Stumbling toward away from Sustainability

stumbling

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.

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1 Comments

John Dernbach said:

Have you read the book yet? I'll read yours. Then perhaps we should discuss.