August 2012 Archives

The Ostrich Republican Convention

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ostrich-man

I know I have been absent, but I am trying to catch the last of the summer’s warmth and air. Today my inspiration comes from the Republican Party nominating convention. There’s plenty to write about, but I will focus on how the goings-on relate to my list of sustainability opposites. The pair I have selected is communitarian versus individualistic. I have recently written a couple of posts on this subject, but it is well worth adding to. There is a myriad of positions that were incorporated in all the rhetoric that is contrary to flourishing and, hence, to sustainability, but this one stands out. The primary message coming through beyond the misleading on straightforward lying about the Obama administration’s record is claiming that the central governing philosophy of Romney/Ryan is radical individualism.

David Brooks must have been connected to my brain as he wrote in his column today:

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances… Today’s Republican Party may be able to perform useful tasks with its current hyperindividualistic mentality. But its commercial soul is too narrow. It won’t be a worthy governing party until it treads the course Lincoln trod: starting with individual ambition but ascending to a larger vision and creating a national environment that arouses ambition and nurtures success.

He also noted that Condoleeza Rice was the only speaker that used the words “we” and “us,” instead of “I’ and “me.” I have many differences in the way I think about governance but I cannot think of any more fundamental and impactful. Individualism at the extremes, found throughout the rhetoric at the convention and beyond, is as damaging an attitude and belief as any other I can think of. Many other pathological factors can be tied to this belief; materialism has many causes but can be traced to this. Smith’s self-interest has become interpreted as a form of individualism. I have noted several times that his original thinking equated “self-interest” with an empathetic model of human nature. The contrast cannot be more stark.

Communitarian beliefs stem from empathy as a ground for caring, acting out of one’s sense of others’ needs. But even if one takes a purely economistic view of humans as driven by greed and needs, there can be no denying the connections we have to others and the world. But somehow that is what has been showing up in the right-hand side of the political spectrum. The denial is present in the refusal to accept even the possibility of global warming and our role in it. The denial is present is the refusal to accept the reality of relationships as basic as family. Children are not the only people in our, or any other society, that cannot take care of themselves and absolutely need supporting people.

This mentality fails completely to accept limits, not limits in the ability of humans to be creative but limits in the material reality of the world. The planet is shared by 6 plus billion people. It has limited capacity to produce the resources needed to sustain life and culture. We all share it’s fruits. Every individual, of all colors and nationalities, shares one undeniable existential truth: no one born asked for that. Every newborn is exactly the same human being in his or her skin. Only their material and social contexts are different. One of the related tenets of the individualistic attitude is that every one has the right to strive for whatever they desire. It’s fine to talk about rights here, but this position is completely blind to the reality of the limits set on the ability to transcend one’s birth circumstances. The reality today is that the United States has the highest barriers to upward socio-economic mobility of any industrialized nation.

These are the same folks who always start talking about family values sooner or later in most conversation. It seems to me that they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Once again the ideology of individualism is blinding them to the facts of family whether one’s birth clan or the whole family of man. The same tycoons that support the cause of individualism boast about their sustainability efforts and commitments. Another contradiction. Flourishing is a condition that one attains where he or she is in tune, that is connected, to the rest of the world. The place and extent of influence of social institutions, like government, in society is always debatable, but the connectedness of human beings is not. Flourishing is always the result of a balance between the opposites. The rigidity of ideologies is always a barrier. We should rejoice, not bury, our connections to the the Earth and to the community of family, friends, and more.

Misconsumption

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super-size

Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to ban super-size, sugar-containing sodas has gotten a lot of press recently as it approaches a vote. Public opinion seems to be against it, according to a NYTimes story.

The arguments against it follow a familiar pattern arising every time some governmental body attempts to regulate consumption in one way or another. It took years and years to put a warning on cigarettes and raise the taxes to act as a disincentive. But cigarettes are still out there. Some of the voices captured in the story railed against the “nanny” state, claiming that individuals can make better choices that some authoritative body. Others argue that the data about the unhealthy consequences, a tie to obesity, of drinking large amounts of sugary sodas are unscientific, in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. As in many other cases, the opposing issues center on public health concerns versus individual liberties.

The plan has galvanized a national debate over runaway obesity rates, and New Yorkers who agree with the ban pointed to its potential health benefits, particularly in combating obesity… But those opposed overwhelmingly cited a sense that Mr. Bloomberg was overreaching with the plan and that consumers should have the freedom to make a personal choice — the exact same points used in an aggressive marketing campaign led by the national soft-drink industry in an effort to beat back the proposal.

“The ban is at the point where it is an infringement of civil liberties,” Liz Hare, 43, a scientific researcher in Queens, said in a follow-up interview. “There are many other things that people do that aren’t healthy, so I think it’s a big overreach.” . . . Bob Barocas, 64, of Queens, put it more bluntly: “This is like the nanny state going off the wall.”

I see another important issue in the background, one that failed to show up in the article; the addiction to consumption rampant in our society. Sodas are just one example of that addiction. They add little to our health over what plain old tap water does. The sugar provides a momentary rush for many, but has unhealthy outcomes. The ordinance being proposed does not ban sodas, only anything larger than 16 ounces.

The current default container size for a soda is a 20-ounce bottle, more than triple the 6.5-ounce size that was once standard. And that’s tiny compared to McDonald’s 32-ounce serving, Burger King’s 42-ounce serving and the 54-ounce soda sold at Regal movie theaters.

But given the sizes now available, this would be quite a reduction. Regal’s giant size seems paradoxical to the capability of one’s bladder to hold out for a two-hour film.

Getting back to the issue of consumption, in general, Tom Princen, added a new term to the study of consumption, misconsumption. Princen, on the Faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, has also written about overconsumption, the condition when our collective level of consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to provide the inputs at a sustainable rate. The addictive nature of consumption today has created overconsumption in many categories. Fisheries are gone or disappearing; large areas of the globe are being deforested; fossil fuel reserves are being depleted; and so on. The impacts on sustainability are obvious. The tie to misconsumption is less direct. Princen writes:

The second [after overconsumption] interpretive layer within problematic consumption is misconsumption, which concerns individual behavior. The problem here is that the individual consumes in a way that undermines his or her own well-being even if there are no aggregate effects on the population or species. Put differently, the long-term effect of an individual’s consumption pattern is either suboptimal or a net loss to that individual. It may or may not, however, undermine collective survival. Such consumption can occur along several dimensions.

Physiologically, humans misconsume when they eat too much in a sitting or over a lifetime or when they become addicted to a drug… Psychologically, humans misconsume when, for example, they fall into the advertiser’s trap of “perpetual dissatisfaction.” … Economically, humans misconsume when they overwork-that is, engage in onerous work beyond what can be compensated with additional income. With more income and less time, they attempt to compensate by using the additional income, which is to say, by consuming… Ecologically, humans misconsume when an increment of increased resource use harms that resource or related resources and humans who depend on the resource.

Princen wonders when and if misconsumption becomes overconsumption and begins to threaten the Planet. Bloomberg believes that [mis]consumption (of giant sodas) is bad for one’s health. Both are strongly tied to sustainability-as-flourishing. The Planet needs to be in working order to establish the conditions by which flourishing can emerge, but individuals also must be healthy as well. Given the proven connection between obesity and poor health, the Mayor is acting out of a sustainability agenda, although I doubt if he sees it that way. Public health concerns fit into the domain of unsustainability, and this initiative is primarily aimed at reducing the impacts on bodily health. The Times article points to a connection between economic status (low) and consumption of giant drinks (high). If the Mayor is broadly concerned about the unsatisfactory condition of his constituency, he must also address this part of the causes of their plight.

Deluded Individualism

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individualism It’s reassuring to discover, from time to time, that I am in good company. One of the central ideas in my analysis of unsustainability and in my structure for sustainability is that of interconnectedness. Interconnectedness goes hand in hand with the key model of Being as manifest through caring. When we can recognize that our being depends on the way we take care of everything to which we are connected, that is, everything that becomes present in our world, then and only then can we act authentically and subsequently flourish. It’s rare to find a conversation in the mainstream media that explicitly argues this point, but today in the Review section of the New York Time, I found a story right on point.

In the “Stone” column that periodically appears, offering a philosophical cut on worldly affairs, Firmin DeBrabander connected the ideas of Spinoza to President Obama. The title of this post is that appearing in the Times piece.

In this, Spinoza and President Obama seem to concur: we’re all in this together. We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably. Our cultural demands of individualism are too extreme. They are constitutionally irrational, Spinoza and Freud tell us, and their potential consequences are disastrous. Thanks to our safety net, we live in a society that affirms the dependence and interdependence of all. To that extent, it affirms a basic truth of our nature. We forsake it at our own peril.

“This” in the first sentence refers to Spinoza’s thinking that no one is autonomous.

Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined. In fact, Spinoza claimed — to the horror of his contemporaries —that we are all just modes of one substance, “God or Nature” he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. To be human, according to Spinoza, is to be party to a confounding existential illusion — that human individuals are independent agents — which exacts a heavy emotional and political toll on us. It is the source of anxiety, envy, anger — all the passions that torment our psyche — and the violence that ensues. If we should come to see our nature as it truly is, if we should see that no “individuals” properly speaking exist at all, Spinoza maintained, it would greatly benefit humankind.

I wrote about autonomous vs. interconnected a few days ago, as this pair of opposites is central to my critique of modernity and to the systemic requirements of sustainability-as-flourishing. DeBrabander was connecting his philosophical argument to the political rhetoric of the moment, pointing to the right’s stress on the individual and on the evils of any external rules or restrictions on the complete “freedom” on a person. This so-called negative freedom is illusory as so much of what anyone does with their life depends on connections to the world. As consumers, so important to negative freedom, we rely on workers, managers, retailers, teamsters, and many more people, even if we do not know any of them personally. Rather, the freedom to be an isolated self is completely dependent on being a part of a big system. DeBrabander says:

There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of ‘me’ are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. My decisions, choices, actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent. The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak.

The alternative to negative freedom, positive freedom is defined as the capability to satisfy one’s aspirations. It should be obvious that it takes rules to do this. Private property rules are essential to any endeavors requiring material goods. Traffic lights are essential to permit traveling on crowded highways. Rules always and necessarily reflect some sort of authority that has the power to set and enforce rules. Self-generated rules do not work. The basic idea of democracy is that people choose the body designed to make the rules. Some institution is always essential if the arbitrary power of an individual or dogma is to be blunted. It is ironic that this basic tenet of governance was created by the Enlightenment, the era that spawned the conditions necessary for freedom of either type. No one from either side of the political spectrum, I think, would argue that our governance institutions are perfect and in no need of improvement. But the ideological stance that we should do away with government and its rules is doomed to make things worse.

(Cartoon credit to Get Milked)

Spiritual v. Secular

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The Spiritual Path

The last post on the contrasting sets of concepts, interconnected v. autonomous, drew a few comments. I find it very satisfying when my posts draw comments whether pro or con. Today, I will work on a similar pair, spiritual v. secular. Unlike the above pair, these are opposites; secular is defined as denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. So secular has no meaning without a definition of spiritual. And this poses a serious problem for me. One online dictionary defines spiritual as

  1. relating to the spirit or soul and not to physical nature or matter; intangible.
  2. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) of, relating to, or characteristic of sacred things, the Church, religion, etc.
  3. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) standing in a relationship based on communication between the souls or minds of the persons involved a spiritual father.
  4. having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.

I want to stay away from any religious context so will overlook the middle two definitions. The last seems unnecessarily Victorian for today’s less romantic world. So let’s parse the first. My troubles come from the reference to “the spirit” and “soul.” I think this definition misses the point. Spirituality describes a way of acting. Spirituality is always an ascription by some observer of a person’s way of being. In my phenomenological way of thinking and speaking, what generally go as personal traits attributed to some inner quality are the result of observations and comparisons to some cultural norm. It’s never about some inner entity like spirit or soul. These terms are reifications or metaphors.

As metaphors, these terms can be very powerful. I took a couple of grandchildren to see a dramatic adaptation of The Little Prince a few days ago and was so moved by the message that I came home and read it from cover to cover. The chapter about the fox in particular seemed relevant to this post. Here is the key sentence. “Goodbye,” said the fox [to the Little Prince}. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It would be hard to imagine a more evocative way to talk about spirituality. It’s so evocative that the “heart” is easily taken to have eyes and given powers that transcend its physiological capabilities.

Let’s look at a few similar descriptors, say, vitality, humility, punctuality, congeniality, reliability, honesty, and many more. The are all descriptions of how a person acts in certain domains, but have, because of broad agreement about the criteria that define them, become reified and seem to be some inner thing. Certainly people with outstanding records of performance in whatever domains lead to being described by any of the above or similar terms possess bodily structures that enable them to act in that way. But these structures are some combination of their cognitive and musculoskeletal systems that have learned how to respond after many, many repetitions.

The conventional way of talking about any of the “qualities” fails to attribute them to specific domains of care. An honest person is one whose actions are thought to be truthful. Vitality is a general term applied to the way someone attacks a wide variety of cares. The same goes for congeniality. Remember when I talk about cares, I refer to a set of categories that constitute being. The categories form three classes referring to the material world: the actor, other humans, and the rest of the world, and one additional referring to actions that address the transcendent. Taking care means acting out of concerns for self, family, learning and so on as expressions of one’s being, not as responses to social pressures.

Spirituality is different because the target of caring actions is not anything material. Spiritual is often confused or conflated with “religious,” which specifically refers to having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity. Because the target of spiritual actions is immaterial, this domain is sometimes attributed to a force between the actor and the target, that is, some kind of connection. In the Native American and other traditions of indigenous cultures, spiritual actors are said to be part of the web of life, interconnected to all the parts of the world and to the transcendental or immanent entity. Immanence refers to a belief that there is a mysterious force emanating from or a transcendent presence in worldly objects. Spirituality refers to acts directed to (taking care of) this mystery.

Secular, as noted above, is defined as the antithesis of spiritual. Secular actions entail everything other than spiritual by this definition. The necessary sense or consciousness of connections is missing. Actors may be conscious of connections, but in our market-dominated world treat much of their daily actions as transactions, defined as impersonal interactions. The very idea of market has become equivalent to a system of purely secular activities. The absence of consciousness of the other in secular acts leads to a focus on the “I,” producing the narcissism and alienation so prevalent in our society today. Flourishing is impossible in a purely secular world. Max Weber famously said:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.

The implications of this are that spirituality is a critical domain of care as it holds values essential to flourishing, without which sustainability cannot be created. Taking care requires an authentic sense of connection to the target of action. Without that sense, actions are mere responses to cultural norms. These may be appropriate, but alone cannot lead to the kind of satisfaction on which flourishing rests.

I have been working for about a year with a group at the Weatherhead School of Management examining the place of spirituality in business and in business schools. The year has been a great challenge on many accounts. The first hurdle was to agree on the meaning of spirituality. The discussion above in this post doesn’t come close to capturing the richness of that effort. We never did come to a single definition, but did come to agree that spirituality is a proper and very important concern in the business world. Because it carries a consciousness of interconnectedness, spiritual practices can raise competence in system thinking, foster empathetic relationships, and add purpose to enterprises far beyond profit making and raising shareholder value.

Our focus was on the world of business, but the same conclusions hold everywhere. Our research made it very clear that spirituality is distinct from religion. It is certainly possible to find spirituality in religious practices, but not necessarily. In any case, sustainability demands that we reverse Weber’s conclusions and reintegrate the sublimity of Being in all of our daily lives. We will have to overcome our cultural need for certainty and rationality and let mystery return to its place alongside all the other domains we care about.

Saint-Exupéry's Businessman

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little prince I accompanied a couple of my grandchildren to a performance of an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, The Little Prince, this afternoon. Published in 1943, while Saint Exupery was living in the US while France was occupied by the Germans, his “children’s” story is as or more relevant today. One of the many scenes jumped right off of the stage, as it is so prescient of today’s greed and hedonism. I am putting it in the post in its entirety.

The fourth planet belonged to a businessman. This man was so much occupied that he did not even raise his head at the little prince’s arrival. “Good morning,” the little prince said to him. “Your cigarette has gone out.”

“Three and two make five. Five and seven make twelve. Twelve and three make fifteen. Good morning. Fifteen and seven make twenty-two. Twenty-two and six make twenty-eight. I haven’t time to light it again. Twenty-six and five make thirty-one. Phew ! Then that makes five-hundred-and-one-million, six-hundred-twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince.

“Eh? Are you still there? Five-hundred-and-one million— I can’t stop… I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don’t amuse myself with balderdash. Two and five make seven…”

“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.

The businessman raised his head. “During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times. The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where. He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition. The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism. I don’t get enough exercise. I have no time for loafing. The third time— well, this is it! I was saying, then, five -hundred-and-one millions—” “Millions of what?”

The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question. “Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.”

“Flies?”

“Oh, no. Little glittering objects.”

“Bees?”

“Oh, no. Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming. As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence. There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.” “Ah! You mean the stars?”

“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”

“And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”

“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one. I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”

“And what do you do with these stars?”

“What do I do with them?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing. I own them.”

“You own the stars?”

“Yes.”

“But I have already seen a king who—”

“Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are ever discovered.”

“This man,” the little prince said to himself, “reasons a little like my poor tippler…”

Nevertheless, he still had some more questions.

“How is it possible for one to own the stars?”

“To whom do they belong?” the businessman retorted, peevishly.

“I don’t know. To nobody.”

“Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.”

“Is that all that is necessary?”

“Certainly. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”

“Yes, that is true,” said the little prince. “And what do you do with them?”

“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied. “If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”

“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”

“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”

“And that is all?”

“That is enough,” said the businessman.

“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince. “It is rather poetic. But it is of no great consequence.” On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups. “I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman, “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes , and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”

The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer. And the little prince went away.

“The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary,” he said simply, talking to himself as he continued on his journey.

In 1943, he wrote, “For centuries, humanity has been descending an immense staircase whose top is hidden in the clouds and whose lowest steps are lost in a dark abyss. We could have ascended the staircase; instead we chose to descend it. Spiritual decay is terrible… . There is one problem and only one in the world: to revive in people some sense of spiritual meaning… .” He certainly makes a leap in that direction with this wonderful allegorical story. It should be required reading for every aspiring MBA.