I don't care if your question is about climate change or about your niece's latest romance, I can answer it with two words: It's complicated.
Simplistic answers to complex problems sadden and infuriate me. That's how we end up leaping from one problem to another, from one error to a different error.
My father always greatly admired people who, when seeing a job that needed to be done, just did it, without debate and without complaining that it was really someone else's responsibility. I mostly agree with him, and when our kids were growing up, we had something called "Grandpa's Award" that I gave out when I observed such behavior.
While that philosophy works heart-warmingly well on smaller points, such as washing dishes, changing a diaper, or running an errand, most larger issues are not well managed without research, thought, and debate—yet we still jump on simplistic answers, embarking on pathways that accomplish little at high cost, or even result in great harm. Out of compassion, we are quick to donate money to what appear to be good causes, not seeing in the end the food rotting in port instead of being distributed to starving people, the books mouldering in a forgotten storage closet, the money enriching the coffers of corrupt politicians and businessmen. Dreaming of an end to poverty, we pass laws providing for the needs of indigent single mothers and children, only to find that we've created a culture in which it is to a family's financial advantage for the father to be absent, and young girls seeking independence have an incentive to get pregnant. German chancellor Angela Merkel, responding to an urgent, growing, and heart-wrenching refugee crisis, quickly opens the doors of her country without consideration for those who warned that there should first be put into place a workable plan. Now both Germany and the refugees are suffering from the inevitable consequences of trying to absorb a large influx of people with great needs and a markedly different culture, and of a significant portion of the population who feels unheard and unrepresented, and can rightly say, "I told you so."
All this came to mind because of the recent outcry against plastic straws. I am certainly appalled at the waste produced by the restaurant industry, but what does banning plastic straws really do? It seems we've once more jumped on a feel-good bandwagon without actually researching the problem. In our house, replacing plastic straws with something biodegradable would create a good deal more waste, since we wash and reuse plastic straws hundreds of times—we are still less than halfway through the package we bought four years ago. What waste is created, what environmental damage done when a company retools its system to create a substitute for its plastic straws? Is the good accomplished commensurate with the cost incurred—especially since the biggest man-made contaminant of the world’s oceans is not plastic straws, or even plastic bags, but cigarette butts?
You will understand, then, my appreciation for a recent post by my friend Eric Schultz on his Occasional CEO blog: Food Foolish #8: What About the Birds? As co-author of Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change, he might be expected to endorse uncritically any attempt to reduce the large quantity of food that ends up in our landfills. Inspired by a listener's question at one of his lectures, however, he decided to investigate this problem: How dependent are birds on human food waste, and what happens if we reduce it—as so many individuals, corporations, and governments are now committed to doing?
That turns out to be a complicated question with not enough data for a clear answer. It's worth reading his analysis.
If even something as obviously good as reducing food waste has unintended consequences to consider, surely our thornier environmental, social, and political problems could benefit from more research and thought and fewer highly-charged emotions, from a lot more light and a lot less heat.