Posted by: Annabel Ascher | July 1, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part VIII-The Problem of Change

The Problem of Change

Schnaiberg and Gould attempt an answer to that very question. They write, “… we remain institutionally committed to accelerating the treadmill of production, despite all our knowledge about environmental disorganization and its social consequences.” They go on to explain that.

” The short answer is that despite our cumulative knowledge and repeated challenges to the reported benefits of the treadmill, our social institutions do not perceive that there is any other way of sustaining themselves…Our modern political-economic system has many imperfections, but it’s the best that we can do .One feature of modern history  that underlies this position is that we ‘consume history’ through the treadmill, and have therefore limited awareness of historical alternatives to the modern treadmill. A second feature is that the treadmill spins of many benefits for the leaders and professionals in modern institutions, those who are important intermediaries in shaping the opinions and behaviors of many publics.”[i]


Marx said that power concedes nothing without a struggle. I would add, especially not power that has garnered the legitimacy of a religion. Especially not power that is protecting the addiction of two billion people in the developed and rapidly developing world. Especially not power that has as its delivery system a hypnotic and in itself addicting medium (television) which reinforces the short attention span and lack of historical knowledge noted above. In capitalist societies, freedom is defined as the ability to consume as much as one wants, to buy whatever one wants, and to do whatever one wants, whenever the desire strikes. The limits of nature do not allow this kind of freedom to any species, humans included. Real freedom is the freedom of thought, expression and relationship that nature allows and human dignity demands. It is exactly this freedom that television in its present form removes.

But I postulate that there are other equally strong reasons for our denial of obvious fact. Jay Forrester of M.I.T. speaks of global ecosystems as

“…high-order multiple loop non-linear feedback systems.”  He goes on to explain that

“the behavior of even third-order systems (with just three variables) is hard for humans to comprehend, so that many social/political/economic/ corporate systems, which are twentieth-order or higher, are not comprehensible to the human mind.”[ii

It should be immediately apparent that all ecosystems are high order multiple feedback loops, therefore incomprehensible to humans. Forrester goes on to explain the counter-intuitive properties of complex systems, which include the wide separation of symptoms and causes, the lack of effective ‘leverage points’ for policy makers, and the contradiction between short and long range solutions.

As to the first property, there are many ways to mystify complex social problems, and deconstructing them to the point where the lines of causation are no longer visible between issues is one of them. Benzene is pumped out here and cancer pops up over there. The experts in the environmental sector tell us to reduce re-use and recycle, and industry pounces on recycling, the least effective and most expensive of the three, virtually eliminating re-use and reduction, which both threaten the treadmill. That is mystification.

As to the third above mentioned property, the contradiction between short and long term solutions, psychologist Steve Levinson believes that our brains have a design flaw that makes long term thinking particularly difficult. We have two competing guidance systems at work, the sophisticated cerebral cortex and the reptile brain. Levine calls them the “Intelligence Based Guidance System”, and the “Primitive Guidance System” He contends that the Intelligence Based System “uses intelligence to figure out the best course of action. It’s designed to make sure we behave in accord with our well thought out conclusions about what’s best for us. In contrast, the Primitive Guidance System is vigilant, reactive, and present oriented .It’s designed to make sure that we respond immediately to threat or opportunity.” Levine continues by explaining that these two systems operate completely independently, and in case of the inevitable conflict between them, the shark-like primitive system always prevails over the ‘professor-like’ intelligent system.[iii] This explains why I sometimes eat junk food although I despise it, and why we can put thoughts of Armageddon out of our minds while chasing a living. It also explains why Steingraber’s three principles, the Precautionary Principle, The Principle of Reverse Onus, and the Least Toxic Alternative[iv] are not global law. It explains why we are not rushing to embrace Schnaiberg and Gould’s directive to reduce expectations in careers, avoid credit use, and reduce consumption.[v] Advertising has a way of overriding good intentions in that department, as it fully engages the Primitive Guidance System.


The Great Battle

Still, the rumblings of discontent are growing louder and louder. The ideological battle between the forces of the free market and those who would dismantle it is perhaps the most important in all of history. At stake is certainly the future quality of life of our children, probably the survival of the human species, and possibly the survival of life on earth. Most of the literature on this subject has a chapter at the end called “solutions” in which the authors expound on what can be done. Their suggestions are mostly very good. “Use the precautionary principle” or  “reduce consumption”, to mention two popular items on the solutions list.  However, I see two problems. One is the very structure of human brain functioning as noted above, and the other is the structure of the capitalist system itself, which now has most of the armaments needed to destroy the planet quickly through war, or more slowly through a continuation of insane economic practices. The only way to get around the guns defending capitalism is through the use of a human consciousness ill equipped for the task. Can H. sapiens evolve its brain fast enough to adapt its way out of this one? No one knows, but in the spirit of optimism I shall try to remain hopeful.

[i] Schnaiberg and Gould, Page 93

[ii] Gardner and Stern, Environmental Problems and Human Behavior, Pages 297-303

[iii] Steve Levinson and Pete Grieder, Following Through, Page 50

[iv] Sandra Stiengraber, Page 270,271

[v] Schnaiberg and Gould,  Chapter 6



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