November 2013 Archives

A Holiday Syzygy


turkey dinner

This year our traditional Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Chanukah. It is a rare event when the Julian and Hebrew calendars coincide. It will come again in 2070 or so, and then not for a very long time. Not only do the two holidays coincide, but share common roots. Both are celebrations of thanks for the gifts we have had bestowed upon us. The Jewish tradition celebrates a miracle that occurred when the ancient Temple was repatriated, and its rescuers wanted to rekindle the Eternal light. Only a day’s worth of oil remained, so a party was sent to obtain a fresh supply some days away.

Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, after which the party returned and the lamp could be replenished on a daily basis. Today it is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights, adding a candle each night. It is also a time for giving gifts; some give something every night. Most years Chanukah comes closer in the calendar to Christmas, and the commercialism of that once holy season becomes ecumenical and affects Jews and Christians alike. The meaning of these holidays has become seriously diminished by the commercialism.

Thanksgiving is, as its name signifies, a day for acknowledging the gifts we have received. The origins of our Thanksgiving arose in the very earliest days of the first settlements in The New World when life was harsh and uncertain. Almost half of the original settlers in Massachusetts died within the first year. At its roots the Day celebrated the sustaining of life, explicitly appreciated by those that survived. The so-called First Celebration took place in 1621, following a plentiful harvest. The local Native Americans, the Wampanoags, had taught the settlers in Plimoth the art of growing crops in this foreign soil and shared in the celebrations.

Their role is important as their culture placed humans in the same interconnected network of life as the animals. They culture was deeply communal with sharing of resources as the norm. As the Indians were systematically wiped out by the European settlers, these beliefs and norms were substantially lost, replaced by the idea of private property and the separation of humans from the web of life. The long-lived native culture which had survived for several thousands of years, at least, virtually entirely disappeared.

What a great loss! Our present unsustainable life styles can be attributed in part to our acquisitiveness for (private) property as a measure of our identity/worth, and the substitution of individualism for communitarianism. In the nearly 400 years since that First Thanksgiving, we have pushed our natural support system (the web of life) toward its limits, and in a few cases beyond its limits. The idea of sharing is virtually gone as evidenced by the rapidly growing inequality where the wealthy own the bulk of the resources and the associated capacity for thriving and the rest are merely eking out a bare existence.

I doubt whether this heritage of the day is celebrated by many. The Thanksgiving meal has become an empty ritual complete with the pardoning of 10 turkeys by our President. For many, there is a celebration of family, but little more than that. For most others, it is only a blip in the wait for Black Friday. I have seen various estimates of the numbers of shoppers expected to mob the Malls and big box stores, but some reach as high as around 100,000,000. This year, the wait was shortened by a number of giant merchants that were going to open on Thanksgiving Day as soon as a respectable delay had passed. It would make more sense in the future to designate this holiday as Thanksgiving Morning, acknowledging that much of the day was to be spent not in offering thanks for what has been given, but in rush to acquire more and more.

I cannot imagine a more serious indictment of our consumer culture and the damage it is doing to humans and the world than this debasement of what was a recognition of our place within a system without which none of the gifts would be forthcoming. There is no real satisfaction in this frenzy. There is no caring in it. It is a madness. It is a sign of our addiction to materialism. It is also a sign of the power of manipulation by the torrent of advertisements that reflect the omnipresence of the corporate sector.

I am deeply saddened by this spectacle. We were never a culture to value history very highly, especially our own. If we did, we would see the irony in our present behavior on Thanksgiving. Maybe we would even stop and reflect, and put ourselves back into the 1600’s and recall the Native American ways that underpinned the institutionalization of Thanksgiving. Their beliefs that they were a part of the web of life led to a care for it. Giving thanks is an acknowledge of interrelationship or interconnection. Thanking nature for its gifts is the obverse of taking care of it. Communal living is a manifestation of care for one’s fellow humans. These are values and norms that have gotten lost in our becoming moderns, which loss stands in the way of flourishing.

The loss itself is serious, but there is a positive side. If care and connectedness are something we have lost, we can get it back. It is evidence that we are not doomed to be narcissistic, selfish creatures. For me this is perhaps the most important lesson of Thanksgiving. It is not just for the material gifts we have received but, more importantly, for the memory of how we have cared for the world in the past and for the hope that we can recover our caring ways in the future and ultimately flourish.

By The Numbers


friendship alg

Central to flourishing is the recovery of being—what it means to be human. In many ways we are the same as other animals. We need food and shelter to survive. We have offspring to keep the species going. But the comparison soon stops, as we have language allowing us to coordinate our actions with others of our species. Language enables up to act intentionally as the result of cognitive processes greater than almost all other species. Whales and dolphins may share some of this capability with us, but it is very rare among the animals. We can invent words to describe what we encounter through our senses. Over time, we have developed a huge vocabulary that grew from the limited perceptions of early hominids to encompass what we have observed through the technological devices that extent our limited vision.

The words we have invented start with observations of distinctions—phenomena that stand out against a familiar context and come to possess meanings through their application in practice. Our language represents the phylogeny of our species, its history of experience. Words come into play while others disappear. Parallel to the evolution of our species, individual human beings acquire their own language, out of that shared by all, from their particular lived history (ontogeny). Since every being has a distinct life history, we are unique creatures; no two are alike at the genetic level and at the practical level, the domain in which we act out our lives. We share meanings of the language we all acquire through or development in a shared culture. It is that set of shared meanings that allows us to coordinate our actions with others. Part of being human is to hold these two opposing distinctions. One is the recognition that we share the world with others, that is we are social animals, acting out of a common pool of words and meanings. The other is our sense that we are unique, not like any other individuals. Even identical twins show differences.

I have been very concerned about the tendency of contemporary practices to blur that distinctiveness. Our well-being has come to be measured by numbers, created by economists. And now I see a much more ominous invention, big data, coming. I read a chilling, for me, article in the latest The Atlantic issue telling how big data are going to be used to decide who gets hired and who gets fired. First used to build baseball teams, big data analysis is spreading to the larger corporate world. Companies that create and employ algorithms that pick out “winners” are sprouting up everywhere. This innovation merely extends the methods that have been used to select employees for decades, but the extension is huge. The article says,

The potential power of this data-rich approach is obvious. What begins with an online screening test for entry-level workers ends with the transformation of nearly every aspect of hiring, performance assessment, and management. In theory, this approach enables companies to fast-track workers for promotion based on their statistical profiles; to assess managers more scientifically; even to match workers and supervisors who are likely to perform well together, based on the mix of their competencies and personalities. Transcom plans to do all these things, as its data set grows ever richer. This is the real promise—or perhaps the hubris—of the new people analytics. Making better hires turns out to be not an end but just a beginning. Once all the data are in place, new vistas open up.

I think it is hubris, reducing people to some score. I think it is always hubris whether it be the new “people analytics,” as the article identifies this new technology, or the older cruder testing methods. Choices do have to be made. These methods presumably bypass the biases we all have and use as we filter a slate of candidates through our thought process. But it also reduces those making the choices to mere tools for a system based on somebody’s guesses at what is important in the life of the organization. More and more, what is important is also just a set of numbers, profits, productivity, market share, and so on. Workplaces are not just mechanical systems; they employ people, real people to make them go. Perhaps less people all the time as “robots” and automation take over, but there will always be people.

People are essential because the world is complex, and new problems will always crop up that haven’t yet been reduced to some algorithm. Lean manufacturing, the latest standard in productivity, rests on the ability of everyone to observe what has been happening. Sometimes it is the lowest person on the totem pole that comes up with a solution. I wonder if these new algorithms would have picked out the “right”assembly-line workers or shop cleaners.

But what I most criticize about this new way of making business evermore efficient and, in theory, more profitable is the further reduction of humans to numbers. Our nation was predicated on the equality of humans, even though it did not walk the talk for quite some time (maybe not yet). We are clearly not a nation of equal human beings. It used to be that we could say, with some honesty, that equality meant equal opportunity to advance up the social ladder. No longer. I can imagine that this new use of big data will make things worse. The article argues otherwise.?

Ultimately, all of these new developments raise philosophical questions. As professional performance becomes easier to measure and see, will we become slaves to our own status and potential, ever-focused on the metrics that tell us how and whether we are measuring up? Will too much knowledge about our limitations hinder achievement and stifle our dreams? All I can offer in response to these questions, ironically, is my own gut sense, which leads me to feel cautiously optimistic. But most of the people I interviewed for this story—who, I should note, tended to be psychologists and economists rather than philosophers—share that feeling.

It is not surprising that psychologists and economists look on this as positive. They have been in the vanguard of those scientists reducing people to machines. I would like to hear what the humanists among us think. Their input would be most helpful, as this development is neither completely black or white, and most importantly, not reducible to some fancy algorithm.

Correction to the Book

I received an email from a reader who noted that I omitted one of the key players from Interface Carpet's "Dream Team." See page 124-125. I left out Karl-Henrik Robert, the founder of The Natural Step (TNS). Interface used the Natural Step in developing their program.

The Power of Idleness


One of my colleagues on the Case Western project I have written about here sent me this quote. It is most relevant to this blog and to my writings about flourishing. One of the essential domains of care in my taxonomy is that of idleness/leisure. Here is a good explanation as to why it is explicit in the scheme.

Being and Doing

The fact that our being necessarily demands to be expressed in action should not lead us to believe that as soon as we stop acting we cease to exist. We do not live merely to “do something” - no matter what. We do not live more fully merely by doing something more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before. Everything depends on the quality of our acts and experiences. A multitude of badly performed actions and experiences only half-lived exhausts and depletes our being. By doing things badly we make ourselves less real. This growing unreality cannot help but make us unhappy and fill us with a sense of guilt. There are times then when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all, we simply have to sit back awhile and do nothing. And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. We must first recover the possession of our own being before we can act or taste or ?experience reality.

From: Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

Mindless Consumption and the Media



The electronic news media has been suffering a continuing decline for some time. A typical half-hour show has only about fifty percent news (if it can be called that) and the rest is advertising. I tend to watch the ABC national news whenever I turn on the TV around dinner time. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to time each segment, but I estimate that there is less than 15 minutes of good hard news. There are nightly specials, like “Made in America” or “Real Money” and a few others that I cannot name even after watching them. These are followed by two or three spots under the rubric of “Instant Index” which name says nothing about what is to follow. This is devoted to all sorts of oddities that are often entertaining, but rarely newsworthy. I can’t even remember what was included tonight.

I am particularly disgusted by the “Real Money” segments. Tonight, it was all about how to make money by selling the clutter that has accumulated in peoples’ houses. Featured was a house so cluttered that the garage couldn’t be used for its normal purpose, to park the cars (usually 2). ABC provided a clutter-removal specialist to assist the overwhelmed couple. She pointed to all sorts of apps that could help them put prices on all the stuff, including many items that had never been used. The real story here is not about removing the clutter but asking how it got there in the first place.

I know that this family is not atypical. many, many garages are similarly packed to the gills with stuff and in many cases even this is inadequate. The overflow goes into a self=storage cubicle. I remembered that I had written a post about this quite a long time ago (September 10, 2009) , but went back to see what it said. Pretty remarkable and a real indictment of our profligate consumption behavior.

“A lot of the expansion we experienced as an industry was people choosing to store,” Litton told me. A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

Back to the topic of this blog-the mindless media. I apologize to educational programming but it touches only those already generally in the know. I know that mainstream electronic media are primarily designed to be entertainment, but we can get more of that than we could possibly absorb from the rest of the shows. Democracy is struggling these days and this is part of the cause. Social thinkers going back to our Founding Fathers and perhaps even to the Greek philosophers have argued that democracy requires, not just benefits from, an educated public. Not just educated in the sense of understanding the foundations of government, but capable of thinking critically, that is, sorting the wheat from the chaff so prevalent in political rhetoric.

Couple this to the deterioration of public education, an institution that John Dewey singled out as an essential thread in the democratic fabric, and you get the disaster that has come and is coming in spades. We are teaching our young more and more subjects aimed at making them employees in this knowledge (a lot of irony here) economy, but providing less and less capability to be citizens. This loss of discernment is serious by itself, but even more so in the noisy, persuasive context of the media I am writing about. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of our culture is the drive for goods, especially mobile devices, but also things like sneakers. Peer pressure has always been a strong motivator of consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is an old American habit. The piece on the TV news tonight only begins to show the folly of this behavior. Sure with an uncluttering professional, one can recoup perhaps a fraction of what was originally spent on all that stuff. This is a very different pattern from the ubiquitous yard sale which tends to offer clutter to the public, but mostly old and outdated items, not cameras still in the original packaging.

To end tonight, here’s a footnote about stuff. My wife handed me a story about life in India’s slums that she got as an adjunct to her book club’s choice of a novel about such life. I found the numbers staggering. (Almost any number about India tends to be staggering.) The article reports that there are 670 million mobile phones in India at the end of this last summer. Pretty good penetration in a country of around a billion. But then it noted that there are about the same number of people who lack access to toilets and are forced to defecate in the open or fight for a turn at the few scattered public latrines. Granted that mobile phones have made a large contribution to the poor, there still is something wrong here.

Struggling to Keep Our Humaness Going


anthropocene sign

I read an interesting article in today’s NYTimes about life in the Anthropocene, our emerging geologic era. The I found the headline, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene;” compelling. In the previous era, the Holocene, the forces of nature dominated the planetary system. There were many fluctuations during this, perhaps 100,000 year-long, period of our Planet’s history, but nature’s forces were in control and relatively well behaved. The steadiness of this era promoted an explosion in species evolution, including that of our own species, Homo sapiens.

But now human activities are competing with nature for control. We have begun to see many more extreme events that wreak increasingly costly damages to human life and human settlements. Just this week we got news of a devastating typhoon passing through the Philippines, destroying whole villages with a large estimate of fatalities, perhaps as many as 1-20,000. Serious storms have always been with us, but now they seem to leave much larger scars on the surface of the Earth. One can find much written on this subject, including work by some who are skeptical that such a change is occurring, but that is not why I chose it for today’s blog.

This paragraph caught my eye.

The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited. (emphasis added)

I believe we have already forgotten what is means to be human, which amnesia accounts for the mess we have created on the planet’s surface, notwithstanding what we have done to the climate. Our cultural proclivities have led to an unsustainable mode of life, where, in the rush to acquire wealth and possessions, we have despoiled our resources and diminished our Being, that is, what it is to be [explicitly] human. While some live in luxury, many more are joining the ranks a new lost class, where compared to the rest of us, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Mostly we live in much better conditions than the poor of Hobbes’s time, but relatively speaking many alive today resemble the masses he describes.

The centerpiece of my work on flourishing is this loss of our fundamental humanness and its impact on modern societies. I believe we can recover what being human really means, but only at the cost of abandoning parts of the mechanical culture we call modernity: not everything about it; it has mitigated the conditions that Hobbes postulated. But we are heading toward a point where we cannot predict what nature will do as we continue to insult her. You should read the entire article I refer to above. I am heartened to see articles like this appear in print in the public media, not in the scholarly journals where they are seen only by a very few specialists. I hope those who take time to find and read it will do so with a very careful eye. The warnings here are to be taken very seriously.

Spirituality and Flourishing



I am finding it harder and harder to come up with topics for this blog, but I am still working on it. Today, I am going to use some materials I prepared for an online class I am teaching. It compresses the sequence I gave previously over two years into a 10-week course and generally follows my first book, Sustainability by Design. In putting this course together, I now recognize, as I have written, that I got quite a few things wrong, some important and some not. I have tried to correct my use of sustainability and flourishing in this blog in recent posts; tonight I am going to write about another important error dealing with the way I treated spirituality.

The idea of care was central to my thinking about what changes need to be made prior to creating the possibility that flourishing will appear. It still is, perhaps even more critically. Care is the underlying structure of Being and makes us human beings rather than like other living species. We are unique in many ways. Care, in the ontological sense, is an active use of the word. It means to act toward the world intending to make it flourish, To do this we must learn and practice loving and compassion. We must also become exquisite listeners because, if we cannot hear what is missing in the world, we cannot exercise care. We cannot practice compassion unless we have a pretty good idea of what is missing from the other.

In Sustainability by Design, I developed a taxonomy of concerns. Concern is not the same as care, but can be used to categorize areas or domains that we should care about if we are to flourish. Concern is a mental state calling attention to actions that may be taken. It is close the casual way we use care to characterize a certain kind of mental state. Care in the way I have been using it is different; it is the mode by which we act in those domains. Caring always show up as some set of observable actions. I was not clear about this in the first book, but I was more or less on track. The categorization of concerns I developed was, on the other hand, seriously flawed.

I divided up the concerns under three major categories: care for myself, for other human beings, and for everything else. Phenomenologically, these three categories form a complete set of all worldly objects. I placed care for the spiritual in the category of self although I was aware of some unease at doing this, but I had no other place to put it that made more sense at that time. What I missed and have now corrected is that spirituality refers to out-of-the-world phenomena: things and experiences that have no material presence in the world. My former taxonomy did not make this very important distinction. It is an additional major domain.

Spirituality or transcendence, as some call it, referring to unearthly phenomena is distinctive on several grounds. Caring actions go forth, but do not trigger responses as do most cares in the world. Some claim to have their prayers answered, but these are special cases. The sites where and media through which spiritual experiences occur are frequently deemed to be sacred, meaning they are to be respected and not to be violated. Other rules also apply, but these seem to be the most important with respect to the model I am presenting.

Most of the world’s religions are grounded in some way on transcendence, but operate within structures that are worldly. There is no other way for humans to act toward transcendence as we are firmly planted in the world, and, unless we have an experience that takes us out of the world, our acts remain worldly. Religion is not the same as spirituality/transcendence, but is a set of rules and practices owing its existence to some transcendent event. One can take care of this domain through religious practices, but there are other ways outside of organized religions.

The Native Americans held Mother Earth to be the source of all things, to be held sacred and cared for through spiritual practices. They continually faced a moral dilemma needing to take materials from nature to survive, in essence, violating the sacred. They solved this dilemma by showing respect and gratitude in their acts of appropriation. They saw humans as merely a part of the web of life. The idea of web is important as it suggests that we are interconnected to some or all of the parts of the world. As our knowledge about the cosmos unfolds, some believe we interconnected to everything in the universe.

To be whole and flourish, one has to recognize and exercise care in this, the spiritual domain. It is part of the ground of existence of our species and is reflected in our language as a domain that has accompanied the development of Homo sapiens for as long as we have evidence about the nature of civilization. In this sense, it is no different from taking care of oneself or others. But it does have one important difference: the realization of [inter]connections is intrinsic to spirituality, and actions in this domain can make this understanding more present in our consciousness of the world.

A sense of connection to the other is essential in caring actions. If such a recognition is absent, caring is not possible. Interactions can take place but not caring actions. This sense of connection is largely absent in our culture. We are individualists, seeing the world as primarily resources for us humans. Increasingly, we take care of ourselves as if we were machines that need a little fuel and lubrication from time to time. We are removed from the outside world. Many children believe that milk comes from the supermarket. Connections increasingly come via the Internet, but lack the context and contact that makes connection meaningful. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to truly care for someone lost in the emptiness of cyberspace.

Flourishing cannot come forth until we recover our sense of connection, both the idea itself and its manifestations in the world. We will not be able to care for many of the domains in my or others taxonomy. We can certainly learn to be more conscious. The special feature of spirituality is that it can speed up and deepen this process of recovery.