In defense of fuzzy concepts

I spent yesterday at the Transportation Research Board’s symposium on equity in transport, for the most part listening to public officials complain that the word “equity” means too many things to too many people and thus isn’t useful in making decisions.

Oh, bootyhootyhootyhoo. You mean it’s hard to adjudicate equity claims in the public sphere and you have to contend with context and history and values instead of falling back on what feels, to them, as the more objectively quantifiable efficiency claims that derive from economics.

Most of the colleagues that I genuinely respect think that sustainability is the same thing: it’s a fantasy concept that marries the social agendas of the progressive left but doesn’t really function as a real concept. There’s too many internal tradeoffs, they say, that advocates do not recognize, so the term means all things to all people.[1] And some very good sustainability theorists argue that these critics are somewhat right because in practice, people love the environment and work hard for it in the political realm, while social justice–where there is much less consensus–is often “tacked on” to the discussion after the big decisions are made.[2]

I wanted to read the sustainable transportation literature for my PhD comprehensive exams, for example, but the faculty member in charge of the seminar would not let me. It’s a fuzzy concept, she said. I resisted, but I lost of course, and I wound up reading in environmental economics instead. It was good for me, and I learned a lot, but then I had to go back and catch up on the sustainable transportation research because that’s where I wanted to work.

The problem with dismissing fuzzy concepts, it seems to me, is that the cutting edge of anything is made up of fuzzy concepts until people put their brains into it and start working. To Mill, economics was a fuzzy concept. I’ve been hearing sustainability dismissed as a fuzzy concept for at least 10 years now, but it hasn’t gone away–and for good reasons. It hasn’t died off because it contains concepts that really matter to people, and they want to work to a social practice that doesn’t sacrifice social justice at the altar of environmental protection or economic growth or vice versa. The challenge of trying to meet all of these pressing social needs has been fruitful; I think sustainability can be credited with prompting all sorts of green innovations that we really value, even if we never achieve an ideal.

So, in a word, suckitup. The politician’s job is deal with competing equity claims and contestation of rights in the public sphere. We don’t treat everybody’s equity claim as equally important, no matter how much the “haves” and the “have mores” make self-serving claims about it. We don’t have to believe them when they make these claims. We just have to have the thrassos to stand up to them and the intelligence to make a compelling, more rigorously argued basis for why their equity claim is being laid aside in favor of others with more validity. Some arguments are better than others, believe it or not, folks, even if those arguments are philosophical and subjective rather than based on something you can pull out of your economics toolkit. Economics is a powerful discipline in public policy; in the neoliberal world we live in, it’s almost the only language that gets spoken. But it’s partial, for heaven’s sakes. Can’t you see the validity of a concept that doesn’t fall in the bailiwick of one discipline?

Manuscripts that informed this post:

[1] B. Jickling. Why I don’t want my children to be educated in sustainable development: Sustainable belief. Trumpeter, 1994. Journal Article

[2] J. Agyeman, R. Bullard, B. Evans, J. Agyeman, R. Bulllard, and B. Evans. Introduction. In Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003. Book, Section.