The Beauty of Difficulty

“It is easier to be a member of Earth First! or the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association than a member of neither.”

Jeff Lockwood made this observation in Orion Magazine when reflecting on the anguish he constantly felt about killing locusts. An applied ecologist at the University of Wyoming, it was Lockwood’s job to develop methods for dealing with the periodic outbreaks of locusts that devastate crops in the western rangeland.

While Lockwood was proud of the progress he had made in helping farmers reduce the volume of chemicals they needed to spray, the nature of his job constantly tormented him. He recalled the sick feeling he felt whenever he walked through the agricultural fields after the planes had left. There he would bear witness to the twitching bodies of hundreds of thousands of locusts piled high on top of each other, dying together in the furrows. Quoting Oppenheimer, the developer of the nuclear bomb, Lockwood wrote “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

I have students read Lockwood’s article in my introductory ethics classes in the hope they might feel just a hint of the ambiguity he feels. Lockwood documents his efforts to dwell in this difficult space and not to make life easy for himself by swinging to one extreme or the other. He is certain the job of killing locusts will be done better and more responsibly by a person who feels both the need to kill and a deep regret at killing.

Occupying the tortured middle is a task which appears to be getting harder by the day. The flood of media outlets now available to both professionals and to hacks tapping away on their smartphones means the time during which a person’s attention is available is getting shorter and shorter.

Nuance and complexity have become far too expensive when the metric is “seconds taken to grasp.”

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I recently wrote a book titled The Synthetic Age. In it, I introduce a range of new types of technology, ones that get inside the metabolism of the earth and change the key processes historically responsible for giving the earth its shape. The technologies include nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, gene drives, and climate engineering.

When it comes to the question of whether these technologies are desirable, the answer is…..well….complex. They can cut both ways. Humanity might gain the ability through climate engineering to save lives by rapidly cooling down global temperatures while at the same time becoming saddled with responsibility for unanticipated meteorological harms. Our species might become capable of using gene drives to send desirable genetic traits through populations of wild organisms while lacking a full knowledge of the long-term biological and ecological consequences that will follow.

At a different level entirely, many of these technological changes will have transformative implications for what we understand by big ideas like “nature” and “the environment.” The two sides of the coin need thought, they need debate, and they need a basketful of generous habits of mind.

What has surprised me is how quickly readers want to decide if the book is pro- or anti- technology. It would be easy and convenient if you could put 176 pages quickly into one of those packages.

It would also be desperately irresponsible. Like Lockwood’s question of being in Earth First! or the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, it would be to ‘Twitter-ize’ something that deserves more space, more time, more ambiguity. It would be to shun the optical lesson of finding yourself, however transiently, immersed in a disorienting fog.

Like the slow food movement, the “slow journalism movement” is an effort to push back against the trends that have been created by digital media. Delayed Gratification – a magazine leading the slow-journalism movement in London – prints in-depth stories on topics central to the international news over the last 3 months. They revisit issues with the perspective afforded by time. They follow up, dwelling in the complexity, and occupying the difficult spaces. They take several angles. If there is ambiguity, they display it. They value “being right above being first.”

The battle to regain a sense of the importance of ambiguity will be a challenging one. It will have to combat the tribalism we see all around us in public life. It will have to make thoughtful and difficult dialogue fashionable again. It will rely on people taking the extra time needed to grasp the ins and outs of situations they would rather not spend a lot of their day thinking about.

Whether it is about killing locusts or cooling the planet some of the decisions we make deserve to be difficult. Maybe it is time to find a little more beauty in all that difficulty.

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