John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.
He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)
This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):
Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.
This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.
Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):
Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.
Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:
Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.
The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.
Dealing with Complexity
Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):
The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .
A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .
A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.
There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)
Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):
If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.
This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’
Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):
Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.
For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.
It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):
In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.
Combining Pragmatism and Principle
It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.
The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.
At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):
Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.
He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):
As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks..
Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.
His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):
I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.
It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.
But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts. He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:
‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.
‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’
I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:
The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.
I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.