January 2013 Archives

Keeping Pandora's Box Shut


pandoras box

I frequently read The Stone, a New York Times blog devoted to contemporary philosophy. Today’s column showed how far away the field is from dealing with reality, something philosophy is supposed to do well. The column, written by Huw Price, the Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. With Martin Rees and  Jaan Tallinn, he is a co-founder of a project to establish the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

Existential risk, if I understand the article, is the risk that we will self-destruct at the hands of some technology that has decided it is superior to humans and wipes us out. Sound more like science fiction than philosophy. Here’s a key paragraph.

By “existential risks” (E.R.) we mean, roughly, catastrophic risks to our species that are “our fault,” in the sense that they arise from human technologies. These are not the only catastrophic risks we humans face, of course: asteroid impacts and extreme volcanic events could wipe us out, for example. But in comparison with possible technological risks, these natural risks are comparatively well studied and, arguably, comparatively minor (the major source of uncertainty being on the technological side). So the greatest need, in our view, is to pay a lot more attention to these technological risks. That’s why we chose to make them the explicit focus of our center.

I say these guys have missed the point almost entirely. We are flirting with existential risk, but not at the hands of some exotic technology, but rather from technology in general, from automobiles to drones to lipstick. Price and his colleagues are sensitive to criticism of their claim.

Objections to this claim come from several directions. Some contest it based on the (claimed) poor record of A.I. so far; others on the basis of some claimed fundamental difference between human minds and computers; yet others, perhaps, on the grounds that the claim is simply unclear - it isn’t clear what intelligence is, for example.

To arguments of the last kind, I’m inclined to give a pragmatist’s answer: Don’t think about what intelligence is, think about what it does. Putting it rather crudely, the distinctive thing about our peak in the present biological landscape is that we tend to be much better at controlling our environment than any other species. In these terms, the question is then whether machines might at some point do an even better job (perhaps a vastly better job). If so, then all the above concerns seem to be back on the table, even though we haven’t mentioned the word “intelligence,” let alone tried to say what it means. (You might try to resurrect the objection by focusing on the word “control,” but here I think you’d be on thin ice: it’s clear that machines already control things, in some sense - they drive cars, for example.)

The threat today has nothing at all to do with the intelligence of machines and the possibility that they will outdo our systems of controlling ourselves and the Earth. One root lies in the mismatch between our models and the realities of the world. The fact that we tend to be better than other species in controlling our environment is completely irrelevant. We control only a bit of the world we live in, and tend to do it badly. We have been using mindlessly technology, both intelligent and dumb tools, to solve every problem without recognizing the unintended consequences of what we just did. That’s the real risk we should be thinking and talking about. It’s not likely that automobiles, even equipped with intelligent controllers, will rise up against us, but their use is upsetting the world’s climate at an ever increasing rate. The results of temperature rise may not exterminate us, but it will surely throw the world into a tizzy.

It would more useful by far to get Huw Price and his hyper-intelligent colleagues at Cambridge to put their minds to grapple with the real issues that technology poses. It is dehumanizing. It promotes the consumer economy that needs to be fed at the rate of more than one planet worth and is growing. But is it is only the result of the privilege of scientific thinking that drives all modern political economies. Yes we are the source of risk to ourselves, serious risks, but to worry about hypothetical problems when real ones are right in front of us is the epitome of academic arrogance and the poverty of philosophy.

The real risks lie at the level of the beliefs that drive modernity. As long as our scientists and philosophers think they can know all there is to know about the world and use that knowledge toward humanity’s progress, we are is deep doodoo. The world is complex and will always keep critical knowledge about the future secret. Trying to open Pandora’s box was a bad thing to do in mythical times and still is. The evils hidden in her box are equivalent to the unintended consequences we unleash on the world by operating with a faulty set of primary assumptions.

I am not going to repeat all my arguments about what we should be paying attention to here. I did this in a recent post. It seems to me that Price is repeating the apocryphal search for one’s keys under the street lamp, because that’s where the light (one’s familiar expertise) is, rather than searching in the place where they were dropped. If he is interested in preventing, not merely describing, the tragedy he is about to philosophize about, he needs to turn to the real problem of existential risk, not his version of it.

Questioning Capitalism


capitalism My last post argues strongly for a new vision of a world of well-being for humans and non-humans alike. The vision is that of flourishing, that is, existing in a state reflecting the best life available within the evolutionary context of all the species. Sustainability is the ability of the Planetary system of interlinked material resources and cultural institutions to enable flourishing to become presence and linger for a while.

I argue further that this will and can happen only with a paradigmatic or transformational shift in the basic beliefs that underlie the structures of our societies and the institutions within them. Anything less than a replacement of the beliefs that shape our way of seeing the world and human life is merely tinkering, tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In laying out a brief discussion of those beliefs and institutional correlates, I referred to capitalism as a suspect in creating the present and growing mess.

The institutions that have evolved on the foundation of these beliefs are the proximate cause of the problematic situation. Capitalism itself is suspect, perhaps not at its core, but in the present form it has evolved to take. I am not equipped to take a more critical stance than suspicion.

In a moment of serendipity, I came on a criticism of capitalism by Kim Stanley Robinson, an author of science fiction, best known for the Mars trilogy. The short piece appeared in the house organ of McKinsey, but is not available there. The link here is to a reprint of it in the Resilience Science blog. Here are a couple of key paragraphs.

Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You might say that Stanley is no more qualified to take on capitalism than I am, but he has been examining its place in today’s world in much more detail than I have. He, like myself, is not fettered with the blinders that economists and political scientists bring. What he says makes great sense to me. He includes a long bulleted list of things to do right now. Most have to do with climate change and are not particularly unique, but ends with a plea to start thinking about a post-capitalist world.

Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future. Perhaps we think that history has somehow gone away. In fact, history is with us now more than ever, because we are at a crux in the human story. Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial, an ostrich failure on the part of the field of economics and of business schools, I think, but it’s really all of us together, a social aporia or fear. We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Here I completely agree. In essence, this is what I have been arguing for some years. The place to start is to examine how to replace the current effete beliefs and to begin to design change mechanisms, starting perhaps at the lowest levels of education. Second is to re-imagine how our political economy and other major institutions might have evolved if our belief structure was as I belief it must be to effectively (and realistically) represent the world of today. A good starting point would at the point when Cartesian knowledge\science and the normative views of the Enlightenment emerged.

Such an exercise must be carried very carefully, accepting that the outcomes will, perforce, be hypothetical. Nonetheless, this way of imagining how societies might have developed in a world build on love and care and on a pragmatic framework of understanding and action could give us a head start on redesigning the social world. We probably do not enough time for a Giddens-like evolution to work its way toward a social structure that would underpin flourishing. Any way to move more quickly would increase the probability of success.

Sustainability in 10 Bullet Points

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care kindness

I have just finished proofreading my new book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, written with my former PhD student, Andy Hoffman. It’s hard to be objective about one’s own work, but I think it is very good. In the five years since Sustainability by Design was published, my thinking about sustainability has become clearer, at least to me. I think this new book is more accessible and focused on the most important issues.

I gave a talk yesterday at the Northeastern University Business School to a small group of the faculty that left me with a sense that little has changed in the understanding and appreciation of the true nature of sustainability in the past five years. Granted that this meeting was not dispositive, sustainability is, if anything, less understood. I hear the same confusion between what used to be called greening, but now gets called sustainability or sustainable something and what I call sustainability. I have a slide that asserts that everyone in the audience who believes that they are doing something or thinking about sustainability is merely doing something to make things (unsustainability) less bad. Nobody has yet challenged me on this.

The distinction is critical. For sure, we are mucking up the world by overconsumption and we need to do something about that. But becoming more eco-efficient won’t change the story. We may be able to slow down the growth of negative impacts, but will not reverse the trend. The global GDP has grown at a rate far exceeding the increase in eco-efficiency over long periods. To keep the mess at current levels, the two growth rates (GDP) and eco-efficiency must be equal. And to reverse the damaging impacts, the change in eco-efficiency must exceed the growth of GDP. Tim Jackson, in his book, Progress Without Growth, calls the belief in decoupling (growth in GDP without concomitant growth environment harms) a myth. Expectations that the so-called information society would grow without the damage created by huge material demands are just that—thoughts. Nothing like this has happened. Per capita indices may be improving, but aggregate damages (the only thing the planet responds to) keep rising. Recent scientific assessments of the rate of climate change have found change is happening faster than previously predicted.

That’s the Planetary situation; the human condition is no better. If the US is to be held out to be the most advanced modern, industrialized nation, one should not look too closely at data related to individual and social conditions. It’s akin to the old saying that if you like sausage, never visit a sausage factory. In spite of the extremely high level of average affluence, we have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, more prisoners, more homicides, and many more instances of negative measures of well-being. Inequality is highest in the US among peer nations.

If we do nothing more than what businesses call sustainability activities, we will not change the current “unsustainable” conditions of the nations and the world. “Why not?” members of the audience ask. What we want and need is to grow. That’s the solution to all of our problems. The unemployed will find jobs. Our well-being will continue to increase. It’s not just economists talking here; just about everyone takes this as gospel, especially just after an election where promises of growth are aimed both at the left and the right. More wealth for the right (the richer) and more jobs for the left (the poorer).

Wake up and pay attention to the arithmetic as President Clinton advised in his speech at the Democratic Convention. We are living on more than one planet today and are headed for perhaps as many as 5 or so when the rest of the world becomes as affluent as we are. There simply is not enough ocean or atmosphere to absorb all our s—-. We will soon be faced with a Solomonic choice. Who gets the limited resources needed to feed the hungry mouths of the people and the societal machines that provide them with everything they consume?

Everyday, the way into our problems and the way out becomes clearer to me. Without any elaboration (that’s what my books and other writings try to do) to build the case I will make in a few sentences, here is the story in ten bullet points.

  • Our unsustainable situation is fundamentally rooted in the failure of our most basic beliefs to match the way the world works.

  • The mismatch results in “fixes-that-fail” that leave the root causes in place, and in ever growing (destructive) unintended consequences. The meaning of sustainability, itself, is misunderstood. It is an “empty” word, requiring an explicit quantity or quality to sustain. All present measures of sustainability or sustainable being used are based on an erroneous world view and are leading us astray.

  • The institutions that have evolved on the foundation of these beliefs are the proximate cause of the problematic situation. Capitalism itself is suspect, perhaps not at its core, but in the present form it has evolved to take. I am not equipped to take a more critical stance than suspicion.

  • Trying to design new institutions and modify the existing ones, but based on the same fundamental beliefs, is doomed to failure. When it will collapse is uncertain; it may be far enough off in the future to fool us into thinking what we are doing to cope today is working. Referring again to the language of systems dynamics, we are living out a massive shifting-the-burden or even addictive pattern. It will get increasingly difficult to cope, adapt or mitigate the damage as we continue to work on the wrong problems.

  • We have to stop thinking about the world only in mechanistic terms, as a system that we can come to know and manage through technology and technocracy (scientifically based institutional rules). We think there is only one way of knowing, science, and only one set of truths about the world. The “only” is important because our present system of knowing is not wrong; it is incomplete and insufficient to guide our human efforts to sustain life on the Planet in a state we deem normatively satisfactory.

  • The more powerful way to think about the world is as an organic, complex system in which we humans are simply about seven billion nodes interconnected to each other and to the rest of the world. Because it is complex, we can never come know precisely how it is working at the moment and, thus, are unable to manage it as we believe we can (see the preceding paragraph). The reality of the world (the set of meanings by which we operate) is created in and through language, and is historically situated, changing as our experiences change. If we start to think about the world in this manner, we will design new effective institutions to guide our societies. I believe that we will and should explicitly introduce pragmatic methods in place of our present deterministic ways of design, decision, and operating. We can never avoid unforeseen problems and failures, but in a complex world, pragmatism can lessen the likelihood of fixes-that-fail patterns. Immense and daunting changes to be sure, but absolutely necessary!

  • We have to stop thinking about ourselves as Homo economicus, creatures driven to acquire material goods as a measure of well-being. Said another way, we have to stop thinking that the main motivators for human live are the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. These ideas arising during the Enlightenment are, like our mechanistic understanding of the world, incomplete and inadequate, but also are incorrect, so that the “only” qualifier does not apply here.

  • Our actions in the world take place in the flow of language—a manner of living together in a coordinated flow of consensual action—not a collection of words and grammatical rules as commonly understood. Humans also exist in the flow of emotions, body dynamics that specify what we can and cannot do at any moment in our relational behaviors. Emotions represent our attunement to the world, a general description of how we respond to our situations. The most primal and fundamental of human emotions is love, but not merely romantic love.

    Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation. (Maturana and Nisis)

  • The shift in thinking about what it is to be human is profound but can be voiced in a word or two. Being human is all about care, not need. Care and love are naturally connected. Our interconnectedness to the world means that we better pay attention to it and take care of it. We cannot simply view the world outside of our bodies as simply an independent resource for giving us pleasure and avoiding pain. Our actions inevitably and necessarily interact and change the human and non-human world. Our humanness is not expressed in insatiable demands, but in a continuum of actions to make sure the targets of our care are satisfied. Satisfaction lies outside the body in the world, not inside as we are told by psychologists and economists. We are part of that world so we will experience satisfaction whenever we perceive that the world outside is taken care of. Whenever that happens we will be in a state of existential completeness, which I (and others) call flourishing. The attainment of this human condition will and should become the primary measure of the success of our societal institutions in place of the economic measures used today to indicate well-being.

  • Closing the loop back to the beginning of the brief explanation, flourishing is the right and relevant reference to use for the semantically empty word, sustainability. Hence the origin of my definition of sustainability: the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.

This is a brief and dense itemization of the story of sustainability, but the essential points are all here. A warning. If you are serious about sustainability, then you have to take in the whole story. You cannot be selective, as present day businesses and other institutions are doing. It’s all or nothing. This doesn’t mean that you abandon the parts of the present paradigm (belief and institutional structure) that do continue to work. 2 + 2 will still equal 4. It does help to slow down the destructive momentum of today (but not at the expense of neglecting the real problems). But you cannot work from within this old and effete paradigm when you set out to make sustainability-as-flourishing show up. You will look like an alien to those still comfortable in the status quo. So stick in there. You have the right stuff; they do not. Rational arguments will not convince anyone. Different paradigms do not connect rationally one to another. You may be able to convince others that the old paradigm is the problem, not the solution. That’s how science advances. But you (and anyone else) will not be able to argue that the new one (sketched briefly above) is the way to go. You will simply have to plunge in and wait for the results to come. They will be the legitimating evidence. Each of the elements sketched out has already been “proven to work,” but in much smaller contexts than that of the sustainability problematic. So you will not be simply hanging out there.

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake)

Human Beings Machines


gene doping

I am just back from about 10 days traveling in Europe. I always return quite impressed with the public infrastructure I encounter. This trip was primarily aimed at visiting a few old friends, but I did take a few hours to visit a couple of my former colleagues at the Technical University of Delft. I can’t quite explain my feeling that, on the one hand, technology is at least as advanced as it is here in the US, but there is, on the other hand, less obsessive use of it.

My wife and I ate out several times with our friends. I got the sense, as I usually do there, that service means something. And that quality does also. Europe certainly is facing many of the same issues about unsustainability that we do here in the US, but they appear, to me at least, to be much more clear that life matters more than possessions. We may belittle the socialistic flavor of health care, education, transport and so on, but there is little question that concerns for the human being is far more important than here in the States. This observation is born out by reams of data on the human condition.

I read the newspapers today for the first time in a week or so and found much evidence of this comparison. Two quite different articles made the case for me. The first was a report about a controversy over the opening of uranium mines in Virginia.

Bills introduced last week would lift a moratorium on uranium mining at the site here, known as Coles Hill. Political supporters say that the mining would bring economic benefits and that risks from radioactive wastes, or tailings, can be safely managed. Opponents fear the contamination of drinking water in case of an accident, and a stigma from uranium that would deter people and businesses from moving to the area.

A National Academy of Sciences report in 2011 stopped the momentum in last year’s General Assembly for lifting the ban, imposed three decades earlier in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. The report warned of “steep hurdles” to safe mining and “significant human health” dangers if a capped tailings pile leaks because of the state’s “frequent storms.”

The arguments being used here resemble those associated with the 2000 mile-long Keystone XL pipeline proposal to bring tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries in the South. These projects are said reduce our dependence of imported (at least from outside of north America) energy and create jobs. Similar stories follow the exploration for natural gas trapped in shale and its production by “fracking.” Not to worry the proponents tell us. Everything is safe. But as yet unproven in practice. We know this isn’t true, and major accidents have accompanied the application of all the technologies involved. The economics count more than do the people involved.

The second story is very different, but drew my same general response. In an analysis inspired by this week’s revelations by Lance Armstrong, the author argues that our persistent attempts to improve on the human body will continue, perhaps at an accelerated pace.

LANCE ARMSTRONG’S sad saga of doping and lying is over, allowing us to turn our attention to a far more important issue arising from the Armstrong era: what to do about the rise of ever more potent bio-enhancers in sports.

The “arms race” in this new age of augmentation has already begun, said the bioethicist Thomas Murray, former president of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y. It pits enforcers like the World Anti-Doping Agency, armed with strict bans on certain enhancers, against elite athletes — and their trainers, technicians and financers — who are determined to get away with doping.

In both cases, financial interests are pushing for gains that pose risks to the well-being of human beings. Much more is to come says the article.

Drug companies, meanwhile, are developing a raft of new medications for diseases like muscular dystrophy and anemia that could one day be used as enhancers. Scientists are studying genes associated with physical performance and muscle growth to see if drugs — or, someday, gene-modulating technologies — can be developed to activate the strengthening or other positive effects of those genes.

Beyond chemical fixes, neuroscientists are experimenting with noninvasive technologies that augment brain activity by bathing targeted regions in low levels of electricity (transcranial electrical stimulation) or a magnetic field (transcranial magnetic stimulation). Both appear to enhance cortical excitability and cognitive performance.

Bioengineers are in the early stages of developing artificial limbs and exoskeletons that one day may be better than real limbs. Andy Miah, an ethicist at the University of the West of Scotland, has suggested that scientists in the future might create embedded nano-devices to stimulate muscles to a sustained peak of performance. Hugh Herr, a biomechanical engineer at the M.I.T. Media Lab, recently told the journal Nature that “stepping decades into the future, I think one day the field will produce a bionic limb that’s so sophisticated that it truly emulates biological limb function.” He predicts the emergence of new human-machine sports. These might combine, say, track and field and Nascar.

I have long argued that one of the primary root causes of the present unsustainable state of the world is the lost sense of what it is to be human: a special way of being developed over a very long period of evolution from our forebears to become homo Sapiens. Darwin would argue that our phylogeny, the pathway of our species development, represents successful coping with our environment and culture. That success is measured in tiny increments where the benefits of innovations outweighed any costs (risks). Tool-making gave the species a leg up in combatting the harsh environment.

But we have gone too far. Our values have shifted from a concern over our well-being as a living organism (being) to economic concerns (having). Seeking more energy from risky production means, rather than investing in conservation or less risky sources, masks the reasons that more energy is needed. It is largely because we continue to focus on materialistic measures of “well-being” (quotes used here to indicate that the words have an ironic meaning in everyday usage), rather than a recovery of our basic human values and means of satisfaction.

The pursuit of means to transcend evolution by chemistry or mechanical engineering is rooted, again, in our materialistic and banal culture. Winning pays and pays big as Lance Armstrong has shown us. But what he did seems no different to me than some form of Wall Street insider trading. Winning by breaking the rules. Drivers are purposely sabotaging other drivers in racing. None of this is Darwinian in the sense that is promotes the advancement of the species. Doping, as the article showed, can and has had serious effects on the health (real well-being) of the athletes. In a Darwinian world, such variations would be weeded out.

Aggressive football, for the benefit of blood-thirsty fans, has produced serious brain injury contributing to the suicides and poor health of many players. Stimulating brains is not likely to do anything much for our species, except to make those who chose to compete this way wealthier than most. I, for one, do not have any interest in combining track, field, and Nascar as the article says. We should be spending our research and development money on real human ends, recovering our biological and cultural selves from the hollow creatures that need evermore energy and entertainment.

ps. In another article today, Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that inequality (another sign of the imbalance between economics and human values) is holding back our recovery.

When even the free-market-oriented magazine The Economist argues — as it did in a special feature in October — that the magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America, we should know that something has gone horribly wrong. And yet, after four decades of widening inequality and the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, we haven’t done anything about it.

pps. I watched as much of the inauguration as I could take. We need much more than speeches and toasts. Before we can work together we have to talk together. And to talk together means we must share some common intention for real action. Here we have a classic vicious cycle in which we can only go round and round and never get off. George Will, speaking after the Inaugural luncheon, said division is a good thing, an advantage that the US has over other countries. Yes, maybe, but only if those who are divided can eventually start to talk. I do not believe that will happen out of concern for the whole, a concern almost completely missing today.

The vicious cycle can get broken open when both sides come together to face a common enemy or threat. Ironically there are many of these right now: climate change, terrorism, inequality, globalism and more. The reality that propels action arises in a conversation among the parties, not out of some abstract ideological belief. Only a new acceptance of the reality of the situation can break the viscous cycle and offer the possibility (only a possibility) of (coordinated) action. There was little I saw today to suggest that anything like this is going to happen soon. Another Sandy might so it for climate change, but what a costly way to have to follow.

Away for 10 Days


I will be gone until the 20th. My wife and I are traveling to the Netherlands and Switzerland to visit some very old and close friends.

A Tough Year Ahead



I would like to start the year off on a high note, but I find it very hard to do it without pushing hard against my intuitive feelings. The memory of Newtown remains fresh, kept active by all the talk about gun control. Not being either a gun owner or believer that the Second amendment ever was intended to permit the kind of gun proliferation we have now, I have sympathy with the heated suggestions that we have gone overboard emanating from the gun crowd. Here’s an example from TPM:

On Wednesday, the Drudge Report splashed an image of Hitler and Josef Stalin over a link to Vice President Biden’s contention that the White House may consider using its executive power if Congress proves unable to act… Biden’s statement is old news, as is the suggestion from Drudge that President Obama is intending to act in the manner of histories most notorious dictators. Bumper stickers like this one have been kicking around the anti-gun control community since well before the “from my cold, dead hands” era.

Couple this to a news report in today’s Boston Globe with data showing that the US lags comparable affluent nations in life expectancy. It was the causes, not just the number that jumped out at me.

The United States suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, due in part to the widespread possession of firearms and the practice of storing them at home in a place that is often unlocked, according to a report released Wednesday by two of the nation’s leading health research institutions… The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents. None of the 16 other countries included in the review came anywhere close to that. Finland was next, with slightly more than two violent deaths per 100,000 residents… For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other wealthy countries. In addition to the impact of gun violence, Americans consume the most calories among peer countries and get involved in more accidents that involve alcohol. They also suffer higher rates of drug-related deaths, infant mortality, and AIDS.

This is old news. The US has lagged for a long time. The article pointed to the higher poverty levels in the US than any of the other countries included, especially among children. On the other hand the US is more affluent than the other countries. These two facts. coupled together, imply a strong relationship to inequality, a finding the Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated in their book, The Spirit Level. They found a strong correlation between economic inequality and social ills, like low life expectancy. The US was the worst performer on a variety of indicators of social negative factors. We hardly hear anything said in human terms about this in our political talk; it’s all about economic data and about diddling with the tax code. It is a national shame, but shame is no longer an operational activator in the US.

So much for shame. The Globe article contained a short paragraph about violence as a factor in the finding.

The researchers said there is little evidence that violent acts occur more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. It’s the lethality of those attacks that stands out… ‘‘One behavior that probably explains the excess lethality of violence and unintentional injuries in the United States is the widespread possession of firearms and the common practice of storing them (often unlocked) at home. The statistics are dramatic,’’ the report said.

The report was prepared by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine with the focus on the public health costs of the health issues involved in lower life expectancy, not on the issue of gun ownership. But this last statement is a strong counter to the monotonous litany of the NRA that guns don’t kill people, people do. These data clearly say the opposite. People do kill people, but more so when guns are available. The traditional way to stop the truth from spreading is to kill the messenger. While the demented occasionally do that in actuality, the common way is the assassinate the character or reputation of the bearer of bad news about the real world. That’s why Hitler shows up when the facts threaten the ideologues and demagogues.

The last comment I have on this report comes from a comment on the causes as related to the US culture.

‘‘We have a culture in our country that, among many Americans, cherishes personal autonomy and wants to limit intrusion of government and other entities on our personal lives and also wants to encourage free enterprise and the success of business and industry. Some of those forces may act against the ability to achieve optimal health outcomes,’’ said Dr. Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who served as chairman for the study panel.

Dr Woolf was being politic is his comments. I will not be quite so measured. Our culture is the root cause of unsustainability, both of the natural world and the human species. Denying proper access to health care is bound to reduce life expectancy. Individualism, taken to the extreme as it has in large numbers of Americans, leads to a form of narcissism and even paranoia out of which an excessive need for self-protection comes.

Climate change deniers, in essence also trying to kill the scientist messengers, are expressing a fear that the ominous changes in the world we have wrought will require a re-balancing of wealth and shift in materialistic life styles. It’s not just fear; it’s simple arithmetic, as Bill Clinton argued in at the last Democratic Convention in talking about the economy. Although he was not talking about the redistribution that climate change will inevitably produce, there is no way we can maintain today’s inequality and yet pretend that our nation is built on a moral core. Climate change is, among other things, a stark indicator of the limits of economic, material growth. And when growth finally stops, the only way to right the wrong of inequality will be through some form of balancing or redistribution. Gun control arguments will be but a minor inconvenience when we finally come to realize what our real controversies and conflicts will be in the, perhaps, not too distant future.

How’s this for a welcoming post to 2013?

The New MBA?



2013 is here and I am not ready for her. 2012 came and went too fast. It was a year for me of finishing and starting things all at the same time. Today about one I finished. I retired myself from my teaching at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability program with mixed feelings. Programs like this are still extremely rare, but continue to represent the future of business schools truly concerned about sustainability. My own thoughts on this were reflected in a recent article (undated) in The Economist by Ken Starkey of the Nottingham University Business School.

WHAT are the three hardest words for a business leader to speak? Probably “I don’t know”. Business leaders are encouraged to exhibit confidence, competence and omniscience. But this leads to only two possible outcomes. They can fake it: pretend that they are right because they know that the admission of uncertainty and weakness is a career killer. Or they can believe their own hype, convinced that they are right and know better than everybody else.

Starkey’s first response is to revise the way MBA’s are taught, sprinkling in literature and other subjects with a design to build in a more questioning, humble way of leadership. This approach matches my own thoughts on the place of pragmatism in business (and everywhere else.) Pragmatism, in place of the arrogance of our present reductionist way to capture the way the world works, admits always to the contingency of our knowledge and avoids the privilege given to the professionals in our society. The understanding that is critical to effective activities in any collective undertaking comes from careful observation and small-scale experimentation, something the troops can do as well as or better than the generals.

Pragmatic frameworks devalue traditional hierarchical power structures based on specialized knowledge and are, thus, always resisted by those in power. This is true in businesses and in business schools, built on a congeries of separate, distinct disciplines. Pragmatic systems are in play now in businesses, but have yet to be recognized for the universality they embody. The Toyota Production System and the lean manufacturing school it spawned is fundamentally a pragmatic method to arrive at solutions to the inevitable problems that arise in manufacturing. But its principles of democratic inquiry apply to every problematic business (and other) situation. The case method so prevalent in teaching MBSAs involves pragmatism in that the learning comes from “living” the case, but the stress is on the results not the process. The method fails to capture, however, the contingency of any “truth” found by this process. The students leave with a sense that what they have learned is timeless and universal. Context is unimportant to them.

Pragmatism argues just the opposite. Businesses live in a complex world of incessant change and unknowable interrelationships. Innovation is taught as a strategic necessity, but not as an everyday need. It is not the kind of innovation born in laboratories, but the kind coming from the front lines immersed in the world. Enough of my sermonizing. I have become convinced of the power of pragmatism as an explicit methodological and philosophical basis for understanding and working effectively within the world. So you will hear a lot more about this from me this year. Pragmatism lurks in the corners of business schools but has been kept there for fear it would contaminate the clear hegemony of the reductionist, scientific framework on which the disciplinary structure of universities and professionalism in business and elsewhere is based.

Without the benefit of having read my comments on his piece just above, Starkey offers a second more radical strategy for business schools, which I believe merits serious consideration.

So a second, more radical strategy could be to create a new kind of Master’s education that melds an understanding of business with a broader concept of education. Business schools could become more like the agora of ancient Athens, a place where commerce had its place alongside the academy, where philosophers discussed the meaning of the good life and how best to achieve it; a place of dialogue where citizens collectively addressed the limits of their knowledge. For this, business schools might recruit graduates from other disciplines, such the arts, humanities and the sciences, and create innovative courses to help future leaders imagine products and services which fulfil a more social need. 

This will not be easy. It requires a difficult balancing act between the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. But if we are to create a new business model out of the chaos of a crisis to which business schools contributed, we will need to take a long hard look at how leadership is taught in our schools. Business as usual is no longer an option.  

His plan reflects the centrality of business in modern societies. The Greek world was dominated by debate about life. Commerce was well-developed, but nothing like the corporate institutions of today existed. We have advantages and disadvantages compared to the Athenians that make Starkey’s proposal very challenging. We know a lot more about the world than our ancestors did and we have two millennia of experience to examine. That makes it hard to place it in the body of single individuals. Sorting through what we do know is very much more challenging.

For better or worse, the institution of business dominates our societies. We are largely dependent on sources other than our own (or, in ancient times and not so ancient times, slave) labor for the necessities and luxuries of life. I always argue that this dependence on business and the commoditized products it gives us is a serious cause of unsustainability, and needs to change. Even so, business must be a central conversant in the process of change. And for that to be fruitful, business leaders must be able to appreciate points of view expressed in language far from that of their own world. Starkey’s reference to the dialogic framework for learning is critical.

In our new book, Flourishing, coming out in April, Andy Hoffman asked me if I thought that the change we need to escape from our present unsustainable condition is on the same level as the Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Renaissance, or Enlightenment. I believe it is, and we will need Renaissance men and women to provide the new ideas and social systems. As odd as it may sound, business schools may be one of the key places to forge just such people. Starkey points to Nitin Nohria, the new dean of the Harvard Business School, who argues “that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility”. It’s not just moral humility that matters; it’s also epistemological humility. Our new leaders will need to be humble not only about what is right and wrong, but also about what is true and false. Starkey writes:

To do this, business schools need to challenge their own orthodoxy—a crude Darwinian view of business and society rooted in the survival of the fittest. They need to focus on the social consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for the business excesses of recent years. What is required is a narrative of common interest to combat the mantra of selfishness; one that appeals to the sense that leadership is for all not for the few.

Renaissance leaders came from a foundation where nothing is taken for granted; that there is always more to know and more ways to practice life. Schools are a great places to begin to develop such men and women, but they first must embody the humility that Nohria mentions. Although my own academic career was relatively short, I can attest to the difficulty of doing this within a system where disciplinary knowledge reigns supreme. That’s why the radical programs at Marlboro and Bainbridge island are so very important. Without always being explicit about it, their programs are on the way toward this goal. Nohria and others would do well by stepping out of the historic elitism of their institutions and spend time at these tiny schools.

(Photo is of Gian Lorenzo Bernini)

The Theory of No Relativity

You may have seen this. I do not know who originally posted this, but whoever you are, I do thank you. You have said in pictures what I have often said in words.

Einstein coming true.jpg