Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rambling polemic #2

For a class in "sustainable community development" I was recently asked to reflect on the statement by Albert Einstein that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” and come up with three areas where major shifts in level-of-thought are required for human society to approach sustainability, well-being, etc....

So here's what I wrote.

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What Einstein was alluding to could be called metanoia – a term which originally denoted a change in outlook after spiritual repentance but lately has been interpreted more liberally as reaching beyond existing or conventional thought structures to a deeper understanding. (Although an element of spiritual repentance is still particularly a propos in our modern circumstances.) In this essay I will identify three areas of conventional thinking that require metanoic transformation in order for human communities and society in general to approach authentic development.

Myth #1: (more) growth will save us.

A principle “sacred cow” of Western developmentality is the dictum for economic growth as a panacea to cure all ills, social and environmental. “Sustainable growth” is the primary policy goal of all Western governments and by extension the governments of lesser-developed countries living out the legacy of colonialism and its modern analog “development.” However, “sustainable growth” is what ecological economist Herman Daly has called an impossibility theorem. (3)

Indefinite growth of the human economy is impossible on a finite planet and its pursuit attempts to flout the laws of thermodynamics and ecology. More than ample evidence exists demonstrating that for some decades running the human economy has exceeded the biophysical limitations of nature to provide energy and resources and assimilate wastes emitted by the expanding human economy. (3, 4, 7) And yet, what discussion exists in mainstream media sources regarding our extant conditions of ecological overshoot – a concept that a ten-year-old of average intelligence could easily comprehend? What politician could be elected to public office on a campaign platform of “economic shrinkage”? Is this imaginable at present?

Furthermore ample evidence exists that economic growth has not alleviated poverty as was allegedly intended at the outset of the post-war period. A 2006 report by the New Economics Foundation (8) indicated that over the past several decades, out of every $100 of growth in the global economy, a mere $0.60 on average has gone to the people at the “bottom of the pyramid.” It is intuitive that rich individuals, corporations, and countries stand to gain the most from economic growth as they are in the best position to capture the benefits – “it takes money to make money” is a familiar nostrum. So it is not surprising that the rich of the world have pursued economic growth with the specious justification that growth will promote “the rising tide that lifts all boats,” despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

This program has led to the conflating of “development” with “growth.” So a first step in the metanoic transformation away from an economics of “development” based upon export-led growth is making a clear rhetorical distinction between the concepts of “growth” and “development.” Put simply, growth signifies quantitative increase of the material and energy throughput of the human economy; development means qualitative increase in human well-being. (3)

At this point, growth should be opposed and in fact the process of growth reversed to a steady-state level that can be physically and ecologically sustained by the bioshpere. There is no theoretical limit to development as defined as increase in well-being. However, in our current state of global ecological overshoot, policies aimed at further increasing growth directly impact well-being in a negative way by eroding the planet’s ecological life support systems. Correcting widespread misconceptions pertaining to “growth” and “development” is a first step in the metanoic shift towards implementing an economics of authentic development.

Myth #2: Urbanization is good, natural, and here to stay.

The second “sacred cow” that I would expose as a sham is the notion that the current trend in urbanization of the human population is somehow “natural,” “inevitable,” and “beneficial.”

Anyone who has spent any time in a rapidly urbanizing mega-city in Asia, Africa, or Latin America is immediately confronted with a sense of massive unfolding disaster. In Asia, where the urbanization trend is currently the strongest, inadequate infrastructure fails completely to deal with the influx tide of human bodies and the side-effects and wastes of our production and consumption. Untreated sewage flows into rivers, lakes and streams. Municipal wastes litter the landscape and leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Pollution from motor vehicles chokes the air. Over one million new people arrive in the slums and shanty-towns of urban/peri-urban areas each weak, driving up unemployment and driving down wages, increasing competition for the scarce resources of life, exacerbating overcrowding, escalating crime and violence, and generally intensifying the already hellish conditions of existence.

This process is in no way sustainable, nor is it “natural,” “inevitable,” or desirable. The vast majority of the one million people flocking to city slums each week are not choosing to do so because they long to be “modern,” or out of the “desire for a better life” as is commonly supposed by those locked into the mindset of developmentality (except perhaps as understood in the most narrow and reductionistic sense). Recent urban migrants have largely been displaced, often by force and violence, from stable rural existence by the effects of “development,” for example massive hydroelectric dam projects and gas pipelines, and by the spread of industrial (i.e. capital-, energy-, and chemical-intensive) agriculture.

But the ideas that cities are where “culture” resides, and that the “modern” effete urbanite lifestyle is natural and what ought to be emulated, are deeply entrenched in the Western developmentalist mindset. That people could be happy living rural agrarian communities with lifestyles based primarily on local production and consumption of resources is uniformly dismissed by elites – “subsistence” agriculture is everywhere denigrated; “import substitution” (i.e. local self-reliance) is a dirty word in orthodox development economics.

However, as in all cases where nothing short of a metanoic transformation will suffice to produce positive change, evidence contrary to established conventional norms is lacking or is simply ignored because it doesn’t “fit the model.” But even in the US, one of the longest and most heavily urbanized populations in the world, “the fact that most Americans live in metro areas does not mean it is because they want to live there…a recent Gallup poll asking Americans where they would prefer to live found that 24 percent wanted to live on a farm or in a rural area, with 36 percent preferring small-town life…these preferences have changed little in the last 60 years…As a result, over one-third of Americans are living in metropolitan areas even though they would prefer to live in less populated settings. The fact that the location of jobs does not match the locational preferences of people explains why more Americans don’t move to smaller cities and towns.” (1)

If people in developing countries are flocking to cities in droves, it is not because they are enthused about the “opportunities” for employment and modern enculturation that are available there. It is because their former agrarian lifestyles have been made impossible by “development.”

Lester Brown has indicated: “It is widely assumed that urbanization will continue. But this is not necessarily so. The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain urban growth. For example, some 400 cities in China are already facing a chronic shortage of water.” (2)

In October of 2007, for the first time in the history of the planet, more human beings lived in cities than in rural settings. This trend of urbanization is unsustainable and has led to disaster as city life has become drastically less desirable while becoming increasingly resource-intensive. Resettlement of rural areas and re-establishment of predominantly “subsistence” lifestyles based on sustainable use of primarily local resources is the ineluctable course towards authentic development and human well-being from our present out-of-balance state. Understanding this basic fact, however, will require an Einsteinian metanoic shift, in particular among Western educated elites who have the hardest time comprehending ideas that run counter to professional training and urbane social conditioning.

Myth #3: We need more education.

Lastly I would challenge the common orthodoxy regarding the unalloyed benefits of “education.”

[The sustainable community development class professor's] current email tagline quotes Mark Twain: “Never let school interfere with your education.” This quote affirms a basic feeling that most of us “educated” folk have that school sucks. In other words, this expresses an irony that even the highly lettered often viscerally feel that school is mainly an impediment to real learning. Why then do we so unhesitatingly affirm the provision of “education” and the building of schools as noble goals in development projects?

Funding educational programs, building schools, and in particular getting more girls and young women into the classroom currently has tremendous cachet among WWLs (wealthy white liberals), and subsequently has a “sexiness” that has not gone unrecognized by the courtiers of philanthropy. However, while there is much talk about the need for increased provision of education, there is precious little discussion of substance regarding the quality of that education, or just precisely what we are advocating be taught in these schools for developing communities.

A documentary critiquing “development” in Ladakh (5) depicts children reading Wordsworth and Shakespeare in an English-style boarding school classroom. When the filmmakers visited the home village of some of the children and were invited to dinner with their families, they became ill after eating a poison weed that the schoolchildren inadvertently picked when asked by their mothers to gather vegetables for the meal.

A generation ago this never would have happened, since all Ladakhi children, having grown up on the family farm, would easily distinguish and avoid poisonous varieties of the local vegetation. Attending far-from-home Western-style boarding schools has had the effect of supplanting Ladakhi young people’s traditional knowledge – knowledge relevant to the local social and ecological context – with forms of knowledge valued by Western institutions. This is one of the more insidious effects of developmentality – an unconscious derogation and dismissal, and thus destruction, of local and indigenous knowledge forms. And yet, the fact that most Ladakhi children now attend such boarding schools is widely touted as a success by the statisticians of “development” as they tabulate increased enrollments.

Following Aldo Leopold, we are led to ask, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”

David Orr has pointed out that “it is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read.” Orr notes that the destructive effects of globalization and development upon the climate, ecosystems, and traditional cultures, “is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” (6)

This is a clear indictment of Western globalist educational institutions, which are predicated upon the myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement – what Orr identifies as “a cultural arrogance of the worst sort, [representing] a gross misreading of history and anthropology.”

So the metanoic shift called for in education must begin with a re-envisioning of what education is for. It’s conventionally held that the purpose of education is that of giving students the means for upward mobility and “success.” Thomas Merton identified this as “the mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade.” (Merton went on to admonish his students to “be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing – success.”)

TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Much of contemporary education is comprised by a protracted cramming of all manner of disembodied facts, techniques and information (“data”) into students’ heads. Presumably this is to equip them to more effectively compete with one another and society at large in a race to accumulate status and wealth. Extension of this pedagogy to developing communities thus represents the broad-scale ensnarement even greater numbers of children and young adults into the squirrel cage as they, like us, strive for “professional success,” and to “be competitive in the global economy.” It is a likely eventuality, then, that they also will come to the conclusion that school sucks.

The metanoic shift in education thus represents a turn towards pedagogy for the development of ecological conscience and appreciation for local and indigenous knowledge systems. Education must come to be seen as a tool for students to use in the forging of their personhood, in their processes of discovery of themselves and the world, and in their understanding of their place in the greater biotic community. My experiences among the “uneducated” farming folk of South Asia suggests that they have much more to teach us than we them when it comes to redefining our educational systems around students’ development of ecological conscience, a storehouse of local knowledge, practical competence and labor skills, native intuition, and wisdom.


1.) Atkinson RD. Reversing rural America’s economic decline: The case for a national balanced growth strategy. Progressive Policy Institute, 2004. (

2.) Brown LR. The Ecology of Cities. The Globalist, 2006. (

3.) Daly, HE. Economics in a Full World. Scientific American magazine, 2005. (

4.) Global Footprint Network. September 25 is Overshoot Day 2009. (

5.) International Society for Ecology and Culture. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh (film). (

6.) Orr, D. What is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them. The Learning Revolution, 1991. (

7.) Rockstrom et al. Special Feature: A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, p. 472-475, 24 September 1990. (

8.) Woodward D and Simms A. Growth Isn’t Working. New Economics Foundation, 2006. (

1 comment:

Graham Lee Cavanagh said...

Hey Josh, I think you're right on with this one. Well written too. My girlfriend taught at a Waldorf school in Mill Valley, CA and they certainly emphasize the 'learning by doing' approach. Life skills are much more valuable than test scores and you can't eat fools gold.

We lived in San Francisco the past two years and are going to PunPun this winter. Looking forward to getting some hands on education there. You're blog has some really great accounts of what we can look forward to.


Graham & Christine