Specialization and Tunnel Vision
Ayres, Ed, World Watch
The question wells up like one of those nightmares in which you call out for help, but no sound comes out: Why do our political and corporate leaders show so little interest in really mobilizing to stabilize the fast-deteriorating climate, ecology, and quality of our life on the planet? One reason is that we, their constituents and consumers, so rarely see any "big picture" of what is happening to us - and so the feedback we give our leaders is inchoate. Increasingly, we see only in fragments. We see an enormous tornado smash into Oklahoma City, for example, but we don't notice that it is part of a pattern of increased tornado activity over the whole country (an unprecedented 2,144 tornadoes struck the United States in 1998), or that it is part of a still larger pattern of climatic disturbance worldwide, driven by the massive burning of greenhouse gas-emitting oil, coal, and wood.
So it is with our perception of almost everything around us, now. With our new information technologies, we produce riveting images of the most sensational and intimate details of our fellow-humans' behavior - while utterly missing the larger significance. We notice the heroic drama of man's battles with weather disasters, but not the steady creep of climate change; we see the sad plight of threatened wolves, but not the invisible decline of global biodiversity; we hear stories about anxious Californians trying to keep out Mexicans, or West Bengalis trying to keep out Bangladeshis, but we hear almost nothing about the overextended carrying capacity of Earth as a whole.
One factor making it difficult for us to see whole pictures of the sweeping changes taking place in the world - to see complex webs of cause-and-effect, and not just immediate effects - is our increasing reliance on specialists as the principal sources of knowledge. Of course, specialization has had great value to modern society; one can board an airplane, sit back with a drink, and enjoy the product of decades of aeronautic engineering research without having to understand any of it. But that also means we can enjoy the amenities of our lives without having any inkling of what chain of events brought them about - or of what it may have cost to produce them. After all, in an age of information explosion, the sum total of human knowledge - of what there is to see and to plan for - is expanding far faster than even the most brilliant people are capable of keeping pace with. One unarguable result: with every passing year, each of us knows a smaller fraction of what there is to know than we knew the year before.
The expert view, as it probes deeper, also becomes narrower. It penetrates further and further into less and less of what is visible to everyone else. The danger, for us, is vividly described in a 1997 article by Timothy Ferris in The New Yorker magazine, on the probability (or improbability) that our planet will one day experience an apocalyptic collision with a large asteroid or comet. Of course, small objects hit the Earth every day, but the worry is about what will happen if a chunk of ice or rock the size of, say, the Rock of Gibraltar should strike our globe. Scientists say it would raise a tsunami - an oceanic wave - as high as a 70-story building, which would sweep such cities as New York, Miami, and Dhaka into oblivion. Its explosion, meanwhile, would pelt the planet with enough fireballs to set the planet ablaze and consume almost everything that was not drowned. The fire would send up enough smoke to plunge the Earth into a flood-covered darkness that would last considerably longer than 40 days and 40 nights. And that would kill off most photosynthesis-dependent life, which would, via the food chain on which we all depend, eliminate nearly all life, including our own.
The actual likelihood of such a collision depends, in part, on how many such rocks are at large in our solar system. Ferris reports that there are about two thousand large asteroids - ones "the size of a small town" - that pursue orbits bringing them close to the Earth. It would be possible for astronomers to count them and keep track of where they are. A collision could be predicted days or perhaps months in advance, for those who consider knowledge for its own sake to have inherent value - which is to say, even if there were not much practical use one could make of it. So, you would think that scientists, who arc among those of us who do value knowledge for its own sake, would be particularly curious about where these objects are. But to find out where they are would require studying the whole sky, and this is not what professional astronomers do. Astronomers are specialists; they pick what would be, to your eye, an extremely tiny piece of the sky - and, in football parlance, "go deep." And from their perspective, this kind of extreme specialization makes sense.
If you hold a grain of sand at arm's length, they might explain, you would cover a piece of sky that, seen through the Hubbell space telescope, reveals a region of the universe that contains perhaps a hundred galaxies, each galaxy containing perhaps a million suns. In other words, within that grain-of-sand's worth of sky would be found uncountable reaches of universe larger than the whole sky you see with your naked eye. What the professional astronomer - the specialist in that region - sees is, conceptually, the equivalent of viewing Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" magnified a trillion times its original, nineteenth-century magnificence. To someone who has grasped the scale of that, our own minuscule solar system might seem too shallow to be worth the time of day. And so, as Ferris points out in his article, if a doomsday object were ever to approach, it would most likely be discovered first by an amateur - perhaps a kid with a backyard telescope.
What happens to astronomers also happens to specialists in a thousand other fields. In each, there are numerous subspecialties in which one must be a particular kind of expert to understand much at all. If you are such an expert and you discover something curious, there's a good chance that only your colleagues in the field can really grasp it. Most experts no longer try to keep in contact with the rest of us at all; they are like the motes in an explosion of understanding being carried outward from the center. But think of the center as the common ground of those of us who are still close enough to each other to be able to integrate our collective knowledge and make it work as a system; it is our cultural and ecological integrity.
For civilization to work, the petroleum geologist will need to have not just his expert knowledge of where to drill for oil, but also some general understanding - shared through public channels by other experts - of how the continued burning of oil will affect climatic and ecological stability. The entertainment mogul will need to have not just his expertise on what video "action" themes have sales appeal to preadolescents, but also a general awareness of how kids' spending large amounts of their time in passive absorption of video violence may contribute to their increasing physical obesity and social disconnection. The landscape architect will need to see that plants don't just come from nursery catalogues but from ecosystems, and that such far-reaching trends as economic globalization, urbanization, and the migration of climate zones will profoundly affect what he should - or can - do.
In a thousand fields of expertise, people will need to share perspectives - far more than they have to date - on the larger ramifications of each-other's work. Whether their expertise is splicing genes, building hotels on beaches, or writing ads for sport utility vehicles, to be uninterested in the "big picture" risks coming too close to the kind of myopia that once allowed medical researchers to continue "just doing their jobs" in Nazi Germany. It's not that most jobs today arc destructive; on the contrary, there are probably larger numbers of creative and life-affirming specialities in the world now than ever before. But there's also more destruction happening now - to human cultures and natural systems - than ever before, and without looking at the broad implications of every kind of work we do, we can't begin to understand where that destruction is coming from. It's the great paradox of the information age: the more we specialize, the greater our need to integrate our knowledge with that of others, on whose collective vision our lives depend.
Adapted from the book God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999, www.fourwallseightwindows.com).…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Specialization and Tunnel Vision. Contributors: Ayres, Ed - Author. Magazine title: World Watch. Volume: 12. Issue: 5 Publication date: September 1999. Page number: 3. © 2009 Worldwatch Institute. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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