Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Good Solution

One of my favorite essays by one of my favorite essayists is “Solving for Pattern,” by Wendell Berry. In it, he uses the example of farming practices adopted by a farmer named Earl Spencer to illustrate the difference between good solutions and bad ones.

Bad solutions tend to be of two types: one creates a series of additional problems, outside the scope of the original problem, and the other just tends to make the original problem worse.

Nuclear power, with its attendant problems of waste disposal, potential meltdowns, terrorist attacks, and so on, could be an example of the first type of bad solution (to the problem of energy creation); taking out a payday loan could be an example of the second type of bad solution (to the problem of limited cash flow.)

By contrast, says Berry, a good solution tends to work in harmony with the system or pattern in which the problem has been generated; the Earl Spencer example highlights how the farmer used agricultural (rather than technological) means to solve the problem of how to profitably run his dairy farm.

From this, Berry generates a number of criteria or desiderata of good solutions, my favorite of which is that a good solution tends to solve more than one problem at a time.

All of which has me thinking about the bicycle and what a good solution it is since not only does it solve the problem of how to get from one place to another efficiently, it also solves the problem of how to do so economically, healthily, and environmentally sustainably.

The internetz tell me today that almost half of American kids are overweight; that’s because, I think, they’re all sitting on their asses in the back of SUVs eating Doritos. Get them out on bicycles—and their tubby parents, too—and voila: fewer fat people, better and cheaper healthcare for all, less traffic, reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses, world peace and harmony, magic.


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