Sunday, October 2, 2011

There is no single answer

We are possessed by and at the mercy of the powers of centralisation and absolutism. The way many of us think of and frame problems is in the hope that there is some definitive outcome at the end. "The answer is forty-two!" we would like to hear. When we are interested in the outcomes of a policy option, we ask, How many people will this give cancer to? or, How many people will this save from cancer? This is the way policy-making is done--through some sort of quanitfication of outcomes, through cost-benefit analyses, through some sort of Pareto optimisation. Unfortunately, this is a massive mischaracterisation of the problems that face us, and of the way we need to be addressing them.

Engineers like to think about energy, and most of the engineers that are interested in sustainability and ecological issues tend to focus on the issues through the lens of energy. If you were ever to go to a talk on the energy "future" given by some engineer, you will inevitably here this statement: There is no silver bullet. When it comes to where our energy ought to be coming from (in all actuality we should be using less, in conjunction with a move away from extremely ecologically degrading sources), there are advantages and disadvantages to each kind of energy, be it coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, petroleum. Some are more "convenient" than others, some are more "easily produced" than others, some are more ecologically degrading than others, some are backed by more powerful interests than others. We must have the right "portfolio," some might say.

That being said, I want to tie together a few posts and themes that have emerged over the past months, which I have written about in, for example, The right, the wrong, and the other, Traveling at home, and What if you don't live in Ann Arbor?. I have realised that there is no definitive way in which I, or anyone else for that matter, can address the myriad of socio-environmental issues in existence. Issues are specific to time and place. However, what is true is that they have been influenced by a common ethic of domination, violence, greed, disrespect, hegemony, and carelessness. Such an ethic expresses itself differently in different places.

The desire for absolute, definitive answers masks the messiness of complexity, makes us simplify debate in terms of "right" and "wrong," "us" versus "them," and moves us no closer to a much-needed introspection of social norms. This was brought together beautifully, although in a slightly different context, by David Remnick, writing about what we have and have not learned since 9/11, in the September 12th issue of The New Yorker.
A decade later, we also continue to reckon no only with the violence that [Osama] bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked--the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced interrogation," waterboarding. The publication of Dick Cheney's memoirs is the latest instance of Bush Administration veterans serenely insisting that they "got it right," that the explosion of popular discontent that began in Tunisia last December and spread through the region is the direct result of the American-led invasion and the occupation of Iraq. This is as dubious as it is self-serving...Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves--questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.
There is nothing absolute when it comes to dealing with social or environmental problems, because each place is unique. This we must understand. What works here doesn't work there. Solar power in cloudy regions doesn't work, but it may in sunny regions. Damming rivers nonchalantly doesn't take into account the specificities of seismic activity. Building a bridge in the name of "economic development" at the expense of community, consequently disenfranchising a group of people, just isn't sustainable. On the contrary, empowering people knowledgeable about the place and watershed they live in, a thoughtful education of the interconnectedness of the local and the global, and a sincere understanding and acceptance of the differences that define us, can lead to more sustainable, more respectful outcomes. If we have a fertile foundation upon which our actions can bloom, we will be much better equipped in dealing with the uniqueness of place and time.

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