Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What Should We Do?

Thomas Dietz

What should we do about climate change? species loss? the growing power of artificial intelligence? inequality and violence? 

Individual choices underpin these grand decisions. Should I shift to a plant-based diet to reduce my environmental impact? What political candidates should I support? Should I push my employer to be more active around sustainability and social justice?

In Decisions for Sustainability: Facts and Values, I explore how we might make such important decisions.

            Making decisions is hard for us as individuals. And it’s even tougher when we have to come together in communities, in organizations, in nations, and globally. In the half century since the first Earth Day, we have made some decisions that move us towards sustainability; that is, toward improving the well-being of humans and other species while reducing stress on the environment. But we also have made decisions as individuals, communities, organizations and nations that don’t help and often make things worse. There are many examples: we have not adequately addressed ongoing climate change and biodiversity loss, the proliferation of technologies without consideration of their impacts, or continuing violence and inequality. How might we do better?

            Much of social science and the humanities help us understand how we make decisions, and what can go wrong. This research doesn’t make it easy to decide what to do about big problems. But it does help us think carefully about how to go forward.

            How do we make decisions? One tradition, the rational actor model, argues that we carefully weigh costs, benefits and uncertainties and make choices to get what we want at the lowest cost in money, time and hassle. We maximize individual utility and seek efficiency. It is the approach used in economics and most policy analysis. Another tradition argues that what we want is driven by our values, beliefs and norms. Values are the things important to us, beliefs are what we consider to be the facts. Norms are what we think others are doing, what we think they think we should do and what we think we should do. A third approach emphasizes that we use shortcuts that deviate from a careful weighing of costs, benefits and uncertainties. For example, we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty—if we were, lotteries and casinos wouldn’t make money. We tend to accept what is consistent with what we already believe and discount new evidence. We pay attention to people we agree with already and reject information from those who disagree. Such shortcuts work pretty well in some circumstances.  But they can lead us astray in others, especially when we are dealing with complex new challenges. And together these shortcuts can lead to polarization that makes it hard to make decisions together.

            A first step in making better decisions is understanding the strengths and limits of science in establishing facts. Science is an evolutionary process. Over time, discussion in the scientific community leads to increasing accuracy in assessing reality despite the foibles of human decision making. The scientific process provides protection against  our failings in assessing information.  It is our best guide to assessing facts. For some things, like the way toxic chemicals react in the laboratory, facts can be established with great certainty. But for making decisions about complex problems, such as how to respond to a toxic spill, relatively certain laboratory science has to be melded with understandings that depend on context. How will the spilled chemicals move through the ecosystem, how will they interact with other chemicals in the soil and in water supply systems, how will humans and other animals be exposed? Science is still the best guide to the facts.  But the complexity introduces uncertainty, and makes public understanding more susceptible to the influence of those trying to manipulate decision making to their own advantage. For decades, efforts to block decisions about emerging problems have emphasized scientific uncertainty and played on polarization. It’s a strategy that has been used by opponents to regulation of lead in gasoline, of tobacco, of effective action on climate change.

            Given all this, what is a good decision? At least four criteria focus on good outcomes. We want to enhance the well-being of humans and other species; be efficient in not wasting money, time and effort; enhance individual freedom; and have fair outcomes. And at least four criteria are about process. We should use an accurate understanding of the facts and peoples’ values; have decisions that are fair in process; compensate for our weaknesses in making decisions; and learn as we go so our decision making improves. People will differ in their values, in their beliefs, and in the weight they give to each of these criteria. Conflict is inevitable.  And those conflicts can be exacerbated by those who play on our limits in decision making to their own benefit. 

            Clearly, the obstacles to good decision making are substantial.  But years of research on conflict around managing toxic contamination, siting of energy infrastructure, natural resource and land management, and many other decisions shows how we might make good decisions even when such conflicts are very fierce, and the science is uncertain. Processes that link scientific analysis with broad public discussion are the key. All those interested in and impacted by a decision should have a voice in an ongoing discussion. Scientific research should be conducted in dialogue with these interested and impacted parties. The approach helps hone the science to the nuances of context, targets research on issues of concern, builds trust in the science and, over time, helps those in conflict over a decision find common ground. Every situation is unique, but research has identified design principles for how to adapt this general idea to specific contexts and conflicts.

            Most of the research that supports linking scientific analysis to public deliberation is based on local to regional level examples. The evidence for success there seems solid. For problems at those scales the challenge is putting the design principles into practice to support new decisions. We have less experience with such processes at the national and global level. But this is an active area of research with many hopeful experiments underway. We can hope that design principles will emerge to make these larger decisions processes work better as well.

Of course those with power will continue to try to shape the ways we make decisions. Some of them manipulate our natural tendency towards polarization and push back against scientific analysis. But continuing research on decision making helps us diagnose what goes wrong and identify approaches that yield reasonably good decisions even in the face of uncertainty and sharp conflicts. There is no simple highway forward. But we can learn to do better. 

About The Author

Thomas Dietz

Thomas Dietz is a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. His work has shaped understanding of sustainability decision-making, the drivers of environmental...

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