Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Fix

Here is another set of my notes from the conference on Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy.

How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?

We might hope for a technological fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to a shortcoming in current technology.   The technological systems we have are inefficient or lacking in scope, capacity, and power.  All we need, then, is to develop better, more powerful, more efficient technological systems, and everything will be fine. 

We might hope for an economic fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to shortcomings in current markets and incentive structures. The markets we have are inefficient in distributing goods and services, or there are specific failures of the market in addressing some consequences of economic activity, or there are perverse incentives built in to current policies that lead to inefficient outcomes. All we need, then, is to develop better, more efficient markets with properly structured incentives, and everything will be fine.

Many philosophers, social scientists, and environmental advocates are deeply suspicious of - if not openly hostile to - a fixation on technological or economic fixes. There may be a number of reasons for this antipathy: a suspicion that technological fixes in particular create more problems than they solve; a suspicion that a hankering for economic and technological fixes alike arises from a misunderstanding of the true nature of the problem, and so misses what is most essential in our current predicament.

Philosophers, environmental ethicists in particular, seem eager to cast the fundamental problem as one of meaning and value, and to cast their own role as identifying and rooting out ways of thinking and valuing that are out of step with what is required of us if we are to live well and justly and sustainably in the world.

For the record, I'm in fundamental accord with my fellow philosophers, up to a point. Addressing questions of meaning and value is necessary - vitally, urgently necessary - if we are to have any hope of finding a way for the project of human civilization to go forward. This is very much in keeping with the critical function of public philosophy I discussed in my last post.

I do not think, however, that asking and answering such questions is sufficient in itself.

In some conversations at the Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy conference, and from time to time in the broader literature of environmental ethics, I have found an urgent, almost desperate insistence that asking and answering questions of meaning and value must be sufficient.

In other words, in trying to solve the problem of sustainability, we might hope for a cultural fix, which assumes the problem is fundamentally due to shortcomings in current ways of thinking about human life in the world and about how we ought to live in it. All we need, then, is to develop better, more adequate, more consistent values and habits of mind, and everything will be fine.

I have some sympathy for this view but, in the end, I have to reject it as a false hope.

All three versions of the fix fixation posit that there must be a unique, correct, and sufficient solution for what must be a relatively simple and well-defined problem . . . a problem that is, conveniently, perfectly suited for whatever tool I happen to be holding in my hand. If I had a hammer, as the tired old saying goes, every problem would start to look like a nail.

But the problems of making our built environment better, more just, and more sustainable, all while adhering to legitimate processes of democratic decision making, are much more diverse, and sticky, and wicked than that. I mean by this that the problems are complex, ill defined, and multifaceted.

No one lens will give us a uniquely correct view of the problem; no one tool will give us a uniquely correct purchase on a solution.

In fact, there may be no solution at all, let alone a quick fix. I'll need to track down the references, but part of the essence of a wicked problem, my colleague Bryan Norton tells me, is that we do not solve them, we only figure out how to cope with them. 

(I'll have more to say about this soon, the possibility of a "no solution" problem.)

For coping with wicked problems of well-being, justice, and sustainability in the built environment, it's all hands on deck.

Be sure to bring whatever tools you have to hand.

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