Monday, February 25, 2008

Climate Change as a Wicked Problem

I was sitting around with several other Tech PhD students Friday evening, as we are wont to do, discussing the best cars to drive in light of what we know about climate change (a friend of mine was in the market for a new car). We didn't get very far. The Civic Hybrid is balanced differently than is the more expensive Prius, and thus does not get as good gas mileage. A car powered by fuel cells has zero emissions but has been criticized as being inefficient. Electric vehicles, of which Tech has several, don't help much in states such as Georgia, where most of the electricity comes from burning coal. The biggest biodiesel advocate in our department (he uses waste oils) has taken the biodiesel sticker off his car, so as not to encourage other people to switch to biodiesel or ethanol. And so on and so forth.

I was particularly interested in this after a graduate of our master's program forwarded around a link to this blog post, which discusses the interim Garnaut report and concludes:

Here in the U.S., it's the follow on implication that ought to concern us most: that we'll need to slash our emissions much more drastically over the next decade or two than anyone in American political life is currently discussing... In comparison, I'm increasingly hearing science-based realism described as an 80-90% reduction in the U.S. climate footprint by 2030, partnered with massive effort to diffuse the resulting innovations around the globe.

Johann Hari makes a similar point, and further adds that if we think we can get out of this mess by buying Priuses and compact fluorescent light bulbs, we're kidding ourselves.

On the other hand, it is now relatively easy to find counter-arguments about the necessity to impose climate-change-related restrictions -- Alexander Cockburn has been making such arguments in The Nation (subscription only, but you can see a summary -- from a website, Hari would remind you, funded by oil companies) and the co-editor of Arts & Letters Daily is now compiling such skeptical arguements at Climate Debate Daily, side by side with arguments that climate change is certainly man-made, that it is only getting worse, and that drastic changes must be made yesterday.

As I was reading the various arguments, and getting discouraged about the ability to do anything about the problem at all, it appeared that climate change could be fairly accurately described as a "wicked problem" as defined by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 article.

To recap the ten aspects of wicked problems:
1) It is not possible to formulate the problem neutrally -- or as Rittel and Webber put it, "[E]very specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which a treatment is considered."
2) There is never a good stopping point; it is always possible that greater investment of time or effort will yield a better solution.
3) There is no "right" answer, ever. How a particular group views a policy solution will depend on its interests and values.
4) Any solution, once implemented, will produce consequences for an extended period of time. It may turn out that the consequences make the solution worse than the problem; but there is no way to know these consequences ahead of time.
5) Every implemented solution is consequential.
6) There is no way to prove that every possible solution has been identified and considered.
7) Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8) Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
9) In implementing a solution, it is generally possible to explain away discrepancies. How discrepancies get held up as refuting the original hypothesis, or explained away, depends on the interests and values of the person doing the explaining.
10) Planners are responsible for the consequences of the solutions they choose.

It is hard to think of a more wicked problem than one in which every month's temperature is held up as proof or refutation; where to cite a cause (transport! Big Oil! consumerism! eating meat! no, it doesn't have anything to do with human behavior!) is to imply a political position and a value judgment; and where the consequences could mean drastic changes in quality of life, whether they are meant to solve the problem or ignore it. As I said to my master's-holding friend, an 80-90% reduction in emissions, as recommended above, could mean not having central heating or air-conditioning, in houses and office buildings that were by and large designed to take central heating or air-conditioning for granted.

Or to give another example of consequences: one of the comments on this article references the leadership of Jimmy Carter in establishing CAFE standards, but by 1980 the Carter administration was actually backing away from stricter CAFE standards for fear it would cost too many jobs in Detroit.

All that said, I am not sure how far thinking about climate change as a wicked problem gets us. The wicked-problem formulation insists that there are value judgments on all sides of the issue at hand, but some people (and I am not thinking of anyone in particular) will complain that saying "Human activity contributes to carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change" is a value judgment is like saying "Species have evolved over time" is a value judgment. And even if we (whoever "we" would be) do agree that climate change is a wicked problem, how would we then solve it? This article suggests that citizen participation can help manage wicked problems; and yet there are suggestions such as Hari's, or this editorial's, that the answer to global warming is not citizen participation but the imposition of standards and legislation from above.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Planners and Catchers Report

Until recently I wasn't familiar with the backstory behind Dodgers Stadium, referred to casually by some baseball announcers as "Chavez Ravine." Chavez Ravine was actually the site of a Mexican-American community, demolished to make room for the new stadium in the 1950s. Both the PBS website on the 2004 documentary and the Wikipedia entry on the "Battle of Chavez Ravine" suggest that the clearance of the neighborhood actually began before Walter O'Malley and the Dodgers showed up; nonetheless, it is hard to de-link the stadium from the destruction that preceded it. Especially if you have some biases against the Dodgers to begin with. Ahem.

Which led me to thinking: if we judged baseball teams in terms of the effects of their placement on the urban fabric, which teams would we end up rooting for? I'm a Braves fan by family tradition, but I don't think the Braves would pass muster at all, given the effects of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and then Turner Field on nearby neighborhoods. Then there are what we could call "sprawl stadia" (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, TX; the atrociously named Angels Stadium of Anaheim); ballparks that have been directly linked to urban revitalization (Oriole Park at Camden Yards; Jacobs Field in Cleveland; Petco Park in San Diego); no-longer-existent ballparks that became symbols of their declining cities (Tigers Stadium, Three Rivers Park in Pittsburgh); and ballparks that were lucky enough to have winning teams early, thus establishing themselves in the city fabric long before urban renewal hit (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and, for at least one more season, Yankee Stadium).

My guess would be that Planner Nation would be split. The urban designers would end up rooting for the Giants, because from what I've heard AT&T Park works beautifully with the rest of the city. The urban historians can have the Cubs or the Red Sox. The community developers would back the Padres, if Petco Park actually lives up to its potential. The transportation lovers will take the Mets, unless the new Citi Field proves harder to get to by subway than Shea Stadium is. Also the new Nationals stadium might work, although I refuse to root for the Nationals on non-planning-related principle. And it may be that enough time has passed, and enough has changed, that someone can make the case for the Dodgers, the history of Chavez Ravine notwithstanding. But I suspect the Braves are a lost cause.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The wrong way to make friends and influence your city council

My guess is that bringing a gun to a city council meeting, aiming for the mayor and killing six people in the process will not help further this man's cause with the Kirkwood, Missouri City Council. Although, what ever his beefs were, whether they were related to taxes, property or services, are probably moot now.

Anyone who has been to a city council (or neighborhood, or county board, etc.) meeting knows that it is usually part plodding procedure, part innocuous discussion, and sometimes -- or usually, depending on what city you are a part of -- part passionate (and sometimes cracked) rants. This raises two issues for me, as a parson interested in good governance. First, how do we identify the sensible kernel in the crazy diatribe and incorporate that into our discussion? Because, if we skim away the off-putting rhetoric, I think we will usually find that the concern is reasonable. Second, how do we better listen to city residents so that they don't have to fly off the handle to feel like their concern is being heard? Because often I think the people who hit the roof often feel like the city/county/neighborhood is ignoring them and their problems.

It is not clear what issue this man in Kirkwood, Missouri had with the city council. And it is not clear that any kind of placating rhetoric would have deterred this unfortunate event. He had been barred for the council meetings for disruptive activity, according to the Associated Press. Of course this is an extreme case but listening to "the crazies" (as I affectionately call them) can help the city/neighborhood/county move beyond plodding procedure to pioneering discussions and possibly innovative solutions. In this case perhaps there should have been a discussion about mental health services (perhaps just for this man or perhaps mental health is overlooked in the city) but in other cases the discussion may be different.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Funny Thing, Argument

I was recently flying back home after an interview when I thought of Giandomenico Majone's book Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process.  I first encountered Majone's book several years ago in Kieran Donaghy's course in planning theory, which was then the sole required course for doctoral students  at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I didn't think much of Majone at the time, didn't give him much attention, and hadn't thought about him since.  In fact, I'm certain that the only reason I remembered it again after a number of years is because I found Majone's argument so irksome.

In Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion, Majone makes the case for reemphasizing the art of rhetoric in policy analysis.  He suggests that the kind of public debate to which we contribute tends to be not unlike the adversarial environment of legal proceedings.  Actors in public debates bring differing points of view, and differing preconceptions, in part based on their interests. Deliberation in such debates has less to do with formal techniques of problem solving, Majone argues, than with a process of argumentation - a process that involves (even conflates?) both factual statements and subjective evaluations. Evidence in argumentation involves bringing information to bear at a particular point in the argument, and must be evaluated not just for its factual reliability, but also for its relevance to the argument as well as for the subjective reasons behind why it is introduced. Part of E, A, & P is a criticism of what Majone calls "decisionism" - a technical/professional paradigm of rational analysis that policy makers inherited from economists and operations research. Majone claims decisionism is less well suited to environments with a plurality of values, and where plausible recommendations must be made despite factual uncertainty. The real trick, according to Majone, is learning to make good persuasive arguments, to distinguish good argument from bad, to make judgments between competing sets of evidence and competing value claims.  (I should say that this is what I remember of E, A, & P.  I've only looked back at my class notes, and I evidently wasn't a good note-taker.  Oops.)

Anyway, Majone's argument was irksome.  To describe planning as an adversarial process and rhetoric its central activity seemed to be very nice for those good at rhetoric: I wasn't sure how it would protect the interests of everyone else from those better able to control the process of deliberation.  If 'decisionism' had limits it at least made a play at objectivity.   Better to be screwed by a process that has some kind of objective standards, I thought, than by one that could be hijacked by slick talkers.

In the intervening years, I've come around to Majone's argument, at least to a degree. It still seems to me that Majone is a bit too idealistic in his advocacy of rhetoric and persuasion. But I think he does a good job of characterizing the environment of public deliberation that planners operate in.  Planning in the real world is more pragmatic, and more messed up, than we like to allow. While we doctoral students tend to focus on making knowledge that is hard and sure, Majone reminds us that it is less the making of knowledge so much as bringing knowledge to action that is central to urban planning.

By the way, Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process is in stock at Amazon.  It sells for $20.

Penn Goodness, and A More Accurate Warning about the ACSP Abstract Deadline

It's this Friday, the 8th. Not next Friday, the 15th, as my last post implied. I had the wrong countdown date on my Palm, on which I have become overdependent.

At 11 pm, for that matter. Keep in mind that because it's the joint ACSP/AESOP conference, the track listing is a little different than the track listings last year in Milwaukee.

Once you have your abstract in, or have made your peace with the idea that you are not getting your abstract in, you can turn your attention to the 2008 PhD workshop, which is August 14th-16th at Penn. (John Landis is the contact person; if you didn't get the flyer via the Bowling League email list, ask him.) If you are at the dissertation (or dissertation-proposal) stage, the ability to be able to talk to other people at the dissertation stage, and get information about the dissertation stage, and get information about funding the dissertation stage, could be pretty valuable.

As to funding: the cost of the Penn workshop is $400 ($200 if you're not staying on Penn's campus) plus travel expenses. ACSP has some limited financial aid available. My college apparently has a standard policy that if you're not presenting at a conference with conference proceedings, you're not getting money. I would guess that if it helps you get funding in the long run, the $400 is well worth it, but if it's not the easiest cash to scrape up, you have my sympathies.

Right now dissertation-stage students are somewhat underrepresented on this blog, since Fearless Leader Jason is past that stage (he's currently in the job-interview stage; wish him luck) and I'm still taking classes. Hopefully soon we'll have more people like Stephanie chiming in on the dissertation process.