New Bottom Line Volume 4.18 – The Trap of Binary Thinking

September 12, 1995

Two recent examples–chlorine, and automobiles–illustrate the problem.

A recent article in Environment Today reported that “A study by consulting firm Charles River Associates found that alternatives to chlorine-based pharmaceuticals would increase health care costs by more than $53 billion a year. Chlorine-free pesticides would add $24 billion to food costs. Going TCF [totally chlorine-free] in watewater treatment, PVC fabrication and chemical manufacturing would costs $7 billion, $9.5 billion and $56.6 billion respectively.”

The study of course doesn’t suggest that there are no replacements for those chlorine-based pharmaceuticals, or that food could not be produced without those chlorine-free pesticides. In fact the CRA study used a sophisticated economic methodology to consider the costs of alternatives. But there is often a problem with which alternatives how this kind of analysis selects to be studied. Inevitably, they are the well-known, and well-documented. Unfortunately, they are not always the ones likely to prevail.

For example, the alternative to chlorine-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers is not simply for farmers to use none, nor to simply use “alternative pesticides.” Many farmers find they are both more productive and more profitable by minimizing their pesticide use though different farming systems, including integrated pest management, low-input agriculture and organic farming strategies.

In a recent letter to the New York Times, Frances B. Smith, Executive Director of Consumer Alert, offered another version of binary thinking, arguing that “the downsizing of cars resulting from a higher CAFE [fuel efficiency] standard causes more auto fatalities, and that saving lives is more important than saving fuel.”

I certainly wouldn’t argue that fuel is more important than lives, but I would argue that Smith frames the wrong asrgument. It reminds me of the early 1980s debate over the Clean Air Act. While Detroit’s lobbyists protested that the emissions standards were technically unreachable, Honda reached them–years ahead of the deadline–and delivered breakthroughs in fuel economy in the bargain.

The naysayers are fond of throwing up innate tradeoffs: “To accomplish A we’d have to give up B.” Well, maybe. But maybe not. What about inventiveness, and innovation? What about design criteria? What about being good enough to get both A and B?

Is this a naive attempt to have our cake and eat it too? Maybe. Or maybe it’s an attempt to replace posturing with design. For example, instead of asserting an inescapable tradeoff between fuel economy and vehicle safety, one might ask “How do we design vehicles that are both safe and efficient?” Volvo did, and created an 85mpg prototype that meets or exceeds US safety standards.

Instead of asserting a tradeoff between those benefits and acceptable price, one might ask, “How do we design vehicles that are safe, efficient and afforable?” Amory Lovins did, and starting with the basic physics of the automobile, conceived the “hypercar”–a standard size, typically performing four to five passenger sedan that could far exceed safety standards, get more than 200 mpg, and costs no more than, well, a standard size four to five passenger sedan.

So how do we get out of the trap of binary thinking? By going sideways. Or backwards. Or inside out. Or upside down.

Some years ago, Edward DeBono coined the phrase “lateral thinking” to describe a process of shaking loose the normal, connect the dots, step by step approach of trying to get from here to there. There are many tools in a lateral thinking toolkit. One example is normative planning, which instead asks the imagination, “how ‘did’ we get from there to here?”. Another is a stakeholder skunkworks, bringing together a diverse design team of people who not only have a stake in the outcome, but are likely to have substantially different insights about what’s needed and how to get there.

The key to all:

  • Be clear, and complete, about the design criteria that will satisfy your goals.
  • Insist, tenaciously, on meeting them all, without compromise. (Yes, eventually you’ll probably have to accept some tradeoffs; resist it, then do it, then start the no-compromise process over again with the next generation of goals.)
  • Encourage everyone to keep the process open, focussing on “how we can” rather than “why we can’t”.

And in your spare time, pick up The Odyssey, and re-read the part about Scylla and Charybdis.

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
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