05 July 2005

Discerning Right Action: Towards Contextual Sustainability

How can I discern right action? Is it possible to develop a fundamental framework for evaluating action, a moral framework, that transcends my cultural and personal idiosyncratic biases? Accepting that the current modes of global human action are not sustainable, then how can I reasonably judge the actions that are proposed to remedy the situation?

Consider the moral dilemma of creating sustainable hospitals. If you strip away all the humanity of a hospital you have an ecological disaster. Hospitals in the United States produce immense amounts of toxic material, generate large quantities of other types of waste, and constantly consume vast amounts of energy for lighting and all the technology they employ. It is a very brave soul indeed who would ever suggest that saving an abstraction like environmental resources could ever be more important than providing a woman giving birth to her first born child the very best possible medical care. Yet, if we take sustainability as a moral imperative then this kind of dilemma arises when the models for sustainability do not take into account how our complex social, cultural and personal needs interact with the needs of the larger environment in which they are situated.

I have been fascinated by The Natural Step as a model for global human sustainability for quite some time. The Natural Step presents four simple, scientificaly based principles, or system conditions, that work together as a framework for judging the sustainability of uses of material resources. In the context of The Natural Step a system condition is a pattern of system behavior that must, by definition, lead to the destruction of the system. The system in question is global humanity and the framework addresses human utilization of global material resources within the ecosphere. Based on these principles many organizations have been able to make substantial gains in their ability to maximize the value they extract from the resources they have invested in and at the same time lessened their negative impacts on the ecologies within which they are embedded.

Just recently I had an inspiration that the idea of system conditions might be usefully applied across all the scales of magnitude that we humans are centrally concerned with. Essentially, the scales of magnitude that I am referring to are the major holonic levels that make up, and have significant impact upon, our lives. The idea is to create a set of meta-moral precepts, normative statements that, if true, must underlie all other moral considerations. This assumes that all morality should ultimately be concerned with sustaining life, particularly human life, thus all actions that can ultimately destroy human life must be immoral.

The beauty of a system conditions approach is that it will provide the widest latitude for positive dynamic expression. Rather that prohibiting specific actions, it provides evaluative criteria that will remain constant across the vagaries of time, space, and culture. Within a system conditions model that accounts for more than merely the global resources the paradox of the resource intensity of a technologically sophisticated hospital can be put into proper perspective. This is perhaps a one of the only valid applications of science to morality.

While the foundations of The Natural Step model are relatively well established, the principles I propose for other levels are inevitably going to be controversial, but the exploration of the question is ultimately worthwhile.

The quest begins by developing a deeper way of understanding The Natural Step principles and then using that insight to form the basis for extending the model logically. I found that the meta-framework that Fritjof Capra used in his book The Web of Life meets the challenge quite nicely. Capra proposes to understand complex systems, like living systems, by integrating conceptions of the three fundamental aspects of structure, pattern, and process. His book is devoted to developing an understanding of life as the unified interactions of dissipative structures, cognitive processes, and autopoietic (self-making) patterns.

When looking at the four system conditions I propose that the first condition, that substances from the earth's crust cannot systematically accumulate in the ecosphere, is a structural condition. According to one theory of early life, for billions of years the Earth's crust has been used as a toxic waste dump by the aerobic life forms that evolved when the original anaerobic life forms essentially poisoned themselves into obscurity with their own metabolic waste, oxygen. We humans, on the other hand, have been working very hard to dig up a whole bunch of those environmentally isolated materials (copper, lead, mercury, etc) in order put a few to new uses. Unfortunately we were not aware, originally, that some of those materials and the by-products of our methods of removing them are extremely toxic. And now that we are aware, some of us are too interested in our nice things to make a fuss about stopping something that’s been going on so profitably and for such a long time (as long as the mess isn’t in our own backyard.)

The second system condition, that substances made by society cannot systematically accumulate in the ecosphere, is a pattern condition. The pattern of distribution of the substances society makes has to be consistent with the pattern that allows life to survive. The pattern that has sustained life is one in which there is no waste. In nature everything that might be considered a waste product for one organism is food for another, thus at the level of the whole system the only waste is the heat we dissipate into space. We, unfortunately, have created a vast amount of stuff that does not yet fit into this pattern.

The third condition, that the productive capacity of the planet cannot be systematically diminished, is a process condition. The only input to our planet is solar radiation and the only way that input becomes productive is through photosynthesis. Thus, if we decimate the forests and other highly diverse ecosystems that provide the vast majority of the planet’s photosynthetic processing capacity then we will cut off the productive capacity for Earth's systemic ability to maintain a relatively stable temperature in spite of increased solar output.

Thus we are left with the final system condition, which says that we have to make fair and efficient use of resources for meeting human needs. This condition is the odd man out because it does not actually address the ecosphere nor present a need that is really relevant beyond our species. Thus I felt that it was better understood as an indicator that there is another level that was necessary to analyze in order to gain a full understanding of what is implied by “fair and efficient” and “human needs.” Originally I thought to call this one a pseudo-condition, but instead chose to call it a contextual condition. It is not false, as the pseudo prefix might imply. It is perfectly true, but the condition is one that can only be met by looking at the context within which the other system conditions are met, society.

I did not have a ready model of societal system conditions, but I adapted the work of my friend Sharif Abdullah, founder of The Commonway Institute and author of the book Creating A World That Works For All. In his work with Sarvodaya, the Sri Lankan peace organization, and in his orientation to the Common Society Movement, he proposes to understand society as the unified interactions of consciousness, economics and power (aka. politics.) I have taken the liberty of adapting some of Sharif’s insights into system conditions and assigned the three aspects of society to the three aspects of systems. I also formulated a contextual condition that points to my own work. I subsequently reformulated my own work to conform to the idea of three system conditions and one contextual condition at what I call the communal level to cover the small group level of our early evolutionary history in tribal and familial situations. An individual subsistence level seemed appropriate then I finished the model off with reformulations of Capra’s definition of life as system conditions for the cellular level with a contextual condition that points to the need for Robert’s Natural Step. Here is a graphical representation of the resulting model along with the set of 15 system conditions (1,2,3…15) and five contextual conditions (A, B, C…E).

I. Ecosphere: Karl Heinrich Robert's Natural Step
1. Take: Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
2. Make: Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
3. Maintain: The physical basis for productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished.
A. Fair: Fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.
II. Sociosphere: Sharif Abdullah's Philosophy of Inclusivity
4. Affiliate: Enemy thinking must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
5. Consume: The gap between rich and poor must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
6. Conflict: Violence must not systematically increase in the sociosphere.
B. Positive: Positive relationships must be supported with regard to meeting community needs.
III. Communosphere: Don Berg's Thrival
7. Lead: Behavioral prohibitions must not systematically increase in the communoshpere.
8. Manage: The mutual exclusivity of meeting members complex human needs (Max-Neef) must not systematically increase in the communoshpere.
9. Attend: Self determination must not systematically diminish in the communoshpere.
C. Optimal: Access and opportunities for achieving optimal states of mind with regard to meeting individual needs.
IV. Psychosphere: Subsistence
10. Nourish: Supplies of air, food, and water must not be systematically contaminated.
11. Protect: Threats to physical and emotional safety must not systematically increase in the psychosphere.
12. Love: Affective connections must not systematically decrease in the psychosphere.
D. Attentive: Flexibility and intelligence with regard to meeting cellular needs.
V. Biosphere: Fritjof Capra's Definition of Life
13. Transform: The activities and eliminative functions of cells must not be systematically blocked.
14. Generate: The cycles of metabolism and cellular production must not be interrupted.
15. Commune: The communion between an organism and its environment must not be systematically diminished.
E. Stable: Stability with regard to environmental chemical and climatic conditions.

{Please forgive the large file size. For best viewing I suggest you download the image and open it in a graphics or photo viewing program in which you can zoom in and out.}

So, how does this help with the question of right action?

Assuming that morality is ultimately about the perpetuation of life, earthly life, human life, social life, communal life and my life (to span from the general to the specific), then a moral enterprise must have some way of distinguishing good from bad. What the system conditions approach does is establish criteria for making reasonable discernment of badness. It does not, however, define any reasonable criteria for the good, but we can get to that later. Given the current state of the world I believe it is more important to determine a reasonable standard for our truly self-destructive behaviors as distinguished from the merely unpopular ones.

Consider the example of the hospital. How do we balance the needs of a new born and her mother with the needs of the environment? The Natural Step only points out that the meeting of human needs should be fair and efficient. But how are we thinking about needs and fairness? These are issues that are tricky, but with an appropriate set of system conditions that account for all of the embedded systems that must be addressed then we can begin to get more insight into the issues. We can begin to re-design systems at all levels to accommodate the broadest possible set of concerns knowing that we can make a broad variety of choices that will effectively avoid total global, social, cultural and personal disasters.

There is no easy answer, but by collectively addressing the issue within the system conditions we can be confident that we will not kill ourselves inadvertently or unnecessarily. That is the one consistent conclusion that I have reached throughout my work; we have to meaningfully include as many people as possible in the process of choosing how to productively address all of the massive, seemingly intractable, problems that we face. If we can come to some reasonable agreement on the most fundamental system conditions for all five levels of our human existence (thus defining the most fundamental evils to be avoided) then we are well on our way toward also facilitating the discovery of a diversity of local, regional, national, as well as global methods for effectively choosing right action.

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