False choices lead to bad outcomes. We hear it all the time. We are told, you can’t have both a clean environment and jobs. You want a responsible climate change policy? Then you must want higher gas prices. Locally, the discussion is often cast to force a choice between wanting clean water or having low taxes. Today we are bombarded with the choice between economic ruin and preventing more widespread death and illness. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty firmly opposed to both economic despair and risking my 90-year-old mom’s life to a preventable disease, but those two things are pretty much the only choices being offered.
So why are we subjected to these false narratives? There are lots of reasons, but here are a few. We have no national attention span. A number of factors, among them increased connectivity, a 24/7 news cycle, a 140-character limit on explanation and analysis, an ever more interconnected and complex set of issues and a disdain for detailed knowledge all promote simplicity. Simplicity in messaging and analysis result in equally simplistic solutions. Because we live in a complex and challenging world the simple answer is rarely the best. Thoughtful consideration of complex issues has been replaced with a battle between cartoonishly simple options masquerading as answers.
The truth is no one wins these fake debates. Sure, one side prevails in the moment, but nothing gets solved. We don’t move forward because the winning argument was not constructed to solve a problem, it was designed to win an argument, demean something or someone or distract from what may really be important. It is that last point, the distraction, that is perhaps the most destructive. Our political system has evolved, devolved perhaps better captures it, to discourage and punish thoughtful consideration of hard choices and complex solutions. Why have we not resolved, one way or the other, the health care system? Because it is hard and there will be winners and losers no matter which ideology wins. As a result, the entire system is designed to offer you simple answers that hopefully will prevent you from noticing that the fundamental problem (pick one—there are plenty) rages on. It is true of the pandemic response and its true about all manner of environmental issues.
Is it really the case that you can either have clean air and water or jobs and a good life, but you can’t have both? No, but there are legions of people out there whose job it is to convince you otherwise. What is really discouraging is that without both, the clean air and water and a robust economy, you can’t have the quality of life that most people on the planet want. The public discourse doesn’t really go there because figuring out how-to live-in balance with the Earth and provide adequately for the population can’t get solved in 140 characters.
It is our collective job and responsibility to see this problem for what it is and raise the bar. Expect more. But give more as well. Research your arguments, listen to the different sides, develop your understanding and give up the slogan speech. If the last few months have taught us nothing else, they have shown pretty starkly that simplicity is not a substitute for science, that jargon is not a substitute for preparedness and that your beliefs don’t change how the natural world functions and, finally, that a race to the bottom takes us all down with it.