No Fooling: Exploring the Nature of Responsibility, Progress, Success, and Good Work

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No Fooling: Exploring the Nature of Responsibility, Progress, Success, and Good Work

How we answer a challenge raised over half a century ago regarding the way we handle the blessings of nature will go a long way towards determining our future.


by Peter Hayes

In the roughly 10,000 years since members of our species first began to call the Pacific Northwest home, many good questions have been asked.  Of all that have been posed, one continues to stand out as the most important.  In 1938 during a noontime luncheon address to a group of prosperous citizens in Portland, Oregon, the thoughtful, worldly generalist, Lewis Mumford asked this question:  “I have seen a lot of scenery in my life, but I have seen nothing so tempting as a home for man than this Oregon country… You have the basis here for civilization on its highest scale and I am going to ask you a question which you may not like… Have you enough intelligence, imagination, and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities?”

Though he spoke to one group of people in reference to the future of one region, the question applies equally well to our entire species and our total habitat — this planet — “do we have the qualities necessary to successfully live here for the long haul?”  That is the most important question in the world.  The only answers which matter are those expressed through actions, not words.  And what do the consequences of actions taken since Mumford’s 1938 question say about our success?  There is certainly good news in the form of the development of a more crash resistant economy, a country and world which may have made progress toward the challenge of judging people by the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin, and the imagination, endorsement, and enforcement of laws which help the powers of care, cooperation, and foresightfulness get the upper hand on the powers of selfish, shortsighted greed trying to turn our commonwealth into their personal wealth.

But overall the evidence of actions taken, and not taken, since 1938 indicate that our answer to Mumford’s question is: “no, we don’t yet have the qualities necessary to successfully live here.  Our perceptive abilities, values, and ethics have not yet evolved in the ways that they must in order to develop and use those qualities”.

If meeting the challenge is a matter of fundamental survival, why haven’t we done it?  If we are clever enough to pull off such feats as walking on the moon, splitting atoms, and cloning creatures, why not attend to our most basic survival?  The answer is that we choose to fool ourselves.  Fueled by the powerful forces, including the omnipresent media and our systems of schooling, we fool ourselves in four main ways.  Progress toward meeting Mumford’s challenge — our most basic responsibility — depends on recognizing and correcting the ways that we’ve been fooled and continue to fool our children.
The fooling happens in how too many of us answer these four questions:   1) What is success?,  2) What is our greatest challenge?,  3) What is the basis for our decision making?, and 4) What are schools for?

What is Success?
One major reason for our continuing failure to meet — or even acknowledge — Mumford’s challenge is that for the majority of our species the challenge is not seen to be important enough to even pay attention to; for many, there is no connection between  our personal yardstick of what it means to be a successful person and progress toward the challenge.  Our systems and competitive instincts program us to be amused and preoccupied by other challenges and measures of success — accumulating more money than we need, proving that we are better than other people —  whether on the sports field, in the classroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, or battlefield, and basing our identities and sense of success on the acquisition of power, prestige, and comfort — on what we can take instead of what we choose to give.  So, much like the highly capable student who flunks a course because she just didn’t choose to try, the first reason we continue to not meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us continue to be fooled into believing that success is measured by actions which take us further from meeting the challenge instead of toward it.  Tellingly, Mumford prefaced his question to Portland’s City Club with the caveat that he had a question which his audience probably would not like.  Wasn’t this because it presented — to people who already saw themselves as successful — an alternative, ultimately more important, measure of success, which if recognized, stood to threaten and/or limit their accepted notions of success?

What is the Challenge?
As a teacher, I owe thanks to my students for helping me recognize the second way that we fool ourselves.  Year after year class discussions devolve into a familiar debate over which of the challenges on humanity’s plate is most important and deserving of our attention and energies.  Here is a sampler of predictable excerpts: “Yes, I know that all of the problems with the environment, such as saving the salmon, are important, but you’ve got to realize that we have to look out for the well being of our own species first; people are starving and that must be our top priority.” Or “These efforts to help people learn to treat each other well, and to solve environmental problems like global warming are important, but we have to be sure to do nothing which might threaten quarterly profits and harm the economy; if we don’t have a strong economy, things will fall apart”.  They have learned what they have been taught — and been fooled, just as I was fooled.  We have inherited a flawed conceptual model which is based on the assumption that our species faces three, competing challenges: the challenge of people learning and choosing to successfully live with one another, the challenge of humans learning and choosing to live within the limits of what the land can provide, and the challenge of learning and choosing to develop an economic system which can endure over time.  I fell for it; conclusions such as Aldo Leopold’s: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” fooled me into the mistaken belief that one of the three competing challenge was paramount.  I now see that from birth my culture conditioned me to see myself as positioned in the center of a triangle, with compelling, competing, and insistent voices from each corner vying for my attention.  Across from Aldo’s siren call come the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and others, such as “We must either learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools.”  And from the third corner come the powerful economic cautions of Alan Greenspan, Wall Street, and the WTO advising that without a functioning economy we have nothing.  After investing twenty five years of my working life in the wholehearted, and often zealous, service of one of the three challenges — helping people learn and choose to live within the limits of what the land can provide –  I have come to see that I was wrong because my work has been based on a flawed conceptual model of the real nature of the challenges.  Aldo was right, but he was also wrong; King was right, but he was wrong; Greenspan is right, but he is wrong.

While each is essential, none is in itself sufficient. An economy dependent on the degradation of land or people will never succeed; a healthy land community depends on a functional economy and healthy human community; and humans cannot resolve their differences as long as the ecosystems and economies on which they depend are in disarray.  As Jared Diamond described in a post September 11th letter to the Washington Post: “If a dozen years ago you had asked an ecologist uninterested in politics to name the countries with the most fragile environments, the most urgent public health problems, and the most severe overpopulation, the answer would have included Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.  The close match between that list and the list of the world’s political hot spots today is no accident.”  Though the world around us continues to do its best to fool us into seeing three competing challenges, the evidence from a careful look at how the world really works convinces me that these are not three challenges, but one — building communities which can survive and thrive indefinitely.  For me, the competitive triangle model has been replaced by an interdependent, cooperative circular model of three links of chain.  Healthy communities depend on meeting the challenges represented by each link, and our success is only as strong as the weakest link.

Progress depends on each of us learning to let go of our drive to see our highest priority corner or link prevail over the other three (think Earth First, WTO), and instead develop a higher commitment to the whole of being a citizen and community member than to any one of the links.  Ironically it seems that the longer and harder we continue to push on our chosen corner of the competitive triangle model — as well meaning as we may be — the less likely we are to make progress toward any of the challenges.  Success depends on turning all of our environmentalists, human rights activists, and economic development enthusiasts into just plain citizens — knowledgeable about and committed to all three links of the chain.  These people fit into Wallace Stegner’s notion of choosing to be “stickers” instead of “boomers”, and follow the advice of Gary Snyder and others that one of the most radical — an useful – things we can do is to stay put.

What is the Basis of Our Decisions?

The third way that many of us continue to fool ourselves is pretending that the basis of our decisions can reasonably shift if distanced by time and/or space.  When reduced to the most local scale, our moral evolution, as a species, has progressed toward basing an increasingly percentage of our actions on what is right to do as opposed to what we have the power to do.
Even if I am bigger and tougher than my two eating mates, I don’t eat more than my third of the pizza because that is the right thing to do; sharing a common pasture with other farming families, I choose to graze only as many cattle on it as the land can provide for, because that is the right thing to do;  even if certain investments could be unusually lucrative, I choose not to invest in them because they are bad for the community.  Each of these represents a choice to base decisions on ethics instead of power.  In contrast to the progress we have made in what might be called moral evolution, we continue to fool ourselves with arbitrary blinders and barriers in terms of what we consider to be the domain of ethics and what is the domain of power.

Curiously something which is based on ethics when close to us in space or time, can slip back to being based on power when removed to greater distance.  An example is the land use choices of forest products companies based in the Pacific Northwest. When operating within the United States the company uses a set of land use practices which their full page newspaper ads tell us are shaped not by laws, but by an abiding, ethically based commitment to land stewardship. Yet when the same companies transfer capital from domestic investments to forestry in other countries, their treatment of land is much less careful and, in the absence of land use laws in places like Russia, the basis for company decision making apparently shifts from ethics to what they have the power to do.  Similarly, though I might buy a shirt made using child labor paid at unreasonably low rates — if it came from a very distant place, I would refuse, on ethical grounds, to eat at a local restaurant whose existence and profits depended on similar human abuse.  Though a fisher would choose for ethical reasons not to steal fish from the hold of a fellow fisher’s boat moored alongside of his, he sees no ethical problem with overfishing a species, such as Atlantic Cod, to commercial extinction, which is effectively stealing fish from the holds of the fish boats of his children and grand children.  Why do so many of us continue to fool ourselves into believing that our responsibility for ethical decision making decreases in proportion to how distant and anonymous the consequences become in space and/or time?  Isn’t a consequence a consequence, no matter where and when they happen?

The Work of Schools
Mumford’s question — do we have the characteristics necessary to successfully live here — begs a preceding question: what characteristics are most important to us as we seek to meet the challenge?

Though he suggested intelligence, imagination, and cooperation, what would be your top ten essential attitudes, skills, and habits?  What letter grade would you give the success of the five schools closest to your home at developing these characteristics in their students?  What limits their success in doing this?  The schools in my community are failing in this most important responsibility because they don’t recognize it as being their responsibility and are never held accountable for success.  Instead, their missions, parental pressure, and deadening effect of school reform standards focus their attention and resources on maintaining and increasing students’ upward mobility — or put more bluntly – using the fair winds of competitive instinct to train good predators.  Because of this, the final of the four barrier between us and rising to meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us fool ourselves into believing that our schools can be considered to be successful when they continue to put a disproportionate emphasis on preparing students to take/pursue personal gain — instead of developing in students the readiness to give in proportion to what they take, which is the measure of responsible citizenship. This status quo of schooling is a road toward diminishing returns because the pursuit of individual gain at the expense of our commonwealth leaves a dwindling world to be upwardly mobile in.  We will know that this barrier is behind us when our schools are as, or more, effective at encouraging moral evolution and developing the characteristics of citizenship as they are in preparing students for upward mobility.

I was born into a world where the imbalance between what people asked of our communities and what those communities had the capacity to provide led to progressive erosion of community health and vitality. Though the decline continues, I am optimistic that within my lifetime it is possible for us to turn the corner by reconciling what our species demands with what the systems can sustainably provide. Every day I become increasingly convinced that the key to success is waking up to the four crucial ways that we fool ourselves and continue to fool each succeeding generation. What makes me hopeful is that when you look closely, in the right spots, it is easy to find, learn from, and be inspired by many remarkable examples of work that are successfully beginning to rebuild community vitality. Their success is the result of choosing to end the foolishness by redefining progress and success, re-envisioning three competing community challenges as one challenge, expanding the universe of ethical responsibility, and reshaping schooling to acknowledge that educating for responsible citizenship is our highest responsibility.

Among all of the candidates proposed as yardsticks for a successful life – educational pedigree, net worth, level of influence — is not the ultimate measure of our value and good work the degree to which we help equip our culture and its children to answer “yes” to Mumford’s challenge?

Peter Hayes is the former Ecological Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle. He now manages a family tree farm in the Coast Range of western Oregon.

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