24 June 2010

The Survival Value of Not Knowing

An excellent article by Naomi Klein, called A Hole in the World, was published in the Guardian earlier this week. Here is a quote:

But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday's congressional testimony, Hayward said: "The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear" on the crisis, and that, "with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime." And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as "Pandora's well", they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don't know...

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward's "If you knew you could not fail" credo, the precautionary principle holds that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health" we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. "You act like you know, but you don't know."
This relates also to a recent blog posting by Larry Crockett on the Greek concept of "hybris."

Hubris (also hybris; pronounced /ˈhjuːbrɪs/) means extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power (wikipedia).

Sounds familiar, eh? Not nearly as eloquent as Ms. Klein or my father, I wrote about this a couple of decades ago from a contemplative perspective in an essay I called The Asking Is the Answer, which I just rediscovered and posted on my essays page. This theme was also part of my post a couple of weeks ago on the blowout (and this one from The Sustainable Soul).

Naomi Klein's mantra sums it up: "You act like you know, but you don't know."

The contemplative perspective is that this is true of all of us, all the time, about everything. We don't know anything about anything. We only think we know. The more we act like we know, the more trouble we cause. The more we understand how deep our ignorance goes, the more harmoniously we can live within the whole movement of Life. Why? Because when we understand the true depths of our ignorance, we pay attention, we remain alert, we question our own assumptions, and we consider the possible consequences of our actions.

We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. We can find a place for ourselves in the natural world that recognizes the limits of our understanding; or we can grasp at the appearance of control that comes with the illusion of certain knowledge, and hasten the destruction that we are surely bringing upon ourselves.

Replacing hubris with humility is our only hope.

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