No world can be healthy when some of its communities are unhealthy

Note: this was posted in 1997 to an early internet
experiment. For more of my posts, please see
The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

a sustainable, global world -- the Earth

Haves and Have-nots

Local Level: Healthy Cities

The Healthy Cities movement began when Len Duhl started making the case that “No city can be healthy when some of its communities are unhealthy.” Part of that vision might be suggested by the following mini scenario, which is confined to wealth, somewhat narrower than health. Its message is “No city can be rich when some of its communities are poor.”

Mini Scenario: Garbage Collectors

The City Council has voted to lay off 20% of the garbage collectors; they say it’s an economy measure. My analysis of the situation differs from theirs.

If these people are laid off, they will be unemployed or, perhaps, they will bump other people in lower-paying jobs who will become unemployed. In any case, after some number of steps, an equivalent number of people will become unemployed. These newly unemployed, and their families, unless they are to starve to death, will require subsistence, a share of which I will eventually pay directly or indirectly by public or private means. Very possibly, the rate that I will pay to have bureaucrats buy them subsistence is higher than what the families would pay to buy it for themselves. These families will also lose purchasing power, and this will eventually cost me.

The City has the attitude, “Yes, the taxpayers will eventually pay, but not out of the City’s budget.” In the meantime, I am paying nearly as much but the garbage is not being collected as well as it should be and this is a hazard to my and my family’s health.

Further, the newly unemployed and their families are converted from being constructive members of a healthy society to being unconstructive, or actively destructive. This is a hazard to me and my family.

How can I make this analysis into a documentable argument? What are the social circumstances in which such an argument can be effective?

Global Level

Bo suggests that we need more subtlety on our scenarios in the interest of realism. What would our scenarios predict if we went to a more detailed level of analysis? Will the Haves inevitably try to increase their holdings at the expense of the Have-nots, and (because of their economic power) succeed; it being the job of right-thinking people to try to stop them?

In some respects, the Have/Have-not duality is inherently destabilizing to the Haves, in ways besides those described by Mark and Steve. For example, Haves are necessarily faced with the choice of either exporting jobs to Have-nots or paying artificially high prices for goods. In the US this doesn’t cause overt political upheaval: we compensate in a number of ways, such as deflecting our anger or just simply hunkering down and dumbly enduring. Still we pay a price, above that necessary to rectify the situation, in the warping of our political and social institutions. Is it conceivable that thinking the problem through would eventually cause us to see that we’re not an island? Or does short-term greed necessarily decide the issue? Notice that Have-nots who have more and can serve as the client nations in this industrial exchange mechanism, e.g. Taiwan, enjoy the benefit for a while until they are successful and then have to reverse roles. Our scenarios should model the rate of this conversion process. Does the mechanism work differently at the end, when there are many Haves, than at the beginning? Is it impossible, possible, or necessary for all to eventually be converted into Haves?

Using Scenarios

The preceding suggests that there are son many interacting mechanisms in play that seems impossible to get to some ultimate level of scenario that would allow you to just read off the necessary prescriptive actions. Scenarios are useful more as a means of perceiving the pieces of the whole and how they may interact than as tools for ideology.

I would like to urge a strategy close to that described by Eric, namely one of incremental change. We have to look to the long-term consequences of our plans, but we also have to have humility, considering our inability to predict very far out. We can’t save the world forever. All we can do is try to save it now and to put our children in a good place for them to do similar work for the next generation.

A role for Technology/The Internet

Respone to Steve and Rob.

The Internet could serve as more than a vehicle for email and cool Web pages. It could support the capability of people to understand the implications of underlying environmental, social, and economic structures clearly. This understanding needs to be collective. A mistake we typically make is to see political activity as a series of “issues,” which necessarily have two sides: the side gaining the majority will “win,” and each tries to do so. What the garbage collection example illustrates is that when we simplistically collapse the structure of such problems there is an excellent chance for everyone to lose, no matter which side wins.

Politics is not like a tennis match. It’s more like designing a technological artifact. A community needs to join together in building a piece of social structure that simultaneously meets diverse goals: getting the garbage collected, enabling the human potential of its members, and so on. Where the “sides” come in is that each dimension of the problem divides the community differently into sectors. The members need to join in the debate, representing vigorously all the sectors they belong to. That way, the design of the resulting facet of the social structure will have enough richness to work well. The Internet could enable this by changing people’s cognitive environment.

The Internet could be a “communications toolset” that would provide infrastructure (not just email) for people to converse in ways that make social change practical and effective. It could provide multi-sectoral analytic tools that enable different constituencies to come together in flexible, sophisticated responses that meet diverse goals. Open, joint access to the tools and to data would create a kind of virtual drawing board over which users can collaborate. Users could structure their access in intelligent, context-dependent ways, so that conversation groups can have focus rather than letting each voice get lost in a sea of undirected opinion.

People are not all equally interested in making changes that will pay off in 2050. Most people are at least partly interested in changes that pay off now. The point of trying to build the kind of technology I am talking about is to make the links between actual and potential benefits clearer, to make it possible for people to craft methods of getting both. The way to make sustainability possible is to bring the future permanently into the present.

Government, Multinationals, etc.

A response to Bruce and Catherine.

Governments, multinationals and other formal social institutions are to society as the cytoskeleton is to the cell, a set of filaments each of which attaches at two points of the inside of the cell wall and pull the wall in at those two points: collectively these filaments are decisive in giving overall shape to the cellular envelope, but only partially relevant (by providing transportation vehicles) to the system of internal organelles in which the cell goes about its business.

We the people create (consciously and unconsciously, by scheming and by default, willy-nilly) social structures, both formal and informal, that shape our possibilities. We need to accept responsibility for doing so, and to get good at our job. As Bruce says, “the current citizens of the US very likely will lose their democratic society over the coming three decades if they don’t evolve quickly a more inclusive sense of community.”

Thucydides provided the archetypal scenario illustrating the effects of failure of community. As he observes, the key (whether via Internet or via the old-fashioned mechanisms) is the quality of social discourse.

Tue, 11 Feb 1997 18:48:25 GMT

For more, please see
The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

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2 Responses to No world can be healthy when some of its communities are unhealthy

  1. lostloveletters says:

    Your post above is an exact description of basic Austrian economics and you can find alot more examples of what you are trying to convey via this amazing educational economics book called “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlit… not sure ify ou are a Ron Paul supporter but this is the stuff that Ron Paul bases his economic stances/policies on. The problem is, most peopel in this country don;t know the first thing about basic economics, which is why my generation (I am 30) is pretty much screwed… so much for the American dream!

  2. williampcoleman says:

    lostloveletters,

    Thanks for your comment.

    About being screwed out of the American dream: Er, uh, yeah. I noticed.

    I’m not in any way an economist — what I’m an expert in is medical decisions and 10 years ago when I wrote this, I was actually, in a very small way, in a position of some power about the healthcare-specific version of these ideas. I was working at one of the WHO coordinating centers for medical informatics, I had a pretty good international reputation in that field, and I was the technical manager for the Koop Foundation’s level 3 proposal to the NIST advanced technology program. So, I tried to use this leverage to push ideas that felt were both humane and practical. You know how far I got? Zip. Zero.

    Now, much later, a few things have changed.
    * After 7 years of George Bush, the country is such a total mess that people are starting to massively think change might be more viable than sitting back.
    * The technology base in computing and internet has improved so radically, that I’m able to seriously embark on a 1-man program to build the software infrastructure that would support this vision. I mean, I knew then exactly how to do it, but now it’s practical to build it — so I’m working on it. One of the obviously diverse purposes of this blog is to explain and eventually document it. My attitude is that if I can make the tools are available then there’s some infinitesimal chance people will use them. Who knows?

    — Bill

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