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.