Moon Shots

A global community of management renegades

A Hole In The Ocean: Cultural barriers to sustainable growth

[Background: this essay is fall-out from a discussion group, "Architecture for Humanity." It grew from a topic that asked, "What about pouring our soul and heart as architects & humanitarians into projects right in our own backyard." It caught my eye for two reasons. First, I started this blog shortly after the Haiti earthquake largely because I saw the initial emergency response as massive and futile; leaving the island and its people in a mess no better than it was before the earthquake. Second, three years hence, tens-of-thousands of Haitians still live in tents and other temporary shelters, still die prematurely from diseases related to poor nutrition, still die  from cholera, and have few schools in which to educate their children. These are crucial years of growth. The children will never get them back. The next generation could be worse off than their parents were and less able to do anything about it. It is a culture within a culture. Do we really think this is someone else's problem?]

Sometime in 2005, on a grey and rainy day, I stood in Pompeii with only a few others tourists. I was struck by how familiar everything seemed. Here was an easily recognizable town, encased permanently in ash at a moment in time, AD 69.

I was astonished not by its antiquity but by its modernity. Nearly every structure's form and function was familiar. Even the stone encased armoire for storing clothing;  the petrified loaves of bread in the baker's oven and the lewd frescoes advertising the specific sexual pleasures available to clients of the whorehouse.

How odd, I thought. Nearly two millennia later, and there seemed to be very little new under the sun. Then my attention turned to the neat cobble streets with the strategically placed stepping-stones. I learned that the streets were, in fact, open sewers that carried waste from the homes and businesses through the streets, of this hillside town, down to where it spilled into the Bay of Naples, (then a busy port and fishery). Interesting, I thought, that even then the wealthy understood that 'stuff' flows downhill to where the poor people live. Then I thought, "What the hell have we been doing for nearly 2000 years? How could things change so little?" 

What makes us think we are at the pinnacle?

To be frank with my colleagues in the Architecture for Humanity discussion group, I consider "culture" to be, generally, an obstacle to progress and not its medium. Culture establishes artificial rules, mostly rules of convenience, mostly based on dubious assertions that limit what people may do, think, say. While we have mostly broadened our perspective from "flat earth" to "string theory," each community heels closely to an array of folk law mandates and constraints (known as customs (or, fashion in developed economies).

Adam Smith, the presumed herald of capitalist liturgy, identified the inevitable danger of indexing value to fictional  currencies: By transforming (i.e. equating) value with money the landed elite could lay claim to the produce of all their serfs and vassels. "All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind," he wrote in Book III of The Wealth of Nations, Chapter IV.

With the innovation of  "paper money" (or what was like it) "(F)or a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas in the more ancient method of expense they must have shared with at least a thousand people."

I apologize for this loop through 69 AD and the last quarter of the 18th century, but I want to make this point about culture: why should we allow it to be a distraction and an obstacle to progress whether we are talking about the most or least developed countries on Earth?

Going with the cultural flow

Culture is a process. Just like the chrysalis is a stage in the life cycle of certain insects like butterflies, social, cultural, and economic era's are just another stage in our evolution. Living things, (self-organizing systems, like communities) experience a variety of transformations from germination through death (decay and onward). Each stage progresses through periods of persistent growth marked by episodic periods of relative stability before entering a new stage of volatility (relative disorder) only to take on a modified form that may have amazing new properties and capabilities that could have barely been imagined by looking at the earlier stage. From something that looks a bit like a blister or a worm, a butterfly emerges (using precisely the same genetic material that was present in its earlier form). 

Culture is not evil except in the hands of the authorities. Culture almost always emerges in a new form. Protecting itself from change is like crushing the chrysalis. 

So, back to Pompeii: After thinking about the lack of progress in "public works" between AD 69 and 2005, I wondered why such sophisticated inhabitants failed to bury their sewers. Certainly there must have been days when the place just stunk to the high heavens, and it can't have been a minor inconvenience whenever ones foot slipped from one of the stepping-stones and plunged into the muck below.

So I checked out "sewers." Turns out underground sewers existed as early at 3000 BCE in some cities of the  Indus Valley Civilizations (the Indian sub-continent and present day Pakistan). More puzzling, European cities didn't begin placing their sewers underground in earnest until sometime in the 10th Century (though Rome, in 600 BCE did build something like a sewer to drain waste and marshland).

That's not how we do it here?

My question is: What was the hold up that kept the innovation of underground sewers isolated in the Indus Valley Civilization for nearly 2000 years? 

I think cultural conservatism is a reasonable explanation. It's culture, more than oceans, more than mountain ranges, more than armies that wall off clusters of humans in little out of the way places where they make up their own stories to explains things to themselves. (Just like we do here in NYC, 2013 AD.) 

My discussants in Architecture for Humanity seemed to fragment around the idea of "tourism" and whether ot not it was "good" for developing economies.  Some strenuously disagreed while taking nearly identical positions:  1. tourism provides important sources of hard currency for many developing economies; 2. off-shore owners and investors often exploit the wage differential; 3. corrupt politicians and business people often enter into collusive arrangements with local "strong men"; 4.corruption tends to focus wealth in a handful of local operators who would not otherwise be customers for the expensive products and services off-shore marketers prefer to sell locally,  5. where indigenous ownership prevails it's frequently corrupt and even more indifferent than off-shore owners who at least worry about their own reputations among peers.

Look tourism is good and bad! Name something that isn't. It is often the difference between nothing and something. But, when it is enough, it tends to produce little economic vitality other than a demand for hotel service workers 

What I am advocating is someway of making sense out of economic development. Scrap the polemics. If we all judge progress solely on measures of profitability, we will never escape the effects of the Vile Maxim. On the other hand if we construe "custom" as some form of fixed truth, we abandon all hope.

Custom is situational and circumstantial. It does change --all the time! The public restrooms in Pompeii, today, are connected to a modern waste management system. That no one thought to burry sewer lines in AD 69, or looked to the technology of Indus Valley civilizations is nothing more than a lesson in "cultural" isolation and conceit.  

Those fine little cracks in the veneer...

At our small NGO, we propose putting knowledge sharing, learning, not teaching at the leading edge of our development strategy --right up there with healthcare and nutrition. And that's why we believe "trade" needs to take into account the impact it has on traditional social structures. If we reduce it to a balance sheet, we will perpetuate the mindless forces of Smith's 'Vile Maxim.' Factories --there’s or ours-- need customers more than they need capital. Growing economic capacity begins with helping people shed the hard shell of their cultural constraints --not in exchange for our design, but in exchange for their own self-realization (ethnocentrism). 

I do think developed countries are at fault. They are not doing everything they could. My original rhetorical question to the discussion group was: "Why are we (the developed world) closing down factories that make pots, when the fastest growing  populations (about 68 percent of world population) hasn't got a pot to p--s in?" There is no collapse of demand, just a lack of will to bridge the gaps in global trade and fill the voids infrastructure.

In asymmetrical trade (what the world has now and calls 'fair trade') the people with the money decide how things will go. All that is required to redress the imbalance is for the "people with the money" to think ahead, to think beyond diamond buckles, and consider how a complex, diverse, and percolating economic system constantly produces novelty and new opportunities for sustainable growth. 

In social capital, social performance management, social innovation, social value networks; with innovation and collaboration in energy, agriculture, design, small scale manufacturing, education, information technology, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing,  digital currency, distributed intelligence ... we are changing shape, morphing into structures able, eager, and designed to behave differently. Instead of using our own reflection as the model of achievement, look more closely at the what others achieve. The value of global information is not the explosive growth of banality, but the amazing expansion of our ability to find and understand value in each other. We have so much to learn from one another. Learning is so much more powerful than teaching.

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