November 2012 Archives

The Immorality of Geoengineering

|

salter James Carroll almost never writes a column that I disagree with. but today he did. He strayed a bit from his usual subjects into the murky world of geoengineering.

Even if carbon emissions were dramatically reduced all over the planet (including in China, India, and Africa, where fossil fuel engines are just firing up), the biosphere is already facing catastrophe. The greenhouse effect is self-compounding, and scientists tell us that atmospheric temperatures will continue to rise even without more pollution. However difficult it has been to launch a real discussion of the causes of global warming, an even-larger controversy looms now, as problematic attempts to mitigate warming through “geoengineering” are forced onto the human agenda.

He is quite correct to say that geoengineering is even more controversial than global warming. The controversy over global climate change is concocted up by those ideologically opposed to taking action now at whatever it would cost because it might threaten their wealth or power. Denying the existence, magnitude, or causes of the tragic changes we are already experiencing and arguably know will be visiting us more and more is reprehensible. The consequences predicted by honest scientists are of the order of those of a large-scale war with an important difference. The enemy, as Pogo says, is us.

Technology has enabled the United States to fight wars without mobilizing the nation as we had to in previous wars. We waged waged two recent wars without a call upon all of our young to serve, and without any sacrifice in our consumption. The deficit problem is larger than it would have been in the absence of these conflicts, but we have yet to do anything about it.

Now with serious environmental and associated socio-economic impacts coming, we are being tempted to use technology to avoid being called to duty. Not to serve under arms, but to alter the life styles that are the cause of the upsets we are more and more worried about. Worried, but not convinced that they are so serious that we all have to join the fray. Still hoping that the engineers will do the job for us. The picture I get is that of a technician sitting in a far away van, directing a drone with a joystick. The only difference is that he is aiming at an enemy, a geoengineer would be aiming at Mother Nature.

This call on technology is much like situation that spawned sustainable development, a technocratic and technological solution to the growing environmental and social deterioration that became noticeable 30-40 years ago. Use technology to produce and consume more efficiently, so that we could continue to grow our materialistic economies and avoid more damage at the same time. It hasn’t worked. Every assessment of the state of the environmental and social world shows that we have dug even deeper holes. Climate change is just the latest insult to nature we are starting to worry about.

As and Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again.” We haven’t learned much from our futile attempts at eco-efficiency, but here we are trying the same old thing, another technological fix, another Band-Aid. Carroll, ignoring the past several decades of avoiding, thinks we are facing a moral cliff.

Once again, we humans find ourselves at a moral threshold, where technology poses unprecedented challenges to our capacity for ethical choice. Biomedical engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic modification of agriculture, cellular manipulation for reproductive “enhancement”: These frontiers of science are also boundaries of wisdom. What is the right thing to do?

In the case of the environment, though, the pressures come not from newfound capabilities, but from a doomsday clock that we ourselves set ticking. Having only now approached a broad popular consensus that climate change is a problem, we must promptly imagine far more expansive solutions. Reducing fossil fuels is urgently necessary, but probably insufficient. Let sensible discussion of creative interventions begin. For Mother Earth, and all her children.

I would agree with these possible outcomes, but he has the players and the choices all wrong. I strongly disagree with his suggestion to start a “discussion of creative interventions [of geoengineering].” This is like Congress kicking the can down the road, applying fiscal Band-Aids to staunch the bleeding. The moral choice does not involve giving the energy companies a parole as he writes. It would have that effect, but that’s not the more serious problem. It would give us, the consumers, a parole which we are not ready for. A parole board with Mother Nature at the head would send us back to our cushy cells, arguing we have not become rehabilitated. We haven’t begun to accept any responsibility for our “crimes” against the Planet. We haven’t changed our ways or done anything that justifies a parole.

I respect Carroll as a writer, especially when he writes about ethical or moral issues, but he hasn’t cast a wide enough net in this case. His moral gaze is turned in the wrong direction, looking outward instead of inward. It may seem like a suicidal choice to turn away from a promising (?) technological solution for an existential threat, but the real suicidal choice is choosing that path while ignoring or excusing our central role in the matter. We, the global community, faced with a less threatening situation—the depletion of the ozone layer—made the right choice back then. We stopped producing the bad stuff, going cold turkey. Of course we had a substitute in the wings. We can and should make the same choice today. We have an alternate technology choice in the wings—renewable energy. We learned to live without aerosol cans. It will be more difficult, but we can learn to live without lots of things that, if anything, fail to contribute to or even lessen our real well-being. Taking on the responsibility for the problem and learning to live so as to avoid contributing to climate change is the correct moral choice. Only after we have made this move, should the use of geoengineering as a temporary measure be considered as a moral possibility.

Away for the Holiday

|

stepping-away.gif

Off for the Thanksgiving Holiday. I’ll be back next week.

Gobble Gobble NO, Slow Down

|

slowdown

Thanksgiving is one of those stopping points in a year—or at least it should be. But I don’t see signs around that it really is. The mad pace of life carries us from store to store, from precipice to cliff, from megabits/sec to gigabits/sec, from war to war… Tom Friedman wrote a column today extolling the new high speed Internet access network built, in part, with our stimulus money in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

How fast is that Chattanooga choo-choo? The majority of Chattanooga homes and businesses get 50 megabits per second, some 100 megabits, a few 250 and those with big needs opt for a full gigabit per second, explained Harold DePriest, the chief executive of EPB, the city’s electric power and telecom provider, which built and operates the network. “The average around the country is 4.5 megabits per second.” So average Internet speed in Chattanooga is 10 times the national average. That doesn’t just mean faster downloads.

It’s another of his raves for anything technological that speeds up commerce and flattens the globe. He does have a reason to crow besides the technical capability of this new system, which I do admit is quite spectacular, and a sign that we can, if we want, catch up with what is already happening in other parts of the world, where infrastructure projects like this are not left to the market. But what’s all that speed for. This Chattanooga system was opened with a coordinated concert between performers in LA and in Chattanooga playing simultaneously, a feat made possible by the ultra high speed of the connection.

The transcontinental duet was possible, reported Chattanoogan.com, because the latency of Chattanooga’s new fiber network was 67 milliseconds, meaning the audio and video traveled 2,100 miles from Chattanooga to Los Angeles in one-fourth the blink of an eye.

All this was preface to the guts of his column which was a plea to President Obama to seize the moment and package all his fiscal proposals to Congress in a cloak of “growth.”

It’s good to see the budget talks between President Obama and the Republicans getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. With that in mind, I hope the president will reframe and elevate the debate. It is vital that he not frame this as a discussion of just new taxes and spending cuts. His guiding principle should be “growth.” Right now, the whole budget discussion reeks too much of castor oil — and which side will have to swallow the biggest spoonful.

Unlike greed is to Gordon Gecko, growth is not good for the rest of us. At least, not without some conditions and qualifications. Even Friedman knows we have pushed the capacity of the Earth well beyond its capacity to tolerate our profligate economies—the US being the worst in terms of natural resources damage. The President finally let the words, climate change, pass his tightly pursed lips, but not until the election was in hand, and he was safe from the manipulating deniers and misguided self[ish]-interests of the energy and related corporations. He certainly knows that we cannot grow economically without a fundamental change in the ways we both produce and consume. Why do we have to grow? Put people back to work, of course, but in a system which will inevitably make them more and more stuck in the nether regions of our society, while those at the top suck up the so-called benefits of growth. Trickle-down simply does not work; trickle-up or better gush-up is what has actually happened for several decades now.

“Forget growth!” Please,Tom Friedman and all the economists on whom you rely. Let’s all start using other words to signal our intentions. How about development for a start? I am not a great fan of this word, but it convey a sense of unfolding or realization of the full potential packed into the dormant seed of a rose or a redwood tree. How about fairness? We would start thinking not about growth but doing better with what we have so that those with less would have a chance to catch up. This was the thought that triggered the connection to Thanksgiving in this post. How about simply love? I don’t mean some affective feeling that serves as a reason to get us into and out of relationships. Love in my vocabulary is about the way we act, not about the way we feel. To love is to act toward and with others from a context of their legitimacy to exist as they are, not from the actor’s opinions about what they should be. A tree is a tree, not a source of firewood. A cow is a living animal, not a hunk of meat for the table. A human being is a feeling, thinking creature with all sorts of possibilities, not a source of sexual satisfaction or a placer of doors on an automobile assembly line.

These last few sentences should not be read as a plea to be a vegan or a hermit. We will do what we decide is necessary for human satisfaction, since that’s the utilitarian end to which all material objects serve in our present conceptions about who we are as humans. But it is always to go about our business with a respect toward those objects we use or consume in satisfying our so-called needs. So-called because so much of our existence today here is focused on needs we did not always have and really do not need to have at all. Speed is one of those, as is growth. One cannot live on love (the kind I talk about here) alone, but it goes a long way to substitute for more and faster. So maybe tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, don’t rush out in the middle of dinner to crash the lines already stretched around the block at the neighborhood big box store. Don’t think about the “more” you seek, but the stuff you already have. Think even harder about those that do not have what you already have, and come up with solutions that can make life fairer for all, and send them to President Obama with a copy to Tom Friedman so he will stop harping on growth, growth, growth.

Lincoln

|

lincoln

I just returned from the movies, watching “Lincoln.” It measures up to all the buzz about it. After writing about gifts and moral responsibility only a few hours earlier, I was deeply moved by the film. The moral impossibility of condoning slavery drove Lincoln against the possibility of prolonging the murderous civil War. I would not begin to compare the degree and consequences of today’s inequality to that borne by slaves, but the moral issue seem to be much the same.

Simple Gifts

| | Comments (1)

Brackett

Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

Written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett (pictured) in 1848, this lyric places “gift” exactly where it says is “just right.” I thought that with the election now in place, I could get back to my thinking and writing about flourishing/sustainability undeterred by the babble all around me. I should have known better. As long as politics sells, rather than serves, the din will never go away. I want to focus on one phrase in the above well-known ditty, “tis the gift to be free.”

Freedom can and is thought about in two non-overlapping ways. Isaiah Berlin famously wrote in his 1958 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” about positive and negative liberty. He was following, whether intended or not, a conception expressed about 10 years earlier by Erich Fromm, which can be abbreviated to positive refers to the freedom to, and negative to freedom from. Berlin was clear in defining negative freedom, “Liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons.’”

I can’t find such a clear short definition of positive freedom in the essay. He related it to the ability (not just the opportunity) to pursue and achieve willed goals, but also saw it as a form of self-rule or autonomy, not depending on others. As many others have, I find the these two forms contradictory in syntactical form, but interwoven in practice. Both Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum echo the latter definition, arguing that the purpose of political economies is to provide people with the capabilities to live what I call a flourishing existence. Capabilities implies not only opportunity but means toward some chosen end.

So where do gifts come in. Candidate and loser, Romney vilified the government and Obama by claiming the election was won by “bribing” (my choice of word) potential voters. In post-election remarks to some of his donors, he said, “What the President’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts (my emphasis) from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote, and that strategy worked.” The gifts were things like forgiving college loans and passing Obamacare.

Romney and others that accepted his statements at face values are wrong both with the notion that any of these are gifts and with the implication that government should not provide “stuff,” a word he used in a similar conversation. Even those Randian libertarians who strongly believe that negative liberty is the only correct moral stance can be free to do whatever they want, but always to some degree, as Obama pointed out during the campaign, have to use “stuff” provided by others, including the government. The roads, most of our schools, national security, safe foods and drugs, are just a few examples of stuff that is essential to freedom is that sense. But even more, no one can exist in this world as a purely autonomous individual living in such a completely disconnected fashion from the world.

Leaving aside the period of life where one is highly dependent on parents and the families they create, even as adults, no one can survive without other people performing tasks that enable a single individual to not only survive but prosper in any sense of that word. The line between government and any other institution is completely arbitrary, and serves primarily as a political expedient to maintain power.

The idea of negative liberty carries no sense of what identity, self, soul, persona, personality or any other similar term provides to a meaningful life. That some meaning is critical for avoiding complete anomie, existential angst, or unmitigated evil has been well established in every moral-oriented form from poetry and other arts to philosophy, psychology, economics and so on. Adam Smith, the great grandfather of economics got there through his work on moral philosophy. I do not believe that even the most Randian, Hayekian ideologues would not finally accept and acknowledge the fact that they cannot exist without adjusting their lives to conform to the constraints placed on them by the world outside. Berlin pointed out that no society can run at either end of this spectrum; both forms of liberty are inextricably linked.

Those now arguing for negative liberty, by and large, start life with a pretty full binder of those basic capabilities, Sen or Nussbaum claim are essential for flourishing. They begin fairly high up on Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy. The Koch brothers, who we have heard so much about this election cycle, are the sons of a quiet Kansas millionaire, who incidentally was a critical supporter of the John Birch Society in its early days. They can claim success on their own terms, but not without noting that they got quite a substantial head start in life. They just happened to pick the right parents. But what about all those whose “choice” of parents did not land them so far up that pyramid such that they could add the capabilities necessary to get all the way to the top and become whatever they dreamed they could be. Not anything, of course—there are always limits to one’s possibilities—but more than the their place at the bottom of the pyramid or the social ladder held them to.

These men and women are included in the most basic moral statement underlying our nation:

[A]ll men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But that ringing moral call requires that all human beings must possess some capabilities to exercise those rights. Those born in a social milieu where the ladder to self expression lacks the rungs to lift up oneself cannot exercise those Rights. Slaves obviously lacked any opportunity for more than minimal self development. The inequality of opportunity in the US has grown to such a degree that those at the bottom of the social ladder have vanishingly little possibility to rise up, especially in our consumerist, technologically driven society. They have neither the money to consume nor the education and skills to prosper in such a technological world. I wrote a bit about this recently, having been deeply awakened and depressed by a lecture by Robert Putnam on the state of inequality in the US.

The protection and realization of the Rights that these human beings possess are a moral responsibility of everyone who lives in the polity that the Declaration spawned, that is, the United States. What we do for them in any form are not gifts, which word carries a pejorative sense of gratuity when used politically. Gift also means, in a different context, something wonderful and special, as in a gifted individual. What those who have made the unfortunate choice of parents need mostly is a gift, in the latter sense, to allow them to find a rung, even near the bottom, on the ladder of possibility or opportunity. I suppose that those Randians I named above could argue that such gifts could be provided entirely by private means, but I also would expect those arguments to be without any practical basis. The problems of inequality today transcend by far the ability of private remedial means.

That government must, without any question or doubt, work to provide the capabilities needed to reach the ladder of possibilities should be a given in the US. The only question is “In what way?” Further, anything done is not a (gratuitous) gift, but a moral responsibility. Nor are those who accept and use the capabilities provided by the (wonderful) “gift,” an ungrateful bunch of “takers.” Such thinking and language should be banned from political speech in the United States. I find it as seditious as that which was a crime early in our Country’s history.

It’s time to face the facts that Putnam and others have unearthed and debate not whether but what should be done. There are certainly some who will fritter away the possibilities that whatever gifts are sent their way. But there should be no a priori judgments made according to social class or racial groupings. Only individuals fail to accept the help in the spirit in which it is given. Putnam makes the point that his study exposed inequality in mobility, that is, socio-economic class, not in wealth or income inequality. There is, of course much correlation between the two forms of inequality, but the remedies are very different. Adjusting the tax code can go far in fixing income inequality, but has little effect on the mobility status. Let’s face it. Only the right kind of gifts will do.

Gobble Gobble

|

turkeys

The title of this post is the conventional sound made by turkeys before they are processed and served up on Thanksgiving tables. But this odd sound seems to be drowned out by the metaphorical gobbling up of merchandise taking place on and immediately after Thanksgiving Day. It has been serious enough in recent times but promises to get even louder this year, says the NYTimes.

There was an outcry last year when some retailers opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, with workers and shoppers saying the holiday should be reserved for family, not spent lining up for the start of the Christmas shopping season. This year, retailers are responding to the criticism by opening even earlier on Thanksgiving evening — and a handful are even planning to be open all day. The lesson of 2011 was clear: earlier shopping hours were good for the top line.

I can picture some stores offering turkey sandwiches when they open early on Thanksgiving Day so that the customers can gobble up the goods while “celebrating” the day. Even those gathering at home with families are gobbling down dinner, while squirming in their seats thinking only about when the stores will open this year.

Once again, our paeans to the God of consumption trumps other values. Caring comes only at a price these days. Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, is subtitled, “The Moral Limits of Markets.” I am not talking here about moral limits, but about humanity, itself. The historical meaning of Thanksgiving is clear in its name, giving thanks. But thanks for what? Thanks for the bounty of the fields; thanks for the love of family; thanks for the support of neighbors; thanks to all that contributed to whatever flourishing still lingered in one’s memory on that day. Thanks is simply an acknowledgement of the care provided by others. If you place a bubble around all involved at the table, the care expressed there is (and has to be) reciprocal; as much must be given as received.

Our humanity is measured, not by the goods we own, but about the quality and completeness of our caring. Flourishing, the medium of sustainability, comes to human beings only when they live a life of caring. I speak of this not in some moralistic sense, but in an existential sense; we are not fully human beings unless we exercise in our daily lives care for the world we inhabit. I know I sound like a broken record whenever I write this way, but the quote from the NYTimes above reminds me (and I hope my readers) how far away we are from this realization. The being of other entities in the world is different from that of our species. They simply exist. We also exist, but have a unique consciousness of the world that allows us to act intentionally in all of our interactions with that world. We “think” about what we do, beyond simply reacting via some sort of instinctual mechanism.

When we act out of love, or I say care, we are consciously or unconsciously accepting and respecting the right of the object of our intentions to exist on its own terms. The source of my understanding of love is Humberto Maturana. For him, love is fundamentally a verb, referring to actions taking place in a domain of interactions when each actor consensually recognizes the legitimacy of (right to) the other to exist as they are in the world. He generally refers to human beings who live in language, but this definition also works for non-human entities that we also must care for in order to become fully human and to flourish. These non-human entities cannot speak to us in our own languages but reciprocate in other ways. The awe and beauty of the world needs no words to express its care for us.

Maturana’s love is an emotion as well as a way of action, but not the kind of affective feeling we normally attribute to love or to other emotions. Emotions, for him, are more like the everyday sense of moods, general dispositions that create the internal context for and guide the actions we take. If we are grumpy, our actions signal how we are feeling. If we are in an assertive mood, our actions tend to be dominating. When our mood is that of love, our actions reflect our acceptance of the existential legitimacy of the object/person at the other end of our interaction. Since the mood precedes the action, love in Maturana’s sense is always “at first sight.” For him, we do not fall in love; falling is a way of speaking that implies that love is something that happens after an event, like gazing upon something beautiful.

Maturana argues, from his biological roots, that love is the most fundamental human emotion. It is the emotion that accompanies wholeness and other properties that I bundle into “flourishing.” I generally use the word care instead of love, but they are very close in meaning. I am always a little uncomfortable to speak of love because of its usual romantic connotations. There is nothing romantic about love in this sense. Where Maturana claims love is what makes us human, I argue it is care that serves this purpose. In either case, flourishing rests on living one’s life out of love or care; love, if one is a biologist of Maturana’s persuasion; care, if one is, like me, persuaded by Heidegger and other philosophers. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is only if we love or care.

Caring in a crass, materialistic world takes tremendous effort. Our bodies incorporate many different emotions that determine our general behavior. We know that these get triggered by our circumstances. The emotion we call anger arises in circumstances where someone’s actions have triggered a memory of a former situation that we had assessed as uncalled for and as some sort of assault on our “space.” We respond in a certain way and then explain, if asked, that we were angry. When we have lived our whole life in a culture where “caring” is measured either by things or transactions, the basic emotion of love gets squelched. Maturana argues that we we stop coming from love, we become ill. Perhaps this can partially explain the dramatic increase in mental illness found in the US.

Transactions are actions taking place in the market. They are momentary, relative to caring acts. Acquiring goods in a store happens in an instant, although having to stand in long lines at a checkout stations might make this appear otherwise. There are no permanent connections between the actors. Even if I recognize the cashier, I am not really connected. Caring is very and importantly different. I am or become connected to the object of my attention/intention. Otherwise I would not bother to concern myself with the issue of legitimacy at all.

So now with this diversion into what care is all about, let’s get back to Thanksgiving. The typical setting is a group of family members gathered around a dinner table with a turkey in the center. Family is the place, Maturana claims, where love arose. Our evolution in a social setting accounts for the primacy of the emotion of love. Family is the most natural place for love to present itself. It’s much more difficult to talk about love in the workplace or out in the woods, but it is just as important to flourishing.

So what does the quote from the NYTimes suggest. Transactions trump caring actions. Rituals become just that—plays enacted without connections among the actors mouthing the words. Flourishing has little possibility of showing up under these circumstances, repeated in similar forms everywhere and most of the time. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy or Scrooge, that’s not my point. There is an important place for shopping in our lives. We go to the market to buy the goods that enable us to act out our care. It’s only when shopping inundates the arena of care or love that I become greatly concerned. Is it more important to rush out and get a bargain on some toy to give a month later that to spend the time around the Thanksgiving table caring for all present? I don’t think so.

Not Only for Liberals

|
The best 3 minute summary of everything that happened on Tuesday I have seen.

Post-election Blues

|

electoral map

It didn’t take long to get over my relief following the results of Tuesday’s election. Great outcomes nationally, here at home in Massachusetts, and in Maine where I spend the summer. It turns out, the votes seem to indicate that we are a bluer nation, according to the networks color schemes. Blue is the wrong metaphor because there surely were more happy people than sad. A redder nation would signify an angrier nation, and, except for the discredited and mostly wrong Republican pundits, happiness outweighed anger. My observations, during an election cycle, are always badly distorted both by my own biases and by my home location in Massachusetts. Not only did Massachusetts elect a complete Democratic slate, but there was not a single Republican elected in any of the other New England states. So no matter which way I look, all I can see is blue, or blue-green in the case of the independent Senators from Vermont and Maine.

So what does all this mean for sustainability. Not too much. I see the US taking a step to the side, but at least not a backwards step. Maybe some discussion of climate change, but little action coming. Clean coal and clean-tech in any form is better than nothing, but still capable of reducing unsustainabilityonly by a hair. Whatever gains might be found here are likely to be offset by the almost certain effort to heat up the rather chilly economy. I expect something to happen here, but probably short of another big kick. Maybe a new infrastructure-building program, a much needed action with or without any connection to kick-starting the economy. But any overall economic growth will have a perverse impact on carbon usage and materials consumption in general. We are stuck in a catch-22 situation.

I know Paul Krugman would jump all over this next thought, but what about an austerity budget, not to reduce the deficit, but to reduce consumption, keeping the deficit the same or modestly reducing it. This would be aimedn not at the fiscal deficit, but at the sustainability deficit. Instead of its impact on GDP, the effects would be measured by the reduction in the gap between the present (material) economy and a steady-state (non-growing) economy, the important idea promoted by Herman Daly among others. This gap is not to be measured in monetary terms but by natural resources consumption. Material flow accounting (MFA), now increasingly being done at the national level, but not in the US, can provide the data for such measurements. Getting to a steady-state economy is not a choice. It is a necessity. It means taking no-growth or de-growth seriously and right away.

The last recession was an example of de-growth but of the completely wrong kind. What we need is a managed pattern, designed to cause the least pain by allocating the reductions to those that can best afford them. Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call to nature’s demand that we move quickly to a steady state at a level well below our present levels of consumption. I am sure those affected would prefer that the consequences are more equitably distributed. I have no macro-economic models at hand to predict all the secondary effects, but I know that any transition will be very painful, but, unlike a recession or depression that pops us unannounced, it can be designed to minimize the displacements and pain. But minimize only; there is no way to avoid it.

Obama has nothing to lose now by stepping way out on this issue. He is done as a political leader if he sticks only to a four-year agenda. If he is truly hopeful, he must do the right thing now in the face of the almost certain massive opposition to the kind of thinking and action needed to get the Planet to a place where we can begin to imagine that sustainability will become more than idle chitchat, and flourishing will begin to show up. Our lifeboat is sinking. Fashioning the plugs for the holes will take a long time and an extraordinary ability to remain hopeful as things will get worse for quite a while, and even his friends will probably question his sanity.

If the audacity of hope ever was called for, it is now. Presidents leave libraries as their most permanent legacies, but libraries are merely static places built for visitors and researchers. Obama can leave a living legacy for future generations by engaging in plain talk about the mess we are in. Not the mess in Afghanistan; not any fiscal cliff, not an army of uneducated or undereducated unemployed, but the mess the Planet is in. It’s not just climate change. That’s only a symptom—an unintended consequence of the way we live. If the United States is to be the leader of the world, as it often claims, then it is imperative that we look far beyond the present conflicts to the war our societies are waging against the Earth, itself.

Other leaders have taken on problems that were “unsolvable” and yet they beat the odds. Vaclav Havel is one of them. He never lost hope even while languishing in prison cell. Here's what he has to say about hope.

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.… Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Even our audaciously hopeful President can learn from him. We are, after all, a kind of prisoners on our planet.

Inequality and More Plain Talk

|

social-mobility

Last evening, I went to listen to Robert Putnam speak on inequality and its horrific consequences. Putnam, whose work is, perhaps, the most revealing about the state of society in the US of any current American political scientist, was giving a lecture in Lexington’s public lecture series. His earlier book, Bowling Alone, revealed the drastic loss of social capital, the resources that hold any society together. His talk, last evening, focused on his current project, measuring inequality in American culture today. He began with a couple of caveats, he was not talking about income or wealth inequality; he was talking about inequality in opportunity to move upwards in the social ladder. As he and others have simply put it, The American Dream is rapidly disappearing, if not already gone, for a very large segment of the US population, the poor.

He also stressed that the problems he was going to talk about were not issues of race, but problems of [economic] class that poor whites face. So do poor blacks, but he has focused his work only on whites because that is where the new inequality is now hitting harder. Racial inequality has abated over the past decades, while class inequality has dramatically increased. His main message was that the poor segment of the young generation of today is already moving into adult life with little or no real opportunity for success, no matter how you measure it. Certainly not a life that flourishes as I speak about it. They are dispirited, poorly schooled, unhealthy, and far behind their peers, who come from families with parents that have college educations, and in other social measures.

Putnam pointed to critical advantages upper class, not the very rich we hear a lot about this election season, have. Their children get more caring attention from the very beginning, in terms of parental hours spent with them, and later in terms of the enriching resources, such a camps and lessons, provided to them. Many more of these kids have gotten through high school, still living with the same two parents, while only about five percent of the poor have by the same age. Most haven’t even finished high school. Pretty shocking. Most important, Putnam kept stressing, by showing many slides based on his team’s work, that the gap between rich and poor that has always been there, has been widening at an alarming rate in recent years. That was the key message of his talk.

America is becoming increasingly segregated, in the way we live, are educated, choose mates, and so on. His findings are not unique. In his book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray wrote,

It’s not just that college graduates are likely to marry college graduates, but that graduates from elite colleges are likely to marry other graduates from elite colleges. Increased educational homogamy inevitably means increased cognitive homogamy. On average, children are neither as smart nor as dumb as their parents. They are closer to the middle. This tendency is called regression to the mean. In 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in Critical Reading or Mathematics had a parent with a college degree, and 57 percent had a parent with a graduate degree. Those percentages could have been predicted closely just by knowing the facts about the IQs associated with different educational levels and the correlation between parental and child IQ.

The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.

It’s the old adage, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, on steroids. Murray and Putnam come from opposite ends of the politic spectrum and invoke different causes and solutions but agree on the situation. Murray believes that family values are the primary cause and in some ways the poor get what they deserve. Putnam argues on a different moral ground. These children did not choose their parents. They deserve the same opportunity as any other newborn. I strongly believe this in a moral sense, but must add that opportunity is always constrained by circumstances. Putnam used the metaphor of a ladder. In former timer, there were rungs to grab at every class stratum; now the rungs at the bottom are gone.

As he saw in Bowling Alone, community, a metaphor for solidarity, we-ness, or connections, has shrunk to a vanishing point. He said last night, that when he grew up, “my” family spilled over into the wider community; now “my” family means me and my kids only. The evening could not have been more depressing. His book on this is coming out in a few months. I will buy and read it, but do not look forward to that.

As I walked home, I found myself thinking about the various causes he mentioned, loss of social capital, family deterioration, and so on. I have been thinking and writing about sustainability for more than 20 years now. Having retired from academic research, I haven’t the ability to do research such as Putnam does. I have to rely on his and others’ work. But I can think about it in the context of what concerns me. Risking oversimplifying their work, I can collapse what Putnam, Murray, and others writing about inequality and its cause and consequences say into a single word, care or, better, the lack of it.

Care is a, in my thinking, the, basic quality that makes us human. Care is attending to the well-being of oneself, others, and the world out there. It is the constellation of intentional acts we engage in, reflecting the right of everything in the world to exist on its own terms. Humberto Maturana calls this context for living, love, the basic human emotion, without which individuals eventually become ill. At some level, our culture is ill in these terms. There is a direct relationship between care as the ontological property that constitutes our explanation of why and how we exist, and love as our [ontic] foundation for how we live in fact.

I spoke of plain talk the other day. I think more about it everyday. This election has shown me the folly of making believe, in the bloated, convoluted, and dissembling language we go about dealing with our common issues and problems. It isn’t about leveling the economic playing field by tinkering with the tax code. It isn’t about the size of our government. It isn’t about who should the doctors work for. That’s all bullshit (see my blog of 10/18/2012).

It’s all about care and love. The Founding Fathers knew this. Does this surprise you? This powerful phrase from it has become so familiar that we don’t stop any more to think what it really may mean.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

They spoke of inalienable rights. Is this any different that accepting that everyone has the same right to exist? And if acting on top of this fundamental moral foundation is “love,” let it be. The conceit of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” rested upon his view that human nature was that of empathy, care for the other, not on selfishness as his later works have been interpreted as aaying.

It is absolutely clear to me that, as a collective, we have no clear idea about what to do about this and other big problems facing us. We are just as full of BS when we talk about climate change and what to do about it. And I am just as certain that we cannot find enough clarity to act as if we had finally discovered the truth that would, like an arrow, strike the target dead center and cure the ills facing us. All the so-called debates held by the powerful in charge of our nation are also BS. It’s not compromise that is needed. It’s plain talk. It’s saying in unison: “We haven’t cared about the people we live with and are now suffering the consequences. We haven’t cared about the world out there we inhabit and we are now suffering the consequences.” It’s also saying plainly, “We don’t know how to go forward, but we do finally understand we must act now.”

Obama has been called a pragmatist by others and by himself, but in the use of the word that is inappropriate here. Pragmatism is much more than doing what is expedient for me. This is the corrupted version of William James’s philosophy that has done much to give pragmatism a bad name. Pragmatism is a way of making problematic ideas clearer, and building solutions for them, based on past and present experience. Experience, not ideology is the key. Continuing inquiry, through talk and experiment, by ALL the parties with an interest in the matter is the process by which the chosen solutions (a kind of non-ideological truth) emerge and are applied. All such solutions are always known to be tentative and contingent. Only their successful application reveals their rightness or wrongness.

The problems discussed here, inequality and climate change, matter to everyone whether they admit it or not. The crises are already here. Our political economy is broke and needs fixing. The question to ask people about where and why they stand is not whether they are a Democrat or Republican or any other denomination. The reasons they will give are just more BS. They will say they care about or highly value their reasons. But that is not the kind of care or values I am talking about. The only meaningful questions is, “Do you humanly care?” This kind of care and values built upon it are the only ones that can lead us out of the mess we are in. Some think they have the resources to wall them off from the world and hide from the messes that they are in part responsible for. Even for them, the old saying, “You can run but you can’t hide.” holds.

I am convinced that we have no more time for BS. Plain talk is essential. The world is hurting badly. We are the reason. We have lost our being and, as a result, our way. Our vast storehouse of knowledge is powerless to help us now. If we do not start caring and loving, we will continue to talk and think BS. Caring starts with opening the eyes and accepting the connections that immediately appear. Caring is verbal and active. We may know how to care for ourselves and a few other people, but we do not know how to care for the world. The current mess speaks to us in plain talk and asks us to do something. But what to do? In plain talk, we do not know, but we can act pragmatically. We can gather together (we are connected, after all.) and inquire and try out what emerges. “I” can never have the right answer. So don’t ask me what to do as many try. Only “we” can.

The election in a few days is advertised as an important choice. It is, but not the right one. The choice is between more of the same old BS or plain talk, caring, and pragmatic inquiry and action. Unfortunately elections are not the place for choices like this. We have to begin by making this choice everywhere, in small actions that may grow to a point where we more consciously address this fundamental value and its place in our society. Caring is unfamiliar and sometimes surprisingly difficult, but plain talk is something most already know how to do or can learn quickly. So let’s start there. Right now.