On asking the right questions

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

It is not, I suppose, controversial to suggest that many people these days are confused about a lot of things. I know I am. Sometimes, though, this confusion is brought about by trying to answer the wrong question.

The question might be a valid one in itself, just asked at the wrong time. For example, when the Titanic struck the iceberg, the wrong question to ask – although it was much debated subsequently – was: “Whose fault is it?” Far more constructive would have been to ask: “How do we get everyone off the ship and into the lifeboats?” – a question which was not answered very well at the time. (“Whose fault is it?” is always a popular question, as I discussed recently.)

Sometimes, however, the question itself obscures the nature of the problem. Here you are, at the bottom of a deep hole, digging away. An unhelpful question might be: “Should I be using a sharper spade?” Whereas the obvious question is: “What will happen if I just keep digging?” Asking that question gives you the option to stop digging altogether. After all, what is your underlying problem? Could it be the fact that you’re at the bottom of a deep hole?

Here is a question many people are asking right now, in various guises:

How are we going to keep on doing business as usual?

I don’t happen to think this is a useful question to ask, because the underlying reality is that we are not. More to the point, attempts to answer it give rise to things that look like solutions but aren’t:

  • How can we have cars? We have cars, therefore there must always be cars; we can’t fuel them using hydrocarbons (that’s screwing up the climate, not to mention that they’re running out/getting too expensive), so the answer must be electric cars. Except it isn’t.
  • How can we have all the electricity we want? We have electricity, therefore there must always be electricity (especially if we’re all going to drive electric cars); we can’t rely on hydrocarbons (they’re running out/getting too expensive, remember?), so the answer must be renewable energy – which isn’t actually practical – or the answer must be nuclear fusion – except we can’t get it to work – or the answer must be nuclear fission, even though it costs a huge amount, we don’t know how to deal with the waste products, and it also depends on another non-renewable resource, uranium. (Nor is that uranium mined and refined by magic pixies; that process requires further energy.)
  • How can we have jobs? Because jobs are a good thing, right? Or at least they are the only way that most of us know how to make a living, so we have to have lots of those.
  • How can we maximise corporate earnings? Because corporations are people, except that somehow they seem to matter more than people do, let alone the natural communities that we don’t count as people (even though they make it possible for us to live, which is more than most corporations do). I don’t think this is a fruitful avenue of enquiry, if only because corporations have done a great deal more damage to the world than any actual people have ever managed in human history.
  • How can we grow the economy? This is mostly the same as the previous question, although it is usually dressed up to look like the one about jobs. The answer is the same: we can’t. Not even if we fiddle about with the accounting rules to make it look as it we can. As Kenneth Boulding is supposed to have said: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”
  • How can we feed ten billion people? I’m by no means sure the human population will grow to this figure, but it’s an assumption people often make, so let’s go with it. We could start off by distributing the food we grow now in a more equitable manner (unlikely; see the point about corporate earnings), but ultimately, in the total absence of electrically-powered agricultural machinery (point 1), sufficient electricity to power them if they existed (point 2), and the many agricultural inputs (fertiliser, pesticides) which we derive from hydrocarbons (did I mention those are running out/getting too expensive?), that may not be a viable option in the long term. I’m not saying this question has no good answer, but it won’t be one from the usual menu of solutions. (AI! Drones! GM crops! Robots! Um… hope?)
  • How can we stop disrupting the climate? The flippant answer is to invent time travel, go back at least fifty years, and stop doing all that stuff that caused the damage whose effects we are seeing now. The non-flippant answer is to stop causing even more damage, which sadly is not compatible with economic growth, maximising corporate earnings, or the rest of business as usual. (Accounting tricks like carbon credits won’t help here either.) But sadly an awful lot of the damage is already a done deal, and carbon capture and storage won’t fix it. Using the soil for this purpose as advocated by Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding (Picador, 2018; ISBN 978-1509805099) might be a good approach, were it not for the issues about corporate profits and feeding ten billion people.
  • How can we prevent the collapse of our present living arrangements? We can’t. We can prepare for it, and mitigate the shock to some extent, individually and collectively, but it’s going to happen. You might as well ask how you personally plan to live forever. Which perhaps you think is possible, if you’re these people, in which case I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.
  • How can we get around the laws of thermodynamics? You’re just trolling me at this point.

This is not to sat that there aren’t plenty of questions worth asking. Indeed, the above list itself throws up any number of them. Our whole way of life in the industrialised world – despite being, as George Bush Sr. presciently said, not negotiable – is going away. But that doesn’t imply the demise of humanity overnight. Everything is up for discussion: how and what we eat, how we obtain and exchange the other necessities of life, what the necessities of life actually are: these are big and important questions. How we live together as communities. How we see ourselves and others – and by others, I don”t just mean other human beings. What our lives mean, at a fundamental level.

I urge you to think of your own questions, and to discuss them with the people who are important to you. This is the time to do it, while we may still have some leisure to think and the resources to act. If the answers you come up with involve practical measures, then make a start today. You will be glad you did.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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