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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.” If we are to flourish, similarly to privacy as a system property, we need to recognize and act within the “penumbra” of the whole world.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 28, 2015 2:42 PM ::


spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 28, 2015 8:48 AM ::

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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 23, 2015 10:19 PM ::

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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 8, 2015 11:43 AM ::

Still Confused, Misled, or Being Coy about Sustainability


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?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 25, 2015 3:54 PM ::

The Autobiographical Self


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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 19, 2015 5:13 PM ::

The "Self," Not Technology, Can Save Us


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 Holderlïn 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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 11, 2015 2:53 PM ::

The [Mistaken] Nature of Poverty

bread line

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.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 1, 2015 8:20 PM ::

Thoughts on Returning Home


My recent absence from this blog is due to a tour of Central Europe. My wife and I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Over the years we have visited most or lived in a few European nations. Inevitably, I return with a heightened sense of both our own national stories and those of the European world. This time, I was impressed by the history of all three of the places we visited. In particular, all had a very long history with signs of civilization starting just before the advent of the Common Era. All had a long record of being under the thumb of one occupier or another; the latest being the Soviets. I found that the last liberation process has left the people with an optimistic outlook, even as life is still hard and the memories of the last 60 years or so cannot be easily washed away.

Now a few days after returning home, I am trying to recall the vivid images from the trip. The major cities visited, Prague, Bratislava, and, particularly, Budapest, are all filled with grand vestiges of past; wide streets, monumental-scale structures, and great cultural centers. I was surprised by the number of UNESCO world heritage sites we visited. Budapest, which was heavily damaged during WWII, has largely been rebuilt, but not modernized. The central areas have been restored mostly to their original character, but only the structures tell me that I am in a different world from home. Watching the people at work and in their homes, I sense a remarkable similarity with their peers in the US. The dress is indistinguishable. They are hardworking and busy living the same materialistic life we do.

One important difference struck me: the horrors of their recent occupation, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. As we often do when traveling, my wife and I visit synagogues and other signs of Jewish life. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we found synagogues that have been turned into places to visit, but little or no Jews. The large Jewish quarters are abandoned. My wife remarked along the way that Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews has been largely successful in these place. Budapest is a somewhat different story. The Jewish population that once numbered almost a million, before the Holocaust, has dwindled to perhaps 50,000, but had regained a presence in Hungary. There are number of working synagogues, including the largest in all of Europe, and signs of Jewish life seen as we walked through city streets.

Hungarians are slowly accepting responsibility for their role in Hitler’s Final Solution. We visited a very moving memorial in Budapest along the Danube. It was simply a row of bronze shoes embedded in the wall that line the river, recalling the slaughter of many Jews that were forced to remove their shoes before being shot and pushed into the Danube. The perpetrators were not the occupying Nazis, but a group of ultra-fascist Hungarians who, legend has it, outdid their Nazi counterparts in cruelty.

We visited other place where the cruelty of our species was palpably present. The first was the Czech village of Lidice which as obliterated in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi regent of the region. All the men and many children— were shot and the rest deported to labor camps. Every structure was demolished, and bulldozers ran over them until no remnants of habitation remained. The memorial is striking in the absence of structure. There is nothing there except a simply memorial and the rest is just the fields where the town once existed. The emptiness is overcoming, as is the simplicity of the shoes along the Danube. Later, we visited a Soviet forced-labor camp where both criminals and political prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines. The brutality was present even as we saw only lifeless structures. I can’t imagine the feelings of the older Czechs and others who celebrated the coming of their liberators from the Nazis, only to find themselves once again living under a terribly repressive regime. Real freedom came only about 25 years ago.

Maybe it takes a terrible tragedy to wake up to the harsh reality of modernity. Like much of the rest of Europe, these countries have some form of a social democracy. The government is very much present in daily life; health services and education are free to all comers. Most provide a decent pension. Maternity leave is very generous, allowing working mothers several years at home, until their children enter the school system, starting with kindergarten. Family units are much tighter with many more children living at home with their parents. It is very hard to absorb a culture as a visitor with only a short immersion, but I did feel more care present than here at home. The institutions of government certainly express that. Their cities are places of living history where both the high and low points of the past are evident.

Having been visited all too often by the ravages of war, these countries and others are attempting to work together under the aegis of the EU—a very difficult context given the very different origins and history of all the member states. I heard grousing about this and that, but I believe most think the present system is better than the old one that was kept in place by power, domination, and war. I thought a lot about our recent efforts to find a diplomatic solution to our differences with Iran. The alternative expressed by those who oppose entering into a treaty is basically war, an all-too-easy solution for those who have never had their homeland destroyed and occupied. A few moments spent in Lidice would quickly dispel such a notion. A trip through the European monuments, dead and alive, to the realities of war might turn the minds of our politicians away from the deadly technological weapons that they think will solve all our problems. It is increasingly clear that this is a terribly mistakenly vision. War at a distance relieves responsibility for its actuality. That’s the message that lingers as I resettle into my routines, blotting out memories of many glasses of real beer, beautiful cities, medieval villages, love of craftsmanship, and others.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 29, 2015 11:56 AM ::

Amazon Strikes Another Blow


The cause for flourishing just took another hit with the unveiling of Amazon’s new “Dash.” Dash, a device to make ordering from Amazon both effortless and mindless has two parts. The hand-held Dash will automatically place orders for household goods by scanning barcodes or by recognizing your spoken commands. The second, related part is called Dash Button. a smaller device that sticks to whatever cabinet you store your household goods that allows you to order replacements with the mere touch of a button. Here what Amazon says:

Place it. Press it. Get it.

Dash Button comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.

I see this as only a step toward implanting some sort of device in your brain that intercepts the stimulus that would have actuated the Dash Button or clicked the Dash’s bar code scanner, then and sends the intended order directly to Amazon. Why bother with more gadgets lying around the house? It can all happen without them. This is truly mindless consumption, or close to it. Each of us becomes nothing more than a cog in Amazon’s provisioning machine. No conscious thinking needed; no agonizing choice between All® and Era®. What could come any closer to making us the perfectly rational, optimizing, hyper-efficient human machine that makes markets hum?

The on-line New Yorker had a story about this that I cannot help generously cribbing from. Thanks to Ian Crouch for “The Horror of Amazon’s New Dash Button.” He begins with comments about the promotional video that Amazon used to introduce the Dash Button.

There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.

Most of the article was devoted to a theme I have been harping on for years, mindless, addictive consumption. The ubiquity of advertising has dulled our ability to make meaningful choices. The fundamental notion that the market works best when buyers have all the information needed to make rational choices has been buried for years. There is no way that anyone can determine which brand is better or whether the product being considered has hidden costs that outweigh or offset the apparent benefits. But Dash goes too far as the next quote from the article suggests.

And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

Crouch picks up on my theme by asking, “But what if there is actual value in running out of things?” Amazon is trying to make shopping completely transparent, that is, an action we take without conscious reflection. Heidegger saw this kind of action as fundamental to humans. So does modern neuroscience. Our brains learn to do routine tasks without thinking as long as the tools we need for them are “ready-to-hand.” That clumsy phrase, also from Heidegger, means simply that the necessary tools are easily available to us. If it were true that effortless consumption was purely beneficial, then it might be a good idea to make it easier. It would become just another action like walking or talking, both of which actions we perform without conscious thinking.

But consumption is clearly not without a dark side. It is the medium through which human economic life despoils the Earth. It is the medium that blinds us to the relationships we have with the world by the very readiness-to-hand nature of consumption, as Amazon would like to have it. So, by the way, would most neoclassical economists. Human life has progressed (if you would call it that) only when the transparency of action ceases. It is only then that we become conscious of the world before us that we use our real smarts to solve our problems. The world, again, according to Heidegger, becomes present-at-hand, and humans enter a different mode of thinking, reflecting on the scene. Almost all other animals lack this capability. It would be a terrible shame to lose it or to injure that talent. The Skinner box referred to in the last quote is a system where the animal (including humans) inside operates only by a transparent stimulus-response behavioral pattern. No ‘thinking” is involved.

The ability to think critically or reflectively is being neglected today. Teaching to tests is a thinly disguised form of Skinnerism. Humanities which teach such critical skills are being pushed aside by the drive towards complete professionalism in higher education. With only a little simplification, professionalism is a form of ready-to-hand behavior. One learns how to address many kinds of problems, transparently, with the tools one acquires in school and through experience. The appearance of many societal ills can be traced to the failure of professionals to cope with the present-at-hand, that is the real world. Even though Dash might appear to be an almost trivial player in a technological world where mindlessness is already the key, it is another ominous sign that what makes us human is taking another hit.

The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Most of my readers are far too young to remember, Fantasia, one of Disney’s very early animated films consisting of fantastic scenes set to classical music. One of them tells the tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the music of the same name by Paul Dukas. In it the Apprentice (Mickey Mouse), trying to emulate his master, performs what he believes is the correct incantations and spells to turn on a broom to become a water carrier to perform Mickey’s own chores. But the scheme goes awry, and the broom continues until the place is inundated. Mickey is powerless to stop the action until the master returns, turns the broom off, and gives Mickey the boot. I see Amazon as the sorcerer and me as Mickey. I am given the magic wand, Dash, and the ability to turn it on, but not the secret to turn it off. I can envision my house overflowing with toilet paper and Mac’n Cheese, but I cannot imagine the Sorcerer, Amazon, ever showing up to turn off the spigot.

This is not even the end of the story. It’s the last line in the following quote that conjured up images of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Crouch ends with:

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 10, 2015 2:38 PM ::