Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Anderson: And I’m recording.

Prendergast: And I’m record­ing too.

Anderson: Well, it’s just us. And by us I mean me—

Prendergast: And Neil.

Anderson: And whoever’s lis­ten­ing out there. Another episode, we’re a lit­tle behind. But this one is good. This one’s dif­fer­ent. This is our first one about defense.

Prendergast: So tell us what we have this week, then.

Anderson: We’ve got Colonel Mark Mykleby. He goes by Puck. I remem­ber men­tion­ing that to you and you said, It sounds like it Dickens novel.”

Prendergast: It’s a great name.

Anderson: This is actu­al­ly noth­ing like a Dickens nov­el. He’s a for­mer Marine and a mil­i­tary strate­gists, and he’s helped draft A National Strategic Narrative that empha­sizes sus­tain­abil­i­ty. He did that for Admiral Mullen, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs. He’s worked on some real­ly inter­est­ing stuff. We actu­al­ly learned about him through John Fullerton. At the moment he’s work­ing over at the New America Foundation, which is a non­prof­it, non­par­ti­san think tank that is kind of into fos­ter­ing new ideas.

Prendergast: Yeah, I can’t wait to hear about sus­tain­abil­i­ty and defense in the same conversation.

Anderson: Right. This was anoth­er one of these very long con­ver­sa­tions that I’ve had to trim down quite a bit. Just keep in mind as you lis­ten, as always this is an edit­ed con­ver­sa­tion. There are a lot of exam­ples that didn’t make it in. We cov­er a lot of big stuff. So we always lose a lit­tle depth. There is more depth in the orig­i­nal, but we’re con­strained by time.


Mark Mykleby: So, the nar­ra­tive thing. I wrote it along with a Navy cap­tain, Wayne Porter. He was a long-time part of Admiral Mullens’ staff. 

Aengus Anderson: And what was it specifically?

Mykleby: Oh, it was called A National Strategic Narrative. For me, I was work­ing on strat­e­gy and spe­cial oper­a­tions com­mand, cre­at­ing the first-ever strat­e­gy for spe­cial oper­a­tions. What capa­bil­i­ties, capac­i­ties, author­i­ties, what spe­cial ops need in the future. And when we were doing that, we rec­og­nized you know what? There’s no over­ar­ch­ing nation­al con­text to inform a strat­e­gy for spe­cial oper­a­tions. We have no nation­al strat­e­gy. I mean we’ve got a nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy. We have a nation­al defense strat­e­gy. We have a nation­al mil­i­tary strat­e­gy. We’ve got strate­gies com­ing out the butt. I mean, we’ve got so many strate­gies out of DC we don’t have a strategy.

And oh by the way, the strate­gies that do come out of Washington, they’re absolute­ly vac­u­ous. I mean they’re not strate­gies. They promise all things to all peo­ple. They don’t make any pri­or­i­ti­za­tion deci­sions. They real­ly don’t address real­i­ty. They’re just…wishlists. You know, we couldn’t just quit and say well we don’t have a grand strat­e­gy so we’re going to pick up our toys and go home and not do a strat­e­gy; that’s not an option. 

So we made one up. We just kind of start­ed think­ing about grand strat­e­gy. Around this time­frame, Admiral Mullen came down to Tampa, rel­a­tive­ly new into being the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And he got a dog and pony show about what we’re doing. Well he went back, told Wayne to go find out who­ev­er was doing this stuff down at spe­cial oper­a­tions because it sound­ed like the stuff that Wayne was always chirp­ing at Admiral Mullen about. And so that led Wayne to me, I went up to DC, showed Wayne what kind of stuff we were doing. And we instant­ly had this friend­ship. For about six months we were just like, on the phone, trad­ing emails, just talk­ing about what a grand strat­e­gy for the United States would look like, etc.

All of a sud­den, in the spring of 2009, Wayne calls me. He’s all [?], he says, Hey, man. Animal Mullen wants us to look at grand strat­e­gy. Can you come up and help me do a grand strat­e­gy for the United States?” 

Anderson: Is this like that moment in your life where you’re like, How did I get here?” 

Mykleby: No, because it was just… When you live in the world of the absurd you expect absurd stuff. So I was just like yeah, what—

Anderson: Craft a grand strat­e­gy for the United—

Mykleby: I was just like yeah okay, we’ll give it a whirl. And so we get to the Pentagon, and Wayne and I look at each oth­er. How’re we going to do this thing? Well the first thing I said, we weren’t going to write a strat­e­gy. Because there are already too many strate­gies, like I men­tioned. But it’s also because all our strate­gies, if you notice them, they’re all focused on how we’re going to keep some­thing away. They’re all focused on how are you going to con­trol things. And we said we weren’t going to do that. We want­ed to write a strat­e­gy that was based on oppor­tu­ni­ty. On where are we going to go, on what we’re going to cre­ate, and who are we going to be and what’re we going to look like as a peo­ple, as a nation, in the future.

And we noticed that we were still behold­en to the frame­works of con­tain­ment, you know. And very pow­er­ful stuff, great strate­gic con­cept that applied in a Cold War envi­ron­ment. It was a con­trol strat­e­gy that lever­aged force and pow­er. Twenty-first cen­tu­ry? It doesn’t fit. Because most­ly, in large part because of the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of infor­ma­tion. We real­ly have to approach the world as an open sys­tem. And in an open sys­tem you have to start think­ing in eco­log­i­cal terms. That’s why Wayne and I start­ed call­ing it a strate­gic ecology.

So as we frame this thing out, so this is where we are, get­ting back to Lincoln of, you know, where you are and whith­er you are tend­ing you can bet­ter judge what to do and how to do it. Well, if where we are is we’re still trapped with­in these con­trol strate­gies that are focused on threat and risk, and the place we need to get to in an open sys­tem is to be the best com­peti­tor using Darwinian the­o­ry. And that’s why Wayne and I start­ed talk­ing about you have to have cred­i­bil­i­ty. Credibility about who you are you and what you are, and that means the strength of your nation. How you act and how you are. And that cred­i­bil­i­ty is going to give you influence. 

There’s this great line in Beowulf where it says, Behavior that’s admired is the path the pow­er among peo­ple every­where.” Behavior that’s admired. I mean, that’s just human dynam­ics 101. And there’s a great book, it’s up there on the shelf, that George Kennan wrote, that’s called Realities of American Foreign Policy. The fourth chap­ter, which is just some of the most pre­scient stuff, he talks about what I was just talk­ing about. The built envi­ron­ment. Our stew­ard­ship of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. How we shop, and the places we go in to wor­ship. I mean, just how we act in com­mu­ni­ties is what defines us as a nation. I mean, that’s what made Kennan one of our great­est strate­gists, is he focused more on poten­tials and ten­den­cies than ana­lyt­ics. He syn­the­sized things in look­ing over the hori­zon, and what is the emerg­ing sys­tem. That real­ly informed what Wayne and I were talk­ing about.

So when we framed this thing out as what would, you know… If it’s cred­i­ble influ­ence abroad and strength at home, if that’s what we’re focus­ing on, what’s the orga­niz­ing idea? I mean, what is the big chal­lenge of our time? What is our trend line? When we looked at it, any trend line that we saw, whether it was our pub­lic health, whether it was our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, our infra­struc­ture, etc., not trend­ing too pos­i­tive­ly. But Wayne and I always said, we don’t buy this crap of America in decline, though. We’ve just got to fig­ure out a dif­fer­ent path.

And just to cut to the chase, because we were think­ing as a strate­gic ecol­o­gy, and we were read­ing those types of things, the con­cept of sus­tain­abil­i­ty kept com­ing up. We’re not frig­gin’ tree­hug­gers, and I’m no poster child for sus­tain­abil­i­ty, but I’m try­ing to fig­ure it out. But sus­tain­abil­i­ty seemed to fit, and here’s why. Because we looked at the eco­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty. An organism’s abil­i­ty to remain diverse and pro­duc­tive over time. Suspend your belief for a sec­ond and just con­sid­er that the United States may actu­al­ly be an organ­ism in a greater ecol­o­gy, a strate­gic ecology.

So if our endur­ing inter­ests are pros­per­i­ty and secu­ri­ty, look how that maps to the def­i­n­i­tion, giv­en our cur­rent con­text. Diverse means depth, means redun­dan­cy, means resilience. That part of it is your abil­i­ty to take a gut punch and come back swing­ing. That’s secu­ri­ty, 21st-century style. There’s no amount of bub­ble wrap we can wrap around every American’s head to keep the bad shit away. Oops, I swore, didn’t I?

Anderson: That’s okay with this project. I don’t want it on the air.

Mykleby: Okay. So this idea that security’s all about defense when you lis­ten the stinkin’ debates… Defense is part of it, and Wayne and I nev­er talked about you know, we’ve got to get rid of defense. We believe in a strong defense. But secu­ri­ty 21st-century style, it’s got to be more broad­ly defined. It includes our food, water, our polit­i­cal sys­tem, our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, our built envi­ron­ment. All these things have to come together.

Anderson: We nev­er talk about this as part of secu­ri­ty. This is real­ly interesting.

Mykleby: We don’t. We think it’s about keep­ing bad things away from our shores out­ward, when we have to start talk­ing about the inte­gra­tion of all these sys­tems that con­sti­tute our soci­ety today. To talk about the pro­duc­tive side, so the organ­ism has to remain pro­duc­tive diverse and pro­duc­tive. Well, pro­duc­tive means growth. But today, in America right now, we only can think of growth in quan­ti­ta­tive terms. And in a resource-constrained envi­ron­ment, how frickin’ stu­pid is that? You’re actu­al­ly impos­ing your own death sen­tence by not being able to get over the grip of this quan­ti­ta­tive dynamic.

Anderson: That’s exact­ly the con­ver­sa­tion I post­ed on Monday with a media the­o­rist named Douglas Rushkoff. We talked heav­i­ly about quan­tifi­ca­tion. And for him, it can blind you to the fact that there is more, and there oth­er sources of val­ue that may be non-quantifiable.

Mykleby: Right. And I absolute­ly— That’s kind of with­in the con­text of what we’re talk­ing about with his nation­al strate­gic nar­ra­tive. We were real­ly look­ing at it from a pure phys­i­cal side of it. You know, that’s the organ­ism being able to remain pro­duc­tive, we’d trans­late that into the pros­per­i­ty bit, but if our pros­per­i­ty is only defined by quan­ti­ta­tive growth in a resource-constrained envi­ron­ment, you’re not going to remain pros­per­ous for­ev­er. As a world, we’re using one and a half planet’s-worth of resources. But if the rest of the world con­sumed like Americans did, that would be four and a half planet’s-worth of resources. It just doesn’t work. I mean, it just does not work. So we have to address that.

And I don’t want to get too crazy with it, but I mean we real­ly have to start look­ing at qual­i­ta­tive growth. Are we okay? Well, we spend a lot on healthcare, but our pub­lic health is real­ly abysmal. Over a third of our pop­u­la­tion is clin­i­cal­ly obese; two thirds are over­weight. That’s a self-inflicted wound.

Anderson: And it’s also a hap­pi­ness ques­tion. [crosstalk] A non-quantitative—

Mykleby: It’s a hap­pi­ness ques­tion. When you con­sid­er that almost 20% of Americans eat their meals in their car. That they spend two weeks a year in their car trav­el­ing back and forth to work. That they’re not with their fam­i­lies, they’re not pur­su­ing a hob­by, they’re not on their European vaca­tion— That’s frickin’ insane. 

So this idea of qual­i­ta­tive growth as a way for­ward, not only does the math tell us that that’s a direc­tion we’ve got to come to grips with. It’s also…I mean just look in the frickin’ mir­ror. Are we hap­py? I mean we could prob­a­bly learn a lit­tle some­thing from the lit­tle coun­try of Bhutan. The assump­tion is that of course that’s got to be some lefty wingnut idea that we actu­al­ly focus on nation­al hap­pi­ness. I’m a frickin’ Marine, for Christ sakes, you know. It’s not like I live in La La Land. I kin­da come from a bare-knuckle world. I don’t think it’s that crazy.

So at the end of the day, sus­tain­abil­i­ty is not an end state. This is so that when you arrive and say okay we’re here now, takes con­stant work. You’re con­stant­ly going to have to evolve. You’re going to have to adapt and change because the world’s going to change. But sus­tain­abil­i­ty, that def­i­n­i­tion that we were using maps to our endur­ing inter­ests of pros­per­i­ty and secu­ri­ty over the long haul. 

What we end­ed up call­ing for, if you could do smart pow­er [?], smart growth at home. Our strate­gic pri­or­i­ties for the nation being edu­ca­tion, num­ber one. Number two is nation­al secu­ri­ty more broad­ly defined, as I defined it ear­li­er. And then the third was access to and cul­ti­va­tion of renew­able resources, to include ener­gy, to include mate­ri­als, etc. If we just had the will, the where­with­al, and the polit­i­cal capac­i­ty to come to the mid­dle and get prag­mat­ic on these issues.

Anderson: You men­tioned edu­ca­tion. I didn’t get to fol­low up on it, but clear­ly that feels like that’s the edu­ca­tion thing, right?

Mykleby: Well…

Anderson: You have to at least be edu­cat­ed enough to go, I have assumptions.”

Mykleby: Yeah, it’s got to be edu­ca­tion. We’ve got to arm our kids to deal with the prob­lems that we’re hand­ing off to them. That requires crit­i­cal think­ing. We always set up this weird con­test between the human­i­ties and STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, math). No, the human­i­ties are the things that’re going to gen­er­ate the phi­los­o­phy that’s going to inform our tech­nol­o­gy. The thing that makes kind of a con­ver­gence point, par­tic­u­lar­ly the human­i­ties take the frame­work of what David Orr—the term eco­l­it­er­a­cy, of a frame­work that you belong inside of this open sys­tem; you’re not exter­nal to it. I mean, this is Gödel’s incom­plete­ness the­o­rem you know, 101 stuff. You can nev­er ful­ly under­stand the sys­tem because you’re in the sys­tem. We have to start rec­og­niz­ing that we are in this sys­tem. So eco­l­it­er­a­cy I think is a key com­po­nent in that edu­ca­tion framework. 

But also entre­pre­neur­ship. Entrepreneurship is what takes things into real­i­ty. Entrepreneurship should be a cen­tral com­po­nent to our edu­ca­tion sys­tem as well. Because now if you have a phi­los­o­phy that helps you real­ize your respon­si­bil­i­ty, you have the STEM that gives you the capac­i­ty for crit­i­cal think­ing and view­ing things. But then you have entre­pre­neur­ship which trans­lates that into the right type of growth, the qual­i­ta­tive growth that we need. What a pow­er­ful, pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion of dis­ci­plines that will make for our pop­u­la­tion, that maybe we would actu­al­ly ques­tion our most innate beliefs. Not throw them aside, but ques­tion them. 

Anderson: We are zoom­ing along down this track and we’ve got a lot of inter­con­nect­ed sys­tems that have weight behind them. You know, we were talk­ing about the coun­try as an organ­ism. So I’m inter­est­ed in think­ing about the eco­nom­ic sys­tem as an organ­ism. Some peo­ple in this project have talked about the chal­lenge of slow­ing down. And that was some­thing I talked to John Fullerton about, for sure. You know, how do you slow it down with­out caus­ing mas­sive unrest, upheaval.

Mykleby: You segued right into the work we’re doing now at New America Foundation with a guy Patrick Doherty. Right now, giv­en our cur­rent eco­nom­ic conditions—so to get to your point of slow­ing down—we’ve got to get off the cur­rent dynam­ic that we have in terms of the quick mon­ey and the big bor­row­ing. And all the mon­e­tary pol­i­cy and all the fis­cal pol­i­cy that everyone’s wonk­ing around about isn’t going to get the job done. We’ve got to find these pent-up pools of demand to unleash all this cap­i­tal that’s just sit­ting on the side­lines. There like, I don’t know, some­thing like $5 tril­lion dol­lars of cor­po­rate just slosh­ing around out there.

Anderson: If you free up that cash, does that unleash less envi­ron­men­tal sustainability?

Mykleby: I think it would unleash more, and I think this is why. The eco­nom­ic mar­ket forces can work in our favor, believe it or not. Particularly if you look at hous­ing. So if you look at the demo­graph­ics of the United States, and these are National Association of Realtors num­bers, 56% of Americans don’t like where they live. Specifically 56% Americans are seek­ing the attrib­ut­es of smart growth. Mixed use, mixed income, service-rich, transit-oriented, walk­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. But right now, baby boomers, they don’t want to be stuck out in the sub­urbs. They’re reach­ing their gold­en years. So they’re seek­ing the attrib­ut­es of smart growth. That’s where they want to go to down­size to. So that’s part of it. 

The oth­er part though, inter­est­ing­ly enough, are the mil­len­ni­als. Millennials are com­ing into pur­chas­ing pow­er for their first home. But their choic­es are con­verg­ing with the baby Boomers. And they want the same attrib­ut­es. That’s where the 56% num­ber comes from. Yet only 2% of new hous­ing star­tups will meet that demand. This is Marine math here, but I can even fig­ure out 56% demand, 2% supply…that’s a freak­ing huge oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s such a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty that it con­sti­tutes three times the demand that we expe­ri­enced with the return­ing GIs com­ing home from World War II that fueled our hous­ing industry.

Anderson: So there’s the cul­tur­al thing again. How the hell do you get the home­builders to actu­al­ly build what peo­ple want, and make mon­ey for them­selves, and achieve your sus­tain­abil­i­ty goals.

Mykleby: Right, and even more impor­tant­ly how do you get the financ­ing folks to get off their ass and quit incen­tiviz­ing the dri­ve till you qual­i­fy mod­el? I mean, we’ve got a per­verse array of incen­tives to keep abus­ing the land, so we’re los­ing our abil­i­ty to grow food. We should be doing location-efficient mort­gages, and we ought to be let­ting con­sumer pref­er­ences and mar­ket forces do its job.

Again, our assump­tions have become our facts that we have to incen­tivize those things so we can keep hav­ing the same eco­nom­ic engine [run­ning?]. Well, that old eco­nom­ic engine is dead. We’ve got to fun­da­men­tal­ly redesign.

Mykleby: A lot of peo­ple I’ve spo­ken to have sort of cri­tiqued part of what cap­i­tal­ism is, is a sys­tem that only works when grow­ing, right. We don’t real­ly know how to engi­neer it to not grow. But it’s inter­est­ing because it seems like what you’re say­ing is that you can keep a kind of cap­i­tal­is­tic mar­ket sys­tem, but if the cul­tur­al val­ues are dif­fer­ent it will always grow, like cap­i­tal­ism does, but it will grow in ways that are service-oriented? or human-oriented? or—

Mykleby: Yeah, I mean I’m glad [crosstalk] you brought up the word human—

Anderson: Or does it ulti­mate­ly always burn itself out?

Mykleby: Well, it’s not about burn­ing— I mean, I do believe in destruction/creation cycle, you know. I mean, I think that’s just…life. But you can make smarter choic­es based on your real­i­ty. So are we out of the phys­i­cal, quan­ti­ta­tive growth? Yeah. We’re at the lim­its. But it’s the human con­di­tion. You have to have a view of hope and growth, but a qual­i­ta­tive growth I think can apply. And you can also make mon­ey at it. Market forces do apply. 

Anderson: The change from a sys­tem that is real­ly quan­ti­fied and is also pro­duc­ing a lot of stuff to a sys­tem that’s pro­duc­ing valu­ing in human ways is a huge change. Because I mean that does mean to some extent a step down from some phys­i­cal wealth, right? We can’t have it all?

Mykleby: I don’t… I don’t know. I think it’s a mis­take to just always asso­ciate things with money.

Anderson: I guess I’m just think­ing, if we’re talk­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty, do we run into a point where if we want to be more sus­tain­able we have to give up some mea­sure of phys­i­cal affluence?

Mykleby: I don’t think— I do not think so. I think this comes to that point that you spiked me on was, a lot of folks say I’m stick­ing it to the polit­i­cal right. Well no, I’m also stick­ing it to the polit­i­cal left, par­tic­u­lar­ly the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. Because the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment has cre­at­ed anoth­er false choice between of the envi­ron­ment or its human beings. They need to estab­lish a human­ist approach that this qual­i­ta­tive growth should be the basic idea from the econ­o­my that is sus­tain­able over time.

Anderson: Based on what you’re study­ing and what you’re work­ing on and think­ing about, what is the cri­sis of the present?

Mykleby: What is the cur­rent cri­sis is a cri­sis of gray­ware in America. People just need to pull their heads out of their ass­es. Let’s approach the world with a lit­tle bit of intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al hon­esty and rec­og­nize where we are. We have got to have an adult con­ver­sa­tion in this coun­try that is devoid of ide­o­log­i­cal dis­tor­tion. I’m not even talk­ing about civil­i­ty. I’m just talk­ing about hav­ing an effec­tive con­ver­sa­tion about our cur­rent real­i­ty. But for some rea­son, Americans have not engaged their gray­ware and I think it’s just because there is so much infor­ma­tion. And again anoth­er cliché is peo­ple can just go to the places that con­firm their points of view. If we were sit­ting in the midst of the Enlightenment right now, if we were hang­ing out with frickin’ Descartes, Bacon, Voltaire, we’d all be seek­ing inval­i­da­tion in our lives. We’d be thinking—

Anderson: It’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent approach.

Mykleby: It’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent approach. I mean, I’m not say­ing that the Enlightenment was right. I think that Descartes and Bacon did a big dis­ser­vice to us cul­tur­al­ly because we’re so lin­ear, and we’re so ana­lyt­i­cal that we get lost in the sauce, we can’t syn­the­size a big­ger pic­ture. But all that aside at least I think they had a lot of emo­tion­al, intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty and they approached things for what they were, and rec­og­nized things for what they were. And our found­ing fathers were part of that col­lec­tion of these great minds that just had a…not a clear view of what all the answers were but at least they had a clear view of how they were going to look at the sit­u­a­tion so that they could bring in the infor­ma­tion and digest it and see what had to be done. For what­ev­er rea­son, cul­tur­al­ly we’re not in that place any­more. I think it’s angst-ridden, fear-ridden, masochis­ti­cal­ly nos­tal­gic look­ing back in the rear-view mir­ror to where we were. We’re not only los­ing our intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ty to think about where we have to go, we’re also los­ing our guts to look forward.

Anderson: So you’ve just touched on a big theme that’s been sort of weav­ing in and out of a lot of dif­fer­ent episodes. That’s also one of the things that cer­tain­ly got me into this project, is the sense that it feels like we can’t even agree on what real­i­ty is.

Mykleby: I mean, everything’s rel­a­tive. I mean get that. I’m not some post­mod­ern, rel­a­tivist guy. There’s a cer­tain base­line real­i­ty, but I mean everyone’s got their own per­spec­tive, and per­cep­tion is real­i­ty. But that used to be some­thing that was—at least as Americans we had a kind of a basic vis­cer­al sense of what it meant to be a cit­i­zen. We haven’t lost that, but it’s got­ten a lit­tle bit misty. Because now we have peo­ple that are claim­ing that they sole­ly own the moniker of cit­i­zen. They approach every­thing as if from 01 bina­ry, [mech­a­nis­tic] per­spec­tive, that there’s a good and a pure evil, when we’re just America. I mean, these are some real­ly prag­mat­ic things we got­ta get done. Man, they’ve dis­tort­ed the pic­ture. Their facts are assump­tions. And I hate to say theirs” like I’m point­ing them out. Because we all do that. But again if we could approach the con­ver­sa­tion from a per­spec­tive of inval­i­da­tion, man we’d do a lot of learn­ing and man we’d get a lot of stuff done.

Anderson: It almost feels like a meta-problem in a way, doesn’t it? Like, all these oth­er prob­lems are prob­lems, but if you can’t even rec­og­nize them or if you can’t talk about them, then you can’t take action on any

Mykleby: I mean holy cow, the gen­er­a­tional prob­lem of cli­mate change. Just the fact that in our pres­i­den­tial elec­tion it wasn’t even talked about… I mean, I don’t care which side you fall on the line, that’s some­thing you got­ta talk about. There’s a lot of peo­ple that just assume that okay, some technology’s going to come and save the day. I mean clear­ly this is a tech­nol­o­gy prob­lem. And…it’s not. This is a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem. That’s why…you know, so break down phi­los­o­phy: phi­lo, love; sophos, wis­dom. Love of wis­dom. We need to have a wis­dom inform our knowl­edge, our tech­nol­o­gy. Otherwise we’re lost. Without that wis­dom of what are you gonna do with this tech­nol­o­gy, there’s no tech­nol­o­gy that’s going to save you from the tech­nolo­gies that are killing us.

And I’m no Luddite. I mean, again we do have a tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty to do things dif­fer­ent­ly, that frame out a new econ­o­my. All on mar­ket prin­ci­ples, we’re not talk­ing about any kind of weird social­ist, com­mu­nist con­spir­a­cy. We’re just talk­ing about fun­da­men­tal­ly refram­ing out how we approach econ­o­my in a resource-constrained envi­ron­ment for the 21st cen­tu­ry, with the bur­geon­ing real­i­ty of cli­mate change, with the bur­geon­ing real­i­ty of resource con­straints, the bur­geon­ing real­i­ty that we’re not only going to nine bil­lion peo­ple in the world by the mid­dle of the cen­tu­ry but three bil­lion peo­ple need to be fold­ed in the glob­al mid­dle class. And with that arrival’s 300% increase in con­sump­tion rates. That’s math. That’s just frickin’ sci­ence. I mean, it’s noth­ing weird— I mean, there’s no emo­tion­al, ide­o­log­i­cal strain to that. That’s just frickin’ math.

Anderson: We were talk­ing about the meta-crisis of what we can even talk about. Those seem like the mate­r­i­al, phys­i­cal, these are the problems…

Mykleby: They’re just man­i­fes­ta­tions, though, of our lack of a phi­los­o­phy that deals with our reality.

Anderson: Ah, okay.

Mykleby: So we focus on the tech­nol­o­gy to deal with those frickin’ numer­i­cal prob­lems, but that tech­nol­o­gy will nev­er be able to address those meta prob­lems if we don’t have a metaphi­los­o­phy that over­ar­ch­ing looks at that, that just fun­da­men­tal­ly ques­tions what we’re doing.

To me it’s it’s very [?]. I have to speak in sim­ple terms because once a Marine always a Marine. We’re sim­ple beings, you know. I mean, the Constitution’s just this won­der­ful thing. I mean, as Americans we have this won­der­ful fram­ing doc­u­ment. Particularly the Preamble of the Constitution. We can kind of steal from Hubert Humphrey on that, but I mean, when he talks about the Preamble of the Constitution he high­lights the fact that the words in the con­sti­tu­tion are action words. Which means a cou­ple things. First of all, as a cit­i­zen you’re oblig­at­ed to act. Second thing is that you’re nev­er going to be done. This is con­stant work forever. And that’s why the we the peo­ple of the United States, in Order to form a more per­fect Union, estab­lish Justice, insure domes­tic Tranquility, pro­vide for the com­mon defence, pro­mote the gen­er­al Welfare, and to secure the Blessings of Liberty to our­selves and our Posterity.”

Posterity. That’s not about our here and now and what we’re going to get out of it, it’s about what we have to bequeath to our kids and our grand­kids and future gen­er­a­tions. That’s our phi­los­o­phy. And we need to I think dust that whole idea off, re-look at it, and say you know what? Okay, we have plen­ty of com­mon grounds, we have plen­ty of real tan­gi­ble prob­lems that need to be tack­led right now. Let’s work on that. And let’s ful­fill our oblig­a­tion to the Preamble of the Constitution, those action words. And once we get that going, okay now let’s go into wacky land and…you know?

Anderson: So there’s enough of it that still stick­ing around but it seems like part of the thing we’re wor­ried about of course is that con­tin­u­ing on the path we’re on, we lose that, right? That we’ve become so polar­ized and we all live in our own sep­a­rate real­i­ties and we lose our com­mon sense of what­ev­er the hell it means to be either an American or just a per­son. Because it seems like so much of the Preamble of the Constitution, or the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of the Constitution, can eas­i­ly be applied. I mean, there a lot of peo­ple glob­al­ly who would agree with many of those things, because it’s sort of a lib­er­al Enlightenment idea of what the indi­vid­ual is and their rela­tion­ship to a cer­tain type of state. So what hap­pens if we lose that completely?

Mykleby: I mean, I…I don’t know. I don’t if we’re see­ing it hap­pen right now because we can’t get any­thing done in the halls of gov­ern­ment. But that’s such an easy tar­get. I don’t know any­thing. My sense is that Americans are… They feel like they’re almost absolved of respon­si­bil­i­ty to engage. I’m not even talk­ing about vot­ing, I’m just talk­ing about in your own com­mu­ni­ty. There’s a big dif­fer­ence between being a res­i­dent and a cit­i­zen. We’re kind of turn­ing into a nation of res­i­dents. That real­ly scares the hell out of me. Because I mean, in The Social Contract Rousseau I think treats it real­ly well. And he says that the moment a cit­i­zen prefers to serve the state with his purse rather than his per­son, that nation is close to ruin.

So okay, what’re you going to do? Be engaged with your school board. Okay, you’re going to go to a town meet­ing with the may­or. Whether it’s about widen­ing a road, whether it’s about land use, what­ev­er it’s about, engage in that con­ver­sa­tion because we have the lux­u­ry of hav­ing the con­structs that allow you to be engaged in the con­ver­sa­tion. And it doesn’t do any­body any good to get on a frickin’ blog and spew out your crap about stuff. You got­ta get engaged instead of these divi­sive ulti­ma­tums of try­ing to pre­serve what I cur­rent­ly have.

Anderson: You know what this is mak­ing me think of, I was telling you about my con­ver­sa­tion with James Bamford yesterday?

Mykleby: Yeah.

Anderson: And as we were talk­ing about the expan­sion of the NSA—and he’s real­ly con­cerned about the com­plete lack of demo­c­ra­t­ic legal over­sight of this orga­ni­za­tion. And when I was ask­ing him sort of like, Well, why doesn’t any­one care?” And there was sort of a sim­i­lar theme of like…a nation of res­i­dents. And no one cares because they see them­selves as atom­ized. Sort of tying back into our con­ver­sa­tion about sort of what are the Enlightenment ideals here, it seems like part of what makes the Constitution inter­est­ing is that it’s deal­ing with this bal­ance between the com­mu­ni­ty and between us as indi­vid­u­als, and there’s always ten­sion, right? I mean, that’s what the founding—like, the clash between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, is. I was try­ing to fig­ure out where do you stand there. And if feels like here we are now and we’re sort of way out on the indi­vid­u­al­ist side, to such an extent that we’re almost threat­en­ing our own indi­vid­u­al­ism by not think­ing collectively.

Mykleby: Right. The word that comes to mind is mono­cul­ture.” It’s inter­est­ing when you look at the…just the built envi­ron­ment, for so long the American dream was to get to the sub­urbs and live in the end of a cul de sac. I mean, you’ve actu­al­ly built your phys­i­cal liv­ing envi­ron­ment to be a mono­cul­ture, with a gate on it to keep things away. So you’re kin­da hang­ing out there by your­self. I mean, so it’s like a frac­tal log­ic that goes out from your own home, plug in your ear­phones and don’t talk about in your fam­i­ly, to you don’t talk to your neigh­bors, you know. Your neigh­bor­hood is iso­lat­ed away from the greater com­mu­ni­ty. The com­mu­ni­ty that you’re in is iso­lat­ed because of the road net­work. And—

Anderson: So it’s like yeah, your civic dis­en­gage­ment is mir­rored in the struc­ture of our—

Mykleby: Yeah, I mean it’s man­i­fest­ed phys­i­cal­ly. And now you see it man­i­fest­ing itself in oth­er phys­i­cal forms as well. Climate change being one; how much car­bon it takes to pre­serve that lifestyle. Our food pro­duc­tion dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem; takes ten calo­ries of petro­le­um ener­gy to get one calo­rie food your bel­ly. And how lin­ear and brit­tle is that? I mean the cod indus­try in the late 70s, ear­ly 80s, when it fell off the cliff from over­fish­ing, that was eco­log­i­cal col­lapse, it was sys­tems col­lapse. And now it’s only back up to about 30% of its pre-collapse lev­els, and we thought it would be a full come­back of the fish­eries. That’s how Mother Nature responds to our dis­re­spect­ful approach to her. We don’t rec­og­nize the signs. Right now we’re real­ly play­ing with fire with our food system. 

And it’s all based on how we built our built envi­ron­ment, and it goes back to your orig­i­nal point about the indi­vid­ual. We’ve cre­at­ed all the sys­tems to sup­port the indi­vid­ual and not rec­og­niz­ing that there’s an eco­log­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, sys­tems whole that real­ly is the sup­port sys­tem for that indi­vid­ual, just like you said.

Anderson: And it’s big and invis­i­ble, and clear­ly we can’t talk about the sim­ple stuff. So how could we ever talk about some­thing that big.

Mykleby: And I think that’s what [?] Eisenhower…Eisenhower said some­thing I’m para­phras­ing. Anytime he came across a prob­lem he couldn’t solve he made it big­ger. Inflate the prob­lem space so now you have more actors play­ing in it and you have a bet­ter chance of get­ting the prob­lem. That’s all I think we all have to do. That’s why when Wayne Porter and I wrote the National Strategic Narrative we want­ed to talk about an idea for grand strat­e­gy. And this great glob­al chal­lenge of glob­al unsus­tain­abil­i­ty maps just direct­ly to what our found­ing fathers intend­ed America to be. Common Sense, Thomas Paine, the very first page said the cause of America is in a great mea­sure the cause of mankind.” 

This is the cause of America. We are the only ones that have the capac­i­ty not only in terms of our econ­o­my and our sheer weight in the world, but also because we’re the only ones with that phi­los­o­phy and with­in our DNA the capac­i­ty to think big and do big. For the rest of world. This is our time. That’s what’s so mad­den­ing. We have the capac­i­ty to do it. And this goes back to my orig­i­nal point that our gray­ware has been so sti­fled by ide­olo­gies that are just so cal­ci­fied and so acidic. It’s crazy, because all we’re talk­ing about is just doing what America does best. You just have to have the guts to go out and do it.

Anderson: For us, the val­ues in the Constitution have been the floor of our con­ver­sa­tion, I think.

Mykleby: Yeah.

Anderson: That’s kind of the good. Why are those val­ues good?

Mykleby: I guess most of it’s because of read­ing the his­to­ry of why those words were were cho­sen and what I dis­cern their world­view to be at the time. Just that gen­er­al prin­ci­ple of self-determination. What were the func­tions and the actions of cit­i­zens that had to be done? Again, they’re seek­ing to form a more per­fect union. They didn’t say the per­fect union, a more per­fect union, because they knew they didn’t have it right. Isn’t that inter­est­ing? A more per­fect union, to estab­lish jus­tice. And jus­tice back then prob­a­bly meant a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. But I think just the basic idea of jus­tice, that every­one deserves a fair shot in this world and should be not only judged but should also be mea­sured all on the same criteria. 

Ensure domes­tic tran­quil­i­ty. And ensur­ing domes­tic tran­quil­i­ty was an issue of a com­mon bond, of a com­mon phi­los­o­phy, and an under­stand­ing of a com­mon des­tiny going for­ward that we don’t know where we’re going but we’re gonna fig­ure it out.

Provide for the com­mon defense means that everyone’s got skin in the game. That it’s not some­thing you’re going to out­source just to the mil­i­tary. You have a moral oblig­a­tion to look out for your neighbor…

Anderson: And that’s actu­al­ly kind of inter­est­ing right there, the idea of the moral oblig­a­tion when it seems like what so much of this is, there’s a moral sense that indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty is good.

Mykleby: Right.

Anderson: That you need to think about…well, that oth­er peo­ple mat­ter. Right?

Mykleby: Right well, lib­er­ty isn’t a one-sided coin. The oth­er side of the coin is respon­si­bil­i­ty. I mean, I firm­ly believe, American? go do what you want to do. But if you’re draw­ing from the com­mons, that’s not your right, you know?

Anderson: So there is an ulti­mate sense of fair­ness, I guess maybe.

Mykleby: There has to be. I mean that’s why I think the next line in that is pro­mote the gen­er­al wel­fare.” You’re oblig­at­ed to ensure that the sys­tem allows that an envi­ron­ment of oppor­tu­ni­ty exists. Not that you’re going to hand any­thing out to any­body, but that you are moral­ly respon­si­ble to make sure that that envi­ron­ment of oppor­tu­ni­ty exists should that per­son have that voli­tion to pur­sue their idea of hap­pi­ness. This pro­motes gen­er­al welfare. 

And then there’s secure the bless­ings of lib­er­ty to our­selves and pos­ter­i­ty. I mean, to secure. Posterity’s a great word. If you’re not think­ing over the hori­zon, man our nation is lost. 

Anderson: I spoke to this philoso­pher named Lawrence Torcello. He’s real­ly inter­est­ed in the Enlightenment and the idea of how do you make a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety work, and how do you encour­age con­ver­sa­tion between peo­ple who have total­ly dif­fer­ent assump­tions. And what are sort of the com­mon val­ues you have to have in the struc­ture, right. And the prob­lem that he runs up against when he thinks about this is that… In this case let’s talk about the Constitution, you know. That’s like the ground rule the peo­ple of all these dif­fer­ent beliefs—if they all sort of share that, then they can move for­ward. They can take action. But it itself has to ulti­mate­ly be some­thing they all believe in.

Mykleby: Right.

Anderson: Which is tricky because then if you’re say, a fun­da­men­tal­ist of any vari­ety, whether that’s a tech­no­log­i­cal fun­da­men­tal­ist or a reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist or envi­ron­men­tal fun­da­men­tal­ist, you may hold those things to be unques­tion­able first. And then for the oth­er per­son who maybe thinks about the Constitution and thinks god, this is the only sys­tem that brings them all togeth­er, they may put the Constitution first. And so what Lawrence and I were talk­ing about—and he’s lis­tened to this whole project—was sort of like, can you real­ly bridge a con­ver­sa­tion here? In putting forth a sys­tem that enables the best con­ver­sa­tion, are you ulti­mate­ly putting forth anoth­er com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem just like every fundamentalist?

Mykleby: I mean, it’s a great ques­tion but this is the issue of inval­i­da­tion, isn’t it? I think you got­ta look in the mir­ror. I’m not to wor­ried about being right, you know. I’m wor­ried about learn­ing and try­ing to be effec­tive in some way…[?] real­i­ty. I don’t even know how to answer your ques­tion, quite frankly. I mean, it’s a great ques­tion. Something to pon­der and think about. But…I don’t know.

Anderson: This project is sort of built on the idea of there are these moments in his­to­ry where peo­ple have con­ver­sa­tions, where ideas change in a real­ly big way. We’ve just been talk­ing about that. Clearly I don’t even need to ask— You seem to think this is a moment where we should be hav­ing The Conversation.

Mykleby: Oh, clear­ly. To coin the Wayne Porter… His [coinage], we are in our Darwinian moment right now. Interesting thing is with that Darwinian moment is an issue of choice. Right now we have the lux­u­ry of free choice, par­tic­u­lar­ly I’m think­ing in terms of cli­mate change right now. We’re going to make the right deci­sions even­tu­al­ly. The prob­lem is when we’re going to do it.

I think the trend line that we’re on right now, we’re going to wait till we’re in a posi­tion of forced choice, we have no choice, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot more painful, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot hard­er to act on the choic­es that we have to make. But we are going to make these choic­es. And [that] choice we’re going to make [can] will­ful­ly shape our evo­lu­tion as a human species going for­ward, by our actions. I mean, it’s…pretty inter­est­ing, isn’t it?

Anderson: Do you think that’s some­thing we can do pre­emp­tive­ly, or do we have to get to the point where we just hit the wall?

Mykleby: If I didn’t believe that we could, I wouldn’t be doing of frickin’ crap that I’ve been doing, because it’s a gut-wrenching siege every day to just have a basic con­ver­sa­tion about look, here’s the real­i­ty that we are. And I tru­ly believe that we have the capac­i­ty to do it. What I’m start­ing to ques­tion is whether we have the courage. But we’re Americans. I got­ta believe we have the courage.

Anderson: So ulti­mate­ly you are optimistic?

Mykleby: Yeah! The rea­son I’m opti­mistic is—a lot of it’s framed out by a sergeant when I was a young guy, I was 18 years old at Fort Benning at para­troop­er school. The first time right before I was going to jump I was climb­ing up on the air­plane, the sergeant air­borne, he just looks at me, goes, Hey, don’t wor­ry. Now remem­ber if you jump out, count to four, and you don’t feel that tug and you look up and you don’t see a good chute, you get the rest your life to fig­ure it out.” So, we’ve got the rest of our lives to fig­ure it out there, broth­er. So I mean, how hard could it be? I mean, what could pos­si­bly go wrong, you know? So…we got any choice?


Aengus Anderson: We’re jump­ing out of an air­plane and our para­chute hasn’t opened.

Neil Prendergast: That’s a heck of a way to have a conversation.

Anderson: Yeah, I can’t say as I’ve had a lot of con­ver­sa­tions just fly­ing down to Earth at that speed, but I love the metaphor.

Prendergast: Absolutely, absolute­ly. And what I real­ly liked is that he actu­al­ly seems to be saying—I think actu­al­ly quite strongly—that we’re not hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. It’s not hap­pen­ing when we’re jump­ing out of air­planes, and it’s not hav­ing in ordi­nary life, either.

Anderson: Not only is it not hap­pen­ing, it’s not hap­pen­ing because we can’t even agree on what’s real.

Prendergast: Right. And I think we’ve seen this in oth­er pieces ear­li­er in the project, that when there’s the sort of dis­agree­ment over not only just what’s out there what the terms are, it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to have peo­ple come togeth­er at the same table.

Anderson: Yeah. Often we talk about it in terms of there are dif­fer­ent media com­mu­ni­ties? You know, peo­ple have these self-validating worlds. And it was nice to have Mark bring that up.

Prendergast: Right.

Anderson: But also what you just men­tioned, that we’re unclear on our terms, you know. That’s anoth­er thing we talk about in this project a lot, the lan­guage prob­lems. The bar­ri­ers I run into in trans­lat­ing between one con­ver­sa­tion and the next. We’ve talked a lot about dif­fer­ent media com­mu­ni­ties before. Let’s talk more about the lan­guage right now.

Prendergast: Yeah, I think that’s a real­ly good turn because this inter­view actu­al­ly allows us to do that in a nice way. Because I think this focus on sustainability—which is of course a thread that’s been through the project—is one that lets us think about lan­guage because sus­tain­abil­i­ty is a rel­a­tive­ly new word in our vocab­u­lary, going back maybe thir­ty years or some­thing. And it’s I think a real­ly inter­est­ing word. We’ve kind of not come to expect it to be a word paired with defense—

Anderson: Right.

Prendergast: —but it seems to be a word that we all know. And I’m not sure if we all know it the same way.

Anderson: What are the impli­ca­tions of that? The first thing that my mind goes to, its resources for what­ev­er rea­son; that’s my per­son­al bias. But I know there are oth­er def­i­n­i­tions of sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Are you think­ing of one of those? And what would that mean if every­one brings a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty to the table when they lis­ten to some­one like Mark?

Prendergast: You know, that can be a good thing, right. Because ulti­mate­ly what we’re hop­ing to see in the world is that peo­ple are com­ing togeth­er from dif­fer­ent points of view. So how can we expect every­body to think of every term as hav­ing the exact same def­i­n­i­tion or invest­ing in it in the exact same way? So I think it can actu­al­ly be an impor­tant bridge, perhaps?

Anderson: There’s a place for vague­ness, is what you’re saying?

Prendergast: Maybe not quite vague­ness. Because I think vague­ness has this con­no­ta­tion that we’re not sure what the mean­ing is. But I think here we’re talk­ing about maybe dif­fer­ent mean­ings for dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I think sustainability’s a valu­able term because peo­ple see a promise in it for them­selves. You know, I always think of that three prongs of it: a sus­tain­able econ­o­my, sus­tain­able ecol­o­gy, and then also a con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to social jus­tice. And depend­ing what your major con­cerns are, you’re prob­a­bly going to be focus­ing on dif­fer­ent parts of what sus­tain­abil­i­ty is.

Anderson: I can sort of think about that in two dif­fer­ent ways. On one hand, we talk a lot about the Constitution in here. And I think about the Constitution where a good amend­ment often— Actually, Robert Francis talks about this, too. A good amend­ment should be wide open. It can breathe, it can grow, it can apply to dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios as cul­tur­al con­texts change. It doesn’t delin­eate every­thing. So in that way I can see the broad, gen­er­al term sus­tain­abil­i­ty” as being some­thing that real­ly could help bro­ker a good conversation.

Anderson: the same time, you just men­tioned three dif­fer­ent prongs of sus­tain­abil­i­ty. And if when I lis­ten to this I think of nat­ur­al resources, some­one else lis­tens to this and they think of sus­tain­abil­i­ty as hav­ing a social jus­tice aspect, do we descend into a kind of cacoph­o­ny of con­ver­sa­tions about sus­tain­abil­i­ty that are real­ly not about the same thing?

Prendergast: Yeah I think it’s real­ly pos­si­ble, and this is just maybe my own sort of per­son­al read of things these days. But when I hear sus­tain­abil­i­ty I often hear it in con­ver­sa­tions about nat­ur­al resources. I think I have the same sort of impres­sion that you do. But I think you hear a lot less about the jus­tice part. I think you hear a lot less about how sus­tain­abil­i­ty needs to have some com­po­nent in it where peo­ple are being fed every day. And maybe that’s where there’s an incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty for sus­tain­abil­i­ty to real­ly mean some­thing abroad, too. Of course there’s hun­gry peo­ple in the United States and I hope that we can make sus­tain­abil­i­ty be a term that actu­al­ly address­es that prob­lem, too. But I can see a lit­tle bit about why this would be a pop­u­lar term among for­eign pol­i­cy people.

Anderson: That’s inter­est­ing because this con­ver­sa­tion, unlike a lot of oth­er ones, address­es kind of nation­al pol­i­tics. I mean, this is an American con­ver­sa­tion, right. That just runs straight through it. But some­thing I was won­der­ing is, does it have to be talked about glob­al­ly? You know, Mark talks a lot about we can lead, but are there dif­fer­ent mod­els of sus­tain­abil­i­ty that peo­ple could fol­low? And we might only lead in say, a mate­r­i­al one. Can you even have a sus­tain­abil­i­ty con­ver­sa­tion when it’s com­ing out of this real­ly nation-state back­ground? I think there are a lot of inter­est­ing ques­tions that arise here.

Prendergast: Yeah, I agree. And I was kind of think­ing about some of those same issues as well. You know, the old phrase—what is it—think glob­al, act local. There’s not a lot of space for the nation-state in that phrase. And so how does the nation-state reori­ent the con­ver­sa­tion? I don’t know. I think that’s a great question.

Anderson: And this is some­thing— We’ve got stats on the site now. I know we’ve got inter­na­tion­al lis­ten­ers out there. Write us some emails, folks. We would love to know how you think about this con­ver­sa­tion that is so American. 

Prendergast: I’d love to hear that stuff, too.

Anderson: And if we get any emails like that, we’ll bring them in and maybe append them to this, or put links on the site. So let’s jump from there. We were just talk­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty in a nation-state world, but I want to get more into American excep­tion­al­ism. We’re hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion about sus­tain­abil­i­ty here. Of course, we’re pret­ty afflu­ent here, right. We can say, Well, let’s kind of rein in our quan­ti­ta­tive improve­ments. Let’s focus on qual­i­ta­tive improve­ments,” because we have a lot of quan­ti­ta­tive good­ies. But how about those coun­tries where folks don’t have as much stuff, but maybe they’ve got a lot of coal that leads to envi­ron­men­tal unsus­tain­abil­i­ty else­where but they can get the quan­ti­ta­tive goodies?

Prendergast: Well, I think that kind of leads actu­al­ly into a big issue, which is the com­plex­i­ty of all of this.

Anderson: Wait, this wasn’t com­plex before?

Prendergast: Yeah, right? Well, you know. I mean, how do you mod­el glob­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty. It’s hard enough to even mod­el glob­al cli­mate change. How would you have any kind of mean­ing­ful mod­el say­ing well you know, if we have coal here, we can have increased mate­r­i­al wealth over here, but then some­where else we have to have a reduc­tion in pol­lu­tants of some sort. I think that you’re talk­ing about incred­i­ble com­plex­i­ty here that would be…insanely dif­fi­cult to achieve, to put it mildly.

Anderson: Just to put teeth on that, I want to know if the sus­tain­abil­i­ty is a first-world lux­u­ry? Is it basi­cal­ly demand­ing coun­tries that aren’t in the first World to cut back on their mate­r­i­al con­sump­tion before they’ve ever caught up to us?

Prendergast: Yeah, well I don’t know. I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly agree that that’s the only impli­ca­tion, because—

Anderson: Oh, I don’t think that’s the only one, but that’s one on my mind that I think is pret­ty glar­ing, and if you weren’t here I think you’d hear that in this conversation.

Prendergast: Right. Unless, though, you had a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty than the one that you and I described ear­li­er as being some­what preva­lent in sort of main­stream American cul­ture. If you looked at sus­tain­abil­i­ty and you heard jus­tice and oh, some sort of eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty, that would be a real mate­r­i­al improve­ment and a real human rights improve­ment for a lot of peo­ple in the world. So sus­tain­abil­i­ty I don’t think nec­es­sar­i­ly has to be heard as reduc­tion in the mate­r­i­al resources that peo­ple are using. In fact I think some peo­ple would look at sus­tain­abil­i­ty and say, Oh, well under that mod­el I would be con­sum­ing more.”

Anderson: Yeah, that’s pos­si­ble. You know, this makes me think of David Korten right here. He talks about we need to rein back on a lot of stuff, but real­ly what we’re just cut­ting is waste. So, our mate­r­i­al stan­dards of liv­ing won’t drop. And I think that’s some­thing that a lot of peo­ple in this project have talked about in dif­fer­ent ways, and a lot of peo­ple don’t buy that. Wes Jackson for one just thinks that at some point you can’t have all the stuff. Korten didn’t think that was the case. Doesn’t seem like Mark real­ly thinks that’s the case, either.

Prendergast: Well yeah, it’s not a real pop­u­lar thing to say, that we have lim­its. I think that’s just a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent world­view, you know. If you are think­ing about lim­its every day, or think­ing about growth every day, clear­ly if you want peo­ple to come on board with what you’re say­ing and maybe with some oth­er ideas it helps to say, Look, this is about growth.”

Anderson: So do you buy the dis­tinc­tion in dif­fer­ent types of growth? Because Mark is will­ing to say we need to keep grow­ing. Growing is nat­ur­al. But grow­ing doesn’t need to be this expo­nen­tial mate­r­i­al growth, right. It can be this qual­i­ta­tive growth. Can that float an econ­o­my? Does it real­ly ever dis­place the other?

Prendergast: Yeah, I mean that kind of seems to dove­tail with a con­ver­sa­tion way way back ear­ly in the project about happiness. 

Anderson: Okay.

Prendergast: I recall a sta­tis­tic from that con­ver­sa­tion. A fam­i­ly of four, I think? For every extra dol­lar they make up toward $75,000 they become hap­pi­er, qualitatively.

Anderson: Uh huh.

Prendergast: Well, if you had every fam­i­ly of four with a $75,000 income in the world able to pur­chase the sort of things you can pur­chase with $75,000 in the United States, we’re talk­ing about an absolute­ly astro­nom­i­cal amount of con­sump­tion for the globe, right.

Anderson: Right.

Prendergast: What that means is that qual­i­ta­tive assess­ments of hap­pi­ness do come in fact with the need for mate­r­i­al growth. So again I’m kind of see­ing I guess just more empha­sis on growth, more need for more mate­r­i­al goods as peo­ple need things. People do need mate­r­i­al things. There’s some­thing about a sto­ry­line here, too.

Anderson: Flesh that out a lit­tle more. I’m curious.

Prendergast: Oh, well you know. I mean, growth has a nar­ra­tive arc to it. There’s a future in growth, where­as a lim­it is sta­t­ic. Where do you go? There’s nowhere to go. There’s not a sto­ry­line to it.

Anderson: Yeah. You know, now that you men­tion sto­ry­lines there’s anoth­er sto­ry­line or a nar­ra­tive thing or a cul­tur­al myths that real­ly struck me in this here that made me think of John Seager over at Population Connection.

Prendergast: Ah, what was that, then?

Anderson: I think it’s a free mar­ket nar­ra­tive at its very low­est lev­el. It’s the notion that sort of indi­vid­ual greed, or at least indi­vid­ual choice, will lead to a col­lec­tive good. And that in a sit­u­a­tion that’s total­ly free, that will hap­pen. And that the prob­lem is that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is not total­ly free, or the infor­ma­tion is bad, right. So let me explain that a lit­tle better.

Prendergast: Yeah, let me hear where you found that [crosstalk] in Mykleby.

Anderson: Before I total­ly get tan­gled up here. So with John Seager, right, he talks a lot about birth con­trol. And he talks about, in a world where birth con­trol is avail­able to women and women are free to choose to use it, they will vol­un­tar­i­ly have small­er fam­i­lies and the pop­u­la­tion col­lec­tive­ly will go down.

Prendergast: Right.

Anderson: You don’t have to do any­thing dra­con­ian. And I think Mark talks about a sim­i­lar thing when he’s talk­ing about growth and sus­tain­abil­i­ty. He gives us specif­i­cal­ly the exam­ple of smart growth, right, where all of these peo­ple, he says, want to move into smart growth com­mu­ni­ties which will be more sus­tain­able. The demand is there, but the flip side being that we have…I think his word is what, a per­verse array of incen­tives? encour­ag­ing the old sub­ur­ban growth mod­el. So, the notion being that you get rid of that and sud­den­ly we become sus­tain­able because that’s actu­al­ly what peo­ple want.

Prendergast: So all we need to do is free the indi­vid­ual, you’re saying.

Anderson: Right. And that feels like a deep American myth, there. I can see how that would play real­ly well. But do you think it’s true? Would we flock back to these new sus­tain­able communities?

Prendergast: So you’re sug­gest­ing per­haps that it would maybe require the same sort of gov­ern­men­tal incen­tive struc­tures that the cre­ation of sub­ur­bia ini­tial­ly required?

Anderson: Maybe. Or that with no incen­tive struc­tures in place, enough peo­ple would choose to not live that; that it wouldn’t be this great gain. I total­ly believe the sta­tis­tics that right now a lot of peo­ple would like to live in smart growth com­mu­ni­ties. I’m won­der­ing if that’s real­ly like, a deep con­vic­tion in us or if it’s just like a fluc­tu­a­tion, it’s a fad at the moment where peo­ple think they want to live next to light rail but if they actu­al­ly did it they go, Man, I miss the suburbs.”

Prendergast: Right. And of course we’re famil­iar with peo­ple chang­ing their minds quite a bit in the past, and cul­tur­al moods shift­ing, right.

Anderson: Right, you know. And the ana­logue for John Seager’s con­ver­sa­tion is, I think Micah men­tioned it, the phrase three is the new two.” There’s no direct rela­tion­ship. We’re not that sim­ple as bio­log­i­cal crea­tures, where we can real­ly plot this stuff out.

Prendergast: Right. Well you know, that’s what I think is so inter­est­ing about this project, is how we can con­tin­u­al­ly go back to some sort of cen­tral myths. Whether we’re talk­ing in this case about the indi­vid­ual, or talk­ing about American excep­tion­al­ism, con­tin­u­al­ly com­ing back to these sort of cen­tral ideas that are sort of built into the way we think about the world these days. I find it to be real­ly satisfying.

Anderson: And I like that we just had this mon­ster con­ver­sa­tion, about a big con­ver­sa­tion, and we bare­ly even talked about sus­tain­abil­i­ty and defense. 

Prendergast: Right.

Anderson: Like, there’s so much infor­ma­tion here we could’ve had a mul­ti­tude of con­ver­sa­tions about Mark’s interview.

Prendergast: This is the sort of con­tent that you just can’t wrap up too eas­i­ly, there’s so much there.

Anderson: And just like the edit­ing process for the inter­view itself left out a lot, our con­ver­sa­tion will leave out a lot. And for all of you folks lis­ten­ing out there, we hope that you con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tions around the din­ner table, in the car, wher­ev­er you talk about these things.

That was Mark AKA Puck” Mykleby, record­ed in Beaufort, South Carolina November 21st2012.

Micah Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com.

Prendergast: You can fol­low us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I’m Micah Saul.

Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening. 

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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