Asking the right questions

answersaresimple-400x372In 1981, H.T. Odum and Herschel Elliott taught a systems philosophy course together at the University of Florida, entitled Systems, Philosophy, Energy, and Environment. The exams from the course are filed in box 67 of Odum’s collection at UF Library. The textbooks for the course were Energy Basis for Man and Nature (Odum & Odum, 1981) and Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity (Ophuls, 1977).  Some of the questions from the exams were excellent, and they offer structure for thinking about philosophical frameworks for descent. The introduction to the syllabus asked the following.

“Is there an energy crisis? Is there a permanent shortage of raw materials? In this interdisciplinary course we will try to explain why we believe energy and raw materials will in the future always be in short supply. By developing a holistic or systems perspective on the earth and its resources we will try to bring out the reasons for these limitations. . . . We believe that we must rethink most if not all of our ethical, political, and economic ideals as they relate to population growth, aid to needy nations, inflation, agricultural techniques, and family and sexual norms. What are possible alternative technologies, and social and political structures?” (Odum & Elliott, 1981 syllabus PHI 2142)

Gilbert Garcin – 202 – Le vent se lève – The wind is changing

Consider the way you view your world. Reductionist science often skips over the big picture and the important questions. Answering small questions is comforting, but may not be very useful during times of great change. Bednarz (2010) describes Mitroff and Silvers’ discussion of Type 3 errors, where we unintentionally solve the wrong problems through our narrow worldview and reductionist focus in science, which is hard to break out of unless you ask the right questions.

Does your world view include energy as a guiding frame for your world view? How many of the questions below make sense to you, and how would you answer them? And if you are an academic scientist, how could you ask these relevant questions in your courses? How do these questions fit into what you now teach?

  1. Assume a word of increasing shortages of both energy and materials. Compare and/or contrast the physical and economic pressures for urbanization with those for decentralization.

  2. How does the laissez-faire market system deal with the problem of: a) relative shortages, b) absolute shortages, and c) environmental deterioration?

  3. What values are lost and what gained by appropriate decentralization and appropriate technology?

  4. What values are stressed and encouraged in a free-market, individual society like ours? What values would you like to achieve in your life?

  5. What is the relationship between:

    • Population density and freedom?

    • Economic growth and social justice?

    • GNP and other criteria of wellbeing?

    • Population density and pollution? Hard technology and democracy?

    • Maximum power in a growth oriented free-market economy?

    • Autarcky and scarcity?

    • Urban society and scarcity?

    • Free-market systems and environmental deterioration?