June 2015 Archives

Sustainability and the US Supreme Court



The opinions rendered in the landmark cases of the last few days provide an example for all who are interested in and concerned about sustainability. Chief Justice Roberts argued in his opinion, upholding the Affordable Care Act, that the contested phase in question could not be understood out of the context of the entire statute that it is embedded in. Further that context clearly, in his opinion and that of his co-opining Justices, was designed to solve a social problem of significant magnitude. Many commentators agreed with him against the textualists (Scalia and others) that meaning is to be found in the particular text under scrutiny. For the textualists, only the words, themselves, carry meaning; the context in which they rest is irrelevant. I am solidly in the camp of the contextualists.

Now let’s take this interpretation and examine the word, sustainability, and how it is being used to create and justify action. Sustainability never means anything without some reference to a system and properties of that system that are to be sustained. So when we begin to examine what is being done in the name of sustainability, we must consider the system and what is to be maintained. In the case of the ACA, the system is the US society as a whole, and the health of the people and their right to decent health care is what is to be maintained. Looking at the other immediate decision about the “right” to marriage for homosexuals, again the system is the US society and the property to be maintained is dignity, as Justice Kennedy (pictured) so eloquently wrote in his majority opinion.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

In the latter case, Justice Kennedy points to the context of the Constitution as a whole and picks out dignity as the particular property to be sustained. Of course in both cases, it may take a while for the system to adjust to a point where these properties are present in sufficient amounts to be deemed sustainable. From a contextualists point of view, we must identify both the system that provides the context and the property that is to sustained, either presently or after it has been created in sufficient amount. My problem with the word and its application have to do with both pieces, context and property. The word, itself, was plucked out of the dictionary and crammed into public awareness by the 1987 publication by the UN of the book, Our Common Future (generally known as the Brundtland Report).

Sustainable development, as it proposed, would produce a future that was fair for all, metaphorically including the Earth. Its intent was to place environment solidly into the hegemonic economically driven political agendas of governments. Its context was the whole world’s socio-economic-environmental system, and the unfair history of economic growth and its concomitant use and spoilage of nature. Two tightly connected problems were to be addressed: unfair economic growth among countries and regions, and the limits of the environment to support unlimited growth now and in the future. Future generations were to be included in the system. As a policy instrument, it has been largely impotent to stop either continuing environmental predation and degradation and unfair economic development.

Of significance to current practices, the word sustainability, was not included, out of this context. But something not so unusual has happened in the almost thirty years since the report’s publication, the context has been lost. Words tend to do that, as legal and linguistic contextualist scholars tend to note. Today, when companies, particularly, or governments speak of sustainability, they look only at their own narrow contexts, not the same world of Brundtland. They presume, but fail to incorporate realistic connections, that what they do will have positive impacts on the whole system, but they have the wrong system and properties as criteria. But so did the original Brundtland report. It had the world system right, but sought to sustain economic growth, both then and now, as the system property of primary and singular concern. Those invoking sustainability, then and now, make a categorical error. They mistake a process, growth, as a system property, instead of emergent systemic properties like flourishing or justice, or many other possibilities.

The lack of justice or equity among nations and generations was one of the key reasons behind the drive propelled by Brundtland and the many actions that have followed. The failure for the Earth, comprising its humans and the rest of the system, to flourish was the other. Focus, then and now, has been on the symptoms of illth (as Herman Daly called the unhealthy state of today’s world), like habitat destruction, pollution, health, climate change, and so on. I call them unsustainability, but not in the sense of impeding growth. I refer to the inability to maintain justice and flourishing as the reasons to care about the state of the world, whether you look at it from either side of a half-filled glass. Growth is increasingly being recognized as one of the causes of illth and the the loss of capability to produce and sustain justice and flourishing. I tend to concatenate these two into flourishing as the single normative goal for the world and its manifold polities. We are surely far from being able to do that. That is one clear reason to stop talking about sustainability.

Almost all efforts carrying the name sustainability or sustainable in them look only at the system of bads we are producing as unintended consequences of our normal, dominant belief in growth as the purveyor of human happiness. Most sustainability efforts are some form of eco-efficiency or remediation, neither of which affects the critical entire system. They always focus on a mere piece of the puzzle, the company’s explicit contributions to harms, that is, these efforts are self-referential. Such efforts are to be welcomed for making, hopefully, the harms less worse, but also tend to allow the actors to become even less mindful of the systemic nature of the problems. This is why all the sustainability reports in the world cannot bring forth justice or flourishing. The are useful for discriminating among individual efforts, but not about the effectiveness of these efforts as a whole. Only the whole relates to the system.

The Dutch, some time ago, recognized the nature of this situation and allocated reduction goals to industrial sectors, who then passed along reduction targets to individual entities, using models of

“environmental utilisation space” a concept that “reflects that at any given point in time, there are limits to the amount of environmental pressure that the Earth’s ecosystems can handle without irreversible damage to these systems or to the life support processes that they enable”…The “society” for which the biosphere provides services is of course global. As defined by Weterings and Opschoor (the authors of the Dutch paper proposing this idea), environmental space similarly means the space available to humanity as a whole for utilisation of stocks and sinks. At least, this applies to stocks that are globally tradeable, and sinks that are global in extent. However, the same authors point out that the recognition of global limits forces us to face the issue of how environmental space is to be allocated between nations and regions.

While understood as only a partial answer, they made the Earth system context explicit, but we never got even that far here in the US. Those that do understand both the whole system context and the need to select one or more emergent properties, not some internal process, as the normative goal, are critical of the efforts of the US and virtual all modern polities being made in the name of sustainability. We do not question the intentions to stop the social and environmental bleeding, but are quite certain that tourniquets being placed only on a limb of the system will not do the necessary job. The implicit or explicit reliance on growth as the cure for the ills that lie within the whole system must be replaced by some other engine of social and environmental health. That’s a very hard message, but pops right out when one’s focus expands to encompass the whole system we call home.

Without that as the context for what we name as our norms and processes, we are stuck in our present retrograde trajectory. The great steps forward in American jurisprudence and American life have been made only when the whole context of our Constitutional system emerges. In the classic case that established the right to privacy, Justice Douglas wrote as a basis for the majority opinion, “In other words, the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion.”┬áIf we are to flourish, similarly to privacy as a system property, we need to recognize and act within the “penumbra” of the whole world.

Charleston Was No Accident; It Came Out of "The System"


Like so many others, I cannot get the shootings in Charleston out of the center of my mental screen, but, before I continue, it’s important to tell you where I stand on the matter of guns, even though that’s not the theme of this post. I am strongly opposed to the prevalence of firearms in the US. And I am also skeptical about virtually every proposed solution to deal with the non-obvious result of having so many firearms, the world record on non-military homicides. It is not as obvious as those who are appalled by what has been happening here argue.

The issue here is the same one I wrote about concerning sustainability. Our responses to gun violence are only aimed only at the symptoms, not the causes. Gun control measures are analogous to recycling. They aim to make the problem less worse, but have little or nothing to do with the basic causes. The most recent murderous act in Charleston had exposed this. Gun violence is deeply embedded in our culture, and so is its variant, gun violence against blacks. Until we are ready to admit to these roots and change our beliefs and values, we will still lead the “enlightened” world in violent acts. I have plotted some publicly available data on guns and homicides to see if some sort of explanatory patterns might result. I find the data do tell a unique story about the US.

The first graph plots the number of guns per 100 people against GDP. I wanted to see if there was some correlation between wealth and gun ownership. Since guns cost money, I expected some upward trend and found it as the correlation line indicates, but the US is a huge outlier, requiring some non-economic explanation. I will come to that later, but first some more data.

No 1.jpg

The next plot shows the homicide incidence plotted against GDP. The data clearly divide into two groups, the rich and the poor. The poor countries show very high rates of gun violence, but form a distinct cluster with quite a bit of scatter. Almost every South and Central American country falls into this group, that is, low wealth and high violence. India is an interesting exception with very low GDP, but homicide rates like the rich European countries that fall on the high end of the GDP axis.

No 2.jpg

Looking at that end, the US is once again an outlier with a rate of homicides about 15 times the average of other wealthy countries. The average poor country has a rate of violence almost 90 times that of the wealthy countries (without USA included) and about 40 times that when the US is included.

No 3.jpg

The last plot shows the homicide rate against the frequency of gun ownership. Except for two outliers, Honduras and the US, there seems to be little correlation, that is, the level of violence indicated by gun homicides and the number of guns are unrelated. Again we can see that the US is an outlier. The opponents of gun ownership making their arguments largely on 1st amendments rights and invoking excessive threats to life and property fail to see or simply ignore the fact that the US cannot be compared to any other country rich or poor. Any way you look at it, we have a different relationship to guns than the rest of the world.

If gun homicide frequency can be taken as an indicator of general societal threat level, we should not need so many guns to protect ourselves, as this last graph shows. The relationship between gun ownership and homicides as an indicator of societal danger is weak and fails to explain why a country with so little relative violence (measured by homicide levels) needs so many guns. I have inverted the usual relationships and used homicides, as the independent variable.

Now let me get to the point. If we want to understand and do something about the terrible consequence of gun violence, we must find something other that trying to regulate gun purchases. The NRA’s opposition to gun control is more likely a ploy to keep us focused on the wrong issues that a real concern that gun control will change much. As I argue when I write about flourishing or sustainability, the problems arise from a systemic set of causes. Recycling or carbon taxes may make the problems less bad, but have no effect on the processes that create the problem in the first place. The real culprit creating unsustainability is our culture and its underlying structure of beliefs and norms. If we do not change our fundamental, modern beliefs about the world, all our technical fixes will come to no avail. Behind every program with the name of sustainability is the intention to continue to grow economically. But growth is not the correct target; it should be flourishing. Growth, even eco-efficient growth, cannot continue forever in a finite world in spite of the flag waving of technological optimists.

Gun control is no more than such a technical fix to a problem arising from our culture. There is no rational reason to own a gun for protection against random violence. The data I showed above negate this argument. Nor is there any real threat of government suppression, but the American creation story lives still. Our nation was born out of a reaction to such suppression by another sovereign, but it is rationally so unlikely that our own sovereign, that is, we, will turn against ourselves that this argument falls flat. Against the First Amendment arguments, the right to bear arms does not mean that it is right to carry arms. If we are serious about reducing the prevalence of gun deaths in the US to the same level that other similarly modern countries exhibit, it is imperative that we examine the system within which these events occur, and find causes and solutions at that level.

Events like the Charleston massacre are not an accident as Rick Perry said. Shame on you, Rick Perry. This was the result of the white supremacy culture still deeply embedded in the old South. It is no longer politically correct to talk out of a racist mouth, but actions belie the words. The notion of supremacy is even more dangerous when coupled with the frontier mentality that still lingers in many parts of the US. The egalitarian principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence are a mockery when seen against the idea of Southern or Western justice at the end of a rope or gun. Violence is in our DNA and will continue to shape action until we face that fact and change it is we want to.

We are the arms dealer to the world. We believe we can dominate other nations, less superior to us for reasons not unlike those invoked in historic arguments about race in the US, by out gunning them. If we do not start to examine both our violent foundations and our persistent racism, we will only continue to suffer the consequences of gun violence both at home and abroad.

I find it very sad and disheartening that the conversations that accompany violent acts such as that in Charleston show such complete lack of both systemic understanding and empathy for those caught up in twisted thinking of gun owners. This extract from a Guardian article was the trigger for this post.

Board member Charles Cotton, however, strayed from the script late on Thursday, when he posted a comment online blaming the pastor killed in the South Carolina shooting, Clementa Pinckney, for the death of his eight congregants.…Cotton, who did not return a message left at his Houston-area law firm, pointed out on a Texas gun forum that Pinckney was a state senator who had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.…“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

The “script” mentioned is the practice of avoiding any comment on noteworthy killings. I find this the ultimate in proposing a purely technical fix instead of a system examination. More guns is clearly not a solution unless we want to see more and more public shootings. The data above also show that more guns are poorly correlated against violence.

So let me begin an investigation into ways to reduce gun violence in the US at least to the level of our sister developed, rich nations. Looking at the first graph, we can see a very strong relationship between wealth (or poverty) and gun violence. I suspect that gun deaths are a good proxy for violence in general. This alone is a good excuse for poverty reduction beyond the moral foundation of our Nation. Apologists for gun ownership like to point out that our outlying position, vis a vis, other wealthy nations would not be so extreme if we segregated the data from inner cities. They are correct, but that’s just the point. Our inner cities have gun death statistics similar to the cluster of poor nations. More guns to keep the minority inhabitants of the inner cities under control is absolutely the wrong solution. I know there is much written about this by scholars much better trained than I am. For me, and I hope you, it doesn’t take rocket science (or a good sociologist) to see through the smoke and haze that accompany our public discussions of gun violence and what to do about it. Let’s start with inequality and old still-festering prejudices of all sorts, racism being the name of only one.

Prejudices are part of being human. Everything that means anything to us is the result of filtering a meaningless world of perceptions through what might be called our prejudices. There is nothing good or bad about this statement. That we see a white and a black person as different beyond their skin color is the result of a prejudice. We cannot help that, but what we can and should do is not to act unthinkingly on our prejudices without further considerations. Life gets dicey when our prejudices conflict with the moral structure of society. It is clear to me that this is happening in spades. We do need, as many are saying now, a national conversation about racism and classism (which has become even more prevalent that racism writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis). Only through a process that exposes the systemic causes of the problems we want to get rid can we begin to make progress. I urge all those who believe that better gun control will solve the problem to take another look.

ps. Removing the Confederate flag won’t change anything significantly. It might make matters even worse as visible signs of a pathological prejudice would disappear, thus appearing to have dealt with the source. Relabeling a bottle of whiskey as milk has no effect on an alcoholic.

Little Words Matter



I followed a link to an article from the Sri Lanka Sunday Times entitled, “Consuming with care: The why and how.” Since care is central to my strategy for flourishing, I dug into the article. The author is commenting on the World Environment Day (just held on June 5th) theme this year: “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Sounds good but these seemingly powerful words lost something when I read the short description of the theme:

The WED theme this year is therefore “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Living within planetary boundaries is the most promising strategy for ensuring a healthy future. Human prosperity need not cost the earth. Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less. It is about knowing that rising rates of natural resource use and the environmental impacts that occur are not a necessary by-product of economic growth.

The message turn out to be little more that a plea for eco-efficiency. “Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less,” is not about caring; it’s about reducing the human impact on the Earth. Full stop! This strategy deals only with the symptoms of our malaise, that is, unsustainability. As I have often written, “Reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability (-as-flourishing). It is both true and compelling that we lessen our footprint, but that will not bring us flourishing or any other norm that we would want to sustain. Sustainability in the sense of the article pertains to the maintenance of growth, but in a way that preserves the life-support capacity of the Earth. This statement is all and only about growth as both end and means. That is a terrible combination. The proper end must be something like flourishing or another word to describe the fullness of being. Growth will not get us there; so far it has moved us further and further away, even as we have gotten richer overall.

A simple and seemingly minor shift in the theme might do much better. If the theme read, “Consume for Care” or “Consume to Care,” the intentional role of the actor as a caring being would become clear. “Care” as it appears in the theme relates to paying attention to the planetary boundaries. A good idea, but not caring in the sense of acting to support the well-being of the other. This kind of caring is close to loving the other. Accepting the existence of the other on their terms and acting from an understanding of those terms. Love and care of this sort have become replaced by affective notions, that is, about feelings in place of actions. Words like care and love, like other verbal forms arose out of observations of distinctive actions that needed labels so that humans could talk about or reproduce them by calling up the names. It was only later that they became reified and took on thing-like characters, identified by their form as nouns.

That’s the problem with the theme above. Care appears as a thing, a way of being, but not “being” directing. To regain or create a flourishing world, we must truly care for it, that is, take care of it. That kind of care requires that we understand our interconnections with the Earth and our place within the planetary system. Worrying about its boundaries is an abstraction that is hollow and lifeless. There is no love or care there. We lose sight of the real world so long as we follow some sort of gauge. We cannot measure flourishing; we can recognize it only by observing it directly. The act of care carries a sense of responsibility that is fundamental to it. Such responsibility is only partially or indirectly there when one recycles or does some other eco-efficient act. Worse, it produces a false sense of true caring, by interposing some intermediate end in the way.

At the risk of going into the clouds, the care I talk about is fundamental to being human; it is ontological, that is it is central to out distinctiveness as beings in the world. No other being, animate or not, cares. (At least we think that is the case, but we cannot be sure, as we do not understand the language of other beings.). Such care is intentional and ethical because we act out of a sense of doing something good for the other. Another word that come close is loving-kindness, a word I remember from my Jewish upbringing. It too has lost its active sense. Merriam-Webster defines it as “tender and benevolent affection,” turning it into a feeling. I cannot think of a simple, everyday adjective to make it’s meaning clear. Loving care come close as it connoted the sense of acceptance and understanding of the other’s needs.

Instead, I turn to the prepositions that are used to place care in context. Act for care, act out of care, act to care are close; none are perfect. All do a better job of adding some context of intentionality or responsibility. “To” is probably best as the preposition “to” serves to introduce action as well as direction. So, I will go with “to.” To consume is merely a form of action. So next year, perhaps the World Environment Day organizers will change the slogan to “Consume to Care.” Such acts have dual results. The other gets taken care and you feel better. When all of us have done enough caring of this kind, we will not only feel better, we will recognize that we are flourishing, living to the fullest extent of our potential.