September 2012 Archives

The Latest in Conspicuous Consumption

| | Comments (1)

The October 1 & 8 combined issue of Newsweek included a page near the end headlined, “He’s So Vain.” It was a list of 10 assorted items, each with a comment by Schmidt (played by Max Greenfield) on the returning TV show, New Girl. The comments were pretty silly, but a few of the items were not, being the worst kind of examples of conspicuous, and mindless, consumption. The three that I found quite outrageous were:

1. Forbidden City H. R. H. Fountain Pen by Visconti $44,950. <www.fountainpenhospital.com>

untitled1.jpg

Visconti Pens FORBBIDEN (sic) CITY HRH is a wonderful handcrafted pen created by the Italian artisans of a company known for its fine pen making. It is part of a luxury limited edition collection of fountain pens, rollerball pens and pen sets. There are only 38 of these fountain pens in circulation so it is the ideal pen for the professional pen collector and will be the best pen in many pen collections of rollerball pens and fountain pens.

Expensive materials, such as white gold, black resin and white diamonds, all combine to create this exquisite custom design pen. Not many rollerball pens or fountain pens have this amount of detail.

Dante Del Vecchio, president of Visconti and designer of this classic designer pen, wanted to pay tribute to the elaborate gardens and palaces of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Forbidden City was the home of the Chinese imperial family for more than five hundred years of rich history.

This handmade pen is made from black resin overlaying a stunning 18K white gold barrel. The grid pattern reflects the city’s layout and the cage-like openings display Chinese mythical creatures. Even the end of the power filling system has a dragon mounted on it.

The pen is available in different nib sizes to suit all writing styles and its power filling system makes it as easy to use as rollerball pens for the busy executive. The Forbidden City HRH by Visconti is a truly unique pen. (Description from http://www.powerfulpens.com/visconti-forbidden-city.html

2. Blue Nature Nille Driftwood Object $3,265 <www.barneys.com>

untitled2.jpg
Handcrafted acrylic glass cube with large embedded driftwood branch cut, sanded and hand polished to a perfect transparency. (11 7/8” length x 7 7/8” width x 7 7/8”, Style # 501443535)

3. The Killer Whale Submarine $100,000 <www.hammacher.com>

untitled.jpg

This is the streamlined, two-person watercraft that breaches and submerges just like the Orcinus orca after which it is designed. A pilot protected beneath its watertight 1/2”-thick acrylic canopy pushes and pulls twin control levers to articulate the whale’s pectoral fins for rolls and stealthy dives. With a finger on the right lever’s throttle trigger, steering is provided by dual foot pedals that control the vectored thrust of the craft’s 255-hp supercharged Rotax axial flow engine, enabling realistic behaviors such as porpoising or skyhopping. It can hydroplane up to 50 mph over the water’s surface and it can cruise up to 25 mph while submerged; its dorsal fin’s integrated snorkel ensures air supply to the engine up to a depth of 5’. The cockpit’s dashboard includes a speedometer, tachometer, engine and air pressure gauges, and an LCD that displays live video from the dorsal fin’s built-in camera. Vinyl seats with closed-cell foam upholstery and four-point racing harnesses ensure pilot and passenger safety. With 14-gallon fuel tank. Special conditions and guarantee limitations apply. Please call 1-800-227-3528 for details. 17 1/4’ L x 3 1/2’ W x 4 3/4’ H. (1,450 lbs.)

Enough said.

Yom Kippur Thoughts

|

fasting-empty-bowl

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for me. It is the most serious and spiritual of all the Jewish Holidays, at least, for me. I am not a particularly observant Jew and am relatively poorly versed in Judaism. I even consider myself an atheist, a belief or non-belief that one can get away with in Reform Judaism. But I do find meaning in the teachings and rituals of Judaism, especially on these Holy Days.

Atonement means what it says. God (if you believe) forgives you for any transgressions against God, but one must ask forgiveness from all the human beings that you have treated badly. And so I ask all of my readers to forgive me for anything I have done to hurt you, belittled you, or treated you in any way less than rightly. This does not, however, apply to things you simply do not agree with. Our Rabbi always reminds us each year that, although the word used in the litany about forgiveness is “sin,” the correct root of the word comes from archery and means missing the mark. I like that much better.

There are many connections of today’s proceedings to my concerns over sustainability, but one stands out for me. The morning Torah reading comes from the ending of Deuteronomy. The critical line is, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed…” By itself, it appears an obvious choice, but it comes with a context that a Jewish life is one of responsibility to family, community, and indeed to the whole world. I have spent years studying Heidegger and other philosophers to learn what it means to be human, and what I have found is that it means to care about these same things. This lesson was always much closer to home, but I couldn’t hear it clearly. The “sins” that are ticked off during the service all relate to some failure of responsibility, a lack of caring.

Whether it is manifest in a sense of connectedness or simply a direct understanding of the critical role for care in leading an authentic life, this message here is central to sustainability. There is nothing here or in the rest of the service that talks about efficiency or Band-Aids. In fact, the Haftarah, the reading that accompanies the Torah portion is from Isaiah and belittles those whose repentance or atonement is shallow. Isaiah says,

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you…

What a marvelous, prescient indictment of our present, contentious, selfish, exploitive culture. My own vision for humanity and the world is more secular. I always speak of flourishing as the condition we must aspire to and sustain, but righteousness is certainly essential. The choice inherent in both Deuteronomy and Isaiah is central and critical. It is critical for it entails accepting a moral obligation, not merely to follow a set of institutionally prescribed rules. One must always set his or her own mark and aim squarely at it. Yom Kippur teaches us that being human entails that choice and responsibility, but also that we are imperfect and often miss our marks. But it clearly, through the acts of atonement and forgiveness, stresses the imperative of continuing to keep our eyes focused on the right targets. We’ll have another chance in a year to remember, atone, and adjust. But perhaps, the Earth shall not be so forgiving as the Almighty.

Authenticity, Care, and Politics

|

political debate

We have a multiplicity of means to know exactly what we get in a box of cereal or the milk carton from which we add a bit to the cereal. There’s a long list of ingredients, maybe a label listing the ingredients, and more information attesting to the organic or natural quality, the calories and more. Market theory works best when the consumer has perfect information about what is being offered in the market. Of course it takes any number of agencies to make sure that the information is accurate and that the producers do not cheat or lie about the quality of the contents. We take this situation pretty much for granted.

So why not demand the same essential information in the candidates who offer themselves up for choice in the market of politics—the campaigns for office. Several of our Founders spoke about the idea of an informed citizenry early in the development of our country. Jefferson famously said, “A well informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” He made other numerous comments on the importance of knowledge, like “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Benjamin Franklin added later “A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

I will try to take a balanced stance in what follows, but my observation tilt me far towards the side of the right and their blithely ignoring of these wise and important comments. Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, said to a meeting of reporters just before the Republican Convention began, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, reminiscent of the comment from the Bush White House that the President’s critics were part of the “reality-based community.” I suppose this attitude should be expected from the libertarian ideology, based fundamentally on the idea of negative freedom: the fewer constraints there are on my ability to choose to do anything I want, the better off I will be. This is usually directed to the rules, imposed by governments and other institutions that bind and constrain, but these statements argue that it goes much farther to blow off any limits that the real world might impose. It seems obviously dangerous and unwise to completely disregard Jefferson’s warning about the impossibility of building a nation on ignorance.

But I want to put this into another perspective, the one I began with: the importance of knowing what you are buying in any sort of marketplace. With the laws we have today, if you buy a lemon at the auto dealer, you can return it within a window of a few days. Not so with elected officials, you have to wait until the next election and suffer through the consequences of the choices. Buyer’s remorse lasts for at least two years. We have learned over many years and even centuries, that, political leaders cannot or do not keep the promises they make. Life in an office is always shockingly different from the pictures in the heads of candidates making their first run at it. Even if they have a pretty good sense of what they are getting into, things can and do change quickly, as they did for President Obama. So while it is important to listen to what candidates claim they will do and what they stand for, it is critical to know who they are because, sooner or later, they will have to act from their core, if there is one. And this is what concerns me now.

I have been writing about authenticity and its critical connection to flourishing and sustainability for quite some time. Its philosophical origins are deep and complicated; it’s good enough just to think about it as meaning coming from one’s own self as if there is something we can call a self residing entirely inside one’s skin. Acting authentically means that ultimately the choice of action comes from one’s quality of caring, not from a desire to conform to the prevailing sentiments outside. This does not mean acting without paying attention to what is going on out there, including listening to the advice of wise counselors. In other words, living within “the reality-based community.” Authenticity is important on its own, but it is the link to the domain of care that is most critical. Authentic action, including declarations about what to do in tough situations, springs from the basic human core of care, and represents over time the values of the actor/leader. Authentic actions can be parsed by some grammar of care. Each of us knows that sometimes we cannot take care of all of our concerns at the same time. Conflicts arise over how to deploy the resources we have at hand. But the failure to satisfy everything at once is not evidence of lack of authenticity.

No human is authentic all the time; even saints may not be saintly at every moment. But those who we observe to act out of authentic cares inevitably become respected, even if their actions fail to achieve their intentions. So much for philosophy. Let’s get down to politics. I cannot remember an election with a more inauthentic candidate running. For me this is of much more concern that the difference in policies and ideologies between Romney and Obama. We know that our government has built-in checks and balances (or had these in theory) to prevent the majority or the controlling forces to become tyrannical. So, the future of my life as a citizen will be influenced by who the President IS as much as by these ideological forces (which are certainly important). I want a leader who cares about the world, right down to including me. I want an authentic human being in office. This does not mean someone who will be right or wrong by some ideological criterion; all Presidents are always both right and wrong by these standards. Inauthentic “leaders” are not leaders, when push comes to shove. They are conformists, obeying the cultural pressures they allow into their space.

Anyone can be authentic or not, but there are places where one of these tends to show up more than others. One is the world of business. I find it interesting and worth thinking about. Business leaders are successful for all sorts of reasons, but caring for the world is not usually one of them. The key to business success is out-competing and innovating, as Mr. Romney has so often said. Competition is the antithesis of caring. Success is judged by how much better one does than another, not by any internal measures. No caring or authenticity here. This fact about business is something I think about a lot with respect to sustainability. Basically I believe that the way businesses are run and the role of their leaders in this is one of the principal reasons we are in such an unsustainable state. (I always try to get sustainability in these posts.)

From a political perspective, it is easy for me to write this post. I am a Democrat and also a democrat. I vote on the basis of both what someone says and who I assess them to BE. Since one side, the Republicans, has already said they are not going to be concerned with truth, I listen to them with only one ear, but with both ears to the Democrats. Both are pretty noisy, so I am more and more concerned about who the candidates ARE as human beings. Here the choice is very clear. Romney is the least authentic person I can remember running for President. Truman beat Dewey to no small extent on the voter’s judgment of authenticity. Not much else can explain his paper thin, unexpected victory. Obama, whatever judgments can be made about his first term in office, is clearly the more authentic. If you ask me for evidence for this, ponder this simple fact. Romney became who he is in business and within a highly authoritarian faith (authority and authenticity do not co-exist easily. Not just any business, but one measured only by financial success, not by how well the companies satisfy the cares of the market of “real”people, not just wealthy financiers. Obama started professional life as a community organizer; clearly a career based on care. On this alone, I can make a clear choice, even without thinking about the “politics.”

Words, Words, Words

|

words

This current political campaign has produced more, “I didn’t mean that” or “That’s out of context” apologies or defenses than I recall for some time. The more I come an understanding of language and how we use it, the more I am skeptical about any such apologies or explanations. Speaking is exactly like walking. When the senses become aware (whether we are conscious or not), the cognitive system goes into action. When I become aware that I am some place other than I want to be, my muscles go into action, guided by structures already in my body, and I will thus walk from here to there. There is no difference in speech. It is nothing more than the muscles of our voice generators being actuated by structures in our cognitive system.

Sometimes I stumble along the path, a sign that my cognitive actuator has not gotten all the necessary information for a smooth journey, like missing the presence of an area rug that undoes my habitual way of walking, or the muscles are injured and do not react the way the nervous system expects them to. Saying things we claim not to mean is just like stumbling, in fact we sometimes refer to ungainly or hesitant speech as stumbling. There is one important similarity between walking and speaking that is highly relevant to the story I am weaving here. Walking is rarely if ever misunderstood by those who observe the act. The meaning of a physical act is usually pretty clear, but not always. The same hand wave is seen to say hello or come here in our side of the Atlantic, but is understood as meaning goodbye in many parts of Europe. The meanings of acts lie, not in the intention of the actor, but in the way they are interpreted by observers.

The meaning of speech is likewise always found in the “ears” of the beholder. And so, whatever responses come forth depend on that meaning, not on the intention of the speaker that shaped the speech that came out of the mouth. When someone says something to me, it is almost always uttered in the context of whatever we are doing at the time. The primary function of language is to coordinate the action among people. In the case of political rhetoric, the intent of the speaker is usually a request for votes or money, and the rest of whatever speech accompanies that request (not always explicit) is just some series of assertions to create the context for a positive response. These assertions are rarely part of a reasoned argument; unnecessary because rationality plays only a tiny part in political campaigns. They are directed more at creating a bridge to the concerns of the audience and convince them that the speaker is “one of us.” But “one of us” is not singular in most circumstances. There are many groups out there with different political identities, so the conversation has to shift to fit the context.

Now when the words of a political speaker find their way from one context to another, especially from a group of partisans of one sort or another to a different audience, they will always be interpreted in a different context. Out of earshot of the original utterance, they are always out of context! Where originally they might have been interpreted closely to what the speaker intended, they will now be heard through the filters of different audiences. They will mean whatever the new listeners deem them to mean, no matter how hard the speaker tries to explain his meaning.

Romney doesn’t understand this at all. He must believe that the words that flow from his mouth are always clear and distinct. In this he is no different from just about everyone. That’s why we are so often trying to explain what we just meant, and disturbing the flow of speech with the question, “Do you understand?” That question is unnecessary in cases where the actors are familiar to one another, and have already established common meanings to the languaging they engage in.

Political campaigns pose a very difficult challenge for candidates running against incumbents. In the philosophical way of thinking I engage in, identity is established, not as any sort of ego or inner thing, but according to the assessments of those who observe a person in action. The action context is critical. My identity as a parent has emerged from about 50 years of being, that is, acting as, one. No matter what I think of myself in this role, my children have other opinions based on their observations and assessments over these years. And if I am the same as almost all other parents, my self-assessment doesn’t line up perfectly (and in some cases, not at all) with the assessments of my children. Incumbents can claim who they are by their records of action on the job. Of course, those assessments are filtered through the ideologies and prejudices of all who listen. Non-incumbents, like Romney, cannot point to their performance in the job, and must make claims based on other, non-related contexts. And in the case of Romney, the context of his life is far from that of about 99% of adult American voters.

So when he speaks from that context, that is, his personal life history, he is bound to miss the mark with almost all who he is addressing, even in his own party. I opened with a comparison of walking and speaking, and I will return in concluding this post. Our speaking is a competency just like walking. What we have to say is guided by our experiences of living. We walk easily because we have embodied the actuators in our nervous system over time. The same is true of speech. There is no way I would ever talk about my two expensive cars, multiple dwellings, automobile elevators and so on. This phrasing, even though I know all the parts and can construct meaningful sentences with them, simply is not in my body to come out at any moment in the middle of any conversation.

In this day of instant publication, recognizing how speech is heard is important for anyone seeking office, political or otherwise, or making formal speeches for any purpose out of the context of immediate action. The meaning of a heard utterance is always filtered through the listener’s cognitive system, and only coincidently carries the intended meaning by the speaker. With YouTube ever at the ready to spill the beans about what I said privately last night, I always need to pick my words carefully, understanding that most of the people not present at my private remarks will get it wrong. Or from their point of view, they will always get it right.

If I do care about what all these folks think about what I said and, thus, about me, I need to be completely authentic, meaning I will always say the same thing in the same circumstances, and my utterances will have some sort of natural coherence. That’s the only way people will get to know me (really understand who I am). It’s always risky being authentic simply because whatever you do or say will be interpreted by those observing or listening to you, whether already with you or not. Authenticity is a critical pillar in building trust, and trust is essential in communal activities, that is, all real life. Trust is in short supply in the world today. So my request (far all it’s worth) to all running for office today is to speak authentically so we can have a chance to get to know you, the real you. What you promise to do means little if trust is missing. If you do try to frame your utterances to what you think the audience wants to hear, remember that you always mean what you say, but others will make up their own minds about whatever it was. There is no out of context in public speaking.

ps. Literally snipping pieces of a speech and sometimes piecing them together differently than they were spoken is deliberately taking them out of context, but in a way quite differently from the process above. This practice is tantamount to lying even if it used somebody else’s words, and ultimately fritters away trust.

Markets and Morality

|

Kant

There are two reasons why economic driven behavior cannot become the order-generating force for any society to which the socialist** label could be properly attached. The first, often featured in critical literature, is that societies driven by the need to accumulate capital, and subjected to the pressures of the market, suffer from severe deformations, including the alienated consciousness induced by extensive commercialization, the deformation of individual character caused by the over-division of labor, and the socially harmful bias toward self-directed rather than other-directed values. A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that 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.

** By socialism I mean a society unmistakably disconnected from the very idea of economic determinism, severed from capitalism’s most powerful history-shaping characteristic—namely, its subordination of behavior to economic imperatives.

Robert Heilbroner, The Nation, September 1993

I have often used parts of this quote from Robert Heilbroner, particularly the last sentence. This sentiment written about 20 years says in a few words what Michael Sandel takes a whole book to do. Sandel, well known for his book, Justice and his famous course of the same name at Harvard recently published What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I have ordered but not yet read the book, but listened to some extended videos of Sandel talking about the subject. But neither of these two was the first to caution us to avoid any practice that would devalue human beings.

Kant (pictured) captured much of what Heilbroner and Sandel say in his categorical imperative (1785), “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Among the many possible interpretations of the statement, the one that always pops up first is that it is wrong to put any value on human life. Sandel focuses on several practices that ignore this prohibition. Life insurance is tricky. To the extent that one purchases it to provide resources for those who survive the insured’s death, there is no contravention of Kant’s imperative. But those who purchase life insurance on another as an economic bet of one sort or another are fundamentally putting a value on that life. Sandel writes about the development of “viaticals,” policies purchased earlier by people who were dying of Aids. Because these policies were valuable, a market developed for investors who would offer a lump sum to the dying Aids sufferers and also pay for their terminal care. They were betting on the length the person would live. And having some control over that length, unsurprisingly, there are many stories of unscrupulous behavior.

Sandel also writes about hiring poor folks to wait in queues. This is not quite a Kantian transgression, but offends those for whom fairness is an important moral rule. This practice allows one to buy his or her way out of a fair game. This is nothing new. It was often said of the Civil War that it was a “rich man’s battle” but a “poor man’s war.” $300 or so would pay for a substitute. It sounds Kantian after all since the substitute or place holder is considered as nothing but a means to some end.

Sandel is a political philosopher and has developed his cases with great care. Each example is subtle and nuanced. Allowing fines to replace community-based measures of shame or other moral sanctions fritters away the moral structure of society. With calls to privatize just about everything, we are in great danger of doing what Heilbroner said, robbing our society of its moral core. These cases don’t permit easy condensation into sound bites so they tend to get lost in today’s political rhetoric. No more Federalist Papers that explored the issues of the day in the depth necessary to act on an informed basis.

Sandel concludes: “The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?” I doubt that many who should listen to Heilbroner and Sandel will. I believe that many who are glibly going along with the privatization wave do not understand the moral implicationsa and might, if they did, choose a different route. Those leading the pack surely do know, and I wonder, if they can ignore this most clear of moral principles, what else is missing.

There's More than One Way to the Truth

| | Comments (1)

CSPierce

I am now back home in Lexington and prepared to be more regular with these posts. The summer in Maine was quite extraordinary this year. We got the benefit (?) of global warming and had the sunniest, most pleasant summer in memory. I have been distracted for a few weeks (trying to excuse my absence) getting the final manuscript of a new book to the publisher. Today, I pushed the send button and now have little to do but wait out the many months between my computer click and the production of the book. It is a collaboration between Andy Hoffman, one of my former graduate students, and me, in the form of a conversation between the two of us about flourishing. It should be out next spring from Stanford University Press. In spite of the academic press imprimatur, Andy and I kept the conversation accessible and compelling, we think.

With the completion of the manuscript, I find myself in a quandary about what to do with this blog. Is it time to take along break and start again when the new book gives me something different to blog about? Or should I keep at it, given that any movement toward sustainability as I define it is imperceptible. Whatever has shifted in the beliefs critical to sustainability-as-flourishing has been overwhelmed by moves that take us increasingly farther away. Instead of moving in the direction of care as our primary modus operandi, we are running faster to become a nation of disassociated individuals, if the political rhetoric of the moment is a valid indicator. Ayn Rand lurks in the shadows. Recent gains in sharing the exigencies of living are under attack—providing health care is an obvious example,. Issues dealing with complex systems and related matters that need careful, tentative, probing countermeasures are approached in a black and white, only we have the true solution framing demanded by the dominant cultural structure.

All this is very disturbing and I daresay discouraging to me as I find myself clearer and more convinced than ever that the belief structure that underlies these positions is the culprit whose mischief we are trying to deal with. Just as Gresham’s law says that bad money drives out good, the currency of individualism and know-nothingness or know everythingness tends to devalue more measured and pragmatic thinking. When I wrote Sustainability by Design, I had a very minimal understanding of pragmatism but have spent many hours learning more about this way of thinking. My first impression was that pragmatism was the right way to think about complexity because it avoids the absolutism of reductionist thinking and actions based on the consequent beliefs. Claiming that one has the only right answer to a problem often gets the actor into hot water even in small situations, but always does in the real messes that our leaders face all the time, and individuals like all of us encounter but less frequently.

I have also learned another feature of pragmatism that is important, if not critical, to sustainability. The pop interpretation of pragmatism—that whatever works is good—is just that—a popularized and misleading description, springing from the work of William James, an early proponent of this important philosophical development. Pragmatism is a way of creating “truths” that work in coping with real problems. Its originator, C. S. Pierce (pictured above), argued that our beliefs are the rules by which we determine our action, and sought to find ways to make our beliefs clearer so that the subsequent actions might be more effective. He argued that clarity in beliefs came from a continuing inquiry by a group of individuals interested in finding solutions to common problems they faced; more or less, the way science is done.

The key difference between James and Pierce and those that followed the latter’s thread is the criticality of a collective inquiry, a community of inquirers or, in more common language, problem solvers. The idea of a continuous inquiry, stopping only when a satisfactory solution is found, and beginning again when that solution no longer works is just what is needed to deal with problems that cannot be defined in nice, neat, analytic terms. Exactly the kind of problems that stand in the way of sustainability. Global climate change is a good example of complexity. Instead of a program of trying to develop countermeasures based on our best current understanding now, we are waiting until our supercomputers tell us what is most cost-effective way to go. We need wise and prudent solutions. But supercomputers are not wise or prudent; only people can be.

Whenever we turn to the experts, be they scientists, economists, political scientists and more, we who are concerned about the situation escape responsibility for the outcomes of our actions. It is important that we, the people, get into the fray. We cannot provide the technical expertise of the specialists but that lack may be just the factor that might start us moving instead of waiting impotently. Imagine a group of citizens of all kinds empowered to do something. The truths that they would produce would not be something informed by that supercomputer, but by a different set of beliefs that emerge from their willingness to look in all directions, even inwardly. Their convergence on a set of workable beliefs would rest only partly on technical grounds, but mainly on the clarity of the process and the absence of strong ideological pressures.

If this sounds like some sort of democratic process, it is. John Dewey another of the founders of pragmatism, saw a connection between the method whereby a group of equally empowered individuals could create understanding of and solutions to overcome barriers between the world of today and that dreamt about for tomorrow. His pragmatism turned into a strong case for democracy—another link to the possibility of flourishing, which is diminished by inequality and domination. The pragmatic process rests on communication among the inquirers and inherently makes them more conscious of interconnections among them, another prerequisite of sustainability.

“Pragmatic” has become a pejorative in today’s political rhetoric referring to people who have no principles to stand on and cannot provide simple solutions to everything. Anything goes! Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pragmatism is exactly what is needed now. Its acceptance that learning, the process by which truths come forward, is continuous argues strongly against the ultra-short timetables that determine economic and political life. It promotes inclusion and the taking of responsibility. It rewards those who are willing to act on the clearest ideas they have, rather than punish them for the inevitable disappointments, not failures, that accompany action in a complex world. It raises consciousness of our interconnections to one another and to the context of the problems we address communally. It brings democracy out from the diminished form it has taken in our increasingly unequal society, as measured by many metrics. It’s time to let philosophy back into our lives and rescue it from its academic and political captors.