No Grist for the Mill

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.

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Edmond Byrne said:

Yes, right on the nose as usual!
I'm reading your new book at present, and it only again confirms to me that you are a beacon of hope, inspiration and authenticity in a world going increasingly mad.
For an academic and chemical engineer, its terrifically reassuring to see the wisdom that engineers such as yourself can offer, despite the dominant societal and educational paradigm that continues to persist and even strenghten (as a means of winning argumnents and protecting status, wealth, power, etc.), despite overwhelming contrary evidence.