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Naming the Problem in Order to Solve It

Framing the environmental challenges that we face as simply as possible allows people to act, even if ineffectually; frame it as the complex adaptive system that it is, and people go back to television. But rethinking how we discuss climate change solutions may result in rethinking how we think about the problem at all.

Perhaps the most common query a lecturer on sustainability gets is also the most difficult: "what can I as an individual do?" It's a deceptively simple question to which some respond with platitudes about recycling or buying local, while others go into convoluted discussions about global systems. But either response is just rearranging deck chairs, although whether the ship is doomed or not, or for that matter is even a ship at all, remains unclear.

The underlying dilemma is illustrated by a case I participated in several years ago. The goal was to preserve an old growth North American forest, and the means selected by the environmental activists involved was to get companies to agree not to purchase any forest products from the Canadian province involved until environmental demands were met.

As part of the surrounding dialog, I suggested a joint NGO/corporate effort to reduce demand for paper by substituting electrons for paper use -- e-billing, electronic communications between firms and their shareholders, electronic contracting, and the like -- because paper is a global commodity, and only reductions in demand -- rather than shifting production to less regulated and perhaps even more fragile forests -- were likely to achieve sustainable environmental progress. The activists involved rejected this for a number of reasons: it was self-serving (true, since I worked for a large telecommunications firm), it was irrelevant to their goals, and it distracted from the real, local issue.

It is the latter point that is important: the emotional traction on the issue, and the energy of the activists involved, derived from a strong sense of place and the value of wilderness; in a real sense, my effort to introduce questions of global interconnectedness was both a distraction and a challenge to the preferred framing of the problem. On the other hand, framing it in local terms meant that it was virtually impossible to address underlying systemic dynamics, which would therefore continue to drive the system.

Frame it simply, and people can act, even if ineffectually; frame it as the complex adaptive system that it is, and people go back to television. From climate change to biofuel debates to biodiversity, we therefore continue to flail, trapped between the Scylla of simple, individual, local and ineffectual, and the Charybdis of complex, emergent, and unintelligible.

But this anthropogenic world -- the Earth we have created through humanity's spread across the planet -- does not care that we cannot, either individually or institutionally, perceive and respond rationally to complexity and radical contingency. This is not just a simple matter of willful obstinacy; rather, it reflects the inadequacy of current conceptualizations of cognition and rationality.

The Cartesian model suggesting that cognition occurs only in the individual mind was always too simple, but only recently -- as we grapple with social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues which, by their nature, engage across social, economic, cultural, built, technological, and natural systems -- has it become prohibitively dysfunctional. We're busily trying to manage our way in the anthropogenic Earth of the 21st century using the disciplinary structures, intellectual tools, assumptions about cognition, and cultural constructs and concepts of the 18th; it should surprise no one that we're failing.

To accept our responsibilities -- indeed, to even recognize them -- we need far more sophisticated ways of perceiving, understanding, and interacting with emergent properties of complex regional and global systems in real time. The radical contingency and complexity of our world undercuts our existing cognitive mechanisms, such as ideology, because the rigidity inherent in such mechanisms becomes increasingly dysfunctional when flexibility in institutional and personal cognition is required. Facing the anthropogenic Earth, we realize we need, among other things, to rethink cognition.

Sustainability issues, in other words, are a path to some of the most profound challenges the human species faces in the next century, and exploring them is as intellectually challenging as anything we have done since the Enlightenment itself. But the sustainability discourse, which should be so engaging, and potentially pivotal, is lost in bromidic space, with clichés such as "think globally, act locally" and "frankenfoods" substituting for critical thought; the academic and intellectual side of the sustainability and environmental discourses sunk from the promising brilliance of The Whole Earth Catalog to safely quasi-Marxist ideological meanderings with little content.

In Richard II, John of Gaunt laments, "That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself." On current form the sustainability and environmental discourses bid fair to replicate that fate, with far more serious consequences for us all.

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