Yesterday I wrote about how the temptation to find a single simple cause for problems and challenges can stand in the way of being able to solve them. It’s easier for farmers to press for badger culling which gives them hope, however false, that TB can be eradicated, than it is for them to accept that there isn’t any easy or cheap solution and that they may have to wait for vaccination before they can cure the problems that TB causes them. It’s easier for the government to face down one campaign to deport a teenager than to try to explain to an electorate that doesn’t want to hear it that immigration is caused by a lot of issues, many of them beyond our control, and that in years to come we may have to accept that there will be a lot of people coming to this country because it has become impossible to live where they originally came from.
However, this is only possible because we compartmentalise the costs of these courses of action. We pick and choose which costs we will apply to them. In the case of badger culling, for instance, it only looks cheaper than vaccination if the costs of policing the protests causes by culling are not allocated to the cull. In the case of immigration, we don’t consider the costs of policing our borders, running the immigration service, running the detention centres, fighting the appeals…. It would be interesting to know how much it costs us to deport one person, versus how much it costs to allow them to stay in the country. However, we are not told these costs, because they are not deemed to be relevant (and perhaps also because then we might be encouraged to demand that the money be used instead to support their local communities to allow them to stay).
This narrowness of vision affects us in more ways than we know. For instance, take climate change. It is becoming obvious that no government will take serious (by which I mean effective) action to tackle climate change because to do so will be too expensive. The eventual costs will be huge, but in the meantime, the real costs of climate change are mounting up. If we took all the increased costs that we are already experiencing from climate change and added them to the cost of fossil fuels, the escalation in affordability of those fuels might drive real action to seek more sustainable ways of living and better ways to avoid or mitigate the most severe effects of climate change. If we added on to those costs all the existing costs of using fossil fuels, they might become so unaffordable that the clamour to provide more sustainable and less expensive modes of achieving the same ends would be unstoppable. And in those circumstances, in which the “costly” sustainable solutions become more affordable by comparison with the alternatives, we would also be better able to see the other benefits which the alternatives would bring us. We would be better placed to see things clearly and to see them whole.
I will take a small example from my own experience, partly because it’s a good example and partly because the person who introduced me to this particular example was kind enough to retweet my link to this blog yesterday. Jon Irvin (@Jon_events), is running a campaign to close many minor roads in my community, Tooting, with some success and hopefully more in the pipeline. When I first became aware of his campaign I was unimpressed, since I’m a car driver, and I felt that I would be massively inconvenienced by the closure of minor roads which would force me to sit in queues of traffic along the major roads simply to get from one side of the borough to the other. Jon was kind enough to engage with me and to invite me to share a coffee so that he could explain his point of view, which he did with great intelligence and thoughtfulness.
In short, he is not just, as I had painted him in my own head, some bicycling eco-nut with a mission to ban cars, but a person who is deeply committed to his local community and to improving it and making it a better place to live and work for everyone. He wasn’t pushing a mere negative, to ban cars, but a positive, to create a community where it was easier to walk and cycle. He was able to show me that in places where such action has already been taken, as alternative modes of transport become easier and safer to use, the number of journeys taken by car actually decreases, reducing traffic congestion. He also showed me that an additional result, as fewer cars run through residential areas, is that community cohesion and thus quality of life on a number of measures increases. Having accepted this point of view, I was also able to see the benefit to me in supporting him. I am a committed long-term resident of my community and am planning to live the rest of my life here, and I would much rather live out my dotage in a cohesive and supportive community with strong social links where it is easy to walk and cycle than in a place which is dominated by rat-running motorcars, even if it does mean some small incovenience to me in the short term. He enabled me to see not just the cost to me of the road closures he was proposing, but also the cost of NOT closing those roads, in the short and the long term. In short, he enabled me to see things clearly and to see them whole, and in so doing, won me over to his way of thinking.
I have a feeling I may have still more to say on this topic, so there may well be a part 3 to this tomorrow….