My wife and I drove south this past week to make our annual pilgrimage to the place of our meeting (and to see the sun a bit too). As we drove through California’s Central Valley we saw a number of billboards offering up the false choice between food and water. The implication being that agricultural water was sacrosanct and that should be the end of the discussion. If you eat, you want agriculture to have unfettered access to aqua.
This approach bothered me not only because of the “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude and monumental lack of awareness, but because this seems to be all that we see now days in terms of political dialog. The need for sane reform on guns suddenly becomes “they are coming to take your guns.” Industry concerns over the regulatory implications of climate change become multi-million dollar campaigns of denying well-established science. And the movement to allow people to lead their lives as they see fit—a core and evolving principle of the American experiment that we like to call "freedom"—suddenly becomes a war on Christianity. It is like so many kindergartners who have been told they must nap only to escalate their anti-nap advocacy through crying jags and tantrums.
In discussions about the danger of these extreme, uni-dimensional approaches you can always count on some armchair philosopher rolling out the tired illustration of the cylinder that when viewed from different perspectives becomes either a square or circle. It makes me want to shake my head in frustration, because they are not proving the value of particular perspectives, but rather making the case that these limited and singular perspectives yield false impressions just as we have seen time and time again in the various versions of the blind men and the elephant parables.
So how did we get here and what are the solutions? My sense is that we incrementally abrogated our civic responsibilities in favor of allowing repackaged trade or industrial associations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Rifle Association or American Petroleum Institute to paint the “square” or “circle” on the wall and then tell us to salute it. They and others are assisted in this by the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Fox News, a myriad of think-tanks and many who would rather you not turn your head in the slightest to see that alternative perspectives exist or to otherwise use your noggin.
I think the solutions are two: leadership and education. We need leaders who are honest in their assessment of problems and balanced in their prescriptions for solutions. Yes the water situation in California is dire and many of us do dine from that coastal cornucopia, but that does not mean that all crops need to be grown everywhere nor that current agricultural practices cannot and should not use less water. Leaders—those who are taking us forward—have to speak about the “cylinder” and cannot simply cling to their own personal elephant tail (or snowball) and craft solutions based on that limited and incorrect understanding.
And education is so very critical in all of this. All countries but particularly the US live and thrive based on the collective intelligence of their populations. When we drive our national brain towards the Bronze Age rather than the Electronic Age by dumbing down text books with the clutter of intelligent design or by eschewing fact checkers we not only embrace the flawed “circles” and “squares” but inhibit those who will one day tell us that even the "cylinder" is too limited a view and we need to keep open to that to be world leaders.
Absent these changes we are pulled backwards and backwards more...like in a whirlpool. Our only options for progress are those that pull us up and out of this sinking narrowness. So here's to hope for a strong and visionary hand on the tiller and the collective strength of mind to pull us cross-current to safer waters.