May 2015 Archives

Still Confused, Misled, or Being Coy about Sustainability

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My colleagues at SCORAI sent me a link to an article from the Huffington Post with the headline, “Mainstreaming Sustainability in 2015.” When I started to read further, the article was not about sustainability, but, rather, sustainable development. These two are NOT the same, as I have argued over now more than a decade, but to no avail (alas). They are importantly not the same because the concept and practice of sustainable development is one of the reasons the earth has become unsustainable. The article is all about the newly retitled Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), now called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). For those unfamiliar with this program, these goals are meant to apply to all United Nations member states’s agendas. In more detail:

The SDGs are focused around six elements: (1) Dignity, (2) Basic needs of people, (3) Prosperity, (4) Planet, (5) Partnerships and (6) Justice. Around these six elements there are currently 17 suggested goals with 169 targets. This is a significant increase to the current number of eight MDGs. While in theory the MDGs were supposed to apply for all member nations, but practically focusing on the poor countries. As Helen Clark mentioned the SDGs are not a development agenda but a universal agenda. Every single country has economical, social and environmental challenges and therefore the new goals apply.

The title, itself, should be a clue to error in its referring to them as related to sustainability. Sustainability means the capacity of a system, like a state or nation or fishery, to continue to do what it has been doing and to maintain the norms related to its condition or output. Setting any goals to attain any of such conditions or output, per se, attest to the absence of a state that is to be sustained. The conflation of “goals” and “sustainability” is oxymoronic and meaningless. Sustainability can be, itself, a goal, but that statement affirms that the present conditions lack the staying, homeostatic qualities desired.

It is critically important that we have such aspirations as embodied in the 17 goals and 169 targets, but we should be careful of how they are labeled. For many poorer countries, (sustainable) economic development appears necessary to approach many of these goals. But even here a strong caveat is required. The tendency to view sustainable development as conventional economic growth with all eyes focused on GDP is one of the causes of these countries’ problems. Many have become impoverished by the economic activities of the richer countries seeking to grow their own GDPs. It is a great mistake to mistake economic measures of poverty with the lack of capabilities to lead lives that would meet all the SDGS qualitative targets. Manfred Max-Neef argues persuasively that it is “poverties” (plural), meaning the lack of capabilities and resources to enjoy dignified, healthy, just lives. Amartya Sen calls directly for the provision of capabilities. I truly believe that the populations and places on the planet would begin to get the proper assistance from the rest of the world and better mobilize their own resources if we started calling these aspirations: living standards (ala Sen) or capability-building goals. Such names would, then, begin to have the same meaning as the programs to implement them rather than being self-serving euphemisms.

One of the primary SDGS labels is “Prosperity.” It could be a valuable guide if it were taken to mean to prosper as a verb, but like sustainable, the adjective, is mistakenly conflated with the noun sustainability, prosperity, the noun, is construed as some measure of wealth and structure equivalent to leading prospering, or as I call them, flourishing lives. By labeling programs sustainable development or sustainable this or that, it is much too easy to inhibit efforts toward meaningful sustainability, as expressed by some set of aspirational goals such as those of Sen or Max Neef or by my own use of flourishing. First of all, this usage focuses attention on whatever is modified, development, business etc. But secondly and more insidiously, this use presumes that there is the activities performed under a sustainable X label will make a direct, positive contribution to reaching the goals, like dignity, or prospering or flourishing, all of which describe a state or condition that is to be sustained.

Such states are systems properties. They appear when the socio-economic (cultural) system, say an African nation or a more developed one like the US, is operating normally in such a way that this desired properties routinely show up. Basing this end state on some quantitative economic measure is simply wrong, as we can see by looking at the US which, with its very high level of economic prosperity (as measured by its GDP/capita), should afford all people dignified lives and the basic capabilities to flourish. But anyone who pulls his head out of the sand knows this is simply not so. I am reading Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which makes a compelling argument that not only does a large segment of the US lack what the wealthier fraction would claim as necessary for a good life, but are trapped in their circumstances without a viable path out of it. Social mobility, a necessary feature of a society which might become sustainable at some point in the future, is lacking. The American Dream, a distant relative of the SDGS, has vanished.

Words really do mean something. The actions we take reflect those words. If we are to strive for flourishing, a word about a quality that everyone can understand, even if confounded with many different nuances, instead of development, a word about process that is not analytically tied to that condition, we might have a chance to get to where we want to be. We would be measuring our deviation from the qualitative goal instead of from the process goal. When we discover, using this criterion, as we inevitably will, that the process goal (sustainable development) is not getting us to the place we want to be, we might face reality and begin to adopt new processes. I ring in reality because the development process to be used fails to match reality because it is based on concepts that cannot and do not capture the complexity of the real planet Earth. The SDGS themselves are the output of a process that fails to appreciate complexity and the need to adopt programs that acknowledge, from the get-go, that whatever processes they are to employ must be considered to be only guesses as to how the outcomes will track the inputs. There’s nothing wrong with that unless those in charge stick too long with their guesses, believing that represent ‘truths” instead. Pragmatists of all kinds know better, and start to adapt when their guesses fail to toward the conditions they would like to sustain. To the extent that the SDGS point to qualitative end conditions, they can be very useful, but, as they are coupled to rigid, a priori process-based programs, they are likely to fail. Now that we know how badly economists do in general in predicting the economic future of highly developed countries like the US where things are starting to deteriorate, why do we keep allowing them (and similar other experts) to plan the future for those parts of the human and natural world that are already in bad shape?

The Autobiographical Self

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This post continues themes in the last one. Antonio Damasio uses this phrase to describe, in part, how the brain works. In his several books, including his latest, Self Comes to Mind, he develops arguments to explain how emotions feelings, and other seemingly tangible products of cognitive activity come to be. He sees them all as products of neuronal processes. Damasio importantly, unlike Descartes, defines both mind and self as descriptions of neural activity or processes, not as material entities. He carefully describes the mind as not being some entity,

“The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time… (Damasio, A. R. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Boston: Mariner Books. fn 7, p. 12.)

He divides self into three parts: proto-self, core self, and autobiographical self. Proto-self corresponds to activities in the parts of the evolutionary-derived brain we have inherited from creatures like reptiles, and is the seat of instinctual emotions. The core self is the self of the present. It springs from neural action in other parts of the brain. The core self is a representation of the current state of the body. It is the self that is aware of the bodily state of the present moment and signals the body to maintain itself. The third self, the autobiographical self, is the most germane to this discussion. This is the self of the past and future, constituted by those portions of the brain that have been modified through living. It stores memories of the past, including dispositions or “instructions” about what to do when called upon. It is the self that envisions a future moment and calls on the brain to enact it intentionally. It is historically, not genetically determined, a key point.

The primary function of the brain, Damasio writes, is to maintain the body in a homeostatic condition, not straying into conditions that would produce a pathology or even death. Both the proto-self and core self are involved in maintaining the homeostasis. Biological, genetic “essence” lies here. If there were no cultural or autobiographical self, as in most other living species, that would be the end, but human’s self has a critically important additional part, the part that arises out of one’s existence amidst other selves and the rest of the world. It is here where existence precedes essence and choices lie. Neither nature (essence) or nurture (experiential learning) reigns supreme as previous models of self generally argue. Our intentional, as opposed to automatic, actions arise in a dialectical process actions in which the already present structure is modified by immediate experience to produce new structure that is subject to the same dialect when new experience acts on that same part of the brain.

Our species has successfully evolved by paying attention to the world and developing coping responses that are embodied in this tripartite cognitive self. Instinctual, pre-linguistic responses to the natural world, like fear, are part of the evolutionary proto-self; meaningful actions, mediated through language, are part of the auto-biographical self. Language itself embodies the cultural history of successful coping. Martin Heidegger argues further that, since language is historically created by giving words to observations made in the course of everyday life, it incorporates a sense of intentionality or caring about the world. Given our sublime consciousness and language, humans exist as caring creatures, a trait suppressed by the power of modernity.

Care, as a process of paying attention to and acting on the surrounding world to create a future, implies a consciousness of being connected to it, absent in the mind/body split of Descartes. Humans, by bracketing their current cultural beliefs and values, have the possibility of intentionally acting from a foundation of worldly care that can be distributed among three non-overlapping categories: self, other humans, and the non-human world. This form of care is existential or ontological, different from the affective care we feel about people and things. While care for Heidegger is an ontological notion, its in-the-world presence shows up through our concerns and associated intentions, resulting in our actions toward the world we exist in. Everyday actions, like working, eating, loving, meditating, or planting, are all modes of concern in which humans interact with the world of phenomena.

It should begin to be clear that this view of human existence, let me call it the autobiographical self to avoid confusion, leads to several critical differences from those springing from the modern, essentialist view. In that view, each autonomous individual stands, unconnected, outside of and separated from the world. Legitimation and justification for human agency can be thrown off to some outside entity or mechanical engine. God, as the master agent, has been replaced by some universal machine. On the way towards the autobiographical self, postmodern thinkers reversed the source from some essential human nature to culture as the source. The self was seen to socially constructed and shaped by the culture. Hans-George Gadamer, the German philosopher wrote:

[L]ong before we understand ourselves through the process of’ self -examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. For this reason I, the focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of’ the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of [social and historical life. (Truth and Method, 2nd ed., New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 276)

A serious problem arose with this model; agency, or the responsibility of the actor for whatever actions were performed, was very hard to pin down. Was there any “I” there to hold accountable or was society as a whole the entity to hold accountable? The more nuanced view of Heidegger and the existentialists that followed combined this process of acculturation with a positive step of choosing and owning the resultant self. Individuals who owned up to their identity as “mine” lived an “authentic” life in which they became responsible agents. The autobiographical model of Damasio is consistent with these philosophically derived views. Responsibility for the world comes home because humans are free to choice who they are in the world and what kind of agent they will be. The consciousness of connectedness and caring that accompanies this way of being instills a moral sense in the individual.

The autobiographical model by itself is no more than a story that seems to be better grounded than those that preceded it. But the story is full of meaning about how to cope with the problems of the world we face. Being the result of a dialectical process, the self or agent can learn new ways to address and act in the world. The essentialist, modern model leaves us in a dilemma where the best, maybe the only, outcome is to keep applying fixes to the unintended consequences that keep showing up. The postmodern, socially constructed model requires deep-seated cultural changes, primarily in the belief structure, before human behavior can or will change. But the autobiographical model supports learning both at the individual level and at the cultural level. The two reinforce each other. Victor Hugo’s loosely translated aphorism, “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” and Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of a tipping point combine to make the idea of care as a basic human way of acting a hopeful way toward a future of flourishing and a world one would want to sustain.

The "Self," Not Technology, Can Save Us

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Self-image

School’s out for me. I am done with the course I have been leading at my school for gaffers: The Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement. My course, titled, “Who am I really?,” examined how the concepts of “self” has evolved over time from premodern days to our arguably post-modern era. The course text was On Being Authentic by Charles Guignon, a philosophy professor at U. of Southern Florida. He traced the evolution of “self” and also described how the related term, authenticity, changed. It was an eye opener to both the class members and to me, even though I have been thinking about a closely related topic, what does it mean to be human, for quite some time.

Authenticity is important when one thinks about the impact of human beings on the planet. To live authentically is to act out of a belief in who you are, what kind of self you have. Sounds easy, but there is a hooker. You never have a completely free choice in the matter. The prevailing views of society always exert a strong influence. Long before we entered the modern era, individuals believed they were a part of some cosmic or theocentric order. They identified themselves with this external framework and acted accordingly. Being authentic was to act one’s assigned part. Life’s guidance came from the outside, either the Church of the tradition. With modernity, the self appeared as something inside. Luther and other Protestant reformers looked inside for the source of salvation and created a form of religious individualism, focusing religious life on the individual. The ritualistic ties to the established Church were broken. Devout individuals, for this first time, could point to their own relationship to God. In other words, an individuals could speak of a self or some inner being responsible for their choices toward God.

Another major force in creating the modern self was the rise of science. Galileo conceived of reality as a universe, constituted by a multitude of objects interacting according to fixed laws. In the years that followed, scientists discovered many of these laws and reduced them to abstract mathematical expressions. Old traditional explanations were supplanted by new scientific findings and, absent such findings, were to be disregarded or set aside. One such belief was that of the self, whatever it was. For Descartes, the disembodied mind played that role. Self became an immaterial point of thought and will. The human being became a subject set over against a world made up of objects whose properties could be discovered by applying the new reductionist methodology. The human body was placed in the class of all other objects, just another thing with an intrinsic nature like rocks and trees.

Where earlier cultures were theocentric with God at the center or cosmocentric with a focus on the universe as the source of order, the world that accompanied these changes was anthropocentric. The human knowing self now stood at the center of the universe. As an aside, I just finished a review of a book, The Anthropocene, that argues we are now entering a new geologic era characterized by human-caused changes. Perhaps in degree, but our influence on the Earth started to be significant the moment when we first saw ourselves at the center and began to view the new-found knowledge as means to control and subdue the earth. Descartes wrote, “our goal is to make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” The reification of society as an object created by humans reinforced the notion of otherness and individualism.

What I find most critical about this view of self is that it assumes some fixed human nature. It tilts the balance between nurture and nature all the way to the side of nature. What that nature is has been subject to argument, but the prevailing view was and is that of Homo economicus: rational beings, operating always to satisfy their self-interest within their available means. For a while, Adam Smith thought that human nature was empathy. More recently Freud gave us a model composed of the id, ego, and superego.

Given the fixedness of human nature, societal institutions that evolved upon this concept were equally fixed and followed immutable laws. The political economies of modern nations presume the economicus model of human being without question. Greed is good, as Gordon Gekko says in the movie, Wall Street:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

The emergence of the modern, bounded (relative to the pre-modern notion) individualistic self brought many new possibilities, as old traditions of a fixed place in either God’s or the mysterious universe crumbled. But a new phenomenon came along with this different sense of freedom. Life became objectified and lost meaning. People were left without guidance about how to live their lives. The rather poorly understood idea of happiness became the aim of most. It was central in our founders thinking and memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. But happiness has turned out to be chimerical; here one minute, gone the next. To many thought leaders, this central aim of life created alienation from others, both human and non-human, and even from the pursuer herself. Marx seized upon this tendency in modern, capitalistic life as did Freud with his new psychoanalytic theory. By the early nineteenth century, led by the creative actors, poets, artists and others, a new model, the romantic view of self, evolved as a counter to the cold-hearted modern self.

Romanticism, through the works of poets like Holderl├»n and Wordsworth, or philosophers like Rousseau, created counterarguments. The self was not just some object among other in the world; it is the highest and most present among all other objects. It was not something to be discovered through science, but only through immersion in one’s thought and feelings. Experience was its source. The truth about who we are was obtainable only though life itself. Last, this kind of self possessed a sense of wholeness and oneness with the world that was missing from the prevalent view. This sense of creating one’s self suggested that everyone was a kind of artist, acting out the truths derived from immersion in the world. In the absence of scientifically made rules, what one did with her life became less important than how she lived it. The romantics spawned a great outpouring of art in many forms.

But romanticism was short -lived and dominated by the modern view. The discovery of being at home on Earth returned to a sense of domination and control. With ever more powerful technology coming forth, the Earth (nature) was again being exploited as Francis Bacon had argued, “…nature had to be hounded and made a slave to the new mechanicized (sic) devices; science had to torture nature’s secrets out of her.” He had earlier written, “I am come in very truth, leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

This is not the end of the story, but it is the end of this post. It may be the end of the modern world, done in by its own thinking and acting. I will continue with the evolution of the self in another post. Philosophers and others have taken up a new way of thinking beyond the hard, analytic counterpart to the objective, unchanging, rule-bound world. The so-called linguistic turn has freed them and us common folks from the inevitability of purely positivistic modern thinking. As they and we have learned that language gives meaning to all those objects out there, we are able to think about who we are and and what that world out there means in new ways. We can think about the self in new ways that may better represent the way we think and act. More importantly, we are beginning to understand how tightly selves are bound up in the culture. This, alone, raises a new possibility: if we change the culture, we can change the way we think and act, and vice versa. We can prove Bacon wrong and begin to care for and serve both humanity and the Earth instead of enslaving them. More later.

The [Mistaken] Nature of Poverty

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I have been arguing for more systems thinking for quite a while. It is next to impossible to deal with the persistent problems that are plaguing the US and other nations using only the ubiquitous reductionist frameworks that dominate our thinking. My thoughts about this subject were triggered, as they often are, by a column by David Brooks, titled, “The nature of poverty.” Writing in the NYTimes today, Brook is arguing that our efforts to alleviate poverty for the past 4 or 5 decades have failed. He attributes this to a belief that pouring money into poor areas is the solution. Even with some improvement as a result, the recent urban unrest shows that the underlying problems are still with us. Brooks gets part of the way to understanding what really is happening.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

But if he really thinks that the answers lie in “social psychology,” he is just as mistaken as those he blames for believing that money is the answer. He is merely shifting focus from one reductionist regime, economics, to another, social psychology. Both of these academic and practical disciplines are grounded on singular beliefs about human nature and human behavior. Those who practice in these and other professions see the world through these beliefs. Abraham Maslow pointed out the limits of academically grounded professions in a now famous line, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

The failure to make significant progress in our efforts to reduce poverty fits a classic pattern well known to systems thinkers, fixes-that-fail. This label describes programs where solutions are aimed primarily or exclusively at alleviating the symptoms of some persistent problems. If lack of money is the problem, provide more money. Further, since we have defined poverty in monetary terms as the minimum amount of dollars required for an adequate life, providing more money to those in need appears completely reasonable. Following this path offers another benefit, it avoids thinking deeply about the real causes of poverty. Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, has written that we are looking at poverty through the wrong lens. It is not about the quantity of money but the capability to carry out essential human activities. He argues we should be talking about poverties, not poverty. Another economist, Nobelist Amartya Sen, has made much the same arguments, but both are different kinds of economists than those running our economic policies.

Continuing to throw money at the problem has another serious consequence; we stop looking for the real causes until much too late. This pattern is also familiar to systems thinkers, and is called, shifting-the-burden. These patterns are found at every scale from individuals to businesses to whole societies. Thomas Piketty recently offered us a chance to dig deeper with his book, Capital in the 21st Century, in which he suggests that inequality (and thus poverty) are inherent outcomes of capitalism. His sweeping conclusions are being questioned, but my point is only that it is critical to get under the surface, especially when what is being done over and over again fails to produce the desired results. Franklin Roosevelt know all about this when he said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something else.” In the decades since his Presidency, such attitudes at the top of our government are all but impossible, given the now deeply entrenched ideologies everywhere. Systems thinking cannot win elections.

In any case, the answer to mitigating or eliminating problems like poverty requires systems framing and systems-oriented solutions. Moving from one discipline to another as Brooks suggests won’t work.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Social psychology cannot do much better than economics unless the problems fit the mental models that practitioners of this discipline will apply. I doubt they will. We need a hefty dose of the kind of pragmatism that the statement of Roosevelt’s smacks of. It’s not enough, however, simply to do “something else.” It’s important to spend time and resources to determine what might be at the core before acting. If Brooks had suggests calling for sociologists instead, I would still make my same argument, but with a qualifier. Many sociologists tell us that persistent problems have the same roots as persistent positive outcomes. Both arise from the underlying structure of a society. I won’t go into detail about these theories and models, but many place basic beliefs at the base of cultural structure.

By basic beliefs, I mean those beliefs on top of which cultural institutions have evolved and control the everyday patterns in a society. For example, our capitalist political economy is grounded on a model of human nature that pictures each of us as as isolated self, rationally acting to maximize our material goods, given the resources we have at hand to do that. It should be clear that as long as we plan and execute our major policies based on this model, problems like poverty are not going to go away. The best we can do is to try to alleviate the normal outcomes. Psychologists have similar models. They will argue for different “solutions,’ but unless their mental models better represent human beings, we will have no better results. I have little more faith in social psychologists than economists, but both disciplines (all such disciplines do) spring from the reductionist science that is embedded in our academies and other places of learning.

If we are truly selfish, isolated beings, I see little hope for us. This belief has brought us far from the medieval world, a world where human demands were small relative to the available resources. Life was miserable for many. It still is for many, perhaps more numerous today simply because there are so many more living on the Planet now. The Planet is now crowded, and our technology is doing irreparable damage to our life-support system and to us. We do not have to be stuck with this model. It is just a model, that is, a particular story. This self has never been found by probing our brains in the same way we discover how atoms are constituted. There are many alternates that have been posited over time. Some have failed the test of time, giving way to whatever advances in knowledge we generated. Some have never gotten much attention because the dominance of the one I mentioned above keeps us from trying them out.

There is a dialectic between the institutions that runs our lives and the beliefs on which they are based that tend to embed these beliefs ever tighter as the people go about normal life. Systems thinking demands that we do think about them, especially when our problems aren’t going away, like poverty as Brooks writes. Add climate change, wars, and a few others and it should be clear that we are stuck. I have written similarly in all my work: books, articles, and this blog.

The model of human being I believe is more likely to prove itself in practice is one based on caring. This is not just a hopeful shot in the dark. It is a model found in poetry, philosphy, and even in psychology, and seems to be consistent with current neuroscience research. I always find it ironic that Adam Smith, to whom the selfish model is often attributed, wrote in his major treatise on moral sentiments that humans are fundamentally empathetic beings. He thought that mutual caring, not mutual self-interest, would maximize the common good. Too bad he changed his mind. Think about how the world might be if we cared for others as a rule instead of seeing them merely as instruments to maximize our own self-interest. The notion of compassionate capitalism has been pushed in recent years. It is still just an idea; no one has figured out how to marry the mechanistic, impersonal theory of capitalism with the humane process of caring. It’s worth stopping to figure this out before continuing to use money as the universal solution.