In a previous post I discussed some reasons why experience made me a pragmatist. Over the years, I’ve had careers in several different fields. In each of them I have had to work with various regulations, either to follow them, develop them, or to enforce them. Having been a participant in all phases of those, I’ve had the bitter experience of learning that what sounded great when it was proposed turns out to be unworkable in reality. I’ve also had the frustration of trying to follow or enforce rules and regulations that make no practical sense. I can step back and put on my academic hat, and understand why there was a regulation, and even the reasons it was written the way it was, but it doesn’t change the reality that it isn’t working – or has the opposite effect – in practice.
Several years ago, I was involved in a project about the siting of pit privies (outhouses) for a wilderness area and a campground. Now the regulation states that these facilities should be at least 150 feet from any open water. I italicized “should” because it’s fundamentally different from must. I did my surveys, and came up with my proposal for sites. That’s where the battles started. You see, I’d actually gone all pragmatic. I looked at each area, the ground geology and soil characteristics, the location of any open water, did measurements, and figured out the best place. One of the factors I used in my determination was: “Is this accessible enough to be used?” In other words, if I put it here, is someone going to be able to use it? Why would that kick off a battle? Because some of my proposed sites were not 150 feet away from open water. In other words, people were taking the 150 feet as a must not a should. That figure is the Ideal. I understand why it’s there. I even agree with it. So why didn’t I do that in every instance? Because of my pragmatic reading of the regulation and the reality on the ground. To get that distance for one place would have meant climbing a cliff. Another was on an island and there was no place on the island that was >150 feet from water. A third was on the side of a mountain, and the only potential site that met that “standard” would have involved some heavy-duty climbing. Two other places involved cutting brand new trails, for distances up to half a mile. Which was the point I had to fight over. Yes, I could have sited privies where the idealists wanted – but no one would ever use them. Instead, they’d do something far worse: They’d dig “cat-hole latrines” or just go on the ground. I’ve seen places where that’s happened, and it’s a nightmare environmentally. So, I picked the “next best option.” The idealists though, wanted those pit privies sited “according to the rules” no matter what.
That’s just one of many experiences that led me to becoming a pragmatist, and taking issue with many idealistic activists. It’s not that I don’t see what they want to accomplish. It’s not even that I don’t agree with their goals. It’s just that I don’t think it’ll work as they think it will. I think they’re overlooking a lot of practical difficulties in implementing their ideal. If they’re not willing to acknowledge those realities, it’s a warning signal to me. It means that they’re doing an “all or nothing” and it’s likely to end up with … nothing.