Nate Wessel

We know enough already

This may be specific to urban planning, but I suspect that it’s more general: I think we, as a society, know enough already. Or rather, like a python that has just taken a deer, the time has come for digestion and repose – not more eating. The enlightenment and the work of the sciences has given us so much information that it’s piling up in front of us as we all pat our stomachs and shake our heads like we’re two hours into a Thanksgiving dinner. Put that pie away, sciences, we are full.

I say this having just completed a PhD in urban planning – a not particularly scientific field. I don’t know if that makes me more or less qualified on this topic than I would be otherwise – it certainly gives a personal edge to it. My dissertation had a lot of (handwaving) Science (handwaving) in it, but I’m not sure it will help to solve any real problems or if it will just make those worse by helping to make everything seem more complicated than it has to be. My dissertation was in some sense trying to make certain kinds of public transport planning models slightly more accurate than they otherwise might be – this in a broader effort to make public transport generally better than it presently is. What’s really needed to improve public transport though is increased public subsidy relative to the subsidy received by cars. This isn’t my idea; it’s been around since before I was born. My dissertation work at the very best will help to squeeze just a little more efficiency out of the empty toothpaste tube that is public transport subsidy. Sure, we’ve already squeezed as much as we could – but have we stuck any specialized tools down the nozzle yet??

The real problem of improving public transport is entirely political. I want it to be funded, other people want it gutted. I think I know better because I’ve studied the issue but other people have focused on other things and everything is ultimately a trade-off. In a democratic society if I want more resources for something I finally need to convince people, lots of people, that it’s worth paying for. This is a problem with more solutions to be found in the works of Cicero than in a contemporary urban planning text. Thus, my dissertation with its relentless focus on the present was deeply misguided if its true goal was to make transit better.

Now it occurrs to me that one easy complaint is that surely we don’t know how to cure cancer, not really, and that knowledge, surely that knowledge, is to be welcomed and embraced, right? Surely that knowledge is worth working toward?

Even here though I think I can counter that so much of the work of modern medicine is restorative rather than preventative and that the knowledge we have already about the causes of cancer, if taken seriously, could probably save far more lives with less effort than any cure applied after the problem has developed. We eat garbage, we breathe garbage, we abuse our bodies in clear and very well documented ways. This is known; this, if taken seriously is a cure for the largely social origins of corporeal cancer. Our neglect of the knowledge we already have causes cancer. We cause cancer – and then we spend billions trying to solve the problem.

Perhaps our striving after “knowledge”, the striving I here protest, is really just a grasping at easy solutions to hard problems. Solutions which we know won’t solve much but by their associations bless the bearer with the prestige of learning, the warm glow of helping, and the feathery insulation of money. Such a pursuit of knowledge is vanity.

We know enough already to spend the next thousand years busily building Eden here on Earth, probably in space too for that matter. Let us now put it to use! But let us first recall from some of the older texts that the hard problems of life do not often admit of easy solutions. The work that is to be done, at least for those of us already possessing adequate educations, adequate stores of knowledge, is almost entirely in the rearranging, reorienting, recombination, and remembering of the things we already know.