Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?

Whither Wisdom?

Image: The Bodhi Tree was a large and very old sacred fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India, under which legend holds that Siddhartha Gautama, aka “the Buddha”, attained enlightenment.

On January 4th, 2018, a Washington Post headline read “Trump moves to vastly expand offshore drilling off US coasts”. This is frightening on several levels. For me, the first would be the direct ecological impacts of this activity. More significant is the amount of sequestered carbon that would be released into the atmosphere if we extract it, adding to global warming and pollution. I could go on but this is enough to motivate the topic of this blog, which is that humans are quite clever but in the main, we are extraordinarily unwise.  This plays out in the aforementioned news article as, we can figure out how to extract oil from beneath the sea floor (an engineering feat to be marveled at), but as a society we lack the ability to understand that this is a fundamentally bad idea.  Wisdom tells us that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Mental Models

Whether we recognize it or not, each one of us has a number mental models about how we think that the world works.  These are a set of semi-unique filters that color our social interactions with other people, how we see the physical world, our interpretations of economic policies, and so on. I have a number of my own.

For example, one of my fundamental tenets is that there is no reality, there is only our perceptions of reality.  Two people can attend the same event, and moments afterward express very different views about what actually transpired.  Another more recent precept for me, is the aforementioned notion that at a very fundamental level humans are clever but unwise. This idea has developed over the past few years or so in my mental model of humanity, as I try to grasp and understand the events and decisions I have been witnessing.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines cleverness as, well, “the quality of being clever.”  Someone who is clever is “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas” and “showing skill and originality; ingenious”.  Whereas wisdom is defined by “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.”  I have chosen the definitions that best indicate the sense in which I am using the words herein.


In some informal sense I see intelligence as the sum of cleverness and wisdom.  It would seem to me that all other living things —be they trees, honey bees, mountain lions, Orca, or pick your favorite— are intelligent in this sense.  They are clever in their existence, in working out their own survival; feeding themselves, finding shelter, reproducing, and so on.  But at the same time they are wise in that they live in harmony and balance within their respective ecosystems.  They only take what they need, and they innately and elegantly live out their lives fulfilling their respective roles.

Humanity on the other hand has forgotten its place.  We have chosen unwisely to ignore limits and any notion that we live in an interdependent and finite world.  We consume without limit, which means we also waste without limit. Consciosly changing large swaths of our home into cesspools.  We believe that we can defer confronting our problems because someday, miraculously, “technology will save us” (it will not – this will be the topic of a future blog post).

Frankly, the vast majority of our problems stem from either a lack of imagination, or a failure of imagination.  Meaning, in the former case that we cannot see beyond our immediate impulses, and in the latter case we see it but choose to ignore it out of fear and greed. I suspect that a failure of imagination is the more likely explanation.  But the end result is the same in either case: we currently have an inability to realize that there is more than one choice about how we live.  We fail to see that we could live life another way, and be happier and healthier, even if the transition would be difficult.  The transition to a better, more sustainable way of living is precisely how we should apply our remarkable traits of cleverness.

Closing Thoughts

Tea bag wisdom (from the little paper label)…

“The difference between between a flower and a weed, is a judgement.”


A sneak peek at what’s next: the next few blogs will explore how our lack of wisdom is hurting us; why the past is not a good guide to the future.  A look at what one might call the trinity of the unwise, namely:

  • The Ratchet Effect
  • Questions of Scale, and
  • Compounding Problems

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider, All Rights Reserved


5 thoughts on “Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?

  1. Pingback: Provocations #3 – The Ratchet Effect – Provocations

  2. Pingback: Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale | Provocations

  3. Pingback: Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems | Provocations

  4. Pingback: Provocations #11 — On the Wisdom of Self Storage | Provocations

  5. Pingback: Provocations # 15 – Food Webs, Old and New | Provocations

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