November 2011 Archives

Don't Buy This Jacket


patagonia logo

This was the headline on a full-page ad by Patagonia that appeared on Black Friday in the New York Tines (and I imagine other papers). It is not a spoof, but, rather, a reaction to the consumerist frenzy of Black Friday. You can see my earlier thoughts about Black Friday in a post of a few days ago. The ad started with this message:

It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet.

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time — and leave a world inhabitable for our kids — we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.

And ended with:

There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything. Go to or scan the QR code below. Take the Common Threads Initiative pledge, and join us in the fifth “R,” to reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.

Patagonia has been a leader ever since the idea of greening businesses began. The company has a huge advantage over most companies in going green. It is privately held, mostly, if not entirely, by its founder, Yvon Chouinard. It can do whatever Chouinard wants without worrying about the impact on its stock price. He has been concerned about the environment even before he founded the company. Chouinard was a professional mountaineer who started making his own equipment and turned this into a very successful company.

I was reading the blog of Greenbiz as I do most everyday and saw a story about this ad. The reporter raised a question about the wisdom of their action.

That’s good environmental messaging. But is it good business for a company to urge people to buy less? Moreover, is there a disconnect between this ad and Patagonia’s own plans for grow, open new stores and mail out more catalogs?

I don’t know what Patagonia’s current business strategy is, but their first green move some years ago was to set a limit on the growth, close a few stores, and cut the number of items in their catalog. They hired a good friend of mine to create an environmental strategy. They were an early user of life cycle assessment to understand the impacts of their products. They were a pioneer in the use of organic cotton. The ad they ran has environmental impact information for the jacket they are telling us not to buy.

The stark headline doesn’t tell the whole story. The ad also says don’t buy this unless you really “need” it and have thought carefully about its environmental implications. If they didn’t want anybody to buy it, they would have simply withdrawn it from their line of jackets. Patagonia is still a business that must sell its goods to survive, but they are quite clear about how they want to earn the right to continue to operate. I continue to admire their stance and commitments. As my loyal readers know, I often rail about consumerism. Consumption, per se, is an integral part of the economic structure, is unavoidable, and has the positive side of creating jobs. Black Friday is a metaphor for consumerism, an ideology. Patagonia’s message is about a kind of consumption far from its related, runaway ideological manifestation. Messages like the one they sent out can contribute to the dimming of consumerism, a bad idea for humans and the environment, and return consumption to a process that is consciously and, hopefully, wisely practiced.

"'Nature' Doesn't Exist," Says Slavoj Zizek

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One of my readers (Thanks, Boudewijn) sent me a comment with reference to the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, who has some intriguing and unusual opinions on nature and humankind. I did some web searching to learn more about him and his work. I watched a few videos also. Zizek is often quite controversial. A loud critic of capitalism and, from the little I have looked at, a critic of about everything. I focused on just a few of his pieces involving the stance we should take toward “nature.” I used quotes here to emphasize his argument that nature is nothing more than an ideology that serves to mystify the world out there.

I watched this video several times trying to grasp his points. I’ll do my best here. He argues that our view of nature is as some idyllic system promising humankind the “best possible world,” but has become threatened and disturbed by humans in the course of everyday existence. He claims nature is, in truth, little more than a source of catastrophe, using as proof the upsets that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and the formation of fossil fuels. We humans cannot accept this explanation because we are programmed to deny or disavow (his word) such unimaginable events. In any case, modern humans attempt to find meaning in catastrophic events, when there is no meaning to be found.

Here is a precis of his message I cribbed from another web site, reporting on a lecture Zizek gave in Athens..

The underlying message of this predominant ecological ideology is a deeply conservative one: any change can only be a change for the worse.  So what is wrong here?  What is wrong I think is the … principal position … that there is something like “nature,” which we humans, with our hubris, with our will to dominate, disturb … [W]e know Jacques Lacan’s motto, “The big Other doesn’t exist.”  I think we should extend this to nature.  The first premise of a truly radical ecology should be, “Nature doesn’t exist.” … So again what we need is ecology without nature, ecology that accepts this open, imbalanced, denaturalized, if you want, character of nature itself.  [I]t is … all too easy to attribute our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our minds by scientific ideology.  [The] standard thesis of the predominant ecology … says something like this: “The ultimate cause of our ecological problems is modern technology, Cartesian subjectivity, within which we are abstract beings somehow outside nature, who can manipulate nature, dominate nature … what we should rediscover is that nature is not out there, an object of our manipulation.  Nature is our very background, we are wired to nature, embedded in nature.  You should go out, feel, breathe nature.  You should accept that your abstract scientific reification … is just an alienating effect of being embedded in the life world.”  I think that far from offering a solution, this kind of reference to our immediate living experience is the cause of the problem.

I have to guess at some of the connections he makes in his arguments because I found the videos I watched extremely hard to follow. The one whose link I noted above is set in a trash collection facility. I think he was trying to say that trash is a unavoidable consequence of human life, but that we try to imagine it goes away by some magical process.

I think he is on the wrong track completely. I agree with him that we have idealized nature, but that is not the issue today. It is not nature that we worry about; it is the world we inhabit. World is just a name we give to the complex of all the entities we recognize as elements of the system from which human life has emerged and continues to provide our life support system. Zizek might argue that we have acquired such immense technological capabilities that we can put aside concerns about the life support that the world provides. He argues our concern for “nature” is misplaced. We should become “more artificial.” I presume he means that, in our desire to survive in an uncertain world, we should use all the technology at hand to insulate our species from its hazards.

So far we have not demonstrated we can do this. The one big experiment, Biosphere, designed to show that humans can live in an entirely artificial container failed after a very short time. Whether one believes that nature is kind and beneficent or cruel and unreliable is irrelevant. The facts, as far as we know them, point to a catastrophe that Zizek says is just a routine happening in that world. This may occur in the near future or not for decades. It may not occur at all. The nature of the complex world we inhabit is that it is unpredictable. I agree with Zizek that we are ignoring the potential of catastrophe, but not for the reasons he gives.

In our modern calculus of risk and benefits, we have not yet decided collectively that the risks outweigh the benefits of life as we live it now. Interestingly, he ends the video with an argument that the individualistic, consumerist, free spending American way of life may have to go. Given his Marxist roots I would guess that some form of socialism would be his answer, but we will have to wait as the video ended on the note above. I do agree with his conclusion, however. Sustainability depends on holding off catastrophe, that is, in the language of complexity: keeping the planet safely within the current attractor where life has evolved and regenerates itself. But sustainability means more than survival. It means flourishing—a wholly human concept. Maybe our species did arise from the primordial muck by purely random, meaningless evolutionary processes, but after we created language, human life became different from all other life forms. We ask questions about our existence. We care about the world we inhabit, and act to realize our cares. We do know that our lives depend on the state of that world. Life had no human beings eons ago when the world was very different from what it is today,. It could become a planet where life as we know it would not exist any longer. The world doesn’t care about this possibility. But we do. We cannot not take care of the world, although our life styles might convey an opposing message. Zizek poses some intriguing (as I noted earlier) arguments, but after hearing them, he misses a critical point. The need to care for the world does not have anything to do with our ideology about nature. It has everything to do with a real, complex world out there. We are only a tiny, but very powerful, piece of it. We cannot exist apart from it.

Blue Wednesday


blue tuesday

Today is the day before Thanksgiving and I have been inundated with ads and news of Black Friday, the day we release all our pent-up demand for goods. The biggest shopping day of the year. The make or break day for retailers. There is something terribly incongruous about the rush to the stores on the heels of a day where we gather with friends and family and give thanks for the life we have enjoyed. Black Friday is slowly creeping into Thanksgiving Day as stores are opening earlier and earlier.

The news tonight showed shots of shoppers camping outside of the big box stores ready to join the rush to fill shopping baskets with everything within reach. Some have been out in the cold and wet for days. Maybe they are unemployed and have no better place to go. But if they are unemployed where does the money to cram the baskets with bargains come from. The scenes portrayed are horrendous. I remember a couple of years ago that someone was trampled to death in the surge just as the doors were opened.

I am not a natural shopper. If I do go into a store, I usually know exactly what I want to buy and walk around the aisles as if I wore blinders. A bit compulsive maybe, but the opposite compulsion exhibited by the behavior on Black Friday. That’s why I get a bit blue and depressed every year at this time. Given the decision to make a purchase, it makes sense to seek the lowest available price, but that’s not what happens on Friday. People are frenzied, grabbing at every bargain box they can reach while holding off others in the crowd. The picture that comes to mind for me is the complete transformation of our species from Being to Having. Erich Fromm’s observations, written down in his wonderful, small book, To Have or To Be, have been an inspiration to me and are central to my definition of sustainability as the possibility of flourishing.

Writing some 30 years ago, Fromm argues that we, humans, have lost out uniqueness as a species, the experience or sense of Being. Modern humans have come to define themselves through their possessions—what they have. And as a consequence, life becomes an incessant pursuit of material objects. We wait expectantly for news that demand has shown an uptick. Black Friday certainly fits this picture. The pursuit is never-ending as the acquisition of goods can produce only ephemeral satisfaction. Worse, we look to the market for almost all the goods we acquire, and because we live within its structure we acquire its beliefs and norms, and shape our values accordingly. The classical notion of consumer sovereignty, what gets produced follows demand, has been inverted. Our preferences are shaped by the producers. The being to having transformation is almost complete.

It is a sad state, hence the blue mood I am in. Erik Erikson wrote that as one reached about the age of 65 (a dimming memory for me), a new stage opened up in which one could discover a sense of completeness or integrity that was missing in the earlier stages of human development. This positive sense was not guaranteed. Each one of Erikson’s stages has two opposing characteristics sort of like yin and yang. The positive ones of each pair aligns with the sense of being Fromm discusses. Materialistic pursuits leave one in the bad karma side of his dichotomous scheme.

As I have written, Being is essential to flourishing. When is it missing, we are only moving aimlessly through life. Its absence has deleterious negative effects on us and on the world. We miss the emergent qualities of joy, love and others that add new dimensions to the ordinary 3-D world of objects. In the incessant chase after more and more, we stress the earth from which life flows. Each of us has only a fleeting moment to Be. Days like Black Friday do not let us live in that moment. If the “market” had its way, everyday would be Black Friday, and the strain of the Planet would reach a breaking point even earlier than it appears to be coming today.

Requisite Variety



This strange and unfamiliar (to most) term was invented by Ross Ashby (pictured), one of the founders of the field of cybernetics. Cybernetics draws its name from the Greek work for steersman and is concerned with the regulation or governance of systems. It blossomed during WWII where the new knowledge was applied to aiming weaponry and radar antennae, for examples. One of the leading researchers at that time was Norbert Weiner at MIT. I was a student there from 1949 to 1957 and often encountered him wandering the halls. He was a legend said to be so absent minded that he frequently stopped students in the hall to ask where he was going. The field was important to me; I chose to do my doctoral work applying control theory to understand how to avoid and control catastrophic, runaway events at chemical plants.

The framework and methodologies also played an important role in evolutionary biology and cognitive science with the seminal work of Gregory Bateson (Steps To an Ecology of the Mind) and Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela (The Tree of Life). Plato is thought to have first used the word with reference to the governance of the polis. And it is in this reference that I write today. The critical question for sustainability is, “How can we govern the complex world in which we live to produce the kind of flourishing life we desire for ourselves while maintaining flourishing state of the world we inhabit?”

Ashby established one of the most important and relevant “laws” of cybernetics. He was concerned with the variety of control mechanisms necessary to regulate or govern complicated or complex systems, that is, adapt them to compensate for departures from the desired state. His law of “requisite variety” is quite simple and in many ways something our common sense might come up with. It goes something like this, “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.” This rule is of great importance and relevance today as we wonder how to address big issues like climate change, inequality, financial stability, or poverty, and more. All of these topics are arise from the behavior of complex systems comprised of institutions, natural phenomena, human actors,and technological infrastructure. We are struggling to find ways to govern these systems to produce satisfactory normative outcomes at scales from local to global.

The bases for the struggle is itself complex with no single causal agent, human or otherwise. I will pick on only two here; both are related to the law of requisite variety above. The first is the belief that we can, through science, know how these systems work with the possibility of approaching more and more certainty as we probe deeper and deeper. And if we can describe these systems in scientific, that is analytic, expressions we can, using the technical tools of cybernetics, control them to give us what we want. This reductionist frame is bound to fail when applied to truly “complex” systems defined as those that cannot ever be described with such certainty. I have written earlier about what constitutes complexity. In the most basic definition, these are systems with many processes going on simultaneously at different scales of time and space, interconnected by feedback loops with delays between the observed states and the signals sent throughout the system. In everyday terms, these systems are messes and addressing them requires understanding the “wicked problems” I have often written about.

The second cause of our struggles to turn the system toward the desired destination, to steer the Titanic away from the icebergs, is the lack of requisite variety. The governance of the world is frequently described as a massive gridlock these days. Surely it would apply to the governance system in the United States. The special committee established to move us out of the sad state of our financial affairs announced today just before the deadline for their report that they cannot come to any agreement on a program to govern the financial condition of the nation. The market, which many predicted had already incorporated this expectation, plummeted this morning. The consequent variety of possible governance mechanisms, in the terms of the above “law,” is one—the automatic cuts that are to be made in the event that no agreement came forth. For the time being, the number is effectively zero since these cuts are not to be initiated until 2013, leaving the system to flounder for another year or so.

Complex systems scholars often use the word, resilience, to describe the ability of systems to adjust after perturbations have taken them away from the desired behavior. The term is directly consequent from the law. The more variants of response mechanisms, the more shots the regulators, machine or human, have to bring the system back to the desired region of outcomes and behaviors. Our governance system has become the very opposite of resilient, that is, brittle. The ideas forwarded by either ideologues or technocrats (another specific form of ideology) presume that they are the “right” ones and all others are wrong. This belief in the rightness of any solution to problems in the real world is, itself, a causal agent in producing the messes we are struggling to clean up. The challenge is even harder than we might think. The worldly systems that we wish to govern have so much inherent variety that can be considered to be, for all intents and purposes, infinite. We must approach these systems with a completely open collective mind, recognizing that we need at least as many ways available to respond as there are possibilities for the system to behave.

We have come full circle since the enlightenment thinkers “freed’ us from the chains of dogma. The ways of thinking and acting in the world, which were then a huge increase in the variety of ways to govern, have become ossified and reified leaving us few variations to apply to the most important areas of life on the planet. The source of the loss of variety, the Congress, is not likely to wake up. The Occupy movement is providing us with a new appreciation of the opportunity that variety offers and with specific variations. We all should take their actions very seriously even if we are not sympathetic to their complaints and analyses. President Obama could also use this moment to talk about the law of requisite variety and attempt to bring some new enlightenment back to ways to govern the political economy. We are more in need to face the folly of our intransigence than all the news and huge flow of commentary suggests or addresses directly. Brittleness shows up at the large scale of volatile and unsure financial markets, increasing unmet human needs, incessant violence, but also at the small scale of using pepper spray as the means to govern the commons. Is this the only way? Like the laws of physics, the law of requisite variety is unavoidable. If we continue to ignore it, there will be no winners, except, perhaps by chance, when the inevitable next system shift occurs.

The Real Fear Behind Climate Change Denial



Naomi Klein had a very powerful piece recently in The Nation, titled “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” She began by telling of her experience at a conference on the subject of climate change, sponsored by The Heartland Institute, one of the rightest of right-wing think tanks. The speakers she mentions paint every attempt at reining in climate change as an attack on capitalism, free markets and basic freedoms. The conferees even celebrated their “victories.” No cap and trade, the fiasco at Copenhagen. To say that this is shortsighted misses the depth of the danger of their misplaced jollity.

Klein points out that, as the fervor on the right has increased, concern for the perils of climate change has diminished precipitously, surprising public opinion specialists. She writes:

But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. Many climate scientists report receiving death threats, as do authors of articles on subjects as seemingly innocuous as energy conservation.

Klein looks behind the extreme positions she heard to find a reason. Her primary explainer is that the far right recognizes and is terrified by the reality of the situation. Any “solution” would involve massive and radical shifts in the way we live.

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system.

Klein argues that they are correct in seeing the severity of the remedy and are doing everything they can to obfuscate and delay. The “environmentalists” leading the charge from the opposite end are largely trying to sell technological solutions that would allow life to continue more or less as it is in order not to scare away potential political support. The green activists are not aligned with the radical left where calls for the reformation of capitalism emanate from. The right has found a single voice, opposing all change. Like so many other left vs. right standoffs of recent note, passion trumps reason. The reasonable are no match for the loud voices of the ideologues. The denial, or at least the silence, of the greens about the scope of change needed to counter the threat renders them impotent against the rhetorical onslaught.

I fully agree with Klein. She noted the confluence of issues about global warming with those coming from the Occupy movement, all intensified by the growth of scientific and statistical information illustrating their depth and starkness. Band-Aids will not make these problems go away or may not even temporarily mitigate them. A radical change in the capitalism-as-usual model is essential and needs to come soon. Humans have learned to live amidst injustice and squalor, but the Earth is not so compliant and may rebel.

The opposite side of the unhappy picture painted here is that of a positive image of flourishing. In arguing for a desirable end, rather than enumerate the current ills and instabilities, I come to exactly the same conclusion: our culture must change. This means that capitalism, the principal norm that dominates all of our institutions, has to change to a more benign form. But a shift in the political economy, without concomitant changes in other parts of the cultural structure, will not be sufficient. Klein, as many others have, identifies some important changes in institutional processes:

  • Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere
  • Remembering How to Plan
  • Reining in the Corporations
  • Relocalizing Production
  • Ending the Cult of Shopping
  • Taxing the Rich and Filthy

The Occupy movement, even if it accomplishes little else, is showing how life can be brought back to the public sphere. The last four bullets can be found on many critical agendas. I do not agree with the planning point if couched in this very generic manner. “Remembering” is going in the wrong direction. Planning has traditionally been grounded on the application of some analytical model of how the world works. Such planning is inconsistent and contrary to how we now understand the social and natural worlds work. If planning is defined as some sort of participatory process built around local knowledge coupled with a strongly pragmatic governance structure, I would be less concerned. The left, underneath the usual technocratic stance on most issues, may have a better grasp on the real state of the world, but have no monopoly on the “right” solutions.

There is a hidden danger is ticking off a list of solutions. The mere format suggests that, if applied, the problems would disappear. They might for a while but others would be likely to show up. Our solutions to the “problems” and “failures” of the world we inhabit are always going to be temporary and fallible. As long as we understand this and keep from relaxing our diligence, we may avoid making the world worse. Until we understand how the systems that are failing work, we are not likely to be able to rest easy. Asking how requires that we ask questions at layers much deeper than the higher-level norms, like capitalism, and look at our current fundamental beliefs about how humans and the rest of the world work. These deeply embedded, hidden beliefs are the foundations that support and maintain the very structures that Naomi Klein, myself, and many others would change.

The Paradox of Change in the US


urban decay

I watched a news program last night featuring a series of interviews with the occupiers in New York. The reporter asked each something like, "What do you want to see come out of your gatherings?" All the answers were something like, "Doh." Inarticulate and disconnected. Clearly the many that were gathered had some common notion that underpinned the coordination of their actions to come together. Their complaint about the rampant inequality of the present political economy is a common belief, but it is very hard to discern much beyond this.

Some of gatherings at the smaller scenes are experimenting with forms of direct democracy, voting on their program as they go. It would be difficult to see this play out in the larger demonstrations like the one last night that aimed at closing the Brooklyn Bridge. I looked at the coverage in the New York Times today to gauge the relative priority of this event and others in the same "movement," and found the goings-on have already slipped to the inside pages. The front page headlined stories like, "Mormon Campaign Seeks to Improve Perceptions" and "First Lady Takes on the Role of Staff Energizer." The top headline, "[Hillary] Clinton to Visit Myanmar as Activist Enters Politics Again" showed the huge gap between our concerns on the other side of the world and what is going on right under our noses.

Surely life has been terrible in Myanmar under the rule of a tyrannical dictatorship. The condition there fits our American stereotype of an unacceptable form of government, a form that we go out of our way to counter with all sorts of instruments ranging from propaganda to sanctions and, eventually, warfare. Comparison of the Occupy movement with the activism of Daw Aung Sann Suu Kyi is tricky but there is something in common. Both are speaking out against the oppression of the people and the need to change the rules that govern the society. Not just the rules of the "government," but also the rules of the whole political economy. Where is the power? How is freedom protected? What insures that all people share in the means of well being available in the economy and culture? And so on.

The Occupy movement has yet to find its full voice. Their complaint is evident and is backed up by the reality of our own political economy. But the drama of play in Myanmar is missing or at least has not been seen by our media as equivalent. The tacit agreement of others in the 99% is yet to be voiced. The organizers, if this term is applicable, may be hoping that the numbers will swell to such proportions that the news of their actions cannot fade from the front pages. Still, until the voice focuses on explicit causes of the inequality and other ills that can be addressed with explicit remedies, the roar of the crowd will resonate in a very short operating space.

Paradoxically, our problems in the US may be more difficult to deal with than those in Libya, Egypt, or Myanmar. There is no single despot to topple. Here, the oligarchs and plutocrats mostly hide themselves behind screens. Our processes for real change are cumbersome. The two-party system, as I have written, is limited to make only modest changes at the level of deep cultural or political-economic structure that must be drastically redesigned if the material world is to align itself with our long-established values.

Hopefully, since I share most if not all of the concerns of the Occupiers, their current solidarity will grow to encompass the very large numbers that do not share equitably in the goods, material and intangible, of our country. Then perhaps the complaints we hear without much accompanying clarity in the outcomes will shift to a set of necessary proposals for change together with a new political party that can counter the present stasis and, worse, decay.

What's on Your Mind?

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open skull




I've been back from my long trip for about 10 days and am finding that getting back to posting to this blog very difficult. What's on your mind that you would like to see here? Sustainability remains the main theme. Use the comments function to send me any ideas.

What Are the Occupiers Occupying?



Consumption levels slowing. More territory being occupied by protestors. Bipartisan agreement in the Senate on a small jobs bill aimed at veterans. Pipeline decision postponed. Are these recent headline signs of a slowing or reversal of our march toward unsustainability and away from flourishing? Is sustainability coming closer? Can we lower our guard?

The answer is clearly NO. This is not any kind of skeptical or cynical response. All of these actions are positive, but simply insufficient to change the drivers of unsustainable individual and societal behavior. Cultures operate on top of deeply embedded structure and tend to reinforce that structure everyday through patterns of repeated, routine behaviors. These patterns change only when the structure does. The recent changes of regimes in Libya and Egypt came on top of abrupt changes in the authoritative part of the culture with the toppling of a single tyrannical leader. These societies had become so brittle over time that a singular event had the potential to upset the whole system and open it up to changes deep down. A single event can, when systems lose their resiliency, create such jumps. Malcolm Gladwell would say that the system had reached a tipping point. Having reached and gone through a tipping point, the future state that arises is difficult to predict.

Sometimes the visions of those that pushed past this point are realized, but often the new regime resembles the old or looks little like the pushers envisioned. That’s because cultures run on other structure besides authority. Beliefs and norms (the visible patterns that reflect underlying values), and even technology or infrastructure all act as conservative constraints to change. The new social networking technology played an important role in these changes, facilitating expressions of solidarity and by-passing the constraints on coordinating action that had been put in place by those in power.

Stable, resilient cultures and living systems in general have many processes nested within each other, connected by feedback pathways that provide self-correcting capability to the whole system. Perturbations are continuously monitored and adjustments made such that the system may avoid becoming brittle and remain far from a tipping point. In the technical language of complexity, sustainability--the capability of remaining in a stable, satisfying neighborhood--means that a system stays within an attractor, exhibiting dynamic behavior, but never straying so far from home that it becomes lost in a new, unfamiliar, and often inhospitable world.

The culture in the United States and much of the rest of the modern, capitalistic world is built on a deeply entrenched structure. Our normal patterns of life spring from it. It has worked well for several centuries, bringing what has generally been accepted as progress, measured as continual improvement in well-being. It is showing its old age, the bones are getting brittle, the cognitive capacity is slowing, the muscles are weakening. Discontent and fears about the future are nothing new, but have reached new levels, at least as seen in my lifetime, The reality of environmentally based constraints on our continued progress, while still the subject of much controversy, has reached new levels of consciousness. Our addiction to growth and consumption is being questioned. Inequality, always an issue, has jumped from the media background and from economists’ models squarely into the public’s eye.

The actions I listed at the beginning, and many others, are reactions to these concerns. The key question for those, like me, who are taking a more distanced stance to deal with these issues, more academic or philosophical one might say, is, “Are these signs of tipping or are they only momentary aberrations to be buried by the normal. Those who wrote about these events, but may not join the actions, are trying to avoid the implications of the memorable phrases coined by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is more than mere memory, we are trying to understand it so that we can design the future as much as we are able to.

My guess, I have no special access to a clear crystal ball, is that they are ephemeral, because they address the symptoms, not the causes of our malaise. As long as the key structure of our culture remains in place, the world we experience will not change unless immutable factors like the limits of the Earth to maintain growth upset the norms. My last post refers to a charter, penned by Gus Speth, pointing to the need to address and change many of the current beliefs norms and the institutions build on them. I can name a few possibilities here, but recognize that this is but a sample. Power and voice has to be returned to the people away from those that have accumulated the wealth that has become equivalent to power. Voice has to be given back to the people and taken away from the imaginary corporate “persons” that the laws have created and increasingly empowered. We must recover from the domination of dogmatic belief, the God-given truths that the founders of the Enlightenment abandoned because they understood that dogma formed the chains that bound up human freedom. Ideological truths of all sorts, also forms of dogma, have captured our critical public conversations and are no less dominating than the absolute demands that those founders encountered. We have to recover our sense of compassion and empathy, lost in a deep-seated belief in self as autonomous and needy, so that care becomes the norm, not the exception.

Challenging any of the present structure threatens the status quo. Reactions range from individual fears of losing “freedom of choice” to realization of the potential collapse of institutions built on the accumulated beliefs and norms. The sharing of power, based on wisdom and understanding, rather than on knowledge and expertise, would upset all our educational systems and the role of the disciplines that they have spawned. Giving up war and conflict as the means to settle disputes, big and small, is unspeakable and for many, unthinkable. We may, as Adam Smith and many who followed him be right that we are driven by self interest, but not necessarily the same image of self. Our beliefs in a pleasure-seeking, autonomous, greed-driven self are shaped by history, buried in the models that shape psychology and economics which disciplines in turn shape policy and socially acceptable behavior and further reinforce this particular set of beliefs. Interestingly, Adam Smith believed humans were strongly empathic beings.

Occupy Wall Street or Main Street can call attention to the need for change, but so far fail to point to the more deeply rooted changes that need to happen before the grievances can be put to rest permanently. They are taking over small bits of territory, but need to occupy and change the grounds of our culture. Our democratic and law-based form of government is designed to serve as a safety valve and facilitate change without the violence we see in these recent regime shifts. This has become part of the problem as the process has become badly strained, some would say captured, by the conservative forces resisting structural change. The small “c” is intentional. Cultural conservatives belong to both parties of our system. If real change is to occur without revolt, I believe it will have to come from a new party capable of addressing our state far more radically than can the existing system. My negative mood, expressed at the beginning of this post, is largely based on then observation that third parties have a poor record of success. Hope springs eternal, however. We may see that the new social media and means to raise large amounts of money can turn the tide of history. In any case, it is futile to “fix” the system we have with a bandage here and there; change must come at the core.

Finding Sustainability in Occupation



Returning from a three-week absence from the US, I see the Occupy groups are still in place and growing. This incipient movement has surprised many with its staying and spreading power. Its cause has gotten some lip service from others expressing solidarity, but its voice still lacks punch and general appeal. Gus Speth penned a very timely and powerful charter for the Occupy participants. Others have also offered such proposals. Here is a link to Speth’s work.

Speth notes that the issues being aired focus on the symptoms of a deeply seated tangle of broken parts of our political economy. He, as do the protestors, focuses on the immediate issues that need attention and change, but he goes further to point out the need for change way down at the whole system level. The list of separate areas reflects the complexity of the social world and the need to address a long list of what appear to be distinct problem areass. Looked at as a connected set, however, the work ahead can be done only if this protest begins to draw in a much larger group of participants. Those who may not opt to join in them the streets may be willing to work to further the overall agenda Speth suggests. If the system is taken on a piece at a time, we risk an outcome that looks like a balloon filled with water. Punch it here and there, and it will only bulge out in some other unpredictable place.

Two Millennia Later

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Akropolis I am back, but a bit tardy. I returned to much more immediate stuff to do than I ever expected. But I hope to get back on the same schedule of blogging as earlier (more or less). Before I get back to the subject of sustainability, a few words about my travels. My wife and I went from Crete to Zagreb with stops in Athens with a cruise on a small ship stopping at ports all along the Adriatic. The region was a crossroads for centuries and contains the northern boundary of the Ottoman Turkish empire and the boundary dividing the Roman catholic world from the Orthodox. Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Venetian structures coexist. The topography is spectacular with mountains rising from the edges of the sea. The whole region is still recovering from the Tito era and the wars that split the former Yugoslavia asunder.

One impression that is hard to avoid is the ephemerality of the empires that overran the region and, as noted above, left their marks on the land and the culture. The Ottoman Turks were the last to leave after staying around for about 400 years. The Romans (Western part) hung out for about 500 years until they were run out by barbarian invasions from the North. Later, the northern parts of the Balkans were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Some might say that 400 to 500 years is a long time and these eras existed in a stable state for some time. But could they be labeled as exhibiting sustainability?

In terms of their load on the earth, they probably were deep into a well far from the edge and the risk of upsetting the natural world and moving into another attractor. Locally, they may have threatened the environment. The disappearance of the various regimes is primarily due to some shift in power. The use of lead in the pipes that are found in Roman settlements has been proposed as a cause of the decay of the Roman Empire, but this argument remains controversial.

I would argue that these periods persisted for some time, but failed to exhibit sustainability in human terms. The Greeks are credited with the invention of democracy, a system where all citizens as a group would make political decisions. At first glance, this looks very good in respect to providing equality, a key feature of flourishing. A closer look reveals that “citizens” comprised only men over the age of 20. Slaves, of which there were many, and women were excluded.

Much of these early times is characterized by war, conquest and domination. The leaders might have believed that the Empires would last forever, but circumstances proved otherwise. The main source of power to construct the infrastructures was the muscles of human beings. Slaves were the engines of antiquity, a situation that can persist only under domination. The combination of master and slave was unstable and was gradually supplanted in a succession of new forms of governance. Feudalism eliminated the formality of slavery, but not the domination of the masses of the people. In exchange for protection to be provided by the lords, people agreed to a form of domination.

I don’t intend to make this a lesson in political history. I am not at all knowledgeable enough. But I want to make a point by providing a little context brought to light by my recent travels to a part of the world that passed through almost all forms of government and political economy. I would say that no civilization of the ancient world contained the possibility of flourishing as I define it. The primary reason is the omnipresence of domination and its consequences on authenticity and dignity.

Then, coming back to the present, I have to ask myself what has changed and are we any closer to sustainability. Surely our material conditions are better. We live longer, have better shelter and clothing, are not as physically stressed, move more quickly, know much more about how the world works and so on. But sustainability is just as out of hand today. There are many reasons, but two come to mind as very critical. Domination lives on. The current “Occupy” protests demonstrate vividly the presence of domination in this rich country. The lives of most are dominated by the few that control the capital--the fuel of our political economy. Protests are much in the news these days. I was in Athens during the protests there. The “cause” was not the same sort of domination, but a reaction to the threat of a reduced life style and means. The series of riots in the Middle East were clearly a response to domination by a powerful tyrant. So these ancient forms of suppression of human Being survive and stand in the way of sustainability today.

The second “cause” is hubris, recognized by the Greeks who coined the word, as an attitude of arrogance and refusal to see the world as it is. They saw hubris as a cause of failure and undesirable outcomes. The downfall of many of their heroes was attributed to this cause. Hubris shows up today is several important places. We act is if we know how the world works, a consequence of the success of the epistemology of science. We act as if this knowledge allows us to solve all problems through the technology and technocracy built on its foundations. We are blind to or refuse to acknowledge the complexity that forbids complete knowledge of the world. We use dogma to dominate public speech and action and to justify hubristic actions. A question that has been asked since the ancient times I was a witness to on my travels is “How can we know so much and understand so little?” I do not think the possibility of flourishing today will be significantly different from that that existed 2 millennia ago until we are able to turn this question on its head. We are hubristically mistaken in claiming that the advances in materiality and knowledge constitute progress toward sustainability. Progress by the self-serving terms used to define it may have marched forward, but not progress toward sustainability. In both human and environmental terms, we may well be farther away.