Friday, May 13, 2011

Dei ex machina and the social scientist

With all this talk about climate change, food insecurity, peak oil, and the growing dead zone in the gulf of Mexico caused by overuse of agrichemicals, it will cheer you to know that farming in Saskatchewan right now is sustainable. So I was told by the director of R&D from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Extrapolating from the ministry's research focus, the director no doubt attributes this sustainability to the innovations of Science and Technology.

As a social scientist, I don't have the technical scientific background to understand how losing over 10% of our farmers per decade, and having only 10% of farmers under the age of 40 is sustaining farming, rural communities and economies. Likewise, I don't know how the suggestion of an MBA student at the last conference I attended, that we "find new sources of water", will work to ameliorate the problems with climate change effects on the South Saskatchewan River basin, but guess I'm meant to have confidence in anyone who can create a mean RSI graph.

 All snark aside, the problem is this:  These are all social problems that people are trying to solve using technology or theoretical economic models. Drought in Saskatchewan is not just a lack of moisture. It involves questions about values - green lawns? - about ecological appropriateness - thirsty monocultures? - about governance - will the market decide who gets water and who doesn't? - about imagination - what kind of future are we planning for and with how long of a view? 
But we have been conditioned to believe that technology can - or if it isn't now, will very soon - solve all of our problems, including the ones it has created. Heavens forfend that, for example, a social scientist working in the field, with real people and real data, should be asked what to do about potential long-term drought in Saskatchewan and come up with research that addresses vulnerabilities to climate change by looking at how an individual or community's adaptive capacity to drought is enhanced or constrained not only by their access to infrastructure, knowledge, resources and technology but by the institutional framework, their capacity to act as a collective, and their human capital.* In other words, why do some people and communities adapt, or not, and what gets in their way or helps them to do that? These are important questions that the theory of "rational economic actors" and industry, science, and technology do not address adequately.

*See, for example: Pittman, J., V. Wittrock, S. Kulshreshtha, and E. Wheaton. (2011). "Vulnerability to climate change in rural Saskatchewan: Case study of the Rural Municipality of Rudy No. 284." Journal of Rural Studies, 27(1), 83-94.

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