There are times when I compel myself to withhold an astringent critique. If I’m on the ball, I can figure out how to render a sweeter critique delicately, when the circumstances call for this. Tonight presented such an occasion.
After a roundtable, leaning toward my very close friend Holly, leader of the fine local sustainability organization E4S, I posed the following thought problem:
“What if it turns out ten years from now that sustainability activists came to realize that more thinking and less activism would have been more effective than the opposite?”
The roundtable was about Sustainable Business Development and Poverty. Almost since the inception of E4S I have been making suggestions to Holly about the human (and social,) system that any business system is but a part. Now E4S has widened its context to consider the how sustainability might be positively related to poverty. This is very exciting, but having contemplated something of these relations for almost 30 years, I’ll admit there a number of astringent critiques that lay close at hand.
The above thought problem is really a type of meta-thought problem. It doesn’t regard specifics, it just provides an inversion of the current normative tendencies ‘here on the ground’ which favor instrumental activism over robust and studious “social-critical” contextualizing.
In the background, there may be lots of collaborative thinking time given over to consideration of critiques and practical system factors such as leverage points, dependencies, interdependencies, and, to more foundational aspects such as core assumptions, and, certain operational conceptions/suppositions. However, if this is going on, not much of this bubbles up into the publicized open source. And, the public dialogs are almost entirely about what needs to be done and doing.
As a movement, is sustainability often one-sided in this way?
If so, there likely are a number of reasons for this, yet the most practical reason would be that, by definition, implementation, (those activities which are manifestations of instrumentalism,) always begin in real world actualities. At least in this, the instrumentalist, so-to-speak, keenly appreciates what the current, actual social system is able to provide for, produce, and support.
However, as my thought problem proposes, there’s no self-evident reasoning that supports the bias in favor of doing, (and the bias disfavoring more cogent understanding of systems,) as being, per force, optimal. In fact, there is a strong argument able to be made that a cogent understanding of systems may turn out to be mission-critical.
Let’s suppose this kind of awareness of systems, knowledge of context, and understanding could be a high value requisite of high leverage point activism and instrumentalism.
Okay. Let’s roll poverty; better: Cleveland’s economic decline into the mix. What would you need to know about the properties of a declining system?
Now, set aside the conventional inquiry into the socio-political economy.
Consider the anthropological perspective. You might need to know about various sub-cultures; about aspirational features, about social and material culture, about affectual topologies, about social-cognitive acculturated factors, etc.. It might be key to know about dependencies already extant in embedded relations between some of these same aspects with various instrumentalities and their productive and counter-productive ramifications.
Take the affectual topology; (my coinage.) In a community where do people come together to predictably experience different kinds of emotions? In what environments are people most guarded, and most relaxed? What overt and tacit social mechanisms are used to mitigate anxiety? What purposes does congregation serve? (etc..) Do we need to know about this stuff before we can claim we have a feel for a community?
All of this, once known, allows a community to be differentiated, and, ‘read.’ To do ‘differentiation’ is to learn in effect what constitutes the medial processes of a given community, how a community negotiates itself and negotiates its wider context. How, in actuality, a community contextualizes itself.
There is also the salutary consequence: these acts of knowing, even when they are done informally, disrupt the pernicious instantiation of incorrect generalizing, and, especially, disrupt projective identification and all sorts of biases inherent in the informal estimations an imperial (or dominant,) outlook brings to bear upon their view of an inferior ‘other.’
Differentiation improves sociologically-minded social cognition. This is concerned with a counterbalancing appreciation of a community’s eros, as against an oft mechanistic logos orientation. Likewise, this balances the (logo) metrical and nomothetical with (ero) idiographic and phenomenographic learning.
Instrumentalism is wed to essentialism. Which is to point out that objectives of activism are very often ‘stood alone’ and justified as being necessary and essential. I have observed, however, the attachment of a behavioristic bias in this kind of justification.
“We’re working to change the culture and change people’s behavior.”
It would then be the case: activist intervention aims here to change behavior and culture within the context of a presumptive behavioristic social mechanics.
Given that there doesn’t today exist a coherent applied social science defined in such narrow mechanistic terms, this tendency could be situated in a completely informal apprehension of whatever system is the context for change initiatives along these lines. Alas, this is to describe a bias, not a commitment to how change actually may be practically realized.
Instrumental initiatives are said to be “all and well,” despite the lack of an articulation of deep context and any recognition of inherent biases of actors. These deficits do not prevent interventions from being at least partly or more successful. Still, it might prove valuable for change actors to have a correct estimation of what are the domains the initiative is not operating within. This alone disrupts idealization; properly locates initiatives within their instrumental domains, and deposes the tendency for the “all and well” to morph into the “be all and end all.”
In turning toward the socio-political economy, and in bringing the social production of poverty, and crucially, production of wealth, into view, the learner faces systems at different scales, on up to the planetary scale.
The modes of analysis here are also aimed at adequate differentiation of features and factors. Take the example of the problem of temporal scales in an inter-system analysis of micro economics. Roughly how to correctly reckonize the relationship between the daily aspiration for livelihood with long scale economic cycles? In Cleveland, this could mean articulating the relationship between a fifty+ year old process of deindustrialization with the nature of various underground, daily micro-economies. And this is just a stark and novel example of these kind of relations.
Call these types of disciplined investigations acts of differentiation within the entanglement of differently scaled social systems and sub-systems. The goal is awareness of systems which range from the human individual up to whatever might be ascertained to be the last scale of pertinent system.
My own opinion is that sustainability advocates should appraise all the systems up to the planetary system. But, then–downside–the learner will meet the rather giant elephants in the room!
A rejoinder to these suggestions is obvious. Am I here suggesting rolling out many rounds of disciplinary research, unleashing squads of consultants, and trying to build a cumbersome intellectual engine out of all the findings?
No. Actually, I’m usually a proponent of not doing so. Rather, it seems much more worthwhile to build the analytic chops of the activist–he or she. My experience suggests this is a more expedient method than waiting to learn what the experts have come up with.
It’s also about praxis, about enacting what could well be a transformative realization about what is really the human context of the learner-activist.
So, this kind of transformative self-development of the activist, in their becoming much more systems-aware, is also a deeper methodology than pitching dimes at an army of credentialed experts.
But then I’m a big exponent of people coming to be emanticipated by the experiential actualization of their natural ability to become much better learners and readers of their own context, and of the social web. Hey, this is my own falutin’ prejudice–favoring more soulfulness!
Still, given those elephants, I would strongly suggest that it is incumbent upon sustainability activists to more fully develop their systems awareness, especially along the line of eros, especially in the reach toward the heart of matters.