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Fragmented narratives prevent ambitious sustainability goals

I recall discussing with my old daughter a few months ago about the talent (or lack thereof) of one American author I favored when I was in high school, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. I recalled my awe upon reading the short stories comprised in The Martian Chronicles.

His science fiction was complex and metaphysical and made me think of the beauty that sometimes can emerge from chaos and entropy. I may have gotten a bit carried away, but my memories were genuine to no avail.

To my daughter, who had just read Fahrenheit 451 as a school assignment at her bilingual school, Bradbury was a writer “for guys” that depicted rigid stories devoid of any sensitivity. She didn’t use the word Manichaean, but that was her point. I tried to assemble my case in defense of Bradbury but failed miserably.

I wish I could have told her that, at sixteen or so, I had picked one of Bradbury’s books at the local library in my suburban town near Barcelona, introduced by Jorge Luis Borges in a foreword that hit me harder than the beloved Sub-Pop-label music of the early nineties. Like Borges, Bradbury gave me a reason to keep believing in the lost causes and the flamboyant idealists, the Don Quixotes (in pop culture terms, the “superheroes”) of the world.

Thanks to the Internet, that foreword whose marvel had just survived in my memory was just living online and translated into English (it just had appeared in the Spanish translated version of Bradbury’s book, the legendary Minotauro collection, Argentina, 1955).

How narratives feed our common goals over the long term

I reread with admiration these two random paragraphs by Borges:

“What has this man from Illinois done, I ask myself when closing the pages of his book, that episodes from the conquest of another planet fill me with horror and loneliness?”

“How can these fantasies touch me in such an intimate way? All literature (I dare reply) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is indifferent that a writer, to transmit them, recurs to the fantastic or the real, to Macbeth or to Rascolnikov, to the Belgium invasion in August 1914 or to an invasion of Mars. Who cares about the novel, or novelty of science fiction? In this book of ghostly appearance, Bradbury has placed his long empty Sundays, his American tedium, his loneliness, like Sinclair Lewis did on Main Street.”

Jorge Luis Borges Foreword on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

The short stories about the colonization of Mars by Bradbury also read like a continuation of the old sagas, as something we humans have always tried to do, as if having a civilization-scale set of purposes would guarantee our place in the world. Once we stop dreaming big, complacency can be the beginning of much worse things to come.

I’m sure my daughter has found and will keep finding authors and mentor figures that will resonate with her. Back in the early nineties, when I was her age, I didn’t feel there was a common endeavor worth working for other than the typical do-good clichés to blend with a more on less hedonistic and indolent coming of age. Generation X was rebelling against “injustice” in general but lacked their “Vietnam.” Now, teens discover a world in climate disarray; they don’t need to look for their giants and enemy armies as Don Quixote did.

When I was a teenager, the world seemed to be fixing itself after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and even old punks were opening their record labels and pret-à-porter stores to participate in the “free market prosperity”: Nirvana was fighting in the charts with Michael Jackson, though they both represented cogs in the same prosperity machine being optimized by personal computing and the first steps of the commercial Internet. Nothing the postmodern critique of the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman had not predicted in their assessment of pop culture and “media ecology.”

What do we know, how do we know it, what for

Though back then, I was beginning to think about another type of “ecology,” one that was becoming more apparent then but needed still to evolve into modern environmental ethics much in the way American naturalist Aldo Leopold had envisioned in his unpretentious yet deeply influential essay A Sand County Almanac.

Thanks to our current media fragmentation, I recalled the other day my conversation with my daughter on Ray Bradbury, teen hood, and the development of a purpose in life that is bigger than one’s own goals (having a purposeful career, becoming the person with the attributes we admire in others, etc.). It’s a short fragment of an interview Bradbury conceded to James Day, host of the TV show Day at Night.

Reflecting on the importance of fantasizing, on his aspirations as a young child, and his love of reading as a tool to understand his place in the world and ultimately “do good” by writing stories to inspire others, the Ray Bradbury from the 1974 interview is also a “builder,” if only a builder of spirits:

James Day: “You began writing before there was space travel. Now there is. What is space travel going to do for humanity?”
Ray Bradbury: “Space travel is going to enable us to live forever. That’s its most important function. Yes, we wish to guard the gift of life. Kazantzakis puts it very well in his most remarkable book, which no one has read. Very few people have read it: The Saviors of God. And in the book, he says, ‘God cries out to be saved, we go to save him.’ That’s what space travel is all about. In this part of the universe, God has wakened on this planet and shaped himself the way we are shaped. We are the flesh of the universe which wishes to know itself. That’s great. That’s responsible. That’s beautiful. It’s a very nice concept of religion, one I’m very comfortable with. I like to think of myself as part of the universe, waking up and looking around, saying, hey, this is remarkable. Look at this! I have all these senses. I’d like to keep this gift going.”
James Day: “You find no conflict between religion and science, then?”
Ray Bradbury: “Absolutely none. The processes they’re going through are the two halves of a coin, because everything ends in mystery. I mean, the scientists, have theories, and the theologians have myths, and they’re both the same thing because we end up in ignorance.”

Bradbury goes on to elaborate that, in essence, we don’t know what gravity is. We have theories about light, “but they are only theories which are being revised.”

Just-world fallacy

In his interview with James Day, Ray Bradbury is very Pascalian, and those lucky enough to have read a bit of Michel de Montaigne and Spinoza also see those giants in Bradbury’s words. I’m confident I’ll talk about Bradbury with our children again in the future, or (better) they’ll find somebody’s foreword or recommendation (likely, Borges’ foreword) as an entry point to some of his stories, which are good (as opposed to her case of it being a mere recollection of depth-lacking sci-fi for boys).

When growing up, we sense that there has to be a profound reason explaining why order emerges from chaos and why there’s some knowledge that seems to “self-assemble” as well as if it made sense on its own and didn’t need our experience to fill it up with sense.

Sometimes we feel that some melodies come to us so naturally that they must have existed as an ideal until finally materialized through a composer. It happens the same with mathematical concepts or with abstract concepts such as “order” and “chaos,” “good” and “evil,” “justice” and “injustice,” etc.

Comic book adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”

Yet any successful coming of age (hopefully, into the functional adult world) requires going through some experiences that will counter naïveté and raw optimism with the constraints of resources and society. For example, somebody posted days ago the scientific refusal of something he considered almost a universal truth: fairness.

“I’ve been told (many times) that “the good employees never get laid off.” I hope this recent wave puts this to rest. Microsoft literally laid off the co-creator of DOM, who had been with the company 28 years.”

It turns out a priori concepts “don’t translate” into reality but are ideals people (and groups and managers in companies) can account for and aspire to. The current corporate frenzy in significant technology companies that, despite their cushy amounts of cash to weather any storm, have decided to “send a signal” to investors by firing thousands of people is a point in case. It may make sense from the perspective of a spreadsheet, especially if it has been created by Charles Munger, Ray Dalio, or Cathie Wood.

Keeping up with the ideals

Case in point: Google’s famous “Don’t Be Evil” became almost a meme-gag for people to remind the company how incoherent any controversial decision the company took, so it decided to remove its unofficial motto from its code of conduct. An aspiration derived from one “a priori” statement had become a corporate burden people would point at.

Some things don’t seem to make sense, especially if we zoom in and analyze what happens not only over time and from a macro perspective (the person fired will be fine, and he may even be able to make a life-changing move or contribution because of one particular event in time he didn’t control) but also on a more detailed perspective at a micro-scale.

We share a cognitive bias that assumes that we get “what we ultimately deserve,” as if the order of things would even out our actions and outcome. There’s even a name for this fallacy: the just-world hypothesis. The belief that actions and consequences will be fair to what people deserve is so ingrained that societies make assumptions based on this hypothesis, mistaking aspirations such as “a priori” ideals (of cosmic justice, reason, or fairness) with reality. The ultimate perversion of this fallacy is blaming victims of war, hunger, unhealthy habits, or abuse, among other things, for their suffering. “They may deserve it one way or another.”

This rationale generates a perception of reality in which everything can be quantified based on merit, or everything uncomfortable can be denied based on the same strategy: climate denial is associated with the idea that a world amid a climate crisis contradicts some people’s personal view of the world: they don’t think to deserve to be blamed for contributing with their actions to the inaction regarding long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Therefore, they conclude, “it cannot be true.”

In the mood for Quixotic endeavors

Exploring one’s own purpose is an act of freedom, but individualism can lose its meaning without acknowledging that there’s something bigger than us worth fighting for. Such ideals propel Don Quixote to hit the road to living up to his ideals, even if the reader can see that armies are sheep and giants windmills:

“Don Quixote I am. I am a wandering knight by profession. My laws are: to right wrongs, to spread good, and to avoid evil. I have no interest in a comfortable life, ambition, or hypocrisy. I seek, for my own glory, the narrowest and most difficult path. Is this the stuff of the stupid or the ignorant?”

Sometimes, Don Quixote’s lucidity goes beyond the utility of the modern world, reminding us of the things worth fighting for, even when there’s little hope that our individual or even coordinated action could be decisive to tip the balance in favor of a greater good.

Some peer-reviewed studies claim that children “show an innate sense of justice.” With little experience in the world, children that never talked to each other reach nonetheless the same judgments when it comes to moral knowledge.

This paradox led thinkers such as German philosopher and mathematician Edmund Husserl to explore why we seem to share a perception of reality when it comes to things that seem to exist in abstract, as if it were a world of mathematics or a world of commonly-perceived ethics to help us distinguish fairness from unfairness, justice from injustice, etc. Husserl called it “intersubjectivity.” Each of us is unique but can come to similar conclusions on matters that require this sense of the universal.

Children are empathic to harm inflicted upon others and, given a choice —claim such studies—, they will rather focus on restoring things to help the victim than waste their energy on revenge (for example, by punishing the perpetrator). As we become individuals, even flawed characters cannot detach themselves from a sense of commonality reached from individuality. We don’t lose our subjectivity but also belong to a family, a place, a time, a culture, a civilization.

The reality we shape

These findings align with an old idea in philosophy developed by Plato and expanded later by modern idealism, from Emmanuel Kant onwards: there’s one type of knowledge that seems universal and precedes the individual, which we seem to be able to acquire with the independence of our circumstances.

Kant, arguably the steppingstone of modern idealism, called our instinctive perception of ideal concepts “a priori” knowledge, or things we just “know,” as if they came to us absolutely independent of all experience. Whether we think its origin is divine or derives from some sort of cosmic order associated with the properties of information (and its emergent value, that we may call “meaning”), a priori knowledge is recognizable, even when most of the time we have the feeling we can’t define “justice,” “truth,” “goodness,” or their antagonists. However, we “know” what it is, and we can at least define what it is not.

Following the steps of thinkers such as Spinoza and his pantheistic views (Deus sive Natura, “God or Nature”) that had expanded the view of religion, equating it with Nature, Kant understood the order of the universe as a Providence personified in Nature. Nature “wanted” to develop in humans certain predispositions, and Providence “knew” what was best for humans: moral knowledge, or what’s good, has to be derived, according to Kant, from careful reasoning. Though reason is not purely deductive: its origins, he states, are transcendental. They “emerge” from a potential state that precludes us, one “a priori.”

Some symbolic artifacts of the Enlightenment, from the motto of the French Revolution to the depiction of the “Eye of Providence” in the $1 dollar bill, try to represent the divine providence or “eye of God” as the origin of “a priori” knowledge as if humanity wanted to “understand” a common purpose of elevated morality and actualization. Progress, or the idea of constant improvement towards ideal perfection or evolution from chaos into order, is implied in expressions-turned-institutions such as “pursuit of happiness” or “a more perfect union.”

Confessions of character

Martin Luther King Jr. used one expression he had found in an 1853 sermon by an abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker. The quote is also grounded in the idealism of perfectibility and constant improvement of previous situations: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The expression has become a meme in itself, often devoid of the necessary context. Its use nowadays would probably surprise Martin Luther King Jr., not to talk about its nineteenth-century author, Theodore Parker.

But many things that we consider a part of morality (or, in philosophical terms, a part of “moral epistemology”) are our own inquiry into some of the big questions of life: the meaning of happiness, the concept of virtue, the inner workings of having a purpose in life, etc. With the independence of our education and abilities, we can decide how we see things. Or, said by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life, Chapter 6, “Worship,” p. 214

To some extent, the a priori concepts most instrumentalized by democracies after the so-called Age of Reason nurtured the belief in utilitarianism (societies where fair individualism may optimize on their own towards the maximum good possible for everybody), philanthropy, or trickle-down economics: the more successful those at the top are, the more prosperity for those at the bottom too. It’s not that simple despite the collective worshiping of mottos praising optimism and meliorism.

Meliorism considers that progress is much more than an “a priori” concept or ideal aspiration but the best strategy to improve an imperfect world. Conceived during the Enlightenment as an optimistic outcome of societies that would grow more perfect, it still inspires projects that aim to improve the world with a blend of “reason” and “optimism” (which are, of course, abstract concepts we’re unable to quantify nor use in a formula).

In moral epistemology, the melioristic tradition in Anglo-American intellectuals (Bertrand Russell, William James, John Dewey, etc.) hasn’t evolved much from its previous positions, and it’s now held among figures of the same Anglo-American circles and institutions. The online project Our World in Data is one recent example of the idea of progress leading to an improvement of things in the world. Created by Max Roser, a German researcher at the University of Oxford, was influenced by the Swedish professor and data analyst Hans Rosling, who had created the Gapminder Foundation in the same spirit.

How to cultivate practical wisdom

Suppose our sense of morality or justice seems to come to us naturally. In that case, meliorism won’t fix the climate issues of today, nor will it bring back enough water to the Colorado river watershed. Today’s big challenges won’t bring the needed transformation by following an incremental strategy of some of the most encouraging trends today.

In an ongoing conversation with professor Henrik von Wehrden, geographer and dean of sustainability at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, I was glad to read two of the papers he’s co-authored lately. The last one was just published in Nature Sustainability. Acknowledging the complexity of some of the issues we face as a society, the authors weigh about the importance of practical wisdom and virtue ethics to build the knowledge needed to affect change, both locally and at a bigger scale:

“Since antiquity, philosophers in the Western tradition of virtue ethics have declared practical wisdom to be the central virtue of citizens involved in public and social life. Practical wisdom is of particular importance when values are conflicting, power is unequal and knowledge uncertain.”

Not every day do we get to read an in-depth analysis of concepts such as prudence and practical wisdom in a paper:

“Western virtue ethicists, since Aristotle, have declared practical wisdom to be the central virtue that citizens need to navigate complex situations wisely. In Aristotle’s terms, practical wisdom (phrónēsis) is the capacity for making decisions and taking action about practical issues that matter to people’s lives.”

“This kind of wisdom differs from the capacity to produce things (téchnē) or to generate and work with abstract thoughts (epistème). In sustainability science, we claim, practical wisdom can provide an integrated and learning-oriented approach for navigating the messy processes of knowledge co-production. Although important also for non-academic actors, here we focus on how this ancient virtue can support researchers to generate transformative change in real-world contexts.”

When it comes to getting outcomes associated with our biggest individual and collective changes, we are concluding that ideals are just a drive: to take action, we’ll need to engage with the particularities and serendipity of reality. Practical wisdom should be one of our allies.