With respect to what?

–The methodological demand is always: First differentiate! In 1968, Garret Hardin published his article on the Tragedy of the Commons with: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.”

But that proposition was exactly what could not be assumed empirically: The facts on the ground were the opposite, and often so. Rangelands, herds and herders were, we now know (we actually knew then), much more differentiated, and years of work on common property resource management documented that the tragedy of the commons was but one configuration of resource use among many other arrangements, some which worked against overgrazing or resource overutilization. For such insights Lin Ostrom won her Nobel Prize.

–How did we get to demand, First differentiate? Those interested in policy might start here:

John Stuart Mill once contrasted Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “By Bentham beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? And by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it?”

Later pragmatists insisted that both questions led to a further question, “What is it for?,” as in: “True with respect to which meanings and for what?” In asking and answering the latter question, truths and meanings are pushed further so that no conclusion is concluded definitively. “What has been concluded that we should conclude about it?” is a question associated with William James, well-known philosopher of pragmatism.

Why does this matter? Because differentiation matters. I say risk is out there in the complex technology; no, you say: It’s socially constructed and thus decidedly not das Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself). I say that in major respects risk is cultural (as in the cultural theory of Douglas and Wildavsky); no, you say the fundamental question first to be answered is: Are Brains Bayesian? I say: Isn’t it interesting that just as an experience “ignites” the brain into conscious thought, so too risk seems either off or on (could it be that experience of risk is itself a feature of what Baudelaire called the “bump and lurch of consciousness”?); not really that interesting, you counter.

In other words, there is no such thing as risk on its own; it is always risk with respect to something. Where truth and meaning depend on “with respect to what”, it becomes possible to differentiate wrong readings (interpretations), while admitting there is no single right reading (interpretation): or, if you will, there are many right readings, without there being the right one.

How so? The language of risk is now so naturalized that it seems the obvious starting point of analysis, as in: “Ok, the first thing we have to do is assess the risks of flooding here…”

No. If the above is correct, he first thing you do is to identify the boundaries of the flood system you are talking about as it is actually managed and then the standards of reliability to which it is being managed (namely, events must be precluded or avoided by way of management) and from which follow the specific risks to be managed to meet that standard.

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