The Contradictions of Both/And

‎”We must achieve a pattern of equitable growth that lasts from generation to generation [in essence, endlessly] and ensure we do not undermine the environmental and natural resource base on which agriculture depends” Gordon Conway, “One Billion Hungry: can we feed the world?”

This is the dilemma, the downright contradiction (to use a marxist dirty-word) that refutes that new-found wisdom of “it’s not either/or, but both/and”. It is the kind of thing that Slavoj Zizek likes to think he’s getting at when he criticizes multiculturalism and new-agey universal love. Conway’s book is about feeding the world through technologically enhanced agricultural practices, but also through market-driven trade-mechanisms and the use of microcredit for small farmers in countries like Kenya and India. Naturally, Bill Gates writes approvingly for the back-cover of the book. It has the duplicitous character of doing a good job of identifying hunger as a social issue, while proposing a privatized solution (the cultivation of “enabling environments” that’re friendly to markets and trade is a necessary element in his vision of a “doubly green revolution”)

2 thoughts on “The Contradictions of Both/And

  1. That’s the frustration with modern eco-economists. Stewart Brand, in that book we read “Whole Earth Discipline”, suggests that because cities encourage technological innovation that grows exponentially faster than demand for functionality, we can essentially allow our functional demands to increase forever by urbanizing. Well, efficiency through urbanization is great, but nothing can increase forever. Every exponential curve we so optimistically want to rely on will eventually level off into a sigmoid. Toning down the exponential curve to a linear one doesn’t solve the problem – there’s always an asymptote. Processor sizes may drop by a factor of 2 every five years or whatever it is, but eventually you’re going to hit the atomic scale.

    But this is only one example of the “both/and” concept – sustainability really is an OR with respect to growth. I think the both/and concept is very valuable in certain arenas, for example when it comes to immediate strategy for fixing problems. Solutions that won’t work forever can still be helpful stopgaps and adjuvants with respect to longer-term solutions that are less immediately feasible or palatable – and so we need to pursue both, not trash the short-term strategy as a distraction. Even this guy’s quote can be cast in a constructive-not-illusory both/and light: an exponential curve that levels off into a sigmoid goes through a phase in which it looks approximately linear.

  2. Well, it really goes without saying that “both/and” isn’t a completely useless approach to things. The point in connecting it to Zizek and to this quote is that it has the potential, arguably a tendency to serve a dissimulating effect in conversations about society, economics and the environment.

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