March 2011 Archives

The Curse of Perfection

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Neal Gabler, writing in today’s Boston Globe, discusses what he calls the new American Dream--perfection.

A DISGRUNTLED New York mother recently filed a lawsuit against her 4-year-old daughter’s preschool, charging that the school had reneged on its promise to adequately prepare the girl for an Ivy League education. Apparently the kids were playing with blocks when they should have been discussing Wittgenstein. Understandably the suit was met with ridicule as another example of overbearing parenting, but it is also an example of how many of us, especially in the middle and upper-middle classes, not only aspire to be perfect; we expect perfection.

Dreams can be very powerful in creating images of worlds which, through our actions today, come forth in the future. The foundation for sustainability from which I come is a vision of flourishing, a form of dream. Sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever, a dream I believe is attainable. Dreams that are impossible or rest on some hidden pathology are, conversely, very dangerous as they cannot be met or result only in undesirable outcomes.

I have written recently about the presence of so much anger the public and private space in the US. Dreams are, in the context of Gabler’s article, metaphors for promises to be kept in the future. Persistent dreams like the American Dream with its specific promises, are expected to be fulfilled in one’s lifetime, usually in time to be enjoyed while one is still in the “prime” of life. The classic American Dream, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, two chickens in every pot, success, and happiness and more, has fueled individual striving and political rhetoric for as long as the nation has been in existence.

Events of the past few years have awakened many still living with that dream from their reveries. The dream has become nightmarish, as the means to realize its goals are vanishing or have completely disappeared. Awareness of the huge disparities in wealth that have grown monstrously only accentuate the disappointments and futility in the 95% of Americans (or more) that now see the promises they have banked on evaporate. The inevitable result is anger. Broken promises, especially those that are maintained and repeated over long periods, create anger directed at the source of those promises.

General anger in the electorate resulted in a very negative election and new government. Not being able to single out the promiser leads to a diffuse and undirected anger. Since the roots of this American Dream go back to Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, the anger is visited upon the nearest convenient party. As long as we are promised some rosy future that cannot or is very unlikely to be realized, anger is bound to show up at the point that those holding the promise accept the reality that it is broken.

I have connected sustainability, which is a kind of promise but not quite, to a vision of flourishing. Flourishing and perfection are categorically different. Sustainability never promises anything only the possibility of getting there. It is true that we were promised only the pursuit of happiness by the founding fathers, but over time the journey, that is the opportunity and means, has been lost in the mistaken belief that the end was promised.

Now Gabler writes we seek perfection as the goal of life:

Thus not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

I am surprised by my feelings of sadness on reading the column. Perhaps it comes by his use of “agonize.” To live a life of agony is about as far from flourishing as I can picture. If the standards of “perfection” lie in society’s judgments as they do in this story, there will be no escaping agony, disappointment, and ultimately anger. Perfection or any public norm will always be dictated by powerful interests who press their own assessments of what counts onto the public. Perfection will always be in transition and just out of hand. Those who strive for it are doomed as Sisyphus was.

It does not have to be so. There is another way of thinking about perfection that circumvents the trap in Gabler’s story. Perfection can also mean complete, as in a perfect circle. Flourishing comes from this kind of perfection. It is the result of acting out of concerns for oneself, others, and the world--attending to the essential domains of care that are what make us human. It means tending to family, for example, according to an authentic, inner sense of what counts. Completion in not an absolute end, but a state in a never-ending pursuit of flourishing. There is a sense of enough, at least for the moment. Perfection, in the other sense that Gabler speaks of, can only spring from inauthenticity; it is driven entirely by the “they” who define it, never from within. There is no hope of finding peace and completion in a life designed by entirely by others. While some may find the story of the nursery school suit ridiculous, I find it immensely saddening.

Back to Basics 5: The Sustainability 2x2 Matrix

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No MBA student or practitioner can avoid the classic 2x2 matrix offering a clear picture of strategic choices when two sets of variables are involved. Some consider this form of portrayal as an art, even as a metaphor for a sort of systems thinking. In its simplest form the variables are arrayed as the x- and y-axes on a simple graph. The generic form looks like this.

Generic 2x2.400wide.jpg

I found several examples on the Web. This one points to strategies for service organizations based on the nature of the particular service to be offered.

2x2 sample.small.jpg

One can use this for almost all situations where the choices are limited to two factors. I developed a matrix like this as a teaching aid for my Exploring Sustainability class for the Managing for Sustainability MBA at Marlboro College Graduate Center. My regular readers know that I have been teaching a series of classes under this general heading there for a few years. I was there this weekend for one of our periodic gatherings in person. The pedagogy is primarily based on the Internet and on distance learning. I get only about 4 hours of face time each trimester so I am always on the lookout for effective learning tools that can deliver the message in a very short time. The 2x2 is very good at this.

The simplest mantra that falls out of the arguments I make is that virtually all current programs with the label "greening" or "sustainable" or even "sustainability" do not and cannot move us onto a new trajectory to sustainability, as I define it. They can be and are effective but only in reducing unsustainability. Sustainability is the possibility of flourishing--a positive vision of the world, not merely one where the stresses on the Planet have been reduced, but still exist. As I write, "Reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability." Aha, a perfect candidate for a 2x2 matrix, like this one.

Sustainability matrix.png

I have filled in the four quadrants with examples from my book and others cropping up in my course work and off the Internet. I encourage "sustainability" officers or their equivalent in companies of all sizes to use this format in examining their strategic choices and as an aid to create new ideas. I am very interested in hearing from you concerning the utility of this tool and also any items you could add to those in the right-hand side. That's the challenging half of this layout. Everyday the news has hundreds of items for the left side. Inhabitat alone offers up many stories of green designs everyday. It is rare to find items that fall on the sustainability half of the diagram.

Nuclear Power is Still Nuclear Power

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daiichi plant

On a recent Dot Earth column, Andrew Revkin pointed to two opposing views on nuclear power, but both coming from well established environmentalists. I'm pressed for time today, preparing for my periodic face-to-face encounter with my students at marlboro College Graduate Center, so I will mostly crib from Revkin. Here's his lede:

I encourage you to weigh two starkly divergent reactions to the seismic and nuclear crises in Japan from Bill McKibben and George Monbiot — both leading voices of environmentalism.

In separate opinion articles in The Guardian yesterday, McKibben turned the conversation to climate and pressed for a shift to durable, localized energy production and more modest lifestyles in the face of human-amplified natural hazards. Monbiot used this moment, when some European leaders and campaigners have called for an end to the nuclear age, to embrace this technology.

Revkin promises more shortly, but I'll chime in anyway. You'll need to click on the links in the quote to get the full thrust of these articles. McKibben uses the power of nature as an indicator of the futility of expecting that we can engineer our way to safety and the avoidance of changes to our present life styles. Monbiot's stance is basically one of holding one's nose and moving ahead. The opportunity to replace nuclear energy with renewable alternates in the portfolios of industrialized countries is unlikely to be picked up. Instead the alternative to nuclear will be continued dependence on carbon-based fuels which pose different, but highly significant risks compared to nuclear power. Monbiot has taken his position assuming that the effects on health from the Japanese reactors is small so far. The "so far" may change in the future as these plants are still not fully tamed. Will he change his mind?

after tsunami

it's akin to hearing that Seventh Generation is now being sold in Walmart stores after years of seeing the as the enemy. How come the turnaround? The reality of such situations is that the problem is complex; the right solution is fuzzy and depends on the assumptions going in. The Japanese disaster has not changed the fundamental calculus about nuclear power. If anything, it has exposed some of the known but ignored warts. I expect to see new policies and technology to make this source of power safer than it is today. I am not arguing for nuclear power. Monbiot thinks it is more positive today. I disagree; the case for it is basically the same as it was a few months ago.

The folly of expecting any technological fix to cure the illnesses that our economies bring to the earth hasn't changed a bit. We are still waffling. I hope the need to change the culture to one that respects the Earth and its web of life doesn't get lost in the noisy arguments over nuclear power that are now inevitable.

Back to Basics 4: Possibility

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possibility I come to this topic as it is critical to sustainability, but it takes a little scene-setting. Flourishing depends on living authentically (see previous post on this topic). The most direct way to think about this is to imagine owning everything you do, not everything you have. The existential consequences show up as possibility. When you come from some inner source of care, possibility is limited only by the reality of the world at hand. You can choose freely who you are and what you will do consistent with that role. It is not quite the same as free will because there are always limits. You cannot give birth to a baby as a man, unless genetic engineering surprises all of us. Except in rare circumstances, you cannot get a job as a professor at an elite school without the credentials of a PhD, but if you want to become a professor you can set out to obtain that PhD.

Authentic living comes when one accepts that he or she is rootless, that is, that there is nothing that grounds their Being or that they can call on to explain who they are in the world. This mode requires an understanding that one’s identity is a choice and can change. Not identity as ego that exists inside the body, but an identity recognizable by those observing how the person act in the world. The nature of the actions are what determine what others will say about what or who the person is. Authentic action permits an actor to respond to situations in a non-normal way, unconstrained by what “they say” is the right thing to do, and enables possibility to emerge. There is no possibility in following the crowd, the essence of inauthenticity. Inauthentic actions may be appropriate, but cannot cope with unfamiliar situations. Inauthenticity erodes reflective capabilities and limits the possibility of adjusting to new understanding and changed circumstances. If, for example, consumption of new goods and services is the standard way of coping, an inauthentic actor will go along even if the results are damaging to the world. It was not a joke when President Bush told the country to go shopping in the aftermath of 9/11.

Authenticity carries with it a background of anxiety or unsettledness because the actor can not simply reach into the bag of tricks his or her life history has provided. In general anxiety is thought to be something bad and to be avoided or treated. Perhaps when it comes from the inability to cope with the world as it is. The unsettledness coming along with authenticity is positive as long as the actor interprets it as an opening to possibility. At first, possibility may not make sense because, by its very nature, possibility means getting into a world that is new and unfamiliar where appropriate and effective action are as yet unknown. The positive result of authenticity and the opening of a space of new possibilities is that the actor serves as a clearing for new practices to become present for him- or herself and for also for those that would follow the “leader.”

Possibility is about acting differently, not following the “other,” but owning--being responsible for--what one does. Being able to act differently is critical for sustainability. It creates the possibility of flourishing for the individual actor as well as allows for new practices that do not bring the pathologies that are producing unsustainability. For the individual, authenticity brings the care of Being to the surface such that actions produce completion, perfection, and a sense of satisfaction that allow the actor to become fully alive. This doesn’t mean that everything is wonderful; there will always be areas that cannot be made perfect. What is important to flourishing is that the actor become aware that he or she is taking care or has taken care of all the domains that are important.

The authentic actor is then able to lead others along the new path. It is not automatic that this will happen, but it is, like individual action, a possibility. I may sound, in this next statement, too arrogant and dogmatic: sustainability will always be out of hand without the possibility that comes through authenticity. This follows my arguments that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modern culture. I’ll expand on this in another blog, but what I mean is that cultures inherently produce inauthentic behavior. This is not a value statement, but one that is definitional. Cultures are constituted by the appearance and persistence of normal behaviors, meaning that societal actors do what is ‘right” or do “what one does.” Cultures work so long as the inevitable emergence of unintended consequences remain insignificant. Unsustainability shows up when observers begin to have doubts about the capability of the culture and its environmental context to continue without being overwhelmed by these emerging and growing phenomena. The challenge to those who care about the current state of the world and commit themselves to act upon their concerns is to learn how to lift themselves out of the milieu and into a new space of possibility. Acting out of such a new set of concerns is equivalent to adopting a new identity. Remember that identity is an assessment or observation made by others; it’s not some inner ego.

The act of commitment to take care of sustainability is an instantaneous event. It, like any other commitment, is not a “rational” act derived from some well constructed argument. It may and usually does make sense, but a sense based on a feeling or emotion that the new care is what Being is about. It adds to one’s sense of aliveness and contributes to flourishing. So does commitment based on care in any domain. Commitment alone is necessary but not sufficient to produce effective actions. To act authentically, to own one’s actions, demands that the actions arise from a new sense of the world, not the old and familiar practices. Key here is the idea of a new consciousness of the world that normally fades from view in the hurly burly of everyday, inauthentic living.

New possibilities arise from the world itself; there is nothing else, from a consciousness of the world that is hidden in ordinary moments. Philosophers call this world, present-at-hand to distinguish it from the transparent, non-sensed world that serves as the context for ordinary activities: cooking dinner, writing reports, skiing, and so forth. Competent skiers act in an effortless, transparent manner without thinking about what they are doing. Otto Scharmer and others call the process in which consciousness of the world arises, presencing. It’s just as the word conveys. In the normal course of action, the world recedes from view while one acts out of what I already stored in the body. The more facile one becomes in addressing the “problems” of daily life, the less are the moments when these embodied strategies fail; the capability to stop and access the world shrinks with time. An actor must design a new set of rules and tools to cope with the concerns that have risen to the surface and to the top of the do list. Presencing in our culture is a largely lost art, and must be learned anew.

In opposition to the common understanding that, in situations when we are lost and feel the need for new tools and rules, we use the theories and rules we have already acquired. Yes, these can be helpful, but only so far. When the world has changed significantly, as it has in the case of sustainability, these old tools and rules are part of the problem, not the solution. New ones are essential. Possibility is the place from which these new practices can emerge, but we must first enter the authentic mode of living. That takes a conscious commitment to stop following the crowd. Then we must learn the art of presencing. Those who believe that they can “just do it” are sorely mistaken. They can reduce the load they place on the Earth and on other people, but they cannot bring sustainability to life. The process toward sustainability starts with authentic living and the possibilities it brings.

Shining a Mirror on Ourselves

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narcissus small

The situation at the Japanese nuclear power plants is certainly worthy of the headlines it is getting. It is a catastrophe that fits into the once in a (fill in your own very high number) _ years risk category. Why, then, so much attention here in the United States? The risk of any damage from radiation emitted from the current state or even a much more serious meltdown is, as every knowledgeable commentator has said, is negligible.

Why, all of a sudden, do Congresspeople and others demand an immediate examination of our nuclear plants? This event has not changed the risk of our facilities in the US one whit. I find it very interesting that, all of a sudden, people of all political stripes are clamoring for government intervention. It seems that the marketplace and private interests cannot take care of everything.

How come the carnage wrought everyday by automobiles and guns never finds a place on the front page? When a plane crashes or a bus goes awry, we see it front and center in the print media or under a banner shouting “breaking news” or “exclusive” on the tube. The truth is that the damages created day-by-day and one-by-one far exceed those resulting from what goes as newsworthy events. The unnecessary death of a single human being is a catastrophe.

I know that decision scientists have explanations for this behavior, but I don’t believe they have it right. They say humans tend to discount the very low probabilities when catastrophic events are involved and focus only on the event as if it were going to happen to them. For example, this accounts for the “fear of flying” when the chances of an accident are exceeding low--much less than driving cross country.

My explanation starts with the observation that we in the United States have become extremely narcissistic. This is not just my opinion. It’s one widely shared by scholars and therapists. Everything of importance has to be focused on what does it mean to me. The online magazine Salon ran a story recently on the coverage being given to the Egyptian regime change with this header and lede:

The question we can't stop asking ourselves: What do the demonstrations mean for America?

America doesn't really understand how to respond to a revolution. The demonstrations in Egypt have nothing to do with Tea Parties or neoconservatives or Twitter or Facebook or Fox News. But don't tell Americans!

We don’t understand how to respond to a nuclear catastrophe either. Why has the horrendous plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the tsunami and tremors already been relegated to the “inside pages?” I got a copy of a dispatch from the Commander of one of the Marine helicopter squadrons that has been dispatched to Japan to aid and assist the already massive efforts. He, the son of a friend, commented that the media coverage has focused disproportionally on the remote radiation threat as opposed to the suffering of people affected by the tsunami.

Narcissism makes empathy problematic. The plight of others appears as a thin, one-dimensional image. We do little but take care of our own needs until something looms so large that we cannot but turn attention to it. Then the all too common response is why is this happening to me or why am I facing some risk out there in the everyday world. We should be asking why is this happening to others and what can I do to ease their pain and suffering. We do much in regard in delivering human and material resources following catastrophic events, but is it out of conformance or out of an authentic response? The motivation matters to sustainability. The recovery of our core of care is essential to flourishing.

I find the call for government action highly ironic. I am not sure that the “government” could have done anything to avoid this catastrophe other than to have not allowed these plants to have been built. But that kind of decision rests on having some faceless institution tell “the private sector” what we could or not be done. In this case, given the reality of the geological and demographic structure of Japan, the alternatives would not have supported the economic development as it has. We, in the United States, should be worried, but we should also remind ourselves that these nuclear plants have enabled us to buy oil at a cheaper price that we would have if Japan had been getting its energy from petroleum.

Unnecessary events is another way of pointing to events that are the result of “market failures” writ large. The market brought us nuclear plants located in the wrong places. The market brought us guns that are used in mass murders. The market brought us booze that addled a drunk driver that killed a police officer doing his or her job. The market does a great job in most aspects of our daily life, but it cannot cope with externalities that are inevitable. It takes an institutional intervention, usually by the government.

Our narcissism and lack of empathy and caring for the victims of the small, everyday tragedies we read about or see on some screen blind us to the need for action until a catastrophe strikes, and then its always too late. Sustainability can come to systems where the probability for catastrophe exists, but not where it is ignored out of the lack of care. As I wrote a few days ago, we should be using the stark reality of what is happening in Japan to as a wake up call to our interconnectedness--Our Common Future-- not as another opportunity to see only ourselves in the mythical mirror of the pool that entranced Narcissus, whose name has become attached to this behavioral trait.

Our Common Future

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This is the title of the United Nations Report that brought the world the idea of sustainable development: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The definition is terse but full of moral content as well as real concern for the state of the world. The moral core of this statement is equity. It recognizes the finite capacity of the Earth to support all who are alive today and all those who will inhabit the planet in the future. Most simply stated, all have a right to have their needs met.

Better known as the Brundtland report, it added human needs to the prevalent concerns about environmental degradation. The report made clear that the affluent nations of the world must act to ease and eliminate the poverty rife in much of the world. The rapid development of China and India has mitigated that situation to some degree, but the gap between rich and poor still remains huge. As an aside, the gap between the ultra-rich plutocrats in the US and the middle class is larger than the distance between the richest and poorest nations. The report also recognized that the current nature and use of technology was inimical to the health of the environment.

The Brundtland definition is not perfect. I have argued that, while giving explicit weight to equity and recognizing limits, it rests on the same economic paradigm that has created the situation it aims to correct. That’s not where I am going today. I am focusing on the title of the report, “Our Common Future.” In part I am moved by the devastation in Japan. I feel the impact even in the security of my home perched high enough above sea level to survive a tsunami or even the worst predicted ocean rise due to melting ice caps, but I am as dependent as those left homeless in Japan on the continued largess of the Earth for support.

We do share a common future. The devastation on the other side of the globe leaves its mark here. We should never forget that ultimately our future rests on a healthy planet. We cannot and must not add our own devastation to that which comes from the complexity and unpredictability of the Earth system. We cannot avoid tragedies coming from nature, but we can and must avoid tragedies of our own doing.

Two stories I read today indicate how far we are from recognizing our commonality and the imperative to act in concert to keep the Earth as a hospitable and life supporting system. The first one asked a question on many minds in the aftermath of our economic crunch, “Can the US Maintain a Green Advantage Over Asia?” Should we not be asking the opposite, “How can all the nations of the world cooperate to create the technology needed to harness the Sun--the only source that will suffice in the long run? The place of nuclear energy may have slipped down a few notches in the last few days. The idea of comparative advantage of David Ricardo may have fueled the colonial mercantilist past, but begins to lose its power in a shrinking and finite world. The whole idea of sustainable development falters under the umbrella of competition and of winners and losers. We are all losers without cooperation.

The second article was about the difficulty of implementing green ideas against privileged, liberal, local opposition that should in theory be aligned with it. The article starts with:

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? The yin to the Tea Party yang. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight. And the karma can get very different.

It’s OK to be green until it encroaches on my turf, my view, my convenience, and so on. The roots of these controversies are at heart about winners and losers, just as is the first case. There just isn’t enough of anything material to share in a way to satisfy demand at the level of affluence in the United States and similar wealthy nations, and maintain the level of equity implicit in the Brundtland definition. In both cases, it’s the current winners trying to maintain an edge, but an edge in what?

I have been teaching my class at Marlboro that sustainability, a better way to think about a flourishing future than greening or sustainable development, rests on an appreciation that we humans are just a part of the web of life on Earth. We come from the same source and must share the same world. Taking the Brundtland definition further along its moral pathway, it’s a short step to add all life to those whose needs must be met today and tomorrow. The supply of care and compassion on Earth is infinite. The supply of material property is not and is getting scarcer by the day. It seems obvious that sustainability, however it is defined, demands a shift away from the competition for material goods at all scales, from one’s river view to some nation’s advantage in winning an economic war. Circling back to the beginning, great tragedies, like the Japanese disaster, bring home the undeniable realization that we are all connected and must take care of the web of life that gives us our Being, the most precious gift of all.

Back Monday



Back to Basics 3: Authenticity



Authenticity, as I write, refers to a mode of Being. It shows up in the source of one's everyday actions. My interpretation, as I have described in my book, rests on the work of Martin Heidegger. Most simply, the authentic mode of Being is one where the actor owns his or her actions in the sense that they spring from some domain of care. The actor is moved to take care of matters in a domain that lacks completeness or perfection in the sense of wholeness. (The taxonomy of these domains of care developed in my book is reproduced below.)

Authentic behavior may become clearer when compared with its opposite, inauthentic. This mode characterizes action as being driven by need, not care. There is a driven sense to the action rather than a voluntary sense. The source of the compulsion is, in the vernacular, peer pressure. More specifically, the actions come from conformance with existing societal norms, but in a mindless, automatic way. Authentic acts may also conform to the same norms but differ in that the actor is mindful of the act, that is, has taken up the norms as his or her own. In the inauthentic case, the action conforms to what "they" say to do, or responds to the command that, "one does this or that. Alternatively, authentic behave might be seen as something "I" say is the right thing to do at this moment.

These modes of living are very important to sustainability. Inauthentic behavior lacks the caring motivation of its opposite. The needs served under this umbrella are mysterious and ungrounded other than in conformance to outside norms. Lacking norms that consider human activities a part of the web-of-life (a metaphor for the whole socio-techno-economic planetary system of the Earth), addressing "needs" produces unintended consequences that have grown to a point where our highly interconnected and interdependent planetary system is showing signs of failure and ill health. Even if these signs become manifest to the public as a whole, the job of remedy is delegated to technical experts to solve. The critical understanding that the issues are everyone's to own and act upon fails to emerge. Sustainability cannot appear.

Authentic actors act out of care--care for themselves, other human beings, and the rest of the world. The possibility for shaping their everyday actions to avoid harm to these three non-overlapping and completely inclusive domains is present, but remains a possibility until action is taken. Authentic actors choose where to act all the time. Is my next action to eat, that is, to serve the domain of subsistence? Is it to take a walk in the woods to satisfy a void in the spiritual domain, or is it a move to heal the Earth, connected to the world category?

There is no guarantee that authenticity will bring sustainability, but it provides a context in which the possibility of flourishing is present in every moment. Authenticity offers possibility, as well, to individuals that would not otherwise be available in the inauthentic mode of life. Authenticity means one is free to choose the actions that create identity and relationships, within real, material limitations. That freedom comes with the price of anxiety. The actor cannot count on the outcomes to be whatever "they say" they will be. In a sense, authentic actions take the actor into a kind of terra incognita, foreign from his of her past. But that is exactly what possibility is all about. In the case of sustainability, the state of the world suggests, at least to me, that the anxiety will come from shifting behavior to care for the world (and any other domain I have been neglecting is an acceptable and important trade-off.

While I have couched this last argument in personal terms, it is critical that everyone act authentically. The current green, sustainable development, corporate social responsible, and other related positions taken by virtually all of our important institutions produce inauthentic behavior with no possibility of flourishing. Sustainability hasn't a chance. This is a statement of fact, not of value. But those who value sustainability and believe it is critical to life today and in the future, must act to change this by transforming the individuals and rules that constitute these institutions to care for the world and its life rather than satisfy some set of outmoded, historically embedded norms.


Dealing with Our Poverties



One of my classes at Marlboro College Graduate Center had to read an article by Manfred Max-Neef , titled “Development and Human Needs.” Max-Neef is a Chilean economist who has focused on the needs of developing and underdeveloped countries. He has developed a taxonomy of human needs that I have integrated into my own work. I want to focus on one of his key points in this post. Max-Neef argues that the tradition model for improving the human conditions by eliminating poverty within the standard economic development framework is fundamentally flawed.

The proposed perspective allows for a reinterpretation of the concept of poverty. The traditional concept of poverty is limited and restricted, since it refers exclusively to the predicaments of people who may be classified below a certain income threshold. This concept is strictly economistic. It is suggested here that we should speak not of poverty, but of poverties. In fact, any fundamental human need that is not adequately satisfied, reveals a human poverty. Some examples are: poverty of subsistence (due to insufficient income, food, shelter, etc.), of protection (due to bad health systems, violence, arms race, etc.), of affection (due to authoritarianism, oppression, exploitative relations with the natural environment, etc.), of understanding (due to poor quality of education), of participation (due to marginalization of and discrimination against women, children and minorities), of identity (due to imposition of alien values upon local and regional cultures, forced migration, political exile, etc.). But poverties are not only poverties. Much more than that, each poverty generates pathologies. This is the crux of our discourse.

I believe that his thesis here applies to our affluent, developed economy as well. Human flourishing cannot be reduced to a single metric, in spite of all the economic theory that does exactly this. Max-Neef accompanies this idea with a taxonomy of human needs, every one of which must be satisfied to produce a whole, healthy, flourishing human being. His matrix of needs, which I will not reproduce here, is very similar to the set of basic human concerns I have developed in my book. You can find his system by clicking on the link above.

On re-reading his work again, I can see why our affluence relative to much of the world has not produced flourishing or happiness or whatever quality you choose to characterize the core of human Being. The key is in his use of poverties (plural) rather than some (singular) aggregated measure. His system, like mine, is nonhierarchical. All the factors need to be taken care of for [the whole of] Being to emerge. Reliance on wealth alone, as we do in the United States, is bound to produce the poverties and pathologies he speaks about. Further, the wealthier may be better off than the poor, but even they find empty areas in their lives. We know that more wealth does not bring happiness. Money simply cannot take care of all the needs that must be satisfied. Max-Neef argues further that many of the means we use for satisfaction produce perverse outcomes. Status goods do not create authentic identity. Gifts, conversely, can satisfy the need of affection.

Max-Neef goes on to argue that top-down policies cannot eliminate these poverties. The distribution of need-based pathologies will always be more diverse than any technocratic policy can serve. The means to reduce and eliminate each factor requires involvement by those affected. His model is similar to that developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Sen speaks about the essential capabilities of well-being, but insists that those in need have a role in illuminating what the missing capabilities are. Again, it is important to recognize the plural form. Top-down policies come from too far a distance and cannot deal with the diversity of cases.

Other lessons fall out of this model. The importance of local provisioning leaps right our. The distribution of poverties is always going to have a strong geographic component and demographic dependence. The issues in Detroit will be very different from those in Atlanta. The blunt instrument of economic growth cannot address the fine structure of poverties. Indeed, many of these needs are non-economic. It is not coincidental that Max-Neef titled the booklet on which this article is based, Human Scale Development. It deserves a place on any bookshelf right next to another seminal text calling for a humane form of economics: Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

The Soul's Joy Lies in Doing. (Shelley)

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soul leaving

I’m back tanned and rested. I know travel to warm places in the middle of the winter is hardly PC for someone with my interest in sustainability, but it did feel great. Being human involves lots of contradictions.

After going through the pile of accumulated stuff on the computer and otherwise, I started to catch up with long overdue reading. In the pile I found an copy of a recent NYTimes magazine with an article that created very strange overtones. Rob Walker, the author, writes about life continuing in cyberspace after the body dies. A perfect target for one of my rants against information technology. The article begins with this line, “The Internet promises a kind of immortality, a digital echo of the lives we lived. Which is exciting and also terrifying.” I have been concerned by just the opposite effect of the Internet and its communication and social networking programs. They diminish our inherent human quality of care and aliveness.

Much of the article focuses on all the personal things that are already hanging out there in cyberspace and will stay there when we die until the servers conk out or somebody removes them. Unsurprisingly, this new form of personal presence has spawned new businesses—removing all traces of that cyber-presence after you die or hiring a ‘legal’ executor to manage your digital estate.

Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders.
At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000. Academics have begun to explore the subject (how does this change the way we remember and grieve?), social-media consultants have begun to talk about it (what are the legal implications?) and entrepreneurs are trying to build whole new businesses around digital-afterlife management (is there a profit opportunity here?). Evan Carroll and John Romano, interaction-design experts in Raleigh, N.C., who run a site called, have just published a tips-and- planning book, “Your Digital Afterlife,” with advice about such matters as appointing a “digital executor.”

But that was not what really captured my interest in the article. I quickly formed a picture of the cyber-presence as a kind of soul that lingers after the body dies. Sure enough that’s where the article went. The ineffable character of soul in the Jewish tradition leaves a fuzzy, ephemeral memory trace for all who care to continue to hold the deceased in their lives. The soul floats in a space to be judged for the kind of life led by the body that held it. Since souls are a creation of the ineffable G-D, they can not be pictured any more than G-D can be, nor does their resting places correspond to any mundane picture.

Cyber-presence changes all this. The totality of one’s digital records-pictures, tweets, emails, cookies and a myriad of other chunks of data create, a kind of immortality., from a company called Intellitar, also claims to convert the personal data you provide into an avatar — sort of like one of those chatbots that some online companies use for automated but more humanish customer service. “We want to give users the gift of immortality,” an Intellitar founder has said.
Will this affect the way we live our lives? Is immortality really a gift? Immortality has created lots of mythic mischief. Will our humanity go the way of these myths? I hope not, but now it seems possible. This gets to the question of souls. Is the eternal cyber-presence a kind of soul, the mysterious entity in which our new-found immortality is embodied?
In her 1999 book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Margaret Wertheim contextualized such speculations as attempts to, in effect, “construct a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven.”
Wertheim pointed out that cyberspace had become a new kind of place, where alternate (or at least carefully curated or burnished) identities could be forged, new forms of collectivity and connection explored, all outside the familiar boundaries of the physical world, like the body and geography. It’s not such a long journey to follow those assertions to the “view that man is defined not by the atoms of his body but by an information code,” as Wertheim wrote. “This is the belief that our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” She called this idea the “cybersoul,” a “posited immortal self, this thing that can supposedly live on in the digital domain after our bodies die.”
Wertheim, it should be noted, saw the cybersoul notion as both flawed and troubling, and I would agree. Life’s essence reduced to captured data is an uninspiring, and unconvincing, resolution to the centuries-old question of where, in mind and in body, the self resides. At least other imagined versions of immortality (from the Christian heaven to the Hindu wheel of life) suggested a reconciliation, or at least a connection, with the manner in which a physical life is lived; the cybersoul’s theoretically eternal and perfect persistence ignores this concept. Most of all, though, fantasizing about living forever — in heaven or in a preserved pattern of data — strikes me as just another way of avoiding any honest confrontation with the fact of death.

An utterly fascinating story. If it was not the NYTimes that carried it, I might have thought I was reading some sci-fi pulp e-mag. I agree with Wertheim. The ability to create a life record in bits and bytes that do not have to correspond with the life story being created in the material world by one’s actions can be abused. The rewriting of history happens when those involved want to change their place in history. The critical role of authenticity in producing flourishing can become easily lost. Authenticity requires that the aim of action correspond to something the actor cares about, but in the existent world. Spirituality is one of the basic domains of life, but not in the sense of creating one’s immortality. It’s important to one’s Being, but only during a lifetime. Sustainability depends on human action to perfect the present world, not some distant, immaterial world.