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.

  1. Brown, Lester R., Plan B 2.0, Retrieved from the online pdf version free to the public at http://www.earthpolicy.org/mobile/books/pb2/pb2ch1_intro?phpMyAdmin=1d6bec1fea35111307d869d19bcd2ce7.  Emphasis added.)
  2. Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, NY, Simon and Schuster

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