Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

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Divided We Fall

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Divided_we_fall

HERE’s my take on the ‘state of the union’ as we appear to be headed towards another 10 years (at least) of war: Our domestic politics is nothing more than a lot of highly circumscribed but fierce battles being fought by indignant special interests, and equally indignant groups that oppose them: gay marriage, Obama-care, fracking, etc.

Now if I were gay, sick and poor, living amidst fracking, etc., no doubt I would have similarly strong feelings about these issues. That’s normal human nature. And all of these are, in any case, legitimate social issues we should be trying to address. BUT the reality is that we are ALL being hurt MORE by having a failed society generally than by any one of these issues, or even by all of them put together!

It’s a matter of priorities. Things will get worse for everyone UNTIL more people place social unity and the ‘bonds of mutual affection’ AHEAD of these more limited interests.

“I demand gay marriage! And immediately! And everything else must come to a standstill until I’m satisfied!”
Why?
“Because I want my rights!”
Why?
“Because I deserve to be happy!”
Certainly. But would having gay marriage, but all other conditions unchanged, produce happiness?
“Well, I might be happier, relatively!”
Would it reduce the cost of living, create more jobs, end war, cure cancer, solve the environmental catastrophe, improve schools?
“No.”
Would you be happy, gaily married, if all these other problems remain unsolved; or would it be more likely you’d experience the same ambient level of unhappiness, malaise, discontent, poverty, frustration, ill-health, stress, pessimism, and near-despair as those who are heterosexually married or single evidently experience today?
“In honesty, the latter.”
Another question. Which would be better? (1) To substitute “civil union with the same rights as marriage” for “gay marriage” as an acceptable, if perhaps temporary, compromise, but with the results of achieving national unity and ending war; or (2) to have “gay marriage”, disunity, and perpetual war?
“The former, of course.”
Can we end war, or solve any of the other desperately urgent social problems already mentioned, without greater social unity?
“It would seem most unlikely.”
But if we were to achieve social unity, would it be likely we could solve these problems?
“There’s a good chance.”
And is it *possible* to achieve social unity?
“I don’t see why not. It seems in human nature to do so.”
If everyone placed as their *highest* social priority the achievement of unity, without abandoning their commitment to their individual interests, do you think it could happen?
“Seems likely.”
“Yet I must ask: why do you choose gay marriage as your example to illustrate this principle?”
Partly the choice is arbitrary. And partly because it seems to me that, unlike these other issues, the whole essence of “gayness” involves love and affection; so that, on the assumption that gay people have love and affection more salient in their minds generally, they should more readily grasp the importance of unitive, communal love.

united-we-stand~ * ~

The Two Meanings of Zeitgeist

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Zeit-Geist

The word zeitgeist has lately come to be identified with a movement and ideology associated with a rejection of corporatism and globalization, and a return to a more sustainable way of life.  ‘Zeitgeist’ is a compound of two German words, zeit, which means time, and geist, which means spirit.  In its more common sense today, and the sense associated with the modern movement, it means a spirit of the times, i.e., a prevailing mind-set, attitude or set of values.  Thus, we might say that in the Reagan era (1980-88), the zeitgeist was one of entrepeneurism and economic growth; and in the 60’s, it was associated with “peace, love, and Woodstock.”

Another, older meaning of zeitgeist, less common today, is that of a literal Spirit of Time.  That is, a metaphysical entity —  a Spirit, Angel, Genius, or God’s Providence — is thought of as having a plan for human history, and directing the course of human events.

A minor point, but one not entirely insignificant, is that word in the former sense is a common noun, which would ordinarily be written uncapitalized, i.e., zeitgeist.  In the latter sense, however, the word is a proper noun, and is written Zeitgeist or Zeit-Geist.

It is fairly evident that when people today talk about the Zeitgeist Movement, they are using ‘zeitgeist’ in the former, i.e., non-metaphysical sense.  My point here is that I think people should question this, and give more consideration to the relevance of the latter meaning of the word in this context.

Why?

For several related reasons.  We are all agreed that the problem here is corporatism and globalization, how these have infected every aspect of modern life, corrupted our governments, dehumanized us, produced perpetual war, and are ruining the environment.  But this much granted, a ideological fork in the road is encountered.  On the one hand, we can construe the problem exclusively in terms of materialist-deterministic philosophy; on the other, we can allow that there are or may be spiritual and metaphysical principles at work that affect our existence.

The simple truth is that the overwhelming majority of human beings on the planet do believe in a God or Supreme Being, and do hope for an afterlife — so to this extent, at least, they believe in metaphysics.  Any God worthy of the name would be benevolent, all-wise, and all powerful.  Thus God, almost by definition, would be concerned with human affairs, have a plan for the ultimate success of the race, and would assist us.  God’s power, wisdom and assistance, when directed to the course of history, either directly or through some mediating agency, would fulfill the definition of a Zeit-Geist.

Now as I write this and call to mind those individuals whom I know directly or see on the internet who are associated with the Zeitgeist Movement, in nearly every case I envision someone radically opposed to the points stated in the preceding paragraph.  That is, the Zeitgeist Movement, as it is ideologically represented — say, for example, in the writings of Noam Chomsky — is at the very least a-religious, and, quite frankly, gives one the distinct impression of being anti-religious.  I’d make a friendly wager, in fact, that subjected to some objective empirical test — say performing an automated content analysis of articles in the Zeitgeist Movement literature, this impression of atheism would find more support than not.

If so, I would invite people associated with or interested in the Zeitgeist Movement and its aims to open their minds somewhat.  The problem here is that via our education system and mass media, our culture has had an atheistic-materialistic world-view shoved down its collective throat.  And by whom?  By the corporate establishment.  Noam Chomsky is correct in some ways, but when it comes to religion and philosophy, he has neither expertise nor credibility.  On this issue he operates merely at the level of prejudice and emotion.  He has risen, in addressing matters metaphysical, to his level of incompetence (see Peter principle).  He is to this extent another mouthpiece of the corporate establishment.

Every malicious power structure supplies its own token resistance.  To disguise its real Achilles heel, it invents a nominal opposition that gives the outward appearance of a challenge, but which is ultimately ineffectual.  Noam Chomsky and like-minded ‘Zeitgeist atheists’, however genuine their intentions may be, ultimately serve the materialist system by supplying this nominal opposition and monopolizing the podium.

The most dangerous and serious effect of corporatism and globalization is to destroy mankind’s collective awareness of our divinity.  Chomsky and crew support this vast and destructive delusion.

We are either machines in a value-less, Darwinistic universe.  Or we have something spiritual in our makeup.  If the former is true, then ultimately nothing matters, and the best solution is a bottle of sleeping pills and a liter of wine.  Moreover, the mere fact that we see corporatism and globalization as unjust, as wrong — not just inconvenient, not just a dangerous adversary — but wrong, demonstrates that we have a genuine moral sense.  We evaluate right and wrong by standards that have no real legitimacy in a merely Darwinian universe.  In Darwin’s jungle, if the big monkey oppresses you, you can say he is stronger, but not wrong.  The naturalness with which we make such moral judgements of right and wrong, in an absolute sense, and our utter conviction of their truth, shows that we are something more than just intelligent machines.

Finally, and most importantly, if there is a God, if there is Providence, that has a major bearing on strategy.  If there is a Zeit-Geist, a Spirit of Providence, then we stand the best chance of succeeding not by trying to invent a revolution from scratch, but by aligning ourselves with the Zeit-Geist. We should look to see how the Zeit-Geist is already at work today, how it has planted seeds in the past and given us examples for us to follow when the time for change is ready.

This is one reason I look closely at the American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. If there is a benevolent Spirit of History presiding over the human race, we would see it working in other historical periods to resist the same oppression of humanity we see today.  It would prepare us for the great and decisive struggle gradually.  It would work patiently and cumulatively, like a wise gardener.  It would have inspired minds in previous generations.  We are wise to look for where the thread of progress last left off, and continue from there.

The ideological literature of the Zeitgeist Movement is atheistic.  But the members of the movement are privately believers.  This disconnect must end for the movement to succeed, so that it harnesses the abilities of the entire individual.

Written by John Uebersax

March 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm

The Occupy Movement, Agrarianism, and Land Reform

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ALTHOUGH the Occupy Movement is voicing many important social and economic concerns, one has thus far escaped attention:  land reform. Here we outline arguments in favor of its inclusion.

The well-known monetary disparity, such that 10% of Americans have 90% of the wealth, is paralleled in land ownership.  Media baron Ted Turner, for example, alone owns more than 2.2 million acres — an area larger than Delaware!

Moreover, the federal government owns vast expanses of habitable land, including military bases, National Forests, and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  In administering public lands, federal agencies, especially the BLM, are frequently accused of being overly responsive to corporate special interests.

We should consider the reorganization of land to produce a more just, happy and harmonious social system.  This may seem an unconventional and unrealistic proposal, but the truth is that reallocation of land to improve social justice has been done throughout history.

Legislation to allocate small parcels of public land to private homesteaders is easily accomplished.  Though no longer in force, the Homestead Act nevertheless established a precedent we may follow

With respect to vast private lands, we must first forestall the obvious objection:  that private parties have an inalienable right to retain lands to which they currently hold title.  This is definitely not so. Ownership of real estate — save, perhaps, that on which ones house and garden sit — is not a  natural (and hence inalienable) right.  We can allow that people have a natural right to own the property on which their domicile sits; or perhaps a few acres with which they ‘mingle their hands with the soil’ for sustenance.  But private ownership of larger parcels of land is an arbitrary social convention — something created by legislation, and removable by legislation.   Society may change such conventions according to the will of the majority and for good of society.  To be clear: this does not dispute that private parties have, in our society, a right to own land  — only that this is a legislated right, not a natural one.  That is, we could envision a society in which all the people got together and decided to disallow the owning of large tracts of land.  Certainly we can find indigenous societies where such is the case.

The idea of legally limiting public land ownership is not utterly foreign to European and American political theory.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, advocated the usufruct principle.  This holds that private citizens have a right to use the land and enjoy it’s fruits — but not to own it.  If you plant an orchard, you might own the apples, not the land itself.

Agrarianism

What concerns us is not just land redistribution, but, more broadly, effecting a transition to a more sustainable, natural, agrarian society.  Agrarianism, in a historical sense, can be defined as:  “the doctrine of an equal division of landed property and the advancement of agricultural groups.”  Today we may extend the definition by envisioning a migration of a certain number of modern urban dwellers to the country, where they may live sustainably in individual homesteads and/or intentional communities.

Sustainability would imply emphasis on self-sufficiency, including cultivating gardens or crops for food, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and like things.

Advantages of a More Agrarian Society

It seems self-evident that much would be gained by redistributing land to give more people the ability to leave the large cities and start self-sustaining, rural homesteads.  Certainly this is appealing to the sensibilities of many.  Specific advantages include these:

  • Gets  people out of crowded urban areas
    • reduces pollution
    • reduces stress, anxiety, and confusion associated with modern urban life
    • reduces water and energy problems
  • Eliminates commuting lifestyle
  • Healthy country living and natural food would promote good health and reduce health-care costs for society.
  • People can live in harmony with nature: the earth is made for man, and man for the earth.
  • 5000 homesteads = 5000 experiments in sustainable living and crop innovation
  • With the option to leave and migrate to the country, urban workers gain better bargaining position; can demand better wages and working conditions
  • Agrarian happiness doesn’t require a $100k college education
  • Committed individuals living on land can help preserve it (stewardship)

The last point is important because it counters the objection that National Forests or large conservancy land tracts should be left free from human habitation.  Responsible people can live within such areas in ways that enhance, not interfere with forest and wildlife preservation.

Feasibility

Is redistribution of land possible, or merely a pipe-dream?

It’s important here to refer to American history, in which a strong current of agrarianism has always operated. Indeed, the history of American economic ideology can be seen as a dynamic tension-of-opposites between agrarianism and commercialism.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the opposing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson, the Virginian farmer, wanted the country to follow an agrarian path.  He hated cities, in fact, and considered them breeding grounds for vice and unhappiness.  He believed that a nation of independent, citizen-farmers was the best way to achieve just and stable democracy.

In a draft constitution for Virginia, Jefferson proposed: “Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned 50 acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of 50 acres”.  This proposal did not eventuate, but Jefferson did succeed in abolishing primogeniture laws in Virginia. Primogeniture is the custom by which all land in a family is inherited by the oldest son; abolishing primogeniture had the effect of, over several generations, breaking down large land tracts and distributing land ownership more fairly.

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example…. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition…. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff…. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strenth of the human body.

Source:  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 19, 1787.

Jefferson was not the only advocate of agrarianism.  John Taylor of Caroline, for example — the American foil to free marketer Adam Smith — supplied a philosophical and economic foundation for agrarian principles.

In contrast, Alexander Hamilton (who, incidentally, was one of Wall Street’s founders), believed America must follow the path of commerce and industrialization; for this, centralized banking and a financial infrastructure to promote corporate investment was needed.   Hamilton’s party won the day, setting in motion a series of reactions and counter-reactions that have continued since.

Acquisition of new territory (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase), along with growing unemployment and immigration in cities, produced a gradual campaign of political agitation for land access.  A wave of agrarian fervor swept the nation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  And a few years later, a new phase of agrarian populism began, associated with such names as Horace Greeley, George Henry Evans, Henry George, and George Julian.

The movement gained steady ground.  In 1848, Martin Van Buren ran for president as the nominee of a newly formed Free Soil party.  Pamphlets circulated, and the phrase “Vote Yourself a Farm!” became a popular slogan.  Extracts from one such pamphlet are revealing:

Are you tired of slavery — of drudging for others — of poverty and its attendant miseries? Then, Vote yourself a farm.

Are you endowed with reason? Then you must know that your right to life hereby includes the right to a place to live in — the right to a home. Assert this right, so long denied mankind by feudal robbers and their attorneys. Vote yourself a farm.

Are you a man? Then assert the sacred rights of man — especially your right to stand upon God’s earth, and to till it for your own profit. Vote yourself a farm.

Would you free your country, and the sons of toil everywhere, from the heartless, irresponsible mastery of the aristocracy of avarice? Would you disarm this aristocracy of its chief weapon, the fearful power of banishment from God’s earth? Then join with your neighbors to form a true American party, having for its guidance the principles of the American revolution, and whose chief measures shall be — 1. To limit the quantity of land that any one man may henceforth monopolize or inherit; and 2. To make the public lands free to actual settlers only, each having the right to sell his improvements to any man not possessed of other land. (Reference: 1846 handbill.)

This activity culminated with the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Act, an applicant could receive up to 160 acres of undeveloped public land. Requirements were minimal:  applicants needed only (1) to be at least 21 years old, (2) to live on the land for five years, and (3) to show evidence of having ‘made improvements’ to the land.

Despite problems, including widespread fraud by middle-men brokers (and national theft of Native American lands), the Act was, to judge by the number of families who participated, a  spectacular success.  Another testimony to the program’s success was its longevity: the Act stayed in effect for over a century: until 1976 in the lower 48 states, and 1986 in Alaska.

Prospects

This brings us to the present.  Clearly the tradition of agrarian reform is long and deep in American history.  It is eminently practical, and reflects the simple truth that it makes no sense to crowd people in cities when there are millions of acres of habitable land available.  It is, arguably, simply unnatural.  In 1850, 85% of Americans lived outside of cities.  By 1900, 60% of the population lived rurally.  Today the rate is perhaps 20%.  Perhaps we should reverse this trend.

This doesn’t mean scrapping cities.  Logically, what seems best is a balance between commerce and agrarianism, urban and rural living.  It seems, though, that we are today at a crest of a radically commercial phase, with urban areas falling apart and becoming increasingly aversive. A convergence of social and environmental problems suggests it may be time to shift towards agrarianism to restore balance.

Reading

Clawson, Marion. Uncle Sam’s Acres. Dodd, Mead, 1951 (repr. Greenwood Press, 1970). ISBN: 0837133564.

Commons, John R. (ed.) A Documentary History of American Industrial Society: Volume 7 and Volume 8. Labor movement (1840 – 1860, Parts 1 and 2). Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1910.

Dick, Everett. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands. University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Gates, Paul W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN: 0826316999.

Landau, Elaine. The Homestead Act (children’s book). Children’s Press, 2006. ISBN: 0516258702.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought (3 Volumes). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927 (repr. 1987). ISBN: 0806120819. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Porterfield, Jason. The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History. Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN: 1404201785.

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936. Peter Smith, 1950. ISBN: 0803208669.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth. Harvard, 1950.

Thompson, Paul B.  The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. University of Kentucky, 2010. ISBN: 0813125871.

Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy. Hill & Wang, 1935 (repr. 1960). ISBN: 0809000288.

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Thoreau and Occupy Wall Street: Life Without Principle

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Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), American Transcendentalist philospher and writer.

Could American Transcendentalism serve as a philosophical foundation for the Occupy Wall Street movement? While this is perhaps worth exploring in some detail, here we shall be content to tread lightly – quoting from one of Henry David Thoreau’s (1817–1862) best works, his essay, Life Without Principle.

Reference: Thoreau, Henry D. ‘Life Without Principle’. In: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (11 Volumes), Vol. 10 (Miscellanies), pp. 263-287. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1894.

The following extracts are presented in the order as they appear in the work.

Part 1

This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

You may raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

You must get your living by loving.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

To be supported by the charity of friends, or a government pension, — provided you continue to breathe, — by whatever fine synonyms you describe these relations, is to go into the almshouse.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The ways in which most men get their living, that is, live, are mere makeshifts, and a shirking of the real business of life, — chiefly because they do not know, but partly because they do not mean, any better.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

God gave the righteous man a certificate entitling him to food and raiment, but the unrighteous man found a facsimile of the same in God’s coffers, and appropriated it, and obtained food and raiment like the former. It is one of the most extensive systems of counterfeiting that the world has seen. I did not know that mankind were suffering for want of gold. I have seen a little of it. I know that it is very malleable, but not so malleable as wit. A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily, though it were only the finest particles, — why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold within me, and work that mine.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Part 2

A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

We do not live for idle amusement. I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself,
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant,
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

If we have thus desecrated ourselves, — as who has not? — the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice?
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

We are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

The chief want [i.e., what is missing] , in every State that I have been into, was a high and earnest purpose in its inhabitants.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, — those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

I have not got to answer for having read a single President’s Message.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves, — sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)

Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia…. Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.
~ Henry David Thoreau (Life Without Principle, 1863)


Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Introduction

Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)

Background

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

 
Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love


While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

Analysis of Nader’s Platform – 2008

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As of March 5, 2008, Ralph Nader’s campaign has now placed a preliminary platform online. You can find it here: http://www.votenader.org/issues/

Let’s review the items one by one.

1. Adopt single payer national health insurance

As I understand it, this would work by having, in essence, a single, national, government-run health insurance agency. There are two rationales for this: (a) to achieve universal health coverage (at present, 40 millions Americans have no health insurance); and (b) to reduce overhead costs associated with the ‘private insurance bureaucracy’, which, it is claimed, consumes about 31% of every health care dollar.

Clearly we need to address issue (a). However about (b) we should be cautious. First, competition generally brings costs down. I don’t understand the argument that a single government-run health insurance agency would somehow have lower administrative costs than those of privately-owned companies. The former would be performing the same tasks, only with no competition and so with less incentive to find ways to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve service quality.

And where would you go if you had a complaint? Think about it: would you want the IRS to be in charge of your health care reimbursement?

I worked in a private health insurance company once, and it seemed to me they were always finding ways to improve service, process, and efficiency. They recognized and took seriously a responsibility to promote patient health and welfare. With improvements in computer and communications systems, private health insurance service is getting continually better.

2. Cut the huge, bloated, wasteful military budget

Definitely. This is a good platform policy.

3. No to nuclear power, solar energy first

Probably good. I’d rather we say instead “other energy sources, especially solar energy”.

4. Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare

Nader coined the term, ‘corporate welfare’, in 1966. For him it means the government’s bestowal of grants, tax breaks, or other special benefits on corporations. This platform plank is related to the need for lobby reform, which is definitely a good idea. The phrase ‘aggressive crackdown’ hints at a basic animosity Nader holds towards corporations.

Further, corporate crime and ‘corporate welfare’ are separate issues.  The former is a legal-criminal matter; here we need to enforce existing laws.  However, what Nader calls ‘corporate welfare’ is a social policy issue.

Nader, of course, has a long history as an anti-corporate crusader, and tends to overstate things in this area. Economist Eric Blair, in his blog, put it well:

When I hear Nader speak of government’s ‘corporate paymasters’, I get flush with embarrassment, because it’s the sort of gross oversimplification that makes people think liberals are all dumb. It is based on a false us-versus-them dichotomy. All of us, capitalists and laborers alike, want to have a healthy economy where we all have some kind of income and lots of the stuff we want to consume with that income readily available. Gosh, that’s going to involve corporations, especially if we want things to be efficiently done.

See Eric’s article Critique of Ralph Nader’s 2004 Platform for details. Eric’s comments above are in line with my thoughts about Redeeming Corporations and Renewing America. Use corporations for good; don’t scrap them or see them as innately bad things.

For background on Nader’s position, see this article:

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Nader/CutCorpWelfare_Nader.html

5. Open up the Presidential debates

To bring more third-party and independent ideas into public view during elections. Definitely.

6. Adopt a carbon pollution tax

To reduce greenhouse emissions. We do need to reduce greenhouse emissions, but it’s not clear that a tax like this is a way to do it. Arguably, a ‘disincentive tax’ like this should be linked to offsetting societal costs associated with the thing taxed. For example, cigarette tax revenue should be directed to treating smoking-related illness, preventing smoking, etc. It’s hard to see how that principle would apply here — but maybe we could spend it developing alternative energy sources.

Other various criticisms of a carbon tax can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_tax

7. Reverse U.S. policy in the Middle East

If that means to switch from making enemies and war to making friends and peace, yes.

8. Impeach Bush/Cheney

This one sticks out like a sore thumb. Why impeach Bush/Cheney? Because of the war? Then why not impeach the US Congress while we’re at it? Or how about the majority of voters who implicitly endorsed the Bush administration in the 2004 elections? Come on, this is back to hate politics. Let’s raise the level of public discourse, and focus on issues, not personalities.

9. Repeal the Taft-Hartley anti-union law

Huh? Again, Nader’s atavistic 60’s liberalism shows. Does he really thinks labor unions are going to save America? Personally, I tend to see labor unions as an example of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, labor unions are quasi-governments which (1) are run by selfish, greedy leaders; (2) exploit and coerce workers; and (3) are in the long run much less transparent and democratic than the regular government is.

10. Adopt a Wall Street securities speculation tax

At first I rejected this as being too unrealistic. Then I realized that what matters here is not Nader’s hypothetical solution, but that he’s raising the issue at all. The issue is that people, companies, and sometimes machines(!) presently engage in millions of short-term stock trades, solely for speculation. A company buys millions of dollars worth of stock and then sells it an hour later with a big profit. Sometimes this is based is on insider information; other times it involves deliberate manipulation by huge financial corporations to influence stock prices.

Further, knowledgeable traders can make huge profits even when stock prices decrease! All this creates an incentive for vastly powerful financial institutions to produce a fluctuating stock market.

This has created a bizarre, nightmarish economic machine which controls our economy, our society, and our lives, and enslaves us. It’s a huge, huge issue. I’m just not sure that a tax is a way to do handle the problem. We have enough taxes already. I believe we should simplify the tax code (e.g., a flat tax), not make it more complex.

It might be an utterly naive suggestion, but maybe it would be better to simply ban short-term stock speculation altogether, rather than to specially tax it.

11. Put an end to ballot access obstructionism

Make it easier for third-party and independent candidates to get on election ballots. Yes.

12. Work to end corporate personhood

Should corporations have the same rights as individuals? I guess it depends on what rights we’re talking about. A complex question. For background, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_personhood_debate

Overall Appraisal

Nader/Gonzalez are doing what third-party candidates should: to diversify the issues being considered in the election. Follow their election, listen to their speeches, research their ideas. Nader has 40 years’ worth of articles you can find online explaining his views.

Nader deserves credit for working to raise the public awareness and for better focusing on important issues than the Democrat-Republican candidates.

Written by John Uebersax

March 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Urbanization Crisis and Sustainable Transportation

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Ran across this article at the World Resource Institute website:

SUSTAINABLE CITIES, SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORTATION

From the article:

Urbanization – A Glimpse of the Future

“Cities continue to be seen as offering economic opportunity superior to what can be realized in the countryside. Urban migration takes place on such a scale that we now have a new category of cities ‘megacities’, with populations over 10 million. By 2015 there will be 23 of these megacities; most will be found in the developing world. They will include Beijing, China; Cairo, Egypt; Mumbia, India; Lagos, Nigeria; Mexico City, Mexico; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 12 years, nearly 3 out every 4 city dwellers will live in a megacity. By 2030, conditions in megacities will define the quality of life for nearly 5 billion of the earth’s inhabitants, most of whom will be under 18 years of age.”

My main criticism is that the view here is somewhat limited by prevailing paradigms of thought. The solution isn’t necessarily to build more trains and bus lines, as was done in the previous century. We need an entirely new post-modern approach, with things like:

  • Pedestrian-friendly cities. We need to get people out walking (or biking); getting exercise and, hopefully, fresh air.
  • Better designed cities, where people need to travel less to get to work, shopping, and healthcare
  • Things like courier services. Let a delivery cart bring the groceries to your house.
  • Telecommuting and distance-learning

Nothing in the report explicitly contradicts these ideas, but neither are they emphasized. The conclusion:

“To meet these challenges, sustainable mobility will need a model representing a social and political approach to sustainable development in cities, one that invites and embraces public-private partnerships to create and finance sustainable transport solutions.”

also concerns me for two reasons. First, as always, the “public-private partnership” model leaves out the spiritual dimension. Second, there is too much emphasis on institutions, whether private or public. It’s like saying, “to save people for the harms produced by institutions, let’s promote new institutions.” The hidden premise is that we need to do more to solve the problem. Maybe we need to do less — or at least to consider obvious simple solutions before resorting to grand schemes of mass transportation, etc.

Here’s an example of what I mean by doing less, or perhaps we could call it doing by not doing. Last summer, Brussels had a “car free Sunday.” For one day, all unnecessary transportation by cars and trucks was discouraged. People took to the streets, families on bicycles, enjoying the sunny day. It utterly changed the tone and complexion of the city, from a stressful urban center to a charming European capital. Just do this every Sunday and see what happens. No new “public-private” partnerships. No new bonds. No new taxes. Just gradually ban internal-combustion vehicles from the city centers. This will produce immediate benefits, and also change peoples’ values. Values: that’s the key. We need to change people’s values and attitudes. That is both a relatively inexpensive solution, and a better one than building more mass transportation systems.

Finally, the article seems to take as inevitable that urbanization will continue. We should examine this assumption carefully consider whether post-modern de-urbanization is attainable and better. There’s an old saying that bears repeating: God made the country, man made the town, and the devil made the city.

Do we want urbanization to continue or not? We can stop it if we choose. As the report’s opening paragraph makes clear, this is something of historical importance. In the past human civilization evolved blindly, subject to economic forces, and innumerable problems resulted. But now we know enough to shape our own destiny.

My views are themselves doubtless shaped by my own North American and European experience. The situation in developing countries is potentially different. But if the developing countries de-urbanize, this will set an example and establish paradigms that developing nations will emulate.

Epilogue:  After posting this , I found an informative article about sustainable cities and ecocities in the Wikipedia.

John S. Uebersax