March 2013 Archives

Research Using Crowdsourcing

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crowdsource

I want to try an experiment and need the cooperation of those who read this blog. I have been putting together an article on the importance of getting the concept of sustainability right. If you have been following my blog for a while, you know that this is a persistent theme in my writing. Now that I am retired and working from home, I have limited access to the usual resources that frame research and analysis. To substitute for conventional literature searching, I want to try out a process analogous to crowdsourcing for financial capital. Capital for me is intellectual capital—access to sources that bear on whatever I am writing about. After a few paragraphs that frame my current topic, I will request that you send me references to relevant scholarly and newsy courses.

I continue to believe that misunderstanding of the meaning of sustainability remains a serious impediment to progress toward a flourishing world. A few recent articles I encountered on the Internet only reinforce my belief. Here is one someone pointed me to.

One of Friday’s two Focus sections, in the Portland Business Journal, will feature a bevy of information about the sustainability world… Or will it? That is, panelists on a Business Journal roundtable debated, at length, whether the term “sustainability” carries the same heft it did, say, 10 years ago… We’ll feature analysis from the event, which featured eight of the industry’s brightest lights, in our special section on … whatever a good substitute word might exist for “sustainability.” Indeed, our lead story tackles that very question: Does a name, even a clunky six-syllable moniker that’s a bit vague, matter?

One issue Ecotrust President Astrid Scholz has with the moniker is that it’s been marginalized… “You don’t have to care about ‘sustainability’ to use it,” she said. “You can attract dumb capital, so to speak, just by virtue of getting a financial return and getting it to do the right thing.” . . What matters, she added, is that the industry, no matter what it’s called, continues to look for new ideas that both attract and generate capital while doing right by society.

Another is this quote by Yvon Chouinard: “If all these companies are doing all these great sustainability things, why is the world still going to hell?” This comes from a longer quote that appears in my post a few days earlier. I think these two items suffice to frame what I am seeking.

I am looking for sources that say something about the marginalization of sustainability resulting from its prevalent use to mean anything being done to lessen the previous impacts from business-as-usual. I have called this practice “business-almost-as-usual.” I am also interested in the opposite; articles that have data/information about the benefits of incorporating “sustainability” in business strategies. I seek scholarly and otherwise articles, books, webpages, and so on that explicitly call for more rigor and specificity in the definition of sustainability and/or offer such definitions. Anything that says something about what sustainability means.

Any help is most welcome. You can send my the information either as a comment to this post or use the email link at the bottom right of the home page. Web-links are fine. Citations to journals or books also; the more specific the better. If you have a few favorite articles in electronic format, send them along. I will acknowledge the donor of any materials I use.

An Exceptional Video

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This 2-minute video was done on a high school project. It's worth watching twice.

Wow! Systems Thinking Is Cool

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sinking rowboat

Continuing the thread of the last post, this week’s email letter from Gil Friend’s “Natural Logic” business picks up on systems thinking and contains another quote about complexity. He writes:

One big idea: Systems thinking. [Part 1.]
It’s trending. It’s cool. It’s not a panacea. (Hunter Lovins and I would blast a klaxon horn at our Presidio MBA students whenever they used “systems thinking” as a selling point in their pitch presentations—as though it were a self-explanatory magic bullet—instead of demonstrating how they’d actually use systems thinking to identify and deliver value that would otherwise slip through the cracks of a more traditional, reductionist, compartmentalized, mechanistic approach.)

I suppose Part 2 will come next week. System thinking is essential to escape from the reductionist mindset we all have become habituated to without ever thinking about it. I spoke about this in my last post and in many others. Conscious systems thinking, as Friend says, is no panacea for the errors we make in our thinking and acting, but it is a step in the right direction. It’s the “conscious” aspect that I find most important. By bringing the current problem or concern present, the actors involved then have an opportunity (not always taken) to examine their presuppositions and the framing of the situation, and consequently to set out on a path to address the root causes. By avoiding the trap of reductionistic thinking (simplification), systems thinking (and acting) potentially makes the immediate problem go away or close in on the objectives. In the organizational change world, this kind of approach is often called “double-loop learning” (Argyris and Schön).

To emphasize the need to think and act in this way, I often say we are addicted to the use of reductionist thinking. Our cultural learning has given us this way of working without telling us about it. So it is one of the most common and basic of our cultural habits. If it worked well, it would simply (sic) be a habit, and a helpful one as well, but is doesn’t in many everyday situations and in dealing with the big problems we face, like global warming or inequality, and others that we put in the bin of unsustainability. It is an addiction, not just a habit, because it is now producing serious and threatening unintended consequences.

Friend also included another quote that triggers a related discussion to the previous post. “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” (Charles Mingus) I’ll counter with another quote, one from Donald Norman, author of Living with Complexity. “Complexity describes a state of the world; complicated describes a state of mind. Mingus doesn’t mistake the two main terms as Yvon Chouinard did. Cutting through complications to find a dominant theme to work on is often, as Mingus writes, a form of creativity, finding “solutions” to messes. But I would guess that in many such instances, the solutions do not persist because, in the process of simplification—a mental operation—the complexity of the situation in view gets overlooked. Since I am into quotes today, I’ll finish with another one. “Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit. (Henry Adams)

Yvon Chouinard Speaks

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A week or so ago, Gil Friend reported on what Yvon Chouinard said at a recent Greenbiz Forum conference. Here’s the quotes he reported:

If all these companies are doing all these great sustainability things, why is the world still going to hell? It's the obsession with growth! Companies that have been in business for 500-1000 years focus on three priorities: quality, innovation, and controlled growth.... We've been growing 25-30%/year, in a recession, while other companies are hurting. We must be doing something right. Every time we've done the right thing for the planet, we've made more money.... [Makower: It's the hardest thing in the world for companies to be seen as authentic.] Chouinard: Because they're not!... [Makower: In some ways Patagonia and you are similar to Apple and Steve Jobs.] Chouinard: Not at all! Their stuff is disposable, not repairable, and they want you to buy new one every year. I've got no use for that.... There's no difference between a pessimist who says 'We're doomed, why bother?' and an optimist who says 'We're fine, why bother?' Nothing gets done.... If you want to change government, change business, because business runs govt. If you want to change business, change consumers. Make consumption uncool!... We've got to move from complexity to simplicity. The more you know, the less you need.

It may seem hypocritical and certainly ironic to hear this coming from the founding and head of Patagonia, one of the most successful consumer goods company around. But Chouinard has been leading the “green” way for a long time. I’ve been saying the same things for quite a long time, but there is a big difference when I talk or write like this from my mostly academic perch and when a leader like him says it.

patagonia dont buy this

Is his company doing what he says needs to be done? For two years now they have highlighted Black Friday with an ad that tells potential customers, “Don’t buy this.” They don’t mean never buy anything from them, but to consider whether they really need whatever it is they are looking at and find suitable alternates before making the purchase. It is really uncool to not buy something under these circumstances. Chouinard notes that Patagonia continues to grow, even at a time that the recession has eaten into consumption levels on the economy-wide scale. I have to give him two cheers, but that’s more than just about anyone else in the consumer products industry would get from me. In any case his concern about continuing growth is well grounded and should be taken seriously.

He makes another statement that needs a comment from me. He said, “We've got to move from complexity to simplicity.” I don’t quite understand what he meant. Maybe the full transcript would clear it up, but I don’t have access to it. Complexity is a description of the world. It is either complex or not. We can’t change it to anything other than it is. In all but the most highly prescribed conditions, the world we have to deal with is always complex. While people are to a degree predictable, they can depart from the expected in any real situation, rendering it complex even if we want to think about it as “simple.”

Trying to simplify complexity is one of the primary reasons we are concerned about unsustainability today. Science does this all the time and its findings depend on it. There is yet a science of everything, although some cosmologists are working to create one. All sciences whether natural or social pick a part of the world to study and set strict bounds on the domains they investigate and employ methodologies peculiar to that domain. Each discipline within these sciences produces truths about their part of the world that we then use to construct our institutions and the rules by which society functions. If these rules were complete and comprehensive, it might be possible to create rules and institutions that work (nearly) perfectly to produce the desired outcomes. But they are not and, as a result, the goals are often missed. Unintended consequences come along as well.

I write often that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modernity. Reductionism, or said otherwise as the conversion of complexity to simplicity, is one of the primary modern belief structures and is responsible for these departures from an ideal social world. The other is a mistaken or distorted view of what it is to be human, but that’s a subject for other posts. Rather that attempt to simplify what simply (sic) is complex, it is critical to change the way we think about the world and come to understand it. The scientific model, powerful as it is, with its positive statements about the workings of the world must give way to a pragmatic way of gaining understanding. Pragmatism, from the outset, accepts complexity and its methods for probing the world can produce useful beliefs, but always beliefs that are understood to be fallible and contingent. Many of our key institutions have become hubristic because they unquestioningly believe their working hypotheses based on positivistic thinking. I have written widely about this and discuss it in my forthcoming book so will not go further here today, except to chide Chouinard for his mistaken take on the world.

Watch This Video

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I may have posted this earlier. I particularly like the first four minutes or so. I find that part of the video a good depiction of spirituality. The rest of it projects sustainability as flourishing.

Comments Needed or Missing

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comment A month or so, this blog was switched to a new server, creating a flood of spam comments. Shortly thereafter, I added a spam filter to try to manage the flow. I discovered today that the filter was putting everything into the spam file, which I did not monitor carefully before trashing all the contents. So if your comments have not showed up, I apologize.

I am “tweaking” the filters to find a happy medium. I would prefer a few false positives, spam getting through, to missing your comments. If you do send me comments that disappear into thin air, you can alert me with an email sent to the link at the bottom of the right-hand column on the home page.

I will be continuing to post to the blog after my new book is published. Very soon!! I am in the process of redesigning the whole website. Your suggestions are welcome.

We Are All Users

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shopping-addiction

I am currently taking a course named after one of the texts we are using, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. The main theme is the scandalous mass incarceration of young black men as a result of the “War on Drugs” policies over the past several decades. Bolstered by several Supreme Court decisions that supported police sweeps without significant grounds, the young black male population has become virtually decimated in many urban communities. They have been jailed for either drug possession or drug dealing, most often without a trial, being induced to plea bargain with prosecutors threatening draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines.

This issue is, by itself, worth following. I encourage you to get and read a copy of Alexander’s book. If your sensitivities are at all like mine, reading it will produce more than a few sleepless nights, but this is not the point I want to make in this post. Although drug-related criminal justice is becoming more rational, the idea that drugs are addictive and therefore bad for human well-being, therefore those using or providing the stuff should be punished. But shouldn’t this idea be extended to those who produce addiction in any form, so long as the addiction is harmful. Addiction refers to a particular habit that is very strongly embedded in one’s behavioral norms and also creates a harmful consequence along with whatever the user considers beneficial.

Drug addiction eats away at the health of the user and produces additional consequences: criminal activity. These are not mere side-effects. They are just as much a result of the addiction as is the primary reason for it. Crime is an example of a societal consequence that accompanies the private set of benefits and costs. People are addicted to bad food habits, leading to obesity and to social costs in the form of higher medical costs. Many are addicted to alcohol, with outcomes similar to the case just above. Alcoholics cause many deaths every year via drunk driving and suffer impaired relationships at home and at work. We tolerate these and many other addictions in spite of the harms caused to others and to society in general. Recent political and legislative activities indicate that we are beginning to question the severity of the severe criminalization associated with drugs.

But these addictions are small in comparison with one that virtually everyone in the United States and other affluent nations suffers from—the addiction of consumption. Let’s face it. We are addicts individually and as a group. We can laugh off aphorisms with consumption themes, like, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” or the advice George W. Bush gave the Nation shortly after 9/11. He told us to, “Go shopping.” People joke that “the one with the most toys when he or she dies wins.” Wins what I cannot figure. A brief Internet search suggests that others also cannot figure this one out. It certainly suggests that consumption and doing well are related.

Consumption is not addictive up to a point. Economists, psychologists, and others have demonstrated that consumption contributes to our well-being but only up to a point where more consumption does nothing for our well-being or may decrease it. Except for those at the lower end of the distribution of wealth who struggle for subsistence and the basic needs that Abraham Maslow showed us, we are acting in addictive patterns. We have come to act as if all the problems of life can be solved by some form of consumption of goods and services. We don’t even think about it; we automatically follow President Bush’s advice every time our lives encounter a hiccup. Healthy activities become replaced by purchased services. I have written about available services that are empty of the health-giving power of relational practices. One that always gets me going is the hiring of “professional” potty trainers. We trade an important part of nurture to a stranger.

Addiction to consumption has another consequence similar to the public costs of food or alcohol addiction. It shows up as unsustainability. Consumption always does and will impact the health of the Planetary system which provides us our life-support: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy that turns our wheels, the food we eat, and all the materials that are transformed into everything we use. Our addiction has reached levels that now are visibly impairing the health of this system. Climate change is rapidly becoming the most evident. In general we have ignored these so-called “side-effects,” a poor, misleading word because it implies that these effects are marginal. They are not!

Drug addiction and trafficking is considered to be a crime. Crimes are acts that contravene societal norms. They refer to actions that harm the public. Why then is not consumption a crime and those who traffic in it criminals? We are surely destroying the ultimate source of well-being and perhaps even the source of life itself. Is it simply that we do not see our addiction because the social consequences are not immediately recognized? Or are we, like many alcoholics, living in complete denial? Have we yet to understand that the cost is more than the value we give to the instant surge of gratification? Are we just a bunch of hypocrites that express our concerns one moment, and then ignore them in the next? It really doesn’t matter. Our addiction is taking us to a place I believe we do not really want to be.

So, what should we do about it? We could criminalize it like we do for drugs, but there would not be room in all the jails for us. Besides no one would left outside to run them. We could make the producers and market intermediaries criminals, and just lock them up. We would have to pass a lot of laws and regulations to permit those providing “necessary” consumption to continue to operate. We could take a different tack and initiate a huge rehabilitation program that would, like Alcoholics Anonymous, allow us to live with our addictions, but hold them in check. Economists, politicians and business leaders would require an extra special program to rid them of the trafficking role that they play. And so on. This may look like a satire, but it is not. It is deadly serious. We are indeed addicts. The economic agents—the dealers—know to drag others along. This is happening under the guise of globalization and the export of our addictions elsewhere on the Planet.

Alcoholics heal themselves only when they accept that their addiction is part of their self. Addictive consumption is just a much a part of all of us as is alcoholism to alcoholics. It is fed by the fabric of our societal culture. It feeds off the obscene bombardment of persuasion in all our media and now on the internet. Our economic and political systems are grounded on everlasting growth of consumption.

When I began to think seriously about sustainability, I spent a lot of time learning about the 12-step program and the principles that underpin it. I am convinced that our troubles do stem from a cultural addiction that manifests itself as consumption. I can’t imagine any program that puts us all in jail, but I can visualize rehabilitation approaches like the 12-step system that might work. But following those now in play for various forms of addiction, we would have to, all of us, acknowledge our addiction. Then we could work to bring it under control. We are going to have to face this sooner or later. We have a much higher chance of leaving a healthy Planet for future generation is we choose sooner. As it has been said, “Denial ain’t just a river.”

Give Me a Break[down]

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auto breakdown Any movement toward sustainability-as-flourishing requires a change in the cognitive structure of the actors involved, as individuals or as part of an organization. If they do not change the beliefs that underpin their normal practices, whatever their “business” is will go on unchanged, continuing to produce the unintended consequences that constitute unsustainability. In the model of human action I believe is the most meaningful in describing intentional behavior, responses to familiar situations arise out of past patterns that have been assessed as satisfactory or effective kept in the ready. These become “ready-to-hand” in Heidegger’s terms, that is, they are pulled out of the actor’s toolbox without consciously thinking what to do. They are not the result of some conventionally rational process.

The same process is posited by Humberto Maturana, but from a biological perspective. Actors acquire cognitive structure in the process of acting. Maturana calls this “structural coupling.” Learning is a continual process of building structure. Giddens’s structuration model for collective action is essentially the same. Normal behavior springs from a set of beliefs and institutional forms. Both Maturana and Giddens describe a dialectic process where present actions arise without “thinking,” and simultaneously reconfigure the cognitive structure to reflect any changes in the situation. In general, the world changes over time so that the existing structure includes only responses historically matched to the past. If the present is still sufficiently familiar, these historically embedded structures will provide adequate response; they are still “ready-to-hand. Business will go on as usual. But new, modified structure will be created as the actors reflect on the outcomes.

As long as the existing structure contains “ready-to-hand” or “normal” responses to the perceived world providing the actor’s context, behavior will not change. Unsustainability can be said to arise because the actors’ perception is limited to their immediate world. As long as the outcomes fit their intentions, business-as-usual will continue. But what if the normal for them produces unintended consequences that arise outside of their perception. Nothing will change. And that is the primary reason we are inexorably moving toward a variety of social and environmental tipping points. Actors may become aware of such changes in the world beyond their own spheres of normal activities, but such knowledge will not change the cognitive structures that drive everyday behavior.

Nothing will happen until the normalcy is interrupted to an extent that the embedded ready-to-hand patterns of behavior no longer work or become so unfamiliar that no such responses are available. In this case the actors become stymied and at a loss for what to do. Their immediate contextual world emerges from the shadow of transparency into their consciousness. If they choose to continue to follow their immediate intentions, they will inevitably begin to reflect on what has happened. They may, of course, abandon their present course and “kick the can down the road,” and move on to another set of intentions. No learning takes place in this case and whatever problems linger as a result will be no closer to solution than they were in the first place. (Washington, pat attention to this!)

Now with this more general discussion of behavior, let’s think about the issues that are central to my writing and this blog: the persistence of unsustainability and the absence of sustainability. Why are we still pretty much in the same place regarding sustainability today that we were a couple of decades ago when this issue first entered our consciousness? You do not have to take my word for this. A quick scan of the Web will produce dozens of articles with this question. For me, the answer is plain: as long as unsustainability is an unintended consequence within the context of business’s perceptions, nothing will change except incrementally as Giddens and Maturana would argue. And as long as sustainability-as-flourishing is not present in the cognitive system of the actors, nothing will be done toward this end.

The creation of a Chief Sustainability Officer or the issuance of a “sustainability” report will do little or nothing to change the fundamental normal behavior. The best that can happen is business-as-usual will become business-almost-as-usual, and the momentum towards a tipping point may be diminished. But even this cannot overcome the macro-economic drive for more growth on a global scale. If we are to be serious about sustainability, we must do what is the unthinkable in most firms and other organizations. We must introduce breakdowns deliberately. Without this, no learning toward sustainability or any goal that has been persistently out-of-reach is possible.

Breakdowns, that is, interruptions in the flow of normal behavioral patterns, are conventionally held to be the result of poor management and are to be avoided. They are seen to be the result of routines that no longer work or have been poorly applied. The more radical production systems, like the Toyota system and lean manufacturing, in general, understand that breakdowns are opportunities for learning and incorporate processes to this end. But standard management courses fail to recognize the generality of this as an essential learning process. In these systems, the context is plain to all the actors; it happens in front of their eyes. But the context for unsustainability is out there in the external world. In normal times, it is out of the consciousness of the actor community. The vision of sustainability-as-flourishing is similarly absent. This view has yet to enter the consciousness of business or of society at large. Sustainability means, unfortunately, the reduction of unsustainability. Unfortunate because this faulty perception blinds all the actors from getting down to the root causes. Root causes, as in some forms of production systems, are those that resist further questioning. Asking why again cannot produce any further answers.

If the goal is to shift to producing sustainability-as-flourishing from what goes as sustainability today, two critical steps must be taken. The normal operations of business and other institutions must be interrupted deliberately to create a possibility for learning beyond incremental shifts in the ready-to-hand resources. This step is the central theme on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and many others. The interruption must allow for reflection, but not unguided reflection. The context for the learning needs to be made present; this is step 2.

The breakdown can be designed to expose the roots causes and to introduce new beliefs or even new practices directly. New beliefs will slowly work their way into routine patterns. Introducing new practices directly is faster. The key beliefs are those I have stressed in Sustainability by Design and in the forthcoming Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. Connectedness and care are central. I have written about my work over the past year or so with the Fowler Center at the Weatherhead School of management. It has focused on the role of spirituality in business (and other institutional settings). The main role is to embed a sense of connectedness and, consequently, care. Additionally, notions about complexity are key to understand its relationship to our several worlds (work, home, and so on) and further how to design our coping/adapting actions within those worlds.

Reflective practices are becoming more common in business today, but not explicitly aligned with sustainability. Insofar as they center the individuals involved, they will move them closer to authenticity and thus toward flourishing, but, without a conscious tie to sustainability, they will have only minimal effects on the organization. Only those organizations that take on sustainability-as-flourishing as an integral part of their mission, beyond efforts to reduce their load on the Planet, will be able to move significantly toward this goal. The existing habits are too deeply engrained in the culture to allow a superficial learning process to make a lasting and meaningful change. Without such a commitment, so-called sustainability programs will barely make a dent in cultural foundations. It will hard for any enterprise to get the process started against a call for more efficiency. Efficiency implicitly is a call to make every minute count evermore towards the bottom line. Deliberately stopping the processes to learn is countercultural, but it is essential to stem the tide of unsustainability and put us on the road to flourishing.

The Real Debt Crisis

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sinkhole

Gil Friend included this info about the recent GreenBiz forum in his periodic newsletter.

One big idea: The standout idea at GreenBiz Forum last week was TruCost’s assessment that paying for environmental and social costs would take out 40-50% of corporate profits.

We have always known that externalizing public costs was a standard business practice, but have had few estimates of the scope of this practice. The size of the hit is stunning. The number put forth at the Forum can be found in Green Biz/Trucost’s “State of Green Business” 2013 report. These costs are real, and will be paid eventually. It’s the eventuality that allows firms to continue operating in a business-almost-as-usual mode without much of a response from either the investment community or environmental/social interests. It doesn’t show up on current balance sheets.

This cost is just as, or more, important than the national debt we hear so much about. According to some economists, there is no urgent problem there. Robert Solow wrote a piece about this recently in the NYTimes arguing that the crisis being bandied about is not real. Here is his summary.

THE significance of America’s national debt is a serious question, but you would not know this from the current political rhetoric, which consists mostly of vague apocalyptic warnings. I want to present a calmer view, by emphasizing six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of.

He goes on to say that we can cope with the situation calmly and deliberately without the sturm und drang characteristic of today’s political talk. But the unpaid social and natural capital costs are an entirely different matter. We cannot pay them off in inflated dollars—one of Solow’s (and others) remedies. He concludes with this advice, also argued by many other economists.

But for now the best chance to reinvigorate the economy, spur business investment and encourage consumer spending is through public borrowing and spending.

Perhaps this will help the current national accounts, but it will only exacerbate the outflow of natural capital. Solow won his Nobel Prize, in part, on the basis of his theories about the economics of natural resources. He argued that scarcity through depletion was not a problem because as the price rose (due to the scarcity), technological innovation, driven by the promise of higher prices, would solve associated problems. Substitutes would be found or more efficient, but costlier, methods would be found to extract the scarce resource.

But this kind of thinking does not seem, according to my non-economist’s ears, to fit natural resources like air and water. Unless genetic- or bio-engineering can “improve” the human physiology to subsist without air or water (unlikely), his model doesn’t work. There are no substitutes to come, only the inexorable rise in the cost of this essential resources. That cost will not only be felt in the global economy as a drag, but also in terms of threats to human life and well-being. We are creating the conditions for a huge sinkhole on the Earth that will cause more than the loss of a single life as that one in Florida just did. And it will probably appear just as unpredictably as that one did.

Few people will become aware of and appreciate the costs reported by TruCost/Greenbiz and others. So nothing much is going to happen; the real reduction in the essential natural resources needed for future generations will go mostly unnoticed. It’s time, as has been argued, to recast our national and global accounting systems to incorporate these costs in the same way they handled in standard business accounting frameworks. Then maybe politicians and other leaders will start to perk up their ears.

Those who attend GreenBiz events talk a lot about sustainability, primarily in some way related to sustainable development. Sustainable development or, on a lesser scale, sustainable business means finding ways to continue to grow or at least maintain the status quo with concomitant lower social and environmental impacts, that is costs. By ignoring the externalized costs in their calculations, virtually all of their so-called sustainability activities, are, in fact, producing negative results.

I have always argued that this way of thinking about and acting toward sustainability is self-defeating. As the indices being used to assess the performance of the economy show apparent improvements, the reality is that the Planet is getting worse off. Only if we abandon this sustainable development and its many equivalent constructs, will there be any possibility of realizing even its goal of affording future generations the opportunities for well-being (defined as we do currently). The only ray of light I see here is that the information is now coming forth to a large audience, capable, but mostly reluctant, to act upon it.

Watch This Video!

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Watch this video illustrating one of the most serious forms of unsustainability. The file is too large to post, so here is the link.

Send it to all your friends.

Solutionism

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robot

Someone has given a name, solutionism, to a cultural characteristic that plays a key role in my work on sustainability. Reading the NYTimes today I noticed an article in the Review section by Evgeny Morozov, entitled, “The Perils of Perfection.” Morozov is the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. The title suggests that this is a book I should (and will) get and read closely.

Here is his point in a nutshell:

All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become “problems” simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.

He has focused on Silicon Valley, but this way of getting through the messiness of everyday living is pervasive in our culture. We are addicted to technological solutions to every problem we face. We are already deeply mired in “solutionism,” but don’t recognize it as contributing to the very problems we set out to solve. Systems dynamics has a very apt way of talking about this phenomenon by way of an archetype of common behavior called “fixes-that-fail.” The solutions we apply are not matched to the real source of the problems, and so they recur often with significant unintended consequences. I believe that unsustainability in all of its shapes and shades is one big unintended consequence of relying on technology and applied science to solve all of our problems, large and small. The situation gets more challenging as the repeated technological solutions distract us from seeking the underlying causes and attacking them. In systems dynamics jargon, this is called “shifting-the-burden.”

The problems of living, especially the more refractory and persistent ones, are complex with many causes; that’s why they become “problems” in the first place. Technological solutions, especially the kind Morozov writes about are simplistic, often aimed at symptoms or at superficial causes. Here’s an example form the article.

LAST month Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director, enthused about a trendy app to “crowdsource absolutely every decision in your life.” Called Seesaw, the app lets you run instant polls of your friends and ask for advice on anything: what wedding dress to buy, what latte drink to order and soon, perhaps, what political candidate to support… Seesaw offers an interesting twist on how we think about feedback and failure. It used to be that we bought things to impress our friends, fully aware that they might not like our purchases. Now this logic is inverted: if something impresses our friends, we buy it. The risks of rejection have been minimized; we know well in advance how many Facebook “likes” our every decision would accumulate.

Why would anyone want to do that? It’s very difficult to avoid drifting into inauthenticity in today’s consumeristic culture. So here is a device that will hasten and accentuate the process. Just let the world define who you are and do whatever “they” think best for you. It’s banality at the core. No flourishing possible here. Decisions about who one is and what he or she cares about are at the core of being. Each time we relegate our decisions to others (the crowd), we lose a little of our self. We need to care for ourselves as well as others and the earth if we are to flourish or even simply to cope with life. If we begin to give ourselves up to the crowd, I expect that we will begin to find ourselves even more at a loss most of the time, rather than the opposite as the makers of this app seem to suggest.

I started to track down Morozov’s work and found this interesting tidbit in an article he wrote for the WSJ.

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, “smart” is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

Reality is not broken. Reality is what it is. It is the context of living, whether we get familiar with it or not. “Broken” is a human assessment that is all about our failings, not that of the world. Reality was here before us and will be around after we are gone. We managed to get to where we are today by learning to cope with it. It wasn’t the broken world that caused the extinction of the many species that did not make it this far. It was something about them that failed to match reality. Believing we can ignore the world out there by isolating us from it with technology is fool’s play. We have done a lousy job so far if we evaluate our progress in terms of the human and environmental messes we have created.

This notion of solutionism is everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley. Our entire political economy is permeated wit it. We can fix our fiscal house by sequestration, applying a meat ax to a complex and important problem affecting millions of real, living people. We can solve the climate change problem with geo-engineering, applying global-scale technologies without the means to understand fully how it will work. Not happy with your looks reality) get a “LifeStyle Lift.” And so on and on.

Morozov takes us even deeper into the deeply engrained addiction to placing technology between us and life, which in this mode, life becomes nothing but a series of problems. If a human being loses all consciousness of him or herself as an active agent in the course of living, there’s not much left to experience. Shutting out the world’s warts is akin to creating sensory deprivation, a sense of sameness that can become frightening and destabilizing. Yet, this seems to be the goal of the engineers that are creating our Internet-based life. I started out as an engineer and thought I could make life better through chemistry. I full agree with the sentiment in the close of his Times article.

“I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1939. Given the cultural and political relevance of Silicon Valley — from education to publishing and from music to transportation — this advice is particularly worth heeding.

It has taken me 30 years to get to the place Ortega y Gasset is pointing to; to accept that the world is a really messy place in which to exist; and to discover that it is my home just as it is.