8 Ideasclerosis, Continued

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If and when the ecological idea takes root, it is likely to change


—Aldo Leopold

General George Lee Butler ascended through the ranks of the air

force from fighter pilot to the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

He was a true believer in the mission of the military and specifically

in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence, but he was also a thinking

man, and his doubts had begun in the 1970s. Finally, in 1988 during a

visit to Moscow, he wrote, “it all came crashing home to me that I really

had been dealing with a caricature all those years” (Smith 1997,

20). Butler was nearing the end of what he described as a “long and arduous

intellectual journey from staunch advocate of nuclear deterrence

to a public proponent of nuclear abolition” (Butler 1996). The

difference between Butler and many others in the military was that

“he reflected on what he was doing time and again,” and much of

what he’d come to take for normal did not add up. He wrote, “We

have yet to fully grasp the monstrous effects of these weapons . . . and

the horrific prospect of a world seething with enmities, armed to the

teeth with nuclear weapons.” To do so will require overcoming a “terror-

induced anesthesia which suspend[s] rational thought” in order to

see that “we cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and

hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it” (Butler 1998). Butler, now

in private business, devotes a substantial part of his life to the abolition

of nuclear weapons.

Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface Corporation, experienced

an even more abrupt conversion. In 1994, after 21 years as

the head of a highly successful carpet and tile company, he was asked

by his senior staff to define the company’s environmental policy.

“Frankly,” he writes, “I did not have a vision” (Anderson 1998, 39). In

trying to develop one, he happened to read Paul Hawken’s (1993) The

Ecology of Commerce, and the effect was, as he put it, like “a spear in

the chest” (Anderson 1998, 23). He subsequently read other books

ranging from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The effect of his reading and reflection was to deepen and intensify an

emotional and intellectual commitment to transform the company.

Anderson went on to define environmental goals for Interface that

has placed the company in the forefront of U.S. business, a transformation

that he describes as “a phenomenon of the first order” (Anderson

1998, 183). Instead of merely complying with the law, Anderson

aims to make Interface a highly profitable, solar-powered company

discharging no waste and converting used product into new product

through what the company calls an “evergreen lease.” The Interface

annual report reads like a primer in industrial ecology written by

thinkers like Paul Hawken,William McDonough, and Amory Lovins.

Anderson, now in his midsixties, has become a tireless and eloquent

advocate for the ecological transformation of business.

Butler and Anderson are extraordinary people. They were both at

the top of their respective professions when they came to the realization

that something fundamental was wrong. They were thoughtful

and honest enough to eventually see through the complacency and

pretensions that accumulate around organizations and institutions

like barnacles on the hulls of ships. They are deeply religious men

who saw the necessity for change in moral terms and had enough

moral energy to transcend the world of cold calculation to see their

professions in a larger human and humane perspective and enough

courage to risk failure, rejection, and ridicule.

People like Butler and Anderson are threatening to the stability

and smooth functioning of organizations and institutions. Butler’s

challenge to the defense establishment, an entity not famous for its

encouragement of new ways of seeing things, is the more daunting.As

the CEO of Interface, Anderson has considerably more leverage over

outcomes. But both men represent the kind of professional that Donald

Schon (1983) once called “the reflective practitioner.” In Schon’s

words, the reflective practitioner is inclined to engage “messy but crucially

important problems” through a process that combines “experience,

trial and error, intuition, and muddling through” (ibid., 43).

Moreover, the reflective practitioner

allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion

in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique.He

reflects on the phenomena before him, and on the prior understandings

which have been implicit in his behavior. He

carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a

new understanding of the phenomena and a change in the

situation. [He] is not dependent on the categories of established

theory and technique . . . his inquiry is not limited to

a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement

about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate

. . . he does not separate thinking from doing. (Schon

1983, 68)

In contrast, most professionals are “locked into a view of themselves

as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion

reflection [having] become too skillful at techniques of selective inattention,

junk categories, and situational control” (ibid., 69). For them,

professionalism functions, as Abraham Maslow once described science,

“as a Chinese Wall against innovation, creativeness, revolution,

even against new truth itself if it is too upsetting” (1966, 33). But organizations

and institutions do not often reward mavericks who upset

rules and procedures or who question the unquestionable. To the

contrary, they are penalized, ostracized, or, worse, elaborately ignored

because they threaten what are perceived to be core values and comfortable


I D E A S C L E R O S I S , C O N T I N U E D 77

The problem that reflective practitioners face is that they mostly

work in rigid organizations or professions that function unreflectively.

Both Butler and Anderson challenged the fundamental worldview of

their respective organizations by seeing the organization and its larger

environment at a higher level of generality. From that vantage point

Butler could see that nuclear weapons only compounded the problem

of security, and Anderson could see the environmental and

human havoc caused by a prosperous company otherwise doing

everything by the rules. To accommodate people like Butler and Anderson,

an organization must meet “extraordinary conditions” that include

plac[ing] a high priority on flexible procedures, differentiated

responses, qualitative appreciation of complex processes, and decentralized

responsibility for judgment and action . . . mak[ing] a place

for attention to conflicting values and purposes” (Schon 1983, 338).

In short, an organization must be capable of learning (Schon 1971).

The concept of a learning organization sounds like an oxymoron,

but the human prospect depends every bit as much on the capacity of

organizations to learn as it does on individual learning. Few scholars

have thought more deeply about the possibility and dynamics of organizational

learning than Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor

Peter Senge. According to Senge, learning organizations are

those in which “people continually expand their capacity to create

the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns or

thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and

where people are continually learning how to learn together” (1990,

3). Learning organizations, Senge writes, “develop people who learn

to see as systems thinkers see, who develop their own personal mastery,

and who learn how to surface and restructure mental models

collaboratively” (ibid., 367). They foster people capable of seeing the

organization and institution at a higher level of generality and thereby

capable of challenging basic premises. In short, learning organizations

encourage creativity, innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and the

heretics who speak to fundamentals. On such people and on such organizations

the human future depends.

“For twenty centuries and longer,” in Aldo Leopold’s words, “all civilized

thought has rested upon one basic premise: that it is the destiny

of man to exploit and enslave the earth” (1999, 303). And we’ve got-

ten good at it, multiplying and becoming fruitful beyond the wildest

dreams of our ancestors. Throughout history we learned mostly

driven by necessity: failure, war, famine, overcrowding. Now we have

to learn entirely new things, not because we failed in the narrow sense

of the word, but because we succeeded too well. In one way or another

all of the challenges of the twenty-first century are linked to the

fact that we’ve procreated too rapidly and produced more waste than

the earth can process. We suffer from a new dynamic of excess success

and must make a rapid transition to a more restrained and elegant

condition called sustainability. To do so, what must we learn? We

must learn that we are inescapably part of what Leopold called “the

soil-plant-animal-man food chain” (ibid., 198).We must master systems

dynamics, learning ideas of feedback, stocks, flows, and delays

between cause and effect. And we must learn to see ourselves as

trustees of the larger community of life, which is to say that we must

embrace a higher and more inclusive level of ethics.We must, in other

words, see the human enterprise and all of our own little enterprises

at a higher level of generality in a much longer span of time and restrain

ourselves accordingly. Who will teach us these things?

The fact is that much or even most of what we’ve learned about

this transition has been through the efforts of organizations not usually

regarded as educational and by mavericks operating as reflective

practitioners against the grain of their professions. Some of the best

work on ecological technology, for example, occurs in places like

Ocean Arks, Massachusetts, or Gaviotas, Colombia. The creative edge

in urban planning and design has been happening on the streets of

Curitiba, Brazil, or in cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, or in new

developments like Village Homes in Davis, California, Haymount,

Virginia, or Prairie Crossings, Wisconsin. The best forestry management

is being practiced in the forests of the Menominee tribe in

north-central Wisconsin. The most advanced thinking about energy

use and automobiles comes from the Rocky Mountain Institute in

Colorado. Some of the best thinking about applied economics is taking

place at small institutions like Rethinking Progress, Inc., or The

Center for a New American Dream.We are learning industrial ecology

from companies such as Interface, Inc., and 3-M. The best analysis

of our global plight comes from institutions like the WorldWatch

Institute and the World Resources Institute.

I D E A S C L E R O S I S , C O N T I N U E D 79

But where, in the most critical and fateful period of human history,

does one find the prestigious and well-endowed institutions of

higher education? The short answer is that most have yet to summon

the wherewithal and energy to do very much. Relative to the transition

to sustainability, institutions of higher education are underachievers.

1 On balance, then, it is unclear whether higher education

will be a positive or negative factor in the transition ahead. What we

do know is that higher education can, in Jonathan Kozol’s words,

“prosper next to concentration camps . . . collective hysteria, savagery—

or simply quiet abdication in the presence of ongoing misery

outside the college walls” (1985, 169). It has certainly adapted comfortably

with the corporate dominated extractive economy that lies

at the heart of our environmental and social problems. Why?

The problem stems, I think, from a deep-seated complacency

that bears resemblance to the history of the U.S. auto industry. Consider

that slow-moving, dim-witted colossus, General Motors circa

1970, that failed to check its rearview mirror.Toyota and Honda were

in the passing lane. Our product, too, is often overpriced and of uncertain

quality. We have lost our sense of direction, becoming all

things to all people. Long ago we surrendered the idea of guiding students

to a larger vision of self and life in favor of merely well-paying

careers. On the most important issues of the time, we have sounded

an uncertain trumpet or no trumpet at all.We are being corrupted by

financial dependence on corporate interests that have every intention

of using higher education to their advantage. And a glance at the

rearview mirror shows competitors such as the Internet, organizations

offering distance learning, and other vendors coming up fast in

the passing lane.

The question, then, is whether the institutions that purport to

advance learning can themselves learn new ways appropriate for an

ecological era. What would it mean for the ecological idea to take

root in colleges and universities? It would mean, for one thing, that

such institutions would have to become learning organizations in

order to reinvent themselves. This requires rethinking institutional

1. Berea College, College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College, Northland

College, Prescott College, and Warren Wilson College are notable


purposes and procedures at a higher level of generality. It would mean

changing routines and old ways of doing things. It would require a

willingness to accept the risks that accompany change. It would require

a more honest accounting to include environmental costs. Instead

of bureaucratic and academic fragmentation, the transition

would require boundary crossing and systems ways of thinking and

doing. Instead of being reactive organizations, they would become

proactive, with an eye on the distant future. Instead of defining themselves

narrowly, they would redefine themselves and what they do in

the world at a higher and more inclusive level.

What do these things mean in everyday terms? For one thing,

the transition to becoming a learning organization would change

who has lunch with whom. The requirement for openness would

tend to dissolve the barriers separating disciplines and encourage

bolder, more imaginative, and more useful kinds of thought, research,

and teaching. It would help to initiate a more honest dialogue

about knowledge and its relation to our ecological prospects.

The transition would require rethinking the standards for academic

success to encourage engagement with real and sometimes messy

public problems. It would expand the definition of our “product”

from courses taught and articles published to include practical problem

solving. It could change how we define our clientele in order to

educate, and be educated by, a wider constituency. It would change

the standards against which we evaluate institutions of higher education

to include our real ecological impacts on the world and perhaps

those of our graduates. Since learning, both institutional and individual,

begins with an ability to see things in perspective,

organizational learning might serve to deflate the pomposity that

often pervades the upper echelons of the academy. Finally, transitions

don’t often occur without leadership, and higher education

needs leaders as bold, honest, and capable as George Lee Butler and

Ray Anderson.

It is not whether higher education will be reinvented, but rather who

will do the reinventing and to what purposes. If we fail to make institutions

of learning into learning organizations, others will reinvent

the academy for less worthy purposes. If we fail to elevate professional

standards, those professions will be irrelevant to the transition

ahead, or worse, an impediment. If we, in higher education, cannot

I D E A S C L E R O S I S , C O N T I N U E D 81

make these changes, the possibility that the great transition ahead

will be informed by liberally educated people will also decline. That

means, in short, that the ideas necessary for a humane, liberal, and

ecologically solvent world will be lost in favor of a gross kind of global