It’s been a long time.  I’ve been meaning to write something substantial for a while now, especially having formally started my planning education.   Chalk it up to having too much to think about and not enough time.  Bearing in mind the usual success rate of such promises, I’ll post again soon.

Cornell Cinema sponsored a showing of the documentary “Food, Inc.” this evening, followed by a brief panel discussion with three of the faculty.  I’ll spare the details of the question section, very little of which involved legitimate questions of the panelists or the film.

The film presents the viewer with a lot of things to think about:  individual consumer choices, the ethics of said consumption, US farm subsidies, big business, big farms, intellectual property and genetic technology, etc. etc. etc.  And as with a lot of political documentaries I’ve seen, one of the challenges for the viewer is to work through and past the visceral reaction of outrage or disgust or frustration, not only to approach the film’s message with a critical eye, but also to approach the topic itself with greater clarity.

Finding this clarity is hard when you really care about a problem, whether or not you’re invested in a particular outcome.  The field of planning is full of these problems:  big problems with big consequences and many people’s quality of life at stake.  Moreso than lacking the time to think, my struggle so far this semester has been to fit these knee-jerk reactions and half-formed opinions and vague understandings into a meaningful mental framework.  Before thinking about how to solve a problem, you have to figure out how to think about a problem.

One way to frame this task is by asking the right questions, or rather, figuring out which are the right questions to ask.  In the world of research, the wrong questions can lead to dead-end inquiries, stating the obvious, or one of any number of mediocre journal articles.  But which are the right questions?

I don’t have a good answer to that one, but my hunch is that it must involve 1) identifying goals, 2) acknowledging assumptions, and 3) offering multiple “right” responses.  I’ll use an example from the movie to think about this further.

1) Goals.  This doesn’t mean solutions to the problem, but something more along the lines of what you want to know, and by extension, specific problem you want to address.  The initial reaction to “Food, Inc.” is to say, “We need to do something!”  That’s certainly true, but do what about what?  Am I interested in changing the role of farmers in food production?  Do I want to put the situation in context using the history of agriculture in America, and find a causal chain?  Would I rather change my eating habits?  Others’ eating habits?  Or am I bothered by the legal implications of patenting genetic material as a form of intellectual property?  This is not to say that only one goal is acceptable – but we can only focus on one thing at a time.

2) Assumptions.  With a particular goal comes a set of assumptions about why that goal is worthwhile, and such assumptions will certainly influence your thoughts on the subject.  Taking the first goal, changing the role of farmers in food production, any number of assumptions could come to light:  that farmers (as landowners and producers) should be autonomous; that they should be landowners; that they are inevitably part of an industrial-style supply chain; that the market should dictate prices and therefore costs of production; that food should be treated as a commodity; that large-scale farming is more efficient; or that traditional agricultural life is worth protecting even at a cost of efficiency.  These could likely be broken down further, according to which other questions and assumptions you’re willing to take on.

Making your assumptions explicit is not only good for understanding your own framing of the issue, but is especially useful when other people’s frameworks are also involved.  More than one discussion I’ve witnessed and/or participated in either devolved into people talking past each other, or took a very long time to get to the conclusion that the parties involved had fundamentally different assumptions about the same subject.  This doesn’t mean different assumptions should stop discussion; on the contrary, much can be gained from stating upfront the foundations from which you are starting.

3) Open-ended questions.  This should be a pretty straightforward idea, but I’ve often thought myself into a corner by offering only one “right” answer, and it’s generally not helpful to work only with loaded questions.  With a given goal and assumptions, you won’t get terribly far with a “yes or no” question, but even a simple open-ended question may offer many avenues of individual thought and/or group discussion.  Should the role of farmers be changed?  Yes.  End of discussion.  How should their role be changed?  More possibilities open up.  What other models of food production have been tried, and in what circumstances?  Not a strictly solution-seeking question, but perhaps implying solutions by using the assumptions that 1) other feasible systems exist and 2) successful ideas may be implemented in other circumstances.   If a problem exists in the first place, the question of necessary change has already been answered.  If your goals and assumptions offer only one acceptable direction, there is no other way to answer the question, and discussion either becomes agreement or devolves into arguments over assumptions.  When/where would farmers benefit from having more control over their role in food production?  How might this change the system’s efficiency?

I’m not 100% convinced that the three criteria I laid out are correct, but perhaps that’s another good question to ask.  In any case, it may be a useful way of translating an emotional reaction to a big problem into a constructive framework for further consideration.  “Food, Inc.” and other documentaries rely on this initial reaction to keep the viewer engaged with the issues they present, but never going beyond that point breeds frustration, apathy, and circular discussion whether the parties agree or disagree.  At the very least, framing the right questions helps me think about the how and why of my reaction (at least, when I get around to thinking about it in the first place).

Anyway, I might have already talked myself out of the value of this whole idea by now, so I’ll stop writing.  Here are two lovely things I found in Ithaca.

Flowers, Apple Harvest Fest, Ithaca

Flowers, Apple Harvest Fest, Ithaca

Boathouse, West End, Ithaca

Boathouse, West End, Ithaca