F***ing Up the World By Doing the "Right" Thing

right thing

Over breakfast today with my son, Tom, we started to talk about how sustainability has been slowly fading from view. My alert systems show fewer entries every day. Sustainability has become just another routine activity for many companies. That’s both good and bad news. For me, mostly bad news. Here’s why. When some persistent problem like unsustainability settles into the normal activities of organizations of all sorts, it means that those who set priorities have decided that the current strategies and programs are sufficient to deal with it. Serious thinking stops dead, and that’s a big problem in and of itself.

In the first place, sustainability efforts never were sufficiently critical to discover the underlying causes for the problems that set out to solve. The systemic nature of the symptoms of unsustainability was ignored by individual organizations that could only see their own contributions to what they perceived were the problems. Not surprising. Our overall understanding of the economic world is that it is self-correcting, Individuals do what it best for them, while some invisible mechanism propels the collective outcome in the “right” direction. What is somewhat surprising is that, although nothing much has happened as a result of all the separate efforts, there is little interest in finding out why. Again, that’s because, deep down most of the players have some understanding that they cannot connect their own efforts to results.

There is some superficial agreement that using less of the Earth’s resources and and doing less to corrupt the environment is the right thing to do. So organizations go on with their programs to recycle, light-weight and detoxify their offerings and similar projects, all the while communicating their actions in search of more market share and improved reputation. Their individualistic mind set keeps them in what systems dynamicists call the shifting-of-the-burden archetypal behavior. They focus increasingly on the projects they have begun, reinforced by knowledge that everybody else is doing more or less the same thing. Whatever attention might have been focused on discovering and attacking the deeper rooted causes of unsustainability is lost in the efforts to keep on doing what they have been, even doing more.

Meanwhile at the level of institutions, say business as a whole, the patterns that have been going on for awhile become normalized and take on legitimacy as the right way to attack the problem. The ineffective behavioral patterns at the single firm level now have grown to become an institutional characteristic, and, as other institutions follow, a societal problem. The normal way to solve the problem has been dictated by the prevailing cultural norms, in this case, to apply some sort of technological or rationally-based solution. That is how we as a society tend to attack all common problems. This norm leads to another pathological behavioral pattern that systems dynamicists call “fixes that fail.” This results from attempting to use the normal way to solve some problem with deep roots. We have been falling back on technology for centuries ever since the founders of modern science and technology saw the fruits of their application as leading inexorably forward, overcoming every obstacle in the way.

Nobody is to be blamed for this kind of ineffectual behavior. People are only doing what is legitimately expected of them, that is, the right thing. We, as a society, are stuck in a box out of which we cannot get by continuing to behave as we have been acculturated to do. We are really stuck, hoist by our own petard as some might say. Our best weapon has turned upon us. If this were to happen in a small group, someone might notice that more of the same isn’t working and, perhaps, suggest they should start from a different mental model of the situation. This is exactly how organizational learning works. The well-known systems of deep, permanent change of, say, Argyris and Schön or Peter Senge rest on getting to the bottom of things, to discover the particular misfitted mental models or belief structures that are freezing the minds of those involved, and replace them with new ones that fit the problem at hand. Organizations that apply these systems of learning or problem-solving methods know how very difficult it is to get them going and staying around, even if they appear to have worked. The background norms and their associated beliefs have become so strongly embedded that they come back and run the show as soon as the immediate problems appear to be solved.

Now expand this small story to a whole society facing a persistent, apparently intractable problem like unsustainability. Like all societies, normal behavior is controlled by deeply embedded beliefs and institutional structures built upon them. If people are to stop for a moment and try a new way to solve big problems, someone must hold up the stop sign and get a lot of people to think differently and, ultimately, to act differently. This doesn’t and, maybe, can’t happen because there is no one with enough power to be heard. Small organizations, however, have enough power concentrated in the hands of senior managers for it to occur. A scientist, in similar situations where the old theories no longer can explain observations or unravel an intractable puzzle, can undertake such a shift in thinking all by herself. When such steps are taken and are successful, the change in belief structure and subsequent new, normal behaviors has been called a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. This description explains why so many believe it takes a crisis visible to some critical mass to stop the normality, and embark on a paradigmatically different path. On the face of clear crisis, there is room for powerful voices to arise from many quarters and call attention to the failures of the present normal ways of thinking and acting. The same crisis makes it much more likely that others will heed the call. With some obvious omissions, this is what happened in the US during the Depression years.

Unsustainability suffers from a serious difference from the collapse evident during the Depression. There is little or no consensus that there is a problem at all. The historically uneven patterns of climate behavior permit some to ignore or deny that there is anything to worry about. Social problems, like inequality, are visible only to the neighbors of the poor or sociologists studying the problem. Lone voices crying in the dark, like mine, are just that, lone voices that might find a few followers. Robert Putnam has just published a powerful indictment of the way inequality has rooted itself so deeply in the US that it may take generations to make a dent. But like so many, his voice will reach only a limited set of ears. Nothing is going to change until either the problems become so obviously critical or the most powerful voices in the nation speak up and cry, “Whoa, we need to make changes.”

In the case of unsustainability, with climate change as its current focus, we are deeply in a pattern of fixes-that-fail or shifting-the-burden. Ironically, social scientists have offered models of collective behavior that would reveal this and offer paths to avoid the pitfalls of normality. All lead to the presence of deep-seated beliefs on which the dominant societal institutions have evolved. As we know in the smaller organizations I mentioned above that the beliefs tend to be at the bottom of what has become normal, we should be looking critically at the same kinds of beliefs in our society, but cannot. Part of the reason is that the primary political parties have become so ideologically polarized that they cannot step back even an inch from their beliefs, firmly anchored in the concrete of some partial reality.

It is no easy task to critically examine the beliefs that have brought so much so-called progress to human affairs. But if the focus were to shift from only the humans on the Planet, I would expect the consensus of progress to dramatically splinter. Also ironically, unlike the situation in science, where each new step forward comes on the back of an entirely distinct novel belief, there are already alternative beliefs hanging around to be picked up and used. The ideas are there, but the will to think about them isn’t. There is no CEO to demand that we stop what we are doing and start doing it distinctly differently. Those that do care about the state of the world are mostly offering solutions coming from their normal ways of going about business. But what is normal to someone is always focused on a different part of the system as seen by another. Think about the way our Congress is behaving right now. I am running out of steam at this point. I have no solution to offer except to argue as strongly as I can that to continue to act normally is a trap. Starting to build from a different foundation is essential, but I haven’t got any bright ideas about how to make that happen. Help!

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