Taking the First Step

first step

Since my book has come out, I have had many readers ask me what can they do about reversing the present trends and put us on the road to flourishing. This is a very tough, but telling, question because the causes lie deep in the unconsciousness of our collective culture and of everyone. We are all part of a complex system whose response to human activities is far from predictable as is the case in any truly complex system.

Here’s my immediate response. Do not continue to apply technological and technocratic solutions based on scientific knowledge. While science can unscramble parts and pieces of the complex world, it always leaves out critical knowledge, knowledge that without which we get the unintended consequences that are plaguing us today. There is nothing new in this statement except to acknowledge that these undesired effects are becoming so great as to threaten the health of the Earth.

I have argued that the cause of our concern is our cultural addiction to two beliefs. One is that the Earth is a machine that we can know sufficiently well to manage it for our human desires. No, as I just said, it is a complex system that will stymie our efforts to control it. The second is our belief that humans operate by fulfilling an insatiable set of wants, creating a secondary, derivative addiction that shows up as hyperconsumption requiring more resources than the Earth can provide with obvious eventual consequences. Some, such as global climate change, are already becoming present.

The causes are addictions, that is, repeated actions using the same “solution” that appears to alleviate the immediate problem symptoms, but 1) fails to address its roots so that the same problem reoccurs, and 2) produces deleterious unintended consequences. Not just side effects, the popular word for unintended consequences that are presumed to be insignificant. These unintended consequences are just as much a response to the “solution” as is the primary response. They are not marginal, insignificant, or “side” at all.

We fall back on science-derived solutions for virtually all of our societal problems. Economists and political scientists, using their “scientific” knowledge, design our political economy and tinker with it when it goes awry, as it did in 2008. It still is not doing what it should if one thinks that unemployment and inequality are outcomes that need to be done away with. Geo-engineering will be the solution to global warming say many engineers. Gene therapy will alleviate or cure many of our dreaded diseases. We tout consumption as the cure for our flagging economy and as the way to human well-being. We measure the health of the economy by how much consumption has occurred. More consumption does not make the problems go away, either to the society or to the individuals that constitute it, but somehow we keep doing the same thing over and over again, with only temporary or no relief. This behavior fits the classic definition of addiction. Both planet and people suffer the unintended consequences.

Breaking addictive habits is very difficult. Rehab can start only after the addict admits to and acknowledges the addiction. Individual consumers can voice their self-knowledge if they become committed to break the habit. This is the first step: necessary, but insufficient. Societal addiction is very much harder to address. The same first step is critical, but who is the voice analogous to the awakened individual? The scientific, machine cosmology is deeply embedded in all primary institutions that make up the modern world: education, business, government policy-makers and even in capitalism and the free market structure. Somebody of authority representing all of these institutions will have to stand up and admit that they and the institution itself are addicted to a set of beliefs that are failing to cope effectively with the worldly context of the present.

This is the essential first step—acknowledgement of the failure of the current beliefs. Ironically, this is how Thomas Kuhn has successfully argued that science proceeds from one paradigm (set of beliefs and ensuing institutions) to a new one. Some scientist admits, perhaps only to him- or herself, that the present beliefs cannot explain the world, and replaces the fruitless pursuit of knowledge with one springing from a new and different fundamental belief. This belief becomes the foundation of a new paradigm, but only after the creator of the new ideas is able to convince the established institutional powers of its practical effectiveness. Franklin Roosevelt and his team knew that the old and “true” ways to runs an economy were the cause of the disaster they faced. They invented many new beliefs, and discovered which worked only by observing the practical results. But must we wait until the world collapses as it did effectively in the 1930s. It came very close in 2008, but not to the extent that public authority figures were willing to give up the old beliefs. They merely tinkered with the old “machine.”

So in answer to those who ask me, What’s next?”, I say, “Admit we are acting in an addictive pattern,” or simply, “I am a belief addict.” Only then, can we individually and collectively start to search for new beliefs that work. I do think I can offer alternatives to the beliefs driving the present addiction. There are just two. One is we turn to a model of complexity, not reductionist complicatedness, to describe the world. The other is that humans are caring, not needing creatures. Like Roosevelt and his crew of pragmatists, we can determine their validity only if we put them into play and watch what happens. So that completes my answer to those who ask what to do about the mess out there. Admit you are addicted to your deep-seated beliefs and try operating on the basis of complexity and care. Try caring first. I am quite confident you will like the results.

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Boudewijn Boon said:

Dear John,

I like the idea of proposing first steps to your readers in order to make the change you think is required. I do think it still is rather abstract, but I understand it's quite difficult (and risky perhaps) to 'prescribe' more practical steps. Try caring first, you say; but when a person grows up in an environment where he or she doesn't learn how to care, it will be hard. I think it is quite an art, to be a caring person. You cannot learn it from reading a text. Perhaps to some it comes more natural, but not to all, I think.

Maybe it is interesting to point at different practices which involve caring and engagement (as you have done in your book). Another way is for people to try and find people who are experienced in the 'art of caring' (or perhaps 'art of being', after Fromm). By interacting with these persons, you learn to care by observing and 'doing it'.

I think in an earlier post you talked about care being part of our nature; I think I agreed with that. But this nature still needs to be shaped (i.e. facilitated / encouraged / trained / channeled). However, it might just as well be suppressed by circumstances (which I think you mention in your book a lot).

Just some ideas that this post triggered!