4. Framing the Question

Over and over environmental writers have called on us to change the way we live, called on us to use less, urged us to change our values. Here is an example from the writings of one of the distinguished leaders in environmental thinking, Lester Brown:

Fortunately, there is a consensus emerging among scientists on the broad outlines of the changes needed. If economic progress is to be sustained, we need to replace the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model.

“… If we do not act quickly to reverse the trends, these seemingly isolated events will come more and more frequently, accumulating and combining to determine our future.”1

That plea and its equally desperate cry in the wilderness, so to speak, was echoed a few years later by Naomi Klein, who wrote eloquently but futilely

…rather than responding with alarm and doing everything in our power to change course, large parts of humanity are, quite consciously, continuing down the same road. Only, like the passengers aboard Flight 3935 [which was famously stuck in the melting tarmac on the runway in D.C.’s Reagan Airport in 2012 and had to be towed out by a large tractor], aided by a more powerful, dirtier engine.

What is wrong with us? (Emphasis is mine, not hers.)2

And over and over, nothing has changed; we have achieved very little in the way of slowing climate change, despite widespread acknowledgment that humans are changing the climate and something needs to be done.

That’s because we individual people have little leverage; we can’t organize consistently over years and years, create budgets and campaigns to defeat the protesters, pay top fees to lawyers and PR firms or dominate the media with messages about our glamorous products and our benign intentions.

Only the organizations that are the effective actors in a world system can do those things – and for the most part they seem helpless to change, too entangled in their own routines for doing things and for perceiving things. It seems that they cannot escape the accumulation of their own assumptions, an official mythology from previous centuries, when fossil fuels and fresh air were abundant, about how the world works – and will work forever.

And grow forever.

My purpose here is not to condemn unjust national governments or evil corporations.

I have grounds to condemn them, God knows. I know how they work.  After completing a master’s degree in Chinese politics and history at the East Asian Institute at Columbia University, I served as an American diplomat in the US State Department. Perhaps because I had studied revolutions in Asia, perhaps because as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador in Taipei, I had read the cables coming from our embassy in Saigon, I left the State Department to return to a university for graduate school, where I participated in demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam much like the ones pictured here.

In 1970 at Stanford, for example, I was active in the student strike against the invasion of Cambodia, which we called ‘The April 3 Movement.’ I experienced first hand the cost of participating in a movement that was not considered legitimate by university, corporate and government elites.

Then and later in my first teaching post, I participated in modestly successful protests against the war and the policies of those elites.  And partially as a result, I was eased out of teaching in my field of international relations. I am aware that those elites have their own interests that they safeguard with vigor.

But simply condemning government and corporate bureaucracy is the easy way out. When we do that we achieve nothing – although sometimes we get to feel righteous.

If we want to achieve any real change, everyone who wants to participate in fruitful inquiry on these questions must go beyond protesting and bitterness. This is not about condemning big business or big government or war mongers. That has been done – with no effect.

I recite my own experiences here to establish that I am no apologist for big business and government. I have protested all my adult life. Partially as a result of repeated protesting, I see that we must get beyond the knee-jerk reactions to bad policies and discover how to ask the right questions about what bureaucracies do to stay together in coherent patterns of action and why those patterns are so resistant to change.

This is, then, the start of an inquiry into why those elites were unable and unwilling to consider responding to the voices of the citizens who were affected by their decisions.

Suppose that instead of shaking our fists impotently at evil capitalists and warmongers, we look deeper into the problem. Suppose we ask why decision-makers in both corporations and governments, many of whom actually do harbor human emotions and care about our planet, nevertheless refuse so often to respond to people who ask for changes. Suppose that we seek to discover what is it that we are really dealing with?

What if this unwillingness to change and do the right things were a problem not in morality but in biology or some subset of physics, a result of the human condition or the laws of the universe at work on our planet?

If the pattern is universal and persistent, surely there must be something in the structure or the processes of the bureaucracies – or organizations of any sort – of a certain size and complexity that drives them to repeat this kind of decision in the face of this kind of opposition and even the solid evidence that they are destroying the world around them – and around us.

Whether I consider that pattern of not caring a deep flaw in the system or a basic strength is less important at this point than examining why this pattern is so universal? Why are elites around the world, the 1% if you will, unable or unwilling to respond to our voices – and to the prospect of limitations on our earth’s capacity to support life?

If, as the newspapers report, 80% of the US public believes that global warming is real and threatens our way of life, why do governments and corporations fail to respond?

So that is where I will take you if you choose to continue. And I will ask further, when I have suggested some answers, how we can know whether or not the answers I suggest are true?

I will ask that in the sense that the great entomologist. Edward O. Wilson, asked the same question about human sociability – and then insisted that the answers in this endeavor, as the answers in all science, must be consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry as well as with our understanding of human history. I hope you will read along and explore this frontier with me.

The question gains urgency, of course, in the light of our environmental condition. We must approach our inquiry with care to get it right, for we may not have the luxury to repeat it very many times.

At the start, then, rather than asking why the corporations and governments keep on taking and using up the earth’s resources at such a rapid and growing rate, we can learn more by asking why they do not – or cannot – stop.

And we cannot ask with any assumptions about good or bad. Instead, to gain any useful knowledge, we must ask this question with an open mind about the answers that we find. Like good biologists, we must seek patterns in the behavior of our subjects and infer from their common behaviors the principles that lie behind their actions.

Then we can ask further questions or construct hypotheses about those patterns, doing our human best to avoid letting our prejudices get in the way. Perhaps in that process we can gain insights that in the long run will enable change of the right kind – before it’s too late.

Framing the task like that I am setting out to explore several disciplines in both the physical and the social sciences and to combine their findings in ways that will, I hope, enable us to reach a new understand of our bureaucratic subjects and lead us to ask even more powerful questions. Ultimately I hope our new understanding will enable humans to take effective, powerful action where and when it is needed, doing the least harm possible and achieving the greatest results possible.

What is it then about large organizations – yes, bureaucracies – that makes them so resistant to change, even when they can foresee that continuing along their present paths will lead to destruction for everyone? Why can’t they stop?


Footnote of personal interest: Some 10 years ago I found myself at a reception face to face with the then-president of Shell Oil USA. We had both drunk a little wine, and I figured I would never have the chance to ask someone in his position the question that was on my mind. So I just asked him outright, “What is your understanding of global warming?”

“Oh,” he replied, “I know it’s real. But my job is to ensure that there is a full supply of gasoline in every service station in New Jersey every day.”

I have always regarded that as a peculiarly American variation on the Eichmann defense – I was only following orders. But more of that later on.

6. Climate and the Corporate Man, Part 2

The Nazis in Their Grey Suits were Also Nice Family Men, After All.

To be an adult human and a parent is to be at the mercy of work, family, and home – and therefore at the mercy of one’s job.

The commitment of us ordinary persons to individual concerns such as raising children, securing a dwelling, providing food and clothing to a family is precisely the condition Hannah Arendt found among the Germans who committed such terrible crimes in World War Two.  And by extension we can infer that similar conditions governed the thousands of Cambodians who carried out the will of the Khmer Rouge and more recently the marauding Hutu of Burundi and the Serbs in Croatia and Montenegro.

Similarly in our own country we overlook questions of guilt in service to country or company. For example, we have never, as far as I know, asked about the guilt of the guards around the Japanese internment camps of World War Two. We accept them unthinkingly as mere employees of the US Government who were doing their jobs.

So it is not the individuals we turn to to find why these things happened. Arendt observed how in these extraordinary moral situations, ordinary people whose morals were unquestioned, but who needed to work, turned into monsters, either actual or potential.

Basing my argument on her work and others, I’ll make my case  in this entry for why we can not expect large numbers of individuals to create the changes needed to avoid global warming or the other forms of environmental disaster that loom over our civilization.

In Arendt’s essays we glimpse the power of organizations to determine that people do even the most reprehensible acts. it may seem that the leap between just going to work at your job and turning into a monster is far-fetched. I suspect that it is not so far after all. We all need our jobs to go on living as we expect to live.

The horizon where personal responsibility shades into organizational guilt lies closer than most of us want to think.

People have been convinced to commit atrocities when  their jobs demanded them. They have performed outrageous acts as required to fulfill their roles, to keep their jobs or be promoted, and to go on supporting their families. Arendt uncovered the potential for evil that lurks in every career employee caught up in the workings of a bureaucratic organization – and who of us is not?

If organizations can elicit such obedience, how can we expect ordinary people to overrule their employers or other organizations and set out on their own to change the fate of the world? Abandon their families? Not likely.

Here is how Arendt describes the gradual transformation of the typical German father into an SS man who could commit murder as a routine act. She ascribes this to the dedication of the ‘family man’ to supporting those around him engaged in the same project:

“We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer who, for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring. … It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his dignity. It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler [Commander of the SS in Nazi Germany and later organizer and commander of the death camps] to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do literally anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family was threatened. The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts. Thus that very person, the average German, whom the Nazis notwithstanding years of the most furious propaganda could not induce to kill a Jew on his own account (not even when they made it quite clear that such a murder would go unpunished), now serves the machine of destruction without opposition. In contrast to the earlier units of the SS men and Gestapo, Himmler’s over-all organization relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely on the normality of jobholders and family men.”1

What were they Thinking? They Were Supporting Their Families.

I used to read aloud to students in my international politics classes a passage from a wonderful essay that Arendt published in PM in 1944 as WWII drew to its close. It illustrated the dilemma shared by every employee, more or less helpless to protest in this world of bureaucratic organizations, which are the living entities that actually determine the patterns of our individual careers.

In the essay, she reproduced an interview with a former guard in a German death camp. This soldier had a wife and children, and if he had not accepted his assignment as paymaster in the camp, he would have been sent to the Russian front, where, he believed, he would likely have died and left his wife penniless, his children orphans. The reporter, an American, asked the questions:

Q: Did you kill people in the camp?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you poison them with gas?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you bury them alive?

A: It sometimes happened.

Q: Were the victims picked from all over Europe?

A: I suppose so.

Q: Did you personally help kill people?

A: Absolutely not. I was only the paymaster in the camp.

Q: What did you think of what was going on?

A: It was bad at first, but we got used to it.

Q: Do you know the Russians will hang you?

(Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?2

Remember the Satire that came next in the 50’s- Unconscious of the Irony?

Arendt wrote this in the 1940s. Whether by coincidence or historical trend, the next decade begat an era when writers in England and the United State were turning to the same dilemmas and foibles of corporate bureaucrats but in a civilian setting. A rush of creativity emerged, also discovering and publicizing the effects of the organization on its employees, but in a satirical vein.

A few years later, this resulted in a series of books and dramas examining life in the American corporate world. Many of them became light-hearted best-sellers or popular plays: for example, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Silent Generation (which was based incidentally on interviews with some of my classmates in college in 1956-57), the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and G. Northcoat Parkinson’s famous essay, Parkinson’s Law, in which he proposed that every bureaucrat would be promoted one level above his competence. And for all I know, similar literature appeared in several other countries around the world as well.

This theme was not new, of course; the Europeans had worked this vein for decades before World War One with The Good Soldier Schweik, and the many works of Kafka.

But until Arendt, no one had associated that tradition with the relentless killing machine of the Nazi super-organization, which by the end was populated by Serbs, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, and other Europeans, some of whom sympathized with the Nazis’ anti-semitic rationale, and some whom merely needed work in what one might say was an early manifestation of the modern giant multi-national organization.

My point in bringing up Arendt’s work in the same discussion with this larger tradition of concern with bureaucratic demands on the individual – The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – is to highlight the limited choices available to individual people who need to support families, pay the mortgage or rent, and provide stable lives to those they love. The choices at any one time are to keep one’s job or to face recrimination and dismissal – a dilemma that confronts nearly all of us.

Should Faust be  the Governing Myth for Our Society?

Even when the corporation or agency is engaged in benign activities, one must choose between, on the one hand, carrying out whatever policies the corporation or the state where one works orders one to carry out and, on the other hand, losing a place in the drama of the society’s history. That includes earning a living. The Faustian bargain – trading one’s soul to the devil in return for success – may be the underlying myth of life in 20th century industrialized nations.

There have been Heroes who were Exceptions – and their Fates

There have been exceptions, of course. But not many. Tank Man was one. The Vietnamese monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself in fire in Saigon in 1962 to begin the overthrow of the Ngo Dihn Diem regime was another. Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller in the marketplace in Tunisia who immolated himself to launch the Arab Spring in 2011 was another. And we can count the many Tibetans, monks, nuns and lay people who have lit themselves with the fatal gasoline to protest Chinese mis-administration in Tibet and neighboring Qinghai Province.

Perhaps even more relevant, to Americans at least, are the heroes who have protested against multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Climax Mining – not to mention builders of oil pipelines such as at Standing Rock. The pipeline companies and the state of North Dakota demanded the same unwavering support from their employees as the Nazis and the Cambodians under Pol Pot, even support of policies that resulted in multiple deaths.

Cases such as the famous auto accident that killed Karen Silkwood as she amassed evidence of wrong-doing in plutonium production by Kerr-McGee in 1972 come to mind. So does Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired and sent to jail for union organizing in a J.P. Stevens plant in North Carolina. And in case you haven’t guessed my own point of view, I’ll even include the songs about heroes of the earlier union movement such as Joe Hill, the IWW organizer and song writer who was executed by firing squad on a trumped up murder charge after leading a strike in the copper mines in Utah in 1915.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me.
Says I, but Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he,
I never died, says he.

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize.3

These exceptions to the rule point up the fate of those who eschew the obedience that is required of the bulk of the employees whose careers would be spoiled by refusing to follow orders or by opposing the decisions of superiors.

The Exceptions Prove the Power of the Faustian Myth

We celebrate these heroes because they are so rare. Most of us live in a sometimes uneasy agreement with our employers: that we will follow company policy, say what is approved by the executives upstairs, defend the company’s interests, and devote most of our waking hours to the advancement of those interests. We keep our bargains with our employers, whether corporate or governmental, for the most part, just hoping that we will never be required to support such blatant evil as that prescribed by Himmler (or Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic) and described by Arendt. And for the most part our employers only demand that we support the latest sales contest or machine parts for a new model of the product.

But the potential never disappears completely. And we employees, even in normal times, are. for example, careful about exercising our freedom of speech. We  are cautious about the letters to the editor we write or where and when we dare to stand up to speak in a meeting. Someone from the office might find out, after all, and take offense.

That brings me to the next stage of inquiry, moving on from this depressing description of our bargains with organizations to the real question I want to investigate: how the typical large organization maintains its existence – what it does to stay alive, we might say. I hope that I have demonstrated that we – you and I – cannot stop the organizations in which we are participants from careening us off the edge of the environmental precipice.

As I promised there, we cannot ask with any assumptions about good or bad [despite having dipped into the moral issues in this entry for illustrative purposes]. Instead, to gain any useful knowledge, we must ask this question keeping an open mind about the answers that we find. Like good biologists, we must seek patterns in the behavior of our subjects and infer from their common behaviors the principles that lie behind their actions.