The individual as “value proposition.”


A value proposition is a business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

“No wife ever shot her husband while he was doing the dishes.” – origin unknown

“I wonder if any wife ever shot her husband while he was at the computer?” – idle question asked by a (totally anonymous) bystander while I was typing in the quote above.

A recent series of four LOTRW posts dealt with the value of information. Here are some reflections on a related topic: the so-called value proposition. As the first quote above suggests, this is normally considered in terms of a good or a service offered by a company or other organization. But the latter quotes remind us that as individuals, whether at home or at work, you and I represent “value propositions” to family members, or friends, or prospective or actual employers.

We need a starting point for this conversation. Let’s take Gaston Bruton.


gaston bruton

You may not have heard of the man, but that’s because you didn’t grow up in my house. Dr. Bruton was a mathematics professor at the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee) who ultimately went on to chair their math department and then become dean of administration. During the 1940’s he hired my father to join the faculty there. Some excerpts from the departmental history:

“A perhaps decisive influence during this period was Robert Hooke, a Princeton Ph.D. and a great admirer of Bruton’s, who had joined Sewanee’s faculty to bring much-needed expertise in modern mathematics… Unfortunately, Hooke soon left Sewanee to become chief statistician for the Westinghouse Corporation. The costly medical attention needed by a family member [note: that might have been me] had forced him to seek more lucrative employment. Hooke later published a short and witty paperback book entitled How to tell the Liars from the Statisticians, which became widely known.”

“Great admirer” was absolutely correct. Dad used to talk about Dr. Bruton frequently, in reverent tones (that he reserved for Bruton and very few others), at the dinner table. One frequent story?

“Dr. Bruton would say,” my dad would remind us every so often, “that everybody the same age knew the same amount. One of those people might have traveled the world, and/or devoted his or her life to disciplined scholarship. Another might have just sat in the same single room all the while, staring at a clock and a wall, but that person sitting in the one room knew a lot about that clock and that wall.”

The takeaway from these dinner conversations was twofold: humility, and respect for others. Those were Bruton’s values and our dad worked to pass them along. But for our purposes here there’s an additional lesson. The traveled, learned person and the wall-gazer likely represent quite different utilities to others.

We can see this by reflecting on another conversation, this one quite recent, and involving DJ Patil – who got his start in numerical weather prediction, publishing in Phys. Rev. and similar journals (a distinctive choice in the meteorological community) and then went on to become an entrepreneur, and co-coiner-of-the-term “data science.” He’s currently the Chief Data Scientist of the White House, and still only in his early 40’s. Dr. Patil gave a keynote talk to the AMS Washington Forum on April 12, and in the course of his remarks repeated two comments he’d made as part of a commencement speech a few years back at UC Santa Cruz, entitled Fight for YES[1]:

“End each day ten times smarter than you had been at the beginning.

“Return a value ten times your employer’s investment.”

 Some hearers, perhaps many, might dismiss these goals, especially the first, as hopelessly unrealistic, but both remarks bear reflection. The first reminds us that the ways we spend our time each day themselves offer stunningly different value to us – and ultimately to those we serve, whether family or workplace. Start with what we learn. Sometimes we come across an idea or stumble across a finding at home or work that is truly life-changing. But too often we spend much time in habit and ritual (more complex forms of wall-gazing) or worse – procrastination. Time spent looking at cat videos, epic fails, or the hundredth analytical piece on the current political campaign yield diminishing marginal returns.

What we learn makes a difference.

Patil’s second quote reminds us that learning per se is of limited value – unless and until we put that insight to work, using it for the benefit of others. Whether at home or at work, the benefit versus the cost we represent to others ought not to be a close call. Here again, where and how we choose to spend our time matters hugely. During each workday we confront an array of tasks. Their relative importance to us and our organization and customers span the range from existentially important to vanishingly small or even negative.

What we work on makes a difference.

An aside? How we work matters as well.

Two days ago I heard a talk on human cognition. In passing, the speaker warned of the dangers of multi-tasking, presenting evidence that multi-tasking results in serious deterioration of performance. To drive the point home, the speaker referred us to a video clip used in Great Britain to warn of the dangers of texting, etc., while driving. You might take a look.

A closing thought, at the same time signaling where we’re going next. The value proposition we represent individually is a microcosm of a larger context; the value proposition the Earth-observations,-science,-and services-community represents to the larger society. That’s important to consider in and of itself. But the current political season in the United States and events worldwide each and every day reveal a society that sees itself as frustrated and angry about the present and fearful and unprepared for the future. That preoccupation doesn’t change the value of our work. But it has to change the way we engage.

As individuals and a community, we need to reset our outreach itself and the accompanying language. More soon.


[1] You might want to watch the video in its entirety. It may not be the best commencement speech you’ve ever heard, but if it’s not in the top ten, you can have your money back.

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A procrastinator’s “Hair of the Dog.”

“If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.” – Mark Twain (with a tip of the hat to Ana Swanson and Tim Pychyl)


Hair of the dog refers colloquially to alcohol consumed the morning after to cope with a hangover from drinking the night before. If, like me, you’re prone to procrastination (another form of addictive behavior), you might want to click on the link and learn more of the fascinating etymology. That’s what I did first thing this morning, while waiting for the coffee to click in.

The proximate cause of this investigation was a link from today’s Washington Post website, this by Ana Swanson entitled The real reasons you procrastinate – and how to stop. She cites Tim Urban, among others, reproducing his cartoons on the mind of a procrastinator. Absolutely. Ridiculously. Funny.

Thankfully, Ms. Swanson’s extensive article also contains the cure and the science behind it, attributed to Timothy Pychyl (and others; I’m telling you, you have to read the entirety). Here’s what she gleaned from him:

“Most of us seem to tacitly believe that our emotional state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. But that’s just not true. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.”

Instead of focusing on feelings, we have to think about what the next action is, Pychyl says. He counsels people to break down their tasks into very small steps that can actually be accomplished. So if it’s something like writing a letter of reference, the first step is just opening the letterhead and writing the date.

Even if it’s an extremely small action, a little progress will typically make you feel better about the task and increase your self-esteem, which in turn reduces the desire to procrastinate to make yourself feel better, he says.

I know this works, from personal experience, because I had already started doing just this (albeit intermittently) a number of years ago, maybe around 2004-2005, in response to reading a 2002 book by David Allen, entitled, more positively, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, which is founded on the same principle. I found the book off-putting at first (told me things about myself I was reluctant to acknowledge), but have since reread it a couple of times, and each time it’s grown on me. Back then, I shared the book with my boss, who’s since made far more of a success of living by Mr. Allen’s advice than I have.

Parenthetically, (my boss) and I have someone else to thank for this, a person who shall remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, when she went off to Cornell for graduate work in communication the book was recommended to her. Recognizing my desperate need, she passed the tip along.

Thank you, anonymous person!

Oh, by the way, given all the time you’ll be saving because you’re now on your way to increased productivity, you’ll now have the time to explore one last link before you dive in – this on the single best joke told by each president, starting with Obama and working back. (This link, tragically, was next to the article on beating procrastination at the moment I was reading earlier this morning. I couldn’t resist.)

After all, laughter is good medicine, right?

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Saving for a rainy day.

“The shortest period of time lies between the minute you put some money away for a rainy day and the unexpected arrival of rain” – Jane Bryant Quinn

imrs.phpSaving for a rainy day? Ancient wisdom.

But we violate this principle. Two stories in yesterday’s print edition of the Washington Post illustrate the point. The first, on page 2, was entitled climate scientists fear losing key tool at vital time.

You may know the story. Here’s a capsule from the article:

Earlier this month, a U.S. satellite known as F17 — which was primarily used for meteorological measurements — experienced operational failures that compromised the integrity of its data. And while there are similar satellites in orbit that can take over the data collection for now, they’re old enough that scientists are unsure how much longer they’ll last.

Now, with no government plans to launch a replacement any time soon, scientists who rely on these satellites for valuable climate data are beginning to worry about the future of their research. The problem comes at a vital time, too — one when the Arctic, and other remote regions, are seeing rapid changes and scientists badly need these instruments to track them.

The second, on page 3, headlined Zika crisis costs states funds for emergency preparedness. Again, the lead:

Cities and states preparing for possible Zika outbreaks this spring and summer are losing millions of federal dollars that local officials say they were counting on, not only for on-the-ground efforts to track and contain the spread of the mosquito-borne virus but also to respond to other emergencies that threaten public health.

Los Angeles County, for example, says it won’t be able to fill 17 vacancies at its public health laboratory or buy equipment to upgrade its capability for Zika testing. Michigan is concerned about providing resources to help Flint contend with its ongoing water-contamination crisis. Minnesota plans to reduce its stockpile of certain medications needed to treat first responders during emergencies.

The across-the-board funding cuts are part of a complicated shift of resources that the Obama administration blames on Congress and its refusal to approve the White House’s $1.9 billion emergency request to combat Zika. In early April, officials announced a stopgap measure that moved money originally intended for the government’s Ebola response.

But in that scramble, the administration also redirected about $44 million in emergency preparedness grants that state and local public health departments expected to receive starting in July. They use the grants for a broad range of events, including natural and human disasters and terrorist attacks. Some agencies lost up to 9 percent of their awards…

The links provide fuller details, but you get the idea. Limited in our resources, we make daily choices about our spending priorities as individuals and a nation. Time was, we said Earth observation from space was so important to both national security and public safety as to merit the redundancy of civilian and military observations. But in recent years we tended to reframe this as duplication and waste, and decided a single satellite system would do. In the same way, we’ve skimped on emergency response. As a result, the limited funding is continually reallocated – we chase the latest crisis.

(Two small quibbles with these articles. The first focuses on a collateral benefit of the military’s satellite versus the risk its loss poses to military operations worldwide – its intended purpose. Regardless of your stance and mine on the climate issue, we should mourn its coming end. The second article suggests that this reallocation of emergency response funding is something new. It’s not. Following 9/11, the primary federal funding for emergency response was focused on the terrorist threat. State and local governments found plenty of funding for hazmat suits, etc., but few funds for facing that rainy day – floods – or for earthquake preparedness.)

But the larger challenge remains: (1) ensuring the continuity of the vigilance that Earth observations of all types provide against threats of every origin, and (2) preparing and building resilience with respect to all contingencies, versus picking one and hoping we’re guessing right. What’s more, enhancing our investment in Earth observations and emergency response capability comes at small cost — let’s say one or two billion dollars more out of a federal budget of several trillion and a GDP five times that. In fact it saves money, following the lines of a second piece of ancient wisdom:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We can do better.

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Red States and Blue States.

Here in the United States, merely to mention “red states and blue states” is to activate a strong Pavlovian response. We’ve all been classically conditioned to think politically – to see red as “Republican” and “blue” as Democratic. And regardless of our political persuasion, the term triggers a frisson, a shiver, an adrenalin rush. Here’s an example, taken at the county-level for the 2008 presidential elections:


But red and blue “Arndt” used solely to denote political leanings. As in Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch at NOAA’s Centers for Environmental Information. To the benefit of the country and the larger world, Mr. Arndt and his colleagues at the NOAA National Climatic Data Center spend their days and nights teasing high-value environmental intelligence out of seemingly drear climate data – the stupefyingly large amounts of temperature, humidity, wind, and other readings gathered moment by moment, year after year, century after century, around the globe.

But that isn’t all they do. They also think up elegant ways to convey that intelligence to decision makers and to you and me.

Here’s a recent example, just one of many, reported by Jason Samenow and the Capitol Weather Gang, who are no less gifted in bringing environmental intelligence to life.


The map goes back a ways. From the 2014 National Climate Assessment, it shows climate warming in U.S. from 1991-2012 compared to 1901-1960 average. Red represents temperature increases; blue denotes decreases.

Mr. Samenow’s piece also presents a table compiled by Mr. Arndt and the folks at NCEI, and recently updated:


Some verbatim excerpts from Mr. Samenow’s commentary:

U.S. states are setting new records for extreme warmth with regularity while record cold is almost impossible to come by

Arndt’s slide shows all state records set for warmth, cold and precipitation extremes since 2010

States have set monthly records for warmth 132 times in the past six years, as portrayed by all of the red in the left-hand column.

 Blue, which represents record cold, is conspicuously absent. In 3,500 opportunities (considering that there are 50 states and that 70 months have passed), states have logged a record cold month only four times

There are some big differences between the temperature map and the political one. For starters, there’s nothing personal about the temperature data. They simply are what they are — a reflection of physical realities. By contrast, political maps such as the one shown hint at what we think — you and I and the people who live near us.

Second, the political map is far more balanced. In the United States, presidential nominees more-or-less historically have enjoyed roughly one-chance in-two of being elected leader of the free world (versus the one-in-three-hundred-million odds facing you and me). It really doesn’t matter much who’s running, or what is going on. The electoral-college system in the United States has the effect of magnifying small differences in the popular political support, and also reducing the need for and extent of recounts, but the election results are never as lopsided as those temperature trends shown here. One chance in two. By contrast, your chances of being in a cooling county are pretty much no-existent.

But there are also similarities. For one, like politics, all climate is local. Similarly, for whatever reason, climate science, even mere climate data, seem to trigger a corresponding Pavlovian response – that same adrenalin rush – in many of us that politics evoke. Finally, as big data and data analytics continue to take hold, the value of both the political and the environmental intelligence the maps reveal will each increase.

The maps, and their narratives, are not going away. They’ll figure every more prominently in our future. And, as their messages grow compelling, and as our skill in social science and data analytics continues to advance, the messages will start to thread together.

That reality might suggest that the cooling we need most – the cooling that could in turn foster actions and dialog that over time might lead to a cooling of political and atmospheric temperatures – is emotional.

Enjoy a calm spring day. Allow it to change you.

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PrintActual conversation this morning between an anonymous atmospheric scientist and an intelligent, educated, cheery layperson in his life (also unnamed) but she-on-whom-his-sun-rises-and-sets, as they walked outside to the car:

He: This winter was warmer than usual.                                                                                     She (upbeat): Global warming!                                                                                                       He (unthinking, on autopilot): El Nino.                                                                                          She (only his imagination, or was there just the barest, momentary hint of chill in the air?): Is the planet warming or not?                                                                                             He: It’s warming.


As this vignette illustrates, attribution preoccupies us: why fix the problem when you can fix the blame?

Take climate change.

Atmospheric scientists have by and large agreed for some time that climate change is real, that it is largely human-caused, and that it poses possible opportunities but also serious risks for society. A recent George Mason University survey of AMS membership, though imperfect, nevertheless gives some feel for what AMS scientists think. From the executive summary:

Nearly all AMS members (96%) think climate change – as defined by AMS – is happening, with almost 9 out of 10 (89%) stating that they are either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ sure it is happening. Only 1% think climate change is not happening, and 3% say they don’t know.

A large majority of AMS members indicated that human activity is causing at least a portion of the changes in the climate over the past 50 years. Specifically: 29% think the change is largely or entirely due to human activity (i.e., 81 to 100%); 38% think most of the change is caused by human activity (i.e., 61 to 80%); 14% think the change is caused more or less equally by human activity and natural events; and 7% think the change is caused mostly by natural events. Conversely, 5% think the change is caused largely or entirely by natural events, 6% say they don’t know, and 1% think climate change isn’t happening.

Read the original report in its entirety (please!), and you’ll find that AMS opinion is more divergent when it comes to the societal implications: for example, the extent to which human action can slow or reverse the effects of any warming; and the likely consequences climate change for the economy, hazards, and the environment. This is hardly surprising, given that the answers to these questions lie beyond the nominal boundaries of AMS-community expertise.

Outside the climatological community, as seven billion people continue to awaken to these realities and their implications, the global conversation has grown from a murmur into a full-fledged discussion, and, on occasion, debate. Much of that debate has been about attribution. At first people asked, are humans really the cause? Over the past decade, in part frustrated by perceived slow uptick of public concern, scientists added the following idea: you know, climate change is not just a slow small perturbation in average conditions. It’s producing dangerous changes in the location, frequency, duration, and intensity of extremes of heat and cold, flood, and drought, and other threats. What’s more, these altered patterns of extremes are significant contributors to the changes in the averages. This did rivet minds, but at the same time it ushered in a new arena for the attribution debate. People started asking questions, many ill-posed, such as: Was Katrina a global warming event? To what extent? What about Superstorm Sandy? How about last year’s record snowfalls in Boston?

All this history makes the recent NAS report, Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change, especially welcome. The committee of experts authoring the report was chaired by Rear Admiral David Titley (retired). (Dr. Titley is currently Professor of Practice in Meteorology and the Founding Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University and a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for New American Security.)  He and the committee first addressed approaches to event attribution and then assessment of current capabilities for attribution. They suggested standards for how to present and interpret extreme event attribution studies. They closed by looking ahead, offering suggestions for improving attribution capabilities going  forward.

The March 20th episode of The Weather Channel’s Sunday program WxGeeks featured an engaging conversation on the report, featuring Dr. Titley and Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor and the show’s host – and also a member of the NAS committee. Here’s an on-line link to the show; it’s worth the viewing.

Bottom line: Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change brings a nice framing to the topic of attribution and a sound foundation for future work.

Follow its guidelines and we’ll not only improve our worldwide dialog on fixing the blame, but also maybe return our focus to fixing the problem.

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“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” – Wendell Berry

“I am aware that one should always make room for renewal in politics. A democracy is the healthier for the turnover of the depth of talent there is in its community.” – Bob Brown

“If there are flaws they are in ourselves, and our task therefore must be one not of redesign but of renewal and reaffirmation, especially of the standards in which all of us believe. – Elliot Richardson


Much of LOTRW’s readership is addressing one dimension (or several) of sustainable development. To pursue this Holy Grail is to be obsessed with renewal. The concept has many labels, and they vary from endeavor to endeavor. For example:

When we speak of resources – food, water, energy – we want our resources to be renewable.

We want our communities and our peoples to be resilient to hazards, to recover from catastrophes.

Following a pollution event, or degradation of ecosystem services, we speak of restoration of the environment.

But, as many writers tell us – Bob Brown and Elliott Richardson are but two examples – when it comes to sustainability, the resource, the renewable, that matters most is the human spirit. At the individual level, such renewal is our paramount concern, and well it should be. In our fast-paced, innovative society, we’re challenged to renew ourselves every day, in order to continue to be useful to our families, to our employers, to society. It doesn’t matter where we live or who we are or what we do. From this renewal, all other prospects for renewability will follow.

This renewal of the spirit has degrees. At the quotidian level, the lowest rung of the ladder, there’s recreation and refreshment. Most of us try to build recharging our batteries into our daily, weekly, and annual rhythm. This takes many different forms. It might be a walk through the cherry blossoms or on the beach or along the Appalachian Trail. It might be music or dance or baking. Then, moving up the scale, there’s the idea of revival, revitalization. Add a hyphen to our friend recreation, and you get re-creation, something pretty significant. Such revival might happen a few times over a life span or a career – triggered by a season of formal education, marriage, kids, a move, a change of job, or a retreat.

But there’s one word for renewal that’s in a class all by itself: resurrection.

“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime. – Martin Luther

“Let every man and woman count himself immortal. Let him catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let him say not merely, ‘Christ is risen,’ but ‘I shall rise.’” – Phillips Brooks

Compared with other definitions and ideas of renewal, resurrection is unique in several respects. To start, it doesn’t mean recovering from a slightly or even a drastically weakened condition. It means coming back from the dead. Second, it doesn’t mean coming back to some former state, or almost to some former state. It refers not to just to coming back, but becoming something better, something perfect, something imperishable. Third, it doesn’t just mean coming back to our current imperfect world. (For many people, the brokenness and dysfunction of our current society is so great that an eternity here – versus living, say, seventy years –might be second prize.). Instead it seems to mean coming back to life under a new arrangement, one that makes living not just tolerable, not just passable, but a joy.

Resurrection is different in another respect. To see this, try an experiment. Go to your computer or other device, google all these forms of renewal, google quotes about all these forms of renewal – and you’ll find a great variety of sources, plenty to ponder and much to like. A cross-section of great thinkers and philosophers have thought long and hard about renewal and have a great deal to say. But google the word resurrection and the sources become less diverse and the quotes a more monochromatic. There really was only one guy whom people seem to take seriously on the subject. He not only talked about it, but demonstrated it – so convincingly to those around at the time that people haven’t stopped talking about it. The buzz has been slowly but steadily increasing for two thousand years.

And at the time, he didn’t stop there. He said something more audacious – he said that this resurrection, this being something or someone better for all time – wasn’t just for him, but for everybody – past, present, and future. (Everybody, that is, who wanted in. He wasn’t going to force this on any one of us, against your will or mine.).

This latter statement, this broader accessibility, taken on its own, might not seem so credible. But coming from someone who’s shown it can be done – that’s a different matter.

There’s a final respect in which resurrection is unique and powerful. Relative to the promised eternity, our finite number of years in this circumstance can be seen in clearer perspective. But resurrection doesn’t imply these years are merely for passive waiting. They’re years of active preparation. Much as the caterpillar prepares to become Lorenz’s butterfly, you and I are constantly in the business of becoming. Resurrection powers all those other forms of renewal. Resurrection also makes it important to build a better world now – providing for public safety, lifting people out of poverty, and preserving nature’s beauty. Resurrection makes renewal for each of us as important at age seventy-two as it is at age twelve or twenty-two. Renewal is not a vain exercise. It doesn’t stop when we die. Instead it hits full stride. Eternity is not stasis.

So, whether your direct inspiration be Martin Luther’s “leaf in springtime” or whether it comes from the still, small voice inside your head, or some special community of family and friends who share your values, or from some other external source, treat today  – Easter – and every day as an occasion for renewal. And along with Phillips Brooks, allow yourself the possibility:

Christ is risen… I shall rise.


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Value of Information: the imponderable

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free…” – Edward Gibbon


Yesterday’s LOTRW post highlighted listed four powerful trends that are driving up the potential value of Earth observations, science, and services: (1) Declining margins of essential resources such as water, food, and energy are leading to spot shortages and disruptions in supply worldwide. (2) The shortages can no longer be separated and treated individually, or wholly locally. Instead, they are connected in ways that require they be addressed as a whole. Worse yet, critical resource needs cannot be considered in isolation from hazard threats and environmental challenges. (3) The platforms, instruments, and infrastructure for Earth observations, science, and services, are rapidly developing in diagnostic power. (4) Big data and data analytics offer unprecedented tools for translating environmental conditions into their likely societal impacts, and for making societal, institutional, and individual adjustments.

What could go wrong? What could possibly stunt the growth in the value of Earth information?

Well, two things to start[1]:

1.Society could ignore, or misuse, or be slow to use and act on such environmental information – not just the warnings of threat but also the opportunities for benefit and profit. Earth scientists can be quick to see this as the result of malevolent intent or indolence (the climate-change debate comes to mind), but it’s equally possible and perhaps more realistic to interpret this as a consequence of the growing complexity and rapidly evolving nature of the interaction between environment and science. Some examples – three among many – illustrate the challenge.

The California drought of recent years. This has exposed challenges in the allocation of water at state and local levels, among economic sectors such as agriculture and energy, relative to private consumption. Allocations, and distortions in allocation, are shaped by pricing and subsidies. Policies and regulations vary from county to county and district to district. All this could be accommodated in times of plenty but is problematic in the face of multi-year shortage.

Dangerous lead content in the Flint, Michigan, water supply. News media have covered this tragedy extensively in recent months, finding fault with leaders at every level and of every political stripe.

Resettlement of the Isle de Jean Charles. This Louisiana example, important both to climate science and to the task of building resilient futures, is likely not so well known to readers as the similar challenge facing indigenous peoples of Alaska’s north slope; the Guardian article provided by the link merits a careful read. More information is available at, as well as on the Tribal website and at the Lowlander Center.

As the Guardian article notes, HUD has made a $52M grant to the people of the Isle de Jean Charles for resettlement. As the case in Alaska and elsewhere, the award amount is really in the nature of a demonstration project. Full implementation of resettlement will require the people of the area to come up with (roughly comparable) additional funds. Even so, some argue that the federal government has been too generous. Others see opportunity in the award and seek to be awarded critical contracts, forcing the named recipient in the award, the Tribe, to struggle to retain control.

Each of these three accounts demonstrate the way that resource-, hazard-, and environmental issues are currently threaded throughout our society, and, at the same time, how they’re inextricably intertwined with issues of environmental justice and poverty. Now multiply by tens of thousands. Every community, every sector, every nation in today’s world can come up with its own multiple narratives of such tribulations. The stupefying size and complexity of the aggregated problems combine confront huge, entrenched financial and cultural interests in a way that paralyzes consensus building and action.

Today’s political arena reflects this. Here in the United States, the time-honored winning political message has been this one: the politician says to Americans: “look me in the eye! You’re living in a fantasy world – and I can keep the fantasy alive four years longer than my opponent.”

(Alert! First, recognize that this statement is a bit exaggerated, to make a point. Second, don’t make the mistake of blaming politicians for this. It’s our fault. If anything, politicians are extremely realistic… and they know from experience that this is the message all 300 million of us insist on hearing from them.)

This year that rhetoric has been replaced with something far uglier.

Those concerned with the value of information should view this political season with special concern. In past campaigns, fact-checking has held political leaders accountable for their campaign proposals, on down to their passing comments, on the campaign trail. Much less so this year. Facts, consistency, logic seem to be held in low regard. And this in turn implies a decline in the value of information. Remember: information has no value unless it’s used.

Which brings us to a second challenge that can derail the increasing value of information.

2.A society that sees less value in information, is less interested in maintaining the sources and supply of that information, and sustaining the associated R&D needed to move it forward. Referring back to the political campaign – the adequacy of national and world supplies of water, food, and energy; our repetitive loss to hazards; our degrading ecosystem services – this foundation (remember Maslow) for all our hopes and aspirations is receiving scant attention. Maintaining the science and R&D of all that? Even less so. That societal disinterest has implications for us. Sustained continuity in the financial support and other policies that foster innovation are just as important for our work as oxygen and water and food are for us as individuals. To the extent our community is impaired, the world is forced to fly blind into a problematic future.

This doesn’t mean we should amp-up our scolding. Just the opposite! It means we need to redouble our courtship of the society that supports our work – the entire society, not just any single political party. It also means we should put more emphasis on STEM education, on investing in a society that understands innovation and fosters it.

And the freedom we should cherish most? The freedom to be responsible.


All these and more will be considered in future posts… but in the meantime, Easter is coming up.

[1] You can likely offer additions or your own better list. Comments are welcome, including guest posts should you be so inclined.

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Four trends ratchet up the value of Earth information.

Four seismic shifts are underway that will combine to make Earth information increasingly valuable – unimaginably more valuable – over the coming two decades.

Unless they don’t.

Today we look at the four drivers of this increased value. Two are challenges. Two are opportunities. They are inexorable.

Unless they aren’t.

(The caveat? It’ll have to wait until the next post.)

1.Resource scarcity and declining margins, especially in regions of the world where resources are already scarce and margins already small.

The resource challenge – most visible with respect to water, food, and energy – is global and long-term. However, the shortages don’t manifest themselves that way. Instead, they present in the form of acute local episodes – drought here, famine there, power outages or incidence of water pollution in this or that city for brief periods. Media have focused on these food, water, and energy crises for as long as we can remember. But here’s the point. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs described in the previous LOTRW post reminds us that our need for these elements is foundational and continual. We can’t tolerate even momentary or localized gaps or interruptions. What’s more, we all need them, whether rich or poor. Those who can afford it will pay any price to ensure continuity. The economic shocks that accompany these episodes are devastating to the world’s disadvantaged, from whatever nation.

2.The holistic nature of the resource problem. Speaking of food, water, and energy, it turns out that the three are intertwined. Just one of myriad examples: the U.S. policy shift of recent years flirting with the use of corn-based ethanol as a renewable fuel source reverberated in worldwide spikes in the price of maize. More generally, agricultural production is highly water-intensive, amounting to something like eighty percent of fresh water use here in the United States. Most fossil-fuel electricity generation makes additional water demands. Economists, scientists, and policymakers are increasingly absorbed in the task of understanding these and similar interconnections and their implications for nations and the world.

But the need for holistic scientific understanding and policy approaches doesn’t stop there. In turns out that resource and environmental policies are interwoven as well, not just with each other but also with community-level resilience to natural hazards. Solving this transcendental threefold problem is the essential core of so-called sustainable development[1]. In the constrained, unified world of the future it will no longer suffice to treat any resource-, hazard-, or environmental problems in isolation.

Fortunately – indeed providentially – we’re not forced to meet these future challenges armed only with today’s tools. This is where our other two big trends come in.

3.The increasing diagnostic power of Earth observations and science. Thanks to continuing investment in Earth observations and science by Congress and the American public, sustained over decades, our ability to monitor and predict what the Earth system will do next is growing by leaps and bounds. Satellite platforms combined with ingenious remote-sensing instruments now provide unprecedented global coverage, temporal resolution of environmental conditions. Drone aircraft aren’t just being used for war or contemplated to make deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online. Our hundreds of millions of automobiles and smartphones are being pressed into service for measuring everything from rainfall to atmospheric pressure. Numerical weather prediction is being extended to climate modeling and coupled land-surface-ocean-atmospheric modeling more generally. Understanding is flowering. We’re putting the entire planet in intensive care.

4.The growing reach and power of Big Data and data analytics. This emerging ability to combine high-volume, high-velocity, diverse data sets, even in its nascent stage of development – promises to be transformative. The new power to merge Earth-system data with data on the human system – populations, resource use, habitat, income level, trends and details in all these – makes it possible to contemplate modeling of coupled human-natural systems with the same skill that we once could bring to bear only on the weather alone. To imagine where these capabilities will take us? We’ve no more idea than cavemen and women who invented the wheel could visualize the link between that invention and space travel. The difference is that we’ll make this next leap in a century instead of ten thousand years.

These four trends our reshaping the world and human possibility. Along the way, and almost as a footnote, they’re ensuring that Valuation of Earth Information will never be a finished question but will rather remain a subject of continuing research for a century or more.



[1] As described in the 2014 book, Living on the Real World, also available at University of Chicago Press or

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The value of Earth Observations, Science and Services – about to skyrocket.

“I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” – Abraham Maslow[1]

“Let people realize clearly that every time they threaten someone or humiliate or unnecessarily hurt or dominate or reject another human being, they become forces for the creation of psychopathology, even if these be small forces. Let them recognize that every person who is kind, helpful, decent, psychologically democratic, affectionate, and warm, is a psychotheraputic force, even though a small one.” – Abraham Maslow


What is the worth of Earth observations, science and services? The world wants answers to this question, and is poised to step up its efforts.

Compelling forces drive this new interest. We’ll examine this in a later post, but first we need some background. A good place to start is the mid-20th-century work of the psychologist Abraham Maslowe, and his groundbreaking “hierarchy of needs.” The relevant material from Wikipedia serves to give you the idea. Here are some excerpts, taken verbatim:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. While the pyramid has become the de facto way to represent the hierarchy, Maslow himself never used a pyramid to describe these levels in any of his writings on the subject.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term “metamotivation” to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment…

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Physiological needs are thought to be the most important; they should be met first.

Air, water, and food are metabolic requirements for survival in all animals, including humans. Clothing and shelter provide necessary protection from the elements. While maintaining an adequate birth rate shapes the intensity of the human sexual instinct, sexual competition may also shape said instinct…

…With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual’s safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. In the absence of physical safety – due to war, natural disaster, family violence, childhood abuse, etc. – people may (re-)experience post-traumatic stress disorder or transgenerational trauma. In the absence of economic safety – due to economic crisis and lack of work opportunities – these safety needs manifest themselves in ways such as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, reasonable disability accommodations, etc. This level is more likely to be found in children because they generally have a greater need to feel safe…

…After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness…

…All humans have a need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others…

… the perceived need for self-actualization… refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed athletically. For others, it may be expressed in paintings, pictures, or inventions. As previously mentioned, Maslow believed that to understand this level of need, the person must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them.

Whew! A lot to absorb. Of course Maslow’s work and writings merit a fuller look, and in their original published form. It also should be said that his work has had its critics, and that the scholarship of these subjects has moved on. But the criticism has largely focused on particulars of the hierarchial levels, especially the ones at the top of the pyramid. What you see here is sufficient for our next step.

Maslow was a psychologist. He was writing and thinking about individuals. But perhaps it’s not too great a leap to see that his hierarchy would apply to societies, or to the world’s population of seven billion people. We would discover that taken as a whole, humankind’s primary needs are air, water, and food, and then safety. The story of human success over the past ten thousand years, and especially the past century or so, is that after hundreds of thousands of years of trying, we moved past this point up the hierarchy, to reach the point where the hierarchy could even be articulated, much less appreciated and debated and refined.

Most of us in the developed world now take these foundational needs for granted. We spend most all of our time and energy operating at the various higher levels of the hierarchy. Only a relative handful in our economy are needed to take care of the essentials: grow our food, maintain adequate supplies of potable, inexpensive water, ensure that energy supply is reliable, and so on. The rest of us can develop and profit from the information explosion, virtual reality, and production of all manner of goods and services that matter only at this higher plane. Accordingly, we’re creating wealth and expanding possibilities at an unprecedented rate.

Today, however, that ample, reliable, inexpensive supply of breathable air, potable water, and food that is essential foundation for all of human aspirations and endeavor is under threat. Earth observations, science, and services form critical infrastructure for navigating this problematic future.

More on this in the next post.

[1] Abraham Maslow was a veritable font of great quotes. For a larger sample, look here.

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The transcendent value of Valuation

“In the spring a young economist’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of… valuation.”

 “Valuations are nothing, but Valuation is everything.”

(with apologies all around, but especially to Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dwight David Eisenhower.)


We’re told that today is the first day of spring, and it certainly seems that valuation is in the air. A NASA research solicitation on the subject will close in the next few days. March 10-11, the GEOValue community held a workshop in Paris under OECD auspices on Data to Decisions: Valuing the Social benefits of Environmental Information. NOAA has also been active. NOAA held its own workshop on valuation on March 3. NOAA’s IOOS Program commissioned a report on the Ocean Enterprise: A study of U.S. business activity in ocean measurement, observation, and forecasting which came out last month. Some in the meteorological community, long interested in characterizing the size of the American weather enterprise, have been examining the report as a possible model for their industry.

We’re all constantly in the business of estimating or setting the value of people, products, services, actions, principles – ranging across the entirety of our work, play, and even worship. These estimates govern how and to whom and what we allocate our time, spend our money, devote our attention. For the most part – virtually all the time – we’re doing this so rapidly and with respect to so many dimensions of our lives simultaneously that the process is instinctive, unthinking, subconscious. Economists, of all the professional disciplines, have done the best job of identifying this process for what it is and showing that it can teased into the open and be targeted for formal study.

In my world, a lot of the attention is focused less on the value of externalities to us and more on our community’s value to others. What is the worth of Earth observations, science, and services to society? The worth of satellite platforms and instruments? Surface networks? Radar systems? Better numerical weather prediction? And so on. The motivations are several, and each would merit a book in itself. However, behind much of the effort is the idea that Earth observations, science, and services are fundamental to society’s well-being, but the world takes these services for granted, undervalues them, and so is failing to make the investments needed to sustain our forecasts for weather-sensitive sectors of the economy, or warnings of hazards, or early detection of degraded environmental and ecosystem services. We think – if only society realized how much it depended on us! Then we’d enjoy the financial support we need to maintain our observations and modeling, and build our capacity, keeping pace with growing societal demands. Our work would take its rightful place among worldwide efforts to eradicate poverty, improve public health and safety, and promote geopolitical stability. In fact, the world would see that we contribute fundamentally to all these goals.

This thought process has given rise to numerous studies over past decades. Unfortunately, they haven’t commanded much respect. Economists could give their own better list of reasons, but here are a few illustrations of the challenges.

  • Many of the studies are anecdotal, or focused on a single business – for example, farmers in a county or counties managing a single crop using forecasts in the context of a particular regional weather or climate event. It’s very difficult to meaningfully aggregate such studies to derive a larger picture. Critics say: they lack saliency.
  • Some of the studies make broad, sweeping assertions, such as “one third of the US economy is weather-sensitive.” This begs a number of questions: “how-sensitive?” or “what would be the economic impact of better forecasts?” or “aren’t all sectors of the economy weather sensitive, but to varying degrees?” Critics say: They lack credibility.
  • Some studies are conducted or funded by individuals or institutions who stand to gain from favorable conclusions. Critics say: They lack legitimacy.

Lurking in the background are other, more fundamental challenges.

1. Cost-studies are difficult enough. For example, to estimate the cost of weather forecasts when the satellite observing system (a major expense) is also used for oceanographic studies, or for monitoring land use and surface vegetation, is problematic. What fraction of the observing system cost should be allocated to each task, and why? But benefit studies are trickier still. The calculated benefits assume a given policy/regulatory framework. Changing that framework can produce sweeping changes in the total benefit, and the allocation of that benefit across society that dwarf any changes likely from incremental technology advance. A simple example, one of many: much of the watershed management across this country is based solely on reservoir water levels. In this circumstance, the value of several-day or week-long precipitation outlooks is zero, no matter what the forecast skill.

2. This is where the transcendent part comes in…. Again, just one example: take the value of the science and its role in bringing to light the recent water-quality tragedy in Flint, Michigan. Does the value extend to health and lives of those actually drinking the water? Most certainly. How to estimate stakes in the value of the lives represented? Such value is difficult to monetize – indeed it goes beyond the monetary. More difficult, but economists have done a lot of thinking about all that. But suppose Earth observations, science, and services been used in time and in a way to forestall the event completely. What would have been the additional value in removing one bone of contention in this year’s divisive political season? And suppose that a slightly more civil tone in US politics were to improve correspondingly the US standing in the world. What could have been the value of that over the 21st century? We won’t ever know.

Increasingly, however, that kind of wisdom needs to become part and parcel of our individual and corporate thinking.

And that’s why, in this spring season, and indeed in all seasons, there can never be enough of Tennyson’s love, Eisenhower’s planning, and … economists’ valuation.

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