THE VIRTUES OF IGNORANCE
COMPLEXITY, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE LIMITS OF KNOWLEDGE
EDITED BY BILL VITEK AND WES JACKSON ©2008
PUBLISHER: THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY
HARDCOVER 354 PAGES
The Virtues of Ignorance is part of a book series devoted to exploring essays by a variety of thinkers in diverse fields. Humanity’s need to learn to accept limits for our thinking, beliefs and behavior directly affects our ability to survive like no other time in human history. When humans were a scarce species it was perfectly fine to view nature as something we could take from infinitely. Global population indicates that is no longer the case. The key writers of Enlightenment lived in a different world and could certainly be forgiven for not knowing humans would reach the 7 billion tally we are at today.
From Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) came the idea that humans could make and unmake the world without limits. This was manifested in three revolutions that defined the Enlightenment: Scientific, Political and Economic. The human mind was free to seek control of nature and remake it in its own interests. Today the economy and technology dominate both everyday news and human priorities.
Human dependence on technology has been increasing since the industrial revolution began centuries ago. The belief that we can overcome global environmental problems by applying scientific applications has grown in parallel with our techological dependence. The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge suggest an alternative to this seemingly optimistic worldview. In it multiple writers argue that blind faith in scientific knowledge has created many of the problems now threatening the planet.
In John Maddox’s book What Remains to be Discovered he lays out four potentially fatal events that threaten our world:
- Increased levels of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change
- New and evolving infections
- Catastrophic event caused by an asteroid hitting the earth
- Instability in the human genome
As a species we have survived for the past ten to twelve thousand years keeping our natural genomes in place – do we really want to start messing around with something we really know very little about? Agriculture is a good example of our blind belief in science. In North America GMO crops now dominate farm fields for corn, wheat and other major crops. The convincing arguments that released this change on nature neglected to study the effects on the entire ecosystem – we still to this day have very little understanding about ecosystems. 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.
The widely held belief that science and technology are able to rescue society is put to bed as the authors argue that accepting our ignorance might be the only path to achieve reliable conclusions. The questions raised throughout the book encourage a pause for reflection and in asking for a humble acceptance that our knowledge remains small the authors ultimately look to set us on a path in which we might survive.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Bill Vitek, professor of philosophy at Clarkson University, is the author of several books, including Promising, Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place, and Applying Philosophy. He lives in Postdam, New York.
Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute and former professor at Kansas Wesleyan and California State universities, is the author of several books, including Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place, Becoming Native to this Place, and Altars of an Unhewn Stone. He lives in Salina, Kansas.