Sunday, April 15, 2012

Three Audacities + One Assumption = Status Quo

It’s a shame that each one of you didn’t sit through Professor Treloar’s statistics classes with me at Ball State University. Well, come to think of it, it’s probably great that you didn’t because whatever you were doing instead probably did more to get you precisely where you are – reading this blog post – than would have been the case had you been sitting in the seat next to me. But the reason why it would have been great would have been my ability to point to the day I publicly confessed my heresy and became, well… the author of this blog post. For at least one of you, it would have made sense out of my passionate frustration with how little we concern ourselves with ourselves. To be specific, it was his class on parametric statistics – the one where we were discussing the ‘normality distribution assumption’ behind common statistics – where you would have seen my blood boil. Not only, did we learn, are we supposed to assume normally distributed frequency and scale in variables, but we’re supposed to accept that the variables ARE. Question either of these? Well, that would unravel all we KNOW (or at least the parts we know that we know).

Sitting on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall with some new acquaintances talking about why philanthropy and corporate social responsibility have been incapable of system-level transformation, I was vexed with the incapacity for social entrepreneurs to intuitively contemplate the fact that their impulse to surrogate every impulse through money IS the principle reason why their actions are rendered impotent. While the use of money (like all of the other 5 dimensions of Integral Accounting) is a helpful and at times necessary utility, if it is the sine qua non arbiter of what is good, necessary, or doable, much will be undone. But more fundamental than this utility challenge was the seeming disregard for what I like to refer to as the “Three Audacities”.

Alleging to be sentient or proclaiming the designation for humanity is bold bordering on arrogant. Much of what we do as a species makes far less sense than, say the behavior of the average fungus. Join me, for a moment, on a whimsical journey through the Three Audacities and let’s see what happens when we test a belief system we don’t even believe we believe (for belief would imply that we’ve considered it).

You and I are marooned on an island with fresh water and a banana tree. Got the picture? Now, let’s journey through the Three Audacities – those unconsidered assumptions that underpin our existence and behavior.

Audacity 1 – we presume we are entitled to act. Confronted by the impulse of hunger and seeing a banana on the tree, we assume that we are entitled to take and consume our environment. Forget concepts like proprietary right enclosure (the bane of efficiency and collaboration) or the principles of the Commons (long lost in the transactions of the Magna Carta and its companion, the Charter of the Forest), when put on the stage, we presume that we have command of the stage and the props. The consequence of this Audacity is that we fail to actively consider perpetuation of life, materials, and resources for present use and future benefit because we assume that our ability to commandeer a thing entitles us to use it… and now.

Audacity 2 – we presume to interact
. Let’s say that I know what a banana is but you’ve never seen one. When you see me eating a banana, even without knowledge or previous experience, you’re willing to eat one too. In other words, we’re willing to commute and surrogate our knowledge and experience to another and participate in consensus behavior because someone else is doing it. The consequence of this Audacity is that we mistake action for knowledge, expertise, discernment, or consideration. Michael Crichton observes that, “the characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity.” In our Audacity to interact in the illusion of efficiency or civilization, our interaction places excessive reliance on the wisdom, morality, or discernment of unnamed, unknown “others” who “must have known better.”

Audacity 3 – we presume to transact. Now the cool thing here is that we can immediately construct systems of values and even morality. Let’s say that I know that you are hungrier than am I. I can choose to give you the banana and take less or none in which case I’m establishing a value transaction that can hierarchically determine that your satiation is ‘more important’ than mine. In our transacting, we can build social and tangible credits and debits based on our ability to variously defer, cooperate, horde, and consume. The consequence of this Audacity can lead to elaborate relationships of interdependence and can also lead to the notion of fulfilled or breached social contracts – the outcome of which can be what we call civilization or strife.

And then the Assumption: We presume that, presented with a similar set of circumstances, We the People would largely act in a similar fashion. This Assumption gives us the ability to thoughtlessly and effortlessly engage in the Three Audacities in a reflexive and unconsidered fashion.

Now I am not suggesting that there’s a cosmic “right” or “wrong” with the fact of these reflexive behaviors. I’m sure that there’s ample reason to accept that some degree of these elements in combination are responsible for the species being here. But what I am suggesting is that the absence of consideration of these attributes of what constitutes our behavior on Earth is a fundamental basis for the predictable failure of our impulses to “change”. Worst of all, when we include the controlled utilities of incumbent systems – money and reliance on ‘expert’ knowledge most frequently abused – in our efforts to change our behavior or the values of systems, we are assured that the outcome will be the lowest common denominator of the weakest moral link in the system.

Let me give you an example from this week. Addressing a concern raised by a shareholder regarding equity ownership in mining company Rio Tinto, PAX World Fund was asked to clarify its position. Specifically, an inquiry was made into Rio Tinto’s participation in destabilizing communities ranging from Bougainville Copper in Papua New Guinea to Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi metals project in which the government of Mongolia has entered into a devastating credit agreement which could bankrupt the country. In response, PAX World Fund Sustainability Research Analyst Laura Huober (on behalf of Richard J. Badger) responded that the fund’s participation is justified at the outset because, “a great deal of our standard of living depends on metals…” That’s right. Corporate social responsibility was about picking the lesser of evils rather than calling for interactive accountability. At no point did she address any material issues confronting real people – just consolidated a justification for being in public equity metals producers and an obtuse apology for Rio being among the leaders of its peer group. Amazing! For a company that relies on injustice, conflict, and economic abusive concessions supported by “Development Banks”, they’re the best in class! Wow, why don’t I feel better now? If you’re an investor in PAX World Fund, you should realize that your expectation of investment returns for your money, unless it comes with explicit statements of YOUR accountability expectations, supports an emotional illusion preying on your belief in social justice and sustainability.

Change begins when we are willing to suspend the true opening assumption that plagues us – namely, that we actually are capable of considered, reflective inquiry. Once we build a means to question this assumption and constantly hold it in our consciousness, we can then repurpose the Three Audacities and the One Assumption and contemplate an equation that leads to transformation of ourselves and our experience together.


  1. David,

    Again, you've honed in on concerns I've circled forever (he says, 40+% of his IRA in PAX).

    Acknowledging Audacity 1, several years ago, I wrote of "complicity in... a world of novel convenience for the short lived few" (influenced by Thomas Berry's comment made at the 1st Hudson Valley Bioregional Conference, in 1985, "Wonder World is making Waste World").

    Recognizing Audacity 2, in 1989, I wrote: "Competence is morality. Though to err is human, it may not be humane. We’ve tended to guess that because a value, thing or meme is prevalent that it is also “popular”. That since a pattern pervades the more or less synthetic order(ing) that it has passed some common sense scrutiny which endorses it’s proliferation as if by informed decree. But, too often, by the decree of sleep. The perpetuation of the obsolete is voted for, not by a conscious nod of consent, but by a kind of nodding off. A kind of stunted solace that what’s in wide use is what is obviously appropriate for humankind in general."

    Addressing Audacity 3, in a response to Linda Hollier (then in South Africa, now in Dubai), in a discussion of technology design and use:

    "I realize that it can seem inconveniently pedestrian to examine and assess our deep relations to the many gratifying expediencies provided by advances in technique. And to do that in light of how our designs train the senses and impact our motivations, creating probabilities effecting what potentials we’re liable to act on.

    Becoming conscious of those dynamics, that design feeds back into embodied experience, that artifacts inform behaviors, seems to me to be one of the ways we can approach sustainable development. A way to have compassion for ourselves in this juggernaut of change.

    While every advance tetra-arises it does so with consequences, pro and con together. In the long view, the discovery of fire and employment of combustion was an incalculable positive. Peak oil, an incalculable negative. Yet in every occasion of our use of technologies we express our relation to them in how we account for, calculate or understand the ramifications of our use. For each problem that seems intractable there were incremental instances of traction away from solution. I find that empowering.

    I still believe that an accounting for how crisis level problems form aught to include addressing what trade-offs, expediencies, and lags we’ve enacted in our forging gradual (and sudden) inner and outer progress. A full... accounting is a way to pre-emptively stem backlashes from the discrepancies of [inherited patterns]. The quicker we develop without adequate and even attentions to all [aspects] the faster we accrue a backlog of only partly resolved old business.

    Influenced by the Transcendentalist slogan, “No more Second Hand God”, I wanted a recovery of first person disciplines (loves) able to counter balance the displacements of responsibility built up through [modernity]. A baby/bathwater discernment advocating an application of mindfulness to conditioning, in the momentary personal, yes, but also in the collective long terms.

    Basically I was concerned with interior and exterior adaptation and how the more an exterior adaptation becomes reflexively automatic the more an interior adaptation needs to be made mindful, as well as approaching becoming reflexive.
    What I saw was that we may need to attend to differentiations to more thorough extents than we have heretofore. The syntax of differentiation and unification, the dependency of integrations on differentiations... , may require balancing the lags and expediencies which advances in respective [fields] build into our worldspaces. Our values determine where we look for hidden costs."

    1. Kerry, thank you for this deepening of the discussion. I think that your concluding point on our syntax is well worth greater visibility and discussion as we've assiduously avoided language for that which is not to be questioned.

  2. By the way - you might want to get the word out that while PAX World Fund (!/pages/Pax-World-Funds/108095372551848) doesn't invest in weapons, alcohol and other destructive companies, they don't seem to have any problem with firms that deploy them to extract returns from resource stewards in countries where their "ethical investors" seldom travel. Get the word out on this and see what can be transformed.

  3. Thanks for the heads up on Pax, Dave. I obviously intend to contact them myself, but if there's any concerted effort in addition to the more organic one, please be sure and let us know.

  4. And...the action continues...


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave