07 May 2007

Reconsidering Sustainability

The contemporary concept of sustainability came into existence because someone realized that human life depends on limited material resources. If we squander the resources that our life depends on then we will die. All the material resources that are ever going to be available to us are on the planet already. The only real question is how we use what we have already got. But let’s take the sustainability dilemma one step further and consider the possibility that there is one single resource that determines exactly how we humans will manage all other resources and that that resource is also in short supply. That most fundamentally important limited resource is attention. Death, sleep and the limitations of our body’s perceptual abilities are the inevitable boundaries that transform how you pay attention from a mundane personal decision into one that will determine the fate of our world.

What you direct your attention towards and how much attention you invest in the few things you can actually attend to will determine the choices you make. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Do you invest your precious attention in pursuing goodness, truth, beauty, and unity or do you invest your attention in addictive consumption, distracting entertainments, momentary indulgences, and divisive arguments? How we are collectively supporting each other in the use of our attention is the true issue of sustainability.

The most broadly accepted definition of sustainability is meeting the needs and wants of people of the current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for future generations to meet their needs and wants. Thus a proper understanding of sustainability requires answers to three questions:

1. What are resources?

2. How do we account for their use?

3. What is their potential for use in the future?

Consider “Resources”

re·source n. (Dictionary.com)

  1. Something that can be used for support or help: The local library is a valuable resource.
  2. An available supply that can be drawn on when needed. Often used in the plural.
  3. The ability to deal with a difficult or troublesome situation effectively; initiative: a person of resource.
  4. Means that can be used to cope with a difficult situation. Often used in the plural: needed all my intellectual resources for the exam.

    1. resources The total means available for economic and political development, such as mineral wealth, labor force, and armaments.
    2. resources The total means available to a company for increasing production or profit, including plant, labor, and raw material; assets.
    3. Such means considered individually.

The sustainability movement has, thus far, been primarily focused on the flows of natural material resources, such as oil, coal, water, minerals, etc. that are used to produce our abundant first-world lifestyles. When we produce something, the production process may preserve nearly all, some or none of the recognizable features of the original material substance.

When we use milk as a resource to bake a chocolate cake, there are no visibly recognizable features of the original milk in the resulting cake. When we think of milk we are thinking of a white liquid with a particular flavor and consistency and nearly all traces of those central features are absent in a chocolate cake. On the other hand, there have been artists who found objects, put them in an art gallery, and called it art. The only feature of the object that was changed was the context in which the object was placed. The intended transformation was merely spatial and categorical, thus the objects in question went from being junk to becoming art without being materially transformed at all. There can be an infinite span of gradations in between these to extremes of how recognizable the original materials are at the end of a production process.

The question of sustainability is not how to cease producing altogether, the question of sustainability is how to continue to produce the means for surviving, and better yet thriving, such that we also preserve the valuable qualities of our humanity and the natural world in the process. Thus we need to account for the qualities of ourselves and the world before, as well as during and after the production processes that we use to survive and thrive.

Accounting for resources is traditionally an exclusively materialistic and economic practice. The idea is quite simple, count how much you’ve got, exchange what you have for something more valuable, then count it all again to make sure you don’t lose anything. The problem is when the counting does not include the qualities that really matter. If you only count the money you paid for the oranges you bought and then compare that to the amount of money you got for selling your apples, then you may end up with a profit, but you may have lost a great deal. If your apples were produced by a local organic farmer in Washington State but the oranges were grown by a global corporate agri-business that pollutes the water and air, degrades the soil, and exploits workers, then the equation does not reflect the real values that were exchanged.

The basis of our current corporate-governed economy is measuring everything in terms of money, and entirely ignoring human values and the living systems in which we are embedded. This is obvious to those who take the sustainability issue for granted. The question is how to overcome this accounting problem. This is where considering attention as the key resource that needs to be managed can help.

What is attention as a resource?

The product that we create from attention is experience. The raw materials we have to work with include: our brains, the activity of the neural networks of our brains interacting with each other and the rest of our body, and by extension the interactions between our body and the world. Attention is the selective illumination and synthesis of raw complex informational material such that some aspects become experience, whereas other aspects of the raw information remain in the dark and are thus ignored. The cognitive sciences have shown that information is a crucial constituent of what we mean by attention, and, by the very act of calling attention to the concept of, say, “an elephant” we transform the activity of the neural networks that embody the information that encode “elephant” concepts into something completely different; recalling previous experiences of the concept “elephant” and a variety of concepts that are linked to that concept. “Elephant” was illuminated by our activating just the right neural structures.

When I activate the concept of “Elephant” in you, like the milk in a chocolate cake, there are no recognizable features of the original raw material in the final product. There are no traces of our neural networks in the experiences they produce for us. On the other hand we can see that there are distinct patterns to the experiences that result from the lighting system we call attention. As a way to examine the patterns it is useful to start with our shared biological heritage. By looking at the patterns that are possible then we can begin to formulate ways to account for the resources and begin to understand the potential for future uses.

Daniel Dennett has written about an interesting thought experiment known as the Library of Babylon. This is the library of all the possible combinations of our alphabetic language. It is a vast library and is mostly filled with completely meaningless combinations of letters, however for the sake of my argument let’s impose some organization on it and gather together all the possible books that would be grammatically correct in English. This is still a vast library that would include not only the complete works of Shakespeare, but also all the possible adaptations and variations. Consider one volume in particular, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in which they are a couple of young executives in rival multi-national corporations in the near future and Romeo sends Juliet a text message from his cell phone that says, “Wassup ;-)” Now, despite the dubious artistic value of such an adaptation this variation is plausible and would easily qualify as a potentially real example of a modernization of the original. What makes it interesting in the current discussion is the fact that this particular example of a combination of letters and punctuation in English is that it was not a valid potential combination at some time in the past. Shakespeare would not know what to make of it, nor would many grandparents today. The validity of this string is a consequence of the heritage we have created for our children, specifically the internet and/or cell phone texting.

One alternative accounting scheme that has been proposed is a “triple bottom line” that includes economic, social and environmental accounts. This is a great leap forward for businesses and organizations, but it does not help us directly to deal with the moment-to-moment decisions about what to do with ourselves and more to the point what to focus attention on. When I die will I be able to reflect on my life in that single moment and know that my impact was positive? Not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line. As I drift off to sleep tonight will I know that my day was spent productively? Not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line. In the very next moment do I know that I have made the world a better place? Certainly not if I have to calculate a triple bottom line.

So, what indicators can I look for to indicate whether I have truly made a positive contribution in my life, or just today? I suggest three primary indicators: have I earned rich rewards from the investments of my attention, have I played a significant role in co-authoring interesting stories from my life’s circumstances, and have I engaged with and provided enjoyment to others through the games I’ve played throughout my life?

How can we account for attention?

Accounting for attention as a resource can be accomplished in several ways. First, we can discern the relative increase or decrease in the quality of our states of mind. We can also discern the relative efficiency by which we attain the goals we set for ourselves. If we are at a location in narrative space and we want to get to another location we can discern whether or not we get there. If we repeatedly make similar journeys we can compare the journeys to determine how we are improving or diminishing our efficiency. We can also assess how many people join us in the game(s) we pursue. The more people who join in the more likely the game is to persist where persistence is a fair indicator of success.

The returns on attentional investment can more precisely indicated by increases in cognitive order, cognitive complexity, purpose, optimism, agency and cooperation, thus there are particular regions of experiential space that provide greater opportunities than others.

But the most accessible indications are simply whether you have successfully enjoyed your engagement with the Other. Have you confronted your fears, limitations, enemies or challenges in ways that lead to further engagement or have your confrontations lead to disengagement? Do you have a deeper understanding and more intimate connection than before, or are you increasing the distance and staying safely at the shallow edges of your relationships? All the spiritual and wisdom traditions that I am aware of point to these kinds of questions as some of the most relevant assessments of an individual life.

What is the potential for future uses of attention?

The idea of attentional investment is implicitly a personal one, therefore it raises the question of how my individual decisions about the investment of my attention are going to affect the future choices that are available in generations to come. Freedom and truth are at the heart of the issue. If we accept the idea that we are radically free to choose literally any content for our consciousness, then the obligation to pass on certain attentional investment strategies, stories and games is less compelling. However, we are not radically free, we are constrained in some ways and the constraints are a necessary component of the continuity of social systems and human interactions. This is where truth enters into the picture. Truth as it is being understood through the lens of cognitive linguistics is the measure of how well our representations match our reality as we understand that reality to be. If we can continuously delve into deeper and deeper understandings of reality then we continuously raise the bar of truth. While we can never fully represent reality, we can continuously engage with reality to discover ever more intimate details. If we can learn the truth and live freely within the inherent limitations that our individual notions of truth impose then our children will arrive in a world that inherently pushes them to overcome the illusions they inherit and discover some of the illusions they choose for themselves. The best we can do is to create conditions in which truth is valued and pursued. If we succeed then children will be joining a game played in the field of inquiry, they will learn the stories of the pursuit of truth and they will learn the strategies that have paid the largest dividends for those who invested their attention wisely.

We are co-creating the conditions in our world that we bring our children into and we know that eventually those conditions will allow them to create some kind of world without us. The conditions we are creating today will give them some opportunities and deny them others. The question of sustainability is whether or not we are creating conditions that may ultimately destroy survival as an opportunity for our children. If we continue to squander our children’s attention on a world that is isolated, impoverished, undemocratic, and unhealthy then we condemn them to a future of diminishing opportunities. I am ashamed to think that I might pass from this world leaving a legacy of ever increasing poverty, pollution, greed, crime, misery, and ultimately self-destruction. If, on the other hand, we can wisely invest children’s attention in creatively engaging with the world and support them to look ever more deeply beyond what we know to be true, then that’s a world I would be proud to introduce them to and I think they could be proud to introduce to their own children.

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