June 2012 Archives




Always on the lookout for stuff showing the dark side of technology, I found good example in the June 2012 issue of The Atlantic. Andrew Keen covered a new class of mobile device apps, as the headline says, “New “social discovery” apps try to engineer chance encounters. Could they spoil true serendipity?” Describing a scene in a bar, Keen writes,

After squeezing in at the bar, we slapped down our iPhones, like digital gunslingers. But as we caught up, I was distracted by a continual buzzing from her phone, which vibrated so relentlessly that it seemed to have a mind of its own. “It’s Highlight,” she apologized, switching off the device. “Have you tried it? It’s so annoying.” … I had, as it happened, tried Highlight. And Glancee, Sonar, and Banjo, a handful of the “social discovery” apps that are the latest new new thing. They allow our mobile devices to alert us to the presence of people we know, and to introduce us to people we don’t know—people the apps think we might like to meet. “Strangers,” Brett Martin, the CEO of Sonar, explained to me, “often have a lot in common.” The idea of engineering serendipity, of manufacturing good luck, used to be a science-fiction trope; now it’s the holy grail of mobile technology. The goal is to create what Andrea Vaccari, the CEO of Glancee, described to me as “surprise” and “delight.” “We want to create serendipity on steroids,” he added, unappetizingly.

These new apps operate by mining the gigantic personal databases being amassed on Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and more. They know what we “might like” better than we do. The developers of the apps think this is marvelous, assuming that it is people just like ourselves that we are most interested in. I am not so sure. As I note further below, technology always subtracts something from the world present to us at any moment. If these devices do what they are being designed to do, one’s sense of who they are will get lost. The difference, see just below, between “might like” and “like” is enormous. The latter has a possibility of authenticity coming from a reflective realization of who one is; the first produces an inauthentic response, par excellence, as action is entirely motivated by an external source.

Applying algorithms to the personal data on networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, these apps try to introduce us to nearby people whom we might like to meet—because we listed the same career on LinkedIn, say, or because we “liked” the same bands on Facebook.

As I read on, the idea of arranged marriages popped up. This Indian custom takes all the serendipity out of encountering a life partner. The impersonal technology of Glancee is replaced by the algorithms buried in the parent’s heads. They filter out the possibilities that do not fit their model of the ideal spouse for their eligible child. I used to be completely against this custom, but have gradually changed my mind as my concept of love has morphed from some mystical feeling that arises from an encounter with another to a mood of acceptance of the existence of an autonomous other. Having married a divorce lawyer, I have heard all too many stories of the failure of “love” to work its magic.

Couple that with my model of human Being as caring, and the serendipity of “falling in love” loses its punch. Serendipity does matter even here, as one still has to have an encounter with the right context. Seeking someone to care for, open to the same ideas, sharing enough of the same world to make communication and coordination work, and a set of futures that mesh sufficiently to set us as a couple on the same path is a very important step in life. But this does not require the drama of serendipity. People who meet and decide to couple up out of the love that I just described might call their first meeting serendipitous, but probably not.

These apps can be programmed to include or exclude specific people of all sorts, as the next paragraph says

Future generations of these apps might very well help us flourish in what Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, describes as the “Start-Up of You” economy—a Darwinian world in which we must continuously network to survive. But “amplifying our humanness”? Do we really want the preternatural ability to avoid entering any Starbucks where we might encounter an ex? Do we want to wonder, during a conversation with a delightful stranger, whether that person plotted our “chance” meeting? And the reverse: Do we want to find ourselves forever stalking people in airports because an app says they might be professionally valuable?

Ultimately, apps that claim to engineer serendipity seem more likely to do the reverse. Their main offense is not ubiquitous surveillance, but that they stand to destroy surprise and, with it, true serendipity. Rather than enriching our lives with unexpected encounters and genuine strangers, they threaten to take the mystery and the magic out of people we don’t know.

I don’t think that it is meaningful in the first place to connect these apps with “true serendipity” in the first place. I also don’t know what adding “true” to serendipity does for the meaning. Serendipity is strongly coupled to the concept of possibility that, to me, means simply creating something out of nothing. That’s got a bit of magic in it if you wish. The minute life becomes engineered, possibility flies away. Serendipity refers to some chance meeting during which the two (or more) people involved discover some common purpose, interest, concern or other context for coordinating action together. Such meetings are surprising and rare; most of the time we act in a context where the agenda and players are already chosen to fit that context. The magic of serendipity is in part conveyed by the surprise; it is precisely the fact that serendipity arises only out of the context of some immediate intentionality.

But so what. If one is missing somebody in their lives, whether a potential life or sex partner, customer, or whatever, and intentionally seeks to fill the hole, any means to enhance the likelihood of finding that somebody should be helpful. It doesn’t make a lot of difference whether the means is an app on one’s smart phone or a traditional parent arranging a marriage. What counts, in this case, is success, and that depends on what follows the first meeting. The only difference I can spot is the absence an the emotional high that surprise can bring and can linger in one’s memory, continually serving to refresh the experience of whatever relationship was created.

Technology almost always diminishes one’s connections to and experience of the world, in this case, surprise. I am not overwhelmed by this particular technology, but it seems relatively harmless, giving up only an emotional experience that many would not miss. But when you add together all the missing pieces of experience and the self-consciousness they provide, the effects are great and serious. The being-in-the-world creatures we are get lost against the instrumental vision of a world where technological intervenes in actions that we are fully capable of handling, with richer outcomes, simply by ourselves.

The Other Side of Austerity



This week has been very exciting for me. The first draft of the book Andy Hoffman and I have been writing was sent to the publisher for their comments. The process has been the mirror image of the preparation of my first book, Sustainability by Design.That one took abut 5 years from start to finish. This one has taken less than a year from idea to first draft. Andy had the idea to expand a keynote presentation we did together at MIT to a book. We presented our stuff as a Q and A with Andy prompting me to respond. The upcoming book with a working title of, Flourishing: A Conversation about Sustainability with John Ehrenfeld, combines materials from this blog with a new conversation between Andy and me.

The process forced me to reflect on the ideas presented in Sustainability by Design. With just a bit of immodesty, they seem even more relevant four years later. The green economy, a key topic at the Rio+20 conference going on right now, has done little to slow done our rush to the abyss of environmental and social collapse. The financial collapse and continuing economic problems has had no perceptible influence on the recognition of the folly of ignoring the Earth’s limits and people’s tolerance for the gross inequality that follows today’s form of capitalism. Some people are wealthier and own more goods, but the Marxian and Keynesian promises of a life of leisure are nowhere close to being kept for the masses.

The solutions being imposed by those who are already affluent and part of the top few percent of the citizens in most developed nations all come in some form of austerity, wrapped in all sorts of packages containing programs to restore growth. Ironic that the mass of people must suffer more in the process of continuing to enrich the topmost tiers. We are told that some form of austerity is the key to renewed economic health. In one sense it is. Austerity could be recognized as facing the reality of a finite Earth and the need to share its bounty equitably. That was the message underlying sustainable development. Twenty years after the promises made at the global summit in Rio de Janeiro that laid out a way to implement this critical concept, the world has little of nothing to show. Gro Harlem Bruntland, the Chair of the Commission that brought us the idea of sustainable development just published an opinion piece decrying the lack of progress since the 1992 Rio Summit.

On Wednesday, world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to review progress made in the 20 years since the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit and hopefully to chart a new path toward a more sustainable future. Protecting the planet and its people must be their first priority… Our central concern is that governments are currently refusing to make the transformative changes needed to resolve the global sustainability crisis.

Results from the Nobel Laureate Symposium Series on Global Sustainability also show that nothing less than a fundamental transformation will be needed, where human societies are reconnected with the biosphere to reverse global environmental change and move toward fair and lasting prosperity… Twenty years after the Earth Summit it is clear that humanity has been a poor steward for the Earth.

Like no other generation before, we can choose the type of future that we will leave to the next generation. A transition to a safe and prosperous future is possible, but will require the full use of humanity’s extraordinary capacity for innovation and creativity… Real leadership is required now to tackle these systemic issues. We therefore call upon world leaders to move beyond aspirational statements and exercise a collective responsibility for planetary stewardship, seizing the opportunity offered by the Rio 2012 summit to set our world on a sustainable path.

It’s quite clear that the call for austerity does not reflect any such awareness. It is primarily a result of the profligacy of the major market economies of the world. It’s the haves telling the rest of the world they cannot continue to consume at the rate they have been going. The irony is that it is these same folks that have rigged the financial system to churn out growth and more growth. But they forgot to tell the countries to direct that growth to the workers and consumers, not the financial sector tycoons.

The very word austerity has two meanings: 1) sternness or severity of manner or attitude; and 2) extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance. The schoolmasters calling for austerity are clearly using the first of these definitions, scolding, as it were, the vast numbers of people that work for a living for aspiring to the dreams feeding the political economies. Hardly a surprise that these people resist the call. It would make more sense if the call was for the second kind of austerity, especially the reference to simplicity.

This form of austerity is consonant with sustainability, whereas the first is simply the screed of a stern schoolmarm. Simplicity paints a picture of authenticity and living in a way that consumption is lined up with caring, not needing. Authenticity is living according to one’s intrinsic values, not the extrinsic values imposed by the culture. It is acting out of one’s own dreams of what life is all about. Our political leaders and especially those who aspire to the seats of power are leading us astray with promises of the American or some other Dream. Then once in power they tell us we are living beyond our means. The solutions we are told are needed require cutting back on taking care of the Earth, letting our social institutions further decay, and worst of all, stop taking care of other human beings who are not so fortunate to have lived high off the hog when the party looked like it would never end.

The almost certain do-nothing outcome at Rio signals that these leaders and those already rich and powerful think the party can go on forever without ever having to clean up the aftermath. The dreams they peddle are those of some economists and political strategists, but completely lack the reality of the world we all share. The metaphor of using dream as a vision of a rosy future has to give way to a different dream, or better, a nightmare, one that pictures how the world will actually look as we continue to ignore its limits and the immorality of so much inequality everywhere.

No News Is (Truly) Good News These Days

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“I’ve got mine and you can’t take it away from me, even if I got it by cheating, lying, and unfair (but legal) practices.” This seems to be the cry behind so much of what I read these days. One side of the US political campaign springs from this at the roots, even as the campaign tries hard to find other words. The Rio+20 conference starting just a few days ago, will, I believe, end up with the wealthy nations shrugging their collective shoulders at the plaints of the poor ones with all kinds of excuses for inaction or at most lip service to the problems. The European Community is teetering, and attempts to stabilize it seem to be guided by this cry.

These cries are frequently followed up by a claim that everything would be okay if only the market would be freer so that the bottom would begin to close in on the top. This claim also implies that whatever portions of the economy are being delivered by the government should be privatized ASAP. This is happening little by little as privatization squeezes out resource-starved public agencies, and, less visibly, the private sector replaces goods and services formerly the province of relational provisioning networks with commodified, impersonal versions.

That’s the claims. Here’s what is really happening, based on what’s in the news. Today’s (Sunday) New York Times is crammed full of news as it always is, but much of it reflects this position of the wealthy and powerful, whether individuals or large or whole parts of societies. As I started to read through it as I do almost every Sunday, I was struck by the number of articles related to the theme I began with.

In no particular order, here are some of the stories. The front page gave top billing to the consequences of privatizing parts of the New Jersey penal system resulting in lots of mischief dealing with those leaving incarceration.

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house… At the heart of the system is a company with deep connections to politicians of both parties, most notably Gov. Chris Christie.

Many of these halfway houses are as big as prisons, with several hundred beds, and bear little resemblance to the neighborhood halfway houses of the past, where small groups of low-level offenders were sent to straighten up… New Jersey officials have called these large facilities an innovative example of privatization and have promoted the approach all the way to the Obama White House… Yet with little oversight, the state’s halfway houses have mutated into a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked, according to a 10-month investigation by The New York Times.

Next was the front and center piece in the Review section, an unusually serious piece by Maureen Dowd, lacking her ironic, often sarcastic, tone. She asks where has our moral center gone. With a focus on the child abuse at Penn State, she asks why didn’t anyone who witnessed the abuse do something to stop it. Timothy Egan deplores the shameless, outright lying in the Presidential campaign. Frank Bruni points out the excesses of the fund-raising efforts by all these days. The inseparable corrupting that this produces is simply wished away or ignored by the process. Money is now the equal of speech. The more you have, the more public exposure you can buy. This doesn’t work when people really speak with words coming out of their mouth. They can say only so much before people start to drift away.

The Business section has a front page piece, “C.E.O Pay, Rising Despite the Din.” Here, “I’ve got mine” applies to the positions of power corporate executives have assumed. It’s a consequence of the slipping away of any sense of rightness in the economy. I so often quote Robert Heibroner on the dark side of the free market, “…a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.” I have to believe that those who are exploiting the political economy know this, but ignore it, loosening the already tenuous moral ties that modernity has brought.

The main story on the Business front page was entitled, “You for Sale.”

IT knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do… It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams — and on and on.

Right now in Conway, Ark., north of Little Rock, more than 23,000 computer servers are collecting, collating and analyzing consumer data for a company that, unlike Silicon Valley’s marquee names, rarely makes headlines. It’s called the Acxiom Corporation, and it’s the quiet giant of a multibillion-dollar industry known as database marketing.

Few consumers have ever heard of Acxiom. But analysts say it has amassed the world’s largest commercial database on consumers — and that it wants to know much, much more. Its servers process more than 50 trillion data “transactions” a year. Company executives have said its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States.

So much for privacy. And with the disappearance of privacy, the gap between unfortunate and fortunate can only grow as the data being collected are used to fine tune business strategies to cull out the undesirable. Why waste ad money on the poor if you are selling luxuries. Exclude those with current or potential medical problems from the insurance you offer. Add this to the basic unfairness of our medical delivery system and even those against the ACA should stop and think.

There’s more, but you should have gotten the point by now. There is not much good news. Maybe I should not be surprised at this next observation, but I am. There is zero mention of the Rio+20 conference in the print version of the paper. None. Nada. Zilch. Is this just a symptom of Heilbroner’s warning? Nobody is watching the house we live in. I did find an op-ed, by Thomas Lovejoy, about it posted only on their website. More discouraging news.

The 80-page draft text that the delegates will be discussing addresses a number of important issues. Yet it is clear that not only has humanity failed to address the problems at the needed scale in the intervening years, but that “Rio+20” will fail to do so as well. That said, it would be shortsighted to give up on Rio+20: humanity needs the building blocks that can be added by this conference to be as robust as possible.

Part of the problem is a preoccupation with the here and now. That includes the drama of economic problems in the euro zone and weakness in other large economies. In the United States, partisan politics are so polarized and poisonous, and media so fractured, that there is little mention of Rio+20. Many key leaders will not attend: Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron (despite the change of date to avoid conflict with the Diamond Jubilee), to name three.

His analysis is probably correct. The problems right in front of you tend to overshadow those coming later, even if those later ones are the more serious, and get even more serious when they are neglected. Our country was grounded on a set of moral principles. Where have they gone? Do we really believe we can operate without them or with a new set of quasi-morals, based on the ultimate right to be left alone?

I think about sustainability everyday; it’s all about creating a future of flourishing. I try to be reasonable even when I argue that sustainability depends on becoming unreasonable. But then, I find myself increasingly running out of patience with all those whose public (and private) outpourings are nothing but some form of the opening line of this post. The movie, Network, keeps popping up. Howard Beale, the anchorperson, uttered two unforgettable lines. Everybody knows this one, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” I am evermore empathetic with him for this. But I suspect that few remember another line that fits today’s world even more than it did in 1976. On returning to his program after being fired, Beale rants again, yelling that life is bullshit. It’s worth ending with the whole quotes from which these lines were taken. Thirty-six years later, nothing has changed.

Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living. And if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit. We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humiliation, decays, so there better be someone somewhere who does know. That’s the God bullshit. And then, there’s the noble man bullshit; that man is a noble creature that can order his own world; who needs God? Well, if there’s anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me: That man is full of bullshit. I don’t have anything going for me. I haven’t got any kids. And I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.

All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

I think we all need to get mad.

(Photo: Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network)

The Inevitability of No Growth


declining graph

Sorry to my regulars for my absence. I have been moving about for the last week. The big event was a grandson’s graduation from high school. He is going to follow his older brother to Harvard. Quite an accomplishment.

Today, I am going to talk about Rio and what this gathering could be. There is a lot of chatter on the Web about degrowth and low or no growth economic policies. Some is timed, I believe, to the proceedings in Rio, but not necessarily. An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal railed against “growth economics.” Nothing surprising here except the venue. It’s very strange to see an article so critical of conventional economics and of economists of all leanings. The underlying argument is not, as the piece argued, a general problem that economics and its disciplinarians are wrong about everything. That’s only true insofar as economics paints an incomplete and ofter misleading view of how the world works and what to do about the problems we observe. Most of the problems, as the article implies, come from such errors in the economists’ work.

NOT quite. The underlying problem with (perpetual) growth is simply that there is not enough Earth to support it. It’s already being stretched beyond its limits. Paul Farrell, the author of the article says

Actually something more immediate will force change much sooner. You are not going to like it: United Nations and Pentagon studies predict population growth (the main driver of all economic growth) will create unsustainable natural-resources demands as early as 2020 with global population exploding from seven to 10 billion by 2050. So expect Depression Era austerity, unemployment and a new no-growth economy.

Will we change? In time? Plan ahead? No, we won’t wake up without a collapse. We know the Myth of Perpetual Growth is pure fiction. But we also know our leaders, capitalists, economists and politicians all live in a collective conscience that must believe in this bizarre myth in order to justify everything they believe about the future, about progress, about income and wealth increasing, about a better life.

So we will all hang on … until a catastrophe shocks our world, forces us to wake up and let go, newly aware of the absurdity of the Myth of Perpetual Growth on a planet of finite resources. And it will happen sooner than you think.

I wonder if the attendees at Rio read the WSJ. Then, they might wake up and really do something there. I am afraid that all we will hear is talk about technological and technocratic fixes largely to combat climate change, and see dancing around the growth issue. Another colleague in the sustainable consumption community has an article in the WSJ-Europe edition, with this misleading headline, “How to Shrink the French Economy.” It’s author, Erik, Assadourian, offers the new president of France some advice based on the same premise as Farrell’s article: We cannot grow, we cannot even keep up the present levels of consumption on this finite Earth. Maybe this fact is behind the private space travel ventures that produced the first non-government flight to the Space Station. These entrepreneurs may be betting that we will never give up growth and know that someday, maybe soon, we will need to look beyond the thin layers of the Earth’s crust for the resources to feed the churning economy’s giant maw.

Assadourian offers some solutions up to President Hollande. I suspect these will be the similar to those to be discussed at Rio. He lists six:

  • Tax the rich.
  • Tax social ills.
  • Invest in renewables to improve France’s path to energy security.
  • Make French cities nearly car-free by 2022.  
  • Follow the Netherlands’ lead and create a 200-year plan to address climate change.  
  • Facilitate a return to traditional living arrangements.

 The first four are only the Band-Aids I mentioned above. They can only slow down the draining of the earth’s gas tank. The first may be a major sticking point in Rio in one form or another for the yet-to-be-affluent nations demands for their fair share of the already depleted resources. It’s a good idea, but there is little left to share. The second is an old bromide: internalize the externalities. Again a good idea, but only a form of triage, with no permanent effects against the cancer of growth below the surface.

Renewables is a critical issue and needs to be put in play everywhere without delay. The main arguments against doing this are also tied to growth. The economists argue that such investments may not be needed, and if made, would unnecessarily slow the rate of growth. They argue that the risk of doing nothing is less than the cost to growth. If something really bad happens, it will still be better for the economy to fix it after the fact. Making French or other cities car free is also meritorious, but is only a small move. It is more symbolic than effective. Even as I would see it as positive in the long run, I believe it would have an even greater backlash than ceasing to grow. I am concerned about all the unintended consequences that are sure to arise.

The last two suggestions are tied together. The Netherlands approach is great. Changing the world from the present one where well-being is measured and sought in terms of material wealth is a multigenerational task. The Dutch scale of 200 years is roughly the same as the Native Americans’ seven generation time frame for thinking about “policy” and other decisions with long-term potential impacts. The last item, return to traditional living arrangements, is on track, but does not go far enough. His program, capsulized below, addresses only the surface.

Although youth unemployment is a challenge, multigenerational housing can help address it, creating new ways to share costs among family members. Increasing the desirability of multigenerational housing could be done through tax incentives, social marketing and stimulating new local economic opportunities—such as small-scale farming and animal husbandry, artisanal crafts and repair.

The unspoken word in all of this is sustainability. How can our human species continue to exist on a perhaps mortally wounded earth? And to think clearly about this, we must get out of the mind set of fixing the present broken economic systems and the political economies in which they operate. My image of what is needed is a new version, sustainability-as-flourishing, a positive vision of a healthy Planet, with a level of material consumption consistent with its annual income without invading natural capital. Flourish for humans also implies a transformation of the basic existential view of our species as operating on top of a psychologically based set of needs. Every sociologist and psychologist worth their salt has a different arrangement of these needs. That’s only incidental; it’s the idea of needs that has been driving us in the wrong direction and towards the abyss Farrell warns of.

The return to some traditional infrastructure fails to capture the necessity to go further and return to our primal existential base of care for the world. When we replace, by discarding need as our foundation, this belief in our own consciousness and in the structure of all of our global polities, we can begin to produce and act on some global 200-year plan to attain sustainability. Unless we do that and simply continue to play make believe, we will, I agree, encounter the crash that Farrell and other, like Paul Gilding, think is needed to shake us out of our dreaming and doldrums. I do agree with them that people in those lands that already are driven by evermore growth will not give up what they already now and will not allow the political systems to adopt any policies that interfere with even higher levels of consumption. The Nobelist (non-) economist Elinor Ostrom, who died this week, might have had the framework for a solution, based on cooperation, not the competition that need inevitably creates.

One way that might work is to start efforts to replace the commodified and impersonal economy with, what Assadourian calls traditional means, but this won’t do much unless the reason that what makes them “traditional” is highlighted and appreciated. They grew out of the value of interpersonal connectedness in so-called traditional societies. I believe strongly that the recovery of this ontological sense of what it is to be human is essential and a prerequisite to the transformation of the Earth to make flourishing, the essence of sustainability, possible. Tough talk is needed, and Rio is the place to start.

Becoming Dinosaurs?

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I often write about the systemic character of sustainability-as-flourishing, but it’s rare to read an article that presents this idea in stark, quantitative terms. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Pearson warns us about the dangers of accelerated species extinction.

NEARLY 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild. That’s according to the most authoritative compilation of living things at risk — the so-called Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

This should keep us awake at night.

If we are concerned about sustainability, we should be worried about this simply on its own, but Pearson goes further and suggests we have a stake in the potential loss of so many species.

It is often forgotten how dependent we are on other species. Ecosystems of multiple species that interact with one another and their physical environments are essential for human societies.

These systems provide food, fresh water and the raw materials for construction and fuel; they regulate climate and air quality; buffer against natural hazards like floods and storms; maintain soil fertility; and pollinate crops. The genetic diversity of the planet’s myriad different life-forms provides the raw ingredients for new medicines and new commercial crops and livestock, including those that are better suited to conditions under a changed climate.

I don’t think we are at the same point that the dinosaurs were when they disappeared, but that’s not an excuse for failing to pay attention here. Beyond an awareness of the benefits pointed out just above, we are not some alien species visiting the Earth with our scientists, probing the natural world and making the discovery reported here. We are part of the same eco-system that these other species belong to. We share the earth and depend on each other for existence. It may not be a matter of ecological urgency when a single ant variety goes absent, but it is an important reminder of our interconnectedness to all creatures, large and small.

When we see the richness of the world out there diminished in any way, we are diminished as well because, try as we might to place us outside of that world, we cannot. It is good, on the one hand, to connect the disappear to its economic consequences. But, by reducing the existence of all life to some economic equivalent, we blind ourselves to the connections we share.

These ecosystem services are commonly considered “public goods” — available to everyone for free. But this is a fundamental failure of economics because neither the fragility nor the finiteness of natural systems is recognized. We need markets that put a realistic value on nature, and we need effective environmental legislation that protects entire ecosystems.

Putting a “realistic value” on nature will make our economic system more mindful of protecting and nurturing these resources, but it is only a Band-aid. The real problem is not some market failure. It’s the attitudes that dismiss the natural world as foreign and apart from us. It our economistic way of giving meaning only through some monetary equivalent. It’s a cultural issue springing from the way we have come to know the world standing apart from it and learning about it by looking through soda straws. It’s inevitable that doing this for hundreds of years would create the unconsciousness that ignores this observation as something of only economic consequence, the value of the services we get from nature each year. Kant’s moral rule was designed for humans but can be extended to all life. He wrote “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Simply replace “humanity” with “all life” and “person” with “creature,” and the moral dimension of the extinction will pop up.

Cultural Convergence



Again, David Brooks got me thinking. Today he writes about “The Segmentation Century,” his way of describing the failure of national and international cultural convergence.

In 1949, Reinhold Niebuhr published a book called “Faith and History.” Niebuhr noticed a secular religion that was especially strong in the years after World War II. It was the faith that historical forces were gradually bringing about “the unification of mankind… Old nationalisms would fade away, many people believed. Transportation and communications technologies would unite people. Values would converge… Unfortunately, this moral, cultural and political convergence never happened. In the decades since, people in different nations, even people within nations, have become less alike in at least as many ways as they have become more alike… The United States is a single nation with a common history, a common currency and a strong identity. Yet the country has become more polarized, not less. The country has become more difficult to govern, not less.

After some discussion of the degrees of divergence in the US and in Europe, Brooks utters a most pessimistic solution for the continuing problems of governance problems.

The larger issue is, how will the world cope with its own segmentation? How do you govern amid divergence? If multilateral organizations can’t bind nations, do we simply resort to an era of regional hegemons — or chaos? . . The first step, surely, is abandoning the illusions of convergence and the schemes based upon them. In 1949, Niebuhr questioned the naïve belief that history drives toward unity. He cited the book of Psalms: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” (My emphasis)

I think he is totally wrong in abandoning the hope that Niebuhr expressed. If hope is as Havel says, “ . . the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”, we should stick to our efforts to construct a world built on love and care. It is clear to me that more divisiveness is neither working nor can work to anyone’s benefit over the long run. The separateness of these cultural chunks springs from each one’s beliefs that that their beliefs are the only true ones. This is the case whether these beliefs are rationally derived or spring from dogma.

The discovery of the failure of convergence to occur along with the essential institutions necessary to govern a finite planet should be a call to double down. It’s much too easy to throw something away because its promise hasn’t happened yet. Brooks sounds like the sociologist he is, basing conclusions like this on some deeply held theory that suggests there are only true and false statements to make about the world. Convergence is a false belief because it hasn’t produced the results hoped for; therefore throw it out. The pragmatist I am becoming says, conversely, why not keep the belief and try another institutional experiment. As difficult as this might be at the necessary scale, it is far better than to abandon an idea that has the possibility to lead us to a better world.

The better world I envision is that of sustainability-as-flourishing. I see no possibility of getting there without adopting new beliefs and continuing to design and redesign our cultural structure until the world starts to bring forth flourishing all over the place. The failure of convergence can be attributed to the way truths and reality are linked. Both rationality linked to the scientific method and dogma produce absolute truths. With such absolutes as weapons, the most powerful in a culture will always dominate. Nationalistic dreams always take on dogmatic clothing and become absolute truths about the nature of life and the values underlying it. They become arguments for exceptionalism and superiority, and all to often lead to hostility both within and between nations. Religious and political evangelism, far beyond and outside of its Christian origin, has been growing, recalling much earlier, generally unhappy times for humans.

I do have some ideas about how to go from here. It’s critical to point out the emptiness of our culture. It is no longer creating our own dream. Divisiveness may be very refractory, but it is wrong. While it is extremely hard to change beliefs tied to institutional contexts, individuals can grapple with what it means to be human, asking if what culture is telling them about who they is producing authentic well-being. Can they look forward with more than hope that their lives will be satisfying? I do not think so as long as our identities are tied to economic or religious doctrines or for that matter to any present cultural messages about what it is to be human. A powerful alternative is available now. It takes courage to even think about it and real guts to start to embody it.

And it is so simple. Life is about caring, not having. Life is about caring in this world, not waiting for the glory of another world. Life is about accepting that one exists in a highly interconnected web of life, not some narcissistic isolated node. Life means believing that freedom means possessing the capabilities, as Amartya Sen writes, to fulfill one’s own authentic visions, not merely the freedom from external constraints, real or moral. Life is about loving, the most basic of human emotions, not about love as something one either possesses or gives away. A world run by loving will be one where the quality of life will be measured by the richness of relationships with all beings, not by the richness of one’s treasury. Take note David Brooks and all who would give up on the possibility of flourishing.