September 2011 Archives

Going to a Wedding

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I will be gone until Tuesday to attend a nephew's wedding being held in the California wine country.

This item in the NYTimes caught my eye.

Washington, Seeking Revenue, Is in a Mood to Sell

Like Americans trying to raise quick cash by unloading their unwanted goods, the federal government is considering a novel way to reduce the deficit: holding the equivalent of a garage sale.

Deep within President Obama’s proposals to raise revenue and reduce the deficit lies a method that has garnered bipartisan support, something rare in Washington these days. It involves selling an island, courthouses, maybe an airstrip, generally idle or underused vehicles, roads, buildings, land — even the airwaves used to broadcast television.

Hardly anything to feel good about. The amount of money to be raised, maybe $20 billion, is trivial in comparison to the deficit or the budget. What's more grating is the talk accompanying this with the Congress congratulating itself for maybe doing something in a bipartisan way.

“This is something that we can have bipartisan agreement on,” said Representative Jeff Denham of California who, as one of the most conservative House Republicans, almost never agrees with the president.

Who does Denham think he is fooling. The is sort of like the bad joke I learned way back in high school: "Besides that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?" This ploy doesn't even rise to the level of the insufficient fixes I wrote about yesterday.

Mr. Fixit Is Out

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The cover of the September 19th issue of Newsweek carries this imprecation in bold red: “Let’s Just Fix it.” The subhead reads: Move over, Mr. President. Everyday Americans Can Turn This Country Around.” Inside are 29 solutions, each one coming from someone with an narrow interest.The founder of Zipcar says, “make cars smarter.” The CEO of Nasdaq want more visas for high-level workers. The founder of Linked In suggests that “Young people need to think about their careers more like a business, and think about their brand.”

Having just written a post on the need for systems thinking, the approach taken by Newsweek is deplorable. The problems all of the respondents are addressing may appear to have singular causes, but come from a broad systems failure. In my previous post, I used a powerful quote from a Davis Brooks op-ed piece in the New York Times. He concluded an excellent article about the need to think holistically to be able to cope with the complexity of today’s world with this: “The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads.”

Everyone of the solutions comes from a person exemplifying Brooks’s statement. This is not a pejorative assertion I am making. It simply reflects the way our society—everyone—has learned to think. Even when we say we think out of the box, we are still trapped by the beliefs and norms buried deep in our cognitive systems.

The fixes proposed are at best short-term bandages applied to stanch the bleeding. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do this. There is enough pain around to justify action, but not at the expense of relaxing efforts to go deep into the system and begin to unearth the roots of the problems, and aim our remedies at that level. We were willing to let FDR take bold steps to do just this with outcomes that brought us out of the Great Depression and lasted for decades.

The solutions he applied are probably not appropriate today because the world is very different, even though many of the problems resemble those of the 1930’s, for example, in place of fascism we have terrorism. None of the fixes in the Newsweek article would scramble the world sufficiently to approach the systemic context necessary to design effective solutions. Smarter cars is not the answer to congestion or pollution. Public transportation, telecommuting, bicycles, or urban redesign would represent a rethinking of mobility needs at a more basic level. A better educational system (We once had one) would obviate the need to go begging for talent from outside the US. We are already doing too much to convince young (and old) people that they are nothing but an economic unit. Careers are about taking care of something that is valued. Careers are where one’s public identity is forged. Linked In’s suggestion would continue the depreciation of the “human” part of human being.

What Newsweek needs to do if they really care about the future of the country and the worlds is to begin to feature stories about complexity, pragmatism, possibility, local knowledge understanding, care and the rest of a long list of distinctions and ideas that are not to be found in the box they are stuck in. Instead of Jack Welch, T. Boone Pickens, or Lawrence Summers, we need to voices of Russ Ackoff, Donella Meadows or Ludwig von Bertalanffy (all deceased): Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Frijtjof Capra, Humberto Maturana, and a raft of others. They speak in the language of complexity without which these important ideas will not filter into the culture and to those with power to make real change happen. Our cultural ground goes all the way back to the Greeks with a substantial addition by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The new distinctions they coined and put into play both make our life the way it is, but also bring us the problems we face. Without new thinking and new ways to understand the ways the world and our species work, we will be unable to get beyond merely fixing problems to constructing new institutions and technologies that will move toward sustainability and leave our current woes behind.

The Need for Systems Thinking at the Top.

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David Brooks must be reading my blog again. His op-ed piece today (9/27/11) was the clearest recognition that he understands that the world is complex and the “big” problems of today are not amenable to simple, technocratic, ideological solutions. The headline of the piece, The Lost Decade?, is a bit excessive. Maybe, just maybe, it will instead be the decade we find ourselves and turn to a path towards sustainable and the realization of our vision of flourishing. Brooks speaks of taking on the big institutions and begin to change them at the core. (My words, not his, but the same ideas.) The article focuses on the financial/economic crisis and the many “causes” attributed to it. Only a week ago I devoted my class at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability to systems thinking, another way to describe what Brooks finds missing.

This crisis has many currents, which merge and feed off each other. There is the lack of consumer demand, the credit crunch, the continuing slide in housing prices, the freeze in business investment, the still hefty consumer debt levels and the skills mismatch — not to mention regulatory burdens, the business class’s utter lack of confidence in the White House, the looming explosion of entitlement costs, the public’s lack of confidence in institutions across the board.

No single one of these currents prolongs the crisis. It is the product of the complex interplay between them. To put it in fancy terms, the crisis is an emergent condition — even more terrible than the sum of its parts.

He calls the crisis an emergent condition, more than a concatenation of all the singular woes we face today. I would argue a bit with his use of “emergent.” Crisis is just an ordinary word used to describe very bad situations, in this case of the failure of the system to continue to produce all the normative outcomes it is supposed to. It would be more precise to deem the current crisis a failure at the system level or a departure of the system from its norms. Emergent properties are involved, but they are the ones that are vanishing as the system sputters toward a stop. These include immaterial qualities like confidence, security, trust--all of which emerge when the system is running well, along with the tangible financial outputs. Some might argue that money is not really material, but that’s not relevant to this train of thought. Inequality is another emergent property that is getting larger as the system shows signs of collapse.

Putting aside this semantic difference, Brooks is smack on in faulting the political system and its leaders as incompetent (again, my word) to see and acknowledge the complexity involved here and the need to think in holistic terms (his word).

Yet the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.

Brooks lists a number of the ideological solutions both of the US political wings are stuck on, using a familiar saying: “To a man in love with his hammer, every problem requires a nail.” Wisely he stops short of offering the “solution.” To do so would contradict the basic point he is making. He does suggest that institutions--the tax code, banking, housing, entitlements--must be rebuilt from the bottom, hoping “that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.” Note his use of “hope.” He is correct to note that complexity does not allow determinant solutions. The most we can do is use our best understanding of what is going on as starters and carefully adapt the governance as the outcomes start to be evident, albeit unclear and fuzzy. His most prescriptive statement, “We need an approach that is both grander and more modest.”, is a call for both pragmatism and boldness, both of which qualities are entirely absent today. Finally, he recognizes that the real source of the problems lies not in the world, but in our inability to change the way we think about it, a theme quite familiar to those who follow this blog.

The Power of Words

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We have been seeing a lot of editorializing about political talk lately, most of it scolding the left for letting the right speak to the heart, not the mind. The argument here is that conventional understanding of rationality, the way the left argues, is not correct. Rationality, the new theory goes, evolved as a means to prevail in argumentation, not to discover the truth. I think there is a lot of guidance here that the left should heed in order to level the playing field. The level will be much lower than that of an old fashioned “rational” debate, but the outcome will not be so distorted.

The language being used today has a deeper potential impact on politics and on the way our society fares. In a very thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times, two Yale faculty point out that the language describing our current situation has shifted from that used in past similar circumstances.

In the face of nothing but bad economic news, Americans often take heart in remembering that we have been here before — during the Great Depression, when conditions were far worse than they are today — and we survived.

But there is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

“Language is the house of being,” wrote Martin Heidegger. What he meant was that the world that shows up for people depends on the language they have to convert the meaningless sense data impinging on the body into a meaningful picture of the current scene. The language being used determines the context of subsequent actions. Schön and Rein, fellow MIT faculty, in their book, Frame Reflections, make the same case. They point to the difference that two phrases, slum clearance and urban renewal, used to describe the same city scene will lead to different frames for the argument, different stakeholders, and different ultimate outcomes. The op-ed piece compares the language used currently with that of 1934 with the depression going full tilt.

Roosevelt challenged Congress to place “the security of the men, women and children of the nation first. . . . Americans want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours.”

In contrast, Marmor and Mashaw, the authors of the oped piece note that the context and substance of the conversation has lost the presence of people. They write:

In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live. If a moral concept plays a role in today’s debates, it is only the stern proselytizing of forcing the government to live within its means. If the effect of government policy on average people is discussed, it is only as providing incentives for the sick to economize on medical costs and for the already strapped worker to save for retirement.

When the words disappear, so do the ideas from which they came. The old vocabulary is struggling to find its way back. Marmor and Mashaw end with a disturbing rhetorical question: "Can we talk about this? Maybe not." If we ignore the power of language to shape ideas and action, we risk the outcome that the last sentence forebodes.

Sustainability and the Serious Side of Humor

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Getting back to work in Lexington after a great summer in mine is turning out to be a challenge for my attention neurons. I find it hard to get serious about this blog and the rest of my regular activities. I have begun the fall semester at my retiree's institute of learning in retirement taking two courses: one on comedy in film; the other on contemporary American poetry. Neither requires reflecting deeply on into the dismal state of the immediate world. The film course began with Chaplin’s wonderful Modern Times, followed by Duck Soup, one of the Marx Brothers’s masterpieces.

The Chaplin film, made in 1936 in the depth of the depression, offers a comedic interlude from the sad state of today’s world, but paints the dehumanizing effects of the onset of Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor’s mass production practices and the mechanization of labor in such funny ways that the dark side fades to the background. But the humor aside, I find it a serious critique of the then rapidly growing place for technology in society. The huge machine that the workers were attending to swallows up Chaplin and then one of his assembly line buddies, spitting them out after a tortuous journey through the innards. Chaplin’s job on the line, repetitively tightening two screws on a part of whatever it is that is being made, can’t be turned off after the speed is raised to an impossible to follow level. He is the victim of an eating machine, designed so workers can be fed automatically without leaving their posts, running amok. Chaplin suffers a breakdown when he tries to tighten inappropriate buttons, fire hydrant valves and other bolt-head-like objects. The release from the oppression of technology comes to Chaplin via a relationship with a gamine, played wonderfully by Paulette Goddard. He is able to put behind the always losing battle with machines, and the film ends with an optimistic scene.

I have read definitions of humor than define it as a collision with reality in which the “reality” of the reality sinks in. In humorous moments we become aware that our preconceived picture of the world is so far from the “truth” that we laugh at ourselves, a response to the surprising awareness looming large against our expectations. This form of humor can happen when we are all alone, but is helped alone by comics who help us confront our presuppositions. Chaplin was a master at this. We also watched, Playtime, a film by Jacques Tati, best known for his Mr. Hulot series. I did not find much humor in the film, except for some slapstick scenes. Tati deliberately slowed down the action, making every movement and sound stand out unnaturally. His point is that there is humor in ordinary life experience if we are open to what is really going on all around us. We see life happening through a set of filters that have been constructed on top of our accumulated conscious (and maybe unconscious) experience. Tati was trying to get through these filters and make us see the humor in the way the world actually works.

I began a class session at Marlboro College Graduate School last weekend with a fascinating video clip, showing a hollow mask of Charlie Chaplin (purely coincidental, any hollow mask would do) rotating and showing the front and back sides sequentially. As the back, hollow side comes into view, the face appears, but with the nose pointing outward as in ordinary faces. The explanation given by the person doing this demonstration is that we have only seen faces in a convex sense with the nose pointing out, and that our cognitive system cannot accept an image with the opposite sense.

The biology of cognition developed by Maturana and Varela provides a scientific basis for this. The cognitive system is closed, metaphorically like a hard drive containing a database storing in some “language” all the perceptions we have acquired through our sensory apparatus. Whenever we experience anything, we perform a search, not unlike a Google search, to find a meaningful reference. The one that gets languaged and becomes a conscious experience is the one that rises to the top of the list, again like the way Google works (without paid listings). If the perception is meaningful in the immediate context, the next step might be to draw on a related part of the neural network that constitutes the brain, producing an action that makes sense to all the parties in the context. But when the perception produces a world that appears incongruous within that context, we don’t have a next action ready-at-hand, and fall back on a emotional response, often laughter but also fear or sadness.

This model for human behavior and consciousness differs profoundly from the standard Cartesian model of a computing machine in the brain, always trying to guide our actions to produce the most pleasure or utility. The latter model leads to an image of insatiability and to practices of human beings manipulated to convert that emptiness into unending consumption. Given the way the societies and individuals embed their beliefs and practices in the course of acting on them, our world of today has built its institutions on this model with the unintended consequences of badly damaging the world we count on for survival and also our sense of well-being.

The cognitive model of Maturana and Varela is consistent with the emergence of caring, not needing, behavior as humans grow up. Caring is manifest, first, in recognizing other phenomena as meaningful, that is, having some relationship to the observer, and, second, in acquiring behavioral habits that make that relationship effective and satisfying. Caring, interpreted this way, is the fundamental foundation to explain human being—the experience of living. Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today, and, I strongly believe, will grow to underpin the possibility of flourishing, not continue to diminish and degrade that possibility.

Prelude to an American Spring?

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The NYTimes reported a story, "Wall Street Protests Continue, With at Least 6 Arrested," in its blog a few days ago that reminded me of several past posts on this blog warning that the current social system was showing signs of strain. The protesters were demonstrating against "Wall Street," as a symbol of the unhealthy dominance of corporate America--"Big Corporations."

It was the third day of anticorporate protests that were promoted by a range of groups including AdbustersMedia Foundation, an advocacy group based in Canada, as well as a New York City group that called itself the General Assembly. Participants said that the demonstrations were meant to criticize a financial system that unfairly benefits corporations and the rich and undermines democracy.

One of the demonstrators spoke to the reporter, saying “There’s a major divide between the rich and the poor in this country. . . One in 10 people are unemployed and my vote is nullified by corporate lobbyists.” The Washington Post showed some photos of the scene. The event was still in progress four days later, but has attracted even less media coverage than it did on the first day. The stories I read were virtually only about the arrests being made, with little or no coverage of the nature of the protests.

If this had been a Tea Party crowd railing against "Big Government," I am sure the coverage would have been orders of magnitude larger, and arrests unlikely, based on just such recent events. "Big Government," at least the one we have, is not perfect as protector of our inalienable rights, but government is essential to protect us from the untrammeled excesses of "Big Business," and a political economy that feeds on and creates inequality.

Inequality is the superficial condition behind the demonstrations. The protestors signs indicate their awareness that the causes lie in the political economy and the way wealth becomes distributed. Hopefully, for those seeking sustainability as flourishing, this small event is a sign of what is coming. Changes wrought by inequality and excesses of power have most often have come through violent means. That this protest was peaceful, if emphatic, bodes well. My work on sustainability has made me skeptical about the potential for taking on entrenched power structure directly, but here is some evidence that challenges that skepticism.

Lost in Transaction

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Morality has several meanings. The one most often invoked is a set of rules about right and wrong; what actions are the right ones to take according to the rules of one’s society, family, business or whatever institution in which the actions are situated. Philosophers have forever struggled to ground these rules in universal terms, but without success. Short of universality, moral rules provide structure and security in these institutions. Without these rules to guide behavior, societies exhibit anarchistic patterns ruled by dominating forces.

A recent oped piece by David Brooks discussed a study of the place of morals in the lives of young Americans. It's another winner by Brooks. The researchers, led by an eminent sociologist, Christian Smith, found them largely missing, a result that Brooks found depressing. So do I. The study, begun in 2008, interviewed a sample of 230 young adults about morality in their lives, what they thought about it, what kinds of moral rules guided their actions, etc. The findings are recounted in a just published book, “Lost in Translation.” The publishers description includes some of the key findings:

Smith identifies five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. The trouble does not lie only with the emerging adults or their poor individual decisions but has much deeper roots in mainstream American culture--a culture which emerging adults have largely inherited rather than created.

Brooks’ oped piece highlights a few key finding from the book. (I have not read it, but surely will.)

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.” . . . “Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).”

Why stunned? I find these results completely consistent with the narcissism that shows up in the contemporary culture. The centrality of the ego dominates everything else. There is little moral context in the marketplace. People, especially the younger members of society, are bombarded with messages that it is ‘good” to consume. The economy depends on it. Even the political tunes imply a morality to consumption. If consumption creates job and lessens the burden on the unemployed, isn’t it a good thing to do. Sounds like a moral push to me.

There is no morality in the market. And the market is the dominant symbol in America today. Robert Heilbroner, the eminent American economic historian wrote in 1993, “A general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.” The market represents the ultimate in personal choice. Perhaps half of the adult population support freer and freer markets, meaning more and more unbound, unregulated choice. Any rules that exist are internal, based on their own preferences. So if asked to explain how they make choices, morally driven or otherwise, it is not surprising to me that the explanations point to some inner sense of feeling good, feeling right, or feeling comfortable.

Inherent moral feelings that might arise from empathetic relationships are inhibited by the shallowness of social interactions. The connection of empathy and morality goes back to Adam Smith (pictured above). In his massive work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that preceded the better known, The Wealth of Nations, Smith argues that morality springs from the social context of human beings. Humans posses both a self interest and a caring for others, an empathetic side of their nature. As people are socialized during the passage to adulthood, they embody behavioral norms that spring from these empathetic, protective emotions. Observers of these norms, at some point, will label them as moral rules because they appear to dictate right actions routinely. Smith observed that we feel happy when others do, sad when other do, agonize when we see harm being done, etc. He anticipated by several centuries the discovery of mirror neurons which are thought to do just as he described.

The Smith who performed the study might do well to read the other Smith’s work. It would make much sense of the findings, but it would not change the apprehension that the results create. Without rules to guide behavior, leaving all choice to individual feelings, preference, values or whatever, we would soon devolve into the Hobbesian “state of nature” wherein human behavior becomes little different from the other animals that share the earth with us. Fortunately, we have all sorts of rules and enforcement mechanisms that are embedded in the culture to divert us from that fate. The part of the study findings that indicated that the young lack specific moral rules is disturbing, but that they lack understanding of the meaning of morality is more ominous. The societal cultural structure of norms, tacit and explicit, must be continuously re-embedded through everyday activities. If these activities lack even the idea of morality, much less specific rules, the societal structure will eventually collapse into some form of anarchy, setting civilization back on its heels. I may sound excessively concerned but these findings suggest that the concept of progress, the continuous improvement of the human condition, may be turning back on itself.

Tennis and the Tea Party

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Today is September 12th. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone. Both the moving and the maudlin tributes to those who died and to those who were affected by those deaths have been quickly replaced overnight by the mostly mundane concerns of the present moment. I collected a sampling of the paragraphs that the New York Times puts under each headline on all of their topics pages. I make no apology in picking these specific items. This was the NYTimes, not the NY Post.

In a new CW series called “H8R,” athletes and entertainment stars learn that not everyone loves them, then work to come to an understanding.

Tell us which shows from the new television season will be ratings winners and which will be canceled.

The security guard at the New York Public Library took one look at Anna Dello Russo in her platform heels and pink Versace minidress and said: “You’re going to the fashion show, right? Third floor.

Drawing a fashionable, artsy, loyal crowd since the 1980s, the buzz surrounding the restaurant Indochine is not about the food.

AOL and Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, said they had parted ways, after a controversy over Mr. Arrington's new venture capital fund.

Can online communities like Jesus Daily take the place of offline religious life, like what happens at synagogues and churches?

A geriatrician reflects on the challenges facing the aging generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who are often more isolated than their heterosexual peers.

For all the relentless realism of the film “Contagion,” much of the real drama of epidemic disease never quite makes it to the screen.

To better recognize extraterrestrial life should they come upon it, scientists are working to create simple life forms in a lab. But, as Dennis Overbye reports, they first have to agree what life is.

Do women’s experiences differ from men’s when traveling alone? Our Frugal Traveler talks to some experts to find out.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, faces far-reaching decisions about how to deal definitively with the debt crisis in Europe and whether to allow Greece to default.

The City Commission dismissed the chief, Miguel A. Exposito, who had held the job for nearly two years, after he was accused of failing to follow orders from his superiors.

According to the suit, business owners would have to pay guest workers at crawfish and shrimp processors wage increases that range from 51 percent to 83 percent of current hourly rates.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO ended its season with some help from the mayor.

Baseball memorabilia does not pass a child’s inspection, two sisters express exasperation, and a seemingly homeless man asks for a little extra.

It’s hard to tweeze out a lot of concerns matching the solemnity of yesterday. Political bickering was back, not only in the US but in France, Russia. Stock markets continue to exhibit wide swings, with completely contradictory explanations offered for the ups and downs. The Red Sox are blowing an insurmountable lead for the wild card slot. To be a little more balanced, here are the paragraphs summarizing the six front page stories.

Thousands gathered to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that changed a city and a nation.

Fresh doubts about the health of French banks, which hold billions of euros’ worth of Greek bonds, have investors bracing for more market turmoil this week.

Recent stock fluctuations have caused experts to ask whether there are new forces at work in the market that make trading permanently more erratic.

President Dmitri A. Medvedev’s decision to stick to the script at a political forum signaled that he was not prepared to fight for his job.

An oral history is scheduled to be released Wednesday, 47 years after Jacqueline Kennedy spoke with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

I missed watching the CNN/Tea Party debate tonight; it ran against the finals of the US Open. This sporting event was really about winning or losing, not the sham contest these debates claim to be. Djokovic beat Nadal in one of the very best exhibitions of tennis skills I have ever seen. I thought a few minutes ago while reading Andrew Sullivan’s live blogging of the debate that this tennis match is an apt metaphor for genuine political debate. No posturing, just developing each rally ball-by-ball, sometimes by brute force, more often by skillful argumentation represented in the choice and placement of their hits. Sticking to the game plan, but adjusting as the play took unexpected twists and turns. A respectful nod to the opponent at the end of the match.

Life is a kind of game, a serious one. It requires the heart of a competitor like Nadal or Djokovic to hang in there when the going gets rough. It takes a willingness to be in the moment, not back on the practice court watching a film about how to win the next match. It takes honesty and steadiness. The political season would have been better informed if those who watched the CNN/Tea Party “debate” had watched the US Open instead. (It should not be a surprise that even if the Open had not been delayed and end up in a time conflict, I would not have tuned in anyway.) I got going in politics even before I was able to vote. My memory of those times is that there was a lot of sport involved. Serious of course but appreciative and always aware that other human beings were playing the same game of survival and searching for whatever their aspirations meant to them. (Thanks to my son, Tom, who suggested the theme of this post.)

Heading Back to Lexington

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We’re getting ready to go back to Lexington for the long season until Spring starts to bring back the anticipation of returning. It has been a good season with plenty of sun and warmth once the very cold and wet early weeks passed. The hurricanes brought lots of rain but little wind. We were more fortunate than many friends in central New England. All we lost was power for about a day. Our freezer made it through, but another few hours would have trashed its contents.

Fishing, my constant thought during the season, was nothing less than awful. It’s little solace to know that I was not the only one to have little success. On top of the poor results, the 6-month old Golden Retriever puppy one of our children’s family brought with them, thought one of my best fly rods was a bone and savaged it. I was disconsolate for a bit until I remembered that the rod was guaranteed for life. I had returned it once or twice for damages during use, and I thought that dog damage wouldn’t be covered. To my surprise and pleasure, the repair department said that anything goes. Just send back the rod with as many pieces as I could find.

School starts for me next week. Once again I will be taking courses at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. I can relax a bit as I have a vacation from my committee work. I’m taking a course on comedy in film and one on contemporary American poetry. We begin the film course by watching Modern Times, the last film in Chaplin’s tramp series. It is just as entertaining and meaningful as it was in 1936.

The rod wasn’t the only thing broken this summer. Congress seems to be in bad shape. And with the political system poorly functioning, so is the economy and the financial markets. Obama just gave his unemployment speech last night, but in spite of getting higher marks that anything sle he has done recently, it stands little chance of passage. I don’t quite understand what is going on. The opponents to any sort of stimulus don’t realize that their wealthy clientele win even more when the dollars flow.

I have been blogging all summer. There is almost always something to complain and bitch about. I ran a series of posts on “wicked problems,” that got good feedback. This concept is perhaps even more relevant today that when it was published in the 70’s. My students at Marlboro loved it. Every Congressman should pin the list of 10 features on the wall of their office. The series of posts is available via the Archives link. Complexity was the prevalent theme. Maybe its concepts should be something taught beginning in elementary schools. I suspect that the younger students might get it easier than more advanced students who will have already embodied the conventional ways of thinking about the world and how it works. That is unless these young learners are thrown distinctions like “strange attractors” or “bifurcation.”

I will be teaching a small seminar on global systems at Marlboro starting in a few days. My part is to introduce these concepts. My summer reading included a few helpful texts in the area. We are using Fritjof Capra’s, Hidden Connections, as a reader for the seminar. I also read and greatly enjoyed his Web of Life. I finished off my pile with a discussion of Humberto Maturana’s work, having read Maturana and Poerksen's, From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition. I finally believe I now understand what Maturana means when he says, “Language is the coordination of the coordination of action.”

I have to go and start packing the car. Looking at everything piled on the living room floor, I wonder if it will all fit in. It always has. I’ll be back in a few days once I get set up at home in Lexington.

Listening, Care, and Political Rants

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listening

One of the cornerstones of my approach to understanding and creating sustainability is a model of human being based on care, not need. I am trying to make sense of the political speech that we all are increasingly being bombarded with. In listening to this as in all listening, what I hear depends on me, and on how the words and sentences my ears gather in and send to my nervous system get filtered through my already present cognitive structure. Sense comes when the message triggers a response that produces a set of bodily sensations I assess as positive and explain to others in positive terms. I may use some sort of rational argument to justify the explanation, but the perceived response in not the result of that reasoning, but of structure already in place in my body. If this way of talking about listening and communication seems strange, you can read some of Humberto Maturana’s work. Two good choices are: Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2004). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition; Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

I find that my reaction to much of the political speech I hear triggers emotional responses that go beyond my reasons for disagreeing. So I ask what is already in my body that is causing this? I do not normally get this kind of response in ordinary disagreements or formal arguments. In many cases, it is enjoyable to engage in argumentation. It can even be a kind of game. Since I cannot probe the structures directly, I have to make a guess as to the cause. My best guess is that I cannot find anything related to care expressed in the talk. My listening for expressions of care has become more acute through writing and especially teaching. When I find this distinction absent or misplaced, I know I am not in the same communication space as the others in the same conversation.

Care in my dictionary is the context of all action: everything done intentionally in the conventional meaning of intention. Care is at the center of what it means to be human; it is what separates us from other life. It is the natural consequence of living in language. Other species do not have language to coordinate the coordination of action. They do communicate, but cannot talk about what they are doing or trying to do. They cannot ask questions like why should I do this or what did you mean by asking that. They cannot ask what it is to be a fox or worm as humans can and do. The answers to that question for us depend on the philosophical ground one starts with. The normal place to start in the modern, western world is with Descartes and his notions of an objective world and of a transcendental mind. As I have written, the consequences of this model (it is only a model) lead to a picture of a world valued for its instrumental use and humans as needy creatures getting as much of the world’s instrumental fruits as they are able to acquire. (Perhaps this is a little harsh, but it is true if one stays inside the present frame of our thinking)

A model based on care is very different. It is grounded on a different meaning, that of care, that accumulates in our language and in our bodies. Care is about acting inter-connectedly and coherently with the target of action. Whatever I do in this sense is designed in part to perfect (make whole) my partner (human or not) in action. Care is grounded in the world, out of the historical experience of our species interacting in the world. We can talk about care only because we have language and can coordinate the coordination of action. Sustainability as flourishing demands that we understand this model of being and live out of it. Lack of care and a mistaken drive to satisfy need have left the earth in bad shape and human Being in tatters. Flourishing can come forth only when care becomes the name we give to the cognitive structure that runs our lives.

We cannot isolate that structure even with all the new tools of neurobiology and cognitive science, but we can translate it into everyday practical terms. A complete taxonomy of the world can be constructed with just three classes:

  • My own body
  • The bodies of other humans like me
  • Everything else

Defining the classes this way leaves nothing out. Further, as I have done in Sustainability by Design, each class can be subdivided into a handful of familiar domains, like subsistence, play, transcendence and more—11 categories in all. The diagram I use for this array appears at the end of this post. Soon I will be taking on each of the domains and explaining it. I hope to make it easier for you to listen for the presence of care in political and all other speech and act to bring it forth wherever is missing. I don’t have to power alone to change the rhetoric I hear today other than to make note of it and point out the absence of meaning connected with flourishing and, thence, to sustainability.

Calls for lower taxes are simply a euphemism for more acquisitiveness. The more money I have, the more stuff can own or control. Call for less government are a euphemism for seeing people as instruments, just nodes on the big Machine of Government and Economy. Calls to the heavens is a transfer of caring for the health and welfare of the world to some unworldly body. Calls to lessen unemployment can come from care, but often sound to me as above; just nodes in the machine, necessary to get the system back to producing more. Somewhere, a very long time ago, the caring context that had to presence itself in order for early humans to survive, got lost in the development of the social institutions that are now dominant. I have my own explanation for this disappearance, but this is unimportant; the disappearance itself is the critical concern. Nowhere is its loss more critical than in the current political sphere.

Much has been written lately about the more effective way the right speaks compared to the left. The superiority comes because the right speaks to the values; the left speaks to the reasoning mind. The right’s way is closer to the model of listening I described above. The response to what is heard (and sensed in general) is triggered by what the structure already present. “Values” is one way of speaking about that structure. Values are ascriptions made to explain the ordering of routine actions. In this model they would correspond to specific patterns of cognitive structure. These manner of talking works better that relying on reasoning because the “rational” mechanism for persuasion is not the primary way we work. In the next political season, the left is going to have to work twice as hard as the right to get in line with sustainability. The right has only to change the “values” to reflect care; they already know how to get people to act in the “right” way. The left must learn to resonate with the structure in the body, not the imaginary computer in the mind/brain and also to focus on values based on care. I expect neither side to follow my instructions here. This leaves the task of making care explicit and embedded in the structure of our individual bodies and the collective structure of society up to those committed to the cause of sustainability.

Missing the Point

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gardening

I’m not sure which political stance is more precarious: the know-nothings or the rationalists. Anti-science, that is the refusal to accept the findings of bona fide scientists, is a cornerstone of the leading Republican Presidential candidates. The debates among those vieing for the nomination have trashed evolution and climate science. The Democrats miss out on this early process, expecting to nominate Obama for another term. Obama epitomizes the cool, rational leader.

The danger is that the problems we face are not tractable by either framing. The policies that would emerge from either are constrained by ideologies, although very different ones. Given my history as an engineer and analyst, I should be jumping onto the side of the rationalists, but I am just as uncomfortable there as on the other side. My unease is magnified by recent findings claiming that rationality is nothing more than a methodology to win arguments, not to find the truthful path forward.

By keeping within the blinders of their respective ideologies, both the left and the right misunderstand the nature of the problems plaguing this nation and others. The right errs more in reducing serious problems to sound bites and solutions to old worn out bromides. The left errs by pushing policies based on analytically derived programs and expecting to win arguments based on the merits of their cases.

Both miss the essential nature of the problems of today. They are what I have referred to in this blog and other writings as “wicked problems.” They cannot be cleanly defined and bounded. The problems taken on are always parts of other interconnected problems. They arise in complex systems, the kind that characterize the global, highly interconnected world. The rationalists act as if the world was a machine and the people in it merely needy parts simultaneously feeding and being fed by the economic system. The know-nothings act as if ignorance of how the world works is unimportant. What matters is how loud are our cries expressing the values we are sure should dominate the political economy.

In earlier, simpler times, we might have gotten away with either for a while. The velocities of important social processes were much slower early in our history. The world was not so interconnected as it is today by economic ties, rapid transportation and the Internet. The history of the United States is punctuated with periods where one or the other side prevailed. But not for long. Punctuated has the right metaphorical sense. These periods were thrust into history, producing as much heat as light; there have always been winners and losers.

The important issue is that neither side appreciates the complexity of the situation. Governing big culturally mixed societies like the United States means dealing with technically complex systems. They don’t follow the rules that are taught in political science departments or Tea Party rallies. Complex systems can stay within a limited range of behaviors for long times and then suddenly move into a new and unconnected pattern of behaviors. That’s what happened in the financial collapse of 2008-9. Complex system theory shows that the presence of fast processes can be destabilizing when the slower processes (the system’s memory) wane. The same theory shows that governance requires accumulating an understanding of the system by carefully watching, reflecting and adjusting, that is, by learning. Successful gardening works that way.

Holding the truth as revealed from above, from the heart, or from a computer display is an obstacle to successful stewardship and leadership. I don’t see where the pragmatism that emerged in FDR’s time can come from, given the bunker mentality that pervades political thinking and talk these days. But come it must if we are to roll with the punches that are very likely to come. When one of the causal agents of instability is speed and the solution is to go even faster, there’s certainly trouble ahead. Simplicity and stubbornness are not the remedy for the ills we face. Obama seems to recognize this, but is working within a system that is not only running faster all the time but is becoming ever more rigid. That’s a red flag, signaling increased possibilities for change, but not the kind we may want.

On the Merits of Fishing

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fishing

Andrew Revkin has a couple of posts in his NYTimes blog that resonate strongly with me. Responding to an earlier post on the role of values in environmental debates, Revkin posted a part of a colloquy with Richard Louv, who writes about nature, pointing out the importance of direct experience in what Louv calls the “non-built” world, meaning nature to most of us. Louv highlights the disconnection from nature that children exhibit as a result of the lack of direct contact. As adults, the disconnect is exacerbated by the instrumental context so dominant in our modernist culture. Objects found in the world, non-built and other humans, carry values representing their only usefulness. Even intangible qualities like the importance to us of their just being out there—existence values to an economist—are turned into some monetary equivalent to be ranked alongside of everything offered in the marketplace. Revkin quotes Oran Switzer in the earlier post:

But to win the political debate, we need to spend less time on the details of the scientific debate and much more on the underlying values — the costs to humanity, society, and the economy of extreme weather, local floods, local droughts, freshwater scarcity, infectious disease, food security, coastline loss, biodiversity loss, etc.,

By putting “values in terms of the costs to humanity, Switzer fails to recognize that some values, perhaps the most important, cannot be expressed in monetary terms. Trying to win political arguments using economically based values is a losing strategy. The value of nature and humans is infinite in the sense that putting numbers on it makes a categorical error, placing the world as it exists in the realm of economy, not of love where it belongs (more below).

All this leads to the next post in Revkin’s blog, titled, "On Fishing as a Path to Caring About Fish" Revkin writes of a recent fishing excursion with one of his children and friends where they were lucky enough to catch a few bluefish. I have been out fishing most days this summer looking for striped bass earlier and now bluefish. Just a couple of stripers all summer long and not a single bluefish at times and places where they usually abound. Fishing is a mainstay of my summers in Maine. Revkin includes a paragraph from Carl Safina's blog that echoes my own long-standing sense of the importance of getting out there as essential to understand the world on its own terms. Safina was another member of the fishing expedition.

While the humaneness of fishing can validly be questioned, it’s always been my opinion that getting involved with the natural world, including a bit of poking and prodding, dirty hands, new smells, and a full belly, is for most people a more intimate and more lasting experience than just looking at it and experiencing it as scenery.

I always release the stripers, facetiously hoping to catch them a second time. The purported purpose of my fishing is to catch fish, but that’s not the real story. I fish to find a quietness, to learn ever more about the world as it exists without human intervention, to sharpen my powers of observation, all of which are difficult to work on in the busy, noisy world I spend most of my life occupying. Revkin is obviously enamored of fishing. He says, “I love fishing, which was one of the ways, growing up in Rhode Island, that I developed my broader passion for the wider living world outside of the human-built one.”

I also believe that fishing involves love, but not in the same sense as Revkin writes. Love is more than a special feeling. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist I often cite, claims that love is a basic emotion that determines how humans relate to themselves, others and the world. The primary feature of love is the acceptance the existence of entities in the world on their own terms. Love in this way shows up in the world as care. When we love the world we take care of it, not use it. We must transform it; life requires interacting with it, but we can do that with an appreciation for what we disturb and destroy. Fishing brings me closer to the world so that I may discover its essential values and be more care-ful in all of my actions that involve it. Not just the non-built world, but also other people and even myself. Self love, not the narcissistic kind that is so prevalent today, is an essential foundation for flourishing. It promotes authenticity, and an acute awareness of the interconnection to the web that makes life itself possible.

As a postscript, I disagree with Louv’s comments on the meaning of sustainability, quoted by Revkin. Louv says:

Which brings me to terminology. I’ve argued for a while, along with others, that the word “sustainable” is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that, as a word, it suggests stasis. No self-respecting creative 16 year old is interested in stasis or, for that matter, simply surviving. I’ve been talking with Dan Leftwich about this recently, in the context of “The Nature Principle.” As an anti-trust attorney, Dan was part of a legal team that prevailed against Microsoft, and now has turned his attention to how the law frames nature, or vice versa.

The other day he sent me a note suggesting an alternative to the word sustainability: “‘Thriveability’ is much more powerful, and helps elevate the focus and actions on higher principles….With children, do we just want them to survive or do we want them to thrive — the answer becomes obvious when you focus on the right question.”

My definition, sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever, is the antithesis of stasis. Flourishing is a dynamic quality changing with the context. It is emergent from the ever changing world. Sustainability relates to the persistence of this quality, but in that context. The word, sustainability, is problematic only when it is misunderstood.