I met with a class of Dartmouth undergraduates this week to discuss my book, which had been assigned to them in their environmental studies course. As part of the assignment, the Professor asked each to formulate a question for me and say why that question was important. Most of the questions accepted the major premises of Flourishing, but criticized the book for its lack of pathways to get there. Point accepted. I think the direction for action is there but I have been reluctant to spell out out detailed “solutions.” Giving answers is counter to the basic arguments I make against the application of expertise coming from “experts.” Flourishing arises out of the complex planetary system when the interconnected human and natural nodes are interacting such that little or no unsustainable unintended consequences are being generated and the predominant character of each binary link is that of caring. The directionality of the arrow representing the action goes from the actor toward the target of his or her intentionality. How this is to be done must come from each actor, not from some theoretical solution coming from a technical expert.
Now having excused myself from the answers, I will offer some thoughts to help get individuals to grab the reins. I continue to hone the essential belief structure of a flourishing world: the beliefs that have the power to usher in a new social paradigm, one that both avoids producing significant, unintentional levels of unsustainability and also creates the possibility of flourishing. Two alternate beliefs must replace the ones that lie at the base of our modern cultural structure–the ones underlying our institutions and their norms. The first is to replace positive, reductionist science as the primary model for knowing how parts of a mechanical world works with a pragmatic approach to understanding the complex “real” world system in its holistic entirety. The second is to replace the predominant economistic model of human behavior based on need with one based on care as the essential driver for human being.
In both cases, little change will occur until some kind of tipping point is reached and new institutions spring up to replace the old. New paradigms build slowly until they become legitimated by a predominance of those holding authoritative power. They have to prove their mettle in solving the intractable problems that triggered an interest in change in the first place. Only then will those maintaining the old structures of belief and authority allow the new ideas to take hold. Scientific theories tend to persist for a while until new paradigmatic beliefs, like quantum mechanics, are bought by the establishment of scientific peers.
Cartesian reductionist science is so deeply embedded in the institutions that produce knowledge about the world and apply it to societal problems and technological innovation that the tipping point seems a long way off. Academic institutions are tightly structured around a reductionistic model of disciplines and sub-disciplines, each one with a privileged way of describing a small part of the world. Successful attempts at instilling inter- or trans-disciplinarity focused on understanding complexity are few and far between. The outcomes of inquiries following anything but doctrinaire scientific methodology are rarely considered as legitimate chunks of knowledge. The same privileged position of positive knowledge can be found in almost all forms of collective decision-making in both the public and private sectors.
The consequence of this embeddedness of rationality and positive science is that change to hold complexity as the dominant world system characteristic will come very slowly and will require collective action to happen. There is much that can and should be done here, but the more promising avenue for change lies in the other baseline belief, care. Care, as a feature of our species, shows up in individual actions and, as such, can be exhibited without the need for collective action. If care becomes dominant, our institutions will evolve to reflect this. The individual nature of care does not mean that it is easy: existing societal institutions pressure individuals to act primarily out of need. These institutions and their norms lead to inauthentic behavior. We act most of the time without thinking why; we are merely following the crowd. We do what “they” say is right.
Care is a sign of authentic human behavior. Authentic actions come from consciousness of our selves and represent who we really are. Care follows a realization that we are connected to whatever shows up in our consciousness of the world and that our well-being and integrity (wholeness) depends on how we include the other in our everyday life. The “other” here is anything or anybody that we become conscious of and direct our attention to. We are so habituated to act out of need, a focus on ourselves as needy, that a shift to authentic caring requires that we stop and reflect before acting until our habits change from satisfying need to taking care of the other. We have a dual identity when we care for ourselves. We are both the actor and the intended target, the other, at the same time.
Flourishing emerges when all those we are connected to, including ourselves, bask in an aura of satisfaction, a sense of momentary completeness, a consciousness that all the domains that require caring are complete. This aura has been described as “flow,” a feeling we are moving with the flow of existence, in tune with the world. Unlike complexity that takes institutional change to address, individuals can begin to care on their own. Everyone will find the way to fit their uniqueness, but a few general steps might help the process along.
The first is to develop a competence for reflection, the ability to notice where you are in the world, and guess why you are acting as you are. Reflection occurs out of the stream of action so you must learn to stop and create breakdowns (interruptions) in the normally transparent way we behave. Reflection allows you to replace a mindless action that springs from your embeddedness in the culture with something coming from you authentic self. Some view the process of breakdown and reflection as a means to explicate the story that underpins the way one acts. Only if you recognize the story that is driving you can you create a new story representing the who you want to be. It is always going to be a struggle, but you have enough existential freedom to adopt your own being to make it work.
The next important skill is that of empathy. Some cognitive scientists have argued that our brains include “mirror” neurons that allow us figuratively to read the mind of others so we can respond to their situation without explicitly inquiring, “How are you doing?” Although empathy is an emotion we all are born with, it has dwindled and withered in the individualistic, narcissistic culture we are immersed in. We currently have a kind of societal autism, but unlike developmentally impaired individuals, we can retrain ourselves more easily. We can discover other people’s inner state of completion by simply asking them, and act accordingly. Empathy requires that we suspend our judgment and act out of care for them, not from some other emotion like guilt or another culturally generic action. Empathy demands a strong sense of connection and a context that is full of clues. People should be wary when trying to act empathetically (caring) via all the social media that serve to connect people today. Adam Smith had it right about the invisible hand for a while, but lost it when he shifted from the notion that the fundamental human trait driving human behavior was empathy (care) to greed (need). Just imagine what the world might be like if we had constructed our political economies on that foundation.
For non-human others, the challenge is greater because we cannot ask them how they assess their immediate existence. We have to fall back on our understanding of what makes the world work as a complex, interconnected system. We cannot design and justify our actions on some sort of cost-benefit calculus. In this domain (non-human), individual caring and the collective process of understanding the complex world form a tightly intertwining mesh. We rely on our collective understanding to inform our actions. We must overcome the separateness that normal science creates by its methodology that places us outside of the world. In other places I have written and will continue to write about pragmatism as the proper collective means of acquiring understanding of complex systems and taking action towards them.
Caring depends on being conscious of and valuing connections. We must be deliberate about becoming competent in recognizing our interconnectedness routinely. If we do not, we will continue to act as if each of us were the only thing in the world that matters; believing that everything out there exists as means to satisfy our needs. We can move this process along by spiritual practices that open us to connections to both entities in the material world and in the mysterious, transcendent “world” that we sense, but differently from our normal sensual perceptions.
I believe that everything I have written here could be collapsed into a single thought, act out of love for the world. This means to accept that you are connected to everything and that all others, human and non-human, legitimately exist and have the same right to be cared for. Love for the complex world may appear to be a paradoxical idea. It appears selfish because there is an “I” at the center of action designed to produce individual flourishing, but unselfish because actions are aimed at the interconnected, outside world. In reality, this apparent paradox is a result of the nature of complexity. When all of the individual parts otf the system are working right (flourishing), other systemic qualities emerge. In this case, these would include sustainability, resilience, justice, trust, and others we have being seeking since antiquity.