December 2011 Archives

Out with the Old



So long to 2011. The year departs with little progress toward sustainability. The political system in the US is frozen and can’t cope with today’s burning issues much less those that are smoldering and will burst into flames in the years to come. The continuing unemployment situation has dulled any serious talk about reforming work and changing our addictive consumption habit. We are still fighting a war and threatening to begin others.This year we even invented a new shopping holiday, the first day after Christmas, Monday this year. I tune into several blogs and listserves that focus on opposite themes: exchanging work for leisure hours, satisfying one’s cares without the need for short-lived material goods, finding peace, and creating an economy that does not need to grow forever. If I pay attention to the mainstream media, those that echo the feeble public conversations, I hear little if anything significant about these critical issues.

The negativity that increasingly characterizes our culture is fed by the tenor of public talk. A year from the next election cycle has begun with some of the most dreadful attack ads I can remember. No apologies for lying and taking things so far from their original context that they become fictions. Those with more money than they could possibly spend are working hard to get even more and keep the growing inequality of our society on the same path. Neither private largesse or smaller government can reverse this immoral, unkind and ultimately destabilizing trend. The simplistic calls for the “end of big government” would throw out the baby with the bath water. I am no fan of government that fails to do an effective job and I would join many of the opposite political stripes in seeking change. But not the kind of mindless change being called for by so many.

The last thing we need is excess simplification in dealing with the complex worlds we inhabit. There is really only one such world out there where everything and everyone are interconnected, but this world is too big to be understood in simple terms. For practical purpose, we have to break that big world into smaller chunks, but that does not change these chunks into simplistic systems. They remain complex and cannot be governed by simplistic means. They take care and caring if we are to get them to behave in a friendly, beneficent way. I find both missing. We need to care about these systems and subsystems as they provide the context for our lives and the health of the big worlds out there. This means we have to better appreciate and respect our interconnectedness within that world. We need to care for these systems in the sense of acting in ways that will maintain their resiliency and keep them producing the material goods we require for running our lives and also allow the emergent, intangible and emergent properties that make life worth living to come forth.

Our language and culture are rooted in past eras where the Earth was less stressed and more resilient. The wonder of language is that it can be used in an infinite number of combinations and permutations. The wonder of metaphor is that we can take language from these no longer existing and relevant times and apply it to solve our problems within the present times. To do this, we must, however, learn to reflect and be critical, that is, to understand that the old, reified, and fixed notions don’t apply any longer. Sometimes it helps to uncover the original meanings of words in attempting to reveal the circumstances in which they first appeared, but it is useless to seek the absolute truths of sentences from the past without cloaking them in the worlds in which they appeared. Some of the truths revealed in language survive today, but many do not. We are not likely to see much improvement in our understanding of the present without applying the essential reflective skills on an individual or collective basis. Their absence is stark.

Climate change denial is a symptom of the disappearance of reflection from our culture, but it is only a symptom. The way we communicate exacerbates the loss of reflective skills. Reflection and critical skills always involve patient time-consuming processes. One has to think about something over and over until the current reality becomes present with sufficient grounding that we can act confidently toward perfecting whatever was our intent. Communicating with 140 characters as in using Twitter cannot give anyone enough information to judge the reality of the situation and act accordingly. Political debates are a travesty with complete lack of honesty and critical analysis. The remedies offered for all of our ills are constructed on purely political grounds with no connection again to current reality. Ads are manipulative, designed explicitly to disguise the world the goods they tout will create.

If I sound negative at year end, I am, but not without a positive counterweight. The small voices of Occupy, the larger voices of the Arab Springs, the increasing numbers of people around the world who have tired of hearing the same old untruths used to dominate them—all of these are signs that change is in the air. Vaclav Havel (pictured above), one of my heroes, just passed away. He showed us that a society can change its spots quickly and without bloodshed. His clarion call to the people of Czechoslovakia was simple, but extraordinarily powerful. People must live in truth, he wrote. Let me end with one of his quotes, “When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.” The barriers to living in truth are always high, but they are never insurmountable. That’s my basis for ending on a positive note.

Holiday Thoughts


miracle mile shops

I apologize for my absence. I have been taking care of my wife who has just had some back surgery. It was very successful but she has to take it easy for a bit. So I have been cook, bottle-washer, chauffeur, bedmaker and more for a couple of weeks. We are taking long walks everyday—the recommended therapy for her surgery, and not too bad for my health as well. I will be posting irregularly until after the New Year, but then plan to resume a sort of regular schedule.

The holiday season is at heart a celebration of miracles. For me, Hanukkah is based on the miracle of the light that burned for 8 days while the Jewish warriors, who had just retaken the Temple, went in search for oil to replace the profaned supply. The single day’s supply of sacred oil they initially found and used for the lamp miraculously burned for the 8 days it took to press new olive oil. For Christians, it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Even as the world slows down for just an instance to celebrate these miracles, it is hard for me to find their presence. The miracle of Christmas, a solemn time, has become a miracle of our economy. Merchants and manufacturers derive the bulk of their profits from sales focused on the season. As the season approaches and passes, I can sense a collective holding of breath in anticipation of the coming of each year’s miraculous sales—hardly an appropriate incarnation of the Christ child.

The Christian celebration of the birth of their savior is heralded with the shibboleth, “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to men.” While this phrase echoes forth from the churches of the world and is heard over and over again on the airwaves, it is difficult to find it on the same Earth it calls out. The Earth is hardly peaceful. One war has just “officially” ended just as it was “officially begun without the Constitutional requisite of a declaration, but peace remains fleeting in the Middle East, Africa, Korea, and elsewhere.

And for goodwill, one just can listen to the political talk of the moment and notice its nearly complete absence. To listen to the speeches, ads and phony debates, you would think all the candidates are liars, rogues and worse. The name calling and slander are hardly signs of goodwill. Political talk should exemplify the moral stature of a nation. The contrast between the idea of the miracle of Christmas and the miracle of the birth of this nation could hardly be starker. It is even more ironic because much of the current talk carries “Christian” themes. The Occupy events have called attention to the historic levels of inequality that now characterize our society in America. I can’t think of a better indicator of the absence of goodwill than this one.

Somehow, we have to find a better way to cure our economic woes besides profaning the spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah. I think it would be better to declare a national Shopping Day (if we really must for the economy’s sake) sometime in the middle of the year or maybe around the time people return from their summer vacations. The right answer for sustainability is, of course, stop all this hyper-consumption. We could require that everyone’s fiscal years begin on July 1. Then we might be able to celebrate these winter holidays with respect for their foundations of miracles, love, peace, and goodwill.

Leaders-toward-Sustainability: The Importance of the Dashes

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leaders wanted

I am going to teach a weekend class in a few months in a new Ph.D. program in “Values-Driven Leadership” at Benedictine College near Chicago. My class is named “Leading Corporate Sustainability.” In preparing for the class, I have had to visit the concepts named in the syllabus I share with a few other instructors. The following come from the topmost level in the description of the course: value-driven, leadership, and corporate sustainability. I suspect I start with a different view of these than do the rest of my colleagues.

Let’s start with “corporate sustainability.” If you look at the semantics of the phrase, it means a condition in which the corporation prospers for a long time. I don’t think this is what it was meant to refer to, but there it is. It’s important to get this straight because so many firms are adopting a program of “corporate sustainability,” complete with a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and a well-equipped PR department. It is great to see firms show that they are thinking about sustainability, but they have it mostly or completely wrong. Sustainability is a property of the whole system in which the firm is situated and is interconnected to many other nodes: other firms, customers, the natural environment, regulators, banks and so on and on. What matters is the health of that worldly system, not the health of any particular enterprise. Sorry to break the bad news, but that’s the way it is, like the three musketeers motto: “All for one, one for all.”

Sustainability, the word alone, refers to the ability of a system to create some desired output continuously. It means absolutely nothing in practice without naming the end being sought. That is why I struggled for some time to come up with an end to sustain that would capture the bundle of ends I identified in my own work on the subject over some years. I settled on flourishing as a workable metaphor for the bundle of things that make life worth living and produce well-being. Further, the concept appears universally in all cultures, and applies to both individual organisms and collectives: cultures (human) and ecosystems (non-human).

Now a small diversion before continuing. The world is in such bad shape because our dominant social paradigm no longer fits the world. As long as we operate according to its structure, we will continue to produce unintended consequences that threaten and even overwhelm the desired outcomes. We need a new story to guide us. In the jargon of change theory, one might say, “We need a new paradigm, but, here, new story will do for the time being.” The job of “leaders-toward-sustainability” (note carefully that I have changed the connection and relationship between the words “leader” and “sustainability”) is to embody the new story and impart it to those with whom they coordinate their actions, whether at home, in enterprises, on the ball field, the halls of legislatures—everywhere.

So this kind of leadership is not values-driven; it’s vision-driven. People leading the way toward sustainability-as-flourishing must begin with a vision of the world they hope to create, enlisting the help of others. Values is another piece of jargon. What does it really mean? When we see the phrase, values-driven, we are supposed to imagine someone acting from a base of internalized lofty ideals, all of which are “good” in the philosopher’s sense of good. Even using this model of action, we know that some “leaders” act out of a set of values that many would deem as “bad.” They, however, are just as value-driven as the good guys.

Values do not reside in the practical consciousness—the embedded cognitive structure that guides action. They are only ascriptions as to the cause of the actions that are made by an observer (who may be the actor). They relate to the ordering of actions in the context in which they are seen. By observing actions carefully over time, one can tease out the ends (intentions) of the actions and order them according the frequency and effort involved. The array of actions, so ordered, can be translated into a scale of values, a word used to predict how actors act over time and according to the situational context. The actor can also assert, if asked, what his or her values are, but these belong to the disconnected realm of discursive consciousness, and may or may not line up with the observations. We know that people often say one thing about their values and act in a contradictory manner. I tend to leave “values” out of my vocabulary and encourage others to do the same unless we are clear how we are using the term.

In place of values, I use the word, care. Humans care about the world they inhabit. Their actions arise out of that caring. This simple statement is a fundamental part of the new story that a leader-toward-sustainability(-as-flourishing) must embody. We are not creatures with insatiable wants/desires although that is what the current political economy wants us to believe. When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans and all the rest of that world out there. Flourishing is a state when all our cares are being addressed satisfactorily.

We are not Cartesian beings with a mind separate from the body, taking in and representing the world. We learn through experiencing the world via the actions we engage in. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist I often quote, writes, “Learning is doing; doing is learning.” Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing works in essentially the same way. We find the truth in practice, and express it as statements that underpin and explain our successful actions. And if the cares that drive actors are persistent and important, we seek this kind of truth by continually experimenting and acting until we arrive at the end we envisioned: flourishing in this case. Flourishing is nothing more than a state recognized when one says, “My cares are being satisfied, at least for the moment.” Not just the narcissistic set of cares directed inwardly, but all of one’s cares, including other people (the social world) and the external world (nature or the environment in conventional terms).

It would be all right, in the name of expediency, to drop the word flourishing from the definition of sustainability if we were all in agreement that this is end we are talking about and seeking. Unfortunately, there is no such agreement out there yet and so talk about sustainability without any end in sight is largely impotent, confusing, and, worse, produces mischief by those who see the drive toward flourishing as threatening. I will. however, drop the word in this post because by now you should know I always append “-as-flourishing” to sustainability in my mind.

The next part of the new story that leaders-toward-sustainability must learn is a different model of how the world works; maybe learning it first through some didactic method, but ultimately by doing. The world is not the (complicated) machine that Descartes and his followers thought it was. It is a complex system, different from the machine-like Cartesian model in important and fundamental ways; so different that we can say that complexity is part of another paradigm. The complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behavior. Future behavior cannot be related to the present and past states of the system with any certainty that the predicted outcome will occur. Further, the future states may be disconnected from the present and be located in an entirely different region where behavioral patterns are nothing like those of the past.

The behavior of complex systems requires a different kind of decision-making process than we have become accustomed to. Leaders and ordinary managers of all sorts should understand that all organizations involving humans are complex, but perhaps not quite as challenging as is sustainability. What I have said for sustainability goes for managing or, better, governing in general. In the past we have used analytic knowledge about the system at hand, gleaned from scientific studies and logically related to those studies. We call on experts to construct the best way to move ahead, in essence predicting the future. But they cannot tell us the unintended consequences that come along as hitchhikers and have become so large that they have produced today’s unsustainable world.

The requisite understanding to guide the world toward flourishing is best found in those who have observed the behavior of the system and have acquired local, rather than positive, knowledge. The leader’s frame must be pragmatic, as above, where no one is particularly privileged with the learning needed to guide the system effectively. The Greeks knew this. They called the kind of knowledge to use used in governing, phronesis, close to what we call wisdom. They saw this body of knowledge as distinct from theoria, the kind of knowledge that Cartesian methodology, which has evolved into the scientific method, produces. Our paradigm today collapses the two, and tends to devalue wisdom.

This feature of the world, the new story we need to follow, requires leaders to enlist many others with the same understanding and interest in a flourishing future, that is, those who share the leader’s vision. Charisma doesn’t help; neither does a type A personality or a Myers-Briggs ENTJ Type. Listening skills become paramount. I’ve written more than usual, but this exercise was designed to help me prepare for my forthcoming class in developing leaders-toward-sustainability. Having a vision of where you want to get to is essential, operationally more important and relevant than whatever values one holds. For a while, it’s critical to join flourishing explicitly with sustainability and sustainability to leadership (why the dashes appear), and soft pedal the values label.

Time for the Bah Humbug Awards

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I usually wait a few more weeks to write my annual “Bah Humbug” post, but I haven’t the patience to wait this year. My first shout-out goes to the myriad of firms that claim to be doing “sustainability.” The purported recipient of their corporate largesse, Mother Earth, has not noticed the “gifts.” Maybe it is because their efforts to lessen the impact of the goods and services that flood the market can’t keep up with their drive to sell evermore of the same goods and services.

My second “Bah Humbug” goes to the advertising agencies and public relations firms that come up with the empty and misleading rhetoric these firms use in getting out their self-serving messages.

Third, I point to the scorers that claim to be able to distill the “attractive” features of products, companies, schools … into a single number that captures the essence of their performance. I notice that GoodGuide, one of my targets in the past, has “improved” its methodology by generating ratings on an absolute scale. Transparency, the ease which the data Good Guide uses in calculating the scores, is now an important factor. I would be less inclined to single them out if their own process used to calculate the rating were itself more transparent. I found the amount and intricacy of the information provided on their webpages opaque and very difficult to understand, even for someone with the technical training I have. They are more up front in talking about the subjectiveness of the ultimate ratings.

In order to provide our users with actionable, easy-to-understand guidance, GoodGuide provides a single summary rating for a product, derived by giving equal weight to Health, Environment and Society sub-scores (emphasis in the original). Rational people can disagree over the relative weight to give health vs. environment vs. social impacts and there is no objective, correct solution to the problem of how to aggregate such disparate concerns.  GoodGuide opted for equal weighting because we believe Health, Environment and Social considerations should be integrated into all consumer product decision-making. Users with different preferences can select products based only on the sub-score they care most about. 

The weighting issue is not as simple as the above paragraph appears to indicate. The equal weighting is essentially a cop-out. The real choices fundamentally involve trade-offs, balancing the “score” in one category against others. Goodguide offers a filter to set your own weightings, but I wonder how many understand that and use it? The three choices—omit, critical or important—are much too general to provide the measure of precision that reporting the scores to two significant figures, e. g. 7.5, implies.

Another factor that went into my admittedly completely subjective and arbitrary (at least I admit it) scoring system was the main headline on the home page, “ Find safe, healthy, green & ethical products based on scientific ratings.” The four categories used—safe, healthy, green, and ethical—are never absolute. I do not believe one can make ethical judgments based on a scientific evaluation. The reification of qualities, like green, and the subsequent quantification simplify and mystify the real issues involved with health, environment, and society, the three categories making up the score. I also noticed that the website shows off sponsored ads, highlighting some of the products they rate. Without suggesting any connection between the ads and the ratings, the situation is very much like that where medical school professors are paid to test the drugs of a particular firm. At least the sponsors are transparently visible, but I found the presence of the ads jarring.

The next Bah Humbug goes to Walmart for the duplicity I wrote about in my last blog post. Walmart’s PR says how much it cares about people and the planet, but the company’s lobbying activities shows that it cares more about profit. The triple bottom line is like the GoodGuide system; its meaning depends entirely on the weights given to each of the three categories. Walmart is an easy target, but only one of many companies that do the same thing. Shame on you all.

I’m just warming up, but maybe only a couple more today. A Bah Humbug award to all the climate deniers, especially those we have entrusted to govern this country and to those who are usurping the roles that our elected officials are supposed to play. These are the tycoons and plutocrats that sit behind a curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, and pour so much money into the political coffers that those who we entrust become know-nothings so that they can claim that there is no need to do anything. Unfortunately, the deniers of climate change have gotten so good at operating with their heads in the sand or other dark places that they cannot see the how badly the ship of state is listing and leaking from stem to stern.

Finally today, an award to folks that should be on my list of positive contributors but are fooling themselves and the rest of us in the process by holding on to the belief that the market can work if only we could undo all the various generic market failures. Giving everybody perfect information is the goal of every reporting initiative and every scoring system. Bah Humbug. True, this might work if the Smithian ideal of consumer sovereignty held true in today’s lopsided market place. My colleague and friend, Ron Nahser gave a lecture at Marlboro a week ago and pointed to a few classic statements that were simply restatements of consumer sovereignty. Adam Smith, J. M. Keynes, and Peter Drucker all said that consumer/customer satisfaction is the purpose of production and the overall economy. Maybe so, in theory, but customers are misled and seduced by advertising. Satisfaction, thanks largely to Walmart, has become equivalent to finding the lowest price at the expense of all other qualities. Walmart, by driving out local merchants, limits the choice available to buyers. Market purists would say that is how the system is supposed to work, creating economies of scale so all can benefit by lower costs. Bah Humbug.

If you have other candidates for this annual award, please send then to me by commenting on this post. I will publish them after the end of the year.

The Walmart (and other corporations') Wink-wink


walmart tree

Grist just published a story about Walmart’s political contributions that raises my skeptical (more like cynical) eyebrows. The same story is commonplace these days. Walmart, which stayed out of political giving during its founder’s years, has become one of the largest corporate political contributors in recent years. Here is the Grist story in a paragraph.

Walmart talks big about sustainability, but doesn’t put its campaign money anywhere near where its mouth is. Whatever the company may say about the importance of legislative action on climate change or other environmental issues, its money is signaling the opposite, telling lawmakers that it’s perfectly fine to vote against environmental protection.

I have used Walmart as a target of my barbs in the past, but not for this reason. My usual screed aims at the improper use of the word “sustainability” in their programs and public statements. Like virtually all corporations, Walmart fails to grasp the systems nature of sustainability. They join many others in believing that they can measure the positive contribution they are making to sustainability and can, then, convey that message to their customers. Tree-huggers, no way!

Of course, they can do nothing of the sort. Sustainability is not remotely tied to any single source of perturbations to the natural or human sphere; it emerges from the world when all the relationships that interconnect the myriad of environmental and social processes are working in harmony. At best, I could attribute their behavior to ignorance and at worst to a deliberate effort to disguise the reality of their business by painting a rosy picture for their customers.

Everything and anything they do in the name of sustainability falls into the category of eco-efficiency, providing equal or greater value to the customer with less environmental impact. This is, again of course, a good move unless they engage in misleading advertising and product labeling. The twin objectives of growth (very strong at Walmart) and reduced negative impact (not so important, it seems) are antagonistic if not downright contradictory. It may be, as in many large corporations, that one hand (the Washington lobbying office) doesn’t know what the other (home base) is doing. If a company cannot even operate effectively within the complex system that big firms like Walmart comprise, it cannot begin to understand and interact effectively with the much larger and more complex system called Earth. And it is Earth from whence sustainability comes, not Walmart or any single node in the socio-economic systems of the globe.

I doubt that this organizational imperfection is at the root of their behavior. Their hegemonic dreams of being the only show in “town” has harmed communities world-wide. Efficiency (low-cost) cannot substitute for the relationships on which sustainability rests. Similarly, their well-known opposition to unionization—perhaps a strong motivator of the political giving—runs counter to human flourishing, the quality that sustainability wants to sustain.

There is no particular difference between Walmart and any other large corporation concerning sustainability. They are larger than most and are narrowly focused on consumption. They are perhaps the most recognized symbol of growth of any other enterprise, save a few in the technology sector. I don’t believe that they are overtly anti-environmental as the way they distribute their money to legislators would indicate:

Its dollars skew heavily in favor of candidates who routinely vote against the environment. Since the company launched its sustainability campaign in 2005, 40 percent of the $3.9 million it has given to members of Congress went to those who have lifetime scores of 20 or less on the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard — meaning they vote against the environment 80-100 percent of the time. Another 19 percent went to those who vote against the environment 50-79 percent of the time.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, trumps cost cutting at Walmart. Using standard accounting rules, environmental protection usually shows up as a short-term cost no matter how beneficial it might be in the long run. That’s why regulation is essential and why climate change deniers are favorites of companies like Walmart. I do not expect Walmart voluntarily to do any better or act differently although they occasionally make claims about doing good. They are merely following the rules, which they work hard to influence in their favor, seeking special treatment through the contributions. Quite a vicious circle. Make the rules more favorable; offer cheaper prices; add to unsustainability; repeat the cycle over and over. I often end my Walmart posts with this line. I will know that they are serious about sustainability when the greeter who stands in the entrance corridor stops every incoming customer ask asks them, “Do you really need to buy anything today?” I won’t (nor will my children) live long enough for this to happen.

Bulls, Deniers, and Pragmatism

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william james

I am just back from this trimester’s last intensive weekend of the Marlboro College Graduate MBA in Managing for Sustainability. I had an opportunity to spend a long, pleasant evening with Ron Nahser, who came to deliver one of the classes. Ron was formerly Provost or some other senior official at the Presidio MBA program, one of the few like ours. We spent much of the time talking about pragmatism, a favorite subject of his, and a new and active interest of mine. I have been thinking about the importance of pragmatism to sustainability. I believe it is central and essential. I also have been reading in anticipation that I will give a course on pragmatism, maybe next year, at my Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Its criticality to sustainability arises first from the understanding that flourishing (the normative goal to be sustained) is an emergent property of the complex planetary system we inhabit and are an integral part of. One cause for the present unsustainable state of the world is the failure to recognize the complex nature of this world and act accordingly. Complexity demands a different belief for reality than the current objective view of a world out there that we discover through scientific investigations and extend through theorizing. Truth is manifest only in the findings of the method, by proving hypotheses through experiments, which truth holds until it doesn’t and the process starts up again. These truths are then applied to the design of the artifacts and institutional rules and are the basis of our claims made in everyday, normal conversations with each other.

There’s a serious problem here. This kind of knowledge is always partial and limited to the interior of the system. Flourishing and other similar qualities arise from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be related to it by any determinate set of rules. Try as hard as we can to operate with these rules, we are still not going to produce flourishing, except by accident. As the world turns lately, our rules are leading only to bigger and bigger failures. The objective world with the accompanying reductionist way of knowing is not the only way to think about finding truth, that is some set of statements we can agree on and use as the basis of coordinated action. I have been writing about this dilemma for some time in this blog and in my book.

In the last couple years I have discovered that much of what I have written is closely connected with pragmatism, both its basis in philosophy and its important application to the governance of our societies. Let me start in this post with the philosophical. I have been reading about the subject in Pragmatism: A Reader, complied and edited by Louis Menand. Menand writes in the introduction, “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think.” More central for my own inquiry is the way pragmatism constructs “truth,” which is different from that of the objective realists.” Both schools believe in the existence of a material world and both have a foundation of observation. The big difference is that pragmatism accepts the experience of everyday activities as the basis of truth in place of methodologically bound objective facts. Pragmatists do not deny that these facts are valid descriptions of some piece of the world out there, but they are not truthful. They simply are.

William James (pictured above), who first, popularized the idea, defined truth in several ways, but the one that I find clearest is, “The true is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite and assignable reasons.” In other words, what is true is what works effectively in practice, not in theory. James brought the thinking of C. S. Pierce, who originated the idea, from obscurity. Pierce said that our conception of something had to be “clear” if it were to have any practical value. He referred to qualities like “hardness.” I would add others like flourishing, or beauty. Pornography was defined in this sense by Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hard-core pornography’]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it… (my emphasis)”

Pragmatists are continually asking, “Is this a good place to be.” If the answer is yes, they move on to the next question hanging in the background. If the answer is no, the pragmatist continues to inquire and to act until the answer is affirmative. There is a strange reciprocity in the inquiry. The actor’s actions always come from some domain of care; there is always some meaningful intention at play. My friend, Ron Nahser, surprised me by asserting that the object or world at the other end of my inquiry cares about me, the actor. If the inquiry eventually gets to a place that is satisfying to the actor, an observer might say the system is caring for the actor and vice versa. When the inquiry begins to capture one’s inner center, some might say that the seeker has found a calling.

The concept of sustainability demands a pragmatic stance since it is always a possibility, therefore one can never stop acting and inquiring. The complexity of the universe and even our world (that part of the cosmos that enters our consciousness) makes complete comprehension impossible. If flourishing—the thing that concatenates all of our care, not in some psychological sense of the energy we place in our pursuits, but in the existential centrality of care to our being—is always ephemeral or even, if present, could vanish in a moment (the essence of possibility), then the only ways we can act with some directedness (intentionality) lie within a pragmatic framing of the world and ourselves.

A central feature and barrier in the search for sustainability today is the dominance of the objective, positivist framework. This has produced much “progress” compared to the state of well-being that existed at the time of the Enlightenment, but always in a compartmentalized context. There is no escape from this state of affairs because positivism rests on a reductionist view of the world: how we come to know it, how we act to realize our intentions, and how we explain why we acted as we did.

I often draw from the work of Humberto Maturana. Maturana, the biologist, who comes very close to realizing the early pragmatists’, (also natural scientists [very interesting]), claim that pragmatism is an account of the way we really “think.” So pragmatism is at its roots a model of individual cognition and action. Insofar as collective action is nothing more than a sequence of individual actions, the model can be extended to all levels of organization.

Maturana’s notion of autopoiesis (self-organization and continuous reproduction) is a fundamentally pragmatic model of human consciousness. It rests on a foundation of continuing inquiry, but not in the usual sense of inquiry as asking questions by using language. Maturana’s notion of structural coupling and self-organizing conceives of life, especially human life, as a continuous interaction (why not call it an inquiry?) with the world where responses to the momentary, meaningless signals from the world are ordered or shaped by the then present structure of the cognitive/nervous system. In a sense we respond in a “trying” way, based, not on some absolute “truth” that resides in our mind, but by way of the truth, defined as whatever the historical structure allows us to do. In the next moment our structure changes as a result of the interaction. If the result is puts us in a good place in James’s terms, we move on to the next encounter with the world and repeat the process. If not, we may continue to act in response to the first perturbation.

Even if the world were not complex and if we could reduce it to a set of known rules, we would still need pragmatism to guide us toward our normative goals, simply because the world is always changing and we would have to simultaneously change the initial conditions of the models. Neither human minds nor supercomputers are capable to handling this basic problem. Menand writes, “All our decisions are bets on what the universe is today and what it will do tomorrow.” When we admit from the start that the world is complex and cannot be reduced to a set of rules, we eliminate, a priori, the positivistic, objective stance. And when we add that the complexity allows for strange, unpredictable, behavior, beyond the generally continuous patterns of simple linear system, the urgency of a pragmatic frame for collective action intensifies. Unfortunately, few people today are pragmatists. It’s often mistaken for relativism and worse isms. Pierce wrote this wonderful prescient sentence that applies to the market bulls and the climate change deniers, “When hope is unchecked by experience it is likely that our optimism is extravagant.” And remember Greenspan’s phrase “irrational exuberance.” Pierce and the pragmatists would see nothing irrational there, just the failure to be pragmatic.

The Sky Is Falling!


sky falling

The Guardian, always a source of well-written news and commentary, carried an article on the looming reality of no-growth economies. This has been a central issue in my course, Exploring Sustainability, at Marlboro College Graduate Center. This trimester we are examining economic models consistent with sustainability, and reading about the new economics that the article refers to. The columnist takes a long view of the likelihood on maintaining continuing economic growth policies far into the future, and argues that it just isn’t going to happen. The author, Richard Heinberg, begins with:

The tide of economic growth that has flowed since the second world war may finally be ebbing. For politicians and most economists, this is like saying the sky is falling. Growth has become guidepost and grail, the sine qua non of economic existence. Growth is necessary to job creation and the health of businesses. Without growth the rolls of the homeless and jobless swell, requiring governments to shoulder more responsibility; yet at the same time tax revenues fall, making both new and existing government debt unbearable.

In spite of the hegemony of growth policies driving policy at all ends of the political spectrum, the appearance of fault lines may be starting to crack the foundations of growth. The inescapable limits of the Earth’s resources, long ignored by ever-optimistic (or simply blind and deaf) economists and the politicians they advise are showing themselves in increasing stark behaviors. The article continues by pointing out limits within the global financial system itself. Rising energy costs, that can only get higher as supply diminishes and demand grows, will make the cost of goods more expensive and damp down ultimate consumer demand, the primary driver in most growing economies.

Life will not come to a screeching halt, the article continues:

Still, over the longer term there will undoubtedly be life after growth, and it doesn’t have to play out under miserable conditions. With less energy to fuel globalisation and mechanisation there should be increasing requirement for local production and manual labour. We could meet everyone’s basic needs by prioritising jobs in manufacturing and agriculture while downsizing the financial industry and the military. We will also have to reduce economic inequality and corruption (as the rapidly spreading Occupy movement rightly insists).

The failure to provide individual “growth” through more economic goods can be offset, says Heinberg, by a focus on the quality of life. Easy to say, but hard to define and achieve, as I discuss in my book. The shift from quantity to quality is a critical and necessary move in keeping the world from falling into discord and decay. It is always good to see articles like this in the “mainstream media,” even if one has to travel abroad to find them, but it leaves out a very important part of the story. How do we get from here to there?

The desirability of moving to a low- or no-growth economy might be recognized by some world leaders, but no serious strategies that will not threaten large numbers of existing institutions and personal situations have come forth. Leveling the economic strata will produce many winners and losers, and will be opposed by those who wield power today, including politicians. The Occupy movement notwithstanding, the tea leaves appear to be telling me that the power of the hegemons and plutocrats is only going to increase in the future, unless some major upset changes the game. Paul Gilding, whose best selling book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, believes that some major crisis will come before any significant policy changes will be made. He sees this a “necessary” step in coming to grips with the reality of both natural and human limits, and is hopeful (the only word to use in this situation) that human innovative capability will be able to contend with the challenges.

This kind of article only scratches the surface. Everything said is grounded, but only at the topsoil level, and fails to get down to the subsurface strata. Most reporters and analysts fail to ask enough questions about why this is happening. There is some resignation that shows up by blaming greed as an inherent human quality. I suppose I would be resigned too if I believed it. But I do not. We might get real about limits if the complexity of the world were to become the model policy makers rest on instead of the partial models in play. The same goes for the models of human behavior. Greed and its relatives have become reinforced by the beliefs, norms, and institutions of modern economies to the point of appearing fundamental and immanent. Care has been relegated to the “caregivers,” professionals who are trained to deliver care to various segments of society. The fundamental quality of care that I believe is the core of human existence has been buried by the same structure that elevates greed. Every article pointing out the dangers ahead, like the one I point to, needs to avoid dealing only with the superstructure and, at least, accept the necessity of digging much deeper.