Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
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.