February 2013 Archives

Stumbling toward away from Sustainability

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Some of you have observed that I have been wandering far from the focus on sustainability. I always try to keep a thread to the primary subject even though it may be very fine. I’ll try to keep closer to the topic, at least for a while. So today, I will comment on a recent post that I saw in the CSR Newsletter.

John Dernbach, author of the post, has written and edited several books on sustainability. His 2002 edited volume book was entitled, Stumbling toward Sustainability, a prescient title given his comments in the post. He notes:

In two prior books about the U.S. sustainability effort, I asked the contributing authors — each an expert in a particular field — to describe progress and make recommendations. But in the second book, published seven years after the first, I noticed that most of the recommendations were the same as, or similar to, those made in the first.

His recent book, Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, is a collection of the remarks of 51 experts in the field. The focus here is on identifying the obstacles that have slowed the pace of movement toward sustainability and suggestions for overcoming the obstacles. According to him, “These obstacles fall into three groups: habit, law and politics.”

I have not read this book, but I will hazard a guess that these experts are still stumbling because they are looking in the rearview mirror, rather than at the future they speak about. They still do not get what sustainability is all about. It is a system property and will show up, as flourishing, when the behaviors of individuals and the institutions that govern those behaviors line up with a fundamentally different belief system.

The obstacles do indeed include habits, but not the habits at the level of observed behaviors. Surely we need to stop creating the proximate causes of unsustainability: over-consumption, emission of greenhouse gases, inequality, and so on, but not much will happen, unless we change the underlying drivers for these injurious behaviors. The most basic belief that must be transformed is our common view of what being human is all about. As long as our deepest belief, the one that drives both the design of societal institutions and consequent individual behavior, is that of a selfish, needing creature operating in what Erich Fromm called the having mode of living, we cannot and will not change the systemic causes of the bad situation.

The alternative is, as I have argued, a very different belief about what it is to be human, that is, a caring creature. This is not just the result of wishful thinking, but a notion based both on biology and philosophy. Caring is the alternate mode that Fromm argues for. Caring, here, is a description of the actions we take, not simply an affective emotional condition. Caring results in a sense of identity and satisfaction (flourishing) that is based on our own assessments of how well we are taking care of ourselves, others, the rest of the world and the spiritual domain. It has nothing to do with the quantity of our possessions, but their effectiveness as tools for our caring actions. It should be obvious that a social world built on this model would be very different from that coming from the “having” model.

The next barrier, law, is related to habits and thence to beliefs. Laws both reflect and create societal norms. The fundamental basis of law in the US is the protection of private property and individual rights. Environmental regulations stem from common law roots of trespass and tort. Early versions required persons to prove damages from the actions of individuals and firms. In the 1970s, the common law bases were augmented by statutes that recognized the limits of common law in dealing with the scope of the emerging environmental damages. The design of the subsequent regulations largely follows principles from welfare economics, assuring that the costs of the regulations does not exceed the benefits. Buried in this process is the same belief that humans are property-seeking creatures whose well-being can be measured in monetary equivalent terms.

One objective of all these laws is to permit the political economy to operate as it has been for years, using the market to allocate scarce goods and continue to grow. A few big problems ensue. One is the recent emergence of serious levels of inequality, so serious that an eminent sociologist, Robert Putnam, foresees the creation of a lost generation (or more) of those stuck in the muck of poverty, homelessness, joblessness… without the means to pull themselves out. Another is the conflict between the notion of continuing growth and a clearer realization (by some) that global economies have hit or exceeded the capability of the Planet to support life at the affluent levels of those making and enforcing the laws.

The legal structure fails to recognize the systemic nature of the problems they are design to address. Flourishing is an emergent property of the global (or to a lesser extent) national polities. Smith’s notion of the invisible hand, which still lies underneath the current political economy, simply does not work. Well-being (a quality rather than a measure of affluence) is not merely the aggregate of the economic activities; it is a systemic property. Applying Band-Aids to the system in an uncoordinated (Smithian) way can’t produce the desired results, other than by chance.

Here’s where the second big idea comes in, that of pragmatism. Our institutions, including the legal and other regulative rules on which they are founded, assume a knowable, objective world that can be reduced to analytic laws through scientific methodologies. Then, given these laws, we can design our institutions and their rules based on what we know with the expectation that they will behave as we predict.

No, the world is a big, complex system that is fundamentally unknowable at the systems level. It cannot be governed through the rules and designs based on the reductionist results of conventional scientific inquiry. A different philosophical context is needed; fortunately, we have one at hand: pragmatism. It is nigh impossible to capture the essence of this philosophy in a few paragraphs, but a few key features will suffice. Pragmatism starts with an implicit premise that the world is complex and cannot be reduced to a set of simple, permanent rules. In place of conventional scientific inquiry, pragmatists argue that any rules (truths) that are potentially effective in solving problems (big and small) must be derived through a “democratic” process of testing them against real and possible outcomes.

“Democratic” refers to the need to include all interested partied in the inquiry, not just the experts as we do currently. Any “truths” that arise are to held contingent and fallible. This means that prediction needs to be monitored carefully and the rules adjusted as the outcomes (inevitably) diverge from those desired. The laws are not, then, the only problem; the lawmaking processes, itself, is flawed and creates an obstacle more basic than the laws it produces.

Finally, Dernbach and his team of experts point to politics as the third obstacle. Politics, per se, is not the problem. Politics, considered as the design of the institutions that govern, is an essential part of any collective body of human beings living together. Without any political system, such a collective would exist in a Hobbesian state of nature. Our political system is impossible to describe in a phrase or two, but, in the context of Dernbach’s article, the feature that might be seen as an obstacle is the conservative shift over the past years—conservatism, not in the sense of big or small government, but in the sense of looking backwards. There may have been a time in our history (viewed in the global context) that the Smithian model of human nature coupled with our reductionist beliefs seemed to produce the social ends coming out of a democratic political economy. But, as I have written here, this view cannot work today. The two-party concept cannot cope with this reality. Pragmatism requires a more diverse body of inquirers.

So, I agree that all the categories Dernbach presents are a problem, but not in the way I am confident that they are portrayed in the book being discussed. Normally, I would not write about something I have not researched in sufficient detail. I will get his book and add it to my pile. The problem I have is that my pile is very high right now, and I wanted to respond to the post before it got dated and cold. If I have misjudged it, I apologize, but not without trying to explain that my reading of hundreds of similar stories about why we continue to observe unsustainability growing even as we do so much to stem its tide provides the bases for my arguments here and elsewhere. Stumbling is still a very good description for what we are doing to produce sustainability.

A Few Book Reports


I’m back, tanned and rested, but not ready for the winter that welcomed me back. I have always been quite content with the winters in New England, but find myself less happy with the concomitant snow shoveling that goes with it. But all that fades on a morning like today’s. Last night it snowed slowly but steadily with the temperature just about freezing. The result was a winter wonderland. Every tree had a sparkling white winter coat, glittering in the bright sunshine. The warm day that followed was most welcome, but at the cost of all the beauty as the snow quickly melted and fell off.

The publication date for Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability is getting close. It is due in the stores by May 15th at the latest. My co-author, Andy Hoffman, and I are gearing up for the necessary publicity work. It’s arrival is too late for courses this semester, but not for the Fall term.

Roger Williams

I spent a lot of time around the pool and on the beach while at Cancun last week, taking in the sun and reading. I brought the texts for the two courses I am taking at my geezers institute for learning in retirement and also our book club book. Some thoughts about what I read before it all fades. The book club book was the story of Roger Williams, perhaps best known as the founder of the colonies that became Rhode Island. He was a most remarkable man persevering in a times fraught with religious and political strife in England that followed him to the New World. A deeply religion man, he fought with the Puritan leaders that has established plantations (settlements) in Massachusetts largely out of opposition to the authoritarian context of their church.

Williams strongly believed that every person should have the freedom to determine his or her relationship to God without the strictures placed by the established church hierarchy. He argued for a context of toleration opposed to a conformist structure. He further opposed the conflation of church and “state.” I put state in quotes because there was little formal state then in the colonies. His primary reason was that his belief that the combination would corrupt the purity of his religion. But he also, as I noted, believed in the freedom to choose one’s approach to God and that the authorities whether political or ecclesiastical should not interfere.

What I found most relevant to flourishing was the absence of domination in his philosophy and theocracy. His notions spilled over to his acceptance of the Indians that surrounded all the early colonies as fully human. He learned their languages and became the most important negotiator between the several important Indian tribes and the English settlers. Life in those times was hard, but by living an authentic life, Williams could be said to flourish amidst the strife of the times.

Jim Crow

The next book is about the New Jim Crow and the subjugation of black males through the mass incarceration policies associated with the continuing War on Drugs. I can’t remember all the statistics on the percentages of young black males in prisons, but it was disturbingly high. Besides a terrible story about cruelty and callousness, it tells another about the failures of linear, instead of systems, thinking.

The notion that severe, mandatory sentencing for even minor drug-related arrests would stem the use and trafficking of drugs produced perverse effects, with many young blacks accepting plea bargains in very weak cases that might well have been won if the cases had been tried. But once accepting a plea bargain, the young men are labeled as felons, a millstone that they carry the rest of their lives, barring them from voting, employment, government assistance programs and other societal functions necessary for what might be considered a minimally free existence. Flourishing is out of the question. The context of mass incarceration ignores the many complexities of living at the bottom of society and narrowly compresses a complex set of issues into a single category of criminal justice. Add a large dose of racism and we end up with a prison population far greater per capita than any other comparable country. In terms of sustainability, as I write about it, this situation indicates the virtual absence of care on both individual and institutional levels.

Hungry Years

The third was a tale about life during the Great Depression years starting in the late 20’s in the United States. Its name had economic roots but better described the state of mind of many of those affected and certainly of many readers like myself. I have only read the first few chapters, but enough to begin to visualize the extreme conditions surrounding life for so many. While the causes of the economic shutdown were manifold, the bursting of the speculative bull market was clearly a trigger, just as the market for derivatives led to a speculative bubble that burst to initiate the great recession of the last few years.

As many as 25 percent of the workforce were unemployed in the 1930’s and many others were severely underemployed. Early on, without the later massive governmental relief programs of the first Roosevelt Presidency, there was an outpouring of voluntary assistance that did make life better for some but was grossly inadequate to deal with the scope of the problem. I don’t see much evidence of anything like this in the recent social crisis. I wonder if, as we have become more affluent and consumeristic, we have become even less caring. I suspect so, but haven’t any scholarly data close at hand to support my sense.

In the New Jim Crow class today, someone asked if the plight of the blacks (and browns) and the other social breakdowns emerging today was related to an “American Character.” I do not think that the notion of a national character, especially in the US, is a useful metaphor. But I do think that our norms reflect a certain set of dominant beliefs, and that these are factors useful to explain the behaviors that lead to pathological societal conditions. Domination and discrimination leading to inequality and injustice are traceable to the prevalent acquisitive individualism rampant in the US. The “other” is viewed with indifference or, worse, aggression (put them in their place).

Flourishing is impossible in such a context. A few can try to insulate themselves from the mainstream, but even that will not lead to flourishing because it exacerbates the sense of isolation, rather than the inherent interconnectedness of all of us. Simplistic solutions, such as incarceration or bank bailouts, simply are inadequate to deal with the systemic nature of societal life for both the rich and the poor.

“Character” is nothing more than an assessment of the nature of someone’s habitual behavior. There is no such “character” inside one’s skin. But there are common beliefs that lead to such an assessment. It’s here that any solutions to our problems lie via changing these beliefs. Recovering caring that accompanies being authentically human, that is reflecting the unique characteristics of our species, is essential to any efforts that can truly begin to make these and other problems ameliorate and maybe disappear. But even that will be insufficient until we begin to treat these problems as systemic and stop applying Band-Aids, even very expensive ones.

Headed for the Sun



Time to get away from all this snow. The piles are still several feet high all around our house. And more is supposed to be on the way. I will be back in about 10 days. My new book is only about a month away. You can pre-order a copy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Just look for Flourish: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability.

Sustainability and Resilience



After an unexpected prolonged stay in Cleveland, I am back home. My flights back were canceled for the two days it took Boston to dig out of the blizzard that left a couple of feet of snow on the ground. I was there to teach a class to the Doctor of Management students in the Weatherhead School. The course is entitled, Designing Sustainable Systems, and is organized to emphasis both systems thinking and sustainability. I had prepared a class based on my book, as usual, but wanted to incorporate more systems context than I generally do.

The syllabus had a large dose of complex systems theory and I thought I should also focus there. I had recently read a few articles that more or less equated sustainability with resilience, and wanted to correct that misunderstanding. Resilience is not the same as sustainability although the two concepts are related. Sustainability is the ability of a complex system to produce some desired quality or material output for an extended period of time relative to an observer’s time frame of interest. I have defined the normative output of interest as flourishing and the duration as extending at least over many generations.

It is useful for this discussion to speak of attractors, but not quite in the rigorous way they are defined in formal complexity theory. One reason is that the global system of interest in sustainability discussions is a complex case of complexity and the mathematical formalisms do not quite work, but the ideas do. Think of a complex system as existing in a metaphorical well or basin where its behavior is constrained to some limited extent by the rules that govern the system. As long as the rules produce behaviors that are considered normatively satisfactory, we can say the system is in good shape and we are getting what we want. We can describe this by saying that the system lies within an attractor basin that keeps the system from straying too far.

Occasionally a system may stray from producing what we want and then we may intervene to restore it. The departure may be due to a change in the rules or material conditions that change the material or emergent outputs. This happened in the case of the 2007-8 financial collapse. Something shifted within the system and two things happened. First, the material output, money flows, ceased, and that shift spilled over into the whole economy which slowed down dramatically. Secondly, emergent qualities, like confidence and security, also vanished. The system’s behavior was so different that we can say it moved into a different attractor which exhibited a distinct set of emergent properties and material outputs.

Economists argued that it would stay there unless radical efforts were taken to move it back into the original attractor basin. Of course, they did not use this language. But that is what was done. Massive amounts of capital were injected, and new rules were applied. The internal structure of the system was significantly altered by bankruptcies and mergers. Now in 2013, it appears that the system (the economy of the US) is back to a place where it is normatively satisfactory or approaching that point. But it is in a new attractor basin, a point missed by many. Even if it appears to be acting satisfactorily, it can be subject to abrupt shifts in behavior quite distinct from those seen in 2007-8.

Systems like an economy are always being subjected to perturbations. The players change as enterprises come and go, and grow and shrink. Exogenous pressures shift, for example, the price of factor inputs coming in from outside the system. To the extent that the system remains in the basin in the face of such perturbations, it is exhibiting resilience. Resilience is the ability of a complex system to remain in a basin when subject to changes in the rules or material conditions.

Now, with this preface, we can talk about sustainability and resilience. The global system is now situated in a basin where it is behaving badly and exhibiting signs of brittleness (the opposite of resilience). The desired outputs are falling away from goals set by many institutions and individuals. Flourishing is largely absent, and exists only in an isolated sense as there is little evidence of it as an emergent property of the system. Indeed, those would assert that they are flourishing have largely detached and insulated themselves from the system. Let me call this basin, Modernity, governed by the beliefs (habit-forming rules) that have evolved and become embedded in the culture since the time of Descartes and the Enlightenment. I have written much about the details of these beliefs and will not repeat them here.

We cannot be sure of the nature of other basins; their very complexity confounds our ability to predict future behaviors. But we can make a pretty good guess that a basin I will call Collapse is close by. In it, our global system will depart from the conditions of the Holocene which supported the evolutionary processes that led to our present system. We do know a lot about the possibilities of climatic shifts that will, in turn, cause large changes in the rules that govern our cultures. Migrations will shift the internal relationships such that new behavioral patterns are highly likely to show up. Given that the new system will be complex as is the present one, we cannot ever be certain about how it will work.

Well diagram.jpg

The figure represents this case. The blue dot represents the condition of the system at this time. Our modern world is flanked by two others. One, Collapse, is a place we are trying to avoid. The height of the red arrow is a measure of resilience. If the blue dot moves to the cusp separating modernity and collapse, then there is a good possibility that our world will flip into that well.

As we pour our wastes into the environment, we are reducing the resiliency of the existing world. On the figure, this would be represented by a shortening of the red line. Most atmospheric scientists claim that we are doing that by pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The increasing inequality in the United States is doing the same thing, making the system more brittle, subject to flips into another well.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we can conceive of another adjacent well, that of Flourishing. It is separated by a different cusp at the top of the green arrow. My writings have been focused on the set of rules that might constitute such an alternate world. Care, instead of need, is one of the fundamental changes that could maintain a flourishing world. But we cannot simply jump there without climbing the wall to the cusp and over into the new basin/well. But that means overcoming the resistance to change inherent in our present modern system. Purposely moving to a new world has to overcome the forces in the current attractor that try to maintain the system.

Those who believe that our present attractor is the right one should and do focus on making the system more resilient. They believe that we can continually lengthen the arrow with technology and the application of scientific knowledge, pushing off the day we flip into the terra incognita of Collapse. I do not think they are on the right track. Given that the ominous moves toward collapse we observe are, in my arguments, an unintended consequence of Modernity, it seem imprudent to keep doing what we have been doing for a few hundred years and expect it to turn out differently.

While it is just as impossible to predict how life in the Flourishing basin would be, we have small smidgens of evidence from history and our thinking that a different set of constitutive rules can transform the system to one that has the capacity to produce flourishing as an emergent quality. Although this discussion simplifies complexity theory (no pun intended), it retains enough of its character to present a meaningful picture. As I write often, trying to avoid a flip into Collapse using the same rules that has moves us close to the cusp seems unwise. But, as Paul Krugman wrote today in his NYTimes column, ignorance seems to be the norm in our political world.

And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

The excuses that we do not know what Flourishing would look like or that we do not know if our efforts to get there will be effective are only explicit or implicit forms of procrastination. Time is not on our side, I believe, nor is the optimistic view of Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption. Gilding expects some sort of collapse, but argues that Homo sapiens is so clever that we will find our way back to a world that works. If we do not now understand, and we do not, that we are intricately involved in the move to collapse, I believe it unlikely that we will be able to create anew a workable and desirable world. This a case where the “devils you know theory” does not apply. We must start moving toward Flourishing (or some other normatively desirable basin) now and the old devils will not help us. It’s time to “give love a chance.”

Back next week


I'm off for a few days teaching and lecturing in Cleveland. Be back next week.

[Slowly] Boiling a Frog


boiling frog

If you don’t already know this tale about perceiving change, it goes like this. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to jump out. But if you put it in the pot and slowly raise the temperature, it will remain there until it is cooked. The story may not be biologically accurate, but it does metaphorically describe the failure of people to observe very slow changes until it is too late to do something about it.

The growth and diffusion of the usage of the word “sustainability” fits the “boiling the frog” tale. Our public concerns about the deteriorating conditions of the Planet go back centuries to the times of soft coal burning in crowded London in the 17th Century. Maybe the cave dwellers had similar concerns about their sooty abodes. In what is generally accepted as the first published critique of environmental conditions, John Evelyn’s, Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled, complained about the terrible state of the atmosphere.

It is this horrid Smoake which obscures our Churches, and makes our Palaces look old, which fouls our Clothes, and corrupts the waters, so as the very Rain, and refreshing Dews which fall in the several Seasons, precipitate this impure vapour, which, with its black and tenacious quality, spots and contaminates whatsoever is expos’d to it:

He proposed a surprisingly modern solution: to move the most serious production facilities away from the city, and a not so modern one: to ring the city with gardens planted with sweet smelling plants and shrubs. One huge can of Glade.

That these Palisad’s be elegantly planted, diligently kept and supply’d, with such Shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferous Flowers, and are aptest to to tinge the Aer upon every gentle emission at a great distance: Such as are (for instance amongst many others) the Sweet-briar, all the Periclymena’s and Woodbinds; the Common white and yellow Jessamine, both the Syringa’s or Pipe trees; the Guelder-rose, the Musk, and all other Roses; Genista Hispanica: To these may be added the Rubus odoratus, Bayes, Juniper, Lignum-vitae, Lavander: but above all, Rosemary, the Flowers whereof are credibly reported to give their sent above thirty Leagues off at Sea, upon the coasts of Spain; and at some distance towards the Meadow side, Vines, yea Hops.

Fast forward to the 20th century when the same problems were arising in the United States. Not much happened until the situation became intolerable in places near power plants and steel mills, and rivers started to catch on fire. The frog jumped out of the environmental pot and pushed the Congress to pass a series of Federal pollution statutes that remain the centerpiece of our concerns about the world we inhabit.

Then in the late 1980’s with deteriorating environmental and social conditions around the globe, another frog jumped out and gave us the concept of sustainable development, a way to continue modernity’s economic progress without further damaging the world already showing signs of devastation.

Now it is 25 or so years later and the last surviving frog is still sitting in the pot. The metaphor has taking on more real meaning as the Earth is slowly warming up in real, not metaphorical, terms. This frog has been calling out to us to get moving on lowering the thermostat, but not too fast, arguing that we might be able to keep things cool by staying on the track called forth by sustainable development. “I like it in this pot,” the frog has been saying, “so do something to keep the powers that be from turning up the heat further.” The response began with a few saying, “Sustainable development is for the UN and governments; what I will do is to be called greening, really the same thing, but something I can claim to be contributing to.” This lasted for a while, but then it became clear that greening wasn’t enough to cover all the problems, particularly those involving people and some ethical concerns that couldn’t be handled by mucking around in the market. At some moment, some clever person said, “Well then, let’s call what we are doing ‘sustainability.’ That has a nice ring to it.”

Greening, which, while it was not going to solve the problems it was designed to do, at least had represented what individual actors were doing. The water was now, perhaps, heating up more slowly and the frog remained happy. The use of “sustainability” grew and grew until just about everyone was using the word. The frog stopped taking the temperature of the pot and instead started listening to those who said, look at what we are doing, don’t worry about the hot water.

Well, that’s where we are today, sitting in a pot of ever-hotter water, but oblivious of the fact that it is getting to the point where we will probably not be able to jump out. The misuse of “sustainability” lulls us into neglecting to take the “temperature” and observe how it is continuing to rise. Even as those who are doing “sustainability” are being recognized for their work—for example, membership in the Sustainability Hall of Fame or building larger market share—the temperature continues to rise. And will continue to as long as “sustainability” is misunderstood and misused.

The primary reason for this continuing approach to collapse is that “sustainability” as it is being used and practiced (set in quotes in this post) is not lowering the flames under our pot—the world we inhabit. And while we are putting out some fires, maybe, the critical source of heat goes merrily along unquenched. The fire that is heating up our pot is not the inefficiency and inequity characterizing the ways we make and use things, although these are the two sources that “sustainability” is treating. The real fire is fueled by our cultural beliefs (see my recent post of January 25, 2013.

We must begin, quickly, to point our fire extinguishers towards the real source or we will discover that, as I noted, we can no longer jump out of the hot pot into a safe place. That requires that we start, right now, to call sustainability by its right name. Again see that recent post for a definition.

It is critical top get the words right, not just the intent behind them. Language is the medium of human action and coordination. Words guide our actions. If someone says “Dinner is ready” to me, I do not start the bath water. If someone says sustainability, I start to think about changing the culture, but all those Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO’s) and Sustainability Hall of Famers think about eco-efficiency or CSR or something similar. I start to think about care and complexity; they still think about market share and tuning up the [market] machine.

Try as I might I cannot find anything much in common. Sustainability to me is a vision of a flourishing world; to them it is little more than picture of the past becoming the future. But even their past is only a mirage; the world has never been what we have fooled ourselves into believing it was. No matter how many folks get named to the Sustainability Hall of Fame, the temperature is going to keep rising. Words always precede coordinated action. The wrong words may produce actions that seem to do something good, but also can and do produce unintended consequences. It’s those unintended consequences (We have called them unsustainability.) that are turning up the heat. First, let’s get the words right. Then and only then can we begin to collectively act to cool down the Planetary pot enough to live comfortably within it.