Still Assuming the Ostrich Position

hed in sand

The transition from abundance to scarcity in a commons requires a profound change of values. In abundance, personal interests and individualism are the keys to success and growth. In scarcity, the values necessary for survival are a paradox: It is in the best interests of each and every individual to put the interests of the whole society above his own; survival and stability are possible in no other way. Those who live in the common environment of the planet are now experiencing the transition from abundance to scarcity. The immediate challenge ahead is not physical limits to growth (which are nevertheless very real) but the challenges of a major transformation in human values.

Something I just wrote? No. I pulled this from a 1977 report, titled, “An Unfinished Agenda,” written by Gerald Barney under the auspices of the Rockefeller Brothers fund. The study was guided by a task force with representatives of most of the leading conservation and environmental organizations of the time. Even in 1977, this group was concerned with the lack of progress being made by the environmental movement. Many of the key environmental statutes had been passed by that time, but the state of the world was continuing to deteriorate. This paragraph, which I consider to be the key one out of the whole report, recognizes that trying to fix up the world was no longer a viable strategy. This was written long before the larger agenda of sustainability emerged. The Brundtland Report was published a decade later in 1987.

The critical idea is the transformation of the self. The self is the explanation we give when asked who we are or why did we act just that way. Implicit in the call for a change in values is just such a call. Our values will not and cannot shift unless we change our worldview at the level of self. Self is, fortunately, created in language, not as some inner homunculus or spirit/soul. It is exhibited and manifest through one’s actions and is identified as self by those who observe the actions over time. There are many aspects to self, each one associated with a distinct domain of actions: body, family, work, nature, spiritual, etc. Self is not something that drives, what many say is our innate nature, a insatiable, need-driven rationalizing machine. If that were true, the transformation of values such as expressed here or in my and others’ works would be impossible.

We do arrive in the world with a set of innate instincts and emotions given to us through our evolution into Homo sapiens, but they are only part of the story. The classic argument over whether our routine behavior is driven by nature (innate) or nurture (acquired) seems to be resolved these days by allowing for both. but with a strong dependence on one’s actual life experience.

I find the language of “values” confusing. Values, like “self” are represented only by the actions one takes; not by those espoused in conversation. Values are a surrogate for choices. Given the choice between two acts, one directed at my own inauthentic satisfaction and another by the satisfaction of something other than my inauthentic self, which do I routinely choose? People and organizations always have two levels of beliefs from which their values are derived, one operating at the subsurface level hidden from the action, and another available in conversations about the action. Ed Schein calls the first, espoused values, and the second, basic assumptions (beliefs) and values. Anthony Giddens refers to the same concept via the terms: practical consciousness (the hidden drivers) and discursive consciousness (how we talk about our actions). The two levels are often, but not always identical. I think that beliefs come before and are the drivers of actions from which values can be observed. These last few paragraphs have been a devious path to get me to where I can argue that the long quote at the beginning of this post was really talking about the need for a transformation in beliefs, not values.

Without a change in beliefs, our actions will continue to be driven by those implanted in the culture into which we were acculturated. We can promise to act on new values, but sooner or later we will revert to our old ways. That’s the problem dieters and addicts always face. The same goes for everybody who has, at one time or another, made resolutions to change some old, fixed behavior. The more fundamental the belief, that is the wider range of behaviors it controls, the more critical it becomes to change it.

In the case of modern human beings, the key belief is that we are those insatiable, needy creatures the economists, politicians, psychologists, sociologists, and basically everyone assumes. The extract refers to this indirectly in the second sentence. In what it calls a paradox, it argues that “It is in the best interests of each and every individual to put the interests of the whole society above his own; survival and stability are possible in no other way.” There is nothing paradoxical in this statement. They are speaking of a different self but one that continues to act out of “self”-interest. That is the only way we act. There is only one kind of human being: one that is driven by its belief structure. Different beliefs, different behavior. Different behavior: different self. The belief that we are insatiable needy creatures is strongly reinforced by all major societal institutions such that it is exceedingly difficult simply to say, as of now, I will operate from a new, very different, conflicting belief about who I am.

But as the extract says, it is imperative that we make that change. I have identified (among many others) that the key transformation is from need (wanting things for some inner “me,”) to “care” about the world we live in and must tend to if we and it are to continue to flourish. That we are still here after hundred of thousands of years, even millions if I include early hominids, is proof of the ability to flourish. Early human species lived by caring for the “other.” Agriculture is nothing but a form of caring for the Earth; the etymology going back to the latin for care attests to that. Our prehistory suggests that, if we have some set of innate connectedness to the world, it is related to care. Heidegger argues that modern humans are ontologically caring creatures, deriving our consciousness of self or of Being, through our having to care about the world we are thrust into at birth. We understand the world and all of the things (beings) it contains, including ourselves, through our experience of caring.

I have become convinced that the transformation Barney and his colleagues called for in 1977 is absolutely necessary and is even more urgently needed now than then. The avoidance of such a change has become even stronger with all the new technology we have acquired since then available to fix-up things. Finding the correct new values is problematic simply due to the nature of values, but finding the right beliefs is not. Values are fundamentally relative, but beliefs are absolute. Values follow beliefs, as a set set of normal or routine behaviors evolve over time.

We need to put care everywhere: in the center of the human (social) sciences and the institutions which are derived from the knowledge bases of these sciences; in the mission statement of every business; in the constitution of every government; in every how-to book written to help individuals cope with life; and so on. I find the opening paragraph convincing enough, but for those looking for more pressure, pick up a copy of Erich Fromm’s, To Have or To Be, and read it. Although I cover other subjects in my books, care is the most important, with a belief of the world as complex, coming in as a close second.

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