Mother Nature Isn't Human Nature: A Wicked Problem
The online magazine Aeon recently published an essay with the appealing title “We are nature.” Having just published a co-authored essay describing “the process of technological change” as “natural,” I was excited to give it a read. Maybe the author, philosopher Beth Lord of Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, is a kindred spirit? Alas, no. She seems to want greater global centralization of political power, which is, in my view, a tragic error. Lord’s logic is of a sort that seems to be growing more and more important in the world. And I fear it may gain strength from the COVID pandemic. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to give it some close scrutiny.
Lord gets off to a pretty good start, by my lights. Admittedly, I don’t see why we should think of “Gaia” as choosing in the way an individual person chooses. (“Gaia strives to preserve itself.”). But she seems to appreciate the importance of technological progress and the Industrial Revolution. They led, she says, to “universal benefits such as clean drinking water, sewerage and education, creating more opportunities for the enhancement of the population’s knowledge and ability to thrive.” Right on! But then she says, “And yet, of course, we cannot rejoice.” Why not? What’s the problem?
The problem, Lord believes, is the Anthropocence. It’s true, I think, that the same process of technological change that brought us the “Great Enrichment” has brought us potentially catastrophic environmental problems, and we should do something about it. But ecosystem management is a wicked problem. As Ruth DeFries and Harini Nagendra have pointed out, “Wicked problems are inherently resistant to clear definitions and easily identifiable, predefined solutions. In contrast, tame problems, such as building an engineered structure, are by definition solvable with technical solutions that apply equally in different places.” So we need a multi-level system of the sort Elinor Ostrom has called for. We need a polycentric system with, “small- to medium-scale governance units that are linked together through information networks and monitoring at all levels. Global policies are indeed necessary but they are not sufficient.”
Beth Lord seems to want to concentrate more power at the center than is consistent with Ostrom’s polycentrism. Lord wants a “terrestrial state.” She explains, “Like all political structures, the ‘terrestrial state’ is an artificial public thing, a res publica, that must be established by its members and made to work through laws and institutions.” Apparently, the main thing is to have this behemoth. Don’t worry about minutiae such as how to keep it from trampling us all underfoot. She says, “But the procedural detail of how to establish a terrestrial state is less important than its utility as a narrative.”
To view the organization of the state as a “detail” is to implicitly deny that governance is a wicked problem. We should not view the structure of governance as some sort of inessential detail. Part of the problem in Lord’s conception is her apparent desire to see “all humans working together towards common goals.” This is constitutional design on a grand scale. But in “Against Design” my co-authors and I note that, “Constitutional design fails because any constitutional clause, mechanism, amendment, language, passage, provision, or principle becomes a tool that unknown persons will use in unknowable ways for unknowable ends.”
Lord says, “When people commit to this narrative, they act in ways that promote the common good, even if they don’t fully understand why they should do so.” It might seem obvious that if we were all to commit to the common good, then we’d get good outcomes. But we will have different ideas of what the common good is. We will have different ideas even if we all have superabundant benevolence for our fellow humanity or for “Gaia” or for whatever Lord might stipulate. We have, all of us, a partial view. The barber knows about hair clippers, but not teeth. The dentist knows about teeth, but not hair clippers. The barber will recommend a haircut and ignore the toothache; the dentist will recommend caps and ignore the shaggy beard. Thus, Lord’s core inference of good outcomes from some purely imaginary commitment to the common good is false and mistaken.
Nor does Lord indicate how people are to act for the common good when they “don’t fully understand why they should do so.” This is perplexing to me. Surely, I would commit to the common good only out of beneficence. How does the question of “why” arise? I can’t help wondering whether Lord is making an oblique reference to obedience. If you don’t obey, that proves you are not committed to the common good, which transforms you from co-equal citizen into enemy of the state. Whether that threat to the rebellious is any part of Lord’s conscious intention or not, it seems like a necessary consequence of her overall point of view.
Lord envisions ” a citizenry of all living beings.” And who will speak for the non-human citizens? They cannot speak for themselves. If we are to have such “citizens,” some human must speak for them. And that human will have power. That human will have power over other humans. When she calls on us to “stop fearing our own power,” she seems to mean good old-fashioned, raw, political power. I can’t help wondering whether she has imagined herself to be the possessor of such power and forgotten that she might well end up, instead, as its victim.
Lord calls for “a terrestrial social contract” in which “we give up our natural right over other species, and we agree to cooperate with the not-exclusively-human others on whom we mutually depend.” But only humans can form contracts. Some animals practice gift exchange, whether among themselves or with humans. And there is a kind of inter-species “exchange” when, for example, the pilot fish cleans the shark’s teeth. But none of this a proper quid-pro-quo contract in which the two parties agree in advance on quid and quo. As Adam Smith said, “Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.” There can be no “terrestrial social contract,” and any attempt to implement it would, again, mean some humans exercising power over other humans. It would mean dominating and tyrannizing others. Lord’s is a deeply anti-democratic perspective.
Indeed, consider her remark, “Even the real benefits of increased living standards in India and China give us pause, because those increases lead to greater demands for energy and meat.” It is alarming when persons in India and China consume meat and energy? But not when people in the US and UK consume them? Surely, she would insist upon the equality of all persons regardless of geographical location. I assume her protestations to this effect would be sincere. And yet she wrote this sentence and let it go to print uncorrected and unqualified. I cannot help but suspect, again, that she is imagining herself pushing around the rest of us. And, again, she should consider whether it might be possible that she will end up getting pushed around by others. Certainly, I would not care to be pushed about by her.
Roger Koppl is Professor of Finance in the Whitman School of Management of Syracuse University and Associate Director of Whitman’s Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society (IES).