Donald Rumsfeld was right (about one thing, anyway…)
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
While this was a blatant attempt at obfuscation, on face value it is actually a very pithy treatise on the types of uncertainty we face in the world.
Rumsfeld’s quote came up at last week’s Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group where we were discussing how to make sustainability programmes resilient to sudden change – in particular those ‘unknown unknowns’ which can come over the horizon very quickly. One of the themes of the conversation was making sure that our faith in known knowns doesn’t open us up to unknown unknowns. And you don’t need to look beyond the current, horrific newspaper headlines to see how events in, say, Gaza or Ukraine, can spiral out of control very quickly.
One of the benefits of the shift to a sustainable economy is its resilience to such unknown unknowns. Solar panels and wind turbines are wonderfully oblivious to global crises and their effects on energy prices. A circular economy undermines the political power of those with monopolies on scarce resources (eg Russia and gas, China and rare earth metals). Sustainable use of resources such as water defuses potential conflicts in drought zones.
The problem is that we cling to our known knowns, but remain shocked when unknown unknowns happen. One of the key challenges is to get people to understand that the status quo is the risky option and sustainability is the low risk option, not the other way around.