One of the hardest ideas for 21st century humans to understand is that we live in a both/and world.
There are lots of popular books and articles that explore the world of “win-win” situations. In fact, though, as modern physics has discovered, the very fabric of what we call matter cannot be understood in terms of an either/or perspective. Sustained inquiry has revealed that the smallest elements of matter (that we can imagine, anyway) are pinpoint particles and waves of energy at the same time. Human observation devices cannot seem to capture this apparent paradox. One device shows matter to be a wave, while another records it as a particle. Come to think of it, why can’t matter be seen neither a particle nor a wave, but as something else altogether?
However, our minds seem to be capable of understanding what our instruments cannot record, or we wouldn’t be discussing and writing about the dual (or treble?) nature of matter. The both/and principle permeates the flux of everyday life. We can appreciate this better with a little work on changing our habits of observation – modifying our personal observational devices, so to speak.
The popularization of the insights of modern physics was brought about in part by Fritjof Capra, author of books such as The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point. Capra was an important early organizer of the Green movement. Many have taken his cue and started to notice how many environmental issues can be redefined using a both/and perspective. The most common example is the Green response to politicians and companies who argue that ecologically sensible policies are not affordable: they cut into profits and destroy jobs. This is the old either/or perspective – sustainability or profits. The US policy on energy use is an example of this perspective. The American government insists that lowering greenhouse gas emissions would devastate the US economy.
As it happens, companies and governments that take the plunge and make their organizations more sustainable also make them more efficient. For private companies in particular, profits go up, not down. Interface Carpets, a billion dollar corporation, reconfigured its business of manufacturing and selling carpets that wore out and went to the dump. Instead, they offered a flooring service that replaced and recycled worn out portions of its segmented floor covering. So complete and efficient was their recovery system that they reduced their net flow of materials and energy by 97%. In the meantime, their profits soared.
It is important to stress that the idea of both/and is simply a starting point, the realization that one action or preference does not preclude the other. In fact, this attitude opens us up to not just one other possibility but to many. This can be demonstrated by looking at the issue of energy.
Energy and garbage
Energy policy is another example of how we refuse to embrace the both/and perspective. Clearly, trying to meet all our energy needs just with coal, or just with nuclear power, or just with hydro power, or just with windmills would be stupid – even policymakers seem to be dimly aware of this truth. But even if we’ve settled on some judicious mix of energy sources, there are many different creative ways of cutting back on energy use, as Gord Perks, a Toronto environmental activist, has reminded us. Efficiency is obvious: build machines that use less fuel or electricity to do the same work as before. We can provide incentives to encourage users to use less power during peak consumption times. The idea of co-generation has been around for decades: many energy-intensive industries use their “waste” heat to make electricity or to heat water or work spaces. Finally, energy policy can encourage the development of many small generators of hydro, wind, or solar power.
In addition – not as an exclusive alternative – conservation strategies have been proven to save many jurisdictions the bother of building new power plants. Seattle chose that route back in the 1970s. Ontario could save 20,000 megawatts over the next 20 years this way, the Pembina Institute estimated. To put that amount in perspective, Ontario’s capacity in 2009 was usually in the 23-25,000 megawatt range. All these strategies, while they may sound piecemeal and indirect to the either/or mind, writes Perks, “are ultimately more resilient and flexible than relying on a handful of big plants.”
Garbage is another excellent example. Perks describes a Hollywood movie in which the hero foils a plot to dump raw hazardous waste into the environment instead of vaporizing it with sophisticated technology. “The implication,” says Perks, “is that the vaporized object is completely eradicated; it ceases to exist. This isn’t merely a matter of bad word choice. Rather, there is a conceptual error in play. Nothing, including hazardous waste, can be obliterated. We can change the state of matter (liquid to gas) or perform controlled chemical reactions, but we can’t destroy matter….”
May the Cake Be With You
This is a classic case of the both/and nature of matter. We have created an artificial distinction between good stuff and garbage. It’s all really matter in different forms. To understand that garbage is not a form of matter that simply disappears is to enter into the both/and world along with Interface Carpets. We do in fact have our cake, and our pineapple, and our lasagna, and eat them too. They just change form, in fact into many different forms. Nature sees to that.
It’s amazing how gratifying it is to start the day seeing a both/and world. It’s not just an abstract concept from quantum physics but an intensely practical, even joyful, adjustment to our personal observation “device.” Next time you are confronted with a troublesome tension between two alternatives, experiment with seeing them as complementary. Want to spend more time with your children, but you have to paint the house? Do it with them – as long as you don’t mind a little spilled paint. Trying to find time to get in your exercise? Want to cut down on pollution? Bike to work and accomplish both goals.
I have two granddaughters who when they were five were playing with their dolls, acting out the story of Cinderella. Problem was, they both wanted to play the part of Cinderella. In two minutes, they had solved the problem themselves: They would both be Cinderella.
Now let’s get our so-called leaders to look at the world this way.
Perks, Gord, “The Ground Hog Day energy solution,” and “Hollywood’s unlawful desertion,” eye weekly magazine, June 2005.
“From Either/Or to Both/And,” Green Horizon Quarterly, Winter 2006, 14-15 (with Gord Perks)