Tackling the future.

Years ago, when I was in high school, football players in western Pennsylvania industrial towns didn’t wear face masks. (Talk about social change and technology advance!) Our football coach was Clarke T. “Ted” Miller. He would say, “Give me a player who’s got a broken nose! He’s looking at the ball carrier! He’s not turning his head away when he’s making tackles.”[1]

How’s that for a morale builder? But, truth be told, that philosophy still works for us today. Back to that in a moment, but first a bit of review.

The message of the past five posts? Our success as a human race has occurred in a very short time, short compared with the time required:

-         for substantial climate variability,

-         for the recurrence of extremes,

-         for the emergence of unintended consequences,

-         to be sure we can sustain our success,

-         to internalize our changed circumstances.

As a result, the future poses five huge challenges:

-         any climate variation outside a very narrow range will be unfavorable,

-         hazards will be more extreme than suggested by historic precedent,

-         acute, highly-localized pollution episodes will crop up everywhere,

-         economic margins will shrivel, exposing pockets of scarcity,

-         top-down, command-and-control decision-making won’t cut it.

This is how it feels when things are going well!

Seriously! None of these challenges need overcome us. To start, we just need to meet them head on. We can’t flinch! We can make a better future for ourselves, just as most past generations have done. However, to do this means that as humankind we will have to bring our “A” game for the next 50-100 years.

Bring our “A” game? What might that look like? Basically, it means being in the active, problem-solving mode. We can’t count on business-as-usual and try to muddle through.

Now in the world where I come from, the world of atmospheric science, a lot of the problem-solving is necessarily holistic, and it’s iterative. Consider numerical weather prediction (NWP). To get pointy-headed for a second, NWP at its heart distills down to five conservation equations: conservation of mass, conservation of momentum, and conservation of energy. Two things are true about these equations. First, they have to be solved simultaneously! You can’t first find a solution that conserves momentum, and then turn your attention to conserving mass, and delay conservation of energy to the end. The three aspects of the problem are all woven together. They’re inseparable! Second, these equations also complicated. They don’t offer an answer which can be reduced to a simple formula. Instead, they have to be solved iteratively[2]. You start from the initial conditions. (What is the state of the atmosphere at this moment?) You pick a very short time step (“short” in the sense it’s smaller than the time scale of the processes you’re trying to model) and calculate what will happen during that first very brief time step. Then you use those (slightly) changed conditions as the starting point for calculating the changes during a second time step. And you keep going forward until you reach that time in the future that is your time horizon of interest (a day from now for tomorrow’s weather forecast, or a century from now for your climate-change outlook).[3]

Interestingly enough, politicians can look at this problem-solving process and say, “that’s just what we do!”

Think about it. Politicians know that to be re-elected, they can’t just focus on, say, education to the exclusion of everything else. Political leaders have to deal with education, jobs, the aging of the population, health care, terrorism, and public safety, and much more, simultaneously. Unless they can balance and make progress on all these issues, they’re soon looking for other lines of work. Secondly, they can’t solve any single one of these problems once and for all. Rather, they have to make a bit of progress on each, during just about every time step. They have to focus on today’s urgencies, and let tomorrow take care of itself.[4] 

So, we have to address our five major challenges simultaneously, and iteratively. The diagram provides a picture of how a single time step might look in this iteration. Let’s start with the left-hand side. This shows what we might call the vicious circle. In each time step, what we know about how the real world works is either incomplete (or, worse, incorrect), misapplied, or ignored. The results? Policies, decisions, and actions that lead to further deterioration. Disaster losses increase. Economic growth slows. The environment degrades. Geopolitical instability builds. After each time step, there’s a little less potable water to go around. Not so much food. Diminished natural habitat. Less comity. As a result, social capital falls, and less surplus is available to foster science and innovation needed to support society in the next time step. And so on. Excuse my bias, but that looks like a good description of our present course.

Now look at the right-hand side of the figure; let’s call this the virtuous cycle. Here the scientists and the rest of society know how the real world works. Decisions and actions match that knowledge. Conditions improve! And there’s a bit more social capital available for helping science and society through the next time step.

A generalization: to live and work on the left-hand reality, the vicious circle, is a lot less demanding, but leads to many costly mistakes, a few irreparable blunders, and a generally bad end.

To live and work on the right-hand reality, the virtuous circle, takes a bit more work (okay, okay, a lot more). We might get our nose broken! But we’d make the game saving tackle. We wouldn’t let those threats of climate change, natural hazards, and environmental degradation elude our grasp and slide by, to do further damage downfield.

Next time we’ll explore this range of futures in a bit more detail.


[1] I graduated from high school with my nose intact. I solved the problem by not going out for football. I figured that at 6’4” and 143 pounds, my contribution to the wishbone offense would be that players on the opposing team would each grab one of my legs and make a wish. Basketball beckoned.

[2]Now if we were interested in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, we can write down the answer to these five equations in closed form, a formula. And we can readily predict where the Earth will be relative to the sun one hundred years from now. All we have to do is plug in t=100years-from-now into that equation. But when it comes to the atmosphere, there is no such simple solution. 

[3] For this hundred-year calculation, the equations get a lot more complicated, because you have to include ocean processes, and land surface influence, and human activity in a more profound way. But you get the idea.

[4] Sound familiar? Chances are that’s because it is. Matthew 6:34 quotes Jesus to this effect “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (NIV)

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2 Responses to Tackling the future.

  1. Pingback: Tackling the future? It’s more than just facing our problems. | Living on the Real World

  2. Pingback: Wicked problems. | Living on the Real World

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