A war on simplicity?
Kate Yoder was surprised to find her language getting violent when she started reporting climate change. “Some ancient spirit took hold of me, and I found myself deploying the narrative of war … of the climate movement’s leaders who’d gone all out with the wartime cliches. The only way to overcome climate change inaction, environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote, ‘is to adopt a wartime mentality, rewriting the old mindset that stands in the way of victory’.”
Oppositional vocabulary is attractive, powerful, often necessary. But focusing on conflict “limits our collective imagination about what we can do to fix complex problems.” Wars on poverty, drugs, terror? None has been won. Can you wage war on a predicament?
While wartime language works for some people, for many ‘intractable conflict’ simply reinforces division. “The key is not to avoid conflict, but to complicate it.” Citing the wonderfully named Difficult Conversations Laboratory at Columbia University, when people are presented with nuanced rather than polarised information on either side, their “conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war.”
“As for getting rid of war metaphors themselves, well, it’s not easy … It’s certainly going to require some imagination.”
2 Replies to “msb ~099 A war on simplicity?”
I was interested to read on the ClimateCultures website the term ‘wicked problems’ which was new to me. Please could you enlighten me: how is it used, what is its context etc?
Thanks for your comment, Eric – and for checking out ClimateCultures! The term ‘Wicked Problem’ is used quite a lot to describe issues like climate change, where our knowledge about the underlying systems is incomplete (and maybe not completable?), there are a lot of conflicting views on the causes and possible solutions, and the way many issues are tangled up within them and any one action could have unforeseen consequences and feedbacks. Of course, these are among the features of wicked problems that make them so important to do something about, but it’s sort of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’, I guess and that’s why they are so wicked! By contrast, ‘lesser’ problems are fairly ‘tame’: it’s possible to define them, debate them, decide what to do about them, act, review the outcomes and make corrections.
The term ‘Wicked Problems’ was coined by social policy planners in the early 1970s. But when it comes to such complex and interconnected challenges like climate change, it’s perhaps preferable to see them as ‘predicaments’ rather than ‘problems’ as such, to avoid oversimplifying them as something that can be ‘solved’. We learn to live with predicaments: adapting to the unavoidable while doing all we can to minimise the avoidable risks.
“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” — John Michael Greer