Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
As a followup to the last post, I want to discuss the relationship between consciousness and care, in particular to understand why care is a uniquely human process. Antonio Damasio, whom I referred to in the last blog post, spoke about consciousness early in the book I also cited, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Conscious.
Consciousness is, in effect, the key to a life examined, for better or worse, our beginner’s permit into knowing about the hunger, the thirst, the sex, the tears, the laughter, the kicks, the punches, the flow of images we call thought, the feelings, the words, the stories, the beliefs, the music and the poetry, the happiness and the ecstasy. At its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex and elaborate level, consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.
The first part speaks about a “life examined.” This echoes Heidegger’s most basis notion about the meaning of human being. Of all living creatures, human are the only species that may confront the question, “What does it mean to be?” The self awareness necessary to ask this question requires consciousness, as Damasio goes on to discuss in the book. Further, humans act in the world everyday with some understanding of Being, although they may not be aware of it, and in some other situations may believe that life (being) is meaningless.
Damasio’s use of concern is important as it is a prerequisite to care. He adds that concern of self and others is critical to “the art of life,” another way to point to the necessity to care for self and others to survive. Damasio, like Maturana, describes life as the process of successful coping with the external and internal environment such that the basic structure of the organism is maintained. Maturana calls this process “autopoiesis.” The use of “art” suggests that humans are capable of knowing and able to learn from their experience of living. There is nothing in any of these thoughtful probings of human existence that suggests anything about a set of inherent needs, other than those necessary to maintain autopoiesis, food for example.
Other living organisms also have concerns about the world within which they live, but they are not conscious of either the world as we see it or of any kind of self that reflects on their concerns. Their concerns cannot be transformed into care, a word which implies agency or intentionality. They have only very limited capabilities to master the art of living. Agency or intentionality require both consciousness and a built-in mechanism, care, to respond to what becomes conscious. Humans and other species have additional response mechanisms that rest on unconscious (or on nonconscious, as Damasio writes) processes.
In Sustainability by Design, I found it convenient to develop a catalogue or taxonomy of care (depicted in the previous post), placing the range of human intentional actions in to a small set of discrete groupings, like subsistence, family, or aesthetics/creation. These categories can be used in a self-assessment to determine what’s still needed to be done on the way to flourishing. Flourishing can be conceived as a sense of completion in the processes (art) of living. Live is never complete in a static sense until death.
Heidegger adds authenticity to the ontology of human Being. While a very complicated notion, it’s central meaning is simply that one’s care comes from the self, not from conforming to the outside culture. Authenticity is exceedingly difficult to find today, given that the idea of need dominates daily life. We are told we are needy creatures by authority figures (scientists, economists, political leaders, and others). Our social institutions are built on this belief. If we believe we are simply insatiable, needy creatures, our individual and collective (cultural) habits will follow. Self will come to dominate everything else with the results we see, degradation of the Earth, human deprivation and suffering, disappearance of other species, and so on.
The competition that self brings is presumed to be the primary means to master “the art of living” that Damasio notes. It should be obvious that this is not working. We have neglected the concern (not the same as need) we have for ourselves, other humans, non-humans, and the transcendent attached to our consciousness. Those four categories comprise everything out there that finds its way into our consciousness.
Is this so complicated? I do not think so. Those who have elucidated the basic concepts here, Damasio, Heidegger, Maturana, and others, have done the hard work. It’s time to stop constructing our worlds around need as the core of human nature. The place to start is in every individual. Start acting out of care and the social institutions will follow. Care for family and the social dysfunction we see now will begin to vanish. Acquire material goods only as tools and resources for your caring in the various categories and the load on the Earth will lighten. Set out a schedule to attend to all the categories and eventually the sense or feeling or consciousness of flourishing will show up. The insatiability fed by societal pressures will begin to abate. Time to smell the roses will become more than a metaphor. This is the only way sustainability can come forth.