shape the behavior of each succeeding moment. Interposing any technological artifact between the actors distorts the reality each one perceives. So much for Facebook as a passage to the soul.

One of my students in the MBA in Managing for Sustainability Program at Marlboro College Graduate center, Laura Zeppieri, posted the link to this article on our class website. Thanks, Laura.

Googling the Louvre



Googling has taken its mapping equipment indoors to some of the world's great museums of fine art. In place of a picture of your own house seen from the street, you can dial up a bird's eye view of a Botticelli or a Van Gogh. The Boston Globe today carried a story on this new marvel of the Internet.

Launched Feb. 1, Google Art Project provides access to more than 385 rooms in 17 world-famous museums, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the National Gallery in London, the Frick Collection in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Palace of Versailles in France. (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which already offers sophisticated access to its collection online, is keen to get involved down the track.)

Google allows you to zoom in on super-high-resolution photographs of particular works of art — one in each museum. You can also see reproductions at lower resolutions of more than 1,000 other works in the participating museums. And using navigational tools similar to Google Street View, you can go on a virtual tour of dozens of the museums’ rooms.

The technology allows one to glance at a painting pixel by pixel, but is that how art should be seen and appreciated. I do not think so. Neither did Sebastian Smee, the author of the Globe story. He takes a technically based so what attitude claiming the Google's project isn't up to the level that the museums are already doing. But I think, while that may be so, he misses the more important point. Is what the Google watchers get on their screens art in the first place? I don't think so.

vermeer kit

Art is all about beauty and truth. What separates art from technique, which is what Google reveals, is a holism that can be gathered in only in the presence of the actual object. Beauty or truth, criteria that put artifacts in museums in the first place, are emergent qualities, seen only by one who gazes on the object. The minutiae of brushstrokes may be of great interest to an art historian, but not to one who simply goes to be enthralled and entranced. I have often said it is impossible to create a masterpiece using a paint-by-number kit. The Google Art Project goes in the reverse direction, reducing a masterpiece to a paint-by-numbers kit, where the numbers correspond to individual pixels. The images here are of a real Vermeer and a kit to reproduce it.

Smee goes on to say,

It also strikes me as a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Technology is getting confused with art in ways that do little to advance the cause of either. . . If you live far from some of the world’s great museums — and we all do — Google Art Project can give you tantalizing glimpses of their galleries and of individual works of art.

Yes, Google's pull is tantalizing, but that's not so wonderful when you recall Tantalus's fate. For crimes against the Gods, he was immersed up to his neck in water. Each time he tried to drink, the water drained away. The same fate caused the luscious fruit that hung on trees above him to exceed his reach when winds blew the branches away. The Google project is another, albeit interesting, example of the unintended and overlooked power of technology to diminish reality through its inherent ways of dividing what is a whole into parts. Missing the forest for the trees as Smee writes. Beauty and truth come only by capturing the whole in our perceptions. These qualities always and only become present through the utterances of a human speaker.

Smee hopes that accessing these works of art on the Internet will motivate them to visit the real thing. I hope he is right, but I am not very sanguine about the prospect. Screens take up more and more of our leisure time, especially for the young. This leaves less time for visiting a museum, seeing a play or doing something that cannot be duplicated via a screen. I attend the Metropolitan Opera HD performances in the local movie multiplex. It's a boon to be able to enjoy the opera so easily. But the hosts always reminds the audience that, as wonderful as our experience is, it is not a substitute for being in the same space as the real thing. Maybe Google will add a similar reminder to the bottom of their images. Sure.

Contradictory Stories


In my daily screening of my Internet subscriptions (links to all the blogs I want to scan), I came upon two articles back-to-back on the Daily Green. The dissonance of the headlines is loud and clear. The first is on a familiar subject in this blog, GoodGuide, "GoodGuide Becoming Essential Green Shopping Buddy.". The second is becoming all too familiar, but in an entirely different vein, "January Marks New Record-Low for Arctic Sea Ice."

GoodGuide is a, Internet-based system of rating consumer goods designed to assist buyers concerned about the specific product's impacts. The heart of the message in the first of these stories is:


"Our whole mission is to drive transparency to the marketplace so consumers can make more informed decisions," Josh Dorfman, the Vice President of marketing at GoodGuide (and The Lazy Environmentalist) told TDG. "This is a pretty hefty challenge since we live in a non-transparent world where companies often intend to hide their doings instead of offering free information to the public," he added.
The basic idea is to give consumers credible third-party, science-based information that they can use to assess products. Good Guide's ratings are developed by a team of specialists and scientists who base their research methodology on informatics, health and environmental risk assessment, life cycle assessment and social impact analysis. The site generates four ratings for each product: a health rating, an environmental rating, a social rating and an overall rating composed of the previous three. GoodGuide has over 80,000 ratings that help people decide from the endless array of choices.

The second, with disturbing news about the state of Arctic Ice, includes a summary of data obtained by monitoring satellites belonging to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Arctic ice melt

Arctic sea ice extent averaged over January 2011 was 13.55 million square kilometers (5.23 million square miles). This was the lowest January ice extent recorded since satellite records began in 1979. It was 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) below the record low of 13.60 million square kilometers (5.25 million square miles), set in 2006, and 1.27 million square kilometers (490,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average.

Is there a connection between these? Ummm--yes and no. The yes is that buying the green goods that GoodGuide points buyers to is probably better than random shopping choices driven by other tastes and preferences. I add "probably" because the scientific method used by GoodGuide is, at heart, not scientific at all. It is an expert opinion of the additive impact of a large number of health, social, and environmental factors arbitrarily weighted by these experts judgments. Is this a good idea? Yes, it is better than the uninformed judgments of ordinary customers. It allows them to find a product ranked better in any one of these three categories. Users have been most interested in the health dimension. It got its start when Dara O'Rourke was looking for safe products for his young child.

No is also an appropriate answer. The second article points to the shortcomings of GoodGuide and other rating or ranking systems that come with any of the following labels: green, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, sustainable, or sustainability. Major changes are taking place in the world regardless of whether one buys a product with a rating of 9 or of 10. The choices being made using GoodGuide have little or no impact on climate change, the condition of humanity, or even on the health of the family. All of these depend on a large number of factors not reflected in the purchases. Some of the factors may be outside of the ambit of the buyer. In many cases the buyer does have the ability to make other choices directed toward the same ends implicit in the GoodGuide methodology, but arrives at home in a self-satisfied mood created by the experience using GoodGuide. It's not the use of GoodGuide alone; any purchase labeled green, sustainable, or the like can have the same result.

I would not be so critical if GoodGuide (or anyone using green or its equivalents to advertise its goods) added a warning label to its ratings that ran something like this:

"The product you are choosing may be the best in its class, but your purchase is still adding to the burden on the Earth. The product may avoid some unhealthy outcome, but your health depends on also following many other good practices. The product may lessen some relative negative social impacts, but producing flourishing everywhere takes many other positive actions. If you do care about sustainability, you should not leave the store satisfied that you are doing your part by relying only upon GoodGuide. Examine your life and see what else you need to do. Refer to our on-line website for a list of other actions you would need to take."

I know this is a mouthful and would blunt the message that GoodGuide does carry. Without being completely open and honest about the real effects of consuming, next year's news about Arctic melting will in all likelihood be equally disturbing. Some people may and do argue that there is no connection between the impacts of consumption and signs of climate change. If not, my arguments above would not be valid. I think I am correct. The science used to make the connection between our activities and the global environment is better grounded than that used for this objective in the rating systems of GoodGuide and others like it.

(Images courtesy of TheDailyGreen)

Eco-friendly Dentistry—Hmm


Honthoprst-dentist Thanks to Greenbiz, I found this website advertising green or eco-friendly dentistry. Here's what the originators of this practice say:

Every aspect of our space has been designed to maximize your comfort, and to reflect our commitment to environmentally sound business practices. We've checked around, and believe we're the first eco-friendly dental office in the country. Sustainability permeates every aspect of our practice from biocompatible dental materials, to walls finished with paint that doesn't contain nasty volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Their written materials refer to green, eco-friendly, environmentally sound, and sustainability. I added the emphasis. It's too bad they abuse all of these terms. They have already created a brand--eco-dentistryâ„¢, and do show a glimmer of what they are really doing at the end of their page when they speak about "what we do to lighten our footprint on the Earth."

What they re doing is not eco-friendly. It may be better in the sense of lightening the load than some other practices. The list of specifics indicates it is. Being "green" uses a term that has gotten to mean so many things it is not helpful to those who are making choices, even of where to go for teeth cleaning. Environmentally sound is much like green. It sounds good but lacks specificity. We really do not know what is environmentally sound. We have a much better idea of what isn't. Again the failure to identify their practices as only being incrementally better sends an incorrect message.

Finally to sustainability. This group, unfortunately like virtually all who use the term sustainability, does not understand what they are saying. It seems almost Sisyphean most of the time, but I keep trying to get people to be very careful with this term so critical to our future. Sustainability refers to the possibility of a future flourishing world that persists over time. It is a vision of what might be. The word itself has no materiality. Much as they might dream of such a world, the dentists' choice of language to describe their contribution is misleading and unhelpful. The best they can do in practice is what they say at the end: lightening the load. Good idea, of course, but unconnected to what it takes to bring forth a flourishing world. Who knows what dentistry might look like in a future world without cavities or crooked teeth.

(Gerrit van Honhorst, The Dentist, 1622)

A Bolder Thrust at Davos



I mildly dissed Davos and the folks there in my last post. Today I read a longer and far more pointed screed by Umair Haque. I have just started reading his new book, The New Capitalist Manifesto. Haque criticizes the Davos "process" as representing a form of corporatism that has failed to produce its promised prosperity. While he does not refer to sustainability explicitly, his arguments point to essentially the same set of underlying issues I do. I appreciate his fearlessness. I am always amazed that the Harvard Business Press hosts his blog.

Here's just a small sample from this column, titled, "Ten Things You're Not Allowed to Say at Davos."

Consider me gagged and muffled. I confess: I wrote a long-winded, thoroughly boring, hopelessly cliched critique of Davos this year, like anyone under the age of 35 facing a future bleaker than the dark side of Pluto, probably should. And then I junked it. Why? Well, this year, Davos is back with a bang — and it's simply not in good taste to call it a vulgar, loutish spectacle of Ponziconomics.

Hence, instead, I'll humbly submit for your perusal a quick and dirty list of ten things you're probably not allowed to say at Davos — but that if rebooting prosperity is what really care about, you should be.

I'll add just one of these ten items.

#7. Moral vacuums tend to empower the amoral. Self-explanatory: take a look at these accounts of bankers vigorously defending what at this point my pet hamster knows is basically indefensible. It's like a self-parody — except it's not. Economists aren't exactly renowned for having a moral compass, yet without one, it's impossible to take on the fundamentally ethical challenge of rebooting prosperity.

He's not afraid to suggest that revolutions are needed. With my techie roots still attached to the Earth, I fall short, calling only for a transformation. The words are different, but both of us are clear about replacing the current institutions and the norms and beliefs on which they are based with a new set. He focuses primary on the economic world. I concentrate on the modern vision of the individual and on complexity. We intersect in many places especially the place that homo economicus holds in the economic machine. I encourage you to read the whole column. I note in these closing few paragraphs that he, as I wrote a few days ago, recognizes that the future is not a game to win or lose. Obama, please take note.

Our best chance to heal our broken world might just be a series of revolutions — economic, industrial, social, political — that each starts with tinier awakenings — personal, professional, ethical, intellectual.

Hence, here's my hunch: creating a better future's going to take what it's always taken. And that's not powwows concerned with "winning," because the future isn't a game.

It's going to take small steps towards rediscovering the timeless lessons of mattering; whose value isn't just denominated in today's dollars and cents — but whose worth is measured in meaning.

The Foxes in the Henhouse



Greenbiz headlines a new global sustainability initiative:

54 CEOs Help Launch UN Program to Ramp Up Sustainability

Chief executives from 54 companies around the world have joined forces with the United Nations to launch a new program aimed at raising the bar for corporate environmental, social and governance performance.

The announcement came from this year's Davos World Economic Forum meeting, which venue should raise some suspicions about the motivations and objectives of the program.

More information can be gleaned from the UN pages describing this initiative.

In January 2011, the United Nations Global Compact will launch a new platform for corporate sustainability leadership - Global Compact LEAD.

The approximately 50 companies that participate in Global Compact LEAD will be challenged to implement the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership, which was developed in close consultation with a large number of corporate participants and stakeholders and widely endorsed by business, governments, and civil society at the Leaders Summit in New York in June 2010.

The launch of this new platform is a reflection of the essential role that leading Global Compact participants have already played in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainability. At the same time, Global Compact LEAD responds to the critical need for leading companies to step up and reach new levels of performance and impact in order for the world to meet today’s social, environmental and economic challenges.

So far the efforts toward sustainability led by these large global corporations have been focused on business-almost-as-usual. They can point to some improvements, particularly in better reporting of what they are doing. My criticism continues to focus on the objectives that drive whatever they are doing. The global business institution, together with those who plan and operate the economic machinery of the largest and fastest developing economies, are committed to growth before sustainability. They want it both ways. In a different universe, they might be able to do just this, but on our planet, it simply is not possible, certainly not in the long term.

The United Nations is still working out programs springing from its 1987 Brundtland Report that defined sustainable development. Global business is still committed to their notion of eco-efficiency as the path to sustainable development. The language has shifted to using sustainability, but the reality is still tied to these two old and tired shibboleths.

David Orr gave an memorable paper in 2003, entitled, "Walking North On A Southbound Train," that I reread often. It is even more relevant and valid today. I'll mention just one of the 10 factors he lists that are keeping us moving in the wrong direction as the title implies: "Our problems are systemic in nature and will have to be solved at the system level.

This alone is enough to raise one's eyebrows at this program and all others like it. The actors represented in Davos refuse to accept that;:

    1) They do not understand the meaning of sustainability;
    2) We cannot grow our way out of the unsustainable trajectory the planet is on;
    3) We cannot count on technological innovation to lead us to the way out;
    4) There is no invisible hand to guide uncoordinated actions in the economy;
    5) the complex system that Orr speaks about cannot be managed and can only be governed by a completely different philosophical and practical framework; and
    6) The two large institutions that have created this initiative are ill-equipped to be in charge as they are presently constituted.

I have also tried in my book and this blog to make the last point clear. These institutions, built on the foundations of ideas coming from the Enlightenment Era, need to be adjusted to another set of basic beliefs and norms that reflect the world as it is today and not the one it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Orr argues that government and business do not adhere today even to those time-honored foundations of our Modern world. Here are a few paragraphs pertinent to the last point in the list.

This leads to a third point. We do not have an environmental crisis so much as we have a political crisis. A great majority of people still wish a decent and habitable world for their descendants but those desires are thwarted by the machinery that ought to connect the popular will to public decisions but no longer does so. We will have to repair and perhaps reinvent the institutions of democratic governance for a global world and that means dealing with issues that the founders of this republic did not and could not have anticipated. The process of political engagement at all levels has become increasingly Byzantine, confusing, and inaccessible. And in the mass consumption society we have all become better consumers than citizens, which is to say, willing participants in our own undoing. The solution, however difficult, is to reconnect people with the political process and government at all levels.

Fourth, it is necessary to expose the mythology that surrounds what Marjorie Kelly calls "the divine rights of capital" and place democratic controls on corporations and the movement of capital (Kelly, 2001). We once fought a revolutionary war to establish political democracy in western societies, but have yet to do so to democratize the workplace and the ownership of capital. These are still governed by the same illogic of unquestioned divine right by which monarchies once ruled. The assumption that corporations are legal persons and thereby beyond effective public scrutiny, control, or law is foolishness and worse. The latest corporate scandals are only that: the latest in a recurring pattern of illegality, self-dealing, and political corruption surpassing even that of the robber baron era. The solution is to enforce corporate charters as public license to do business on behalf of the public that are revocable if and when the terms of the charter are violated. If private ownership is good thing, it should be widely extended, not restricted to the super wealthy. By the same logic, we must remove the corrupting influence of money from politics beginning with corporate campaign contributions and the hundreds of billions of dollars of public subsidies for cars, highways, fossil fuels, and nuclear power that corrupt the democratic process and public policy.

Among all the emotions that reflection on Orr's paper bring, I find sadness the one that comes forth most quickly. Now, almost 10 years later, we have sunk deeper into the morass Orr pictures without a glimmer of the kind of remedies he proposes. The new UN Global Compact program just announced may slow down the train we are on (I doubt it.); almost certainly it will just keep us chugging along on the same tracks.