Al Gore: Marshalling the Collective Will is NOT the Problem–The Problem is the Problem!

In his new book, former vice-president Al Gore says we have in hand all the tools we need to solve the climate change crises, except the collective will to do anything about them. I respectfully beg to differ. Finding the will is not the problem. We already have it and we have it volumes sufficient to the task. Gore is also wrong in claiming we have the tools we need. There are entire classes of scientific and economic tools that we are missing. It is because we lack the right tools that we are unable to focus and channel our will for solutions.

The short version of my argument is that we don’t have scientific, universally uniform, and ubiquitously used metrics for measuring overall environmental quality. Because we don’t have the measures, we can’t and don’t effectively and efficiently manage our natural capital and environmental assets. Without metrics akin to barrels of oil or bushels of grain, we don’t have markets for matching environmental quality supply with demand for it.

Without tools as essential as metrics and markets, we can’t harness our existing will to improve our relationship with the earth. What will do we have, you might ask? Our collective will is expressed in the profit motive. What we need to do is set up metrics and markets to harness the energy of the profit motive. We need to create systems for trading natural capital (and human and social capital) so that we generate real wealth and drive happiness indexes north by realizing human potential, building thriving communities, and nurturing sustainable environments. The profit motive is not our enemy. It is the source of energy we need to deal with the multiple crises we face: human, social, and environmental.

Now for the long version of my argument. The problem is the problem. We restrict our options for solving problems by the way we frame the issue. Einstein supposedly pointed out that big problems, ones framed at a level where they define the entire paradigmatic orientation to a class of smaller, solvable problems, cannot be solved from within the paradigm they emerge from. We tend to define problems from the modern point of view, in a Cartesian fashion, from the point of view of a subject that is separate from, and in no way involved in the construction of, the objects it encounters. What I want to point out is that it is this Cartesian orientation to problem definition that is itself the problem!

Set aside your opinions on the basic issues concerning climate change, and think about what’s going on. It is undeniable that human activities are implicated in changes to the environment, and that we have to learn to manage our effects on the planet, or they will feed back on us in potentially harmful ways. This is the nature of life in the flux and flow of ecological relationships. It is one of many ways in which observers are inherently implicated in constructing what is observed, which is recognized as holding true as much in physics as in anthropology. These are uncontroversial facts, quite apart from any concern with climate change.

And what these feedback loops imply, as has indeed already been pointed out by generations of scholars and thinkers, is that there is no such thing as a pure Cartesian subject separate from its objects. We shape the things in our world, and those things, in turn, shape us. Subjects and objects are mutually implicated. All observers are participant observers. It is inevitable that what we do and think will change the world, and the new world will require us to think and act differently.

The plethora of environmental crises we face are therefore situated in a new non-Cartesian paradigm. It is a fundamental error of the first order to approach a non-Cartesian problem as though it were merely another variation on the usual kind of thing that can be addressed fairly well from the Cartesian dualist perspective. When we think, as Al Gore does, that we should be socialistically organizing resources for a centrally-organized 5-year plan of attack on environmental problems, we are missing the point.

This approach can be put to work only in terms of an authoritarian form of control directed by a dictatorial panel of experts, a military junta, or a self-appointed czar. Framed from a Cartesian point of view, no democratic process will ever compel voters to do what needs to be done. As was illustrated so dramatically by the fall of Communism, the socialistic manipulation of the concrete particulars of human, social, and environmental problems is unsustainable and socially irresponsible.

The fact is that non-Cartesian problems are only made worse when we try to solve them with Cartesian solutions. This is why non-Cartesian problems are often described by philosophers as “hermeneutic,” a word that derives from the name of the Greek god Hermes, known by the ancient Romans as Mercury. Like liquid mercury, non-Cartesian problems merely split and multiply when we grasp at them clumsily ignoring our own involvement in the creation of the problem.

So we can go on trying to herd cats or nail jello to the wall, but to be part of the solution and not just another way of being part of the problem, we need to set up systems of thought and behavior that are not internally inconsistent and self-contradictory. No matter what we do, if we keep on marshalling resources to attack problems in deliberate and systematic ignorance of this cross-paradigmatic dissonance, we can only make matters worse.

What else can be done? Just what does it mean to go with the flow of the mutual implication of subject and object? How can we explicitly model the problem to include the participant observer?

“The medium is the message,” to quote Marshall McLuhan. As was pointed out so humorously by Woody Allen in his film, “Annie Hall,” this expression is often repeated and often misunderstood. Though all can see that the news and entertainment media are ubiquitous, the meaning of our captivation with the media of creative expression has not yet been clarified sufficiently well for generalized understanding.

Significant advances have occurred in recent years, however. The media we are captivated by define and limit not only how and what we communicate, but who and what we have been, are, and could be. Depending on the quality of their transparency and of the biases that color them, media convey moral, human, and economic values of various kinds. The media through which we express values include every conceivable technology, from alphabets and phonemes to buildings, clothing, and food preparation, to musical instruments, and the creations of art and science.

Media are at the crux of the lesson we have to learn if we are to frame the problems of environmental management so that we are living solutions, not exacerbating problems. Media of all kinds, from pen and paper to television to the Internet, are fundamentally technical. In fact, media are the original technologies. The words “text,” “textile,” and “technique” all derive from the Greek “techne,” to make, and have even deeper roots in the Sanskrit “TEK.” Technology is our primary medium of shared meaning. Technology embodies the meanings we create and distributes their values across society and around the world.

What we need to do to effect non-Cartesian solutions then is to dwell deeply with our shared meanings and values, and find new ways of living them out, ways that embody the unity of subject and object, problem and solution. Nice rhetoric, you might say, but what does it mean? What is its practical consequence?

Put in academic terms, the pragmatic issue concerns the nature of technology and how it provides measures of reality serving as the media through which we experience the world in terms of shared universals. Primary sources here include the works of writers like Latour, Wise, Jasanoff, Knorr-Cetina, Schaffer, Ihde, Heidegger, and others cited in previous posts in this blog, and in my published work.

To do more to cut to the chase, we can start to think of language and technology as embodying problem-solution unities. Words and tools are situated within ecologies of relationships that define their meanings and functions. We need to be more sensitive to the way meanings and values become embodied in language and technologies, and then are distributed across far-flung networks to coordinate collectively harmonized thought and action.

To get right down to where this all is leading, though it is probably far from obvious, the appropriate non-Cartesian orientation to the problems of environmental management raised in Al Gore’s new book ultimately culminates in creation of the technical networks through which we distribute measures of what we want to manage. These networks comprise the ecologies of meaning and values that we inhabit. Not coincidentally, they also create the markets in which human, social, and natural capital can be efficiently and effectively traded.

When these networks and markets are created, finding the collective will to deal with the environmental challenges we face will be the least of our problems. The profit motive is an exceptionally strong force. What we ought to be doing is figuring out how to harness it as the engine of social change. This contrasts diametrically with Al Gore’s perspective, which treats the profit motive as part of the problem.

Technical networks of instruments traceable to reference standards, and markets for the exchange of the values measured by those instruments, are what we ought to be focusing on. The previous post in this blog proposes an Intangible Assets Metric System, and is related to earlier posts on the role of common currencies for the exchange of meaningful quantitative values in creating functional markets for human, social, and natural capital. What we need are these infrastructural supports for creating the efficient markets in which demand for environmental solutions can be matched the supply of those solutions. The failure of socialism is testimony to the futility of trying to man-handle our way forward by brute force.

Of course, I will continue living out my life’s mission and passion by continuing to elaborate variations, explanations, and demonstrations of how this could be so….

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3 Responses to “Al Gore: Marshalling the Collective Will is NOT the Problem–The Problem is the Problem!”

  1. A Moral Quandry Around Better Measurement | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] my answers to these questions (in multiple blog posts over the last few years, such as here) focus on how to channel existing will, motivation, energy and resources in new ways. […]

  2. Metrology, the Advancement of Science and New Horizons in Psychological Measurement | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] into existing positions without realizing that the problem is the problem, which is to say that the way we frame the situation determines to a large extent the applicable […]

  3. With Reich in spirit, but with a different sense of the problem and its solution | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] then says that the answer to this problem lies in politics, not economics. As I’ve pointed out before in this blog, focusing on marshalling political will is part of the problem, not part of the solution. […]

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