October 2013 Archives

Filling a Semantic Void



I am finding it increasingly difficult to come up with ideas for this blob. I don’t feel right in always being critical even as I see more and more reasons to think that way. I don’t see much out there that suggests that global society is waking up to the havoc our modern ways are wreaking. I find it harder and harder to explain why I am not pessimistic, but remain hopeful. I think it possible to hold these seemingly opposing thoughts. I believe that there is a way to move toward a flourishing world away from the deteriorating condition of the times. I am hopeful that, as we begin to adopt the new story, the world will change for the better. But at the same time, I am pessimistic as to whether the rate of adoption will be fast enough to counteract the trend toward natural and human collapse. I fall back on this short quote by W. S. Merwin when I get mired in pessimism. It’s taken from an introductory piece by the poet, Alison Hawthorne Deming, in a book in which I have a chapter.

Recounting a visit by W. S. Merwin who had been describing to her class the lack of progress on a conservation project. A student asked, “How do you keep going. I mean, are you at all optimistic.” Merwin responded, “I’m not optimistic. I am very pessimistic. But that does not mean I am not hopeful. You make a decision to be hopeful. When you’re in a lifeboat, that’s not the time for your worst behavior, but for your best.”

It is very important for me and all others concerned about the future to remain hopeful. Pessimism has a paralyzing effect, the opposite of that which hope brings. Stay the course; stick to your guns; fall seven times, stand up eight. Merwin echoes these old saws and sayings. I have been thinking, writing, and teaching about sustainability for a decade or so. The hegemony of the words we use keeps us locked in the present. The rich, future-oriented way I have been talking about sustainability has been buried by the way the word is used is used virtually everywhere out there; business, government, NGOs and other advocacy groups, schools. and more. This is a big problem for me as I have used the word extensively in virtually everything I have said or written. Sustainability, out there, refers to acting such that the global system can continue to develop as it has for a couple of centuries. It is the form of development that is to sustained. We are to continue to progress toward some mystical goal. When we started on this journey, those who developed the underlying ideas believed that this course would lead us to perfection, although it was never clear what they meant. Back then, they believed that God had given humans the tools to discover facts about the world and it follows, then, if humans would use these tools to shape their lives, they would eventually reach that perfection. Otherwise why would they have been given the tools.

While some still believe that God is behind everything, our institutions are largely secular, based on the facts we have discovered without regard as to why they are out there. As I and many others are saying, this modern journey has indeed produced much progress measured in materialistic terms but has brought us to state far from perfection. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that whatever progress we are making is now coupled to changes that can only be seen as contrary to the expectations that our history has given us. Unsustainability, the constellation of natural and human ills, is growing and threatens both the earth and its inhabitants. Its proximate causes can be linked to the size of our economy and to the means by which we produce and consume. There is little or no call to reduce the size of the economy or the rate that should grow; solutions are to come either from great improvement is the way we produce and consume our goods or by adapting to whatever changes come from continuing to behave the same way we are now.

Starting tn the 1980s and 1990s, many people began to recognize the trends, but had no conventional way of describing them. You could talk about inequality as an isolated problem, but it was difficult to convey the enormity of the situation without a simple, neat word. Unsustainability arose to fill this semantic void, a phrase used by Leo Marx in his essay, “Technology, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” (Technology and Culture, 51 (3) pp. 561-577, 2010) This condensation of a constellation of problems into a single word has enabled its diffusion and the subsequent high level of attention paid to it. The positive reaction to unsustainability was a plethora of remedial programs largely done by businesses. Initially these activities were scattered and, without a name to describe them, the institution of business could not say much about what was going on. A new word, greening, was coined, to encompass all the activities aimed at reducing sustainability. This new word sufficed for about a decade until it was clear that greening was inadequate to counteract growing unsustainability. Greening could not encompass he enormity of social problems as well as those of the environment . A new phrase was needed to describe the early activities aimed at the larger set of issues. The “semantic void” was filled with “sustainability.”

But the meaning of sustainability was never clear. It became a shorthand for eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility. The key question of what was to be sustained was never explicitly asked. Nor were questions raised about the source of the causative factors of the deteriorating conditions of the Globe. If there was any image behind its use, it was the continuation of social life based on an economic system of benign growth. Sustainability acquired a kind of agency. Do something called sustainability and it would make things better. Leo Marx, in the article I cited above, wrote:

To invest the concept of technology with agency is particularly hazardous when referring to technology in general—not to a particular technology, but rather to our entire stock of technologies. The size of that stock cannot be overstated. By now we have devised a particular technology—an amalgam of instrumental knowledge and equipment—for everything we make or do. To attribute specific events or social developments to the historical agency of so basic an aspect of human behavior makes little or no sense. Technology, as such, makes nothing happen. By now, however, the concept has been endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency. We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a—if not the—primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society. To expose the hazards embodied in this pivotal concept is a vital responsibility of historians of technology.

Sustainability has also a “thing-like” quality. It will solve our problems just as technology will. The nature of much of what goes for sustainability is little more than technology in disguise. I did not recognize this character of sustainability until recently and have used it extensively in my work. Now I have stopped, but the word is all over my books and blog. Sustainability does not convey an image of the life we seek, only a process that is supposed to get us there but instead created the problems it is now supposed to cure. We are not some numerical abstraction, but human beings. Sustainability, like technology, tacitly assumes that we are merely such abstractions.

I now talk about “flourishing” in hopes to fill the semantic void that now exists. The idea of progress is a good one but began as a theological concept. It, like technology, is empty of meaning until we give it some. The mysterious end of progress has become dimmed over time and now is couched in quantitative terms. But, as I just said, we are not abstractions, and numbers tell us very little about the human condition. I hope that flourishing will afford us a meaningful vision of how life can and should be. If we speak of progress, it should refer to flourishing as the end, not to some disconnected process. Progress has become an end, itself not a means to some vision that reflects our humanness. I thought sustainability would be a good substitute, but the end being sought has become distant and diffuse. If we are to address our real problems, we have to stop using words like progress, sustainability, or greening. There is no vision of a future other than more of the same. Flourishing has the potential to wake us up and give us an explicit end. With that, we can begin to raze the present cultural structure and replace them with beliefs and norms tied to the vision of flourishing.

Chaos, Complexity, and Care


flocking geese

Last night after finishing the online class I am teaching, I had a breakthrough in the way I think and speak about flourishing and sustainability. Mostly about flourishing because, as I wrote a few posts ago, I do not think that “sustainability” is the right word to use when speaking about our present dilemma, the deteriorating state of the world. There is little present that we should even attempt to sustain because the existing institutions are virtually all broken and the beliefs on which they have become established no longer bring the good life to both humans and the globe. Sustainability, no matter how hard others and I try to get it straight, refers back to the maintenance of the modernist view of technological progress and economic growth as getting us ever closer to perfection. This is clearly the wrong vision and model for the constitution of society, as demonstrated by the deteriorating state of humans and the Planet. I have said this over and over in this blog and in my writing. Sustainability, in spite of how it is being used to indicate saving us and the Planet, has exactly the opposite effect, making matters worse over the long run.

I have tried the use of the compound word, sustainability-as-flourishing as a way to shift the vision, but the conventional sense of sustainability overwhelms the image of flourishing. That is too bad because I have spent some years pushing this concept. The compound phrase does not and probably cannot (given its semantical roots) provide an image of the kind of world we want to come into being. (see my September 19th post). The image of keeping something in place is too strong. Flourishing by itself can provide an image of a desirable future, but then needs to be connected to the present state of the world to create the “creative tension” needed to move people into appropriate action. Action implies conscious intention as contrasted with routine behavior like walking. Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology wrote,

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.)

That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Flourishing represents a specific image of the desired future, a fuzzy image to be sure, but a concrete notion. Flourishing, like beauty or pornography, appears in the perceptions of the observer. W. E. Gallie would call flourishing an “essentially contested concept.” But that poses no fundamental problem to its use as a vision of the future, as long as there is rough alignment of those to choose to act to enable its emergence.

While the word flourishing may be applied to isolated individuals, the vision it carries will not be realized until flourishing emerges broadly throughout the world. Not only is flourishing an essentially contested concept, it is an emergent property of the complex global system. Given the complex nature of the planet and the interconnectedness of all beings, the whole system must find a state where flourishing appears everywhere. Said another way, flourishing is always only a possibility. In almost all of my work, I have defined sustainability as the possibility of flourishing. Now, I have separated the subject and predicate of this sentence. I no longer equate sustainability to the possibility of flourishing. Flourishing first must emerge and then and only then can we speak meaningfully about sustaining it. So for those seeking a flourishing world, we should not talk about our vision in terms of sustainability but directly as a flourishing world. Our challenge remains no matter how we speak. We must augment, perhaps replace, the belief structure of the modern culture that dominates Western society. This leads me to the next step.

What are the new beliefs. I have written much on this subject. The first is to accept the world as complex and to recognize our dreams of the good life are emergent properties. We cannot bring us that vision to life as the output of some economic, technological machine. This is how we run our societies today. One cannot produce beauty, liberty, flourishing… by some production process. We have been making this mistake since the rise of science and the adoption of the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers. These beliefs have certainly produced wealth and lifted many human beings out of misery, but are failing to maintain intact our life support system and still have left many people without hope of flourishing.

The second, familiar to those who follow my work, is to replace the model of the human as an insatiably needy, self-interested creature with an ontologically grounded concept of a human being, acting out of care. Care here is not the affective care of psychology and poetry, but a reference to actions that reflect one’s understanding that life consists of paying attention to the world and acting to maintain all the connections so they support the life of the system. Without the structure of care that underlies our humanness, we would merely be creatures like all other life, acting only out of an innate focus on some sense of need and protection. Care adds meaning to life. Our ability to give meaning to life and to coordinate our actions with others comes from our unique capability, language. As Heidegger said, “Language is the house of being.” A little thought about how language arose leads one to early times when human life involved little more than existing by paying attention to the surrounding world and acting to maintain some sort of homeostatic relationship with it. This is what is meant by care, attending to world in which we exist. In today’s complicated world, care covers more ground that that of our ancestors, but the process is exactly the same. Care requires an acceptance that everything encountered in the world has the same ontological basis for existing, and so care is generally reciprocal and empathetic. Caring for non-humans is no different although how we act toward them may be different.

My constant source, Humberto Maturana, might call our caring actions as coming from the emotion of love, but not the affective kind. He defines love as an emotional domain of behaviors and bodily dispositions in which another (being) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself. He uses a different set of words, but I would say he is speaking about care. For those interested in following this up, click on this link. His writing is hard to get through but worth it, as he is presenting a picture of life and human action so different from the conventional that he resorts to very complicated sentences.

So, here is a basic definition of care. Now where does flourishing come in. I have to put the two new beliefs together to get there, complexity and care. Flourishing is, as I write, an emergent property of a system. It is the appearance of order from a chaotic state, a state that I believe describes today’s world: lots of individuals and organizations going their own ways; like a flock of birds flying in random directions. But like magic, the flock can order itself and produce the familiar sight of birds in highly coordinated flight patterns. They create order out of chaos by applying a set of rules: fly close together, but not too close, and steer toward the average position of your neighbors. It is truly magic; order appears from chaos.

I believe the same situation applies to our societies. We produce chaos with the present rules of cultural behavior. One can easily see that individualistic and selfish rules would prevent an emergent order to appear. No emergent quality is likely to show up. Now, imagine what might happen if all interactions would be based on care. The attractive element operating in flocking would tend to create order. Human cultural behavior is much more complicated than that of birds in flight or swimming fish. and care as the rule instead of the opposite may not be enough. Given the mess we are in it is worth trying. Maybe start on a small scale. Many cultures, even pieces of our own, have tried something like this, with success until larger external and failures to follow the rules forces do them in. I see no other choice for us. Start caring or watch the world collapse. Whether that happens slowly or quickly I cannot predict, but it will happen. All the fixes we try to head it off will ultimately be fruitless.

Our Broken Social Contract



I find it exceedingly difficult to think about flourishing or sustainability under the immediate circumstances, but I have a gnawing sense that it is very important to maintain my focus. Life in the US has come to a halt, not in the sense of everyday activities, although the shutdown of government has clearly stopped some people’s lives in mid-stride. As it so often happens, some other unrelated event has accentuated my concerns here. Synchronicity at work once again. My wife and I are part of an informal group that meets from time to time to discuss what is upon our minds. We try to pick “large” topics that bear on today’s world. This month the topic we chose is “The Social Contract.”

I haven’t thought seriously about this since my freshman year at MIT when I took a course on the history of Western thought leading up to our contemporary civilization. I pulled out my textbook for the course, which I have carefully saved to use in such situations as I am in right now, and scanned the chapters on the Enlightenment thinkers from whom this idea came. It’s primarily a reader containing extracts from great thinkers with a little commentary. I, like so many others, have grown intellectually very lazy and am loath to spend the time it takes to read the original documents and tease out the core ideas. So I went to the Internet and, presto, was inundated by wondrous interpretations of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the men from whose works this idea took shape. I am not going to parse through these here, but use them as the context for a few comments on the stalemate in Washington.

Historians are pretty much of a single mind that the origins of the American system of governance sprung directly from these thinkers’ products. The three giants here spoke quite differently about the topic, but touched upon a number of common ideas: consent of the governed, protection of private property, rational human beings, adjudication of disputes without going to war, the need of some sort of sovereign (Locke thought this would be unnecessary because the power of human rationality would produce a peaceful result by itself), and a few other foundational beliefs. All three used the concept of a “state of nature” prior to any made contract. The privileges (rights) afforded in coming to a social contract were balanced with a set of obligations to act according to the moral implications created by such a contract. Socrates anticipated the Enlightenment thinkers arguing that, since it is the polis that creates the conditions for a good life, its rules must be obeyed. and thus eventually drank the hemlock he was ordered to.

We are perilously close to returning to a state of nature and may already be getting there. So how have we gotten into the mess we are in? It is, indeed a mess. A very complex and debatable question, but I will try to hit a few reasons. Fundamental to all these thinkers was the notion of rationality; humans were driven by an internal mechanism that would figure out the best course under the immediate situation. This was Hobbes’ concept of human nature, mirroring Newton’s work on finding the rules governing natural processes. Hobbes saw this mechanistic nature as serving one’s self-interest and also as insatiable. So in cases of disputes over property, for example, it was rational to create and legitimate a “sovereign” to resolve such disputes as an alternative to killing one another. This idea came following a long historical period in which war was almost universal. These men differed over the form of the sovereign; whether is should be a single person (monarch) or a representative body. Given that the early Americans were fleeing the dominating power of a Monarch, it comes as no surprise that they selected a representative body as the sovereign. Locke added the notion that all humans were equal and deserved an equal shot at the available resources. The notion of power was only implicitly addressed and was tempered by the presumption that rationality would counter attempts at domination.

The first thing that comes to mind it that we are not quite the rational beings they thought. Modern game theory, with it’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, has shown that we fail to maximize our utilities under certain circumstances. The failure of rationality has opened the door to power as the means by which arguments and disputed are settled. No surprise, but surely a factor in what is going on. The model of our Congress is that of a deliberative body, one where decisions emerge from rational argumentation. I suspect that Congress never operated that way, certainly not fully, but at least honored the concept. Not so today. Debate is a sham. Decisions are made by applying raw power and since money has become power, by the force of moneyed interests. In the absence of a sense of a contract with the all the people, some losers in these “debates” completely fail to see the broad social interest being served and go away mad.

Further in this economically driven society, money is the ultimate symbol and measure of one’s self-interest. Rational arguments, which necessarily involve other factors of human well-being, are virtually impossible. Appeal to reason simply won’t and doesn’t work any more. Adam Smith’s view of human beings was that of empathetic creatures who measured well-being by the nature of relationships. Clearly a much better ground for a social contract than the mechanistic model of Hobbes that however won.

The sovereign in all the models has a responsibility to all the people, an idea engrained in the seminal document of the USA, The Declaration of Independence. Again, this critically important notion has become lost. Parties revolve about separate sets of ideologies but must be willing to negotiate in all the people are to be served. These ideas have always been debated; recent scholars have found racial and gender biases in the writing of these men. But, by and large, they have worked.

But our immediate crises (quite a few) signal, I believe strongly, that we have reverted to a state of nature where the previous contract needs to be severely redesigned, not merely tinkered with, if we are to maintain peace within our boundaries. I am deeply worried that the peace that has lasted since the end of the Civil War is in trouble, especially given the vast quantities of arms in the hands of those moving into the state of nature. Tribal warfare captures much of the headlines everyday. Is is possible here in the US that we will fight among the several socially and politically diverse tribes? I am no Prophet of Doom, but I believe this threat is rising. Not only is the presence of so many guns an issue, but the concentration of money power in a very small number of people adds to the instability. The Enlightenment thinkers were not only concerned with the protection of property by the sovereign, but with the inequality and unfairness of its distribution.

So what to do? A central theme of all my work on flourishing and sustainability is that our problems are unintended consequences of a cultural machine that is based on the wrong root beliefs and cannot be made to work effectively until we get at and change those root causes. It is imperative to take a systems view going all the way to the roots. Tinkering with the system without getting at these roots will not change much, except perhaps by temporarily mitigating a few of the immediate breakdowns.

The avoidance of domination by the powerful was central to these thinkers. Their concerns reflected centuries of such domination by the Church and by those claiming some Divine legitimacy for their domination. These particular circumstances are no longer with us (in the West), but have been replaced by an uncanny and ominous parallel. Compared to their time, we have a new and different kind of God in the United States, private property and particularly money or wealth. And those with an inordinate amount of money have declared themselves “kings” with the right to impose their wills on the people as a whole. This analogy gives me the shakes even as I write it down; it seems so clear. And of course, Citizens United, gave even more legitimacy to these new kings’ claims of speaking for the God of money and power.

If any or all of this makes sense, then it is time to renew the contract and reconsider the sovereign structure of government. Rewriting the Constitution would be much more difficult than creating it in the first places. Periodic calls for a Constitutional Convention to fix even a small part of it usually come with a warning that we might be opening Pandora’s box. So be it. Tinkering won’t work here any more than it will in bringing us flourishing. It may boil down to this path or to a call to ramparts. No matter how the first course is fraught with both positive and negative possibilities, it is much better than the second. One has only to look at the violence in the world today. We must all become systems thinkers.

(Image: John Locke)