Whatever has shifted in the beliefs critical to sustainability-as-flourishing has been overwhelmed by moves that take us increasingly farther away. Instead of moving in the direction of care as our primary modus operandi, we are running faster to become a nation of disassociated individuals, if the political rhetoric of the moment is a valid indicator. Ayn Rand lurks in the shadows. Recent gains in sharing the exigencies of living are under attack—providing health care is an obvious example,. Issues dealing with complex systems and related matters that need careful, tentative, probing countermeasures are approached in a black and white, only we have the true solution framing demanded by the dominant cultural structure.
All this is very disturbing and I daresay discouraging to me as I find myself clearer and more convinced than ever that the belief structure that underlies these positions is the culprit whose mischief we are trying to deal with. Just as Gresham’s law says that bad money drives out good, the currency of individualism and know-nothingness or know everythingness tends to devalue more measured and pragmatic thinking. When I wrote Sustainability by Design, I had a very minimal understanding of pragmatism but have spent many hours learning more about this way of thinking. My first impression was that pragmatism was the right way to think about complexity because it avoids the absolutism of reductionist thinking and actions based on the consequent beliefs. Claiming that one has the only right answer to a problem often gets the actor into hot water even in small situations, but always does in the real messes that our leaders face all the time, and individuals like all of us encounter but less frequently.
I have also learned another feature of pragmatism that is important, if not critical, to sustainability. The pop interpretation of pragmatism—that whatever works is good—is just that—a popularized and misleading description, springing from the work of William James, an early proponent of this important philosophical development. Pragmatism is a way of creating “truths” that work in coping with real problems. Its originator, C. S. Pierce (pictured above), argued that our beliefs are the rules by which we determine our action, and sought to find ways to make our beliefs clearer so that the subsequent actions might be more effective. He argued that clarity in beliefs came from a continuing inquiry by a group of individuals interested in finding solutions to common problems they faced; more or less, the way science is done.
The key difference between James and Pierce and those that followed the latter’s thread is the criticality of a collective inquiry, a community of inquirers or, in more common language, problem solvers. The idea of a continuous inquiry, stopping only when a satisfactory solution is found, and beginning again when that solution no longer works is just what is needed to deal with problems that cannot be defined in nice, neat, analytic terms. Exactly the kind of problems that stand in the way of sustainability. Global climate change is a good example of complexity. Instead of a program of trying to develop countermeasures based on our best current understanding now, we are waiting until our supercomputers tell us what is most cost-effective way to go. We need wise and prudent solutions. But supercomputers are not wise or prudent; only people can be.
If this sounds like some sort of democratic process, it is. John Dewey another of the founders of pragmatism, saw a connection between the method whereby a group of equally empowered individuals could create understanding of and solutions to overcome barriers between the world of today and that dreamt about for tomorrow. His pragmatism turned into a strong case for democracy—another link to the possibility of flourishing, which is diminished by inequality and domination. The pragmatic process rests on communication among the inquirers and inherently makes them more conscious of interconnections among them, another prerequisite of sustainability.
“Pragmatic” has become a pejorative in today’s political rhetoric referring to people who have no principles to stand on and cannot provide simple solutions to everything. Anything goes! Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pragmatism is exactly what is needed now. Its acceptance that learning, the process by which truths come forward, is continuous argues strongly against the ultra-short timetables that determine economic and political life. It promotes inclusion and the taking of responsibility. It rewards those who are willing to act on the clearest ideas they have, rather than punish them for the inevitable disappointments, not failures, that accompany action in a complex world. It raises consciousness of our interconnections to one another and to the context of the problems we address communally. It brings democracy out from the diminished form it has taken in our increasingly unequal society, as measured by many metrics. It’s time to let philosophy back into our lives and rescue it from its academic and political captors.