December 2015 Archives

One Kind of Sustainability


knee joint

I am back home after about 5 days spent a Lahey Hospital getting a new knee. It’s made of Titanium and should not need repair during my lifetime. It didn’t come with a lifetime guarantee, but given my age, it should be quite good for the rest of my life. My stay was uneventful, unless you consider replacing one’s knee a big deal. Although this operation has become quite commonplace and as routine as ever major surgery can be, it is quite miraculous. In on Monday; out of Friday, walking to car from the Hospital exit.

The one thing about it that no one really tells you in advance is the pain involved. It is certainly the most painful experience of my life. The pain might be tolerable if not for the PT specialists who insist that you both bend and extend the knee beyond the range that probably was normal for you, pre-operation. Today, things seem to have settled down quite a bit, well within the effective limits for a tiny oxycodon tablet. After just a few days with this drug, it is easy to see the path to serious addiction that captures so many.`

With some great coaching from the visiting PT specialist, I am managing to get up from and back down to bed, and a variety of chairs. It’s all in the way you throw your weight around. I had a vision, I would not get my head out from under the the bed sheet, until he showed me that standing could be almost effortless and pain-free if one captured the laws of physics, that is, using the weight of th body to tilt itself so that a slight push off the bed would bring me to a almost standing position.

I am a lot closer to flourishing after the operation in the sense of being more mobile and pain free so that I can pursue caring acts with more ease and less resistance that an expectation of pain creates. I wasn’t thinking about how to look at this process thought a sustainability lens, but as an afterthought, here are a few items to think about. I did not think to get a footprint analysis of the knee replacement process. Made of titanium, the joint would have a lot more embedded energy that the bone it replaced. The five-day hospital stay must have a terrible footprint. The wastebasket was filled to overflowing with single use detritus several times a day. Given the prevalence of hospital-associated-infections, perhaps the waste is worth it if carefully compared to the cost of extra treatment should a patient become infected.

So how does this procedure do in any kind of sustainability examination. I would say, pretty good, in spite of all the consumption that is involved. That’s primarily because the outcome is measured as an improvement of the quality of life. Health economists have ways of monetizing this, but their measures are not what matters to sustainability-as-flourishing. All the pain will disappear and the quality improvements will kick in for the rest of my life. Not too bad.

I'm Off for a Bit

I will be absent for a week or two, depending how long it takes for my new knee to settle in. Getting a replacement for a very cranky joint tomorrow.

Beware Moral Hazards, Systems Blindness, and Shifting the Burden.



Most of the response to COP21 has been positive. Fossil fuels have had their day. 2° C looks to be within reach. There seems to be little doubt that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is going to slow. The naysayers point to the lack of strongly enforceable provisions and to the dependence on acceptance by future politicians. A few of my friends raise issues about the incompatibility of the targets with already established growth policies and the historical lag of efficiency increases relative to growth.

In the systems thinking/dynamics world where I continue to spend time, The entire COP21 and prior efforts fit a classic behavioral archetype or maybe even a couple of them. The least troublesome of these patterns is called “fixes-that-fail.” This refers to solutions to problems that are directed at the symptoms of some underlying set of causes that are not affected by the fix. Solutions like this may look pretty good for a while, but, after some time passes, the underlying causes kick in and the problem recurs. Efficiency and technological innovation can certainly make a dent in the problem, but without addressing the primary driver, economic growth, they are mot likely to provide permanent cures.

The more troublesome pattern is called “shifting-the-burden.” The name comes from the continued use of symptomatic fixes while ignoring the root causes. The habitual use of technological fixes in the modern world tends to do this all the time. It is too easy to make the symptoms go away or appear to abate; attention to and application of resources to the roots fades. Technological or technocratic fixes come close to exhibiting a closely related pattern, that of addiction. The roots causes are similarly ignored, but new problems arise or old ones exacerbated.

Economic growth is the nearly universal solution to all social problems. Poverty is considered to be nothing but a lack of money to enter the market sufficiently. Growth shifts the burden from deep-seated sociological issues and infrastructural failures. Inequality is increased as an unintended but very serious problem, easily seen as the outcome of an addictive pattern of societal behavior.

Technological fixes also fall into the domain of moral hazards, another name for shifting-the-burden, almost. Moral hazards are solutions to problems that lull people into believing that they have covered all their bets. Car insurance is a common example. Buying insurance reduces the risk of the costs of accidents, so people may exercise less care on the road. It’s the same a setting carbon reduction targets. The general public will believe that the problem is solved and can continue to behave in ways that are also damaging to the environment and to other people. Recycling has had this effect as well as reducing waste. Surveys show that some recyclers stop paying attention to other harmful practices, in essence, telling themselves they are taking care of the problem.

The problem, however, is bigger than recycling or reducing/eliminating fossil fuels. Footprint analysis attempts to measure or estimate the total impact of human activities on the globe. While the methodology is not terribly precise, it does give us a credible picture of how we are treating the Earth. Recent estimates pointed to the use of more than one and one-half Earth’s worth of resources, maybe now about two Earth’s worth. With continuing growth coming in both the developed and developing nations, human footprint is headed for even more Earths, clearly an unstable condition. But one could imagine a huge sigh of relief coming from Paris, signaling exactly that one of these patterns was being enacted.

I fear that my continuing arguments that climate change and other problems of unsustainability are deeply rooted in modern beliefs will get even less attention now. Bill McKibben seems to be satisfied. It is critical that we do not let up in calls for transformational change at the level of culture. Consumption redefinition is essential. I have frequently argued with my friends and colleagues in the sustainable consumption community that they blunted their attack by tying it to the idea of sustainability. It is much more important to focus on the drivers for consumption in modernist cultures. The most powerful single factor (there are many) is the psychological/economical model of the human being, that is, homo economicus. On that simple, but ungrounded, model rests most of the institutional drivers for consumption.

Following the lead of development economists like Sen, Nussbaum, and Max-Neef, it is the quality of the economy, not its magnitude that is important. The market should be guided to offer goods and services that enable people to enact the care that is more fundamental to their being than is self-interest. If some adjective is needed to modify consumption, let it be “care-enabling.” Human caring is central to our meaningful existence and it never stops as long as we are breathing, but it lacks the insatiability quality of Smithian self-interest. Many domains of care can be addressed without material- and energy-intensive goods and services. Care is delivered in relational, not transactional, interactions.

Again in a word to the sustainable consumption community, this phrase lacks the transformational power of consumption for human caring. It already has been associated, with not so wonderful results, with the idea of degrowth and similar materialistic concepts. As long as the accepted model of human behavior is the present economistic one, it will be virtually impossible to introduce transformation ideas. Neoclassical economics rules the roost; to change that, its foundations must be weakened. Doing consumption better is not going to be enough. We must do it radically different. People speak of life-style change as essential, but according to what standards and ethics. The care model has the important feature of already being here, but buried under a huge pile of cultural overburden. This is the place to start the serious work of transforming the Planet into a flourishing home for all its living species. Yes, it is very important to slow down the destruction of our planetary home, but not at the cost of neglecting the efforts aimed at the systemic causes of our troubles.


So almost said H.L. Mencken as part of a longer aphorism. The whole quote is, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” This misquoted part does however make the point I am trying to do. This quote should be placed at the top of every story in every medium dealing with the latest round of terror and almost everything else being touched upon in the current political battles for the Presidential nomination.

The best solution, one that I have yet to hear, is to turn the clock back but not just to September 11, 2001, but to the period after WWI when the Great Powers set national borders in the Middle East with little regard for the tribal boundaries that had been around for, perhaps, even millennia. Even earlier, many would say, all the way back to Biblical times. There are so many “causes” for the present situation, it would take several doctoral dissertations to enumerate them all. Two precursors that have been talked about with some regularity lately are the enthronement of the Shah in Iran and the initiation of the Iraq War. Both of these fit the title of this blog perfectly. Simple solutions to complex problems. War and coups almost always fit that definition.

To hear the Republican candidates for the nomination almost in a single voice call for another war boggles the mind. I am reminded of one of the most plaintive lines from any folk song as I hear this. Peter Seeger wrote this about the folly of wars.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

War begets war. History shouts at us that there can be no war that ends all wars. The Hebrew Biblical remedy of an eye for an eye was discredited by the Rabbis over a millennium ago. The successor Christian Bible is more explicit in arguing against revenge as a remedy for wrongs. War replaces the domination within one nation with the domination of another. Clearly unstable and, in our case, at odds with our basic view of democracy. War is the answer for those that choose to see the world as black and white; those who are unwilling to accept that they have no way forward that begins to unravel the intermingled set of forces and beliefs that lead to violence in the first place.

The President, in his speech last night, spoke truth to those who would exercise unrestrained power against the Islamist (and other) forces of terror. They are too quick to overlook the terror we inflict on civilians by our bombings, by whatever name for “good” we call them. The “mistaken” attack on the hospital in Kunduz was, for those patients and neighbors pure terror. One of the effects was to scare away the medics who were running the hospital. The excuse that mistakes are inevitable in war is true, but lame. Calls for a stronger military are completely without grounds as we are, arguably, the world’s most powerful force. My colleagues in the systems dynamics world call this and related solutions, “fixes-that-fail.”

Complexity does not give way to force. Complexity requires patient attempts to work ever deeper into the system until some access to the causes is revealed. If those causes are left in place, the original set of contentious issues or something closely related is going to resurface. The present situations in the Middle East and Afghanistan are examples of this, par excellence. If, as many say, Islam, itself is not the primary cause of the present conflicts, then why are we not appealing to the peaceful side of this old and important world religion? I hear virtually nothing from its leaders.

Gathering together world leaders and the nations they lead is important, because dealing with complexity demands a wide set of interests, but such an alliance is rendering itself ineffective if it does not include leaders from the Muslim world, especially from nations where Islam is the majority or official religion. In thinking and writing about the present “reign of terror,” I am not making any argument about the legitimacy of the actions from any point of view. I believe they are wrong, but I am convinced that an eye for an eye will do nothing but exacerbate the threats.