FOUR HARD QUESTIONS: SIZE, SCALE, SCOPE, SPEED: To address ecological crises, it's time to leave behind those who are holding us back.

AuthorJackson, Wes

People are sometimes reluctant to ask questions when they suspect that they will not like the answers.

How many churchgoers who have doubts about their congregation's doctrine decide to squelch their questions out of fear of losing friends and community? How often do people in intimate relationships avoid confronting tension because they know a problem cannot be resolved? How many people have delayed a trip to the doctor because they know that an examination may lead to a diagnosis they do not want to deal with?

Here is an exercise for all of us: For one day, pay attention to all the forms of denial you practice and that you see others practicing. How many times do we turn away from reality because it is too hard at that moment to face? Dare we list the things that scare us into silence?

We all have personal experience with this hesitancy to face reality. At some point in our lives, we all have avoided hard questions, precisely because they are hard.

What we experience individually is also true of society. There are hard questions that, collectively, we have so far turned away from, either because we have no answers or because we will not like the answers that are waiting for us. Contemporary societies face problems for which there likely are no solutions if we are willing to consider only solutions that promise no dramatic disruption in our lives. Hard questions often demand that we acknowledge the need for dramatic change.

Our ecological crises cannot be waved away with the cliche that necessity is the mother of invention, implying that human intelligence, perhaps in combination with market incentives, will produce magical solutions. We believe that the most productive way to face today's hardest questions is to focus not only on human creativity but also on human limitations. The techno-optimists emphasize the former, betting that we can do anything we set our minds to. Those who lean toward nihilism focus on the latter, suggesting that there is no way off the path to ruin. We believe that responsible planning requires careful consideration of both humanity's potential and its propensities--not only what can get us out of trouble but also what got us into trouble in the first place.

Four hard questions that are essential to confront now are: What is the sustainable size of the human population? What is the appropriate scale of a human community? What is the scope of human competence to manage our interventions into the larger living...

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