New Environmentalism

Energy and Natural Resources | Policy Reports

No. 201
Wednesday, January 01, 1997
by Lynn Scarlett

Creating a New Paradigm: The Role of Knowledge

There are two fundamental kinds of knowledge: general knowledge and specific knowledge of time, place, circumstance and experience.

General knowledge is constant across time and space, "knowable" in the form of general rules. For example, the boiling point of water is a kind of general knowledge. The boiling point does not change over time, and with some adjustments for altitude it does not change across locations. Among the problems that can be analyzed with general knowledge are those of global warming and ozone depletion. Whatever is known about these problems is available to scientists everywhere, although the information may be incomplete or ambiguous.

Specific knowledge, by contrast, varies by location and circumstance and may change over time. For example, whether incorporating recycled content into a package will save total resources (time, energy, raw materials) will depend on the material, the availability of alternative materials, production details and other specifics. Specific knowledge also embraces such matters as the subjective valuations of individuals. The answer to the question "what do people want?" is known only by the dispersed individuals in society.

Often, knowledge relevant to environmental decision making is specific. Why is this so, and how does this affect decision making?

Most environmental impacts occur locally. Impacts vary depending on local geology, hydrology, biology and meteorology. While universal knowledge in the form of scientific theorems provides some uniform understanding of the physical world, specific knowledge of each location is what enables understanding of actual environmental harms and potential remedies.

Most environmental problems also have a dynamic dimension. Impacts change over time, depending on many interdependent, location-specific variables. For example, all resource uses involve dispersed, dynamic and interdependent supplies of materials. All production processes involve plant-specific trade-offs, and good decision making about them requires experiential knowledge of the plant site, how it functions and how its operations interact with the local environment.

Take paper manufacturing, for example. The feedstock for making paper can come from tree farms, from the residue of lumber production, from public forests or from wastepaper. It can come from foreign or domestic supplies. Availability and cost depend on technologies - how easy or difficult it is to grow and harvest different trees and how easy it is to collect and process discarded wastepaper - as well as on transportation, global economic conditions, the vagaries of climate, discoveries of substitute materials and other variables.

And each manufacturing plant faces different circumstances. Some plants use mechanical pulp processing technologies; some use chemical processing. A plant that uses high levels of wastepaper may consume less total energy than a plant using virgin materials, but it will have to purchase that energy rather than using wood residues as fuel. And the wastepaper plant may generate more sludge waste. What makes sense depends on such details - details that are not uniform and cannot be known by a single decision maker or even a group in a government agency.

If most relevant environmental decisions involve quite specific knowledge, then universal rules invariably will overlook critical trade-offs and details. In addition, if most relevant knowledge is dynamic rather than static, then political and bureaucratic rule-making processes will be unable to adequately respond.

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