With respect to what?


The methodological imperatuve 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.

Many conventional wisdoms in public policy cry out for further differentiation. One is the ubiquitous generalization that technologies for crossing air, land and sea have made the world smaller and reduced space and time demands. In contrast, as Alexis Litvine put it in a recent review of this literature, the notion disguises

a whole series of questionable social, occupational, regional, national, and sexual reductionisms, and homogenizes the understanding of past experiences: women and men, rural and urban dwellers, workers and aristocrats, Britons and Americans had divergent perceptions and uses of spatiality and industrial mobility, and their spaces did not shrink at the same rate or in the same direction, if at all. . .


How did we get to the 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. There is a difference that matters between Raymond Pettibon’s artwork, “Don’t fuck with the apocalypse,” and Ronald Reagan writing in his White House diary, “I swear I believe Armageddon is near.”


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, the 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.

Principal source

Litvine AD (2021). “The Annihilation of Space: A bad (historical) concept.” The Historical Journal 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X21000601

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s