Solutionism and Doubt in Solutionists

Taking a break to edit the lined up "Bullyboy blogs".  The character assassination of Africans who provide the ONLY affordable supply to the demand for television and internet in rapidly urbanizing nations is bad enough. Spending tax money and diverting limited Interpol resources from Transfigura dumping and ivory and big cat poaching is despicable.   But I need a cool-down, to focus and edit the blog.

In the meantime, I thought I'd coined a new word, but found it exists in the dictionary.


solutionism (uncountable)
  1. The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature.
  2. The providing of a solution or solutions to a customer or client.

Related terms[edit]

I was responding to an "Upworthy" post on Global Warming "debate", which is sharing a ConsensusProject graph.  The graph seems to say that a majority of people are not as smart as informed scientists are, which is no doubt true (almost to the point of being tautological.  If everyone knows what a scientific researcher knows, it kind of doesn't speak well of the pursuit).

Still, I was then struck by the Upworthy punchline:
You might know people who fall in the black part of the first graph. Maybe you could show this to them?
You know what, I do.  I know conservatives.  I myself believe it's obvious the world is warming, slightly less obvious what the primary reason is, but obvious that carbon emission doesn't help.  So far, I'm ok with my liberal friends here.

But I also notice this (as I commented on the Upworthy Facebook post).

Robin Ingenthron I think response to public surveys reveal dissonance between "is warming real" and "I buy into carbon trading schemes and social engineering designed to fix it". Given the choice between "yes or no" surveyees tend to look past the yes-no dichotomy and anticipate the way the results will be used. I'm sure there are a heck of a lot of deniers out there, but am also sure that the 55% would include people who are skeptics of the "Solutionists".

I've seen it over and over, and I observe it in myself.  When I'm being polled, the first question I ask back is "who is paying for this poll?".   There are some genuine polls out there.  But it seems like most of the polling I'm subjected to has a funder with a confirmation bias.  A political candidate, a party, or some other agenda.

Solutionism, like most other 'isms', is something a lot of us want to "step away slowly" from.

Many polls are paid for to support a "Solution" or opposition to a "Solution" someone else is proposing.  I believe in global warming.  I suspect it has a lot to do with loss of rainforest, exposure of peat under rain forests, and the exacerbation of slight heat to ice cap reflection.   It's possible that a solar flare would start an initial warm decade, and that once ice started to melt it would have a snowballing effect, so to speak.  And certainly, cutting down carbon chewing trees and replacing them with methane farting hamburger cows would push the momentum in the wrong direction.

That's a rather sophisticated theory to be labeled a "climate change denier", but that is what I'd appear to be if I heard that the poll was paid for by someone promoting carbon trading solutions.

I know and respect people trying to start a "Chicago Board of Trade" for carbon trading solutions.  I understand the theory that it harnesses free market forces, and I see it's having an effect on corporations who have hired carbon attorneys.

But my suspicion is that this reeks of social engineering, of "Solutionism".   You get a majority of people to agree there's a problem, and then the small set of insiders delegated the responsibility of solving the problem are very empowered.  I was in such as system at Massachusetts DEP, when I was in charge of the State's recycling program.


Through the press (like the New York Times article above), people in the Northeast were convinced that there was a landfill crisis.  The statistic was true, that 2/3 of the landfills operating in Massachusetts in the 1980s had to be closed.  And it's true that the landfills being closed were improperly lined and operated at a risk to groundwater.   Still, while I was a recycler who located to the Northeast precisely to take advantage of high disposal costs (avoided disposal costs via recycling) I was in secret a "landfill crisis denier".

From the NYT 1987 Article:
The Department of Environmental Protection frowns on the export of garbage, arguing that the practice takes millions of dollars out of the state and makes haulers vulnerable to such sudden shifts as the unannounced closing of the Keystone landfill.
The director of the solid-waste program for the department, Michael DiBonis, argued that states must find room within county lines for the new landfills that will still be needed when, early in the next decade, most county incinerators are expected to be operating.

I saw the landfill "crisis" being used to hike prices.  I saw it used by big incinerator companies (same as big nuke plant construction companies) to establish major projects to be a "solution" to the landfill crisis.  And my recycling program, and PIRG, and many others chose to use the same language to promote recycling.

Recycling is great.  But not because it solved that "landfill crisis".  The two thirds of landfills which were being closed were very small dumps in very rural towns, dumps opened before there were national laws regulating landfills.   I have one of them in the woods behind my house in Vermont, the kids go back there in the woods and salvage old bottles from the early 1900s.   But these were bug dust, their closure did not constitute an emergency for either incineration plants nor for recycling yards.

So if an incinerator was being proposed by, say, Halliburton, and I had a telephone call asking me to participate in a poll, and the pollster asked whether I "agreed that 2/3 of the state landfills were closing", I'd want to know who paid for the survey.  And if I thought that it was Halliburton, and they were going to take the poll results to the legislature to show "the public is aware of the need to solve the problem", I'm not sure how I'd answer the question.

I don't trust "solutionists".   I find Solutionism to attract people who don't have the skill or knowledge to compete in other forms of work, like airplane pilot, software programmer, or engineer.  A "problem reported in the press", especially one that claims risk to children or uteruses, attracts Solutionists like Snake Oil Salesmen to a cholera outbreak.

In conclusion I'm taking the time to write on this topic, obscure from the point of e-waste, because I'm reacting to something.  The post is from "The Consensus Project".  And Upworthy is recommending we show the graph to our friends.  Presumably to make them feel dumb, compared to scientists, if they are answering wrong in these poles.

I think a campaign to trade carbon is a solution which may well distract from the preservation of rain forests, and heck, from recycling.  I think I save more carbon by recycling a single aluminum can (enough energy to fill it halfway with gasoline) than chums who are trying to build a carbon trading pyramid.

Reducing mining relieves pressure on rain forests, and greatly relieves pressure on endangered species, and it saves enormous amounts of energy and carbon.  Recycling by hand is the best form of recycling.  Reusing an appliance maintains all the carbon energy used to create the appliance, which is more than the carbon the device will be responsible for emitting in its life.

I'm not a curmudgeon, but forming consensus by simplifying the question to binary, then pressuring people who resist the simplification, is wasted time.  It papers over the problems, earns money for fad solutionists, and angers people who feel the debate's being hijacked with simplistic choices in order to sell Solutions that aren't good, don't work.  That's how "tax breaks" get created, and once a "tax incentive" is created, it usually gets abused and creates a weird economy that does bad things to the environment by promoting inefficiency.

I didn't come by this point of view easily.

It has been beaten into my head by reality and by Solutionists who lie and defame people to make money on a solution they once genuinely believed would solve a problem, but cling to for financial reasons when they find out it doesn't work.   Like Thomas Midgely, who discovered that leaded gasoline reduced "engine knocks" and had other benefits, and resisted the de-leading of gasoline with virulent enthusiasm, Solutionists get tunnel vision and have trouble seeing their solution doesn't work or does work but does more harm than good.

Tomorrow, back to E-Stewards and the Solution to the E-Waste Crisis.

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