Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Questioning, Certainty, Truth and Gasoline Prices

In September 2008, before becoming the current U.S. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu made an intriguing statement to a Wall Street Journal reporter, when he suggested that we might need to see a rise in the price of gasoline in the U.S. to the levels in Europe in order to foster more oil conservation. Chu, then the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director, specifically speculated that having gasoline prices rise over 15 years would encourage energy efficiency, saying, "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe."

But before a Senate committee during his nomination process less than four months later, he hastily retracted that statement in the face of political pressure.  I'm reminded of those happenings four years ago because, once again this week, Secretary Chu "walked back," as they say, from that 2008 statement, noting, "“I no longer share that view.”  As if the simple mention and exploration of new proposals or ideas are a threat to the very fabric of U.S. culture. As if to even question the status quo is anathema to our way of life. 

Well, it is in many circles.

In a society constantly striving for answers, we rarely stop to ask the truly relevant questions, particularly the question, “why.” Why have we always done things this way? Why must we do things like this in the future? Why we need more people, more projects, more money? Why we call this lifestyle; this approach sustainable, when it clearly is not?  Why this idea is impossible; unspeakable; unmentionable? 

The problem with accepting truth as it has been spoon-fed to us without our asking why, is that that truth becomes the very trap within which we live out lives in quiet desperation - without passion, care or concern. And we go through the motions. The first sign of threat to the institution and we retrench; retracting – or worse, never even asking - questions that might otherwise inspire creativity. The first crack in the wall of the organization and we’re off to design less demanding projects and take on less controversial pursuits; never daring or even thinking again to question the status quo. 

We cannot allow ourselves to be threatened by the question; by asking why. “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd,” Voltaire wrote. To question what appears to many to be “certain” lies at the very heart of being creatively human. 

To suppress questions, then, is not wise.  To discourage thinking and innovation is not human.  To accept things blindly as unquestionable is not sustainable in the long run. It is in doubt and in questions that we will find the beginnings of real wisdom, humanity, sustainability and life.  To question what has long been held as "truth" can be transformative if taken to heart by each of us and embraced within and by our institutions. And that means you and me.  And it means here and now.

So go ahead and question power. Because history has demonstrated time and again that we are probably working under a construct that is essentially wrong in any case, as, time and again, so-called truth after truth has fallen into the wastebasket of disproven falsehood. 

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