Our Fixation on Measurement

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

To measure the unmeasurable is absurd and constitutes but an elaborate method of moving   from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions. The logical absurdity, however, is not the greatest fault of the undertaking: what is worse, and destructive of civilization, is the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values.
(E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, 1973 cited in Lorenzo Fioramonti, How Numbers Rule the World: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in Global Politics, 2014 p.104)


As I have sauntered over the past few weeks between  Fioramonti, Kathryn Schulz’s compelling, deep, and light-hearted Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, 2010;


Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, 2012;


and David Selby’s lengthy essay “Degrees of Denial: As Global Heating Happens Should We Be Educating for Sustainable Development or Sustainable Contraction” in Talking Truth, Confronting Power (2008) a deepening resonance with Schumacher’s insight above is palpable.

The capture of the currency of conversation by the market across the whole spectrum of our lives is suffocating our  ability to find our way out of our evolving challenges. Each of these tomes offers a glimpse, I think, of a way out. Note I say, “a” way, not “the” way. Reading Schulz’s narrative is a humbling exercise in learning how easily and frequently we are wrong, and our many techniques for pretending we are not. I suspect this humbling is a prerequisite for making our way forward into a desirable and sustainable common future.

Lewis and Conaty offer up a litany of possibilities taken from communities creating them in place small and large from across our globe that might just lead us to that desirable and sustainable future. The emphasis is on the local/community level responses.

The world seems to be looking for the big solution, which is itself part of the problem, since the most effective solutions are both local and systemic. (Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest)

Maslow once quipped, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This seems to be Fioramonti’s aim in critiquing the infusion of numbers into everything in our lives as if to provide us with some certainty, in our daily lives that Schulz’s unmasks as a pipe dream. Fioramonti does this most persuasively in his review of the rise of credit reporting agencies and their impact on our global lives.

I remember doing a similar skewing [radio commentary] of the incessant reporting of stock market prices over a decade ago and how that regurgitation frames how we think and measure up. The corporatization of higher education, the movement of sport into profit centers at all levels seems to me to be just further examples of this escalator to an abyss of lost meaning of what it means to be human within a larger community of life.

Numbers, albeit critical to human progress, are double-edged swords, which can surreptitiously reduce the complexity of social phenomena and ultimately lead us in the wrong direction. Just like ta conscientious mother would never reduce her role to that summarized in an algorithm, we should not expect governance systems to be automatically driven by econometric models. Governance is a public good, Not only our future as human beings but that of the whole planet depends on our commitment to governance, in all of its ramifications, from global to the local level. The more the public sphere retracts under the increasing pressure of market rationalism, the more we lose the capacity to regain control over our democratic institutions. More dangerously, as market mechanisms crowd out other forms of social interaction, we extirpate alternative forms of socialization. As they cannot be measured in conventional terms, gift economies, community-based reciprocity schemes and other types of informal dynamics tend to disappear under the pressure of formal market structures.In this process we are losing not only entire communities and ecosystems, but also millennia of knowledge.
…This is why the public sphere is so important. All those soft elements of social life, from mutual respect to solidarity, which systematically escape our obsession with measurement, are ultimately much more important than what is integrated into the numerical models  are driving contemporary governance. True, participation can be a painful experience. The process of interacting, debating, compromising and deliberating can be tedious and frustrating. Yet, we have no other way. We are social animals and life in a profoundly interconnected world. As remarked by Raj Patel, the solution will not come from market society but from ‘the liberty of living together and engaging in the democratic politics that will help us value our common future.” Numbers will not save us. We need to do it ourselves. (Fioramonti, pp.212-13)

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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