Do you want to know tomorrow’s weather? Most of us do. And we know how to get the forecast we need, don’t we? You and I might have different methods. You might check the little box of information in the daily newspaper. I might consult a set of icons on a small electronic device receiving a radio signal. You might check out The Weather Channel. I might prefer the National Weather Service website…or one of myriad private-sector url’s.
The forecasts on each of these gadgets might differ a bit. [If we compare one source with another carefully we might become dissatisfied with the variation we find, but that’s a topic for another time.] But generally they tell a similar story. We usually know in advance when we can expect a sunny day, or, alternatively, a day that starts out sunny but will end with snow or rain, and so on. We can make necessary decisions and take action accordingly.
The same applies to other, related information. The times and extent of the local tides. The flood stage of rivers in the area. The air pollution index. Pollen counts. Seasonal outlooks. You name it.
We rely on these information sources. And they are indeed rather reliable, aren’t they? When was the last time you went to one of the websites and found it blank? Or the forecast box was missing from your newspaper? Or the evening news lacked its usual weather spot? Chances are you can’t recall such a day. Neither can I!
In fact, these forecasts, products and services, whether provided directly from government agencies or indirectly, through value-added private-sector providers, are far more dependable than that electrical light switch on the wall. Flick it, and the room fills with light – except when one of those storms (that was successfully forecast!) downs a power line.
Whether we’re talking about the weather forecast – or the electricity, or the tap water, or the groceries in the super market – those of us in the developed world hardly ever need to expend a moment’s thought on just what it takes to make those products and services available. They’re just there. That’s why one Congressman could famously say, “Why do we need the National Weather Service? I get my forecast from The Weather Channel.” Or why some may question “Why should I care about the farmer? I get my food from the Safeway.”
But we should all find time to develop an appreciation for what it takes to keep this infrastructure humming, to ensure that we never skip a beat. Why? Because in our zero-margin, just-in-time society, the consequences of such disruptions can be dire. For agribusiness, or an electrical utility, or an airline, to lack either a short-term forecast or a longer-term outlook is costly, or worse.
To see this, consider two metaphors: our weather- and other environmental information as society’s vision – providing urgently needed information about the Earth as resource, victim, and threat.
#1. In this first, picture yourself driving along an Interstate highway crossing the western plains, in broad daylight. Your vision is plenty good, isn’t it? The road is smooth, very little is happening. Your main challenge is staying awake. Then you see the white caps of Rockies ahead. Another hour of driving, and now you have reached the foothills, to find yourself on a narrow, two lane, winding road. You can’t see around the turns, and you’d like to slow down, but the car’s gas pedal is sticking, and you’re picking up speed (much as growing population and rapid social change combine to reduce decision-makers’ margin for error as we move into the future). Come to think of it, night is falling, the turns are now hairpin, your on the side of a cliff, the pavement is no rough and potholed, and the car is continuing to accelerate.
Then it starts to rain.
#2. In this one, picture you and me on an airplane, flying into that same mountain range, under IFR (instrument flight rule) conditions. The mountains are socked in. The pilot and co-pilot have to rely on instruments. They have the gadgets needed to keep the plane level, but lack the radar for seeing through the cloud cover to locate the valleys and gaps between those dreaded peaks. In adjacent seats, we’re playing a video game against each other (think of this as our jobs in the urban business world), not particularly mindful of what’s going on outside. We each want to win! Another couple of hundred passengers are engaged in similar pursuits.
But in the back of the plane, a few men and women – the merest handful – are feverishly racing against time in a more serious game. They’re trying to build – no, invent – radar, to pierce the clouds and spot the safe passage through that terrain. They have limited resources, because we and our fellow passengers wanted a no-frills flight at a cheaper fare. We don’t even realize there’s a problem. By contrast, they understand the seriousness of our common predicament, but can’t say how much time they have. Might be an hour, might only be minutes. The pilots might be lucky, but then again… So those radar nerds occasionally look up from their labors to express their concern to those of us in the nearby seats. They tug at the flight attendant, who until then had been productively serving us drinks. They insist that the pilots be asked to slow down. It’s irritating! The anxious talk disrupts our concentration on that game. A sizeable wager is at stake. They really need to quiet down.
We tell them so.