April 2013 Archives

Life Starts with Love


cassatt mother_child

One of the longest, continuing study of human development has been in the news lately with the recent publication of George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience. For the past thirty years Vaillant has been the director of the much-heralded Grant Study, named for the donor W. T. Grant, eponymous owner of an early chain of discount stores. The Grant study, begin in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives, monitoring their physical and mental health and their successes and failures in life. Since the study was restricted to white, upper class subjects, any conclusions need to be very carefully vetted. But a few of the findings, highlighted by Vaillant, are of particular relevance to sustainability.

He claims that, “Alcoholism is a disease of great destructive order.” Not particularly startling or new by itself, but interesting in his observation that it led to, not followed, many other personal and social pathologies: divorce, mental illness and others. Coupled with cigarette smoking, it was the largest contribution to early morbidity and death. Stepping back and looking at society as a whole, I observe several analogous pathological addictions. One, hyperconsumption, like alcoholism, is manifest in behaviors. Our individual addiction to consumption as a means to well-being has created a set of societal pathologies, including crimes (theft) and misdemeanors (shoplifting), natural threats and impacts, and indirectly, inequality.

Our tight hold on objective reality and rationality as the fundamental beliefs in our societal structure reinforces the behavioral addiction to consumption. As long as we are told we are insatiable, needy people by all the ads we see and hear, and are pushed along by our dominant societal institutions (the market and technocracy everywhere), we are dragged along the consumerist flow without thinking about what it is doing to us. Those voices of society are very, very strong and restrain authentic and fulfilling behavior. Ultimately we are told by our leaders and experts that we must grow the economy at all costs, a process fueled only by more consumption.

Vaillant makes a second, very critical observation. The relationship between the subjects of the studies and their parents turned out to be a powerful predictor of their success in life and state of health as they aged. Correlations are not the same as causes, but always are suggestive. Good relations with mothers correlated with lower finding of dementia later in life, and, surprising to me, higher lifetime earnings. Similarly the warmth of their relationships with fathers correlated with less anxiety and higher subjective assessments of well-being. The important of remembered relationships is an indicator of the nature of caring activities between parent and child. While care has a general sense of acting out of concern for the other’s well-being, the care of parent, especially the mother, for their children is often called love, whereas the same kind of concern for others, say a team member or colleague, is rarely called love. Even more, to say that one loves his or her students or friends could easily be taken as breaking conventional boundaries. I was warned by my colleagues at MIT to be careful in how I spoke about my students. Years later, I have come to believe, as in my hidden thoughts then, that I loved my students in the sense of Maturana. I accepted and acknowledged them as human beings with a legitimate right to exist as they were. My role as teacher was just that: a role that I had chosen and that they expected me to play, but that was no excuse to see them as other that fully human, no matter how they struggled or prospered in my classes.

Vaillant’s findings are consistent with Maturana’s. For Maturana, love is the primary emotion that a newborn is enveloped in and, in turn, acts out of towards his parents, if only because the infant hasn’t had much of a chance to learn any other way of acting. As we become socialized into the culture, the emotion of love becomes merged into a large range of other possibilities coming from societal norms. Robert Plutchik developed a “wheel of emotions” ( see below) in the 1960s, emanating from four basic emotions, joy, trust, fear, and surprise, plus four so-called “opposites,” sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. He classified love as a human feeling, not an emotion, created as a combination of joy and trust. He follows the more conventional definition of love. The fundamental difference, an important one, is that Maturana sees emotions as the source of our actions, whereas Plutchik and others see them as a characterization of our reactions to the contextual world we confront.

The periphery of Plutchik’s wheel is dominated by what I would call negative feelings toward the world: remorse, contempt, aggressiveness, submission, disapproval. Awe and optimism are on the plus side of neutral, and only love is, for me, a fully positive category. As I noted, love is but a feeling in this system. At first glance, the impact of our modern world seems quite clear. Contempt can only be learned as one begins to assess those within one’s sphere of action.

This diagram reinforces my belief in Heidegger’s ontology of being, in which care is the structure on which our singular human character rests among all living creatures. Also my belief in Maturana’s biology of emotions, in general, and of love, in particular. His model of cognition, similar to those of more recent cognitive scientists, views us as a sort of sponge, learning as we live, that is, capturing the experience of our experience in our bodies and acting out of what we have stored. Emotions come as a sort of master determinant of our actions. If we are angry, because we observe something out there that triggers anger, our possible actions are limited to those in the “angry” storehouse in our memory. As in Plutchik’s scheme, many of our emotions tend to be dominating in connection with whatever interactions with others are involved. If not dominating, they do not offer much possibility of mutual, cooperative coordination.

Love is different. It is the basis of mutuality and care. It, more than any other emotion, opens up the possibility of flourishing. Vaillant comes to the same conclusion, but from the very different perspective of an observer of a single group of men over their lifetimes. He notes in a comment cited in an article in The Atlantic about the work that, “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points . . to a straightforward conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’”


(Image: Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child)

Omnia vincit amor


Omnia carracci

The Marathon bombing has spawned a spate of articles about violence. I have not written much about this subject in my books and other pieces on sustainability-as-flourishing, but it should be quite obvious that the subjects are intimately intertwined. People can flourish in a culture where violence is rare and not systemic, but not in one where violence is part of the system, the culture. There is a big difference between events that are rare and random, and events that are normal, an embedded part of the cultural system. Violence is inherently a form of domination, a condition which is highly inimical to flourishing.

The NYTimes ran an oped piece on the subject of violence, asking why the US is so violent and at the same time asserting that we are.

Clearly, we are a violent country.  Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries.  The massacres that regularly take place here are predictable in their occurrence, if not in their time and place.  Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence.  We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests.  We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief.  Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate.  And we torture people.  It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

The author, Todd May, attributes the causes of our violent culture to three reasons:

  1. Competitive individualism
  2. A decline of our ability to control events in the world. I might write a sense of national impotence.
  3. The hegemony of the market and a move towards libertarianism.

I believe that the first is the key cause and that the others are derived from it. The arguments I have been making towards understanding why we have come to such an unsustainable state and also towards finding our way out are based on two foundations. One is very similar to the argument May makes; our social institutions are based on an incorrect and dysfunctional model of human beings. (The other is that we have a dysfunctional view of the world, itself) Competitive individualism and its more technical counterpart, economic maximization, boil down to a model of humans as always acting to get the most they can in any giving situation, limited only by the resources they have at hand, money or otherwise. When they do not have anything to exchange, money in most cases, they resort to violence at some level, that is, they get what they want by overpowering the others involved.

I agree completely with May about the current situation, but have a slightly different explanation about how to change it towards a culture of flourishing, the antithesis of today’s violent world. He couches his approach in the language of non-violence.

To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us.  That humanity cannot always be appealed to.  In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant.  However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution.  It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other.  It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others:  that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

Nonviolence is too much a reactive term for me. Just as reducing unsustainability is a reactive stance to the problems of today. Operating with a positive vision is much more powerful. That is why I believe strongly that the positive vision of sustainability-as-flourishing can really change the world where greening or non-violence cannot. Both are important but lack the power to change the culture at its roots. Increasingly, I have come to see the positive image for action as love. Love, as the acceptance of the legitimacy of others both human and non-human to exist in their ways, provides a context for avoiding violence, but more importantly the framework for responsible, authentic, caring actions. It is that care that creates the possibility for flourishing. Nonviolence can go only so far.

But to speak in terms of love is to risk being seen as a romantic or spiritual nut because the idea has become commoditized and psychologized. Love is the antithesis of conventional rationality; it’s said to be purely an emotional response that leaves a littered playing field in its wake. As we learn more about how our cognitive system works, emotions are taking a central place, starting to overtake rationality as basic motivators. Maturana calls emotions the bodily context that determines what actions we pluck out of our stored, learned collection of responses to the world. Love for him is the most fundamental of emotions, being learned from the moment of birth onwards. It is still present in our adult cognitive system, but largely overwhelmed by the competitive, selfish culture we then grow up in. It is always there waiting to re-emerge as we know by looking at the many example of authentic loving behavior captured in history. To create a nonviolent society, first we must re-learn to love. It’s a very old idea. Virgil wrote the memorable phrase in the Eclogues about 40 BCE: Omnia vincit amor—love conquers all.

(Today’s image is Carracci’s “Omnia vincit amor,” circa 1600 CE.)

Earth Day 2013


nail polish exchange

Let me begin with a reminder about the origin of Earth Day that I cribbed from the web site of the Earth Day Network.

The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

The year of the first Earth Day mobilization, 1970, marked the beginning of the Environmental Era, as characterized by significant collective action. The first significant environment statute, The Clean Air Act, was passed that year, followed in 1972 by the Clean Water Act. Other historical forces were also at work beyond the Earth Day demonstrations. It just so happened that the chair of the Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee of the important Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was Edmund Muskie, who was looking for national exposure to underpin his unsuccessful run for the Presidential nomination. Earth Day in 1970 was the first major outpouring of public support for the Earth. Until that time, environmental concerns were limited to state and local activities.

On each of the subsequent decennial anniversaries, attempts were made to duplicate the demonstrations of public concern for the Earth with some success, but not with the impact of the first Earth day. Is it because environmental concerns have become so engrained in our social and political cultures that further dramatic events are unnecessary? Hardly. This year the theme in the US is “The Face of Climate Change.” The video put up on the the Earth Day coordinating organization shows wind machines, solar panels, pretty faces, but not a single image of the real face of climate change: floods, tornados, drought, potable water threats, ocean rise, and more. The status of the political economy on the issue can be characterized as comatose. Avoidance and denial are the primary positions of the political system in our Nation’s capital.

As an ironic counterpoint, one of the front page items on the online edition of the New York Times, today on Earth Day had this headline: “Chinese Auto Buyers Grow Hungry for Larger Cars.” And US automakers are right there getting in line.

General Motors announced that it would introduce nine new or restyled S.U.V. models in China in the next five years, and disclosed that it would build four more factories and add 6,000 jobs to accommodate its ever-rising sales here… A Chrysler executive said that his company would start making Jeep Cherokees in Changsha in southern China by the end of next year. And China’s domestic carmakers showed a wide range of S.U.V.’s, the heftier the better.

The irony and cynicism are palpable. With so much other trouble capturing the headlines, it is very hard to keep the impacts on the Earth in the headlines. I went out today to renew my driver’s license and drove right through the part of Watertown that was the epicenter of the shelter-in-place lockdown of the city last week. No sign of anything reminding one of the massive mobilization was evident at the exact spot. Not to belittle in any way the horrendous events at the Marathon and the bloody search for and capture of the suspects, they will pass and come to be seen against the larger, continuing insults to our species perpetrated in acts of domestic violence, terrorism, insurgency, and all the military responses to the foregoing. The profusion of SWAT teams in full military garb driving around in armored vehicles attests to the militarization of our domestic policing system. By the way, another headline in small print way down the front page today was “Five Dead in Apartment Shooting Near Seattle.”

All this serves as preface to what I want to say on this Earth Day. Every day we humans living in affluent, industrialized settlements create more harm to the Earth than the all the crimes reported in the newspaper accounts. Do we ever see an account of yet another species going extinct? Do we ever see a story about priceless habitats being developed for economic ends and thereby lost? Do we ever see a photo of a polar bear caught on an ice flow broken loose from the icepack and unable to feed itself? Do we ever see photos of alpine meadows in places where skiers used to come down the trails? Perhaps, if one looks at the news media of the environmental community, but not in the same places that fill us up with stories of mayhem in our cities.

This suggests to me that the consciousness raising that Earth Day in 1970 created is absent today, at least in the US. Some of the sponsors claim that a billion people will be doing something. Maybe so, but most of those are somewhere else in the world. Maybe the world has gotten too full of stories of economic breakdown, faltering political systems, wars, and so on to notice all the natural disasters that are occurring in the present and those that will surely show up in the future. Perhaps all the human travail in the news can be attributed to isolated, independent causes (I doubt it.), but the damages to the earth are systemic and intimately connected to the global socio-economic system.

Maybe that’s the reason these issues slip into the background. Our culture does a very poor job dealing with systemic complexity. We like nice precise answers to everything we are concerned about. This shows up as news that is limited to sound bites and political debates that are vacuous and banal. There are also other reasons for the lack of attention being given to the “crimes” perpetrated on the Earth. You can now read about them in Andy’s and my book which is now available. Tomorrow when you read this, Earth Day will have come and gone. No matter. Go outside and give a tree a hug. A real hug, not a symbolic one, but one that comes from your authentic, loving self.

ps. The image at the top suggests that some will never get it. We are living in a way that all the recycling and reuse conceivable won’t make a dent. It is really hard even for old hands in the environmental business like me not to get so cynical about sustainability that we wash our hands of the whole mess, and adopt Mother Goose’s famous lines, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”

Flourishing Is Here


book cover

No, I don’t mean that sustainability has arrived, only that I have gotten my copies of Andy and my new book. It looks great. Your copies should be shipping from wherever you ordered them in the next week or so. I am looking for comments on the book at any time.

Facing Up to Terror



I have made several attempts at writing a post following the bombing at the Boston Marathon. It’s too close to home for me to be able to compose my thoughts sufficiently clearly to put them out for public scrutiny. But I do owe something to this blog. The word, cowardly, keeps coming up in my mind. Technology, my favorite bete noire, enables such cowardly acts by separating the actor in time and space from the consequences of whatever action is being taken. By this assertion, I do not mean to condemn technology, only to point out, as I often do, that it has a dark side. The reaction to such cowardly acts has been to double down on security measures designed to prevent the next heinous act. More technology with the inevitable result that our lives are encroached upon in some way. Again, I do not mean to make a statement about the value of such measures; only to point out that they have undesired consequences.

And this brings me to another word being used in the media, senseless. I agree that this act was cowardly, but not that it was senseless. Senseless to us, but not to the perpetrator. To the perpetrator, it is completely rational. How can one’s action be senseless and rational at the same time? With our dominant view of objective reality, we act out of a belief that we know the truths about the world and that our truths are the only ones that are correct. It doesn’t matter if the truths are the result of direct experience or some derivative idea based on the experience coupled to subsequent rational reasoning. All the cultural institutions of modernity in which we act have been constructed and evolved with this premise as the bottommost tier. Prior to our so-called modern culture, the truths that drove cultures were built on various theocratic dogma that served to explain the experiences for which science later provided better arguments.

Some cultures and some individual worldviews still rest on theocratic or dogmatic grounds. There is little point to try to carry on a rational conversational with anyone with such a basic belief in how the world works and what is the “truth.” The best that can result from interaction is an agreement to disagree at the level of fundamental beliefs. The worst is exemplified by the bombing, that is winning an argument through unmitigated force. I can offer no easy solutions as this is the subject that has engaged the best minds of humans for ages. But as the destructive power of technology continues to grow, we cannot ignore this challenge.

In a related way, unsustainability could be seen as the result of terrorism against the earth and its inhabitants. Our modern beliefs have created a culture that views the Earth, and increasingly, its inhabitants, as economic resources. For those of us that frequently characterize the way we live in the US and other affluent nations as senseless, the historical way we have argued with those perpetrating the terrorist acts rests on of some rational foundation. Rationality is the foundation of everything that has been done and is being done in the name of sustainability. This hasn’t worked and won’t work. We who worry about sustainability-as-flourishing are coming from a worldview incompatible with that of the mainstream culture. We have as much chance of winning our arguments as convincing a would-be terrorist that their plan is senseless.

We do have to talk to one another if the terrorism is to cease. By now you should get it that I am using terrorism to refer to acts perpetrated against those more or less powerless to defend themselves as were those killed and injured in Boston. But the same can be said of the habitats destroyed, the species made extinct, the poor who are made poorer, the future generations who will have a diminished Earth to inhabit and so on. And any such talk must start with the acceptance that each of our different beliefs, the truths we use to argue and justify our acts, are contingent and fallible.

Opposed to these differences that make living together so difficult is a single important truth. Human beings (I believe) are special creatures because they care about the world in which they live. If we can start with a (tentative) agreement on this belief, then I am confident that our differences can be resolved by both rational argumentation and pragmatic experimentation.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? Again!



What’s the matter with Kansas? Much more than Thomas Frank found to write about in his 2004 book of the same name. I discovered that he took the title from an 1986 editorial by William Allen White chastising Kansan Populist leaders for adopting policies that discouraged investors from coming into Kansas. Well, Kansas continues to act against its interests. I came upon a story on the Bloomberg website telling of a recent bill introduced into the state legislature to outlaw any public action connected to sustainable development.

Tom Randall, the article’s author leads off with:

Kansas, I love your sense of humor.

It seems like every time the Sunflower State pops up in my news feed, it’s for something like this: House Bill No. 2366, a proposed law that would make it illegal to use “public funds to promote or implement sustainable development.”

Kansas, the place where I spent my formative years skipping school to go fishing in farm ponds, is populated with thoughtful stewards of the nation’s breadbasket. It also has a habit of turning reason on its head. The state famously dropped evolution from its educational curriculum in 1999, along with the age of the Earth and the history of the universe, for good measure.

Now the state’s “Committee on Energy and Environment” is proposing a law that would prohibit spending on anything that won’t set Kansas on a course to self-destruction. House Bill No. 2366 would ban all state and municipal funds for anything related to “sustainable development,” which it defines as: “development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.”

You can find the entire bill here; it’s short, but not sweet. One thrust is to prevent any public action that could conceivably be related to sustainable development, defined according to the Brundtland report. The gist is short enough to quote here:

Section 1. (a) No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development.

The only thing left out of this section is the prohibition of even thinking about the subject. If this wasn’t enough, the bill added a section on what was explicitly not to be proscribed. I found this as instructive as the section above.

(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the use of public funds outside the context of sustainable development: … to support, promote, advocate for, plan for, enforce, use, teach, participate in or implement the ideas, principles or practices of planning, conservation, conservationism, fiscal responsibility, free market capitalism, limited government, federalism, national and state sovereignty, individual freedom and liberty, individual responsibility or the protection of personal property rights;

Apparently this bill is not likely to become law soon. The state legislature closed shop before the bill could be heard. For those who wonder why this might have surfaced in Kansas, here is a a short lesson in syllogistic reasoning:

  1. Wichita is in Kansas.
  2. The Koch Brothers headquarters is in Wichita.
  3. The Koch’s are deeply involved in the oil and gas business.
  4. The sponsor of the bill is a geophysicist with strong ties to the oil and gas business.
  5. Therefore …

Coincidentally, the sponsor, Rep. Dennis Hedke, refused to identify the group who asked him to introduce the bill or name their set of concerns.

I am not a fan of sustainable development, but not for whatever reasons Hedke might have with it. I find it too much like all the things that are listed in part (b). If Hedke and his backers would look closely at how sustainable development has been understood and applied, they would find that world business leaders have stood firmly behind this idea. They believe it is a very good idea for business. Unlike Kansas seems to be, these powers are concerned about operating in ways that enable them to sustain themselves.

The tenets of sustainable development are solidly grounded in the capitalistic principles of efficiency. Even the major public energy companies claim to be believers. My brand of sustainability is very different, as those who read this blog would know—based on a vision of flourishing—a vision that has been dimmed by the many excesses in implementing almost every item in the list in part (b). Tom Randall, this all may seem funny to you, but it is a deadly serious matter.




All the various news media have been full of stories about the sad state of our US educational system. I heard a report yesterday on NPR that besides the terrible performance of our poor kids in school, the middle class students were not much better. We lag the rest of our peer nations in math, science, and other subjects. I am finishing Jonathan Kozol’s screed, The Shame of the Nation, about how we educate out poor minorities, particularly black children. The book is one of the sources for a course I am taking. Tom Friedman keeps writing about the need to turn our children into blue collar technicians so that they can work in the factories of the future. In contradiction, David Brooks warns colleges that their resident programs cannot compete with MOOC (massive open online courses) that will soon provide the technical skills needed by white-collar workers of the future. Colleges should start focusing more on the practical skills their graduates will need. This quote from his column suggests what he is referring to.

Now I could give you a theory about how universities can transmit this sort of practical moral wisdom, but let’s save that. Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace… Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Kozol tells of the turn to regimentation of the classroom and the curriculum. Canned programs, provided by corporate sources, are being foisted upon teachers who are increasingly limited in how they can teach. Performance on standardized tests is the dominant subject. In the poorer urban schools, it is almost the only subject. Gym, recess, art, music and other subjects not covered in the tests have been sacrificed. The teachers, like the students in their classes, are being commoditized. His book title is apt. I am ashamed for myself and my country.

Nowhere here and elsewhere can I find much said about the critical ability to think clearly, to be able to create the context for solving life’s problems at work and elsewhere. Friedman should stop for a minute and ask himself if he would be writing for the New York Times with the kind of education he is recommending for today’s school children. The inalienable rights promised in our Declaration of Independence seem hollowed out, especially the pursuit of happiness.

Can robots be happy? I do not think so even though I read stories about robots becoming ever more like human beings. But isn’t that what Friedman and others imply. For what ends? To be able to compete with other nations whose records on human rights we condemn. Sorry, Mr. Friedman and others, we cannot have it both ways. We either have to educate our young to be full-fledged human beings and try to stay on a high moral plane or give in to the forces of economic “reality” and allow the current intolerable inequality continue to grow and fester. It’s about time to rid ourselves of our shame instead of taking on what we say are shameful conditions in the rest of the world. All this talk of fiscal problems is so hypocritical as to make me sick. The weekly take of the barons of the financial world could go along way to clean up the mess in our city schools.

If I am ranting today, I am. While out on an errand this morning I was listening to Garrison Keillor doing his “The Writer’s Almanac” bit. As he often does, he finished by reading a poem. It was not, IMHO, a great poem, but it struck me how important it is to happiness and flourishing to be able to listen to and appreciate poetry (and literature and art and music and trees and people and …) It is not only shameful that we are leaving many of our young children without even the knowledge that such things are part of their inalienable rights; it is immoral.

A Letter to the President: No on XL

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Dear President Obama,


The news today had several stories about meetings you held with major supporters in which you (so the news goes) indicated support for the Keystone XL pipeline. Please do not do this, and stick to your earlier opposition. Sometimes democracy fails us when the majority acts against the interests of others. We have many safeguards against the tyranny of the majority; this was a major concern that shaped the basic institutions of our government. This is just such a case. I hear you arguing that the economic benefits of jobs that will be created will out weigh the costs we will incur during the building and operation of the pipeline. Public opinion is said to support the project, but I doubt, giving the poor quality of the information the public has, that their support is solidly grounded.

From the start, economics is a faulty calculus. It is just as faulty as all the arguments made in support of slavery, stemming from economic criteria. No. Slavery was simply wrong. So would be the building of this pipeline. It adds to the unbearable shackles we have already put on Nature. Any “rational” argument you and others can muster would be little more than an arbitrary case shaped by the hegemony of economics over any other reasons for action or non-action. One key factor you must consider is that the pipeline, if built, will break at some point, as have most other “fail-safe” means of bringing petroleum products to the market. If you haven’t viewed the pictures of the latest pipeline failure in Arkansas, you must look at them before you take any action. We are quick to recognize and grieve over the tragedies brought by humans on other humans, but not so for tragedies wrought by humans on nature.

There is no inevitability to building the pipeline, as some have argued claiming that we “have to” exploit every conceivable source of energy we can wring from the earth. But this is wrong-headed. It is true that, without asking fundamental questions about our culture, we must find the energy sources that fuel our greedy, modern, industrial economies. Wrong again, the only source we can count on in the long run is not to be found in the Earth. Clean energy is not the solution. Solar energy is. In any case, this project can’t be considered clean energy by any stretch of the imagination. The extraction of bitumen from tar sands is the most energy inefficient and environmentally damaging way to power our society using fossil fuels.

I realize that my arguments here are nothing new. You must know in your heart that this project is simply wrong. It’s not worth it. Stop listening to those with a large economic stake in this. Find a quiet moment and listen to Mother Nature. Listen to the voices of the future who will pay the costs hidden in the justifications being made today. Now would be a perfect time to show us that you are a President for both now and the future.

Score One for Flourishing

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marriage cert

David Brooks has a good column today. Here’s the money quote.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks is rightly cutting through the current political rhetoric about rights and equality, both of which are important, to point out that flourishing (he called it the good life) requires limits to choice and commensurate responsibilities. The idea that unlimited choice is equivalent to liberty is absurd on the face as long as two human beings exist close enough to interact in any way. Social existence, the form of life we are born into, is always a balance of selfishness and care for others in the form of accepting limits to how my actions encroach upon your space.

The whole idea of rights, it seems to me, is a consequence of our failure to care for others. When we do care as a fundamental behavioral pattern, this legislative way of constraining behavior becomes unnecessary. If we start with a premise that human beings are fundamentally selfish, then we will construct, as we have, our institutions around rules that limit action.

But when we construct institutions, such as marriage, based on love as the mutual acceptance of the other, few rules need to be imposed. Flourishing or the good life, as Brooks writes, is found in the satisfaction that comes when all those others (humans and non-humans) that enter one’s life are being cared for. I would hesitate as Brooks writes, to call these acts of care: obligations. That word sounds too much like “shoulds” or “musts” imposed from the outside. Care, as I write, always refers to actions internally and authentically generated.

I do agree that a win for same-sex marriage is a victory of sorts for flourishing, but only for those who choose to live authentically within whatever constraints they determine for themselves. It is almost laughable to see it as a victory for a society that could not be farther away from a culture based on love and care. Even this issue is being largely argued, as Brooks says, on the grounds of equality or equity, and the legal construct of non-discrimination.

Perhaps this win if or when it happens will come to be seen as a step towards sustainability-as-flourishing, but we will have to start looking at it through a different lens, one of love and care. If we do do that, then maybe we will start to redesign our institutional rules from the level of the Constitution to those we use to set our children’s allowances to reflect the natural limits that govern relationships in loving contexts. I have a profound belief that human beings are at heart loving creatures, in spite of our selfish and bloody behavior over a few millennia. But this short article I quote today illustrates the difficulty of re-discovering that in a world where love and care are commoditized just like almost everything else of real value, and where unlimited choice is equated with the good life. People who believe that is true should read Barry Schwartz’s excellent book, The Paradox of Choice.

Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You



A few weeks ago, I responded to a NYTimes opinion piece by Evgeny Morozov on the subject of ‘solutionism.” He has published a few more on the same technological theme, the latest being an article on March 31, 2013. His current piece criticizes technology for its tendency to support mindless actions.

… “Civilization,” wrote the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in 1911, “advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead was writing about mathematics, but technology, with its reliance on formula and algorithms, easily fits his dictum as well… On this account, technology can save us a lot of cognitive effort, for “thinking” needs to happen only once, at the design stage. We’ll surround ourselves with gadgets and artifacts that will do exactly what they are meant to do — and they’ll do it in a frictionless, invisible way. “The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence,” announced the design guru Donald Norman in his landmark 1998 book, “The Invisible Computer.” But is that what we really want?

If that were all that our use of technology did, I would answer with a very strong yes. After all, a satisfying life is one where we are successful in achieving out intentions. Or is it? We pick up and use tools (technology) that we are familiar with and “know” that they will do whatever we want it to. These tools are ready-to-hand; they are meaningful only in use. In our myopic narcissistic way of assessing our actions, we fail to observe and think about the effects our actions have on the world outside of the immediate context of our actions. But except for rare occasions, tool using always creates unintended consequences beyond that immediate context. Such outcomes are unavoidable because the design of the technology inevitably is limited to the world of the designer, not to that of the users. If we and the world were simple machines, the tools we use might operate without such unintended consequences, but we are not.

In many cases these unintended consequences are insignificant or can be easily remedied. (I never call them side effects except when I slip-up because they are as much of the results of applying the technology as the primary purposes.) When they are, for example, creating climate change or Morozov’s example of the social media leading us to make public personal information we would rather not have released, avoidance efforts are impeded by our unconscious use of the technologies, just as the designer hoped we would. The old story about being unable to program a VHS player made bad design the butt of many of our jokes.

Morozov and I (and others) ask how can the users become conscious of all the outcomes of their use of technology and make corrections when they get more than they wished. His example is the loss of privacy due to the way browsers are intentionally designed. But he does understand that the multiplication of small undesired outcomes can accumulate into big problems like climate change. That’s why I have argued for a long time that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modernity. It’s the accumulation of a zillion isolated applications of less-than-perfect technology. More than technology is involved; the fundamental beliefs we have adopted since Descartes and Bacon underlie our technology. Our persistent use of technology in spite of increasing awareness of these unintended consequences is a form of addiction—habitual use that produces outcomes that negatively affect the user.

Morozov provides a link to an article about “transformational products.”

Recently, designers in Germany built devices — “transformational products,” they call them — that engage users in “conversations without words.” My favorite is a caterpillar-shaped extension cord. If any of the devices plugged into it are left in standby mode, the “caterpillar” starts twisting as if it were in pain… Does it do what normal extension cords do? Yes. But it also awakens users to the fact that the cord is simply the endpoint of a complex socio-technical system with its own politics and ethics. Before, designers have tried to conceal that system. In the future, designers will be obliged to make it visible.

These are not as new as he might be suggesting. I wrote about such artifacts in Sustainability by Design. I first learned about them over ten years ago while I was teaching in the Netherlands. A Dutch researcher, Jaap Jelsma, wrote about “behavior-steering design” and used as an example the two-button toilet which was quite novel back then. The unfamiliarity of the design stops the user momentarily and “talks” to him or her. Speed bumps are perhaps a more familiar instance. Morozov asks whether such technology that makes us think about what we are doing is a good thing. He quotes from those, including Whitehead, who claim that interruptions that make us think are impediments in our progress to some “perfect” state.

While devices-as-problem-solvers seek to avoid friction, devices-as-troublemakers seek to create an “aesthetic of friction” that engages users in new ways. Will such extra seconds of thought — nay, contemplation — slow down civilization? They well might. But who said that stopping to catch a breath on our way to the abyss is not a sensible strategy?

I am more certain that we need to recover our consciousness of the mess we are making in the name of technological progress. Stronger drugs are not the solution to narcotic addiction; merely catching a breath is not enough. We have to couple the interruption with a conscious examination of the change in the world, not just in the scene in front of us, maybe a computer screen,. It’s the thinking that is essential, not merely the breakdown.

Those who design our technologies are conventional our moral actors, but they may have to take a more active role in the future. If they are responsible in any degree for both the intended and unintended outcome of the use of the artifacts they create, they should be accountable to some degree. This side of technology raises some new imponderable questions, but needs to be seriously considered before we unconsciously push ourselves into the abyss Morozov alludes to. But then, we, the users, also should be involved as it is our unconscious actions that are part of the chain that is pushing the world farther and farther from sustainability.