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Are Our Environmental Goals Distracted by ‘Truthiness?’

lawrence, gary, aecomWithin 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.

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One thought on “Are Our Environmental Goals Distracted by ‘Truthiness?’

  1. Gary, I read your article, Are Our Environmental Goals Distracted by ‘Truthiness?’, and I agree with you 100%. As we all begin to take this pioneering journey of sustainability, there are going to be lots of unknowns at the beginning. It seems people are trying to determine the level of risk they are willing to commit to prior to ‘taking the leap’. But much of the science is new, and some of the risk cannot be pre-determined. We will learn over time through mistakes and victories. I believe the most important issue right now should be a person’s/company’s motive for pursuing change, as well as the willingness to stay open minded to others. We must be willing to roll up our sleeves and work together to discover how to make the future better and brighter. We are wasting time, energy, and resources bickering about whose numbers are the most accurate. Let’s work together. Let’s collaborate. Let’s be open minded and let’s MOVE FORWARD with solutions.

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