Cathedral Thinking and Magic Ponies

August 18th, 2007

I became a lawyer in part because I love words and writing and analyzing how people use language. That’s why I am inaugurating a new occasional series on this blog devoted to “neologisms”- clever turns of phrase that capture an idea especially well. Here are the first two entries:

Duke Energy’s Chairman and CEO James Rogers talks about energy issues as in need of “cathedral thinking“- just like Europe’s great cathedrals took centuries to build, weaning the world off carbon-based fuels is likely to take a similar amount of time. It is a 250px-il_duomo_florence.JPGbrilliant phrase- though I don’t know if Rogers coined it- because it evokes grandeur, an epic scale, enduring structures and also a long time frame for planning, development and construction. As head of a company built on carbon-based fuels that probably sees the end of its lifeblood somewhere in the distant, but foreseeable future, it works perfectly to capture the pace at which Duke is comfortable working on the issues as well.

Meanwhile, on Terrapass’s blog Adam Stein talks about “magic pony thinking“- where some environmentalistsmagicpony_summerdreams.jpg reject certain proposed solutions because they aren’t sweeping enough and put forward an idea like “dismantling the suburbs and trading cars for light rail and bicycles”, in Adam’s words. Adam gives full credit for the term to the John and Belle blog, and ultimately a Calvin and Hobbes strip.

“Magic pony” is a powerful turn of phrase. It is an incredibly derisive way to lambast another viewpoint as failing to address (perceived) real world facts. It’s a gem of a phrase, but also a double-edged weapon that seems as likely to lead to a flame war as a thoughtful comparison of viewpoints. Maybe sensing this, Adam offers up “distraction theory” as well, a slightly less perjorative way of saying the same thing. Fighting words, all the same.

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