Friday, August 12, 2011

The loss of nuance

With the scale and vastness of the problems that face us, it is difficult to not view these problems as monolithic problems. This is not to say that "poverty" or "climate change" as problems are disputed. But what these problems mean for different people, in different places, is different. This is something we cannot get away from, and something that comes up time and time again in thinking about sustainability. What this means is that the outcomes of these problems in different places is different, and it depends on where you lie socio-economically, and so forth. Climate change means something for us here in Michigan than it does for those in Zimbabwe. Consequently, how to deal with the problems changes depending on where you are.

But if you were to hear any politician or any large engineering firm PR person speak, you would think that they have the answer to the problem (however they choose to define it). You might hear someone say, "What we need are two hundred solar energy farms in Arizona, and all of our problems will be solved," or "We need to create a large entity that will regulate and oversee how things happen on Wall Street, and our economic problems will be solved." You might notice that party A wants to do B, and party Y wants to do Z - it's simple black and white. Party A thinks that B should solve it all, and party Y thinks that Z will solve it all. The real issues, and the real solutions, are more complex, and more nuanced than this.

And so this sort of rhetoric is dangerous for many reasons. First, it makes us think that the problems are monolithic. Second, it makes us think that the solutions to those problems are monolithic. Third, it makes us think that they have the solutions (to the problem that many times they created in trying to solve other problems), not us. Fourth, it reduces our thinking to sound bites and Tweets. The problems we face are because of the loss of nuance - the bulldozing of unique places and cultures to give them all the same feel, the homogenisation of tastes and of "development." This is why people think that lawns in Phoenix are okay. 

The loss of nuance is seen in our education, in which we are trained to be one thing or the other, a doctor or an engineer, or a sociologist for that matter. We've applied the same mentality of "secularity" of science and technology to our society and to education, and we are now seeing the outcomes of such a mentality. The problems we've created for ourselves (yes, we) are so vast and intricate that there cannot be blanket solutions. Yet at times what science and technology, government and industry want to do is to centralise these problems, and apply blanket solutions.

As a first step, we must get rid of this reductionism in our lives, though, and not bin ourselves as A or B, but rather a complex melding of A and B, as well as C and D. To give you something to think about, complete the sentence for your life -  "I am not solely an engineer (or whatever you are), but I am also..."

1 comment:

  1. Nuance is a feature of natural systems, but is destroyed by industrialisation which needs standards, and simple rules, models to work.

    I guess it would be easier to get rid of industry first (easy with energy shortages), then have people broaden their minds, than otherwise.

    I feel this way cause people don't usually choose the least easy way to do thigs. but that's my very personal opinion.