Are Our Environmental Goals Distracted by ‘Truthiness?’
Within London’s Westminster Cathedral Complex is a circular room that houses an ecclesiastical logic gate. Developed long before we thought in zeros and ones, the gate facilitates a simple choice. On one side of the room is a passageway labeled something to the effect of “yes;” on the opposite side is a passageway designated “no.” I recall thinking that what was really needed was a third passageway labeled “I don’t know but I need to move along nevertheless.”
Across the globe the average citizen is caught in the crossfire of ideologies: between secularism and religion, between socialism and capitalism. The fundamental problem is not with the ideologies themselves, but with the inability of normal people, those watching the ideological exchange, to find a pathway through the struggle that will allow society to make the right choices. We are at a critical point in our history where half the world is developing rapidly and the other half needs to make huge investments in restoring and regenerating the critical infrastructure and systems that have supported its development to date. The choices we make today will determine whether future generations, our children and grandchildren, have a shot at living better lives or not.
I have talked before about the concept of what Stephen Colbert ingeniously coined “truthiness”—this willingness people have to declare the truth to be what they’re predisposed to believe. Our media and our politicians supply a soundbite for every imaginable scenario and we are free to take our pick of the one that best reflects our personal bias and desire. Thus President Obama declares the “most realistic estimates” for jobs created by Keystone XL are “maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline” while Rep. Greg Walden asserts Keystone XL will create “20,000 American jobs, including more than 800 in Oregon.”
Based on your own personal preferences and political beliefs you will already have selected the statement you believe to be most accurate. In reality, according to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website dedicated to fact-checking in politics, neither of these statements is true. The actual numbers are hard to predict and conditional upon many varying circumstances, but both of the numbers quoted by Obama and Walden are well outside the estimated range of jobs the pipeline might create.
But does it matter? I am finding myself more and more inclined to wonder whether the pursuit of truth is even relevant any more to the problem solving we have to do. Is the energy required to track down the “truth” simply distracting us and leading us away from the more pressing need to make a timely decision? If the theoretical battle between the scientists and the politicians is anything to go by, this pursuit of the “truth” does nothing more than accelerate conflict and further befuddle those of us caught in the middle. It does not help people with different perspectives reach agreement across the lines in the sand. Which raises the question, “how do people these days actually make hard decisions?” We seem to be becoming less and less able to make those decisions.
When it comes to decisions related to resilience and sustainability, every single decision is a hard one because there is an opportunity cost that is very difficult to justify. How can we make the right choices when every investment is therefore based upon “truthiness”?
Some of today’s most complex problems are the result of someone reaching a quick conclusion or, perhaps more painfully, of no one reaching a conclusion so the result happened by default of inaction. Can we help to guide future generations away from the impulsive, kneejerk responses that have got us into such a mess? We do not have the time, the money or the resources to waste on solutions that are not going to be fundamental to creating a better future for us all.
Mark Twain believed that “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
I like this quote because it reminds even the most humble among us that our life serves a purpose – whether we realize its potential or not. We come from many different countries, contexts, and cultures and hold many different jobs, but together we create the built environment, facilitate civic society, consume natural resources and benefit from economic progress. Each of us plays a role that in some way impacts or shapes the world around us.
Many of us, privately at least, find irritating, or easily deniable, any evidence inconsistent with what we would prefer to believe is true. Being right is so much more comfortable than being uncertain. Yet as a species we would be better served if life’s anomalies instead triggered our curiosity and a desire for constructive investigation. How can we discover information we trust and share it with people we don’t normally agree with so that we can reach conclusions that will allow us to move forward together with lower friction costs and more confidence in our choices?
Such a response could more readily set us on a path in search of agreement to optimize conditions for human development over time. Too few are willing to carry that burden – let us not be counted among them.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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