In with the New

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.

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