Only connect�…�(Howard’s End, E. M. Forster)
I have been preparing for a one-day class to be given to a group of doctoral students at the Weatherhead School of Management. They have been assigned *Flourishing*. This will be the first time that this text rather then *Sustainability by Design* has been assigned. I have had to go back and revise all my materials to reflect the change in emphasis and style in *Flourishing*. The first task was to carefully remove just about all the references to sustainability and replace them with “flourishing.” If you have been reading this blog, you will know why.
“Sustainability” has become such a jargon word that it is effectively useless in the context of what must be done to preserve the planet and life upon it. I had hoped that by holding up what was happening to the word to ridicule and criticism, I might return some sense to sustainability. But I now admit defeat and have decided on taking a different course. Sustainability, per se, has another basic problem. It is an empty word, lacking any practical sense until whatever it refers to is explicit or at least tacitly understood by all the actors involved. Its use is especially cloudy when sustainable (adjective) is used to modify some noun, like business or luxury. No matter what was intended, this will always refer back to the noun.
Further, I began to understand that sustainability, as almost universally used, referred to maintaining the status quo, that is, continuing growth. I should have known because the word itself became popular only after the idea of sustainable development surfaced more than 20 years ago. Taken most simply, that term was defined as continuing economic growth, but growth that was eco-efficient and fair to all. The argument for sustainability was that we could continue to grow indefinitely while maintaining the security and health of the Planet and spreading the wealth more justly.
It should have been clear, then as it is now, that indefinite growth is impossible. There is no sign that our economies are becoming sufficiently eco-efficient to slow down and reverse the growing deterioration of the planet. With the global economy growing to resemble our own, this becomes even more clear. Nor is there any real probability that this will happen in the future. Our centuries old optimism about the capability of technology to solve all our problems cannot be supported any longer. The fairness of growth, especially at home, is working backwards with the rich getting the lion’s share of whatever growth has been taking place.
The time to take a critical look at sustainability is long gone, but I see little or no evidence of this happening by those who talk about it. I started using a definition tying sustainability to flourishing, even beginning to hyphenate the two words, but I found that the jargon overwhelms even this usage. Any way, there is not much flourishing around to sustain. The challenge ahead for the world is to make clear what it is we wish to sustain and to get to a point where sustain, not attain, is relevant.
For me, and now an increasing number of others, the target, flourishing, works well. It is much closer to historical and present human aspirations than any economic measure. So, I have begun to write about flourishing without any reference to sustainability. This poses a challenge as I failed to do this in both of my books. Not surprisingly because the intellectual path has been long and winding. But I do believe now that there is much more clarity with the possibility of more effective action in the future in place of the present efforts toward sustainability, Sustainability, at best, can only slow down the growth of unsustainability, a word we know only too well what its signs are.
So the change, as I note above, was the major task in preparing for the coming class. In the process, I continued to try to simplify what I know is a complicated, often academic, story. I have found I cannot unscramble the maze that we have followed to get where we are without many words and figures, but I am doing much better. I have, however, made what I think is a breakthrough is talking about what we have to do to open up the possibility of flourishing. It boils down to a single word, care. If we all would live in the context of caring for ourselves, others, and the rest of the world, flourishing should appear like magic, emerging from the complex world we are immersed within.
It would still take an economy to support such activities, maybe even a capitalistic one (although capitalism is built on many of the beliefs I criticize as causes of our present precarious situation). Care means to assure that all beings, human and otherwise, have the capabilities to fully achieve whatever their existential potential is by providing material and psychological inputs where needed. Care always involves an actor (carer) and the target of his or her actions. Implicit is this statement and the reality it represents is the idea of connection. The two ends are always connected.
But as Hamlet said, “there’s the rub.” We have become blind or indifferent to our connectedness to everything in the world. “Individualistic” is perhaps the most often used descriptor of the American people. The hegemonic idea of the “market” is based on “the invisible hand.” You can add your own evidence here. Increasingly, I believe the first task in creating flourishing is to reestablish our consciousness of our connectedness t the world out there. That sense has been there in the past, even on our own Continent. Native Americans lived with a deep sense of their connectedness to the Earth.
As I work though this poser, two possibilities come to mind. The first is to recover the meaning of love. Perhaps, many Christians are already there, taking their meaning from the Scriptures. But even they are bombarded with more dominant cultural meanings that tend to reify love as something to give, possess, or feel. Love is, rather, all about accepting the legitimacy of the other to exist as they are, and act accordingly (after Maturana). It is almost synonymous with care. But in a pure market economy, it is inevitable that love becomes a commodity, like everything else.
The second way is to begin to explicitly take care of a fourth domain besides the above-mentioned three. This is the domain of spirituality–care for out-of-the-world experiences-experiences with no apparent material causes. Spiritually was a principal domain of care for early humans as they lacked the secular, scientific, materialistic world view of modernity. I am not talking about religion, but of a sense of connectedness to everything that is unavailable in all the other three domains. Spiritual actions are directed towards our connections to “the great beyond” or some other similar metaphor.
This is not the end of what we can do to begin to open the possibility of flourishing, but it is a good start. More to come in future blogs. All this is available in *Flourishing*, but, as I note, not in such concise terms, but then books are not blogs.
(Image: Escher, Relativity)