Again, I apologize to my faithful followers for the silence on this blog for quite a while. No excuses really. I just haven’t felt i have much to say for a while. Some things have changed for me. My wife and I have moved into a senior living community after many decades in a big house. We have yet to finish unpacking, but are feeling very positive about the change. I hope to continue the blog on a more regular schedule once we are more settled. In any case, here are some thoughts i have been having lately. This post is quite long and pretty academic.
I have been following a community formed around the theme of the Great Transition Initiative for a long time. The core theme is on designing a future for the Planet that works for both the Planet and us and figuring out how to get there, hence the great transition. A recent thread on their network was about how to unify and consolidate the efforts of the many groups scattered around the globe that share this vision. One commentator was concerned that progress was hindered by underlying “currents” that were running against the efforts of these groups, writing:
Any search for the sources of the currents holding back real progress must start with the political and economic system. Its prominent features include ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, focusing on high financial returns to guide investments, increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, neglecting those marginalized and desperate, promoting runaway consumerism, facilitating great bastions of corporate political and economic power, and pursuing a host of self-serving and harmful policies internationally—all the while demonizing governmental efforts to correct its side-effects and shortcomings. . . It is hard to see where to turn! We know what must be done. But how? That is the question. (my stress)
The writer’s words are very welcome. In this case, welcome, but insufficient to make the changes he and others deem essential to put our societies on a different trajectory, ones that hold out hope of a flourishing future. Insufficient, because his argument stops short of pushing us to the level of cause that must be changed if we are to see changes that really matter in the political economy.
I disagree with his claim that we know what is to be done. We have to get under the political and economic system all the way to the belief structure on which it has evolved and on which normal behaviors in modern industrial societies rest. It helps if one views the persistent threats to the Planet and its inhabitants as unintended consequences of normal behaviors because that shines the light on normality instead of the problems, per se. If we wish these problems to abate and eventually disappear, change must happen such that a new normal arises, one that does not produce such pathological unintended consequences. The primary normative ends that drive the political economy must also be shifted from growth and any of its avatars to flourishing, the attainment of the full human existential potential, what it really means to be fully human, as I have defined it in my work1.
The management whiz, Russ Ackoff, neatly captured the choices to be made in his classic article, “The Art and Science of Mess Management.”2 He argued that there are three distinctive ways to address “messy problems,” that kind we are talking about. Two of these ways, resolving and solving, are the conventional ones, where we apply our analytic skills and use what we know or might discover through research to mitigate or remedy the problem, but they do not work on messes because unintended consequences are almost always involved.
Dissolving means changing the system, itself, such that new behaviors arise, behaviors which do not produce the same unintended consequences. Here are his own words from the cited article.
To dissolve a problem is to change the nature, and/or the environment, of the entity in which it is imbedded so as to remove the problem. Problem dissolvers idealize rather than satisfice or optimize because their objective is to change the system involved or its environment in such a way as to bring it closer to an ultimately desired state, one in which the problem cannot or does not arise. We call this the design approach. The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and researcher, and much more; but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to dissolve problems by changing the characteristics of the larger system containing the problem. He looks for dissolutions in the containing whole rather than solutions in the contained parts.
Giddens structuration model serves well to unpack Ackoff’s notions.3 Giddens argues that there is dialectic relationship between basic beliefs about how the world works, normal behaviors, authority structures, and utilitarian resources, like technology. Changes in any one of these categories will, over time change the others in a process he calls structuration. The tie between beliefs and norms is particularly strong. Much of what goes for normal behaviors in modern societies can be traced back to Descartes model of the mind as a mirror of reality, and of the world as a machine. Descartes’ ideas have undergone changes over the ages, but remain the primary foundation for the structure of modern cultures.
The Cartesian model and derivative theories cannot capture the complexity of the real world sufficiently to avoid serious unintended consequences and failures to produce desired outcomes.4 This is equivalent to claiming that normal behaviors, arising over time from this model are equally the cause. Nonetheless, Cartesianism remains the paradigmatic explanation of how we think and, consequently, acquire virtually all knowledge.
I do not agree with the writer that we know what to do. Virtually all strategies for mitigating climate change and other such threats fit Ackoff’s first two definitions. They are fixes at various levels of sophistication. Cartesianism inevitably leads to a view of the world in instrumental terms. Lynn White, in his classic paper saw the Bible in which God gives humans dominion over the Earth as the source of that instrumentalism. Heidegger saw that modern societies view the world as “standing reserve.” If we are to avoid such situations, our behavioral norms must shift from a form of utilitarianism to caring actions that reflect the whole system out there and respond to its, not our, needs.
Descartes got only part of the story right. Part of the brain does mirror reality but not perfectly or completely. Stunning research by the British psychiatrist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist, argues that the two brain hemispheres attend to the world in strikingly different ways, presenting two distinctive domains for human action.5 We are, metaphorically, not a single rational actor driven by our brain, but a set of fraternal twins, each controlled, more or less, by one of its two hemispheres.
The right hemisphere is connected to the outside world by the senses and captures a contemporaneous, context-rich snapshot of the immediate world. The left hemisphere takes elements out of that context, decontextualizes and abstracts them, and retains them for future use. It is where our beliefs, the myriad linguistic statements about the natural and social world that comprise our knowledge, are stored. The left is our personal scientist, using reductionist means to create that knowledge base, ready to be called upon to construct the acts that will satisfy our intentions. In action, the left re-presents a picture of the world, constructed from its cache of bits and pieces of theories and facts it has stored up that it believes fits the case at hand, but has no way to judge that fit. The left hemisphere dominates modern brains and runs modern cultures so as to satisfy the demands of its virtual, internalized world. Institutions may be thought to possess a collective (metaphorical) brain formed like that of an individual.
The right hemisphere is our “window” on the real world. It cannot capture every detail of what is out there, but whatever it does take in is indicative of the present moment and changes with the course of time. It is our connection to reality. In action, both sides of the brain are always involved, but the nature of the act depends on which side is the master, that is, controls the outcome. Actions run by the right side are empathetic and reflect the situation out in the world, not inside the skull. Their choice incorporates and depends on the context of the surrounding world. The right’s acts tend to be more closely fitted to the reality that exists than do the those that rest on the abstractions stored in the left hemisphere, and lessens the likelihood of unintended consequences. Outcomes are determined by the real world, the one the right apprehends, not by the constructed world of the left. Reality always prevails, no matter what we are thinking. We get fooled much of the time, because in familiar circumstances, the left’s constructed world is close enough to reality that the intended acts do fit reasonably well.
This model, along with pieces such as Ackoff and Giddens, strongly suggests that change must come at the level of the brain. Dominance must be shifted back toward the primal right hemisphere so that we begin to care for the world of humans and nature instead of using and abusing it mainly for the left’s purposes. To avoid unintended consequences, pragmatic inquiry, run by the right hemisphere, must replace reductionism, the way the left works. Mindfulness and other right-hemisphere processes can be used to achieve the shift. My book expands upon this. Lies, confabulation, and the creation of alternate facts are the epitome of the work of the left hemisphere. Events in this vein over the past several years should make this story more easily understood and convincing.
1. Ehrenfeld, J. R. (2020). The right way to flourish: Reconnecting with the real world. Routledge.
2. Ackoff, R. L. (1981). The art and science of mess management. Interfaces, 11(1), 20–26.
3. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. University of California Press.
4. Merton, R. K. (1936). The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action. American Sociological Review, 1(6), 894-904.
5. McGilchrist, I. (2012). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world (Reprint ed.). Yale University Press.