Strategic planning for sustainability

Reflection on strategic planning for sustainability, Don Philpott (2011)

This report stems from a course I did in Cork related to sustainable design. Many of the overarching concepts were designed to be practical, developed from a model called the “Natural Step.”

Aside – I have a number of teleological issues related to the conceptual framing of “sustainable.” The word seems needlessly nebulous and backward looking. How to reframe a political consensus designed to harvest profit from destroying natural resources, or how to reorient “progress”makes more sense on a personal level. Not some luddite perspective or “back to nature” fallacy.

I would look to words that engender common cause, rather than the binary set of progress/regress or sustainable/unsustainable.  The politics of conformity lie somewhere in hiding behind the green, hippie, veneer of the main protagonists. Too many college degrees and not enough farmers, closeted intellectuals upbraiding their business competitors and those religious and demagogue types who’ve been short changed by modernity, all secretly clinging to a new chance for power.

If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self direction and for self initiated learning “

Carl Rogers (1951)

I am approaching this reflection from a social psychology perspective. I have read widely in this area and think in terms of self interest power and responsibility. The first strut to my matrix is that people operate on a public and private persona offering on initial contact a best version of themselves following the 1970s work on game theory and enunciated clearly by Robert Axelrod in his widely quoted work that on initial contact individuals are best motivated to cooperate.

In our group of Cork people we had three individuals who had an initial interest in sustainable planning. For these people communication was through an internet connection and certain communication styles and forms of address formed the context against which the individuals interacted. Communication was fast at the beginning and slowed down toward the end; interest was high at the beginning and slowed toward the end. This follows closely with Bandura (1977) and social learning theory that behaviour changes based on punishment reinforcement and observation. Thus the central principle is that the internet is a communication channel which offered a version of the “public space”

Once this initial period of structuring takes place self interest and goal setting is negotiated. Daniel Dennett’s compatibilist position argues that humans have evolved the capacity to change their natures in interaction with the world Dennett (2004). Both Pinker and Robert Wright agree that the evolution of morals and ethics are societal, not vested in the individual but possibly (in game theory) a “tit for tat” system where it is better for parties to be seen to act unselfishly within society. Whatever its ontological status may be, a moral sense is part is part of the standard equipment of the human mind. (Pinker 2002 p193)

This series of thoughts is bounded by my wider context of positivism or logical empiricism holding the central idea of “verificationism” or that a proposition can only be cognitively meaningful if there is a finite procedure for conclusively determining it is true or false. Following a principle of “moral universalism” it is assumed that the best strategy for the future is to curb harmful human behavior but conversely human behavior is only really harmful to humans as the planet has a longer life expectancy.

“As the domain of religion has shrunk, as many tentacles of the new age movement have invaded medicine…obedience can be viewed as meta ideological, compliance is rewarded by higher rank in the social system, thus motivating and perpetuating the system simultaneously” Taylor (2004 p75-75).

The society that we live in could be conceptualized as an extreme form of capitalism, “the American empire” Pilger (2007) bounded by expensive academic credentials which bind the individual to debt culture. Money like writing has the power to rechannel human energies McLuhan (2008 p146)

What I am getting at here is that the structure of the course and the construction of theories follows the perpetuation of the model, “the natural step” The more closely the model is followed the more rewarded or stroked becomes the individual for his or her compliance. What this offers then is an argument for the self selected group theory of modern social networks based on the “network society.”

The “meta” or zeitgeist within the structure ideally supports a few ideological constructs, business, organisation, science and motivation while the micro supports the attainment of credentials and power through a hierarchical system of obedience to the central theme of “science knows best”. The purpose of a science based approach is an attempt to structure conditions on a rationalist basis.

This basis offers that experiment, observation and measurement provide a means of operating which promotes rationality and baseline rules of interaction with the environment and others.

Because humanity is seen as essentially rational, the good life consists in living in accordance with reason…” Crisp quoting Cottingham (1989)

Form a personal agenda my willingness to interact with a group is usually based on self interest. My perspective is not to damage others, but I am aware that the wider capitalist model is one based on exploitation; this model follows the structuring of our societies into personal accumulation, sequestration, the division of power within society and the imposition of laws and sanction. Groupwork principle evolved over time has been that carrot and stick are both equally justified concepts in dealing with the human animal.

What I am getting at most clearly is the second assignment which focused our group to work on the “business case.” My personal view is that the structuring of the model in relation to business is a sop to the corporate CSR agenda, basically responding and amplifying the message of business for a way to be seen as socially responsible in the public sphere while at the same time doing all possible to negate this responsibility within the internal environment of organisations due to the two macro factors at play in current business , the availability of very cheap labour from China and the ability to move within an internationalised banking matrix which negates the territorial power of governments.

Basically the book offers that science can be subservient to business which is true in that science has become one of the most “professionalized” professions in that it is relatively cheap to buy the opinions of scientists. Poststructuralist models pose “a critique of the humanist subject as rational, autonomous and self transparent,” Besley and Edwards (2005).

The structuring of peer reviewed materials means that the ranking of scientists is more closely controlled and linear than politicians or judges; therefore it is much easier and cheaper to buy in the capitalist milieu.

Through the procession of this course a number of factors have coalesced into the normal form of human behaviour. An initial strong willingness to cooperate allied to an interest from all participants and the strong desire to co-operate for mutual benefits became at the end the province of those personalities whose self perception and willingness to succeed were most closely allied to the course principles followed through on their commitments.

The corollary of this is that the strong ethic of group work diminishes over time with personal agendas springing up in the second round of group negotiations. To me all this is clear and fairly simple; abstentions, negation and substitution form the basis of the approaches to planetary sustainability and also work in the virtual sphere to sustain communication and the division of labour in group projects. The conclusion i would draw is that group work based on a continuing positive perspective of the other players is unsustainable over time.

Within this perspective is the distinction of “culture” from “reality”. It is perfectly comprehensible that a culture of sustainability will develop which is the mirror of the current social model and within this the current model is viewed as the culture and the newer model the “counter culture.”

This “framing” offers a clue to the provisional positive perspective on the course. While this provisional assessment is worked through and is utilised the underlying structural issues come to light quickly enough. In this way the course could be viewed as a social psychology experiment in cultural reinforcement and “norming.” How long does it take a group ethic to break down?

In similar but opposite terms when society is governed through pragmatic means through laws courts and the devolution of power what is to be gained for the common man by building up a power elite among scientists? These questions are left unanswered within the current schism of thinking on sustainability, with one group attempting to regulate society around sustainable lines and other group attempting to live self sufficiently through using the tools of modern society without being regulated by its norms. “…does virtue come from teaching?” Or does it come not from teaching but from practice?” Plato

When I read a Chinese strategic treatise on the widening of warfare to include politics and networked society, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (1999). I am lead around again to Von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and his belief that war is a continuation of politics by other means and find that it mirrors my view on the sustainability paradigm which does not attempt to alter the status quo, simply being another command and control model of behaviourism . In Foucault’s perspective on history, power and knowledge are interrelated yet separate issues.

From a practical perspective strategic planning through a positive view on human nature has rarely attracted much credence in larger groups. The reasons for this viewpoint are varied but one possible formula is that human relations are based on evolutionary models of small group behaviour and reciprocal altruism is only congruent within this construction and social structure.

Simply put the desire to mate and hold territories are instincts and drives which usually trump the” higher moral agendas” “The ethics game treats people as equivalent, sentient, rational free willed agents and its rules are the calculus that assigns moral value to behaviour through the behaviours inherent nature or consciousness.” (Pinker 1997 p55)

While my overall viewpoint on the validity of matrixed structures of management, organisation theory and business as societal macrocosm is in debate my reasoning and belief in a needed structural reorganisation of human efficiencies is not. The basic capitalist model has produced an oversupply of certain material goods and only through the manipulation of markets, tariffs and trades has this process assumed its current shape.

It can be argued that the “mental quality” of life and standard of living even in western countries has decayed in recent years and overall a need for change in thinking is required. While I doubt that the capitalist overlords will be persuaded to follow an ethic of fairplay and equality I am pretty sure that scientists will not take their place either due to the structuring of scientific guilds and university models.

What can be hoped for is that the human animal will evolve into a better version over the duration of a couple of generations, probably through the usual sifting process of death plague and disaster, but maybe through a process of strategic withdrawal from the current model of extreme western capitalism( where everything is commodified, this concept includes air, water and biological existence).

Paradoxically it has taken the world’s richest societies to ignore these basic facts. Man and woman power devoted to the production of material goods counts as a plus in all our economic indices. Man and woman power devoted to the production of happy, healthy and self reliant children in their own homes does not count at all. We have created a topsy-turvy world”

John Bowlby (1988 p2)


Baudrillard, J “Simularcra and Simulation” Published by University of Michigan Press 1994

Bowlby, J. (1988) “Attachment theory” Published by Minerva

Dennett, D “ Darwin’s dangerous idea” Published by Penguin 1995

Dennett, D. “Freedom evolves” Published by pernguin books 2004

Gardner, D. “Risk, the science and politics of fear” Published by Virgin 2008

Goldacre, B ” Bad science” Published by Harper Collins 2008

Hittchens, C “God is not great” Published by Atlantic Books 2008

James, O “ Affluenza” Published by Vermillion 2007

Masson, J Against Therapy Published by Fontana 1990

More, T. “Utopia” Published by Penguin classics 1965

Pinker, S “How the Mind works” Published by Penguin books 1999

Pinker, S “The blank Slate” Published by Penguin Books 2003

Plato, “Meno” Published by Hackett Publishing 1981

Rogers, C.R. “Client-Centered Therapy: its current practice, implications, and theory” Published by Constable 1951

Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (1999) “Unrestricted Warfare” Published by Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House

Wright, R “The Moral animal” Published by Abacus 1996

Journal Articles

Ascher, C

The force of ideas”

HISTORY OF EDUCATION, MAY, 2005, VOL. 34, NO. 3, 277–293

Besley, A.C

Editorial: “Poststructuralism and the impact of the work of Michel Foucault in counselling and guidance”

British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Vol. 33, No. 3, August 2005

Crisp, R.

Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics By John Cottingham”

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000


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