Consumption levels slowing. More territory being occupied by protestors. Bipartisan agreement in the Senate on a small jobs bill aimed at veterans. Pipeline decision postponed. Are these recent headline signs of a slowing or reversal of our march toward unsustainability and away from flourishing? Is sustainability coming closer? Can we lower our guard?
The answer is clearly NO. This is not any kind of skeptical or cynical response. All of these actions are positive, but simply insufficient to change the drivers of unsustainable individual and societal behavior. Cultures operate on top of deeply embedded structure and tend to reinforce that structure everyday through patterns of repeated, routine behaviors. These patterns change only when the structure does. The recent changes of regimes in Libya and Egypt came on top of abrupt changes in the authoritative part of the culture with the toppling of a single tyrannical leader. These societies had become so brittle over time that a singular event had the potential to upset the whole system and open it up to changes deep down. A single event can, when systems lose their resiliency, create such jumps. Malcolm Gladwell would say that the system had reached a tipping point. Having reached and gone through a tipping point, the future state that arises is difficult to predict.
Sometimes the visions of those that pushed past this point are realized, but often the new regime resembles the old or looks little like the pushers envisioned. That’s because cultures run on other structure besides authority. Beliefs and norms (the visible patterns that reflect underlying values), and even technology or infrastructure all act as conservative constraints to change. The new social networking technology played an important role in these changes, facilitating expressions of solidarity and by-passing the constraints on coordinating action that had been put in place by those in power.
Stable, resilient cultures and living systems in general have many processes nested within each other, connected by feedback pathways that provide self-correcting capability to the whole system. Perturbations are continuously monitored and adjustments made such that the system may avoid becoming brittle and remain far from a tipping point. In the technical language of complexity, sustainability–the capability of remaining in a stable, satisfying neighborhood–means that a system stays within an attractor, exhibiting dynamic behavior, but never straying so far from home that it becomes lost in a new, unfamiliar, and often inhospitable world.
The culture in the United States and much of the rest of the modern, capitalistic world is built on a deeply entrenched structure. Our normal patterns of life spring from it. It has worked well for several centuries, bringing what has generally been accepted as progress, measured as continual improvement in well-being. It is showing its old age, the bones are getting brittle, the cognitive capacity is slowing, the muscles are weakening. Discontent and fears about the future are nothing new, but have reached new levels, at least as seen in my lifetime, The reality of environmentally based constraints on our continued progress, while still the subject of much controversy, has reached new levels of consciousness. Our addiction to growth and consumption is being questioned. Inequality, always an issue, has jumped from the media background and from economists’ models squarely into the public’s eye.
The actions I listed at the beginning, and many others, are reactions to these concerns. The key question for those, like me, who are taking a more distanced stance to deal with these issues, more academic or philosophical one might say, is, “Are these signs of tipping or are they only momentary aberrations to be buried by the normal. Those who wrote about these events, but may not join the actions, are trying to avoid the implications of the memorable phrases coined by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is more than mere memory, we are trying to understand it so that we can design the future as much as we are able to.
My guess, I have no special access to a clear crystal ball, is that they are ephemeral, because they address the symptoms, not the causes of our malaise. As long as the key structure of our culture remains in place, the world we experience will not change unless immutable factors like the limits of the Earth to maintain growth upset the norms. My last post refers to a charter, penned by Gus Speth, pointing to the need to address and change many of the current beliefs norms and the institutions build on them. I can name a few possibilities here, but recognize that this is but a sample. Power and voice has to be returned to the people away from those that have accumulated the wealth that has become equivalent to power. Voice has to be given back to the people and taken away from the imaginary corporate “persons” that the laws have created and increasingly empowered. We must recover from the domination of dogmatic belief, the God-given truths that the founders of the Enlightenment abandoned because they understood that dogma formed the chains that bound up human freedom. Ideological truths of all sorts, also forms of dogma, have captured our critical public conversations and are no less dominating than the absolute demands that those founders encountered. We have to recover our sense of compassion and empathy, lost in a deep-seated belief in self as autonomous and needy, so that care becomes the norm, not the exception.
Challenging any of the present structure threatens the status quo. Reactions range from individual fears of losing “freedom of choice” to realization of the potential collapse of institutions built on the accumulated beliefs and norms. The sharing of power, based on wisdom and understanding, rather than on knowledge and expertise, would upset all our educational systems and the role of the disciplines that they have spawned. Giving up war and conflict as the means to settle disputes, big and small, is unspeakable and for many, unthinkable. We may, as Adam Smith and many who followed him be right that we are driven by self interest, but not necessarily the same image of self. Our beliefs in a pleasure-seeking, autonomous, greed-driven self are shaped by history, buried in the models that shape psychology and economics which disciplines in turn shape policy and socially acceptable behavior and further reinforce this particular set of beliefs. Interestingly, Adam Smith believed humans were strongly empathic beings.
Occupy Wall Street or Main Street can call attention to the need for change, but so far fail to point to the more deeply rooted changes that need to happen before the grievances can be put to rest permanently. They are taking over small bits of territory, but need to occupy and change the grounds of our culture. Our democratic and law-based form of government is designed to serve as a safety valve and facilitate change without the violence we see in these recent regime shifts. This has become part of the problem as the process has become badly strained, some would say captured, by the conservative forces resisting structural change. The small “c” is intentional. Cultural conservatives belong to both parties of our system. If real change is to occur without revolt, I believe it will have to come from a new party capable of addressing our state far more radically than can the existing system. My negative mood, expressed at the beginning of this post, is largely based on then observation that third parties have a poor record of success. Hope springs eternal, however. We may see that the new social media and means to raise large amounts of money can turn the tide of history. In any case, it is futile to “fix” the system we have with a bandage here and there; change must come at the core.

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