Thursday, April 7, 2011

On the importance of problem definition

I have written at length (more than thirty posts) on the issue of problem definition. I want to come back to this issue now, particularly because I was made to think about this during a wonderful discussion that I had yesterday.

I gave a presentation yesterday titled Why do we waste? An ethic of trash, waste, pollution and degradation to a group of mechanical engineering graduate students. (I had given this same presentation last semester to the Graham Doctoral Fellows.) In this presentation, I talk about the perceptions of trash, and whether trash is a natural outcome of "modernisation."

"Modernisation" has given us many, many things, including this keyboard I am using to type this blog, as well as pharmaceuticals and drugs. Various tensions are brought out when the issue of medicine is raised...always. The medical field is probably the most environmentally impactful field of all, with copious amounts of radioactive materials, chemicals, gloves, plastics, metals and paper used. A few of my medical school friends have mentioned this, too. We got involved in a discussion about whether there is "beneficial" trash and waste, i.e. the trash and waste that is produced in making a machine that detects cancer, or the trash and waste that goes into making drugs. This is of course a difficult issue, and one that people may come to loggerheads to. It all comes down to our ethic, whether we place humans at the center of our ethic (anthropocentric), or whether we place the environment and everything that constitutes it at the center of our ethic (biocentric, for example). If we say that humans are the most important thing, period, then it is not surprising that such an ethic will lead us down a path that may result in blowing apart a mountain or damming a river to save a human life. Would we drain an ocean to save a life? Where is it we draw the line? This question is overwhelming, and there is no answer to it. But, I believe it is important to think about, because the outcomes that result from our ethic have major implications.

When we think of medicine, we think of the human impacts of the endeavour. But just as with everything else we do nowadays, guided by anthropocentrism (and Western elitism), we undertake the endeavour at the potential expense of that which sustains us - the rivers, the land, and the air.

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