Our Lust for Dichotomy

We live in a polar world. Our planet has two poles. Our understanding of electricity and magnetism rely on an understanding of opposing forces. Positive and negative charges allow us to model current and chemical bonds. Polarity is a very helpful concept. When it comes to understanding complex ecological dynamics and policy decisions, however, polarity should be invoked only when it reflects reality.

Polarity is helpful in geography and navigation because we do have a North and a South Pole. It is helpful in understanding the relationships between atoms because we do have particles that attract and repel each other. Even polarity at the chemical level, when studied thoroughly, ends up being more complicated than simply positive protons and negative electrons. 

Merriam Webster defines polarity as: the quality or condition inherent in a body that exhibits opposite properties or powers in opposite parts or directions or that exhibits contrasted properties or powers in contrasted parts or directions : the condition of having poles. This tracks with penguins and polar bears and sub-atomic particles. It does not track well with thoughtful decision making in the midst of myriad variables.

The more commonly discussed societal polarity is defined as, the presence or manifestation of two opposite or contrasting principles or tendencies. Unfortunately, this societal polarity has become the hallmark of the media’s portrayal of any and all discussion of conservation issues. There is a long history here, one that I have been reading a bit about in the book The Wizard and the Prophet. This history of preservationist vs. extractionist philosophies combined with the media’s obsession of discussing all policy from a national perspective (as opposed to state or local) give most of us an oversimplified, cut and dried, perspective on environmental issues. Its option A (kills all of the wildlife) or option B (kills none of the wildlife). Or its option 1 (regulates private industry to its demise) or option 2 (lets big business run amok). 

Ecosystems are far more complicated than water molecules. When land-managers or developers propose dichotomous alternatives or paint their project proposal as black and the only alternative as white, they’ve lost sight of the scale at which they are operating.


As an example, consider the media’s portrayal of wind energy. Its an angel in many outlets and the devil in others. Dams are like this as well. All good or all bad. (Read McGee’s paper on dams here). By pre-determining that a mechanism or type of infrastructure is good or bad ignores the landscape, the water table, the topography, the humidity, the wind patterns, the biodiversity. Basically, it ignores Creation (big C) and states that our creation (little c) is of such quality and forethought that where it goes really does not matter.  

This societal polarity also shows up inappropriately in how natural disasters, especially wildfires, are covered by the media. Wildfires are naturally occurring, ecologically important phenomena. They also cause significant property damage, especially in the state of California, over the last 5-10 years and the most recent bushfire season in Australia. But there is so much more to them. They aren’t simply a completely torched area inside a massive perimeter. When a fire is reported to have burned millions of acres, that is the perimeter. What has happened inside the perimeter is highly variable. Some of it will have benefitted certain species or ecological systems, some of it will have hurt certain species and ecological processes. In other words, there is no room for a presumption of uniformity in ecological considerations. There are rules. There are principles, but there is not uniformity. We need to come to each situation with that operating assumption. 

And so, read popular articles about energy and the environment, about conservation and development with this in mind. Does the author detail the local ecology or paint with much broader brush? Both authors and readers can be guilty of drawing generalizations out of local contexts or ignoring local contexts altogether. Polarity is great for a boxing match or a water molecule. As a strategy for dealing with air, land, and water issues in a thoughtful way it falls short. 

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