The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge

The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge

The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge

The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge

Synopsis

Human dependence on technology has increased exponentially over the past several centuries, and so too has the notion that we can fix environmental problems with scientific applications. The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge proposes an alternative to this hubristic, shortsighted, and dangerous worldview. The contributors argue that uncritical faith in scientific knowledge has created many of the problems now threatening the planet and that our wholesale reliance on scientific progress is both untenable and myopic. Bill Vitek, Wes Jackson, and a diverse group of thinkers, including Wendell Berry, Anna Peterson, and Robert Root-Bernstein, offer profound arguments for the advantages of an ignorance-based worldview. Their essays explore this philosophy from numerous perspectives, including its origins, its essence, and how its implementation can preserve vital natural resources for posterity. All conclude that we must simply accept the proposition that our ignorance far exceeds our knowledge and always will. Rejecting the belief that science and technology are benignly at the service of society, the authors argue that recognizing ignorance might be the only path to reliable knowledge. They also uncover an interesting paradox: knowledge and insight accumulate fastest in the minds of those who hold an ignorance-based worldview, for by examining the alternatives to a technology-based culture, they expand their imaginations. Demonstrating that knowledge-based worldviews are more dangerous than useful, The Virtues of Ignorance looks closely at the relationship between the land and the future generations who will depend on it. The authors argue that we can never improve upon nature but that we can, by putting this new perspective to work in our professional and personal lives, live sustainably on Earth.

Excerpt

How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires,
when we are using our knowledge all the time?

—Henry David Thoreau

THE QUESTION

Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview?

A few years ago, some well-known scientists published a paper, followed by a book, in which they assigned a dollar value to nature’s services. The exercise doubtlessly has increased awareness of what ordinary accounting does not count, but we have no idea how such calculations can be reasonably made. We don’t even know the full role of any of the species that have been discovered, let alone those not discovered or never to be discovered. And then there are the physical forces at work on our behalf—global climate, for example—some of which we have clearly altered by our presence. This effort to assign a dollar value represents the current zenith of Enlightenment thought.

It is our contention that a knowledge-based worldview lies at the very center of the Enlightenment perspective—our perspective—and both makes possible and drives the pursuits and principles that typically get all the attention: individual freedom, economic growth, scientific progress, and the rejection of thermodynamic, material, and moral limits. In a word, the Enlightenment perspective is all about liberty. But . . .

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