In January of this year, the European Commission released the European Green Deal. Thereby, the Commission laid down a 10-year roadmap for the “complete decoupling of economic growth from resource use”. Somewhere behind the crowds of neoclassical economists applauding the idea of absolute decoupling stand biophysical economists—many of whom are likely rolling their eyes at the idea of increasing economic growth in the face of declining resource (ab)use. How is it that the two factions coexist? How is it that neither faction is shown to be more logically consistent than the other?
To answer such questions, let us take a brief foray from European policy and reflect on the teachings of Daniel Quinn’s bestselling novel Ishmael. In Quinn’s novel, a Socratic conversation between a man and a wise gorilla is used as a pedagogical device to show readers just how peculiar and idiosyncratic human society is. Students of sustainability and the environment will recall the novel’s two koans—anecdotes presented with the purpose of demonstrating the inadequacy of logical reasoning (Quinn, 1995, p. 160):
“WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?”
“WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?”
Does the extinction of man give hope to gorilla or does it condemn gorilla? Does the extinction of gorilla give hope to man or does it condemn man? Koans are pregnant with meaning for sustainability, and all interpretations are equally valid. Just as with those individuals who converse with wise gorillas, scientists rely on cultural narratives to deter ambiguity. Such narratives provide epistemic boundaries—boundaries that allow one to distinguish between justified belief and opinion. Epistemic boundaries are constrictive. Epistemic boundaries are also necessary for the creation of purpose and meaning, however, and their adoption is unavoidable. All too often, the assumption of epistemic boundaries is left implicit and unquestioned. In the context of a global sustainability crisis, this blasé attitude is not constructive.
In two forthcoming scientific articles, we took a look at how energy and agriculture policy in the European Union are shaped by justificatory, normative, and explanatory narratives. Those three narrative types, respectively answering questions of why?, what?, and how?, can be understood to form epistemic boundaries of decision-makers. From a scientific research standpoint, their purposeful identification can reveal inherent cultural biases. Their identification can also help reveal how primal, societal concerns are transmuted into problems formally represented in policies as well as what solutions are proposed for those problems.
In that work, in conclusion, we identified a number of ways in which European knowledge society as it relates to energy and agriculture policy could benefit from the adoption of a complexity paradigm over a paradigm of reductionism. Among other things, the complexity paradigm prescribes the acceptance of irreducible value pluralism. Such an acceptance is difficult to entertain in reductionism—a prevailing approach to science infatuated with objectivity and optimization. While the current version of the European Green Deal is reductionist in spirit, naysayers should be comforted by recalling that Europe occupies a unique position among Western political entities. More so than in, for example, the United States, the European policy-scape prescribes a precautionary handling of conflicting epistemic boundaries (precaution being quite different than risk). Regarding scientific decision-support under a complexity paradigm, a promising line of research arises thanks to that precautionary stance—a line of research suitable for shedding light on indeterminate dialectics related to decoupling and green deals such as:
WHEN DECREASING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS, CAN WE HOPE FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH?
WITH ECONOMIC GROWTH, CAN WE HOPE TO DECREASE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS?
Quinn, Daniel. 1995. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam Books.
More about our approach can be found in two forthcoming scientific articles. The reference section will be updated once those the articles are published. In the meantime, readers are invited to get in contact.