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.