“Numbers are not worth the sweat we pour into them.” As a policy student in a program focused on quantitative methods, that sentence, from an essay by the brilliant Donella Meadows, was hard to read. It seemed that my primary interest might not be worth the time. Fortunately, first readings can be misleading.
I was in my fourth week at the Environmental Law Clinic, hoping that a willingness to tackle the numbers would add something to my impressive team of legal advocates and community organizations. The lawyers on my team had honed their research and advocacy skills to a razor’s edge, while I felt I had spent my first semester in policy school building a toolbox without clear purpose. Histograms, Monte Carlo models, probability densities and substitution effects–I wasn’t sure how these might be used for advocacy.
Nevertheless, in a proceeding where restitution for low-income communities hinged on whether energy savings differed by a few percentage points, the numbers seemed like a logical place to start. In the process of recreating the utility companies’ savings estimates for participants in a set of pilot projects, I found a few places where things didn’t seem right. Propane doesn’t cost $3.50 per gallon, it costs $2.50. The utilities said every resident would save the same amount, but didn’t include every customer in their calculations. And finally, we were building a case for restitution without quantifying the amount due.
These arguments served several purposes. They forced the utilities to contend with new, unforeseen challenges. They gave the Public Utility Commission, a wonky organization full of quantitatively-minded people, a new series of calculations to weigh against those of the utility companies. Finally, they set a higher bar for what just restitution might look like in our clients’ communities.
Higher savings and a healthier environment for our clients is a noble goal, and any improvements we can make would count as success. But Meadows’ essay kept coming to my mind, reminding me that my work had a larger context and could have a larger effect. In this case, what if the Public Utility Commission started including historical injustice in their calculations of fairness? How would that change decisions in the face of climate change? They might have to contend with their own role in recreating cycles of injustice, and might think twice about neglecting the same people and communities they harmed 50 years ago.
Languages of Authority
Attorneys have a specific set of tools of power. Policymakers have another. What I didn’t understand upon my initial reading of Meadows’ paper was that she was calling for a different use of that policy language: to push on levers with more ability to influence a system.
Accessing those levers required legal strategy get in the door. My teammates’ incisive writing, outstanding research, and fluency in the language of administrative law were the true core of our work, and opened that door. Once the levers are in the open, a combination of legal, quantitative, and community-based advocacy can set the stage for larger shifts in a system.
I’m not sure how I’ll use this new attitude towards numbers. One lesson for me is that creative application of statistical and economic tools can add a measure of credibility in front of quantitatively-minded decision-makers. Another is that numbers alone won’t change an unjust system: the best quantitative analysis in the world won’t do anything if it sits locked away in the pages of a journal article. Making an impact requires a team with complementary skills, access to the language and tools of authority, and guidance from the communities we hope to serve.