Humanity matches chess skills against The Real World

[This morning, Michael Cunningham provided a burst of comments on recent post. His comments are insightful… and welcome on this blog. I particularly liked his thoughts on What did we know and when did we know it? So that this isn’t lost in the shuffle, I’m quoting it verbatim here:

“Bill, in the dam-building era, people made decisions on what they perceived (plus greed and perceived self-advantage, no doubt), they didn’t have the research possibilities that we do. Resources are always limited, and choosing one option means dismissing another. In applying research funds, by definition, we don’t know where the greatest returns are, because we are investigating the unknown. But we must make the best choices we can. The US spends $2.6 bn a year on climate research, and incurs far greater costs in emissions reduction policies. Have these been the best decisions? Would these have been your highest priorities?

15-odd years ago, I argued for more research into alleged catastrophic global warming, and while better information was pending, taking only those emission reduction measures which would be valuable irrespective of what emerged re CAGW. It has long been arguable that many anti-emissions measures had negative returns, and some recent research suggesting lower sensitivity and lower attribution of warming to human emissions, as well as the long pause in warming, suggest that many anti-AGW measures may have been as misguided as some of the old decisions you deplore.

So we need to improve decision-making capabilities under uncertainty as regards research as well as AGW.”]

Beginning chess players, especially children, find it difficult to visualize the implications of their chess moves until they’ve actually made them…until they’ve moved a particular piece to its new location and released it. The name of the game is to think several moves ahead, the more the better, and to accomplish this before committing.

Michael Cunningham’s comment reminds us that civilizations face the same challenge. We’re far better at seeing our mistakes in retrospect than anticipating and forestalling them. When it comes to small mistakes, the consequences can be minimal, or at least manageable. However, all too frequently, civilizations proceed down some dead end until it’s too late to recover. For example, some say that degrading infrastructure, including the salinization of soil as a result of irrigation to such a degree that it could no longer sustain agriculture, contributed to the fall of Babylon. In Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, Jared Diamond chronicles several such failures.

Our current global dependence on fossil fuels might place us in a similar predicament. Given the long-term consequences of this choice, we might wish in hindsight we’d focused earlier on alternative, renewable energy sources. At this point, our dilemma is not simply that we’re using prodigious amounts of energy; it’s also that we’ve built up an extensive, costly infrastructure of mines, wells, pipelines, transport, refineries, and utilities that’s useful only for fossil fuels. Unwinding all that while maintaining needed economic growth seems to be our primary challenge.

Similar statements apply to humanity’s historic preference for settlements along the world’s coastlines, which pose a range of weather, seismic, and volcanic threats. At the initial stages of this human settlement, given our science and technology, few alternatives were available. Today, however, we find we’ve traded the natural resources and the breathtaking beauty of the world’s coasts for something much less. Were we to start over, we might well have chosen to situate our settlements and economic engines further inland, and taken advantage of modern technologies to allow public recreational access to the coasts in ways that might be enjoyed by all while fostering significant economic benefit.

Chances are good you can supply other examples from your own direct experience.

While we’d all agree that “hindsight is 20-20,” and that it’s difficult to see unintended consequences of our decisions and actions in advance, perhaps we might also decide that we could do better. The national security community at least makes a serious attempt… looking across a range of issues, including resource- and environmental challenges, that may one day play into geopolitical instability.

Somehow such work seems worth the extra investment.

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