Jen van der Meer

Earth Day and Understanding What Cannot Be Understood

Published: (Updated: ) in Lifecycle Assessment, Product Ecology, Systems Thinking by .

This pandemic is not what we imagined.

Perhaps you wished for clear blue waters in the canals of Venice, carless streets in NYC, clear skies and low pollution in LA, Mumbai, and Shanghai.

But not this way, caused by an invisible virus.

As I walk the empty perfect streets of NYC, I’m reminded of one of my favorite science fiction novels, The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1971 a year after the first US earth day was inaugurated.

The title is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu, an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC, mistranslated* as an epigraph to Chapter 3 of the novel:

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

But it’s so hard to stop at what cannot be understood. It’s easier to be an armchair epidemiologist-tech-futurist insisting that you know the right answer for when we should all get back to work. Or to pile on with politically-infused skepticism when you call these beliefs into question. This tension between uncertainty and do-gooder utopianism is the core conflict of the novel.

The story’s protagonist, George Orr, is a reluctant hero who fears his ability to turn daytime visions into nighttime dreams that alter past and present reality. Dr. William Haber is a psychiatrist assigned to George to help him seek relief from his deep anxiety and guilt over the unforeseen consequences his dreams produce.

Dr. Haber is cast in the classic tech optimist role. He instantly sees George as a resource and induces George to dream up a big dream institute, with funding and special analysis machines.

Set in the year 2002, the culture is not dissimilar from the 1970s in the US, although everyone is impoverished and overcrowded, living in tiny flats, global warming impacts limiting the food supply and making life generally difficult.

But then, like our current clear blue skies, Dr. Haber’s attempts to dream of a better future keep revealing unintended causes and consequences:

Does this sound familiar to our current situation?

Each dream gives Dr. Haber more wealth and status until he has demonstrated the power to rule the world. George the dreamer is also wealthier, but is unhappy with Dr. Haber’s meddling and just wants to let things be.

I can’t blame Dr. Haber’s attempts. I’ve felt a similar adrenaline rush as I jump from a supply chain problem to funding crisis solutions to COVD-19 hackathon mentoring. I thrill in helping be part of the attempts to save us from our current pain. But I see a bit of Dr. Haber in myself.

The mistranslated text – To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood- is my motto for the pandemic to pause and ignore any natural leanings to try to create simple stories and seek out confident bold brush narratives of the future. Trust only those that admit how uncertain they are, because the only certainty is that no one knows what is going to happen next.

So I pause this earth day.

I don’t want to return to normal.

This is a liminal space between worlds. I need to use my imagination wisely, not imagine alone, and not imagine for others.

Most importantly, I want to return to this space when I feel the rush to build first, reflect later. May this Earth Day ask us all to learn, convene, and reflect before we fix.

*The quote is a mistranslation of Chuang Tzu’s Chinese text. In an interview with Bill Moyers recorded for the 2000 DVD release of the 1980 adaptation, Le Guin clarified the issue:…it’s a terrible mistranslation apparently, I didn’t know that at the time. There were no lathes in China at the time that that was said. Joseph Needham wrote me and said “It’s a lovely translation, but it’s wrong.”