baby steps

I subscribe to a lot of stuff, but two list-serves stand out: SCORAI and GTI. The first is an acronym for Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative. SCORAI, founded in 2008, is an international knowledge network of researchers and practitioners committed to advancing sustainability by focusing on societal patterns of consumption. SCORAI recognizes that technological innovation alone is insufficient to achieve sustainability; changes are required in societal institutions, cultures, and economic systems. SCORAI’s mission is to facilitate a transition to a more sustainable society by generating knowledge that impacts discourse and supports change agents.

The second, The Great Transition Initiative, is an online forum of ideas and an international network for the critical exploration of concepts, strategies, and visions for a transition to a future of enriched lives, human solidarity, and a resilient biosphere. By enhancing scholarly discourse and public awareness of possibilities arising from converging social, economic, and environmental crises, and by fostering a broad network of thinkers and doers, it aims to contribute to a new praxis for global transformation.

I have emphasized the reference to change in both. Both of these networks are composed of a large group of globally-diverse researchers and thinkers concerned about the present state of the world and focused primarily on institutional or cultural change as the way to move forward. While technology may be involved, neither group believes that technology, alone, can make much of a dent in the problematic aspects of modern life. These two organizations/networks are just a small sample of similar groups worldwide calling for change.

In a nutshell, the point I want to make is that none of these calls for change goes deep enough. Capitalism or socialism or any other ism is not going to save the Planet or remedy the growing social wrongs. All the isms are based on a model of both the planetary system and the political economy as machines, complicated for sure, but reducible to analytic representations. All arise from a left-brain way of thinking. Some progress in human terms and alleviation of the stresses being placed on the planet may ensue from changing the models being used to design cultural life, but it is just as likely, perhaps more-so, that the unintended consequences that will certainly accompany any such reductionist paths, will overwhelm the potential improvement or progress.

For those of you who have been following my blog and recent work, you will not be surprised when I claim that the root cause of our failures to realize “progress” either from deliberate policy-driven change or from the laissez-faire working of the present capitalistic, market economy can be traced to the way our brains work. As I have learned from Iain McGilchrist and write about in my forthcoming book, our woes come from a dominance of the left-brain hemisphere over the right. The result is an excessive reliance on analytic, theoretical frames for our problems and for the solutions to them. A second consequence is the materialization and quantitation of human nature and values.

As smart as our species has become through our scientific knowledge, we are not smart enough to deal with the now extraordinarily complex world that Planet Earth has become. For many reasons, as population grows and global forces connect everyone, the system has become, as expected, more rigid and less resilient. Complex systems behave in strange, unpredictable ways, and are subject to irreversible changes. Think mass extinctions and global climate change. This reality argues for a different frame for understanding the world and for intervening effectively to attain our human aspirations and potential, that is, by my definition, to flourish.

That frame is pragmatism, learning what works by trial and error, but thoughtful trial and error. Given the inherent complexity of today’s world, small changes, based on the wisdom of those who care deeply about the future of humans and other life on Earth, are the way to go. But with the direction of change aimed at restoring the mastery of the right-brain hemisphere, that is, the side that cares. Care is essential as the primary, underlying force. Care arises from actions arising from the right hemisphere, the source of connection and empathy. Although taking care generally requires material objects, care, itself, is immaterial and qualitative. It is not, as is our present materialistic culture, limited by the resources given to us by Planet Earth.

This change from the cool, analytic left to the caring, compassionate right is not something that we can measure in terms of any cost-benefit calculation, but we will certainly try to. This challenge epitomizes the dilemma we are in. Most of the wealth and power in today’s world rests in modern cultures that are left-brain dominated and literally see and think about the world through its functions. We can “know” that our societal machines are not performing as they need to be, but we are thrown, as are precious pieces of pottery, to find solutions only among those that fit into the very same molds we are trying to escape from.

For example, if it were not so serious, the “originalist” theory now being woven into the fabric of our highest courts would be laughable. Today’s problems need a clear-eyed view of their source, including as much of their context as can be gathered. Only the right-brain can do this. The left, the one that works on the basis on theories and isms, is doomed to miss aspects that surround the reality that has made whatever is being considered into a problem of the present, not the past.

I believe that we have a way out of our troubles. It is to re-master our individual and collective brain’s right hemisphere, but via a pragmatic course of action. The first step is to recognize that every human being is interconnected to both all other life and inanimate parts of the Planet. The second is to reverse the arrow of our actions from inward or self-serving to taking care of the other, the objects, living or not, that inhabit our consciousness. We do need to take care of ourselves, as well, but not out of the innate selfishness that underpins the models that run modern political economies.

Small steps in this direction can be taken by individuals and also by institutions, but any such actions need to fit the context, not dictated by some formula or theory. Mistakes will certainly be made, but can be used to made adjustments that are more successful. Many individual actions are pragmatically-driven, but unrecognized as such. We know that learning from experience is important, but are reluctant to follow that path in institutional settings for fear of being publicly scorned.

I cannot promise that this pragmatic program, based on care, will bring sufficient change to outweigh the forces that are tearing apart our world’s today. I cannot even offer guesses as to the probability of success. If I could, my suggestion would have to be based on some theory, and that would oppose the very ground of pragmatism. I have learned, in complex situations, to speak about possibility, not probability. And in this obviously complex world, the program I am suggesting is the only one is sight with a possibility of producing the world I would want for my grandchildren and their own future progeny. It will take at least that long.