No, We Won’t Be Done!
We have the tendency, whether it is in the business world, in governments, in society in general, and even in our personal lives, to want to be “done.” Whatever project, initiative or problem we are involved with, we want to get to completion, solve the issue, submit our deliverables and be done. This drive might be well intended and grounded in the implicit need to feel that we have achieved something and made a difference, but the goal to be “done” is often unrealistic, misleading, and at times plainly irresponsible—especially when dealing with complex societal or environmental issues. Being done means that we are drawing boundaries in space and time; it is an illusion. Is Nature ever done?
When we declare that we have solved a problem, one is likely to have only addressed a symptom. The illusion of being done is due to our unwillingness or inability to see unintended consequences—unfortunately often negative—or unexpected changes in the system. (Think for instance of the impact of fish farms, a solution to address wild fish depletion but which is creating huge pollution problems and the need to give antibiotics to the fish so that they can survive in their enclosed environment.)
If we are really serious about improving our state of affairs, we are going to have to take an attitude of humility in admitting our limits and our failures and accept the idea that we won’t be done, that we won’t solve the problem for our children and that no generation will be able to declare “we are done.”
To close this post, here is a quote from Nobel physicist Richard Feynman:
“If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know.
But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.
This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we really should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in: a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar. …
It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future with a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we, so young and ignorant, say we have the answers now, if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys! Man is saved!’ Thus we can doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.”
Feynman, Richard P. and Leighton, Ralph (1988). What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.