sustainability and ignorance: more humility indicated

ignorance is a virtue

Mahalo to Steve Talbott for this heads-up: Some of our best minds see ignorance as a virtue (via netfuture).

Say wot? Yup...guided by minds like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, David Orr, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, a new "Culture of the Land" book series has just published "The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge".

Ignorance of a particular sort: "joyful", editor Bill Vitek calls it. With co-editor Wes Jackson, Vitek uncorks a potent brew of fundamental rethinking about our knowledge-based hubris.

I’m reminded of Donella Meadows saying we cannot “figure out” systems, yet we can “dance” with them.

According to Vitek and Jackson, the dominant view says that we can know enough to figure out the otherwise apparent randomness of the universe. And mebbe the dominant view is wrong.

For one thang, it may not be all that random.

For another, it may be dangerous to think we can ever know enough.

It might be more prudent (and fun) to assume we know very little and cannot ever know much more than what's right in front of us.

How does this relate to sustainability? Perhaps the hubris that got us into this mess is incapable of guiding us out.

Vitek thinks that this knowledge-based worldview is "inadequate and dangerous. The solitary Cartesian mind is insufficient for the task ahead."

In which case, we're gonna need something more like the "civic mind", as Vitek describes it.

Joyful ignorance, Vitek claims, is "a willful, defiant, rebellious act in the face of the obvious, of certainty, of security and control, and of domination."

While Vitek likens a knowledge-based worldview to hunting, he compares the ignorance-based worldview to gathering.

Says Vitek:

"In the ignorance based world view, you are not collecting, you are not competitive, and you must understand a broad range of things, much like in gathering, where you must understand seasons, terrain, and plants.

An ignorance-based worldview is broad, rather than specific. Its practitioners understand that they will fail often.

Like civil minded people, they see things as relationships. In this way, the ownership that comes with the knowledge-based worldview is transformed into fellowship."

That's wot I'm talking about: we need more "fellowship" with our island sustainability challenges.

At least in such fellowship, we're less vulnerable to wot we don't know we don't know.

BTW, this underlies my tendency to call our sustainability seminar a "conversation." I certainly don't "own" the knowledge we're sharing. Nor am I dishing "answers", and not just because we don't know the answers. The key point is: we're in conversation with each other and in communion with our surroundings as we seek guidance. The answers are not right in front of us.

Published by Ken on April 24th, 2008 tagged Systems Thinking

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