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?
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 0–1 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 21st, 2012.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.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.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.