May 2013 Archives

Fly Fishing and Spirituality

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striper

I am finally “settled” in Maine and can get back to taking care of this blog. Just a few days here and I am refreshed and renewed. The sunset tonight was as spectacular as any in memory. The bay was absolutely flat so that it reflected the setting sun as a mirror would. But the real sense came this morning when I went out fishing for the first time this season. My son-in-law, Tim, came with me. A good thing because he knows the waters on his side of the peninsula that we both live on much better than I do. We left the dock in a pea soup fog that complicated finding the spot we wanted. I stuffed my usual skeptical view of technology as only the GPS allowed us to navigate along the narrow channel where we thought we might find some stripers. And we did.

In the past, I have had some push back from followers of the blog and readers of my books when I talk about fishing as a sort of spiritual exercise. I have found being out on the water produces a calming sense, even as I have to be very careful moving the boat around. The excitement of finding a few stripers, especially so early in the summer, disturbed the calm enough so that I put my boat on the bottom. Fortunately it is very muddy there and the tide was coming in, so all that happened was that I had a few extra minutes to talk to Tim. My sense that fly fishing could be likened to a spiritual experience in the sense of being conscious of a connectedness to the world around me was reinforced by a book I have been reading and am almost done.

Gill (a rabbi), one of the faithful readers of the blog, wrote me about a month ago with a suggestion that I read Fly-Fishing—the sacred art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice. Co-written by a Rabbi and an Episcopal priest, the book echoes many of the experiences I have. They speak almost exclusively about trout stream fishing; my experience is almost exclusively limited to saltwater fly fishing. I find their description of the solitude of a stream running through a woods very much like the stillness and feeling of peace I get while out on the open water. On a windy day, I hear sounds not unlike those of a running stream. While I am very unlikely to encounter an elk or deer on the water, today I saw a harbor seal surface near the boat and fish along with Tim and me. Later as I was coming back to my mooring, I passed a large bunch of American eiders and their very newly hatched chicks. I often hear them as I wake up in the morning passing close by my window.

My scene is certainly not the same as trout stream tucked away in a woods or mountainous area, but I do have exposure to the world of the sea everyday. On a given day, I see many varieties of gulls, a few Great Blue herons (my favorite sight when in flight), kingfishers, an occasional bald eagle, seals. One day a few years, a moose swam up to the marina across the road from our house. I have access to all this sitting on the side porch of our cottage, but it is not the same as the sense I get out of the water. I am often the only boat in sight. Saltwater fly fishing, unlike trout fishing is largely a game of patiently casting onto the unmoving ocean waters and hoping that a hungry fish is lurking below the surface. The stripers sometimes make their presence known by creating swirls on the surface, but even that is no guarantee that they are hungry for whatever the fly I am using is designed to mimic.

The “sacred art” book suggests that the practice of casting can be a “meditative practice.” I agree. There are times I am painfully conscious of the erratic casting I am doing, but other times I find myself into the flow and feel each cast as coming from my whole being. The whole purpose of fishing is to connect to a fish. I fully accept the criticism of those who argue that fishing is cruel and dominating. I take great pains to minimize whatever pain I may cause to the fish. Stripers usually take the fly in their cartilaginous lip from which my barbless flies can be extracted without causing injury. I am consciously grateful for the opportunity to be with a world I do not have for the 8-9 months I live in the city. And that consciousness is highest when I am out on the water. A few exceptions come when I sit and look at a gorgeous sunset over the bay, like the scene tonight. Our house is on the east side of a north-south peninsula so the sun sets over water, quite unusual for the East coast.

The book adds that connections go beyond those to the world out there, reaching to a community of like-minded fly fisher folk. Over the years I have gotten to know a whole community of men and women centered on fly fishing and all the context that surrounds it. Where to find the fish? What flies are working? Who has caught a big one? Tales of troubles with boats. All this writing today to try to sound authentic about my calling fishing a spiritual practice. Taking a line from Rabbi Eric and Reverend Mike (the authors), the solitude it affords, the feeling of connection, the joy of community add up to the same kinds of experience a more conventional spiritual context may produce. Bottom-line, I truly experience a sense of flourishing out on the water, that is absent during much of my living activities. Many times as I return to the mooring I am conscious of my commitment to bringing the same sense of wholeness and completion into our tired world.

Politics and Arcadia

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Arcadia When I commented about the way Earth Day had changed over the years, I hadn’t yet read an article on the subject by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker (April 15, 2013). The pile of unread magazines and books grows very tall over the year and only begins to shrink dramatically when I pare it down as I am about to leave for the summer in Maine. Lemann paints a disappointing picture of the current state of environmental action in the US through his review of two books and a report.

The first, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome, argues that the original idea and power of the first event has largely evaporated today. The mobilization of millions led, Rome claims, to the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s that legitimated the issue as deserving of public policy address. It was truly a social movement, local in structure. Congress recessed for the day and a majority of the members spoke during the day. Try very hard to imagine that happening today.

Even as the environmental issues community has grow over the years, it has become less effective compared to the early days. Maybe partly because there is now a raft of laws in place that have created a record of accomplishment, positive and negative depended on who is speaking. The results are largely invisible to the public but are claimed as a deterrent to growth by business. Rivers no longer catch on fire, people living in cities like Pittsburgh do not have permanent rings around the collar, and far fewer suffer from air pollution induced illness and death. But when it comes to the biggest issue of today, climate change, the green establishment has had little or no successes in the US. Rome argues that it is largely because the institutionalized remnants of Earth Day 1970 have lost their ability to mobilize s popular movement and failed to gain the position of insiders that matter in Washington politics so essential to getting the Congress to act on their issues of concern. Both Rome and Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist point to a lack of political smarts and power as the cause of failure in the climate change arena. Skocpol authored one of two reports, sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network on the failure to pass any carbon-restricting legislation during Obama’s first term of office.

The second book, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, by Aaron Sachs, a historian at Cornell University. Lemann includes it as a foil to the political themes of the other sources. Sachs presents an environmental history of America that exposes the Arcadian view that could be found in the architecture and literature of earlier periods. Central was theme of living together in harmony with nature, defined more or less as that world undisturbed by human settlements. I will order the book that read it completely, but now rely on the Lemann article and a few other sources I found on the internet. The small piece that Lemann quotes was what caught my interest.

My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places … haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.

There is no risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis here to place a value on nature as we do in our present and potential environmental legislation. Sachs sees the world, even as transformed by human activities, as a source for flourishing although he does not use that term as I do to reflect the fullness of human existence. Two critical distinctions are present in the paragraph: caring and connectedness. Both are essential to sustainability. Connectedness, in a way, precedes caring. We care only for what we perceive. Caring is an intentional action and intentions are always directed to something we perceive. Connection is a metaphor for the tie that our senses make with the world, include our own selves. But it is a tie that is active, not simply description. There is an understanding that the tie is meaningful, that we draw our existence as being a part of the world we are connected to. And because the tie is active, we must care for that to which we are connected. We cannot simply expect the world to gratuitously provide for us, as did the utilitarian philosophers. The world of nature is not merely a resource to exploit; it provides part of what makes our mere existence meaningful. Without meaning we are just another animal species.

I come to these thoughts by a somewhat different path than Sachs does. Not surprising since he is a historian and I am an engineer turned something else. I hope, as he does, that we start to get it straight and stop playing politics with flourishing. Being fully human is the only way to express whatever genetic differences created us as a species different form all others. We do a good job with those aspects of living we have acquired since the onset of the Modern era, but Sachs and I are talking about aspects we have lost at the same time. I am also hopeful about regaining then and finding our way to flourishing.

(Image: “Dream of Arcadia” by Thomas Cole (1838))

No Grist for the Mill

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grist mill

When I began blogging now almost 5 years ago, I generally picked up something from the news or another website and commented on it, using it to make my case for sustainability. All was new to me and I had no trouble finding grist for my mill. Although I still bookmark a lot of stuff to blog about, I no longer am able to stay fresh. So little has changed. Business still doesn’t get it. I have yet to see anything that remotely suggests that firms, large and small, are doing anything other than reducing sustainability. I guess I will have to keep pushing out my own thoughts.

“Flourishing” has done a little better. I have started to see my definition of sustainability-as-flourishing slowly, very slowly, start to show up. But even then the actions around it are still focused on making the world less worse. It sure could use that, but, even with their efforts, it is only going to get less and less healthy. I have often described this continuing reliance on quick fixes as addiction to technological solutions. I am reviewing a book about teaching green engineers that calls this fixity, hubris, after the Greeks who used the term to describe unrestrained pride in one’s own answers to life’s problems that led to tragedy. Hubris is associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities. President Kennedy’s advisor McGeorge Bundy said, “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris.” True then; true today.

I would choose a more common word to describe the current situation in the world: insanity. Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Nietzsche’s words ring true today: “Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” R. D. Laing defined it as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”

I see little question about this in the world of sustainability. I give high marks to my colleagues seeking “The Great Transition” or something called “sustainable consumption, or decoupling economic growth from environmental harms and on and on, but all ignore the root causes of our problems. Our politicians seem to think that doing nothing over and over again will magically transform the political economy. There’s an awful lot of hubris in Washington spread over both parties. Our culture, which we are madly trying to export everywhere in the world, is itself the problem. We simply believe in the wrong things. Not whether we need more or less government. Like flourishing the point is not about quantity but about quality.

Maybe I am just as insane as all the others, but I see the only way to break out of our dithering is to dig deep into our cultural structure. What we believe matters. C. S. Pierce, the founder of pragmatism, wrote, “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” Culture can be simply understood as a description of normal behavior or habits. And following Pierce and many others, this means cultures rest on a set of beliefs on which the institutions of that culture are built and evolve. The sociology of Anthony Giddens has much the same sense in naming beliefs as a basic part of what makes a culture tick.

Let’s get right to the point. Our culture rests on many beliefs, but two form the drivers for much of the habits we observe. One is that the world, including all its parts, can be examined, become known to us, and managed as if it were a machine. (Descartes’ ideas could be said to be the source of the hubris that has created the current tragedy of unsustainability.) A corollary to this is the claim that humans also act like machines, using their rational powers to optimize their actions. Scientific knowledge trumps all other forms of understanding. Technology, based on scientific knowledge, provides almost all the tools we use. Rationality is invoked as the standard by which we make social decisions and is the standard for normal individual behavior.

The second basic belief is that human action is driven by a set of needs or preferences that is satisfied by the use of their rational powers. This economic model of humans underpins the structure of all economic institutions. It leads to the hyper-individualism that dominates the US culture, and to models of liberty that might work on an isolated island, but not in a crowded world.

Ask yourself a couple of questions. Can you identify these beliefs deep down underneath your culturally driven habits? Are they producing the outcomes that you intend or expect? Start with ordinary activities. Do you think about life largely as a process of acquiring things, material and otherwise, like knowledge? Does this work? Does shopping really satisfy you beyond a momentary rush? Do you think driving your car has no unintended consequences. (I always use this more cumbersome phase rather than side-effects because side-effects are not side at all they are as much an outcome as the intended intention) Would become more concerned with the unintended consequences of your actions if you started to call them that, not side-effects? Unintended consequences arise out of the use of the imperfect knowledge our scientific methods produce.

Paradigms, defined by Thomas Kuhn as the constellation of beliefs and institutional structures built on them, are very stable things. They tend to hang around as long as they produce the outcomes desired by those acting within the institution. But when the intentions begin to be thwarted presistently, those committed to the desired outcomes may come up with a new paradigm that works differently. So it was with all the great scientific breakthroughs of the ages.

In a word, our present cultural paradigm is not producing its desired outcome (normative goals). Climate change threatens the very settlements we have built over centuries. Inequality keeps growing. Misery abounds in both rich and poor countries. The powers that “run” our polity are trying to fix things, but are not doing too well at it. Fixing is not the way to go. The old adage needs adjusting to “It’s broke, but don’t try to fix it.” Change it, transform it, but don’t simply try to fix it.

These same powers are not the right ones to do the job. They are all committed to the current paradigm because it is the system that gave them whatever power they have. So they are extremely unlikely to lead us into a brave new world. It’s up to us. I think the best place to start is to begin to think of yourself as made up of cares, rather as than a bundle of insatiable needs. Having is a diminished and pathological mode of life. Try assessing how you are doing through the quality, not quantity, of your experience, that is the actions you take out of care for yourself, other humans, and everything else. Then, as you begin to find that life moves towards flourishing, you can work on the culture and begin to change it. But first you have to thrust yourself into a different set of beliefs, those of the brave new world I spoke about just above.

Care, Not Need--Now

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kindness

Almost everything I write is connected to sustainability, but sometimes that connection follows a winding and tenuous path. Sustainability, a word found increasingly in public conversations but poorly understood and stated, denotes the ability of a system to attain and maintain some desirable condition, but connotes a sense that the world is doing anything but that. Flourishing is the end that I assert is the best single concept for driving individual and collective behavior towards an almost universally shared vision. Flourishing creates images of full development, robustness, satisfaction, and other norms shared by humans in all cultures at all levels of economic status. The cultural beliefs underpinning flourishing, as opposed to those that are creating all that is unsustainable today, are very simple: one, humans are caring, not needy creatures, and, two, the world is a complex organic system, not a machine running on laws that we can come to know via the methodologies of science.

The objective of any institution is the creation of the conditions for which it was founded. Families are there to provide mutual both material and psychical support. Schools arose to educate, that is, produce adults capable of operating effectively in a wide variety of other institutional contexts. Religious organizations have evolved to provide access and procedures to enable intercourse with transcendental objects and forces. Every institution is constituted by and exhibits a unique set of normative ends, beliefs and procedures. The establishment of many of our present institutions occurred in the distant past arising out of and along with the beliefs and norms that existed during that era. They persisted because the structure on which they rested worked. This pragmatic idea of effectiveness is very important in understanding the development and evolution of any institution.

Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigms in his study of the history of the institution of science. At any moment the paradigm is the set of structural elements underlying the culture, that is, the normal behaviors, of an institution. As long as the paradigm produces effective outcomes, actors working within the institution go about their daily business without thinking too much about it. They simply do what one was supposed to do, until the context changes, and the old way of life stops producing the desired normative outputs. Kuhn saw that, under these circumstances, new paradigms were emerged; those that were successful stuck and augmented the old. From a pragmatic perspective, the old ways continued to be applied in contexts where they continued to work, and the new paradigm was applied to contexts where they could enable the actors to move along. In the case of science that meant to be able to explain phenomena such that the entire collective of actors, the community of scientific peers, accepted the new model.

Effectiveness is not only measured in terms of successes in producing the normative objectives, but also in terms of avoiding unwanted associated outcomes. The old Newtonian theories when applied to quantum phenomena created frustration and loss of legitimacy among scientists besides the inability to explain the causes. In other institutional domains, the negative consequences can be much larger than frustration. Taking a society, say the US, as a whole, the paradigm which worked early its history tends to grow long in the teeth and may start to fail to produce what is expected, but also begin to produce significant unwanted, unintended consequences.

Unsustainability provides strong evidence of the failure of the existing paradigmatic structure of the US society, and other similar modern polities. In doing what the culture tells us is normal, we have begun to produce such large negative effects that the society and the larger global context is increasingly threatened. Attempts to remedy the situation by treating the symptoms have not and cannot cope effectively. The problems that constitute unsustainability are rooted in the failure of the underlying cultural structure—the paradigm. These unwanted outcomes are not the only signs of paradigmatic failure. The positive objectives are not coming forth either. The pursuit of happiness is, for many here in the US and elsewhere in the world, a race where the multitudes are falling further and further behind, as measured by very high and still rising levels of inequality.

It is very difficult to reveal the root causes for the failure of the current cultural structure (paradigm) to produce both the goods we seek and to avoid the bads. Root causes are those elements of the structure which if properly redesigned cause the goods to appear and the bads to go away. They are exceedingly difficult to root out. The famous Toyota Production System used a procedure called the 5 Whys to get at the root causes of problems in the automobile manufacturing process. By asking “Why” five times in succession, the actors would get beneath the symptomatic aspects to the cause that, if corrected, would make the problem go away, not simply be solved until the next time. The number five is not magic. Sometime more iterations are needed to get even deeper into the system. Occasionally less are sufficient. Systems dynamicists use causal loop diagrams for the same purpose.

My analysis of unsustainability and the inability to produce well-being, which I define as flourishing, gets down to two primary root causes, our belief of what it is to be human and our belief in the way the world works. Both beliefs trace their origin back to the period of Descartes and the Enlightenment thinkers. Descartes had a model of the world as a vast machine that we could come to know how it worked by looking at smaller pieces of the whole though a finely focused analytic lens. By reassembling all the parts we could then predict how the whole system would behave under various circumstances, and, knowing that, design technologies and institutions to do our bidding. Unsustainability, especially the pieces lying in the domain of natural systems, is evidence that this model does not produce sufficient knowledge to design fully effective cultural and technological systems. But the second root cause is my focus today.

We have built a Western world on a model of the human as a rational (optimizing) need-driven being (being here meaning a thing or object). Our economic institutions have this model of human behavior at the roots. Smith put us on the path we still follow when he claimed that individual greed (the continued striving for material satisfaction) would produce the maximal collective well-being as if some magical invisible hand was driving the machine. By the usual measure of GDP, these beliefs have worked very well with a few major hiccups along the way.

I, among many, see evidence that the social paradigm built on these two beliefs is not working well enough to accept it uncritically. The needy model of human being eventually evolves to produce the individualistic actor that so many of our current institutions are designed to serve. The economy itself. The political system, The celebrity culture. High school sports. And so on.Its tell tale signs are everywhere. Hyper-competition is a manifestation of this model of being.

I find it very difficult to find any of our institutions that work effectively for the majority of people. Politics has become hyper-competitive, played as a zero-sum game where only one side can “win.” The common good for which the political system was constructed has gotten lost. The economic system produces, when it is running on the up-cycle, wealth, but much more for the already wealthy than those whose lives would be made materially and psychically better. Education is something to be acquired to get ahead in the world, not to become a fully functioning human being. Health care is little more than a system of economic transactions with doctors becoming increasingly robotic. The world is becoming depleted of its resources to support human and all life is the name of producing evermore goods for satisfying our insatiable needs.

That’s just a snapshot. Institutional failures stemming form this model of humans are virtually everywhere. Well, it’s time to admit the causes and stop either denying that the problems exist or continuing to apply BandAids. It is the paradigm that no longer works and it is the bottom tier beliefs that have thrown a monkey wrench into the gears of modernity. The path to a change (a revolution in Kuhn’s terms) is simple in concept but extraordinarily daunting in practice. Given a model of humans that can be shown to lie 5 whys deep as a root cause, a change is necessary, and that change is one found in history. Humans are fundamentally caring, not needy creatures. Caring means, first, that people are conscious of the world around them and have been since at least the time they exited the birth canal. And second they exhibit their humanness by taking responsibility for that world out of an understanding that they are interconnected to it. The very idea of individualism disappears.

This is not to say that one doesn’t satisfy or take care of oneself, but that satisfaction comes from the realization that such actions are working in the whole system. Taking care of oneself is a part of the structure of care, but only one part; other humans and non-humans as well must be included in the ambit of everyday activities. We may and will exploit others to get what we need to satisfy these domains of care. That’s unavoidable. We need food and energy to survive. Our economic system needs individuals to make it function. But we can act in these and in every case in a caring and responsible manner. Native Americans thanked the Earth for their food even as they killed living creatures or damaged the earth to provide it.

I am deeply troubled by the selfishness I see everyday around me and also through the media I read. The system is truly broke and needs fixing. The many ideological stalemates and battles that capture the news hardly can be said to be designed for the common good. They are manifestations of the individualistic way we hold truths. Truths are mine, not rules for action that work for the whole institution within which action is being played out. Individualism and power or domination are joined at the hip.

I have offered “solutions” only for making very small changes toward replacing need with care; competition with empathetic relationships, selfishness with compassion and more. The changes must come from out there. Atmospheric CO2 levels have just hit 400 ppm; the coming temperature rise is undeniable. Inequality is threatening to produce a lost generation or two in our country, the most affluent major nation in the world. The American Dream is being seen increasingly as just that, a dream. The answer to these disappointments and failures starts with action at the roots. All the efforts at fixing the problems at the level of symptoms may be slowing down the paradigmatic failure, but they are diverting our attention from the real cause. Wake up people. Only when you begin to figure out how to become caring and not so needy and start to act differently, does the possibility for change at the deep belief structure become possible. Only possible because there are many powerful actors that are happy with the present system and will and do oppose any changes. There is no solution coming from Apple Computer or any other super-innovative business enterprise. I wrote a few weeks ago on Earth Day to go out and hug a tree but do it out of caring for the Earth, not merely symbolically. That might be a good way to start.

Summer Overload

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overloaded bike

The last few weeks have been taken up with getting ready for summer, leaving not enough time to keep up the blog. The annual move to Maine is always fraught with opening one house and vacating another. There are usually a few weeks where something is in the wrong house, but it always settles down. This summer is more complicated because I have Andy’s and my new book to tend to. It’s exciting to have actual copies to send off. The worrying starts, wondering if anyone will buy a copy, much less read the book.

After three decades of opening the summer cottage and cleaning up the remnants of what the critters have left, this year we opened up to discover someone had broken in over the winter and removed a TV and DVD player. For a few moments we thought that was all but a little later I was exploring the closet and discovered that all my fly fishing gear was gone. Rods and reels, flies, tools, and lots of little, but important, items. Fishing equipment for someone like me is much like wine; it gets better with age. I will be able to replace the stuff, but not with the rods and reels I have grown to love. The new equipment is “better” than my old gear but I knew just how much it would take to drop a fly on top of a swirl twenty yards away. The stolen bag had all my flies, mostly hand tied, in it. Many hours lost. Now I have good chunk of time this summer already called for.

This short note is my apology for not showing up on the blog. Thanks to a couple of the faithful who wrote to make sure all was OK with me. Except for feeling violated, I’m in my usual state of seasonal overload. I’ll get back to posting soon. I have collected a lot of material.