August 2011 Archives

Closing Loops Is Almost as Old as Life Itself

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The concepts behind the cradle-to-cradle brand (C2C) come straight from nature. McDonough and Braungart have brilliantly taken credit for what nature has always done. I admire their success in finding powerful language for these natural processes, but am affronted when I hear them say or imply that they invented them. The environmental media are frequent accessories in propagating this misconception. This paragraph showed up a few days ago in a story in GreenBiz news:

McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart developed the C2C philosophy, which espouses material health, reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social responsibility. Companies can have their goods certified as C2C products based on what goes into them, what can be done with them, and company operations.

This ideas of closing loops, using renewable energy or being smart about water use have been around for a long time. Closing loops was a central idea in the development of ecology, a field that was named in the 1860's, but was understood as a part of natural systems even before that. The field of industrial ecology, with which I was closely involved from its start in the 1990's, has many participants who recognized these important processes and their relationship to healthy ecosystems long before McDonough and Braungart found language that popularized the concepts.

I have been re-reading Fritjof Capra's book, Hidden Connections. One of the chapters covers the great advances being made in biotechnology. Capra is critical, as others have been, of the practice of patenting life forms, especially those based on natural life. The appropriation of features of living systems, by trademarking them, is just as repellent. The Natural Step came earlier than C2C, but without the hubris.

Structure and Organization

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broken chair

I confused these two terms in my last post. Here's the right description. Both refer to properties of systems, especially living systems. The definitions I use come from the work of Humberto Maturana. Entities composed of multiple elements have both structure and organization. Organization refers to the particular way in which the parts are interconnected. Organization gives an object its name. A chair is recognized by its organization, which, for a chair, is a set of legs supporting a seat with a back rising from the rear of the seat. If the same elements are organized in a different arrangement, the entity loses its former functional characteristics and becomes something else.

Structure refers to the elements that comprise and constitute the organization. They may change without destroying the organization and its particular name and functions. A chair may have wooden or metal legs, a rigid or flexible seat, or a high or low back; all such combinations will still be a chair. Artists often take liberties with structure making the organization and name obscure. If the chair is cut in half, the two parts no longer constitute a chair. Maturana uses a table for this description in a wonderfully accessible book that runs through much of his work. I cannot say that his work is always accessible. The book, From Being to Doing, is set in interview format with Bernhard Poerksen asking the questions and Maturana responding.

Living systems get their aliveness by continually changing the structure in response to changes (perturbations) in the inner or outer context, but always maintaining the organization. The process by which the organization persists in the face of perturbations is called by Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis, a continuous process of self reproduction. If the perturbations cause the organization to change, the entity becomes a distinctively different object. For living organisms, some changes in structure, say the loss of the heart or brain, causes the whole body to lose the autopoietic capability and die. A dead organism may superficially resemble the living form that preceded it, but it is not the same. It lacks the functions that made the living form distinctive.

These distinctions are critical in Maturana’s way of describing life and cognition. They are important in describing the behaviors of all complex systems and in explaining the emergence phenomena associated with complexity. Life is an emergent quality of certain systems that are organized in such a way that autopoiesis provides a robust, resilient way to respond to change in the world in which the entity exists without losing its organization. Beauty emerges when the elements (structure) of a painting give it an organization (the object as a whole) that has power to affect human sensibilities.

Flourishing emerges from the organization, called world, when the necessary structural elements are present and are interconnected to 1) support life, and 2) to lend life other qualities such as well being, freedom, or authenticity that have been accepted as essential to flourishing. Flourishing, like beauty, will always have part of its existence determined by subjective parameters. Other important cultural ends, for example, security are emergent. Trying to “fix” parts of the system instead of getting the whole organization into working order will not produce the desired outcomes. Security through military domination may appear to solve problems, but because only part of the operative system are addressed, new problems are very likely to appear. Terrorism is an example of the failure of partial solutions to work satisfactorily in the security domain. Today’s reductionist framework, by which problems associated with emergence are identified, responsibilities for handling them are assigned, and solutions are formulated, will change the structure in isolated places but cannot produce the changes in the organization as a whole necessary to create the desired emergence. Sustainability is a condition when, with the right changes, the whole world organization lets flourishing come forth (emerge). This condition will always be a possibility because we are unlikely to have sufficient understanding to make all these changes in the right order, place, and time. We must, then, keep trying and learning.

Slow Down, You’re Rocking the Boat


red shoes

The title of the song, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” from Guys and Dolls is a bit different but, with a slight change, fits today’s post. There is also, again, a eerie sense of synchronicity at work. A few days ago, I got a comment on one of my posts about the London riots that also had a link to a few articles and authors concerned with complexity. Out of curiosity, I looked up one of the names, Paul Cilliers, and discovered and downloaded a very interesting article entitled, "On the Importance of a Certain Slowness." Today as I was heading home from a couple of errands, the local public radio station started to air an old session of the Cambridge Forum. The speaker was Carl Honoré, speaking about his book, In Praise of Slowness.

Honoré opened with a reference to Slow Foods and Slow Cities and slow sex, topics that I thought I had read about in Cilliers piece. Indeed, Cilliers had started his piece with these items. On closer examination, Cilliers had credited Honoré, but the timing was way off. With a little research, I found the broadcast was an re-airing of a talk in 2005, when the author was promoting his then new book. Weird coincidence.

It’s not synchronicity I want to discuss today, rather it’s the importance of slowness. Cilliers argues that, “A slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better.” Much of his excellent, readable paper is an explanation about why we have come to have a distorted view of time. I am more interested today in the consequences of those distortions.

Complex systems are often characterized by nested systems of processes each moving at its own speed, ranging over as much as several orders of magnitude from the slowest to the fastest. The interactions between these levels maintains the sustainability of the overall system to exhibit the same general structure over time as conditions change. (See Panarchy, Gunderson and Holling, eds, Chapter 3.) In their words,

The fast levels invent, experiment, and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful surviving experiences. The whole panarchy [nested set of adaptive cycles] is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combine learning with continuity. That defines the meaning of sustainable development. Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity. The phrase, sustainable development, is therefore not an oxymoron but represents a logical partnership.

This discussion uses the words “sustainable development” in a very different sense than does the Brundtland definition which implies continuing growth. Unbounded growth is impossible in the living systems that spawned the notion of panarchy. The text refers to other cultural systems in which include nested cycles. Large institutions have, in order of fast to slow processes, operational rules, collective choice rules, and constitutional rules; similarly economies have individual preferences, markets, and social institutions; societies have allocation mechanisms, norms, and myths; and knowledge systems have local knowledge, management practice, and worldview. In each case, the slow processes provide memory and act to conserve the overall structure. When we lose or degrade the slow processes, the system becomes unstable and more subject to gross alterations in its structure, which is equivalent to what we often call regime change.

A second important reason for retaining slowness in the way we act in the world comes out of one of Cilliers’ opening paragraphs.

There are a number of very important issues at stake in these examples, but in what follows, the focus will not be on these social movements as such, but on the underlying principles which make the debate on slowness an important one. Through an analysis of the temporal nature of complex systems, it will be shown that the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one. A slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better.

The last sentence, which I quoted above is key. Since complexity means that we cannot describe the system analytically nor can we predict its future states, the only way to guide the operation of the system is by some kind of pragmatic framework. We can start from a place where our theories, imperfect as they might be, lead us to, but once there we can only watch, learn, and adjust as we go. Slowness is inherent in watching and reflecting on what we experience. While this statement is true of big systems like the economy or global climate system, it is just as valid for each of our individual lives. Each one of us is a part of a complex system. Success in living is just another way of saying that we have effectively coped with the constant change that envelops us. Most of the coping we do is unconscious and transparent, but is guided by a constant reflection (feedback) on what has just happened. If life speeds by too fast, the ability to reflect, adjust, and learn cannot keep pace and the future our actions intended to create will struggle to come forth. The picture that comes to my mind is the dance scene in the movie, The Red Shoes, where the heroine steps into a pair of magic red dance slippers that whirl her through life, passing by every place she wanted to be.

There’s another reason to be conscious of slowness. Several of the 11 essential domains of care in the model of human ontology I build suggest that slowness will facilitate satisfaction. Idleness/leisure, an element in caring for oneself, is often used as a metaphor for slowness or repose. Practice in this domain is important in providing a break from the hurly burly of much of life to enable reflection. Learning/understanding, another domain, happens in one of the slower life processes. Modern technology has revved up the pace of acquiring information, but that is not the same as learning, quite the opposite. The faster we are bombarded with bytes, the less likely we are to learn much. Authenticity, action coming from the “self” rather than the voice of society, needs time to avoid the instant responses triggered by the incessant flux of incoming messages telling one what to do.

The erosion of security brought on by the political malaise in the US, the financial straits that so many have fallen into, or visible signs of inequality tends to turn up the velocity of the treadmill. Many try to run faster to reach the place they were or hoped to be, or outrace the impending disaster they sense. Technology almost compels us to go faster and faster. I have to confess that I recently bought a new iMac that is many times faster than the already fast machine I bought some years ago. At first I marveled at the instantaneous way it booted up and opened applications, but I quickly discovered that I was the slowest of the nested set of processes making up the complex system of my computer, office, printer, and me. All that new speed doesn’t really matter. My slowness in thinking and typing (I’m a two-finger typist) paces the work and produces whatever sense comes forth.

The London Riots (Redux)

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UK riots

A few posts ago, I presented one scholar’s view of the cause of the riots in the UK. Several readers commented that the author, Zigmund Bauman, took a narrow stance, coming from his own theories that argue that we are in a state of “liquid modernity.” By this he means that individuals have been cut loose from the “modern” institutions that anchored social stability. Rapid change inhibits the formation of new stable institutions leaving individuals bereft of solidfying relationships. The result is that individuals must take on different roles on short notice. They cannot count on the institutions of either the public or private sector to provide the security that characterized the period of post-war prosperity. Uncertainty about the future becomes a normal part of living. Here are a few paragraphs describing his model taken from Bauman’s book, Liquid Modernity.

Indeed, no mould was broken without being replaced with another; people were let out from their old cages only to be admonished and censured in case they failed to relocate themselves, through their own, dedicated and continuous, truly life-long efforts, in the ready-made niches of the new order: in the classes, the frames which (as uncompromisingly as the already dissolved estates) encapsulated the totality of life conditions and life prospects and determined the range of realistic life projects and life strategies. The task confronting free individuals was to use their new freedom to find the appropriate niche and to settle there through conformity: by faithfully following the rules and modes of conduct identified as right and proper for the location.

It is such patterns, codes and rules to which one could conform, which one could select as stable orientation points and by which one could subsequently let oneself be guided, that are nowadays in increasingly short supply. It does not mean that our contemporaries are guided solely by their own imagination and resolve and are free to construct their mode of life from scratch and at will, or that they are no longer dependent on society for the building materials and design blueprints. But it does mean that we are presently moving from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ into the epoch of ‘universal comparison’, in which the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably underdetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before such labours reach their only genuine end: that is, the end of the individual's life.

I see no issues with this part of Bauman’s philosophy. It seems to me that it describes very accurately what has been happening in the US and the UK. The financial collapse destroyed much trust and confidence in the economic system as the engine of livelihood. High levels of unemployment that followed deaden one’s expectations of finding a steady source of income. The political system in the US is anything but stable. The loudest voices coming from Washington are mostly about tearing down what have been institutions that supported social stability.

There’s nothing in this model that would explain the rage that ignited the riots. It leaves all of us wandering about carrying a heavy load of existential anxiety, a state far from flourishing. Bauman steps out of his base to attribute the anger to the inequality that forces the poorer segments of society to face their rootlessness and failures to acquire the only objects that constitutes success in such rootlessness: consumer goods. Consumption is the measure of one’s worth. Wealth is measured by the level and scope of the consumption it can produce. It is easy, as the commenters said, to jump from his sociological base to argue that inequality in the means to live a fluid life with its material trappings might lead to physical violence.

This explanation takes on more weight when proposed in a report by a major British brokerage firm, Tullett Prebon, with a stance quite to the opposite end of the political spectrum. The report, “I buy, therefore I am--The economic meaning of the riots,” summarizes the reasons:

The consumerist ethos, in which a materialist vision is both pedalled and, for the vast majority, simultaneously ruled out by exclusion, has extremely damaging consequences, both social and economic.

The report goes on the argue that these riots are not just a one-off event, but have profound implications for the British economy.

Britain needs to change its ethos, recast its role models, encourage saving, channel private investment into the creation rather than the inflation of assets, and switch public spending from consumption to investment within a focus on house-building, infrastructure and technology

Sounds familiar. We have had a financial collapse, but no riots yet to bring forth such statements from Wall Street. The popular sentiments heard in the media are quite in the opposite direction. The inclusion of “ethos” bears further discussion. The liquid state of the culture is exacerbated by the growing inequality which is real in terms of wealth or income but is magnified by what the report called the “You can’t have it” massage which runs alongside the many messages that say you have to own it.

For today’s young generation, the message pushed at them by big corporates and the media alike is unmistakable - “you are what you own.” The direct promotion of products and services is nothing new, of course, other than in its relentlessly growing scale. The more insidious dimension of the promotion of consumerism lies in its largely successful endeavour to capture lifestyle perceptions. Celebrities, be they sports stars, musicians, actors or the legions of D-list “celebs”, are linked to conspicuous consumption. “You”, young people are told, “ought to live like this”.

The second, flatly contradictory message is that “you can’t have it”. For the average young person, celebrity-style conspicuous consumption is tantalisingly but almost entirely out of reach.

For the overwhelming majority, the likelihood of becoming a sports, music or media star is so low as, for all intents and purposes, not to exist at all. Even an exceptionally talented young footballer has a virtually zero chance of matching the success of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. This, in itself, isn’t new. Britain was full of wannabe Alan Shearers in the 1990s, of would-be Allan Clarkes in the 1970s, and of schoolboy Nat Lofthouses in the 1950s.

It seems likely that we will see something like this in the US soon. Inequality is higher here that in the UK. We are likely, I believe, to see the “liquidity” of life become greater due to the continuing move toward undoing what institutions that provided stability, fueled by concerns that we have overreached in the past. Opposition to the consumerist ethos is weak, in spite of growth of sustainability as a public concern. This statement from the report is equally true here in the US.

Opponents of the consumerist message are puny beside the might of the advertising and marketing industries, the main advocates of alternatives being organised religions whose influence in countries like Britain is now extremely limited. Advertising is almost impossible to avoid. The typical internet user is subjected to at least one hundred advertisements per hour, and even those who confine their television exposure to public service broadcasters such as the BBC are not immune, as anyone who watched the sponsorship-drenched 2010 World Cup will attest.

The takeaway for me is the focus on “ethos,” as the basic problem. I translate the use of this word as a reference to the underlying cultural values that drive both our and the British societies. The combination of current policies that drive inequality and the “liquid” state of modernity of Bauman or similar descriptions found in the work of other prominent sociologist, for example, Claude Offe or Ulrich Beck, is toxic and unstable. The Tullett Prebon argues that a thorough reexamination of the institutions that have created the current malaise is urgent. The authors see the riots a wake-up call. They are optimistic that if such a reexamination is done “a policy phoenix can rise from the ashes.”

I do not expect such a re-examination to occur here any time soon. The Congressional blue-ribbon panel convened to deal with some of these issues has far too narrow a charge. As noted, the opposition to the hollow consumerist ethos is pitifully weak compared to the forces of the status quo. The bully pulpit of the president has lacked sermons with a tone of urgency and a call to recognize the growing possibility that we are approaching some tipping point that would send us into terra incognita, further than ever from the sustainability that would calm our collective angst.

"Normal" Sustainable Consumption Is a Fantasy

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The sustainable consumption list server I follow has a exceptionally long series of commentaries about consumerism and the role of public relations and other forms of cultural pressure. One of the early entrants asked, "What is 'normal' [sustainable ] consumption?" This question comes in turn from the notion that there is some level of consumption that is both consistent with sustainability and with accepted societal norms. I think this is the wrong question to ask. We know that consumption must be much less than it today. Sooner or later we going to have to return to a footprint that is less than the one Earth we inhabit.

But short of that, we really do not have a clue as to what the norm should be. It's the wrong question to ask anyway. Consumption will always adjust to the need to subsist and to some pressures arising from the voice of culture. Those voices can be damped down, but will not disappear. If we continue to advertise the wonders of this or that product (as I am certain we will for a long time), it will be normal to respond by purchases in the supermarket. If our dominant values are extrinsic, focused on how we show up in the world, we will always be trying to catch up with the celebrities of the moment. The thought that normal can be defined otherwise fails to see the interrelationship of societal norms to other aspects of cultural structure.

The more important question is what kind of human beings will we be? The same conversation on the sustainable consumption network that raised this question moved to an extensive set of arguments about human rationality and the possibility of convincing people that changing their habits to reflect the limits of the Planet is in their best interests. If that were to happen, it would then be possible to erect all sorts of new institutional organization and rules. I do not think this gets at the real issue.

What kind of human beings do we want to be? The question is an ontological one. We have come to exist in the Having mode as Erich Fromm wrote. This view of ourselves is reinforced by the cultural structure that has evolved for at least 3-400 years, which structure is further embedded by our present consumptive patterns and the power. Some of the comments in the thread I refer to note that this structure is so strongly situated that it will change only through collapse and catastrophe. Perhaps, but this kind of forced change would throw us into a new world that might be even farther away from sustainability as I talk about it.

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of human nature. Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted by the way we exhibit care. Care arises from consciousness of our interconnections to the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends on acting to keep all these relationships in a healthy state. I use flourishing as a general characteristic for these states.

Let me get back now to to the start of this post. Trying to define a level and pattern of normal consumption, sustainable or not, is fruitless. It's not the norms that are fixed today; it is the unconscious belief that Having is the way humans really are. Now after some years of struggling to convince people that this change from Having to Being is a necessary condition for sustainability to emerge, I accept the difficulty of working with these concepts.

So, I'll try to get there by talking about values instead. Values are nothing but an ascription given to the general way we order our behavioral habits. They are explanations actors and observers give when asked why certain kinds of actions show up more often than others in similar contexts. But, real or not, we are much more willing to talk about changing our values than changing our "ontological mode." And change is needed.

values wheel.pngI referred to extrinsic values above as ties to Having. Their opposite is intrinsic values, related more to the way we think about ourselves in terms of what we care about. Tim Kasser uses the diagram shown to represent this polarity. The congruence of these terms to Having and Being is not perfect, but goes a long way to support the polarized nature of the two ontological modes. Further while the expression to change the [ontological] mode of existence from Having to Being sounds strange and abstruse, changing values is much more familiar and acceptable. But not just any old set of values.

The cause of sustainable consumption would be better served if the community would think about change starting with ways to move rightward in the values multiplex diagram. In my way of talking, this move is the same as going from Having to Being. If such change happen and we finally arrive at a world where sustainability comes forth, the resultant patterns of consumption will be the "normal" patterns by definition. They will always only emerge when the whole system is working coherently. To try to determine what they should be, a priori, is both impossible and misdirected.

The Dark Side of Consumerism

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London riots

In the week or so since the riots burst forth in England there have been a gush of articles looking to explain their causes. Acting out of my "confirmation bias ( another story in full bloom in the media right now)," I found an explanation that was right on target for me.

Zygmunt Bauman, writing for the "Social Europe Journal" argues that these upheavals are the result of "Consumerism coming Home." The Journal covers "issues of critical interest to progressives." Bauman is a well-known sociologist and is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds. His main premise is that social upheavals, such as the London riots, are the result of inequalities or disparities between "the haves and the have-nots."

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers. . . All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. . . The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied - and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them - as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

His piece is short and evocative. I urge you to follow the link and read the whole article. He connects "having" to the dominant consumerism so characteristic of affluent societies, writing "We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty." The poor and the unemployed cannot enter the bazaars where having the money to offer for the goods is a ticket of admission. They suffer the "stigma of a life un-fulfilled," a double whammy that feeds their own lack of self and their shame at not living up to cultural norms.

The London riots are only the latest signs of the pent up anger that bursts forth when triggered by some event that might seem to be totally disconnected. We in the US should take careful note of what is happening abroad. Our level of inequality now exceeds that of the UK. Consumerism is at least as strong an ideology underpinning of our culture. The wealthy have returned to the marketplace, perhaps never having left it. Electronic devices of all ilk are joining sneakers as a symbol of belongingness. Bauman likens shops to "temples" with the power to cure all of our earthly ills.

The riots are extreme events, but the underlying condition is, if anything, growing stronger and more widespread. The civil unrest that follows is of great concern to societies that are built on a voluntaristic foundation. There is no signs of sustainability in these events, just the opposite. Flourishing comes only when Being replaces Having. Consumption is inevitable, stemming from our biological needs for sustenance and our cultural norms. But consumerism is not. Flourishing depends on replacing a set of concerns focused primarily on the acquisition of wealth and the quantity of our possessions to a set of cares focused on the quality of relationships with each other, our own selves, and the world that is always out there. One's love for others and the world has no connection to the things one possesses, once the basic needs of subsistence are satisfied.

Ray Anderson

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I saw an obituary of Ray yesterday. More than any other business leader, he promoted the cause of sustainability as an essential foundation for business strategies. I would have argued with him (and did on occasion) that his view of sustainability missed its essential meaning. But no matter, Ray was an unceasing spokesman for the greening movement through his books and frequent speeches. He claimed he got the message as an epiphany after reading Paul Hawken's early book, The Ecology of Commerce.

He brought in a dream team (Hawken, Lovins, McDonough, and others) to put his company, Interface Carpet, at the head of the queue. Some of his ideas worked and others merely created new approaches. The idea of leasing carpets, an early entry into the product-services category, was a bit too early and was based on a misunderstanding of the way that companies financed assets like carpets. It was one of the few failures in Interface's greening program. Interface was joined by other carpet manufacturers in seeking processes to recycle the old goods into new. Today, that closed loop is a fixture of their industry.

Ray would end his talks with a poem, "Tomorrow's Child" (written by Glenn Thomas). In spite of his soothing southern accent, the implications of the words never failed to impact his audience. The message of the poem is a beautiful metaphor for sustainable development, seen as the need to live so that the coming generations will always have enough.

Without a name; an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow’s Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his shining point of view
I saw a day that you would see;
a day for you, but not for me

Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you

Tomorrow’s Child, my daughter-son
I’m afraid I’ve just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander; what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

Ray's soft, persistent, persuasive manner will be missed.


As a participant in the SCORAI network, I get periodic emails about sustainable consumption. SCORAI Is a network of researchers working on this subject. I find this group a source of inspiration and knowledge, even while I cannot accept the phrase "sustainable consumption" as meaningful. The latest message carried a link to an article in the Guardian about the creation of consumers in the last century.

Written by Stephanie Draper, with the title, "PR created consumerism - what can it do for sustainability?", the article tells the story of Edward Bernays (in the photo), the father of public relations, and how he created consumers through this technique. The main example is the story of how Bernays got women to start smoking by creating a newsworthy event used to send the message that smoking is part of the liberation that women of the times were feeling. It was very successful and showed the power of emotion over reason, a subject that is very much in the news today.

There is nothing particularly controversial about this part of the story in the Guardian, but the reporter continues to argue that "Valuable lessons can be learned from the 'father of PR', and used to drive public interest in a sustainable business future." She argues that proponents of sustainability should use these techniques to drive a shift to less impactful consumption.

I do not disagree with objective of producing the primary outcome: lower impact. If anything PR campaigns have become even more nuanced and powerful today. But this strategy would embed the ism of consumerism more deeply. Sustainability cannot be created until humans shift from the Having mode (connected closely to consumerism) to the Being mode of living (the absence of isms). Being comes only with authentic actions, coming from the inside and not driven by cultural norms such as are produced by PR. Bernays was a master at this. Consumerism is dominating no matter what is the nature of what is consumed and its material effects on the world.

We do not need PR. We need therapy or some practice that would reconnect every individual to the deeply rooted caring that makes each one of us human. Cultural voices, whether pushing for harmful or for green consumption, mask this fundamental foundation. It matters not at all for sustainability if we should find a way to preserve the environment but fail to discover our Being in the process. We would still be far from flourishing.

Still in a Bad Mood


bad mood I will be away for a few days to visit friends. In any case, I need a few days just to get out of the bad mood I am in. I have not been able to think about sustainability when I need how to figure out how to get from today to tomorrow, and I am certain that I am not alone in these straits. I know that all will pass but I wonder if the world will have undergone one of those flips I so often write about: a change into a new regime from which we cannot return to the present world, presuming that is where we want to be.

New worlds are important to most of the planet's population because their present worlds are not wonderful in terms of flourishing. I would add hundred millions of new entrants to this vast group--those whose livelihoods have disappeared amid the chaos of the financial woes we continue to experience. The promised pursuit of happiness that is always evoked as a cornerstone of the American dream and exceptionalism seems an increasingly futile race. It may be that the prosperity I have grown up with cannot be sustained. The conditions that have produced it for millions have also depleted the resources needed to maintain it for the future.

Looking realistically at our society through the lens of complexity, especially in view of the unstabilizing events of the recent past, the appearance of so much brittleness is no surprise. The more brittle a system is, the more care and caution is necessary in keeping it running smoothly. Sledgehammers are not what is called for, and that is exactly what the ideological battles represent whether liberal, conservative, or libertarian.

President Obama is being castigated for not taking a stronger position in these matters, but I believe this spleen is misguided. He is making a strong effort to find pragmatic levers that might ease us out of our peril, but in the one-dimensional context of the press and punditry, he is painted as a sort of wimp. There has been a lot of talk recently about the nature of political rhetoric, much of it misguided. Cries for the left to adopt the strategies of the right, that is talk in simplistic, emotion-laden sound bites, is exactly what the world does not need. This strategy may indeed win elections, but to what end if the Republic is left in tatters. Even if sustainability seems further away than ever, the ways to create it are still extremely relevant to easing the present turmoil. But first, our leaders must stop playing simplistic games and change the tenor of political talk to focus first on the complexity of the situation and on the need to focus on solutions to the problems facing us, not on "winning" the next election. Winning is in quotes because for most Americans the future looks worse than the present.

Hard to Think Much Beyond Tomorrow


stock market crash despair

It has been a tough day on top of quite a few troublesome days. It's not just the plummeting stock market, but the context in which all turmoil this is happening. I am certainly not in the straits of the unemployed, although retirement is a sort of unemployed state, but results of the past few days are for me like taking a 20% cut in pay. I am appalled at the callousness of those so-called leaders in business and government. Ideologies of all flavors are blinding them to see the real lives of the millions of people whose lives are either being rent asunder or severely buffeted. And what for?

I believe deeply that we face real problems these days, not phony dilemmas fashioned by the political flacks who have learned to tug at our emotions, pulling us in directions that take us far from our goals and safe havens. Simple solutions to complex problems never worked well and work less effectively as the complexity grows as it is doing today. The plutocrats and oligarchs who pull many of the strings behind the curtain have nothing to lose by playing with our lives. They have insulated themselves from the vagaries we face with impervious walls built on wealth that was shared much more equitably not so very long ago.

It is a great and grievous error to seek solutions from the heavens or the ivory towers. The problems are of our own making. Only we can conquer them. They have accumulated by a kind of thinking badly adapted to deal with the real world, a world of complexity and no easy answers. We fool ourselves by believing that the Constitution has an original meaning that can govern our lives in a completely different world than that when the words were put on parchment. (I guess I am much more angry than I would admit to.)

I do not have the numbers at hand, but I estimate that US stock market has lost some $3+ trillion in the last week or so. What a pity. These funds could have gone quite far in putting our financial house in order. The market sell-off was no different to me than a tax would have been. I wonder if all those in Washington that have no concept of the importance of government in producing prosperity understand that their shenanigans have taxed me far more than anything that even the most liberal legislator would ever consider.

I have been finishing a syllabus for my course for the Fall at Marlboro examining the role of current economic policy on unsustainability and what changes might head us more toward sustainability. I plan to have the students read excerpts from Adam Smith's two great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of the "invisible hand" came from the former, not the latter of these two tomes. Smith is credited by many historians to have invented the idea of the "free" market. Some say he did a great job aggregating ideas from others. No matter which, he was clear that government had to play an active role in keeping the market "free." Free here means simply that the self-interests of the players would maximize the aggregate well-being (measured in terms of economic output). It is highly ironic that those who shout out the need to get government out of the way ignore one of Smith's strongest cautionary notes.

That's it for now. I have a pain in my side that seems to be caused by my emotional state and am about to go to bed. I have lived long enough to have seen all sorts of turmoil in the world. I don't think we have learned much about how to live with it. We are still using cudgels to solve highly nuanced, complex problems. Everything I am learning about the world of complexity is built on a foundation of humility, the opposite of the hubris that seems to be in the driver's seat. If we are going to "solve" our problems, we must first acknowledge that we do not have the answers, that we do not even fully understand them, and that working together is the only way to go. Blame may win elections, but has never solved any serious problem.

The Invisible Web and Other Effronteries


spicer web with water

I’m back to consumption today with a few separate but related thoughts.

I suppose I should have known. I recently learned from an article (I cannot locate now) that almost every time I went to a web page my actions were tracked by a number of snooping programs run by companies gathering information on my browsing habits. Being curious and a bit peeved about this, I installed a small program, Ghostery, that blocks these snoopers and records them for my perusal. Ghostery says this about itself:

Ghostery is your window into the invisible web - tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages to get an idea of your online behavior. Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.

After showing you who's tracking you, Ghostery also gives you a chance to learn more about each company it identifies. How they describe themselves, a link to their privacy policies, and a sampling of pages where we've found them are just a click away.

There are more than 500 companies that are doing this. Ghostery provides information on each one. I found seven separate firms tracking my interactions with the NYTimes online. (No one was tracking the Ghostery site.) Some were identified as belonging to the big players: Facebook, Microsoft, and Google (2). Webtrends seems typical of what I found. Ghostery provides this data about them.

WebTrends operates as a Web analytics and customer intelligence company. They offer search engine marketing, visitor intelligence, and analytics solutions. By measuring online activities, they enable companies to understand their customers, drive engagement, and enhance marketing and brand awareness. Webtrends Visitor Data Mart is a tool that combines a person's online behavior with offline customer data, such as CRM or demographics to build insight into a person over time. This data can be used to improve segmentation and audience targeting. WebTrends is a business unit of NetIQ.


Privacy and Data Collection Information Privacy Policy:

Data Collected: ?Anonymous (browser type, exit pages, ISP, operating system, page views, referring URLs, time/date), Pseudonymous (IP address), PII (will link voluntarily provided registration and profile data to automatically collected anonymous data)

Data Sharing: ?Anonymous and aggregate data are shared with third parties. PII and Pseudonymous data are shared with third party service providers. Data Retention: ?Undisclosed

I have very mixed feeling about this. In some ways, this kind of tracking is not much different from the tracking I allow every time I use a store card at the supermarket. The data from my purchase gets recorded, but it has no future connection to my buying habits other than perhaps shelving more of the stuff I usually buy. It has no direct influence of how I shop.

But another effort is under foot to change this and convert your shopping habits, not what you buy, but how you navigate through the aisles of a supermarket. The National Science Foundation published a story (August 1, 2011) on their public website, Science Nation, about a team that is collecting data abut shopper habits using a cameras on the ceiling and software to analyze the patterns they observe.

Next time you go to a store, take a minute to look at all the things that are trying to grab your attention. With so many products available and so many stores and websites, how do you decide what to buy and where to shop? Whether it's convenience, good service or finding the best deals, store owners want to know what attracts you to their stores, and what it takes to keep you coming back. Turns out, there's a science to all this.

The idea is to show retailers and manufacturers the best areas in the store to place products, and how to create a comfortable place for people to shop. "By providing the data to retailers and manufacturers," says Sharma, "they can customize and design the stores and the shelves and the products to match the shoppers' interest."

Is this and the snooping on the Internet designed to enhance consumer sovereignty or squelch it? If your own habits are being monitored and used to manipulate your behavior, are you really operating out of authentic choice? Does it lead to supporting our “natural” habits (if such habits do actually exist) or controlling them by subtly influencing our behavior. I have no doubt that all of this is designed to produce more consumption. Sustainability demands less, not more.

The Globe carried a short article today about obtaining rental car discounts if you are willing to drive a car displaying ads. Not the same kind of surveillance, but designed to the same end: more consumption. As I have asked before, “Is there no place on Earth without ads?”