January 2012 Archives

Creativity, Where Are You?

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creativity

My blogs are often triggered by synchronicity, catching sight of similar articles, often about relatively obscure subjects. This time it was two separate articles about “groupthink,” published about two weeks apart. The first was in the New York Times Sunday Review section, by Susan Cain, author of forthcoming book on the topic. The other was in January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (needs a subscription to read), written by Jonah Lehrer, also an author who covers neuroscience and creativity. He also has a new book coming out this year. I see these as relevant to the way we are addressing unsustainability and other big issues.

Cain leads off with:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

Lehrer starts with a focus more the old practice of brainstorming that first hit public notice in 1948. It was the brainchild of Alex Osborn, a prominent advertising man. Lehrer doesn’t say how the idea came to be, but I can imagine it came from Osborn working alone; a bit of irony, if so. Osborn claimed that brainstorming, a method still popular today, where a group generates many different ideas about a problem or some challenge, is more ‘creative” than the work of individuals. After much clamor over the years, brainstorming has lost its halo. Lehrer writes:

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. Although the findings did nothing to dent brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. And yet Osborn was right about one thing: like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process.

What both Cain and Lehrer refer to as group think is the team approach to creativity. They argue that teamwork has become the new groupthink in companies, schools, and even churches. I think it is very important to separate what I and others would call “groupthink,” the building of consensus around a solution to a problem from the work of teams that have been built to delve into complicated questions that take extended periods of time to address. Brainstorming, as designed by Osborn and still practiced today, is a short exercise, generally characterized by the free (unhampered by criticism) offering up of all the ideas coming from members of a group. This is the focus of Cain’s critique. Both she and Lehrer present contradictory data that indicate that single, solitary individuals do a better job at coming up with solutions to design and similar challenges. Lehrer, quoting a Berkeley psychology Professor, Charlan Nemeth who points to the importance of many view points and dissent:

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs”

It seems both organized and informal teams are more effective. The design of spaces to create interchange among the inhabitants can be very effective in letting creativity flow. Many examples, not mentioned in either article, come from the establishment of “skunk works,” buildings located far from the main company facilities where designs for new aircraft, copiers, computer, and other complicated machines arise from the teams assembled. The separation is important because it isolates the team from the everyday conventionality of company life and the existing norms that might stifle ideas that would contravene them. Steve Wozniak’s garage, the birthplace of Apple was sort of one-man skunk works. Cain quotes Wozniak:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

My own take on this topic is that the main distinction between “groupthink” and individual or team creativity is the time over which the creation takes place. Osborn invented his system in an advertising agency whose process of creation has been satirized as, “Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” This can only be done when it is words that are bandied about. The same holds for groupthink exercises aimed at solving a (complicated) problem like going to war where all sides can be represented by words. Complicated things like airplanes and computers need time, and, with some notable exceptions, teams to create.

The solutions that will produce flourishing in our broken system can come only through teamwork. The system is complex and not amenable to quick fixes. Complexity is the epitome of the interconnections among many different classes of things—people, machines, natural systems. No one discipline holds the answers. The use of brainstorming may bring us “solutions” like green detergents, created the same way that many consumer product companies “invent” new products. But these are no solutions at all. Energy companies need to truly team with climate change scientists, not to discount the threats, but to develop effective solutions. Wood products firms need to work with habitat specialists in the same manner. And on and on.

The need for creative solutions to the biggest problems of our (and maybe any past times) is immense. We can use all the help we can get from those who study the creative process and know how to put their findings into play. In the case of sustainability, the solutions are going to upset the applecart of the present ways of thinking and acting, if they are to even begin to actually solve anything. Unsustainability comes out of the broken machine of our modern culture. Our challenge is to construct a whole new culture. It’s much more than finding a a way to fly faster than sound; that’s easy, contrasted with changing our beliefs, norms and all those wasteful and damaging things we now rely upon. Maybe the new ways of communicating via the Internet can help, but as I interpret both articles, geographic proximity is a critical factor in the quality of creative solutions. Lehrer writes:

The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten meters of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were 10 kilometer or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.

Cain offers a contrasting perspective:

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.

Some dissent is positive as a part of the team creative process, but not so much that people stop talking to one another and the dissent turns into angry, ad hominem attacks. If this sounds like the state of our political system, it is meant to. At a time where solutions to many “big” problems are critical, we have fallen into a mode where creative outcomes are virtually impossible. I keep reading pieces that accept the likelihood of some sort of natural or social catastrophe in the not too distant future, but temper the predictions with statements like, “But humans have always conquered their problems through ingenuity.” Maybe so, but the present way of addressing these big issues offers little hope that our collective ingenuity can burst out. We need the artistic creativity both of solo players like Wozniak and of the collective creativity of dedicated teams. And some respect, also.

Is the "Perfect" Product Perfect?

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iPhone

I was reading a long article in the Sunday NYTimes of January 22 about why the iPhone ended up being manufactured in China. The gist of the article is that China simply has developed a factory system we cannot match. If you are interested in this important topic, go to the article, but that is not what I want to comment on. About the middle of the article, I spotted this quote from ‘a current executive,’ “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”

It is a bit unfair to take this exactly as it stands because it was obviously taken out of a longer conversation, but it surprised me all the same. The reporter was querying Apple about the role in supporting domestic employment. I would agree with the speaker about the obligation to solve America’s [unemployment] problems, but the next sentence is a stunner. No other obligation than making “the best product possible?”

What is the best possible? For some time Apple was a laggard in its environmental design practices. It took a considerable amount of negative publicity to convince Apple to consider environmental performance as well as technical features. What about concern for the working conditions in the technically wonderful Chinese factories? I am sure there are other concerns that you would add to the singular one mentioned as additional obligations for Apple .

No single firm of Apple’s magnitude (the largest market value of all US companies) can be responsible for the economic ills or well-being of the Nation. One firm is just a node in a highly interconnected system. When the system is out of kilter, no one node can bring it back to an acceptable operational level. This feature applies also to our tendency to blame our financial woes on a single party or even a handful of causal agents.

Companies are obliged, by law, to meet all sorts of standards that pertain to product safety or the well-being of their employees. Given the anti-regulatory climate being expressed in the political talk these days, I hear business (not Apple specifically) wanting to relax the constraints on their operations. The argument is that they should be allowed to operate freely in the so-called free market. The argument might go something like this. Our sole responsibility is to our stockholders. This, in turn, means we should be the most competitive firm in our sector. And this means we have to make the best possible goods.

I don’t say the Apple spokesperson was making this case, but it is easy to move from his or her words to the implications I make above. If Adam Smith were right and the desired outcome of an economy was maximized by allowing the self-interest of all the actors to govern their action, this competitive strategy would benefit all of us. But Smith’s world is not the same as ours. The side effects of his model of the invisible hand are all too visible. The actions of one party are embedded and affect the whole system. “Too big to fail” is evidence of the systemic nature of today’s world.

I haven’t an easy answer to use to start into a conversation with Apple or any other company that makes a similar statement. One of Henry Ford’s great innovations was not the Model T; it was the realization that workers had to be paid enough so that they could afford his cars. I suspect that few if any of the Chinese workers making iPhones or anything else can afford to buy the goods they produce by their labor. The main difference today from the times of Ford is that the supply chain has become a world-wide network. If Ford’s notion still applies, can Apple or any other firm focus solely on the technical content of the product? Ford’s idea may have been motivated by the vision of more cars sold and more money in the corporate till, but, at least, it recognized the need to pay “living wages” based on the place of the goods in the society. Having the best possible product may and should be value #1, but never the only one.

[Not so] Creative Destruction

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foreclosed factory

Politics is a good place to observe the values underlying the US culture. Politics is more than a set of values, but politicians convey their own and pander to their bases values. Politics is also about power and privilege. Power to allocate the wealth of the nation to whoever paid their way to victory in this current money-driven electoral system. Privilege to surround themselves in a cloak that shields them from the realities that would put the lie to their promises and claims.

Ross Douthat, writing in this week’s New York Times Magazine, chastises those who are using Romney’s ties to Bain Capital and its business of creating wealth through the mechanism of leveraged buyouts. His argument is that this new financial instrument was a necessary development in our capitalistic system to counter the emerging competition from other economies once the global economy began to recover fully from the devastation of WWII.

Compared to these “tigers”

Our heavily unionized industries seemed sclerotic, our regulatory system stifling, our tax rates punitive. And so American policy makers, C.E.O.’s and investors responded by changing their priorities — privileging growth over security, efficiency over equality, and embracing creative destruction on a scale that would have been unthinkable in the America of 1955.

He refers to Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase, but which has lost its original meaning. It is ironic that Schumpeter was drawing on Karl Marx’s concept that political economies go through transformations created by the dialectical destruction of the current institutions, brought down by forces immanent in the current system. Capitalism came out of destruction of Feudalism and, according to Marx, would in turn create its own destruction, becoming socialistic. The phrase referred to macroeconomics and the entire political economy.

Schumpeter applied the same notion to the disappearance and appearance of enterprises that delivered innovative products and services that overwhelmed the efforts of the “dinosaurs” to compete. The new species prospered while the old disappeared. The process has been likened to a kind of social Darwinism. Each new entity survived by finding ways to do business more efficiently and thus attracting capital and outgrowing its sedentary competitors. Alternatively, competitors that brought radically innovative goods and services left their competitors helplessly stuck in the mud. The stories of how the automobile killed the buggy whip industry are legend. Where has the great company, Eastman Kodak gone?Today, stories like this are happening with great rapidity as digital innovations come forth everyday.

The first of these two processes is relevant to the story woven by Douthat. Romney was one of a cadre of financially trained businessmen who bought companies that were operating inefficiently far from their potential. Inefficient here does not apply to the manufacturing processes, but to the economic sense of the future value to the current market value. Attractive companies were those whose stock prices were seen to be far from what they could be if only the companies were made more efficient, producing more dollars for each dollar of capital underpinning the firm. A key to this practice, considered revolutionary at the time, was the use of borrowed money, rather than new capital, to finance the purchase of the target company. The potential for gains on the small amount of private capital needed to obtain the loans is very large as the denominator—capital—is very small compared to the numerator—the market value when the business was sold. The latest financial collapse was due in large part to the virtual disappearance of the denominator in the extraordinarily highly leveraged securities. The promise of great wealth was built on a house of cards with no foundation.

Getting back to Romney and today’s politics, Douthat says,

In the private sector, this revolution was driven by men like Mitt Romney. As Ben Wallace-Wells put it in a New York magazine profile last October, Romney has spent his entire career seeking to “perfect” the American corporation, stripping “its inefficiencies until it might function as a perfectly frictionless economic unit.”

Let’s do a small thought experiment here. Imagine that “a perfectly frictionless economic unit” was one that eliminated the major cost for most businesses: labor. We would live in a world where everybody would have to be a capitalist, owning human-free businesses that produced everything we needed or wanted. Not far what someone already rich might think. For the US, the Occupy movement has noted that only about 1 percent might be able to live this way, and on a global scale, the proportion of the very wealthy is vanishingly small. This, however, is not strange when you consider that modern economics in general, and capitalism, in particular, portrays the world as a machine and the well-being of people in terms of numbers. Douthat, then, adds fuel to the fire.

Still, just because the private equity revolution was necessary doesn’t mean that it was an unmitigated good. And for Mitt Romney to frame criticisms of Bain as just “the bitter politics of envy,” as he did last week, displays a tone-deafness that could cost him the presidency. No one — and certainly no politician — who has profited so immensely from an age of insecurity should ever appear to be lecturing the people who’ve lost out.

Douthat believes that the new form of capitalism was “necessary,” although he doesn’t fully explain why. Given his general perspective as a conservative, I surmise it comes from a belief that the US must stay ahead of all comers in the global economy. Given that this economy is predicated on growth, it follows that we must outgrow all others and that the “revolution” was hence necessary.

I do not think it was necessary except according to the demands of the underlying capitalistic political ideology, Douthat takes for granted. It may have been politically expedient. It may have happened as some unintended consequence of something else. It may have been the greedy actions of the wealthy, the Gordon Geckos, Douthat mentions in the column. I have my own choice among these, but not one that say it was necessary.

I find Douthat’s use of necessity is unecessarily cruel and heartless. Perhaps this is why Romney’s opponents are using his record to discredit his claims of creating prosperity in the forms of jobs. Certainly prosperity followed for those at Bain who profited by these deals even when they failed to survive after the surgery that always comes with leveraged buyouts.

Instead, Romney needs to prove to anxious voters that he and his party have more to offer them than just Bain capitalism alone. To win the White House, he’ll need to promise not only competition that leads to growth, but growth that leads to broadly shared prosperity. To defend his revolution, he’ll need to show that he’s reckoned with its costs.

He is not the only one who needs to wake up and get real. His party is living in an ideological stupor. More efficiency and wealth generation is not always a bad idea by itself. Growth has its limits. Economists and social psychologists (even cognitive scientists) are uncovering data that demonstrate that well-being is not correlated with income or wealth after a threshold has been reached. For those billions of people with little or nothing, income is important for subsistence. Ironically, the efficiencies of Romney’s form of capitalism, in a global context, tend to make these same poor people worse off.

For Romney to do as Douthat counsels, he will have to abandon his identity a quick-change artist, equipped with an arsenal of smoke and mirrors. There simply is no ground truth in what he (and others) did, what he (and others) used as an argument for what was done, and in the consequent human damages. Our economy is much more efficient than it was when the corporate raiders rode into Wall Street. These capitalists arguably have contributed to those improved efficiency numbers. But those numbers are not so important in human terms. It is time for all the Romney’s who seek political power to talk about other numbers that would come with their ideological economic remedies: inequality, indignity, obesity, poverty, broken families, loss of community, anomie, alienation and many more social and individual indicators of “illth,” as Herman Daly calls these characteristics. There’s no flourishing to be found here and no possibility for sustainability.

A New Pattern for this Blog

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pattern

I have been posting to this blog two or three times a week and occasionally more or less. For the time being, I will be posting only once a week unless something calls for immediate attention. The main reason is the demands of a new project. I will be writing a book with my former student and present colleague, Andy Hoffman. The book, which will take the shape of an extended conversation with Andy asking the questions and commenting on the answers I will provide. It’s not to be as formal as this seems. We tried this format at a conference earlier this year with considerable success. Stanford University Press will be the publisher. We aim to see the book in print in early 2013. The advantage in a book form is that we get to edit the responses. No Twitter to deal with.

The second reason is also load related. I am going to do more teaching and academic stuff this year, especially at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability Program. A few other mentally demanding gigs also. I do most of my thinking and learning through my writing, so you may, even with this apology, see my stuff appear more often. As I my recent writing might indicate, the political conversation offers numerous opportunities for sustainability punditry. Conversation may be the wrong word; most of what is being said is monologic and bombastic. I keep asking myself why any of these folks wants to be President, and find little or nothing that would forward the cause of sustainability.

Everyone promises to undo something that came to be because the community of the United States was being torn apart. Growthism will do that every time as it demands more and more commoditization of both the goods we consume and the channels through the goods are delivered. The strident campaigning for what I would call (others have also) radical individualism is another theme that runs opposite to any appreciation for others whether they are. Another nail in the coffin of community.

I reread, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett recently in preparation of a short course I will be giving on “Leading Corporate Sustainability.” Graph after graph show a correlation between income inequality and some form of human or societal bad. The US is almost always at the extreme, and above the trend line. Here is a composite graph for a list of common health and social problems plotted against income inequality. The Occupy protests and encampments raised consciousness of the great schism between the masses of our population and a small plutocratic minority, but didn’t provide information on the serious consequences that these data and others in the book do.

Screen Shot 2012-01-12 at 4.51.19 PM.png

Sustainability-as-flourishing is what I am fundamentally concerned about. Nothing good is likely to come of all the political and economic talk and change ahead because none of it accounts for the complex, interconnected world we inhabit. Simplistic remedies do not work for solving systemic problems. Bombing the nuclear facilities in Iran will not bring peace to the world; it is likely to drive us in the opposite direction. Neither is going back on the gold standard going to prevent a future financial meltdown. And so on.

OK. That’s all she wrote. I’ll be here again next week.

The Disappearance of Truth

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Havel

My favorite op-ed columnist, James Carroll, has hit the spot again. Memorializing the death of Vaclav Havel, Carroll writes about Havel’s signature accomplishment, pointing out that people have to live in truth or lose their freedom (my words about his work). I thought for a moment that he must have been eavesdropping on my conversation with my wife during and after the previous Saturday night “debate” in New Hampshire. I was expressing my concerns and consternation at the virtually complete absence of truth from the proceedings. Not only was the truth gone, but the participants appeared almost gleeful about speaking freed from the constraints that truth-telling creates. Carroll noted that Havel, “[t]he anti-Soviet dissident, who went from prison to the presidential palace, made truth his theme. He boldly condemned Moscow’s tyranny as ‘a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality … Human beings are compelled to live within a lie.’”

Earlier in the campaign, I recall an interview with Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, who said, in response to a question about the untruths being uttered by Romney, that this was none of his concern; it was up to the media to provide the facts. This is not a direct quote but my recollection of what he said. I remember it, even as my memory is getting worse, because it just leaped out of the TV screen.

Much of the political dialog revolves about what Havel called “ritual signs.” These are utterances that are ties to the underlying ideology of the speaker. Carroll writes further:

The citizen was forced to accept falsehood as the ground of existence. And beyond denouncing the regime, Havel showed, without being judgmental, how the inertia of citizens was essential to Soviet dominance… Grave social dysfunction follows when “ritual signs’’ take on more importance than hard facts, and “pseudo-reality’’ begins to rule. It’s an intriguing coincidence that the Czech truth-teller’s funeral occurred on the day Republicans voted in Iowa. Lies are at issue as the GOP contest moves to New Hampshire tomorrow, with Newt Gingrich openly calling Mitt Romney a liar. But the entire Republican campaign gyres around ritual signs that are at odds with reality. Marginal extremists have forced the Republican mainstream to live within lies (blatant climate denial, the baseless assertions that the budget can be balanced without taxes, blind hatred of government, and so on). This represents a new low standard for political pseudo-reality. If Newt Gingrich is the guardian of truth, the nation is in real trouble.

Reading his column and watching as much of the campaigning as I can stomach, I find myself full of sadness and a sense of loss. We have found our way in this country for more than 300 years bouncing back and forth between the ends of the political spectrum, recovering from the dumps of one or the other as we stagger along. This will be the 59th or 60th election I will have voted in. That’s lots listening to political rhetoric, better political bullshit, but this time is palpably the most unreal and scary.

Truth, as Havel, says is essential to our existence as a free people at all times, but perhaps even more now as we become ever more aware of the complexity of the world we live in. Ideologies are the epitome of denial of the interconnectedness of this world, where ties grow more in number and strength everyday. Actions here have effect in places and times we do not expect or ignore. Are we really going to bomb away the so-called threat of Iranian nuclear weapons with no other consequences? Will freeing the market from all government oversight and restraints create wealth for everybody when the results of the last few decades show us the exact opposite? Ideologies, either from the left or right, are all dangerous, but our two-party system and the means their leaders communicate with us pushes themes into ideological positions frequently compressed into tiny sound bites or political ads. Carroll mentions a few of such positions above.

There are many, many truths out there that are getting clobbered. If any of these men (no women left) are elected, they will be expected to act in accordance to these statements, ignoring what they find. Obama was faced with a financial crisis and its fallout on the economy as he moved in. He certainly was not the creator of these problems. It is interesting and ironic that the name Bush, on whose watch these problems started to arise, has been barely mentioned during this campaign, and not at all during these recent “debates.” I continue to put quotes around this word as real debates require some depth in discussing issues and solutions. Truthfulness would require putting the current messes into context, a least attempting to do so. I admit that would be difficult because the big messes are all a result of our failures to recognize complexity and act accordingly. And so Carroll ends with this:

American politics seems newly energized by such judgmentalism, and, yes, the Republicans have that high-horse saddle to themselves this week. The memory of Vaclav Havel points us in a different direction, however — toward the recognition that in the human condition lies and truth are always intermingled. To be moral is to acknowledge that complexity and struggle with it. Our elections put our imperfections on full display because, finally, that is what it means to live within the truth.

In with the New

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hope

Welcome to 2012. I hope we will be able to say something more about the health of the world at the end of 2012 beyond noting that the extra day in February added 2.7 percent (1/366) to the economy. I have the same hope every year, year after year, and I expect little will be different in the rest of my lifetime. It seems to me that things will be getting worse for a while, given the blindness and denial of the state of the world in the movers and shakers of business and government—the two dominating institutions in the US and most everywhere else these days.

Some of the denial comes in simply being unwilling to open one’s eyes to the real world out there. Some comes from powerful individuals who do know what is happening but prefer to hold on to the status quo because it disproportionately benefits them. Some comes from people who uncritically accept what is told to them by these others because they prefer to accept the word of people who they believe share some values rather than think for themselves. Unfortunately, the values that drive their beliefs have little or nothing to do with the state of the world.

Some, much too much, comes from people who do accept the existence and seriousness of the natural resources and societal problems that threaten to upset our relatively stable world, but are trying to cope using the wrong tools and models. There’s little chance that the first group with selfish and ideological reasons behind their blindness will wake up, at least not until the water comes lapping at their doorsill and gasoline hits $5.00 or more. Hope lies in getting those working on the problems to begin to see the true nature of the issues and shift to strategies that can and do more than temporarily slow down the pace of unsustainability.

In the spirit of hope, here are a few actions that I believe might have lasting impacts. Consumers are a relatively untapped source of power for change. Before this source can be effectively mobilized and aligned with sustainability, several key changes must be made. The first is to shift the basic model of economic behavior. The primary model is that of a rational or partially rational machine that decides on what transaction to enter into according to some preference order or utility. The more information possessed by the economic actor, the more rational will be the decisions to purchase this or that. This is the theory behind the many labeling and scoring systems now in play. There is increasing evidence that this model is seriously flawed. Actions in the marketplace, like all others, are driven primarily by habit, not by some rational computation. Further, the machinery of the current consumption-driven economy has been fine tuned to embed the particular habits that serve the major producers. Consumer sovereignty, if it ever did exist, is moribund if not dead.

Changes brought about by creating a better informed and educated consumer will move things in the direction of sustainability, but only slowly and at the margins. The now addictive consumption habits that drive the US economy have to be treated by much more than access to good information. I don’t know how to do this, but do know that habits, certainly when they reach the level of addiction, are extremely hard to change. Some sort of intervention is usually required. Acknowledgement of the addiction and appreciation of the harm it is causing are essential first steps. Occupy Wall Street was spawned by Adbusters, a Canadian NGO with a mission to reduce consumption. Their campaigns have had some success, perhaps from their cleverness, but there is little evidence of major and continuing change. The weight of those corporations and financial institutions protecting and increasing the size of the economy overwhelms the efforts to wake up consumers and cure their addiction. Consumption is an essential activity for any living being; this plea is not a call for the end of consumption, but rather for practices that reflect and cohere with the realities of the natural and social systems in which we are all interconnected.

A second path is to bring relationships back into the marketplace. The incessant drive toward bigger scale and scope, on the ground of improved efficiency, has turned the market into a virtually completely lifeless, commoditized institution. Efficiency is arguably good in producing wealth, but not without understanding that it has limits and a negative side. The loss of local economic actors, both producers and merchants, has contributed to the frittering away of community cohesion. The loss in terms of the important part that interrelationships play in sustainability has reached a point where it can be argued the benefits of more efficient means are more than offset by the deleterious impact on the humans beings involved by the economy.

There are limited experiments in creating local economic systems going on in the US, the UK and a few other countries. Some regions have even created their own currencies; Berkshares are an alternate to US currency for the purchase of locally produced goods and services in the Berkshires area in Massachusetts. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become the measure of business’s care about people beyond the usual economic factors. Much of goes for CSR is oxymoronic or hypocritical or downright misleading. The CSR programs at companies like Walmart that have a strategy to grow, in the name of efficiency, at the expense of local merchants and suppliers are inconsistent with these strategies. Here is a sample taken from a CSR reporting website:

In addition to its commitment to the Children’s Miracle Network and job creation initiatives the company engages in activities covering topics such as education, children or volunteering. Through its community giving scheme the company supports literacy programs and community scholarships and makes contributions to many national and international organizations and networks such as the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation or the United Way and Special Olympics.

Too many CSR programs merely balance the harms done in one place with lesser beneficence elsewhere. The stirring of efforts to replace decision-driving measures like GDP with human-centered measures offers some hope for improvement.

The last possibility I will discuss today is a shift in the fundamental way we understand the world. Our public decisions are guided by rules coming out of an understanding of the world stretching back to Descartes. Stated in the simplest terms, the dominant belief system from which the rules come is that the world is a vast machine, governed by analytically describable relationships that we can come to know through science. Armed with this knowledge, we can design institutions and technologies that should move the world in a progressive direction and keep it there. This model has, indeed, produced much progress in the human condition since the days of Descartes, but the machine no longer behaves by these rules and is beginning to break down.

The world is not reducible to such a mechanical metaphor. It is complex and incapable of being described by such nicely formed rules. It behaves in nonlinear and unpredictable ways. Great systems suddenly fail and produce, for example, financial meltdowns. Complexity does not rule out the finding of truths about the world that can be used to design and govern it, but the scientific method cannot be counted upon to generate the knowledge needed. The “rational” deterministic rules and procedures that form the base for almost all public decisions need to be replaced by pragmatic inquiries that find truth as successful coping with the vagaries of live on an ever-changing planet. Pragmatic truths emerge from the convergence of experience. We must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive systems build on understanding gained by experience.

To make such a change would require an immense replacement of the bases for many key institutions: particularly education and government. The privileged role for theoria, the Greek word for scientific knowledge would be replaced with phronesis, another Greek word, which might best be translated as wisdom. The virtually complete lack of trust visible in domestic and global politics would have to be reversed. Technocrats, called on to solve the economic problems, would be relegated to the roles for which they were designed to play. Mistakes will be made, as they are today using the best models and biggest computers, but we will be prepared to adapt and correct. We will recognize the failures and marks missed as normal and not seek to punish those whose wisdom we called upon.

I have been writing about complexity for the last year or so. Even if we work with systems that we believe are simple enough to be described by nice closed rules, it is helpful to operate in a pragmatic mode. It means more human observing and interactions with the systems involved. I find the gardening metaphor useful here. If we ran our activities like successful gardeners work their plots, we would eventually approach the ends we seek. The failures along the way would be looked at as opportunities for learning and understanding instead of opportunities to find fault. Simply pinning the fault on some singular causal agent or factor when a whole, highly interconnected, complex system hiccups makes little sense.

I am not at all sure about how or where to begin the change toward complexity as the basic model for both non-human and human behavior. One place to start might be at the universities where the Cartesian view and subsequent disciplinary methods embed this system of thinking. The forces that would oppose this shift are deeply rooted and would fight vigorously in opposition. But even this opposition is usually committed to finding truths. Perhaps then, some would be open to acknowledging another way to the truth.

I hope the readers of this blog will find in these ramblings a few of the sources of my own hope that 2012 will end with the world a little closer to sustainability than on January 1.