February 2012 Archives

Altruism, Evolution, and Care

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The current New Yorker (3/5/12) is running an excellent article, Kin and Kind, by Jonah Lehrer (not available without a subscription) about altruism and its connection (or not) to evolution. Most of it is concerned with animal, especially insect, behavior, but human behavior is addressed toward the end. The main thrust of the story is centered on a long-standing controversy within biology and the major players in that stand-off. Along the way, we learn something about altruism and its roots (or not) in the genes. Altruism, caring about the safety and well-being of others while your own safety and well-being may be imperiled, stands against the idea of selfishness as the central feature of successful species. Reproductive success is presumed to be maximized by doing better than other species in the incessant competition for the means of survival. Species, such as ants, bees, and social wasps, that exhibit altruism appear to be an exception.

The earliest argument made to explain this apparent anomaly was that the altruistic species, by protecting or caring for their relatives (inclusive fitness theory), preserved the collective gene pool, giving them a competitive edge. Much of the article was devoted to alternative viewpoints about the validity of this notion. I won’t go into further detail, except to say that E. O. Wilson has been in the center of this controversy, first supporting the idea of inclusive fitness and later becoming a vocal critic of it. I am more interested the implications of all this for human beings. Wilson’s current arguments give me a clue. He says:

Altruism has returned to a hypothesis first proposed by Darwin in “The Descent of Man”-that human generosity might have evolved as an emergent property not of the individual but of the group. “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who … were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes,” Darwin wrote.While acts of altruism can be costly for the individual, Darwin argued that they helped sustain the colony, which made individuals within the colony more likely to survive.

I interpret this as saying that altruism is socially constructed, and is not some inherent genetically based characteristic. It comes from learning in a group (tribal) context that cooperative acts work better than selfish acts in certain situations. Thoroughly Heideggerian in meaning. Directly out of Maturana’s theory of structural coupling and his simple statement that “doing is learning.”

Culture is a name we give to describe the body of routine activities of a collection of individuals. Another way to describe a culture is a persistent set of behaviors which the members learn over time as they are socialized into the culture. Learning is essential to the emergence and persistence of a culture. Learning is the observable evidence of some underlying template or rules, which produce the observed behavior. This is an almost perfect analogy to the notion of a genotype and phenotype. DNA creates the genotype which produces a characteristic behavior, the phenotype. The beliefs and other embedded, taken-for-granted rules of a culture are the equivalent of the genotype and the behavioral patterns, the phenotype. Richard Dawkins coined the word, meme, to relate to a social object that transmits the cultural patterns from person to person, a sort of cultural gene.

Altruism is just one of several categories of caring behavior that constitute the human being, as opposed to other living species. I doubt if E. O. Wilson thinks much about Heidegger, but he should. I might be misjudging him because he has written a book, Consilience, in which he argues that human progress will continue along its progressive path (I wonder often what this progress is all about) if all the many disciplines, each with its own little chunk of knowledge about the world, should find a way to collapse into a single unified body of knowledge.

Heidegger says we are human because we care about the world into which we are thrown. The biological argument that Wilson is making about altruism is a singular case of caring. With the ability to reflect and explain the world in language, humans have constructed much richer and complex cultures than other species, and so have more domains to care about. Or better, have gone through periods when new domains of care appeared as the societies became more complex. Maternal care has always been around. Indigenous people often make care for the Earth explicit in their cultures. The means for addressing cares have certainly changed with every sociological transition. Subsistence now comes via the supermarket rather than through the bow and arrow, but the basic feature of care continues to be the underlying constitutive feature of being human.

Today, as I write following Erich Fromm and others, our species has lost this quality of caring in exchange for a material existence, based on having. We have come to believe that [technological] objects will take care of the “needs” of our own bodies and everything else in the world, relieving us of the responsibility to explicitly reflect on those needs and act accordingly. This is an old story in my writing. What’s new is the discovery that the grounds for claiming we are caring creatures all the way down have been expanded by Wilson and other scientists who have observed caring behavior in other species. They attribute it to a kind of social learning, a slightly different way of telling the story I have learned from Heidegger and Maturana. Sustainability-as-flourishing depends critically on recovering this consciousness of care as what makes us unique in the world. Neglecting important domains of care has caused the collapse of cultures, as Jared Diamond and Marvin Harris write, but hubris seems to be blinding us to the same possibility for our vibrant, seemingly all-powerful modern culture.

"Rats" is More than a Mild Expletive

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lab rat electrode One of the central premises of my way of talking about and moving toward sustainability-as-flourishing is the idea that human Beings are caring, not needing, creatures. Need suggests that our fundamental motivations for action are inward directed. This model leads pretty directly to the model of Homo economicus, a rational person always acting from a desire to maximize his or her wants or needs, within the constraints of the resources at hand. When this kind of human behaves in a way that appears to be unselfish, classic economists would explain it by saying that altruism is just a part of one’s utilities.

Further examination of this concept suggests that the utilities and the needs they measure are something inherent, that is, they are a part of human nature. We will always have unmet needs and, consequently, will design our individual lives and societal institutions around the quest for more and more. Even if there is no more to be had, we will continue to strive to acquire what satisfies us at the margin. And if our strivings begin to erode the supply of the goods we want, we will continue on our merry way, either unaware of, ignoring, or denying the damages we are doing to whatever system is the source of our largesse. If the powerful forces that design and operate that system act only to fix the damages when they become impossible to ignore, the underlying system will continue to lose its potency for satisfaction, until it collapses at some unknown point in the future.

This is exactly the way we are running the world today. Denial will make sure we continue on the road to collapse. Is this insane? It fits every folk definition I could find. If human nature is really as the economists postulate, there is little to do but watch and wait. If it were not bad enough that the already affluent, modern nations were pushing the world toward some catastrophe, the desire of billions of people to be just like us will add fuel to the fire.

Now think what might be possible if humans were not these intrinsic selfish, greedy creatures. Fromm called this pathological mode of life, “having,” and opposed it to “being.” Having is quite easy to define, but being is more difficult. Having means simply to live life pursuing things to acquire and to engage in acts that give pleasure. Fromm pointed to the Marquis de Sade who attempted to legitimate cruelty as a “good,” because it could give one pleasure and satisfy one’s natural cravings.

Being is more difficult. Again quoting Fromm, “Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable. (his emphasis)” It is exceedingly dificult to hold this fuzzy sense of being and still convince people that the change Fromm proposed is needed. I believe I have found a way around Fromm’s dilemma. My argument has two roots: one in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and the second in the biology of Humberto Maturana and recent, related discoveries in cognitive science. Heidegger argues that human Being (with a capital B to distinguish it as an ontological concept, explaining the existence of humans as a distinct species) is built upon a structure of care. I have written about this in detail in my book and also from time to time on this blog and will not elaborate in much detail here. In a nutshell, care means to be aware of the world and act to address (take care of) one’s relationships with it. Further, the relationships are acquired through one’s historical experience and are unique to every person. There is no universal “human nature” in the sense above entailed.

I find Heidegger’s philosophical theory of Being compelling. I note that Fromm, a Jewish German emigre, makes no mention of Heidegger, perhaps because of his connection to Nazism. Further support comes from the biology of Maturana, who claims that we act always to conserve our being in the face of perturbations from the world, that is, the result of phenomena that are always impinging upon our senses. Our cognitive system changes with every encounter with the world, accumulating a record of the effective acts and the circumstances in which they transpired. Metaphorically, this could be thought to be a vast database built out of our neuronal structure with some means to find the “right”response depending on the signals being received. Rather than acting out of some intrinsic nature, we act as if we had a machine-like engine in our body—a machine that builds itself out of the continuous experience of being-in-the-world, as Heidegger speaks of it. For those interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend reading “The Tree of Knowledge,” by Maturana and Varela.

Now comes the newest part of the story. Neuroscience is finding more and more evidence that our cognitive system is more like the memory of a computer than the CPU. Our actions come out of retrieving stored, historical content coherent with the immediate context of our situation, and acting on it. The rational, algorithmic model of Home economicus lacks the explanatory power of this alternate way of explaining action.

Reading an article about the way the unbelievable amounts of data collected about everyone in the course of shopping and surfing is used to predict your habits, I discovered this fascinating story about how we Be. The theory behind the ability of marketer snoopers is that humans act through habits, and, thus, if they can discover your own idiosyncratic patterns, they can intervene at just the right time to entice you to acquire whatever they want to sell to you. In this case the game was to discover pregnant women early enough in their pregnancy to entice them away from their routines. Pregnancy, these hidden persuaders have found, is a condition where habits are amenable to change. If you think this is just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the article tells the story of a case where Target started sending ads about diapers and other baby-related goods to a woman who the data identified as being pregnant. Her outraged father, who said this could not be true, confronted the store manager who apologized. A few days later the father called back and apologized himself because it turned out the statistics did not lie.

Why is this possible? Neuroscientific research has found that humans act habitually, using routines we have acquired and embodied during our lifetimes. Here are a few key results quoted in the Times article:

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.

The explanation is quite straight-forward. Something grabs our attention; we identify it, reach into our stored bag of tricks, pick out the appropriate one, do the job, and breath a sigh of relief when it has been completed. Heidegger, without the benefit of probes into rats’ brains, called these unconscious routines “ready-to-hand,” and argued that we act transparently in these cases, that is unconsciously without reflection. This is the essence of care. We act to maintain our “successful” relationships with the world. The world is everything that impinges upon our sensory organs and is chunked or identified as familiar. Much of what is contained in the incoming signals is ignored because the chunking process does not recognize it. Here’s a more technical description taken from the Times article:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.

Why is this so important for sustainability? It should be obvious. If hyper-consumption is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. If failure to care for the world of humans and non-humans is a learned habit, it can be changed. The model of an intrinsic greedy human nature or essence implies that we are doomed to consume as much as we can, and will eventually destroy the planet that serves as our life support system. It also implies that we act mostly to take care of ourselves, so that the narcissistic character of life in the US today is no surprise. But for any habit (addiction?), especially one that we are not even aware is a habit, change is always problematic. As long as the culture continuously creates and supports the habits, change is virtually impossible. Our bodies will continue to respond to the cues implicit and explicit in daily life: ads everywhere without a break, fast-moving technologies, money as the most meaningful object of life, short-term thinking, and on and on.

Hard as it is to change culture, it must happen if our habits are to represent care, rather than need. Or, as Fromm might say, shifting from having to Being. Given the increasing amount of data that supports this model of human behavior, it is becoming just as hard to ignore its consequences as it is to deny the phenomenon of global climate change. But beware, it is not only the plutocrats that will fight to keep the status quo, it will be all cultural institutions that now have been constructed on the foundation of the old, obsolescing notions of human nature and behavior. That’s virtually every one.

Scrooge Lives


scrooge039 The Boston Globe ran an intriguing story on February 19th, under this headline: “Why it matters that our politicians are rich?” Further is carried this subhead: “Science is finding that money actually changes how you think and act—and not for the better.” I have often written about the research that shows that more wealth, after subsistence levels have been reached, does not add to one’s sense of well-being, but I had never seen evidence that more money can make one less of a human being.

The article focuses on the hardening of our largely very rich politicians to human hardship. The members of Congress have a net worth of 9 times that of the average American citizen. And should Mitt Romney (net worth about $250,000,000) become President the average of all our Washington-based elected officials would jump even higher.

Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

I always know about RHIP—rank has its privileges, but never thought it could have a negative impact. I have often railed against equating money or wealth to happiness because this prominent cultural goal only reinforces the emptiness of having. The shift from Being to having is a central feature of our modern society and partially explains much of the deterioration of the Planet and of the societal fabric and the wholeness of many people’s lives. Having is an inauthentic solution for satisfying the caring that makes us [human] Beings. But I hadn’t suspected that this mode not only added little or nothing, but subtracted from our wholeness and capabilities for Being. And for those who have been following my work, this, in turn, pushes the ultimate goal of flourishing away. I always knew that “Money can’t buy happiness,” but not that it can turn one into a Scrooge.

Britt Peterson, the author, cites work by several academic psychologists as the ground for the article, and that raises a few of the hairs on the back of my neck. I am usually a bit skeptical about the results of psychological lab studies aimed at determining people’s responses to certain kind of stimuli because the lab context is never the same as the real world in which the same subjects would be acting. The reported research does follow, however, rigorous protocols and is as good as you get from these kinds of studies.

Empathy, used in the extract above to characterize the loss of affective feeling for others, is not caring, per se, but is intimately involved in caring. When one attempts to stand in the “shoes” of another, it creates appreciation and acknowledgement that there is relationship between them. That’s always the first stage of caring. The relationship does not have to be full of affective content, as there might be between spouses, or children and their parents or very old friends; it can be neutral and simply reflect a sense that “you” are present in my life and I have to take care of you. “You” can be anyone, including the empathizer, or any non-human thing out there. It could even be the acknowledgement of a mysterious transcendent object that has entered your consciousness and needs to be cared for. Caring for doesn’t always mean taking action immediately; deliberately or knowingly ignoring something that has entered your consciousness is an acknowledgment of the presence of the “other,” and presumes that some action will be coming If it never comes, then there will be a hole in one’s life that makes flourishing problematic.

Getting back to the article, it is not difficult to extend the arguments to explain why very wealthy people frequently support ideologically pure causes. The ideology becomes the object of attention rather than the human beings that are involved for better or worse. Ideologies are after all just things (reified ideas) that one owns. The more money one has, the more of the ideologies he or she can own. The implications of these findings are serious and negative for sustainability.

We have to move closer to Being and the caring on which is is grounded, not farther away. To some degree, I discount the psychological findings reported in the article because I do not believe that we have some intrinsic fixed and permanent human nature. Our behavior and the identities it signals are learned from our actions over our lives; we become what we have done routinely. If our identities are the result of learning, not an intrinsic nature, then we can unlearn them, but often only with great difficulty. Not only is it hard to teach an old dog new tricks, it’s also hard to unlearn any of the old ones.

There are a couple of bright sides to all this in the Globe article. Peterson writes:

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS of realizing that our wealthy leaders may be more callous, self-absorbed, and self-justifying than the people they represent? For one thing, it suggests that the constant calls for candidates to release tax returns and disclose their assets are not so petty after all.

Beyond underscoring the importance of disclosure, however, the new research also offers some hope—not just for Rich Uncle Moneybags, but for you, if you happen to win a Senate election. As Galinsky explained, power doesn’t necessarily turn everyone cruel: It merely reveals their true colors. With power comes disinhibition, which can have the counterintuitive effect of turning a run-of-the-mill billionaire into a major philanthropist. “Power…frees you to act like your true self,” Galinsky said. “So let’s say the lascivious become even more flirtatious, but those people that are concerned with compassionate goals become even more compassionate and even more generous.”

I don’t quite agree with this because I do not believe that anything like a “true self” exists in hiding until enough money comes along to open the door to the closet where it has been cooped up. One acts on top of a cognitive structure that has been built up cumulatively. If you are really a philanthropist, you would have begun to learn how before you got your billions or started to soon after that happened.

Peterson writes further,

And there’s more hope for rich or powerful people who want to avoid becoming insensitive jerks: Compassion, at least, can be taught. In a 2010 study, Kraus, Keltner, and several of their colleagues showed subjects one of two videos—a neutral clip from “All the King’s Men” or a short documentary about child poverty—before administering a written “compassion test” and an interpersonal test of compassion in which the subject had to divide a set of tasks of varying lengths between himself and a partner. Although the subjects with higher class status tended to assign the longer tasks to the partner, the researchers found that watching the child-poverty video canceled out the effect of social class.

Once again, my skepticism about psychological experiments makes me leery of making too much of this. Learning comes through doing in the model of human cognition and behavior I follow. Recent work of the formation of habits supports this model. (More on this is coming soon on this blog.) One exposure in a lab cannot produce lasting learning. Do Kraus, Keltner et al. expect to show the video of child poverty to the subjects every time they are to act in real life? Of course not. If anyone truly wants to change routine behavioral patterns including the affective context, they will have to undertake a very serious and often fruitless rehabilitation program. Dickens had the advantages of writing fiction. Real Scrooges are unlikely to have such an epiphany or even be visited by ghosts.

Vision-and-Values-driven Leaders



I spent a busy and productive weekend teaching students in a PhD program at Benedictine University, outside of Chicago. The program is named “Values-driven Leadership,” and I was one of several others talking sustainability to the candidates. The preparation for this class propelled me into closely examining some of the underlying ideas in my own work on sustainability.

At one point in the program, I asked the students what a “leader” is? I offered this definition as a conversation starter: “A leader is an actor who has a clear consciousness of his or her important (the topmost) values, and is able to enroll others in enacting them.” I was a little wary of raising a question about the name of the program, but it started a long and fruitful conversation. After the discussion and with some reflection on the plane ride home, I have changed this to read, “A leader is an actor who has a clear consciousness of a vision of the future and is able to enroll others in realizing it in the present.”

I believe the key to leadership is acting out of a vision of the future. Alfred Schutz, a German philosopher and social theorist said, “Our actions are conscious if we have previously mapped them out in ‘future perfect tense.’” For those, like me, that have forgotten our grade school grammar lessons, this means talking in the present about something that has already happened in the future. I think it fully describes vision. Vision is a portrayal of how we wish the world to be in the next moment. A consciousness of time is critical. It is always something other than the world already is; otherwise we would be simply describing what is now.

Schutz’s definition suggests that action is intentional by definition. Acting has the sense of bringing the future into the present; it is always aimed at changing the world. An actor always intends to change the status quo. Action does not, then, define all of the movements of the body that an observer might look upon. We might make a “Freudian” slip, saying something by mistake. Speaking is also a form of action; we intend to change the world via what we say. Slipping on the ice is also not action by this definition. When we act on our own, we might say we are leading ourselves toward a vision of the future. The action, per se, tells us we have enrolled ourselves in the act.

When we act after a request or any directive (order, demand, command, plea, etc.) coming from someone else, we are simply following the leader according to the definition above. I have written so far in a rather academic fashion to dispel the mystique that so often goes with a discussion of leaders and leadership. In the phenomenology I fall back onto to make sense of the world being presented to my sensory organs, I become conscious of changes in the context of a static background. What these changes mean needs an explanation from the actors or from me, the observer. If there are no human actors out there to tell me what is going on, I have to fall back on all the science I learned, on my own experience of having observed a related situation earlier, or by invoking some mysterious transcendent process.

A leader, thus, shows up only after the fact, and according to two criteria: 1) his or her statement that the action that ensued came from a vision of a future perfect state, and 2) an acknowledgement by others involved that they were acting in response to the directive. Sometimes leaders, by this definition, have difficulties in explaining what their vision was. In organizations or any collection of people acting routinely, both the leader and the vision fade into the background after a while, but were present when the routines were being learned.

The many scholars who have studied how leaders arise and act in social settings have described a diverse set of models that can be used explain the basis of “leadership” and to train leaders. These models connect to many styles of leadership, ranging from charismatic to servant. I am not going to discuss leadership in further detail in this post. Every school of management has at least one course devoted to the subject of leadership, often embedded in a class on organizational behavior. Getting back to the opening paragraphs, I am going to probe the idea of values-driven or mission-driven leadership because these names are cropping up in MBA curricula in many places and sustainability as I define it needs a clear understanding of what they mean. From the outset, I will say that I think these labels are misleading. Action always follows a vision of the state of the world that the actor aims to create.

Again, in the phenomenology I come from, values are ascriptions given by observers to order the actions they observe over time according to some scale of importance. In the linguistic practices of modernity, the ascriptions have become reified, and we talk as if values were some thing resting in the body. Values have no inherent content; they are a measure of importance. The commonly used term, family values, is nothing more than a code for a particular set of visions. Values and visions are linked, however. Visions are nothing but thoughts that float around in one’s consciousness. We all know how difficult it is to stop thinking and quiet the experience of consciousness. Values could be seen as the input to a kind of sorting mechanism that picks one of the visions to act on from the stream that goes roaring by. We are aware of our values only after we have acted for a while and can see patterns develop. If asked about them, we will respond with some answer, but the true set of values comes not from within, but only through the actualization in action. Because pressure from the societal voice that is always ringing in our ears is strong, our stated values may not be our own (authentic), but, rather, a response to show alignment with the norms.

Values-driven leaders are guided by a particular vision that stands out and becomes a source of attention. The combination of vision and values is critical to effective leadership. In stable organizations, the vision may have become so embedded in the consciousness that is is taken for granted. Mission-driven is, in my terms, a variant of vision-driven where the vision has been reduced to an explicit set of goals related to the kind of world the organization is seeking to create.

Why have I gone to such lengths so far? As usual, it’s because it pertains to sustainability. Sustainability needs leaders who are clear about the vision that constitutes it. Sustainability is the possibility that flourishing will emerge (and last for a while). Flourishing is the vision, couched in the context of the future perfect tense. Possibility always refers to some state in the future that we would like to see realized in the next present moment. Further, since flourishing is an emergent property of the planetary system that is always in flux, we can never be certain flourishing, even if present today, will stick around until tomorrow.

Anyone who would lead us toward flourishing must always come from its vision, even when it appears to be present. The same would be said of anything that is only a possibility. Values may be enough in the machine-like world we think we inhabit. We can stop thinking about the outcome and focus only on the levers we have to pull to keep the machine running. This thinking has gotten us into deep trouble because we have stopped envisioning the future—the ends, and act only toward the means—the machine. If sustainability-as-flourishing is your goal, please stop talking only about being values-driven and make this vision the source of your leadership.

Sustainable Brands (Whatever That Means?)

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Jack Daniels

After struggling for a month or so to find topics that would interest both you and me, I am swamped with possibilities and will get to them as quickly as I can. For starters, this headline really intrigued me: “50 Fastest Growing Brands Serve a ‘Higher Purpose.’” I found this on a blog run by “Sustainable Brands,” which according to their website is, “a learning, collaboration, and commerce community of over 50,000 sustainable business leaders from around the globe.”

I spent some time going through their web pages which tell a story I will write about another time, but I want to focus on the headlined story, above. First, the definition, sustainable brand: “a better brand that endures by respecting and delighting all stakeholders in both current and future generations,” is needed to provide context to this post. It’s hard for me to accept that a “brand” can do anything, certainly not “respect” anybody. Only people can respect; it is a fundamental human attitude. Products and services can and do produce delight, but the brand is nothing but a metaphor. Maybe that’s why I usually suspect the words of marketeers who try to convince customers in words that what they buy is delighting them, for example. Judging from the violence and dumbing down I see in so many of the advertisements I am compelled to watch because they are embedded everywhere i look and listen, I see little respect for the stakeholders.

So, now to the story. Here’s the lede: “New research on the world’s 50 fastest growing brands found a cause-and-effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance.”

Through case studies, GROW demonstrates how brand ideals aren’t simply about altruism or corporate social responsibility but a fundamental human value that is authentic to the brand and ultimately a driver for extraordinary growth. In fact, Millward Brown Optimor’s analysis discovered that those who centered their businesses on ideals had a growth rate triple that of competitors in their categories.

There is not enough information to determine whether this claim is based solely on a correlation, or has additional research to prove a cause-effect relationship. But on with the story. Here are the five ideals:

  • Eliciting Joy: Activating experiences of happiness, wonder, and limitless possibility
  • Enabling Connection: Enhancing the ability of people to connect with each other and the world in meaningful ways
  • Inspiring Exploration: Helping people explore new horizons and new experiences
  • Evoking Pride: Giving people increased confidence, strength, security, and vitality
  • Impacting Society: Affecting society broadly, from challenging the status quo to redefining categories

Some of these fit into the categories of care that are so central to what I call sustainability-as-flourishing, and on this account I begin to pay attention. Erich Fromm said, “Joy is the glow that accompanies Being.” The test of the first item in the list is, then, do these brands create Being, or are they producing ephemeral sensations? I may be very jaded, but would Aquarel, a purveyor of bottled water, create joy. Maybe the brand does through the magic of language and image, but that’s just the point: can a bottle of water really make one joyful? Slaking one’s thirst produces relief, but joy; I wonder? In a few paragraphs, I will list more of the winners, and you can make up your own minds. Authenticity is a critical element in Being. The joy that comes along, as Fromm said, has to be one’s own, not created by an external context—metaphorically a voice instilling an experience from the outside—which is exactly what branding produces.

“Connection” is certainly a critical context for care. It does little itself, but provides a means for a caring actor to produce an effect on the intended recipient, whether a person or some non-human entity. But except for a few of the companies that produce devices that are designed for that purpose, I could not find many where this feature would be part of the goods. Connecting with others who are recognized as living with the same brand may induce a sense of solidarity, but I doubt if the experience comes close to being authentic. Does Hermes create connection? Maybe with others flitting across an airport concourse, but this hardly has anything to do with sustainability.

Next, “invoking exploration.” This sound great; what could be better than new horizons, but not if the present world isn’t being taken care of. With few exceptions, the companies in the list sell exclusively or nearly so to the affluent and elite. New horizons have an special appeal to this affluent segment of society who have enough disposable income to keep looking for the next new thing. Hennessy, the maker of cognac, might qualify here in that excessive imbibing of a smooth VSOP brandy can take the drinker out of the world, but leave a bad taste in the morning.

“Evoking pride” comes next. This is a poor choice of words, it seems to me, but they define it so as to avoid the negative sense that prideful frequently brings. Here it means creating “confidence, strength, security, and vitality.” The brand messages, no doubt, are effective in conveying these desired qualities, but can Red Bull, the energy drink, really do this? Finally, there is “impacting society.” I would agree that changing the status quo is essential if sustainability is going to even peek at us, but, come on, what kind of changes are those buying Johnny Walker or a Mercedes-Benz thinking about.

That’s enough from me. Here are the 50: Accenture, management and enterprise consulting services; Airtel, mobile communications; Amazon.com, e-commerce; Apple, personal computing technology and mobile devices; Aquarel, bottled water; BlackBerry, mobile communications; Calvin Klein, luxury apparel and accessories; Chipotle, fast food; Coca-Cola, soft drinks; Diesel, youth- targeted fashion apparel and accessories; Discovery Communications, media; Dove, personal care; Emirates, air travel; FedEx, delivery services; Google, Internet information; Heineken, beer; Hennessy, spirits; Hermès, luxury apparel and leather goods; HP, information technology products and services; Hugo Boss, luxury apparel and accessories; IBM, information technology products and services; Innocent, food and beverages; Jack Daniel’s, spirits; Johnnie Walker, spirits; L’Occitane, personal care; Lindt, chocolate; Louis Vuitton, luxury apparel and leather goods; MasterCard, electronic payments; Mercedes-Benz, automobiles; Method, household cleaners and personal care; Moët & Chandon, champagne; Natura, personal care; Pampers, baby care; Petrobras, energy; Rakuten Ichiba, e-commerce; Red Bull, energy drinks; Royal Canin, pet food; Samsung, electronics; Sedmoy Kontinent (“Seventh Continent”), retail grocery; Sensodyne, oral care; Seventh Generation, household cleaners and personal care; Snow, beer; Starbucks, coffee and fast food retailer; Stonyfield Farm, organic dairy products; Tsingtao, beer; Vente-Privee.com, e-commerce; Visa, electronic payments; Wegmans, retail grocery; Zappos, e-commerce; Zara, affordable apparel.

You decide if they come close to the ideals. If not, their performance, as leading growth and success, can come only by the cleverness of the brand message. This alone attests to the inauthenticity of the system of [sustainable] branding in the first place. We are led to believe we are joyful, explorative, and so on by these powerful voices. The real measure of an set of ideals must come from inside and in action if Being is to come forth. And without Being, there can be no flourishing. And without flourishing, there can be no sustainability.

The Fallacy of Greening



The blogosphere has been humming for the past week or so with responses to an article about energy efficiency published in the WSJ. David Owen, author of a book and other articles on the subject, argues that energy efficiency is not going to move the world toward solving our environmental dilemma, particularly climate change. His context is what he calls the “conundrum” of energy efficiency, the growth of energy use blamed on the availability of capital freed up to consume more in other ways. In this article, he has expanded the playing field to include product switching, the consumption of supposedly less damaging alternatives. Energy-efficient products fit his description. This is what he says:

If only all big problems could be tackled with product substitution. We’re consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another. My car’s a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong water heater? I’ll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I’ll replace them. The challenge arises when consumption itself is at issue. The world faces a long list of environmental challenges, yet most so-called solutions are either irrelevant or make the real problems worse. That’s the conundrum facing anyone who yearns for “sustainability.”

His work has drawn criticism from many who study consumer behavior and also advocates of energy efficiency. He has thrown a bunch of different and disparate issues and theories together and, not surprisingly, he has opened himself up to these critics. Count me among them, but not for the same reasons as most have offered. One thread is that [relatively affluent] people believe they are saving the world when they purchase a “green” product.

A favorite trick of people who consider themselves friends of the environment is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity. A new car, a solar-powered swimming-pool heater, a 200-mile-an-hour train that makes intercity travel more pleasant and less expensive, better-tasting tomatoes—these are the sacrifices we’re prepared to make for the future of the planet.

He is among many who have observed this behavior. Consumption is driven by many factors, a few of which are cultural and complement or overshadow the mysterious inner set of needs that psychologists and economists talk about. They show up as individual consumption transactions, but are responding to social pressures and norms. Sure, as Owen writes, it would be great if all those buying greener goods would understand that their actions do little compared to the overall amount of their consumption. They not likely to do so without change in the cultural beliefs and normal practices. Nike’s prescription, “Just do it.” is grossly ineffective to counter our societal addiction to consumption.

Owen has argued in his book and also earlier in the New Yorker that buying goods that are greener because they are more energy efficient than those they replace will not lead to lower environmental loads. He invokes an ancient (in the course of modern economics) theory originally developed by an English economist, William Stanley Jevons, who argued that the invention of coal-burning engines, far more efficient than the wood-fueled machines they were replacing, would increase the use of coal rather than decrease it, as efficiency alone should do.

The basis of his argument is that efficiency generally comes with reduced costs, thereby creating capital available for investment elsewhere. And at his time of rapid industrialization, the capital would be used to expand production, requiring, in turn, more fuel to power the new factories. The Jevons paradox, as this has come to be called, fit the circumstances of his period, but has been questioned as fitting the world of today. But, in any case, I don’t think this is the important point in the “conundrum” of Owen work.

The more serious barrier to reducing the load on the world is capitalism itself, at least in the form we and many other developed nations practice. Growth is built into the system at the core. The freer the market, the more growth should occur. The maximum possible would come when no funds from the market is taken out by government taxation, but that is not the case anywhere today, although to listen to the Republican candidates, it should be. The degree of growth in stable periods is determined by policy-makers listening to a variety of economists, who generally get it wrong. Politically viable growth rates strive for rates of 4-5 percent. Rapidly expanding economies, like Chine, shoot for much higher rates.

It is these policies that largely correlate with growth in material consumption. The drivers for growth are largely political, but related to the use of material-based indicators like GNP as a measure of the way the economy is actually performing. Improved material and energy efficiencies lag behind these rates of growth, so simple algebra tells you that, unless standard measures of economic growth are curtailed, switching to greener products will not get us any closer to a safe level of consumption. In many parts of the world, consumption dropped during the recession during which growth was flat or negative. It is too soon to judge what is happening as the global economy begins to recover, but early indications are that consumption will follow. Without a radical change in economic accounting systems and measures of well-being, the two trends must track one another.

By pointing to the patterns he does, Owen and others lead us away from more fundamental problems. Advocates of efficiency also miss the point. It is better to produce goods more efficiently, all other things being equal, but they are never equal. Populations continue to grow. Rapid technological innovation provides strong incentives to buy the latest device and “lose” the current one, unless you have children waiting in line. My observations in the relatively affluent and technically sophisticated area where I live are that kids get the latest devices only a short time after the parents do.

But the real problem lies even deeper. It comes from our modern way of thinking about ourselves. With so much science and technology at hand, we seek “mechanical” means to solve virtually all problems, large and small. And it follows that we need to have the things to do the job or go to places that have them. Our inner consumer is never satisfied. And if we do find satisfaction, the voices of the market are loudly trying to convince us that we aren’t really satisfied. I know by experience as I have a few techie areas where I occasionally get the latest thing, but I am definitely finding less and less “need” to consume.

To address this core, our society, especially the already affluent, will have to change their habits radically. We will have to learn to find satisfaction through relationships between other human beings and the non-human rest of the world, rather than through transactions in the marketplace. Just buying the green products won’t suffice. It is always a good idea to reduce unsustainability, but making sure that what you are doing actually does that. That’s Owen’s concern. Even if we are successful in reducing unsustainability significantly through forms of greening, we will not have addressed the underlying causes of our ill Planet. Taking an aspirin every morning will not cure cancer.

Instead of the superficial justifications that many of those who buy green profess, we must recover the fundamental human grounding of care. If and when we do, we should start to care for ourselves, other human beings and the non-human world as a natural everyday habit, with both the tools we have but also through building strong relationships that nurture the actor and the world simultaneously. Then we may be able to reverse the unsustainable path we are certainly on and begin to produce flourishing, the quality central to sustainability. We are, to be blunt, counting angels on the head of a pin when we niggle over the issues as Owen is doing, and so are all the many experts arguing with him They are wasting time and cyberspace bandwidth.