September 2013 Archives

The Language We Use Really Matters

| | Comments (2)


One of my regular commenters, Boudewijn, wrote me after I posted the last entry. He picked up on the postscript where I mentioned a different way of placing flourishing into context. You can go back one post to see this, but I also copy his comment below:

Thanks for your post. It reminds me of your article of which the title said: “Sustainability needs to be attained, not managed.” Here sustainability seems like the quality of a system that can be attained, like equality and beauty can be described as qualities of a system. In your definition of sustainability, however, it becomes the ‘possibility’ of flourishing. Now flourishing becomes the quality of the system, and sustainability refers to the possibility of ’attaining’ this quality.

You seem now to integrate ‘possibility’ and ‘attaining’ into one word, ‘attainability.’ And you seem to want to replace ’sustainability’ with this new ’attainability’(?). It is confusing me a little, something language often does to me. For instance, you cannot replace the term sustainable as it is currently being used with attainable: ‘Attainable living’ doesn’t make much sense. As you say, it has to be connected to flourishing. So ‘living that makes flourishing attainable.’ The same goes for ‘attainable design,’ ‘attainable systems,’ etc. They don’t make sense. ‘Design that makes flourishing attainable’ and ‘Systems that promote the attainability of flourishing’ make more sense.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts about how we can actually use the term ‘attainability’ in everyday communication.

Very challenges comments. First let me respond with a quick answer to a couple of your questions and then respond in depth. Rather than write a didactic response, I have created an imaginary dialogue between you and me. It goes on quite a bit, but as I wrote, I found it important to set the context for my recent suggestion about substituting attainability for sustainability.

The quick response
It is just as important to use the related words, attainable and attainability, correctly as it is for sustainable and sustainability. In both cases the word absolutely demands some reference to make sense. I now think it will be less confusing and mystifying to use attainability referring to flourishing than sustainability, but see the dialogue below. The need to change the current reality is much clearer with attain and its derivatives. To attain something is to act such that whatever condition or item, presently missing, you are seeking will become present. In deterministic systems, this relates to some linear relationships between the actions taken and the outcome. For example, if I study hard and do well on my exams, I will graduate, that is, attain the status of a graduate or alumna.

In the complex system we inhabit, there is no such linear or deterministic connection between our acts and the outcomes. The best I can ever do is make statements like, If I do this, the possibility, not probability, of what I want to show up appears to be greater. Attainability, as I see it, is a description of a system where this possibility can be reasonably, but not precisely, lurking in the background. As in the case of sustainability, we can lessen the impacts of what is holding the system back from producing our desired output, say flourishing, but these actions are largely different from those we would take directly to raise the possibility of flourishing,

As you say, these words sound strange, but if used properly can be very powerful. Sustainability has become, unfortunately, to mean preserving the status quo by lessening the impacts our normal behaviors have on the environmental and socioeconomic context of our modern societies. The fact that the system is failing is ignored. It seems to me to be a lot harder to hide this fact using attainability. The absence of something is quite explicit and clear. You can’t use the word for long without someone asking, “Just what do you want to attain?” The answer I would give is quite simple, “Flourishing!” But if I substitute sustainability, it leads to confusion and all sorts of mischief. Let’s continue with a dialog that goes much deeper into the questions you ask.

A much longer dialogue
I am, these days talking a lot about sustainability. So people like you often ask me, “Just what do you want to sustain?” “Good question,” I say, “Flourishing.” Then you say, “But it isn’t around here at present, so how can we sustain it? “Good question,” I think to myself, but you follow quickly with, “If you can’t tell me what you are doing about sustainability, I am going to take my business elsewhere to a company that preaches sustainability” I say to myself, “I still don’t quite understand what my customers are calling for, but I will give them something that sounds like the right thing.” I begin to tell the world, “I am lightening the load I create on the earth and the human condition.” “Maybe you are,” you think, “but I only see the world continuing to deteriorate. We can’t even keep doing what we have been doing for some 400 years,”

I pause and ponder your last statement. I do agree with it no matter what I am supposed to think and say. “Our aspirations for human environmental well-being are slipping away,” I say. “Rather than trying to sustain the current system, that is, the cultural norms and structures, wouldn’t it make sense to figure out what is keeping us locked into a malfunctioning system,” I suggest. “Sounds right,” you say. (Thomas Kuhn, standing in the shadows, chimes in with, “You need a new paradigm, friends.) “That makes sense,” I say, “but shouldn’t we first begin by recreating the vision out of which this paradigm, we call, modernity evolved.” “That does sound like a more effective way to go than to keep putting Band-Aids on the current world system,” you respond, and start to look a little less troubled.

After a short pause, you add, “How would you describe the kind of a world you think would worth seeking to create?” After a long pause, I throw out the concept of flourishing. “Wow,” you say, “that really sounds good. I think I heard it talked about in my Aristotle class back in my undergraduate days. “Yes, I reply, Aristotle did have a word, eudaemonia, we reasonable translate as flourishing.” “So, that’s how you picked the word,” you ask. “Not really,” I answer, “flourishing picked me.” “It came out of my mouth completely unexpectedly during a personal training exercise in which we were asked to tell our classmates what possibility each of us could bring to the world. When my turn came, without thinking, I turned and said to the audience, “I am the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” So there it is. Still quite a mouthful and in need of continuing explanation and clarification. Sustainability became attached to this choice of flourishing later, but has remained an awkward and reluctant partner.

You reply, “Wow, I always thought this idea came from years of philosophizing.” “No,” I say, “but it was soon clear that the idea of both possibility and flourishing could lead us away from the circularity that sustainability has pushed us into. How could we get what we want by sustaining the very system that was failing us? I remember this quote, said to come from Einstein, defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But I kept using ‘sustainability’ as the name of what I hoped other folks would envision as a flourishing world.”

You jumped in saying, “It hasn’t turned out that way, has it?” “Not at all,” I reply, “but the idea of flourishing has crept in to business and other talk as the right end or vision. Sustainability, however, has gotten in the way.” “I know,” you say, “but do you really think attainability will do any better.” “Yes, I do,” I reply after a long pause. As said at the beginning of this conversation, it will be difficult to use this word in ordinary talk without leaving a clear sense that something is presently missing. I think people will be quicker to stop and make sure they agree on what is to be attained before rushing into action.”

I continued, “You were concerned that its usage would continue to be problematic, after all what does attainable business or attainable development mean?” My answer to you is simple, “It means nothing at all, so let’s not use it that way. It would be best simply to start talking about flourishing without attaching it tightly to either sustainability or attainability. Flourishing is categorically distinct from these two words. Flourishing refers to an observable quality found in or emergent from the system, most importantly the Earth. Either “-ity” refers to a characteristic of the system. Actors, operating in alone or in small coordinated teams, should simply call there normative efforts, flourishing strategies or flourishing programs, and never, flourishing products or flourishing businesses. Flourishing must be used always as an end, a vision, and always as a noun, not some modifier.”

“Boudewijn, you questions about the words are very germane, and if we are to avoid the current misuses of sustainability we must be very careful. I have been guilty myself in this regard. It is not “sustainability” that is a possibility; it is flourishing. It is only and always only a possibility because the earth’s system is complex, and any outcome of complex systems is always only a possibility. The very definition of complex means that outcomes cannot be predicted with the same kind of certainty can compute for deterministic systems.”

You pointed out in your comments, “You [John] seem now to integrate ‘possibility’ and ‘attaining’ into one word, ‘attainability’.” “Yes, Boudwijn, I was not clear. I am still used to talking in the same way as I have done with sustainability as the possibility of flourishing, but as I said, there is a category error here and I hope to correct it in the future. I have started to gloss over this problem by concatenating sustainability and flourishing by using hyphens: sustainability-as-flourishing, but this remain problematic as would attainability-as-flourishing. But that won’t answer your concern.”

“No, it won’t, you say, will we have to fall into these long phrases I mention in my comments.” Let me finish with this, “For a while, I believe the answer is yes, if we are to avoid the problems that have arisen with sustainability. We have to avoid the category error, flourishing is a quality, similar to beauty, we can observe, while the ‘ities’ apply to the system out of which flourishing arises. The nature and state of the system determine whether the possibility for bringing the desired quality present is there or not. So, I think it is OK to talk about the possibility of flourishing, but not make it the predicate of the subject, attainability. I believe we know how to change the system such that flourishing can be attained or at least made possible. And if we are successful in getting that far, then we can start to talk about ways to keep it present. That’s what sustainability would properly be all about. And finally, we can talk about design for flourishing, but unless that sits nested in some sort of design for attainment, we won’t get very far. We have to make fundamental changes to the system as well in we way we run its parts. We shouldn’t even begin to talk about attainable business or attainable design.”

Changing the Subject

| | Comments (3)

insanity As I noted a few days ago, sustainability is in a lot of trouble on two fronts. One is the continuing deterioration of both the social and the environmental pieces of the system that enables us to live. The other is the failure to come to any kind of social agreement on what the problem is and what should we do about it. The second part is grounded in the way people talk about the subject of sustainability.

I have grown increasingly skeptical about almost all initiatives aimed at “sustainability.” It has gotten much clearer that virtually everything being done, under this rubric, is designed to maintain an illusion. The illusion comes in many shapes, but usually has a few important common pieces. Here’s a quick, but incomplete, listing.

The environmental (natural) world is ours to exploit without regard to way we are interconnected to it. Our technological prowess will allow us to remedy any problems that arise from our impacts on it. Next is a belief that the increasing knowledge produced by science and the related innovations spawned by that knowledge are propelling modern humans towards perfection, but without any real picture of what that end is. Both the science and the technology allow human beings to reach their individual potential, expressed eloquently in the idea of the American Dream. One can become whatever her or his dreams reveal. There are always real barriers to realizing one’s dreams, but on the whole our political economy keeps the doors open. The objective knowledge generated by science is a powerful barricade to the forces of dogma and its often dominating power in the hands of those who demand obedience to it.

Achieving our human potential involves the acquisition of material goods. Each individual is driven by an insatiable need to acquire these goods. Our value in society is measured by our wealth. The economic structure in which we are embedded that drives much of our life work is the source of those goods and our wealth. Since more is better by this definition, economic growth is necessary and normal. Our collective place in the world is measured in part by the rate at which we grow. We can make the market work better by offering information about the impact of what we buy with the result that we will make rational choices adding up to the best result overall, but without any idea of whether that result is maintaining of degrading the environment’s capabilities to support us.

I am sure others would add more items to this short list, but this is enough to make the next point. Sustainability is the set of activities aimed at preserving these beliefs and the institutions that have followed them. Thus we find much effort dedicated to eco-efficiency under the assumption that technology will keep nature at bay. We find slogans, like environmentally friendly, aimed at making us feel good. Implicit in this drive is an assumption that we can grow more consistently if we maintain a healthy environment simultaneously. In a few words, sustainability has become the language we use to encompass everything we are doing to maintain the status quo, implicitly referring to the systems of thought and institutions that form the basis of modern life.

This would be a good thing to do if these beliefs and institutions were doing what we want them to do, but they are not. The environment is deteriorating. We will have to adapt to the consequences of climate change as we have waited too long to hold onto the conditions that enabled life to evolve to the state it is now. We have created a new name for this geologic era, the Anthropocene, reflecting the influence of human activity on the Planet.

The ability to realize one’s dreams is more and more an illusion, as the social/economic barriers to upward mobility have become very high. Our vaunted market system has produced record levels of inequality. The already wealthy are quite satisfied with this, but there are a whole lot more of the rest who cannot avoid the suffering of poverty and social stigmatization.

Our political system is divided between those who want to keep doing what we have been doing, but more effectively, and those who want to go back several centuries when dogma ruled the Earth. Continuing to do the same things over and over while expecting different outcomes has been defined as insanity. Going back to the age of dogma would seem to give up whatever progress we have struggled to get. Why then are we focused on sustainability when what we want to sustain is failing us? One answer is that we have been doing sustainability for centuries but never called it that. Only now when we have a sense that our modern world may not survive has sustainability become conscious as a social object.

I have to admit that I thought that it would be possible to change the trajectory of modernity simply by being clear about sustainability. Its dictionary definition suggests that it is about maintaining some output, material or emergent, of a system. Freedom or equality would fit this usage, but that’s not how it has become used. It is focused on keeping the system in place whether or not it is producing what we want it to. I thought by adding a vision, flourishing, of what we could become, the efforts might be diverted to redesign the system to produce a normative end that was no longer an illusion, but something real.

I do believe that this conceit has had some effect, but not enough to clear away the illusion, and I will continue to use the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing. But I also think it is time to adopt a new linguistic framework that better reflects current reality. We no longer can, without biting our collective tongue, talk about the American dream and the belief structure I described earlier. We are missing the normative ends that we aspire to. Our cultural norms have gotten tired over the centuries. I will stick with the idea of flourishing as an appropriate aspirational target for our society. But it makes little sense to associate it with “sustainability” because it is not around to sustain.

Although it is another mouthful, I think we will be clearer about our intentions if we start to talk about attainability, the possibility of the system to produce flourishing. They word itself suggests that we have to change how we think and act, something sustainability fails to do. But it, like sustainability, lacks meaning without a specific reference to what is to be attained. So, I will start thinking and writing about the attainability-of-flourishing. This usage is more consistent with the notion of possibility than is sustainability. The vision remains the same, but the actions to be taken are clearly different. As I have so often written, I do not believe we can get there, as Einstein said, using the same way of thinking that got us this far, but with a lot of unsolved, and I believe insoluble, problems showing up.

In any case, it is the system that will produce flourishing and, no matter what we call our work, the system has to be changed. We need new cultural habits and that, in turn, means we need new cultural beliefs. I have outlined a set of candidates in both of my books. Without new beliefs, we are stuck and will continue to act about the same way and continue to design our institutions using the same rules. It would be insane to expect any other outcome than the same old same old. C. S. Pierce, the founder of pragmatism said in the late 1800’s,

And what then is belief? First, it is something we are aware of; Second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and Third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.”

Current cognitive science is telling us the same thing. Our habits are driven by what we take from our experience to be “true.” It is exceeding difficult to change habits, especially when they have become addictions. And that’s what we are: cultural addicts, following the same old patterns even when they no longer work so well, and producing deleterious unintended consequences at the same time.

The first thing to do to change cultural habits is to change the language we use to coordinate our lives. I am going to make a change from now on, talking about attainability paired with flourishing. If nothing else, I’ll have to write a new book about it.

Sharing Comes Before Improvement


sharing knowledge I got back from my quick trip to Cambridge University yesterday. Recovering from jet lag is always easier coming back from Europe than going there. The conference was focused on “Integrating Industrial Sustainability.” I have posted a link to the talk below. The conference title gave me the theme for my talk, one that runs through my book and most of what I write about. The way sustainability is used in the title makes it sound like it is all about keeping industry going in the face of new threats from a failing Earth. For some, I do think that is how they do, in fact, interpret it.

From others, I heard a desire to contribute to the improvement of the conditions of the Planet, or, at least to keep the world from more deterioration. But, as I have so often said, that is all about reducing unsustainability, not about creating some positive vision of the future. And further when different speakers used the word sustainable or sustainability, no clear understanding of what they were referring to came across. It becomes clearer each time I listen to a group such as was assembled in Cambridge that the goal of their efforts is to stabilize the socio-environmental system to enable continued growth. I heard, I almost always do, an uncritical acceptance of growth as equivalent to progress and the engine of the machine that turns out human well-being.

There is an unspoken or barely mentioned assumption that eco-efficiency in some practical configuration can overcome the increasing burden on the Earth and its human and non-human inhabitants created by the workings of the economy. One speaker referred to the now old IPAT identity where Impact (I) equals population (P) times affluence (A) times a technological factor (T), akin to eco-efficiency. Alternatively the last factor can be replaced by its reciprocal expressed as innovation. The speaker tacitly assumed that so much innovation will show up such that the impact of growing population and increasing affluence will be reduced even below today’s excessive levels. Pure navel-gazing and wishful thinking. Material consumption, for example, has been reduced on a per GDP unit basis in some places, but is still increasing absolutely.

Nobody mentioned an important feedback loop that tends to reduce the result of eco-efficent gains: the rebound effect (Jevons paradox). Eco-efficiency tends to improve economic efficiency in general, creating bigger capital surpluses to re-invest in production, and indirectly in continued (economic) growth. Unless these investments are explicitly made in production that creates much lower social and environmental externalities than the units that created the surplus, societal and global unsustainability will continue to grow. And since avoiding the internalization of externalities is a fundamental financial strategy, this is not likely to happen without a deep restructuring of the basic role of industry.

One speaker gave an excellent recap of the Toyota Production Systems, highlighting two of its key processes, kaizen and yokoten. Kaizen is the more familiar, referring to the (continuous) learning/improvement theme central to the system. Yokoten can be translated as sharing, referring to the central role played by the community. Problem solving at Toyota is a community process. The speaker stressed that whatever community is to be involved must have a common language and context if positive results are to come. That commonality comes from yokoten, a set of processes designed to afford all entering a process with a common background of the problem context and the language necessary to describe and work on it.

Much of what I do and write is aimed at a broad system of yokoten, a sharing of meaning of sustainability, the context in which it fails to appear, and what we know about why. My concerns about lack of a common understanding of sustainability are reinforced by listening to the Toyota discussion. The TPS is the most emulated production system in the world and is the parent of lean manufacturing more broadly. It has been applied with variable success all over the world. After the talk, I have a better sense of why it has not worked so well. Almost all the practice has centered on kaizen—the system of continuous learning, but without a similar stress on yokoten. Both are essential to success in getting the system to produce the desired quality routinely.

In the sustainability sphere, yokoten is largely missing. Everyone is using the word differently to the point that many who have a sense that there is something very important here are frustrated and speak of abandoning their efforts. We are quick to jump directly to kaizen, centered on eco-efficiency as equivalent to quality in the TPS. Mistake #1: efficiency is a means, quality is an end. Mistake #2: leaving out yokoten as an integral and explicit part of the process.

When I attempt to demystify the word sustainability and offer a meaning consistent with the reality of the word, expressed through its dictionary definition, I am feeding yokoten. I found an alternate description of this process, interestingly, from another Asian source, Confucius, that I discussed a few posts ago on August 10th. I’ll repeat the money quote here.

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.

Pretty good analysis of what has happened today and why our global efforts to reduce unsustainability are “pointless.”

Mistake #3: failing to adopt kaizen as the central operating system. The more I have learned about kaizen, the more it fits a pragmatic framework—a framework I have promoted as essential to creating flourishing or any emergent quality. Kaizen, whether implicitly or explicitly (not knowing its origin and evolution, I cannot tell) acknowledges that the system to which it is applied is complex, epitomizes the kind of pragmatic framework necessary to work effectively within complexity. Here’s a quote from my Cambridge keynote:

The famous Toyota Production System is pragmatic at the core. It rests on continuous inquiry, a focus on root causes, and broad participation in truth seeking. Pragmatic truth is understood as being contingent and fallible. The appearance of unintended consequences or breakdowns is expected: the methodology is designed to make them disappear. When everything is working, quality emerges as if by magic.

When I return from conferences like this or, often, after I have read about the sustainability efforts of companies and others, I am encouraged by the attention being given to the subject, but discouraged by essential inadequacy and misdirection of the concomitant efforts. I am not at all optimistic that these efforts will work. The positivist, analytic way we design things and solve problems simply does not fit the world we operate within, not matter how hard we impose it onto that world. I remain hopeful, however, because I believe that we know deep down that we need to change the structure on which the modern culture works and have, at hand, a framework to guide our efforts toward that end.

Here is the Cambridge conference UK Keynote.pdf.

The Shofar Calls--5774


shofar Labor Day has come and gone and I promised to begin posting again. The Jewish New Year took a couple more days out of my schedule. The Jewish Holidays come this year at the earliest possible time. They will come this early once again in 2089 and then never again so early. It’s OK to begin the New Year so early, but Hanukkah starts on Thanksgiving Day, even before Black Friday. Think of a turkey stuffed with chopped liver and potato latkes!

The New Year Holiday, Rosh Hashanah, is more than simply a day marked to celebrate the end of the Creation. It actually falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. In the Jewish tradition, it is a time for reflection and examination of how one has lived over the past year. Tradition has it that God examines the lives of all Jews and determines if you will go into the book of life or otherwise by the end of the Days of Awe, the ten days running from New Year to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. If you recognize your transgressions during these days and atone for them, you live for yet one more year. Notice I did not use the word, sin.

Our Rabbi always points out that the Hebrew word, chet, often translated as sin, derives from the root word for “miss” or “go astray.” During these Days of Awe, observant Jews are to think of all the ways they have missed the mark, and atone, that is, acknowledge the transgression and correct it. God will forgive all the transgressions directed toward him, but demands that each us acknowledge and make amends for our missed marks directed at others. Hebrew scholars point out that this is the nature of sin that Jesus preached, implying a forgiving Lord.

Over the years, I believe that this practice has made me more compassionate and empathetic. I recognize that the marks I set were often misguided and reflected my own internalized judgments about how one “should” behave based on my own history. I think by now, I have become much more conscious that everyone lives by a set of rules constructed in the context of their own history, and that empathy demands that I am aware of this. Certainly I expect everyone to abide by a common set of moral rights and wrongs, but beyond that my standards are my own. If I dis someone for not living up to them, I have missed the mark of empathy and understanding. If I have failed to love them, meaning to acknowledge the legitimacy of their existence, I have missed the mark of compassion. I always can list many instances every year where I did indeed miss these marks.

It’s not just my Jewishness that has shortened the list. I am not a terribly observant Jew as I have often noted, but I am reminded every year of my heritage at this season. Choosing to think and write about sustainability has also made me much more conscious about missing the mark, but at a cultural level. Cultures are nothing more than descriptions of and explanations for the normal behaviors of all the individuals. Metaphorically, unsustainability is a measure of how far we have missed the mark. Locating the mark is not an easy task, but most agree that it, in part, comes from our Enlightenment notions of liberty. The French national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” succinctly sums up these ends. We are quite far from these ends and getting farther away these days. Our culture in the US lacks the critical feature of the Days of Awe. There is little or no tradition of asking ourselves collectively, “Why we have gone astray”

It is more difficult to find the mark denoting how we should act toward the non-human world, or “nature” as we speak about it in everyday language. The same Enlightenment thinkers that gave us the motto above, saw nature as something to exploit for human perfection. We have done well by that standard, leaving nature in very bad shape. It has become increasing clear that our forebears set the wrong mark. This error can be attributed to the dominant religious beliefs of the time, coming directly from the story of Creation, which has been interpreted to give dominion over nature to human beings.

If we can leave God out of the story, humans are simply another part of nature. We evolved along with everything else. The distinction between non-humans and us is helpful analytically, but, in reality, we all coexist in a single interrelated world. Taking this as a given, a more meaningful mark would be to preserve the relationship, if for no other reason than to avoid upsetting the system and potentially threatening its existence. If this mark is chosen, we are doing terribly, and have much to do each year to atone—Jews and everyone else.

Let me end with an offer to everyone. Think Jewish for a moment! Think about the marks. In the hurly-burly of life, we tend to forget about them and concentrate only on the problems we face and on the needs we have. Needs are nothing more than the means to the ends we have embodied. If we operate with the wrong ends (marks), the means will leave the world in a bad place. Then stop and think about where you have missed the mark this year. Don’t worry about which of God’s books you will end up in, just start taking care of the real world out there. It is your, not God’s, world to preserve and nurture. If you think this way, “care” pops up as the stance that guides all humans who set their marks rightly and keep focused on them.


The liturgy of this season is full of references to what is missing, what we have failed to do, not about how life is good just as it is. The idea of sustainability doesn’t fit. We aren’t there yet according to the marks we have set for ourselves. The semantics of sustainability wrongly suggest that we are. I had a dream last night in which sustainability has a red line through it and was replaced everywhere in my writing by the word “attainability.” This raises a big problem for me as my books and just about everything I have written is full of the word, sustainability.” I think it is time to stop using it and pair flourishing with attainability instead. Maybe simple using possibility will suffice. More later. Your comments about this would be most helpful.