July 2012 Archives

No Man Is an Island

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I cannot think of any better way to start a discussion of another pair of sustainability-related concepts, interconnected vs. autonomous, than John Donne’s memorable words.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne’s words tell us that there should be no reason to oppose these two words when speaking of the human condition. Our culture today speaks very differently.

I have a pretty good idea of what interconnected means, but less about the word, autonomous, so I did some searching and found this next passage on the Internet. I have no idea of the politics or philosophical outlook of the person whose blog this is from. He is riffing on a common exclamation, “You aren’t the boss of me,” sometimes heard when a child has begun to become conscious of his or her personhood,

“I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy. It is wrong for you to attempt to dominate me, not just because that would be morally wrong but, most importantly, because my nature as a thing forbids it.

“This is a statement of obvious fact — obvious to observation, but, most especially, obvious to self-observation, to introspection. You know that I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy because you know that you yourself are a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy, and you know we are alike as things.

“This fact is undeniable, which means you can deny it only by being knowingly deceitful or in grievous error.

“This fact is inescapable, since no matter what deceitful or erroneous statements you might make about the idea of human autonomy — volitional conceptuality and concept-driven volitionality — free moral agency — free will — it is nevertheless always the case that we each are never other than and never more than beings of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy.

“Therefore, my own autonomy — and hence yours — is an ontological fact — a property of my being as a thing — an inalienable manifestation of my identity as an entity.”

I can’t think of another way of expression that would portray such a completely isolated view. The dictionary doesn’t go to such extremes that would tie such autonomy to the very existence of a person. Here are a few definitions:

Autonomous (of persons) a. free from external control and constraint in e.g. action and judgment, self-directed, self-reliant.

Autonomous (Philosophy) a.  acting or able to act in accordance with rules and principles of one’s own choosing. b.  (in the moral philosophy of Kant, of an individual’s will) directed to duty rather than to some other end.

There is nothing here to suggest that Homo sapiens is ontologically autonomous. Certainly we are completely dependent on our parents and subject to their rules for quite a period in our lives. Even Kant’s definition presupposes the presence of others to whom we have duties, that is, we have an obligation to care for them according to the specifics of the rules. The rules we choose as our own from the basket offered up to us by the society we inhabit must have been created by others human beings. If we ignore or deny their existence, we must then presume these rules to have come from some transcendent source to which we are also connected. If we were not connected, we would not have any duty to obey those rules we choose for our own or even choose any of them to be our own.

Interconnected has a much simpler definition.

a. mutually joined or related, having internal connections between the parts or elements. b. operating as a unit; coordinated, unified, co-ordinated.

As I write, I retract my statement that these two words are the epitome of polar opposites. Every human being is interconnected to the world; this is undeniable and inescapable unless one is completely solipsistic and believes that they are the only thing that exists and everything else that they perceive is only a mirage created in their minds. A child of five or six may believe something like this, but sooner or later, unless they are very strange, they will accept that there is a world out there. They are connected to it through the soles of their feet, through the interactions with others, the food they eat, and through virtually everything they do. No matter how “autonomous” ones chooses to be, the interconnectedness of the everything in the world remains a fact. Everything is not connected to everything else, but all entities exist in a web. The early native Americans (and other indigenous peoples) called it the web of life.

If you missed the reference to choice in the last paragraph, autonomy is just that. It is a life style choice that has nothing to do with one’s interconnectedness to the world. Only for children can autonomy be ontological, and that is only because they haven’t yet matured enough to appreciate their place in the world. For adults to claim some sort of ontological autonomy is to say that they are still acting and thinking like children. This is obviously a big problem in an adult world. The second part of the above definition relates to how we, all of us, have to act in a world, coordinated with and connected to other people and to the material world. Gravity connects us to the earth. If we ignore it, we will move only at our peril.

The tie of these concepts to sustainability should be pretty clear. Flourishing is more than a state of mind. It is an assessment that all is right with both my own world and the rest of the world. The kind of autonomy pictured above is completely incompatible with flourishing and thus with sustainability as I define it. Sustainability demands that the world be working in such a way so that all the parts are in harmony; there is no place for disconnected pieces. The absence of the conditions for flourishing to emerge can be traced to many factors. One of the most important of which is the presence of actors who behave as if they are autonomous by nature or essence. Their eyes are closed to the world as it is. There is no possibility is this kind of world. When people choose to act as autonomous nodes in an interconnected world, flourishing won’t show up either, but there is possibility in this case. The eyes can open and see that other choices are available. Sustainability is a matter of choice, but the choice must be the right one. Autonomy isn’t it.

Sound Science

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sound science

The NYTimes carried a story today about new threats to the ozone layers. The last time this process was noticed, the threat was due to an "exotic" chemical class, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). The new info points to plain old water as the chemical that may be thinning the protective ozone layer above North America. The severity of recent weather events has been carrying water into the stratosphere-- to higher altitudes than usual--where the water molecules can interact with the ozone-producing mechanisms.

But this is not what I saw as unusual. The following quote was buried in the text.

The findings were based on sound science, he and other experts said, but direct measurements of the impact of water vapor on ozone chemistry are lacking, and much more research is needed.

It is an affront to scientists and science to attach the word "sound" as an adjective. Science is not science unless it is done properly, that is, soundly. Science has a set of rigorous standards that must be met in order to qualify the results of research as scientific findings. In recent years, interest groups who would lose something as a result of new (or even old) scientific findings have adopted a strategy to discredit science itself because they cannot legitimately discredit the findings, per se. Why the Times would include this adjective in a straight report of work done by a group of bona fide scientists I can't fathom.? It has no place there. It would be proper to label such findings as preliminary or tentative if that were the case.

In the article, the scientists were conjecturing on the possibility of the effects, not verifying them. They call for more studies to determine if the ozone thinning is actually happening. This is the way scientists work. It is neither sound or unsound; it is simply science. Almost all parties that have tried to avoid action by casting aspersions at science know full well what they are doing. The climate change deniers are led by people and corporations that are well educated in science and often operate in highly technical, scientifically based firms. Many firms have used this euphemism to delay regulations. In this case the findings in questions are not "science," rather they are applications of science in efforts to calculate risks, for example. The science is not at question, the assumptions being used by the analysts (outside of the science) are being criticized. A perfectly legitimate concern.

But it is not the science that is unsound. Science is built on a self-correcting process. The results are never absolute. They are the "truth" agreed upon by the community of scientists only after a rigorous peer review process. They stand until they are superseded by other findings, should they promise a better understanding of the worlds being studied. This contingent nature of scientific results is standard, but is not at all the same as unsound work. The peer review process does work and works well to root out poor work that has not followed the rules. Please, NYTimes be more careful in the language you use. It may be all right to refer to criminals caught red-handed as "alleged" to avoid litigation if you are wrong. But is is neither right nor helpful nor worthy of the journalistic standards your paper claims to have to blacken science as you did.


In my last post, I introduced my list of the polarized beliefs that separate the world of sustainability from our current one, and began my discussion with two very important distinctions, authentic and inauthentic. All of these distinctions are important because sustainability-as-flourishing depends on having them all in place. But some do seem to rank higher on some scale than others. Today, I want to look at a pair of related items, intrinsic values and extrinsic values.

First, a brief comment on values. Values are a particular set of beliefs that are tied to action. They are different from beliefs about reality, like “rain is necessary to make my garden grow.” They are what we say when asked why we did what we just did. They are also stated out of the immediate context of action to establish one’s ethical ordering and ideological rightness. I use ethical here in the most general sense as a set of beliefs that assert what is the right action to take under the particular circumstances. This broad definition includes our everyday practices as well as those that would be associated with morality.

Phenomenologically, there is no categorical difference, only a matter of degree and social legitimacy. Drinking from a cup without slurping is an ethical action (in most families) under this definition. Age before beauty is another value. At the highest social level, values are often categorized with a general term, for example, altruism or selfishness. Both describe the similar character of many different actions someone routinely makes. Selfishness describes actions that benefit the actor more than others involved; altruism describes actions that reward others more than the actor. Generic statements like family values, however, are simply ideological codes; this statement is as empty as is sustainability without specifics.

Most of our values are embedded in our unconsciousness waiting to be called on to produce the appropriate action. Giddens make this point explicitly by designating two kinds of “consciousness”: practical consciousness-the cognitive structure that actually produces the actions, and discursive consciousness—the cognitive structure that produces the explanation about what we did. The two are not necessarily the same; we often make-up the reasons for our action to avoid some sort of social sanction or simply do not know. We do not “know” why we put one foot in front of the other when we walk. The (ethical) rules have become completely embedded in our practical consciousness. If forced to explain, we would probably say something like, “Well, it works.”

I use this phenomenological definition of values to avoid attributing some sort of reified existence of beliefs, that is, to avoid giving a psychological reality to the “causes” of our behavioral habits. I try to be faithful to my intellectual mentors who argue that our behaviors are the result of learning via life experiences and arise from some particular structure in our cognitive system.

Intrinsic and extrinsic are terms used by Tim Kasser to describe a constellation of values that are found clustered across large populations of actors. Here’s how he classifies them:

Extrinsic, materialistic goals (e.g., financial success, image, popularity) are those focused on attaining rewards and praise, and are usually means to some other end. Intrinsic goals (e.g., personal growth, affiliation, community feeling) are, in contrast, more focused on pursuits that are supportive of intrinsic need satisfaction.

These two line up well with the axes of authentic and inauthentic. Intrinsic values, as the words suggest, focus on self-generated “needs”, whereas extrinsic align with “needs” superimposed by external voices coming from institutional cultures. Kasser uses the language of psychology, where Heidegger uses terms from his ontological philosophy for the same concept. The important lesson here is letting the antipodal nature of these pairs sink in without being distracted by the language. When I add terms like Being vs. Having, care vs. want (need), or love vs. fear, the image of two fundamental ways of living becomes much clearer. Only one can produce flourishing.

Intrinsic values differ from individual to individual reflecting the distinct life history that makes everyone of us unique. They are contextual because experience always reflects the context in which action takes place. If one asked a large sample what their personal growth goals are, there would be repetition coming from the common experience of individuals, but this multiple presence is categorically different from extrinsic values coming from the voice of society. There are many such voices but some are much louder and dominating than others and would be shared widely. Materialistic pursuits are dominating today. Keeping up with one’s peers (or the peers that one seeks to join) is a strong value.

Sustainability does not require that one act only out of intrinsic values. As many psychologists and sociologists have written, materialistic values are so entrenched that acquiring them is unavoidable and not necessarily bad or harmful. But when the extrinsic values completely drive out intrinsic values or nearly so, flourishing coming from the sense that one has taken care of his or her human Being, is out of sight. It is easy to act out of extrinsic values without thinking; they have become societal habits and lie deep in the practical consciousness I mentioned earlier. They are instilled in our children by the time they are 8 or 9 or earlier. To shift to act authentically using intrinsic values as a guide, individuals need to become competent in reflection and critical thinking. They must learn to ask themselves questions about their consumption practices and become mindful. Mindfulness, in the Buddhist tradition, allows the practitioner to loosen connections to the (Western notion of) ego. If one thinks of ego as the inauthentic self that has been produced by culture influences, any reflective practice that makes one aware of the values behind actions and loosens their dominance can aid in the shift from inauthentic to authentic or, equivalently, from extrinsic to intrinsic and begin to open up the possibility of sustainability-as-flourishing.

The Contradictions of Capitalism Unsustainability

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As anyone that follows my blog would notice, I am slowing down again. I have been busy on other things, many of which are simply the wonderful “distractions” of summer. At this stage of life more than in earlier years, these so-called distractions are the essence, rather than the activities that pull one away from connecting with the whole world, not just a small piece of it at a time. I am working hard to organize a course on pragmatism I will be leading at my geezers Institute for Learning in Retirement in the fall. Much of the early writings contained arguments as to why pragmatism was distinct from other ways of thinking. I think I have begun to understand that feature and see its importance in practice, particularly in the constellation of beliefs and their consequent practices (habits) necessary to create the conditions in which flourishing can emerge.

From this snippet of thinking, I began to visualize a whole list of concepts that formed two opposing or contradictory places in a cultural paradigm. Acting on the basis of the Unsustainability World column representing current cultural beliefs and norms, all we can do is tinker at the edges of our lives because we are continually reinforcing these as we act. If we shift to the antipodal set of the Sustainability World, we can, conversely, begin to change our routine behaviors towards producing the possibility of flourishing. The items in the two columns are not all direct opposites, but connote opposite senses. Sustainability and unsustainability are opposed in a normative sense, but come from different categories of meaning. Sustainability is a possibility that flourishing will come forth; unsustainability is a set of real phenomena, each signaling that something is going wrong with the world with respect to our human aspirations.

Sustainability World Unsustainability World
Sustainability Unsustainability
Creating Sustainability Reducing Unsustainability
Being Having
Authentic Inauthentic
Care Want (Need)
Love Fear
Intrinsic values Extrinsic values
Enchantment Disenchantment
Spiritual Secular
Complex Complicated
Interconnected Autonomous
Bio- or eco-centric Anthropocentric
Holistic Reductionist
Communitarian Individualistic
Cooperation Competition
Pragmatic Dogmatic
Constructivism Positivism
Technological skepticism Technological optimism
Equity Efficiency

I would like to make this list as inclusive as possible and welcome any additions or comments. My blog email address is at the bottom right-hand column of this page. I will work my way through the list in my posts to the blog. (I cleaned up the table and made a few minor changes to reflect the comments I received. The last pair are not opposing concepts, but are opposed in practice in the neo-classical economics policy world)

Today, I’ll start with the distinctions, authentic and inauthentic. This pair is on my mind because I am winding up a course on consumption at Marlboro. The students have been going through a reader on “sustainable consumption,” edited by Tim Jackson. It’s a good source for about a dozen or so different theories on what drives consumption and whether consuming is good or bad for both the world and us. I am also a member of a growing network of sustainability researchers, connected through a network called SCORAI, The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative. Members of this group, and many others, were present at the Rio+20 conference advocating for changes in the way we run the world.

I am as unhappy with the phrase, sustainable consumption, as I am with the way sustainability is used or the parent term, sustainable development. If one were to interpret the phrase based only on the text, the meaning would be some sort of ongoing consumption pattern that fits our normative desires. One of the problems at Rio+20 is that the cultural worlds represented there have very different senses of what kind of consumption they are seeking to sustain. I have no idea of what form of consumption is consistent with either the Earth’s capacity to provide the needed or the normative objectives of nations, and find this definition no more helpful than its parent term, sustainable development. Neither is related to sustainability as I define it. In fact both are being used in ways that would undermine the possibility of flourishing.

Instead, I suggest the pair, authentic vs. inauthentic consumption, and argue that the former is essential to attaining sustainability. Consumption refers to any act in which resources of the Earth are consumed. Hugging a friend does not fit this but sending candy to another friend on Valentine’s Day does. Authentic consumption entails acts motivated or coming from an intention to take care in any of the several categories of care--subsistence, transcendence, family, aesthetics, etc. Some might describe these actions as coming from an inner calling or spirit. What matters is that they are not driven by some external voice.

Inauthentic consumption entails acts driven by cultural pressures, of which there are many, many these days. It’s not just the ads that bombard us everywhere, it’s a cultural sense of neediness, wanting to be like celebrities, finding identity in material goods, and more that is pervasive and lies underneath the patterns of consumption. Inauthentic consumption is insatiable; there is no finality or completion to any act of consumption. As population and wealth--the means to consume--grow, the levels of materiality entailed in consumption grow in parallel reaching levels that stretch the Earth’s capacity to or beyond a breaking point.

Tim Kasser, in his book, The High Price of Materialism, offers up some suggestions for changing the system. He focuses on family and society. His thoughts for family are all directed at children. I guess he has given up on the present generation. For example, one thought is to “Talk to your children about materialism.” His suggestions for society agree with those of many others, for example, “Regulate advertisements.”

I believe that any shift away from inauthentic to authentic consumption will bring us closer to sustainability. Given the complexity of the world, it is impossible to measure how big a shift is needed to reverse the present unsustainable conditions. Waiting for some expert to compute that magnitude is folly, and is often a delaying tactic by those who like the world just as it is. I also believe that language matters. Talking about sustainable consumption inevitably leads to just such a situation as this; it revolves about managing the world on the basis of some number or other measure. Focusing on the authenticity of our acts gets much closer to the underlying causes of the problems we see today, and also addresses the more fundamental issue of our errors in understanding what it is to be human. I’ll get to these in further posts.

The Long Shadow of Karl Marx


class struggle

One of my favorite sources of ideas that trigger my own thinking is David Brooks. Today (7/10/12) he reported on some recent work by the eminent Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, perhaps best known for his book, Bowling Alone. The title suggested his thesis that “human capital,” the social resource that binds a society together was disappearing along with the evidence that people were spending less and less time in communal activities. Brooks picked up a recent announcement by Putnam of some of his findings about differences in the US. Here’s a brief description of his key points.

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam alerted activists to the fact that class division has become the dominant form of social difficulties in America, and that the problem is getting worse. “Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school,” said Putnam. While race and poverty have deep historical roots, they no longer seem to reflect America’s political reality.

Brooks, while focusing on Putnam’s story, noted that the divisions in the US were getting larger on many accounts, although the explanations differ. “Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.”

Brooks’ use of “horrifying” is intriguing. Putnam is arguing, on the basis of his recent research, that the schisms in our society follow class, that is economic, rather than racial lines as has been the story in the past. Is this what makes this information horrifying? Since Brooks fails to make this explicit, I will have to guess at his reasons. Putnam’s thesis is that children from the lower economic classes are not getting the enrichment experience that children from higher class families are getting. The results include more behavioral pathologies, less positive moods about their possibilities, and less “community” involvement in all the institutions important to becoming a whole adult.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

Putnam stresses that the class demarcation of these results is significant because past research has pointed to race as the dominant determinant. The results have very stark implications for public policy and for social mores in the US. The horrifying aspect of all this may be that this situation will almost certainly play out even more in the future as today’s children pass along the causes to their families.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The situation is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s prediction of the separation of economic classes that would be an inevitable result of capitalism. As long as race could be used to explain the difference in social strata that has always been here, capitalism has gotten off the hook. The revolution Marx predicts is exceedingly unlikely to happen as this split continues to widen because the solidarity essential to any revolution is missing. The alienation is there, but the connections to others are missing and will continue to fade as the situation grows over time.

Brooks’ solutions are simplistic and gratuitous. He is right that “people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decision.” The liberals need to “champion norms” about marriage before childbearing. I think he is more than a bit old-fashioned here. Commitment, not the binding of some formal institution, is what is important. The divorce rate in America is about 50%. If, as Brooks indicates, marriage in the lower classes is lower than among the affluent, then, most of the divorces come at the higher levels. So much for wagging fingers at the poor. His lesson for the conservatives is to drop their [mindless] opposition to taxes so that more resources are available for economic programs that “benefit the working class.” He forgets that many of the lower classes are there because there are no jobs for them.

I find one piece missing and that’s what horrifying about Brooks’ article for me: the lack of any mention about public education. John Dewey, who I am reading in depth right now, was very clear about the criticality of public education as a means to avoid exactly the kind of split being written about here. The wealthy are doing everything they can to destroy this institution, primarily by starving the schools. Schools cannot and should not replace families as the building ground for becoming responsible adults and citizens, but they can go along way to fill some of the gaps. Turning public education into a factory for the future technicians of America will not begin to address the issues that Putnam points to.

Dewey was an advocate of democracy, the kind I think the Founding Fathers had in mind. His two keys to this were education and a civil society of informed citizens. He would be appalled by what goes for both schooling and public conversations today. Social mores become established not by tongue wagging but by practice. Remember Dewey was one of America’s great pragmatists. We rich folks have to welcome the less fortunate into our lives beyond sharing more of our wealth with them. The affluent ghettos that are everywhere in America shut off possibilities for the public conversations that would build the idea of civic responsibility. Offering money as the solution is not really any solution without a breaking down of the barriers to conversation. The stridency and absolutism of today’s political talk is directed mostly those already out of the misery of the lower classes. Dewey knew that voting was the primary way of instilling democracy both in the minds and lives of the electorate, but would not prosper without the two factors mentioned just above. Cutting off the poor from the polling place is just another nail in the coffin. Shame. Shame. Brooks, if you are so horrified, what about getting down and dirty?

"Organic" Mischief

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Certified Organic

When is organic food not organic? When it’s labeled “organic.” The Sunday NY Times (7/8/12) ran a long article about the creeping takeover of the organic food producers and processors by Big Food.

The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Is this simply conventional capitalism at work? Yes and no. The inevitable ingestion of small businesses by bigger ones as a new business arena becomes established is par for the course. There are costs involved that offset any efficiency the larger firms could, in theory, provide.

“In some ways, organic is a victim of its own success,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who has documented the remarkable consolidation of the organic industry. Organic food accounts for just 4 percent of all foods sold, but the industry is growing fast. “Big corporations see the trends and the opportunity to make money and profit,” he says.

So much for the small farmer or small businessperson as the building blocks of the economy. Small businesses that are smart or lucky enough can make the American Dream come to real life as their enterprises get snapped up by the rapacity of the giants who see new opportunities for growth. These entrepreneurs get to join the 1% or maybe only the 2-3%, but they quickly move out of the economy creating business. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the consequences do pose a series of problems for the rest of us.

First is the obvious. As these businesses are bought and merged into their new parents, they will morph from enterprises driven by the visions of their founders to ordinary divisions of big, aggressive companies who are experts at efficiency. The special care that made these companies successful in the first place gets lost quickly as larger markets replace the niches that were willing to buy “pure’ organic products. Some employees are likely to lose jobs as the efficiencies kick in. Organic food is more expensive, inherently, because the processes used to bring it to the market are more expensive. The priority given to quality as the expense of quantity is going to slip at some time; it is inevitable. And this brings me to the second big problem, what happens to the quality and nature of the products. What is “organic” all about?

The Times story is threaded through with reference to Michael Potter, founder of Eden Foods, one of the last large size independent organic food suppliers. Potter is an outspoken opponent of the actions of the federal board that certifies what organic means, by actions to allow non-natural additives.

Mr. Potter of Eden Foods was initially supportive of the government’s efforts to certify organic products. But he quickly became disenchanted. He has never sought a board appointment, for himself or anyone at Eden. “I bought into the swaddling clothes wrapped around it,” he said. “I had high hopes the law and the board would be good things because we needed standards.”

By 1996, he realized that the National Organic Program was heading in a direction he did not like. He said as much at a National Organic Standards Board meeting in Indianapolis that year, earning the permanent opprobrium of the broader organic industry. “They think I’m liberal, immature, a radical,” Mr. Potter says. “But I’m not the one debating whether organics should use genetically modified additives or nanotechnology, which is what I’d call radical.” be used.

What Potter was railing against was the growing list of additives that could be used without causing the loss of the “Certified Organic” label. He and others argue that those who buy organic products simply because they are “natural,” meaning no synthetic materials and even no additives at all, are being bamboozled. The label would seem to me to indicate that there should be no need to “read the label” to tell if something was indeed “organic.” I use the quotes here because after reading this article I cannot come to a definition that would seem to reflect the common usage of organic. The next few quotes should signal the reasons I am confused and concerned.

Ms. Fulwider surprised many observers at a board meeting in May by voting in favor of keeping carrageenan on the organic list. Before that meeting, Organic Valley was saying that it planned to find an alternative to the additive, and there is a long and active list of consumer complaints on its Web site about the cooperative’s use of it in things like heavy cream and chocolate milk.

Ms. Fuldwider (sic) has also voted to let organic egg producers give their chickens just two square feet of living space, when Cropp [a cooperative of farmers who do not accept the standards of the National Organic Standards Board] requires its own farmers to provide five.

Most controversially, she voted to add DHA and ARA to the list for use in baby formulas. Milk fortified with DHA commands premium prices, and Mr. Siemon said Organic Valley had to have a version of its milk with the additive “because that’s what the consumer wants.”

DHA and ARA are derivatives of natural products, but are not present in the milk used for baby formulas. “After DHA got onto the list, we decided to go back and look at all of the ingredients on the list,” Mr. Kastel says. “The average consumer has no idea that all these additives are going into the organic products they’re buying.” Organic foods are about 4% of the total food market, already about $30 billion annually. I don’t know how many customers that is equivalent to, but it’s a lot. They deserve to get what they think they are buying. If the companies advertised such products as green (they probably do in some cases), they would be guilty of greenwashing. The labeling as “Certified Organic” let’s them get away with this pernicious practice. All for profit. How many generations of Homo sapiens survived only on real organic foods simply because that was all there was? Denaturing foodstuffs because they are “better” is nothing but a modernist excuse for making money. For shame!

There’s a striking irony at work here besides the whole irony of what’s organic. These large companies are most likely big donors to the Republican Party, thanks to the Citizens United decision, looking to “limit” the size and scope of Government. But at the same time they are heavily engaged in regulatory capture, as the Times article describes. Maybe that’s part of the reason the 1% get there; they have it both ways. Avoid paying taxes at all costs, but capture whatever public programs can lead to higher profits. All in the name of free markets and raw capitalism. The “rest of us” have to be content with playing by their rules.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss



Of many similar columns about the recent spate of bad news coming from extreme weather events, I found this one by Timothy Egan highly evocative.

Nature makes a mockery of our vanity. We live in flood and fire zones, nurture stately oaks and take shade under pines holding the best air of the Rocky Mountains. We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips… Summer is barely two weeks old and two-thirds of the country is in the grip of a severe drought. More crops will die. More forests will burn. More power brokers will become familiar with the consequences of a derecho. It sounds biblical, but smart scientists have been predicting this very cycle.

I retreat to the Maine Coast every summer to escape all this sturm und drang. But I cannot escape from signs like this even far away from the scorched parts of the US. I cannot remember a summer with such extremes. Burning days followed by a week more like late autumn than mid-summer. Fierce thunderstorms accompany the hot and humid days. I was fishing a few days ago and had to hightail it back to the dock when a thunderstorm seemed to come out of nowhere. The ocean went from almost mirror-like to a roaring sea with two-foot swells. This has certainly happened before, but never with the apparent frequency I observe.

Egan has much more data at his hands, and writes further

… 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in June throughout the United States, following a winter and spring that were the warmest ever recorded. Numbers are like box scores… So it went the first 10 days of summer, another extraordinary chapter in a weather year of living dangerously. At one point, 113 million Americans were under an extreme heat advisory. It was 109 degrees in Nashville, 104 in Washington, D.C., and much of the West was aflame.

The kicker was his conclusion.

But at a time when warnings of violence are too often attached to the weather forecast, the unpleasantness may not be so easy to wish away. At the least, we should get used to intimacy with a ferocious new face of nature… If recent history is a guide, it will all be soon forgotten and dismissed. Amnesia, in regard to unpleasant science, is the guiding principle for a political party that has an even chance of winning everything that matters this year.

Nature has always had a ferocious side. The human species has usually respected that. Early humans moved into caves to escape the rigors of living outdoors. Spiritual practices arose, in large part, to appease the forces and mysterious beings thought to be the cause of these untoward events. As we moved toward modernity, science began to point to the causes of natural phenomena and the mystery abated. Wonderful forms of technology appeared that allowed us to protect ourselves better and better. Weather forecasting permitted us to plan our days to avoid having our parades rained on. My wife is an inveterate tennis player and never misses watching all four Grand Slam events. The British Open, at Wimbledon, has been plagued with rain all the way through its two weeks, forcing numerous delays and rescheduling. A few years ago, a moveable roof was installed in the Center Court so that a few matches could be played no matter what the weather was. We are clearly still using technology to offset the exigencies posed by nature.

But no technology works effectively against these extreme events. Neither does the ostrich posture that seems to be taken by more and more people every day. Anthony Lieserowitz, a Yale researcher, recently reported on the latest results of a continuing survey they carry out measuring US attitudes about global warming. The latest results are stunning and ominous.

The most striking result is the increase in the proportion of Americans who express strong doubt or rejection of the reality of global warming through their free associations. In 2003, only 7% of Americans provided “naysayer” images (e.g., “hoax,” or “no such thing”) when asked what thought or image first came to mind when they heard the term “global warming.”  By 2010, however, 23% of Americans provided “naysayer” images. Over the same time, alarmist imagery (e.g., “death of the planet”) slightly increased. Both types of images became charged with more negative feelings over time.

The full paper from which this summary comes can be found at this link. The shamans of the past who comforted their tribes when nature threatened them are being replaced by a new kind, the geo-engineers and adaptationists. They issue soothing messages based on new, untried technologies that are predicted to reverse or slow down the rise of greenhouse gases and the accompanying (but not connected (!)) extreme events and the harms associated with it. Economists give a different kind of message based on the dominance of growing GDP as the most important thing to tend to. They argue that the cost of any program to reduce the emission of the culprit would cut down the rate of growth, and it would be more “economical” to wait and clean-up the damage. I doubt if anyone losing a home to the fires burning in Colorado would agree.

As you know, my primary theme in this blog and in all of my work is sustainability-as-flourishing. There is no possibility that it will come so long as we ignore the realities of the world we inhabit. Sustainability, in this sense, demands attention to the causes of its mirror image, unsustainability, and a positive program to remove those causes. It is serious enough to put 23% of US citizens heads in the sand, but it is worse to practice ignorance as an ideology. And seems to be what is happening in the US. The science may be imprecise, not likely given the quality of the research being done, but this means only that we recognize the imprecision in taking the needed steps to combat the effects that are bringing misery to so many. It does not mean that we can ignore what science generates as a matter of ideological principal. Although I am a sometime critic of technology because it can and does impact flourishing negatively, I also respect the benefits it has brought to our species. Those who ignore climate and other science also ignore its role in generating all that wonderful (and not so wonderful) technology while, at the same time, wanting more of it. The non-believers are, in effect, calling for new shamans to guide our society. It all smacks of wanting to take us back before the Enlightenment, maybe even to the days of cave dwelling. I am very concerned about the state of the world today, but that is not the direction I am certain we must go.

Thoughts from the Past



Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have been 300 years old, just a week before today, the 4th of July. Terry Eagleton, writing in the Guardian, ponders how Rousseau might feel about Europe today. Eagleton is a British intellectual best know for his theories of literary criticism. His short remarks about Rousseau are equally germane to the US, especially coming so close to our Independence Day. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the column.

What would this giant of Geneva have thought of Europe 300 years on from his birth? He would no doubt have been appalled by the drastic shrinking of the public sphere. His greatest work, The Social Contract, speaks up for the rights of the citizenry in the teeth of private interests. He would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.

The same, he thought, should be true of education. Rousseau ranks among the great educational theorists of the modern era, even if he was the last man to put in charge of a classroom. Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today’s world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.

The last sentence in the first paragraph was the one that caught my eye because it is so close to the way I talk about the central target of sustainability. “Common bonds” is a way of talking about connectedness, another key feature. The rest of Eagleton’s column is well worth reading. I find it hard not to share his feelings about the state of the present world.

The Power of Both/And



The conjoining of both/and is a powerful linguistic device well matched to the complexity and richness of the world. It is the antithesis of absolute statements about what is right and wrong. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are torn between two possibilities and realize that both contain truth. We may still have to choose between the two, but act with a sense of the legitimacy of the other.

Both/and or yin/yang recognize that two things or statements that appear to be contradictory may both be true. In any positivist or dogmatic system of truths, this cannot be. The law of contradiction, one of the three basic laws of Aristotelian classic logic, states that A cannot be A and not-A at the same time. A rock cannot not be a rock. This works very well for objects present to our senses, but gets us into trouble for concepts about these objects and about transcendental beings. Many Christian doctrines argue that God is both transcendent (beyond) and immanent (within), and that Jesus is both the son of Mary and the son of God. This apparent contradiction shows up in very old eastern wordings.” Chuang Shu wrote, “Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this’.”

The acceptance of the pragmatic possibility of more than one truth gains its power by permitting people with opposing views to live side by side peacefully. Pragmatism allows for inquiry that leads to some truth that work for the inquiring subject. It allows for different truths to emerge for subjects with different ends in mind. Pragmatism reminds us that the end that sets the context for the inquiry guides the subject to the truth; different ends create different truths. If those arguing fail to uncover the differing ends, they will most likely to get to the point where they argue, incorrectly, that my truth means your cannot be true. Only one of us rules. I always quote or paraphrase Maturana in this situation. He says in any absolutist way of viewing the world, “a claim of knowledge [truth] is a demand for obedience.”

The yin/yang duality is a metaphor of the connectedness of things for, if two objects have a bit of each other in themselves, this means that they are connected. The yin/yang concatenation accepts, for example that there is some woman in every man and vice versa. Light can be both a particle and a wave. A person can be both good and bad at the same time. No child could grow up successfully if his or her parents didn’t allow for this to happen. Children always will do “bad’ things” in spite of the parent’s stance about child upbringing. They are expected to behave this way; that’s an important thing that makes them different from adults.

I was triggered to think of this by a couple of articles I read this weekend. The first was a review of Gail Collins recent book about Texas politics and the second sprang from a couple of short pieces. The review (subscription required) of Collins’ As Texas Goes…How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. Thomas Powers, writing in the July 12, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books commented on the “underground rivers of anger boiling beneath the American political landscape in this presidential year.” He asks, “What lies at the core of the divisions of the American people?” and answers with a list of nine items taken from the work of many scholars (my wording).

  • Poor vs. Rich
  • Rural vs. Urban
  • Nativists vs. Late arrivals
  • Whites vs. People of color
  • Tightwads vs Charitable spenders
  • Biblical absolutists vs. Secular practitioners
  • Sexual prudes vs. Everything is up for discussion
  • Rod wielders vs Rod sparers
  • Women as destined for certain duties vs. Women Empowerers

All of these, as Powers notes, are about control. His name is quite ironic given the sense of the article. The two categories in some of these are distinct; one is either white of not-white; one either comes from the city or the countries. These are exclusive categories, but they do not confer any truths inherent to either side. Some are clearly distinct sets of beliefs with no ultimate grounding.Others like white and non-white are prejudices that ground beliefs that cannot be grounded otherwise. What happened to the inalienability of rights Paul Ryan invokes below?

The next blog post reprinted parts of the Texas Republican Party platform, passed at their just concluded Convention. The second source, the extract about the Texas Republican Platform, seemed to me to reflect this deep divide.

The Republican Party of Texas’ recently adopted 2012 platform contains a plank that opposes the teaching of “critical thinking skills” in schools. The party says it was a mistake, but is now stuck with the plank until the next state convention in 2014.

The plank in question, on “Knowledge-Based Education,” reads as follows:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Elsewhere in the document, the platform stipulates that “[e]very Republican is responsible for implementing this platform.”

I suspect that this was less a mistake than a Freudian slip. It is closer to the truth of what is on the mind of Texas Republicans, but a statement that even they know is politically incorrect. I see at least 3 of the dichotomies in the list reflected. Why can’t children’s minds be both broadened and parental authority maintained. Most people in the world, I imagine, understand that this is exactly the way that children become responsible adults. Responsibility means having a mind of one’s own and a capability to choose wisely wherever and how they end up living. The world they inhabit as adults is inevitably going to be different from that of their childhood. How are these children going to become free as adults with this kind of upbringing.

The irony here is deep and saddening. The very fundamental capability for libertarians is to choose freely what they want for themselves. Unless that means that there is possibility in these choices, freedom is completely illusory. My goal of flourishing, as embodying true freedom, depends on acting authentically, not coming from some inner voice compelling the right or wrong action to take. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in acting on the basis of what one has embodied via experience and education, but when this is the only basis for living, life cannot but be inauthentic. There is no possibility here. That’s the source of my sadness.

Here are a couple more from the same article.

On Homosexuality: We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle, in public policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We believe there should be no granting of special legal entitlements or creation of special status for homosexual behavior, regardless of state of origin. Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.

On the “Voter Rights Act” [sic]: We urge that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 codified and updated in 1973 be repealed and not reauthorized.

On the issue of rights, how about this one from another blog.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said Sunday that ‘Obamacare’ should be repealed because the rights of individuals come from God.

“I think this at the end of the day is a big philosophy difference,” Ryan told ABC’s “This Week.” “We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights. Those are ours, they come from nature and God, according to the Declaration of Independence - a huge difference in philosophy.”

Philosophy is a way of thinking about the world. His statement is not about philosophy; it is a statement about beliefs, a certain kind of beliefs. One can and should certainly disagree with others with different world views, but with a kind of disagreement that allows for both to coexist. Paul Ryan is a Catholic and should appreciate the notion of love so central to his religion. Jesus preached a Gospel of love, which at its core is the (unconditional) acceptance of everyone.

The Founding Fathers may have believed that our rights are inalienable, but they also believed that acts of government were essential to protect them. The Framers were strongly influenced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Ryan and others with such absolutist views of government would do well to re-read those from whose views the Declaration of Independence, alluded to in his remarks, especially Hobbes and his need for government to rescue mankind from a “state of nature,” where life is famously, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Wikipedia has a terse discussion of this:

Within the state of nature there is no injustice, since there is no law, excepting certain natural precepts, the first of which is “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it” (Leviathan, ch. XIV); and the second is “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself” (loc. cit.). From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into civil government by mutual contracts.

Ryan might say he is abiding by the both/and principle: “What I say is right and what you believe is wrong, I hold both of these to be true. Not quite yin and yang or both/and as a way of living together in love.