Elephants, and, Almost the Ivan Illich Moment

Last night Entrepreneurs For Sustainability sponsored a daring program, in their monthly series. Titled Sustainability and Poverty, it was the first program over 12 years of the series, that primarily focused on the larger political-economic and social ‘human system.’

I’d count myself as a student of the network-centric development aesthetic that grounds E4S’s vision in a truly humane and feminine (in the archetypal sense,) view about connecting and supporting the empowerment of idealistic and committed entrepreneurial activists. Each in their way, is focused on decreasing the resource and waste footprint of northeast Ohio’s material and energy consumption. E4S does a phenomenal job, and its leader, one of my closest friends Holly, is a masterful maven.

At the same time, I cannot endorse the so-called Triple Bottom Line, (planet-people-profits.) Nor do I engage easily with activism overwhelmingly disposed toward instrumentalism, i.e. doing, when this is severed from any critical culture whatsoever. To me, the wedding of idealism and instrumentalism, can’t help but be often yoked to a refusal to understand the larger scale systems. This lack of a critical culture comes with the territory of doers and doing. This makes sense as a concomitant to so much action: why bother with perilous contradictions found in, and at the scale of, the larger system(s)?

The program, when announced, surprised me, because its implicit reach into the zones of economic devastation, potentially contextualize sustainability in complicated and contradictory ways.

This reach begs intense questions.

And, with one exception, those freighted questions did not get raised. One surfaced in the Q&A. This question, about how large institutions geared primarily toward profits could come to the ‘page’ of sustainability, was circumvented by an astonishingly disingenuous answer by a panelist.

This is okay. E4S isn’t configured to bring critical consciousness to bear upon contradictions and challenges implicit in the larger system that its business development mission takes place within. Still, the excitement generated at the program likely had something to do with its moment of opening up to the larger system and its big questions.

If you’re wondering what those questions are, I’ll pose them as equivalent to elephants in the room.

1st elephant: People in poverty most often represent the failure of the political-economic system, and predatory–if you will–bottom lines.

2nd elephant: People in poverty in Cleveland live lifestyles unimaginable to the 1 billion people who live on $3/day or less. The point here is not the relative well-being of Cleveland’s economically disadvantaged, but that elephant #1, much more abject poverty elsewhere, is due to the most horrific consequences of profit motive, resource inequity and failures of sustainability.

3rd elephant: The stand alone “truth” of sustainability is different at the different and enlarged scales of socio-economics.

(If one is to regard and analyze the sociological/economic system that encompasses the elongated cycles of development and degradation, dynamicism of structural opportunities, disinvestment and mobility of capital, and the literal classes of longitudinal outcome at the level of household and neighborhood, city and region, one will be compelled to turn an unsparing critical eye toward the problem, or shadow of, profitable instrumentalities, these too merged with the voracious onslaught given by capitalism and consumerism.)

4th elephant: A world-wide consumer middle class, the implication of ending poverty granted by a commitment to a hyper-materialistic finance-capitalized economics, is not sustainable.

Which brings us to:

5th elephant: the resource inequities given by the furious consumerism of the 1st world and, nowadays, by the economic growth of asia and latin america. The economic devastation in NEO is not due to other causes. Follow the gold over long cycles of expansion and contraction!

This last elephant presents the problem of unsustainable growth in its starkest terms, even as the trend toward greater poverty, has been largely reversed. (Except on the continent of Africa.)

Implication of elephant #5: It’s hard to valorize the triple bottom line, AND, not run the damn numbers. But, to run the numbers is to realize how nonsensical the triple bottom line is in the first place, and at the scale of the system where the ill consequences smack in the face.

I don’t see how the problem of poverty can be dragged very far into the perspective given by the current sustainable business system, and its blinded triple bottom line. After all, that same business system is not structured to not drive people into poverty. So it is also: the triple bottom line is rendered uncritically as a development model with basically zero regard (in its instrumental scheme,) for its being also an implicate feature of predatory finance capitalism.

Ironically, there is a long tradition of thought leading, predating the sustainability movement, that zeroes in on these contradictions. Schumacher, Bookchin, nowadays Bill Mckibbon, others, and especially Ivan Illich, unpacked the weighty contradictions of capital, consumerism, resource equity, wastefulness, and the institutionalization, (and for Illich, professionalization,) of the materialistic trance.

Although E4S is hardly configured to deal with any of this, and the fascinating monthly meeting didn’t approach elephant or contradiction, nevertheless, this was the first time in 12+ years that this fine and important local collaborative experiment dared to step toward its own Ivan Illich moment.

I have no idea how sustainability advocates who aren’t aware of aging, albeit sophisticated social critiques, might either reckon with or begin to reconcile the contradictions found in the larger system. Hopefully, turning a blind eye toward the bigger system will become more and more untenable.

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One Response to Elephants, and, Almost the Ivan Illich Moment

  1. Claudio says:

    Hi Stephen
    I just went get in contact with your blog, and , in a first visit the impression it caused has been very good. What led me here was your quote on Ivan Illich – about whom I wrote my thesis – and the critical perspective you raise in these lines. Your comments on the existent traps not perceived , or not wanted to be perceived, by sustainality advocate are quite similar to mines and other authors, like Gustavo Esteva (an Illich’s personal ‘disciple’, Madhu Prakash and Wolfgang Sachs. The most impressive is how advocates do not perceive the oximoronic nature of the relationship pf the development agenda and good life (better than say sustainable life). Great post anyway, I will dig in your blog. Sorry my lack of proficience in your language. English is my third language. a hug to you from Brazil

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