What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t

I’d be surprised if you haven’t read a publication on a major policy issue that was absolutely convincing—up to, that is, the part where recommendations are offered. “Where did these come from?” you wonder. Certainly not from its preceding analysis!

True, it’s a major contribution to detail and document the very real land problems in Kenya; but when did “massive land reform” follow as the solution? Yes, Big Polluters continue to damage and harm the environment under the pretext of committing to specific climate change measures; but when did banning them, immediately, become realistic? How did “We just need the political will to do so” become even an option, when it’s self-evident that too much political will and too many political wills—we need to do this!—and that!—and those!—and these!—and you, you need to do even more!—are the principal source of so many of the difficulties in falling short?

Convincing criticisms that led to nowhere feasible once angered me. I took too long to realize that my “They should know better!” mirrored their “We should have the political will to do better!” No amount of my own “they should know” will change their policy advocacy. Nor do I have standing in saying policy advocates must not undertake critiques grounded first and foremost in their moral and ethical principles.

Rather, drawing recommendations from their analyses is my responsibility: I’m the policy analyst here, not them. I may not be smarter, but my analytic is different. I’d also like to think I have something to add, both by way of advice to the policy advocates and with respect to the same issues about which I am as worried as they are and for the very reasons they state.

First, I’d ask the policy advocates to push each of their recommendations further with, “Yes, but…?” Yes, the recommendation holds, but does it hold because it doesn’t go far enough? How does it need to be qualified or caveated after a point? Second, I’d ask of myself: What am I missing that is right in front of me, when it comes to their recommendations? I consider them implausible as they stand, but can I recast their recommendations in a better and more tractable way without losing their seriousness and urgency?

Let’s briefly address each question and conclude with the major implication.


Yes, but?

There is nothing wrong with recommendations that are in effect a wish-list. Wishes keep us going—as long as: Be careful of what you wish for!

Being careful requires more than establishing whether or not the references and citations in support of the recommendations actually do that job. Checking sources is needed, but that does not go far enough. Why? Because research on complex policy issues is more than likely to uncover mixed findings, some or many of which have limited scalability.

But mixed results do not mean you are stalemated into calling for more research before all else. Mixed results suggest findings may already be sufficiently differentiated by sites and cases around different means and ends. More, differentiation in means and ends implies not only that some results reflect useful work locally, but also that useful practices may be evolving over a run of the different cases.

Mixed results capture a slice in time of what is evolving over time. Insisting on “Yes, but” is one way to push the cross-sectional into the longitudinal. It’s to get at how, if at all, local differences in responses to policy and management serve as the basis for better systemwide practices across the differences.

An example is helpful here. Return to Big Polluters with their smoke-and-mirror commitments. I’m talking here about their “net-zero emission” schemes, where their emissions in one place are to be offset—promise!—by their securing equal emission-reductions in other places.

Think of the medley of carbon offsets, carbon capture and storage, direct air capture of carbon dioxide, and carbon markets, among others, whose adoption enables the polluters to continue to pollute ever more here while not, supposedly, there. Who these Big Polluters are and how these obfuscating schemes is documented in The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a ‘net zero’ climate agenda to delay, deceive and deny (2021, by Jesse Bragg, Rachel Rose Jackson, and Souparna Lahiri for Corporate Accountability at: https://www.corporateaccountability.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/The-Big-Con_EN.pdf). I recommend any doubters read this report.

The policy analyst’s problem starts with report’s recommendations, not with the spot-on analysis preceding them. “The cross-sectoral solutions we need already exist, are proven, and are scalable now (see “Real Solutions, Real Zero” in the resources Box),” advises the report. Going to the link in that box leads to another document with examples of climate change solutions—its term. “Many of these are already implemented at local and national levels. Several of these measures can be easily implemented directly, while others require international cooperation.” Fair enough.

But then come the listed recommendations, including:

  • Drastically target the excessive and wasteful consumption of corporations and wealthy elites.
  • Ensure just transitions across all sectors that ensure workers are able to move into new, secure green jobs.
  • Create an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel extraction.
  • Leave the ecological integrity of natural ecosystems unharmed and conserve biodiversity.
  • Vastly scale up ecological restoration to recover natural forests, peatlands, and other degraded ecosystems for both climate and biodiversity. .  .
  • Immediately ban expansion of airports, particularly in developed countries. . . .

Now, argument by adjective and adverb is not confined to policy advocacy (I’ve done my share), but no amount of “immediate,” “drastically,” “vastly” and such will stop the policy analyst and others from having to press further, “Yes, but”: Just how drastic or vast is this drastically and vastly? Yes, immediately means immediately, but you can’t mean immediately, right?

Note again the point of “Yes, but” is not to stymy action but rather to locate where and under what conditions moratoria on new fossil fuel extraction, bans on airport expansions, and the efficacies of different “targets” on wealth consumption have worked as really-existing practices to be modified and improved upon by others.

The second you differentiate is the second you begin treating seriously the unintended consequences of implementing blanket recommendations and macro-design “solutions”. Again: Be careful what you wish for! Which leads me to the question I must ask myself when criticizing recommendations of policy advocates.


What am I missing?

I reread the Big Con’s recommendations by cautioning myself not to stop short as I did initially with asking: Where are the data in support of all these must-do’s at the scales they are proposing? What’s also missing—more importantly in the view of this blog—are the optics I can use to recast their recommendations into more tractable ones without watering them down.

Policy optics include metaphors, analogies and counternarratives with which to redescribe or reframe a serious and urgent issue—in this case, the report’s recommendations—without diminishing their seriousness or urgency. One such optic is fairly obvious in our example, but I do not want to leave the impression that policy optics for recasting intractable issues more tractably are always there, easy to find and when found, found always to be useful. No guarantees here! But I am certain that it is the responsibility of the analyst, not the policy advocate, to search for policy optics with which to recast.

Anyone who studies wishes and wish-lists will eventually come across the story of the mythical animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left of the hide upon which to wish further. And why would you need to make more wishes? Because, so the story goes, of all the unintended consequences in need of correction that follow from even the most well-thought-out wish.

This optic of the mythical animal skin recasts, considerably, the report’s major point: “All that is missing is the political will to advance [the recommendations], in spite of industry obstruction and deflection.” When it comes to Be careful what you wish for, political will eats itself up. Political will at the scale the report is talking about is a manifestly a finite resource, and one whose unforeseen consequences are not outweighed beforehand by the hoped-for positive.


Implications

The preceding does not mean taking a long wish-list and whittling it down to priority magic bullets. Nor does it not mean that more data, evidence and research will do the prioritizing for us. It does mean that the question we have to ask upfront is, Have we wasted finite political will when it comes to stopping Big Polluters from killing even more?

And to ask that question takes us full circle back to the need to differentiate further by asking: Where is there political will left to stop these destroyers—if not here, at least there, then, and under those conditions rather than others? Only in this way do we see what’s not on the wish-lists that are even more efficacious. Equally important, having done so treats the recommendations with the same seriousness and urgency as does the report.

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