WWBD…What would Boone do?

Here at the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, some of the buzz is that the Earth observations, science, and services community faces a constrained future. We hear that we must learn to do more with less… that the trickle-down consequences of the economic downturn that began in 2008, the approaching national debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff, and sequestration all point to this. We’re told we will be better off… less uncomfortable… if we don the straitjacket voluntarily, and on our own terms, rather than allow others to restrain us forcibly in some other way they might see fit.

There might be a worse framing of our circumstance, but I’m having trouble imagining what it might be.

Normally I’m a middle-of-the-road, avoid-the-extremes kind of guy. But in this case, just for drill, since our encounter with Mr. T. Boone Pickens is fresh in our minds, let’s ask the question, WWBD? What would Boone Do?

This is of course, is speculative…we didn’t ask him, and he didn’t share. But I’m guessing he might come from almost the opposite perspective. Consider three pieces:

1.    Mankind’s defining 21st-century challenge is the threefold problem of resource acquisition (especially food, water, and energy), protection of the environment and critical ecosystem services, and building global resilience to hazards at the community level. The tricky part? These three goals must be achieved simultaneously, and in such a way as to give the folks who follow us in the 22nd century a fighting chance to leave a similar legacy for those who follow them in the 23rd century… keep the human race prospering.

2.    Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS)… all the satellites, and radars, and surface probes, and drilling and prospecting and computer modeling and professionals doing good thinking are the essential foundation for this work…and at something like $10-15B/year U.S. and maybe $40-60B/year worldwide out of a $15T US GDP and $70T/year global GDP… are cheap at the price.

3.    Doubling (say) this annual investment in Earth OSS would only have to catalyze an increase in GDP growth rate (the global GDP growth rate is about 3.7%) by 0.1% to pay for itself.

Just a brief further word on each of these. The first is the so-called sustainable development challenge. Remember…sustainability is actually an oxymoron. The best we can do is buy time. This means a continuing investment in innovation, getting more efficient in every aspect of our lives, finding new substitutes for virtually everything we use, and so on. Second, Earth OSS is infrastructure every bit as critical to our future as the electrical grid, or communications, or water or transportation. Third, the doubling figure is plucked out of the air as it were, but it’s actually the figure that makes best sense. A 10% increment doesn’t dramatically change our capabilities, and a factor of ten increase is too great to assimilate effectively; we’d just waste it. But the doubling represents such a small investment (25% of the supplemental budget request for Hurricane Sandy damages, for example), that we wouldn’t need to wait for an extensive advance analysis of the anticipated economic benefit. We could instead afford simply make the investment and then measure the resulting return on that investment (ROI) over the first few years. If we liked the result, we could double the investment again. Third, writing in the Bulletin of the AMS, Jeff Lazo and his coauthors showed in 2011 that year-to-year weather variability in US GDP amounts to about $500B/year. If we were to use better weather information to be 3% smarter in the way we capture weather’s benefits and avoid its hazards, our increased investment would more than pay for itself. And that’s saying nothing about the other benefits from such investments.

A Marshall Plan for the 21st century.

Domestic US benefits are just the beginning.

Consider this. The last time the United States was in a financial pickle comparable to the one we face today was the end of World War II. Today we have a GDP of $15T/year and a national debt of $16T. Back then we had a GDP of $150B/year (only 1% of today’s!) and a national debt of $180B.

What did the United States do? Did it decide to hunker down, retrench, lick its wounds, focus on needs at home, do more with less, put on that straitjacket?

No.

We (more correctly, our parents and grandparents…the men and women of Mr. Pickens’ generation and a little before) made the decision to spend $15 B over four years not in the United States, but to rebuild the economy of Europethe so-called Marshall Plan.

To emphasize the comparison, today that would be the equivalent of Congress deciding to spend $1.5T over the next four years on the rest of the world.

Amazing.

Why did the post-war U.S. do that? To prevent the spread of communism through Europe. And it worked like a charm. In fact, it worked so well that over the several years following the war, the US GDP doubled, jumping to $300B/year, in part because by means of that post-war reconstruction we created a new trading partner.

And the economic benefits continued. The rapid growth gave the United States the resources needed for President Reagan to force the collapse of the former Soviet Union and bring the Cold War to a close in the 1980′s.

What might be the goal of a corresponding investment today…a Marshall Plan for the 21st century?[1] Well, it doesn’t seem that the world’s economies need such mending. But there is another powerful trend going on. The developing world has never been richer, because the developed world is coming in to their countries and locking up natural resources for both the present and future. Two major examples? China is buying up minerals such as iron and copper worldwide, but especially throughout Africa and southeast Asia. Both China and the Saudis are buying up African arable land, ensuring food supplies for their people for future years. Although the wealth transfers are unprecedented, the sellers might well be wondering whether they’re receiving enough in return for what they’re giving away. In fact, Myanmar (Burma) and other nations seem to be reaching out to the west these days for precisely this reason; outside international interest in their resources is making them skittish.

Suppose the United States (and any other countries willing to join), in the spirit of that earlier Marshall Plan, were to partner with the developing world in helping them improve their understanding of what such assets were worth.

That would likely create as much good will toward the United States as the Marshall Plan generated sixty years ago.

The cost to the United States? Nothing more than a greater investment in Earth observations, science, and services. The figure wouldn’t be any $1.5T dollars either… more likely 1-5% of that. (And chances are good other nations would want to join us and help.)

Our Earth OSS community can choose to be defeatist… to figure that times are tough, decline is inevitable… and in that way contribute to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Or we can start to think and behave more like that post-World-War-II generation (including Mr. Pickens and others) and self-fulfill a prophesy of a more positive kind… fostering rapid economic growth, protecting the environment, contributing to geopolitical stability and national security, and building resilience to natural hazards.

What choice do you want to make? WWBD?

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2 Responses to WWBD…What would Boone do?

  1. James Correia Jr. says:

    A unified weather enterprise could make the case. The efforts, though, at a US weather commission seem to have hit a rough patch. Even the idea of exploring a commission. I generally agree with your sentiment that we must fight to make the case that this is an investment, not just spending, and it requires being efficient with the dollars we have been given. We can not accept that we must live within our means. It is a false choice simply because once you start to develop an infrastructure (e.g. business models, saving lives and resources, increasing risk awareness) the prospects for adding value (and creating jobs) increase. Making good investments requires vision. Collectively that vision is lackluster.

  2. James Correia Jr says:

    I think we need to be vigorous and united in declaring that the weather enterprise is worth investing in. We are in remarkable territory, poised to improve forecasts drastically and as such be much more capable of saving lives and infrastructure thus becoming more resilient as a nation. With this increasing capacity we are also poised to help usher in a new era of personal risk assessment. This will require an entire armada of scientists, to bridge the communications gap, working hand in hand through very intricate and important issues. This type of scientific infrastructure is in various stages of development across the world and right here in the US (e.g. CDC) and yet it is still a great struggle. Every discipline in science is struggling to communicate the importance of their work, and the value we as a society derive from it.

    Yet, despite the myriad of disasters faced in the last 2 years, we still struggle to make a case that we are worth investing in. Perhaps we need to travel down the road of assembling a US weather commission to find that voice and to unite. I have not heard a coherent vision that can withstand the budgetary nonsense of “tough fiscal times”. We don’t have the option of living within our means, because those very means are threatened with every disaster. We must craft a vision amongst the enterprise and to do that we must find unity.

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