Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jeremiah and Resilience

Resilience is the ability of communities, cultures, and social systems to survive major shocks. When we look around us, what social institution stands out as being resilient over a major span of time?

What stands out for me is the history of Judaism. What other religion, language, or people has survived in the face of repeated foreign conquests, forced exiles, and enslavement for 3000 years and counting? I would call the continued survival and prospering of Judaism the prime historical example of human resilience.

What is it then that made Judaism resilient? Strange as it seems, I believe that part of the answer to this question lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

The lifetime of Jeremiah ( 655 -586 BCE) was a profoundly crucial time in Jewish history. Jeremiah had predicted that Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, home to Solomon’s great Temple, was about to be conquered by the Babylonians, a prediction which was not implausible given that at the time the Babylonian army was laying waste to most of the rest of the Middle East.

But the people of Jerusalem were in denial. Jeremiah was characteristically unrelenting, he unnerved them, as he would us today. They did not want to hear Jeremiah’s message and they rejected him and brutalized him, treating him as a pariah.

Unfortunately for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s prophecy came true. After a prolonged siege, which caused terrible suffering, the Babylonian army took Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish temple, put to death much of the Jewish leadership, and enslaved the rest of the Jews and marched them off to Babylon. Jeremiah they spared, and he was left to live where he chose.

At this point the Jews as an identifiable people should have disappeared from history. But, in fact, just the opposite occurred. During the next sixty years of slavery, the exiled Jewish community thrived and developed a resilience that is maintained to this day.

Within a hundred years of the exile the Hebrew Bible had been compiled and gathered together, largely in the form we see it today, with Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings, Lamentations, Psalms, the Prophets, and the wisdom literature.

What role did Jeremiah, who was left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, have in all of this? Because the Jews were in exile, and the Jerusalem temple was no more, the strategy, championed previously by Jeremiah himself, of basing Judaism on a centralized temple with its hierarchy of temple priests became unworkable.

But this went against the whole tenor of ancient Middle-Eastern religions, which was that any particular religion was based on location.

Jeremiah, at some point, realized that basing a religion on sacrificing at a temple created a fatal vulnerability. His innovation was to promote the idea of an “inner covenant” - an inner relationship between individual Jews and God best exemplified by the daily Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy called the “Shema”.

By reciting this prayer everyday any Jew could keep covenant without the need to make sacrifices in the holy temple. Thus permitting Judaism to thrive in exile, or in any place where there were a gathering of Jews, even where a Jew existed outside of any Jewish community.

The Shema is still recited twice daily by observant Jews. At the very beginning of the day and at the end of the day. It goes:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart...

The book of Deuteronomy, which contains the Shema, as well as a second retelling of the Ten Commandments, hence the name “Deuteronomy”, appears to have been “rediscovered” during King Josiah’s rein. Jeremiah was closely associated with King Josiah and there is good reason to believe that Jeremiah probably had a hand in writing Deuteronomy and in its “rediscovery”.

The centralization of Judaism in the sacrificial temple in Jerusalem had given the Hebrews the illusion of enduring power. But successive conquests by the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans proved the folly of this idea.

When things fall apart, people often have difficulty facing and accepting the changes that are required to survive.The choices seem to be either to embrace expediency and abandon tradition altogether, or rigidly adhere to tradition and deny that anything has really changed.

But the first choice of abandoning tradition leads to dissolution and the eventual loss of identity. The second choice, of rigid adherence and denial leads to escape from reality and self-destruction as the familiar world falls apart around one’s ears.

This situation is a lot like the worsening ecological and economic crisis that confront us today. In the face of these crisis many people may recognize that there is a problem, but they will deny that we need to make any major changes to our comfortable way of life.

Like Jeremiah, modern environmentalists predict disaster but things still don’t seem that bad,so they are mocked and ignored as scolds and annoyances.

But, eventually this commonplace view will prove untenable, as the global economic and political crisis deepens. We may well have to adapt to severe economic shocks and the breakdown of social structures in the wake of these shocks. Our entire global civilization may be at risk of collapse.

In today’s world, political leaders have relied on the continuing prospect of economic growth to solve our most pressing problems - best exemplified by the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. But the expanding global economy is rapidly drawing down our reserves of fossil fuels, while the global exponential increase in energy use is leading to the spectre of uncontrollable global warming.

The idea that we can continue growing our national and global economies in the face of finite resources and finite reserves of fossil fuels is a similar kind of illusion to the one in Jeremiah’s day that a religion could remain powerful only if it continued to be identified with a certain location.

. Our Industrial way of life, that is predicated on the massive utilization of cheap fossil fuels, appears to us as powerful and impregnable. But it is incredibly vulnerable to disruption once we reach peak oil, and the effects of climate change begin to overwhelm us.

The signs of these coming catastrophes are all around us, but, as in Jeremiah’s time, most people choose to ignore them or discount their relevance. The lesson of Jeremiah is that resilience - the ability to survive shocks and insults - comes not from economic or political power or advanced technology. Resilience comes from inside of us as we work together on achieving a sustainable civilization.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Autism and Executive function deficit

The science behind the study of executive functions is still relatively new even though these abilities have been around long before humans evolved.

We can list a series of skills that a captain needs to sail a ship: Commanding a crew, planning and setting a course. Monitoring the behaviour of the ship, the behaviour of the crew, and the weather, and correcting deficiencies and changing course if conditions warrant; Being able to navigate and negotiate dangerous and technically difficult waters; Anticipating and correcting for future changes in conditions.

Perhaps one could say that while sometimes the ship can sail on auto-pilot some events, not anticipated, will happen that will challenge the ship and its crew and call upon the captain to make a decision that only he can make.

Neurologists know that the ability to initiate and inhibit behavior, the ability to monitor the environments response to our behaviour and to alter our behaviour in response to changing conditions, are all part of an interrelated group of functions centered around the prefrontal cortex.

We think we know about executive functions, but in actuality we take them for granted and don’t know very much about how they work together. We use these skills to shape our own behaviour, but their use in others is often invisible to us because a lot of it has to do with self monitoring, which is something that’s hard to observe in others.

It turns out that adolescents are lacking fully operational executive functions and their prefrontal brains are still developing. That’s why adolescents attend school and are under their parents responsibility and not completely free agents. Sometimes they need their parents executive functioning to survive.

It’s in adolescence that we have to learn to do things even when we don’t want to, to control our impulses, not to fight, not to lie or to steal. We learn to internalize morality and not just to act in order to avoid punishment. It’s in adolescence that we learn to distinguish between true friends and people who are just out to use us.

All these skills we develop as adolescents, require the mastery of executive functions: planning, anticipating consequences, inhibiting impulses, monitoring ourselves and correcting for errors.

“Executive function deficits are disastrous to a normal life” That’s a central point that Nancy Perry makes early on in her book, Adults on the Autism Spectrum Leave the Nest . According to Perry if you have executive function deficits you cannot live as an independent adult. And some kinds of brain-damage and high functioning autistic individuals have deficits in executive function.

It’s most noticeable when these individuals are dealing with novel situations where typical behaviour doesn’t work. They end up in trouble and needing the help of adults who, in effect supply the needed executive function.

These individuals are not retarded, their thought processes are intact. they can be of normal or above average intelligence, they can do well in schools. But things like dealing with money, balancing food and rent, getting and keeping a job, dealing with strangers, and developing a relationship or a friendship are much more difficult for them than for the normal population.

According to Perry, individuals with executive function deficits can’t do two cognitive things at the same time. For instance, they can’t do what they are doing and think about the probable consequences at the same time. “….they don’t think about the morality of their actions, unless directed to stop and think by another person who serves as the missing executive function.”

So autistic individuals will insult others or say hurtful things without thinking about consequences, and will often argue that they are just “telling the truth” when challenged.

Perry relates how she once inadvertently observed her students in a grocery store, mesmerized by the big pyramidal display of soda pop and ending up spending their entire week’s grocery money on pop and chips, with nothing left over to pay for basic groceries.

They have difficulties learning proper behaviour in social situations because they cannot both engage in a social situation and hold in their mind’s eye an awareness of how they are functioning. Most of us do it so easily that we take it for granted. Not so for autistic people.

Hence the reason for the popular theory that autistic people cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This requires doing two things at once in the mind. Imagining we are in someone else’s situation, and comparing it with our own.

They can get along if the environment is more structured but as soon as things happen that are outside of the ordinary they will have trouble functioning, still trying to adhere to behaviour patterns rigidly, without being able to adapt and change course.

Just at the point that the crew needs the captain to intervene and make a decision the captain is not there. The ship founders and heads for the rocks unless there is somebody there to take charge.

To be independent one needs to be able to make adjustments to one’s behaviour according to changes in the environment. You learn to avoid getting killed in traffic. You design your life around a career and a family or some combination of elements. These all require the use of executive functions.

For all young adults becoming independent is an important goal to achieve. But for autistic and brain-damaged individuals becoming independent is very problematic because of their deficiencies in executive function.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Complex vs Simple: Thinking in Systems

There are two basic ways to see things: as simple issues with only two ways to see them or as complex issues that deserve our attention and understanding.

Simple sees things only in black and white and avoids colours and shades of grey. Simple is good to grab people’s attention but it doesn’t sustain it.

Simple thinks there’s only two choices when there are many.Too much simplification leads to polarization as well as to prejudice and hatred, and ultimately to social fragmentation and war.

Simple thinks that the easiest way to solve problems is to get rid of people. Joseph Stalin, one of the worst mass murderers in history, said: “No people no problems.” You can see that same kind of frightening stupidity in racist rants about undesirables, and illegal immigrants. You can also see it in people who say the earth would be better off without humans.

Life is simple if you just consider it to be about birth, marriage, and having children. But it’s complex if you consider that everything living is connected to everything else.

The economy exists, and society exists because they are systems. They are not simple. And that means that our response to them cannot be simple either.

Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain back in the 1980s, once said: “ There is no such thing as society”

I know that society is a real thing because it has effects: we are who we are, with the language, customs, food, and clothing, and livelihoods that we have because we live in certain kinds of societies.

So much of what we do we do in groups. We are defined in many ways by being in these groups, in effect being in society. Yes we are individuals, but we couldn’t be who we are without the cooperation and trust of countless others. Without our parents to raise us; Without our peers to play with us when we were children and work with us when we are adults; Without our teachers to teach us.

I can’t help feeling that Margaret Thatcher denied the reality of society, because she didn’t want to face the moral questions that become relevant with the existence of society. Moral questions such as: How much is too much? Why is there inequality and what should we do about it? How can we as a society facilitate citizens to reach their fullest potential as human beings?

Like society, an economy is a real thing too, a system made up of billions of human parts. And the regional economies, the national economies, and the global economy all have huge effects on people and on nature.

When it comes to understanding systems, understanding how much is too much comes to the fore. The human economy cannot grow indefinitely because it depends on the earth, which is finite.

According to many politicians, economists and business leaders the present global economic system, is the best system possible because continued economic growth will lead to everyone’s eventual betterment.

But to do it justice we need to look at economic system as a subsystem within the larger biosphere of living ecosystems. Our ability to survive depends not only on non-renewable resources such as metals and fossil fuels that are priced in markets, but it also depends on renewable resources that are not priced in markets.

I am talking about agricultural soils, clean water, and the ability of earth’s water and atmosphere to to absorb pollutants and recycle life’s vital molecules. All of these are renewable resources, but it takes time for the earth to renew them and the exponential growth of our global economy is surpassing that ability. These unpriced renewable resources are fast becoming non-renewable because the growth in human populations and economies is depleting them.

The problem is that many economists do not perceive that the global economy is a subset of the earth’s ecosystems. Therefore, they do not see that “How much is too much?” is a pertinent question to ask. And because vital ecosystem services, which we all depend on, do not have prices, economists don’t see any evidence for their depletion.

Global warming is the clearest evidence that our global economic growth has surpassed the earth’s ability to absorb our increasing output of stuff. It also suggests that other physical limits to economic growth are not far behind.

Human systems work by rules and by market forces. Rules tell us what behaviour is expected or prohibited. Rules also determine the relative size and direction of market forces. Change the rules and you change the incentives behind production and consumption. But, to be successful something more is needed because there are some very big players, for instance, fossil fuel corporations, that don’t want those rules changed.

It is no coincidence that people continue to deny that global warming is caused by human activities. To accept the facts of global warming would be to recognize that our present economic system needs to be overhauled. In other words, we need to change the rules so that the depletion of soils, clean water, and clean air are taken into account. And the most efficient and effective way to do this would be to put a price on carbon emissions. By doing that we could use the efficiency of the market system to change people’s behaviour so that we can keep living on this earth indefinitely.

There’s the thing - as individuals we are just a tiny part of so many human and non-human systems. It’s the systems that have such powerful effects.
To start the process of building truly sustainable societies means first rethinking where we are going and then planning how to get there. We can’t change the system only by exercising individual consumption choices. We gain the power to change through joining organizations. We are most powerful exercising our rights as citizens to inform ourselves and to participate in decision making and planning for the future.

Economies and societies are our living systems. Their continued existence depends on earth’s ecosystems to support them. We cannot survive without oxygen, clean water, a liveable climate and a thriving and diverse biosphere.

If we think too simplistically, that it’s only about individuals, property rights, small government, and "free enterprise", we ignore the fact that our economic system is just a part of an even greater earth biosystem. We need to take this inherent complexity into account if we are to ensure our continued survival.