Climate Change? Anthropologists weigh in.

LOTRW readers may remember earlier posts referring to a four-volume report on Human Choice and Climate Change, Springer (1998) edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone, with particular emphasis on their ten suggestions for policymakers.

Here’s another welcome addition to the discussion from social scientists, this newly-released from the American Anthropological Association (AAA), entitled “Changing the Atmosphere. Anthropology and Climate Change.” The report offers an anthropological perspective on the causes and consequences of climate change, and suggests further avenues of anthropological study[1]. The AAA has also published a brief policy statement, provided here in its entirety:

“Climate change creates global threats that affect all aspects of human life, including our health, homes, livelihoods, and cultures, as well as our physical environment. Threats of this magnitude affect our stability—our sense of cultural identity, our well-being, and our security. As the discipline most clearly devoted to the human condition over time and space, anthropology offers important insights that can help create workable solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We put forth the following eight points for understanding the impacts of climate change from an anthropological perspective:

  1. Climate change is a present reality that alters our physical environment and impacts human cultures around the globe. Climate change is not a crisis of the distant future or a myth. It affects us now, at home and abroad.
  2. Climate change intensifies underlying problems—poverty and economic disparities, food and water security, and armed conflict—heightening these issues to the point of widespread crisis. Anthropologists predict climate change will accelerate migration, destabilize communities and nations, and exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases.
  3. We can expect to see widespread impacts on communities as they face dislocation and pressure to migrate. Climate change will challenge peoples’ cultures and beliefs as their sense of safety and daily habits are undermined by an increasingly unpredictable relationship with their environment. People in both developed and developing countries will feel the pressures. Those who have directly depended on natural resources for centuries—in high latitude/altitude areas, low-lying island nations, coastal environments, and other biomes— will have their lives most disrupted.
  4. While climate change affects all of Earth’s inhabitants, the impacts will fall unevenly and with particular weight on those already affected by existing vulnerabilities, including children, the elderly, those who live with handicaps and restrictive health conditions, and those who do not have sufficient means to move or change their lives. The most vulnerable will be uprooted or forced to move. As climate impacts intensify, public expenditures needed for emergency aid and restoration will escalate.
  5. Specific human actions and choices drive climate change by emphasizing fossil fuel as the primary energy source, creating a culture of consumerism, and favoring land use practices that undermine ecological resilience. Anthropologists recognize that humanity’s actions and cultures are now the most important causes of the dramatic environmental changes seen in the last 100 years. We consider this period the Anthropocene.
  6. The archaeological record reveals diverse human adaptations and innovations to climate stresses occurring over millennia, providing evidence that is relevant to contemporary human experience. The archaeological record shows that diversity and flexibility increase resilience to stress in complex adaptive systems, and that successful adaptations incorporate principles of sustainability.
  7. Climate change is a global problem with local and regional impacts that require local and regional solutions. Successful adaptation to climate change varies by locale even within regions experiencing similar environmental pressures. Thus, it is important for there to be community involvement in crafting, determining, and adopting measures for adaptation, not solely global and national governance and plans.
  8. Focusing solely on reducing carbon emissions will not be sufficient to address climate change—that approach will not address the systemic causes. Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Real solutions will require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities, not only from the natural sciences. Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.”

Much food for thought here.

The anthropological take shares much in common with the earlier Rayner and Malone suggestions, particularly the emphasis on (1) seeing the climate-change challenge as more than a question of emissions reductions, and (2) the need for place-based, local and regional approaches.

_______________

[1] The report was largely the work of a AAA task force: Shirley Fiske, Susan Crate, Carole Crumley, Kathy Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisa Lucero, Tony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss, and Rick Wilk

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WxGeeks. A serious voice in a vital national conversation.

WxGeeks. The name for this weekly offering of The Weather Channel has a lighthearted, slangy feel, but don’t be fooled. The conversation is pure gravitas.

wxgeeks

To see this, it helps to review a little history. Time was, more than half a century ago, the country had only three national television networks instead of several hundred. Back then, every Sunday morning, the country and the television industry would shift attention from entertainment to serious matters. The same families that huddled around the set during the week to watch I Love Lucy or Howdy Doody or Leave it to Beaver or Friday night boxing would tune in early Sunday morning for religious programming. Then, immediately following, they’d watch CBS’ Face the Nation or NBC’s Meet the Press, or ABC’s Issues and Answers. There the American public would find moderators and small panels of reporters interviewing prominent figures from the world of politics or business on important issues and events of the day. The shows weren’t slanted toward a conservative or liberal bias; instead they were middle-of-the-road. By virtue of their selection of topics, guests, and conversational, unscripted formats, they built public awareness of challenges and opportunities facing the United States. At the same time, and this was largely an unintended consequence, they contributed to building consensus on how to move forward, and at an even deeper level, forged American values[1].

Today, all that has changed. Cable and the internet now bring hundreds of channels into every home. This technical revolution has fragmented U.S. viewership, and fostered niche markets playing to diverse audiences and a wide range of particular views. The social implications are proving profound. The experience to date suggests the richer variety of today’s offerings is dividing us into multiple communities as much as it is building any unity. However, the benefits to airing and celebrating America’s full diversity are incalculable.

One such benefit? Against the backdrop of these powerful social and technological trends, The Weather Channel appears to be breaking new ground with its new Sunday noontime talk show, WxGeeks.  All of us would do well to pay attention to what’s unfolding. At the start, WxGeeks (perhaps in an attempt to lower expectations) seemed to promise a show primarily for weather professionals and weather aficionados. It  looked to focus on the backstory behind the advance of meteorological science (writ broadly: encompassing climatology, oceanography, space weather, hydrology, environmental issues, and much more), and the development of forecasts, warnings, and other services. As such, it’s been a welcome addition to the network’s fuller complement of forecasts and stories based on the experience of weather, particularly in extreme events.

But in more recent weeks, it seems the show’s ambitions and reach have grown. Increasingly it’s tackling the connection between Earth observations, science, and services, and national and even global concerns. In so doing, it’s carving out a unique space. By treating issues that matter to the entire American public, WxGeeks is putting itself on the same level as those legacy Sunday morning programs on the broadcast networks. But it’s focusing on a single but major slice of that national agenda – water and atmospheric resources, and their link to food and energy production; hazards and their threat to public safety, business continuity, and even national security; and environmental protection. The guests on the program are of truly national, even international standing: The President’s science advisor, John Holdren. The eminent British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Jane Goodall. Former astronaut and current NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan. Former Oceanographer of the Navy, Admiral David Titley (Ret.).

Consider the February 1 program, for example. It brought together FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, NOAA NWS Director Louis Uccellini, and NBC/NYC Channel 4 Chief Meteorologist Janice Huff to discuss the forecasts and emergency response to last week’s nor’easter that paralyzed Boston and Long Island, but spared (relatively speaking) the heart of New York City. The discussion provided a nice tutorial of the difficulties in making hazardous weather forecasts, the need to mobilize emergency response based on forecasts, rather than waiting for snow on the ground, and the role of the private sector in communicating such risks to the public. The conversation was refreshingly thoughtful, nuanced.

The policies the United States adopts with respect to challenges such as these, the investments we make in what NOAA Administrator Sullivan refers to as environmental intelligence, and our stance in sharing what we learn and know in with other nations, will shape our place in the world throughout the remainder of the century. If The Weather Channel can keep a high-level focus on issues that matter, and continue to bring in guests of comparable stature and quality over the coming months – then the network will bring much-needed national attention to these subjects. If this can be sustained not just for months, but for years, then it will transform America’s prospects every bit as much as, say, President Theodore Roosevelt did when he instituted our system of National Parks.

A closing reflection: through a mix of luck and brilliant insight, The Weather Channel hit on Marshall Shepherd as the host for WxGeeks. A first-rate researcher, gifted communicator, who asks thoughtful questions rather than baiting his guests, Dr. Shepherd has already been compared with Neil deGrasse Tyson; soon he may be compared with the likes of Bob Schieffer or Tim Russert.

To all involved, keep it up! Please.

_________________________

[1] Something similar of course was available from PBS during the same era.

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Want to reduce weather hype, weather blame? Then build weather resilience.

The term “news cycle” connotes coverage of an event, followed by reporting on reactions to the earlier reports by prominent figures and the general public. With the advent of cable, the proliferation of channels, and internet alternatives to broadcast and print media, the process has both accelerated and intensified.

Here in the United States, coverage of weather hazards has not been immune. And it seems that the news cycle in these cases – hurricanes and winter storms especially, but also tornadoes, floods, drought, etc. – boils down to this: Hype. Blame. Repeat.

noreaster

We’re just coming out of the latest instance: the nor-easter that pounded New England earlier in the week. Much of the area is shoveling out from under 2-3 feet of snow, dealing with the aftermath of storm surge that battered coastal areas, restoring power to darkened neighborhoods, attempting to reboot the air-rail-roadway transportation infrastructure, and loosening emergency restrictions placed on the public at the start of the storm.

Hype. News coverage in the run-up to the storm was breathless, non-stop, and ubiquitous. National, regional, and local media were all over the story. Reporters interviewed everyone at federal, state, and local levels of government as well as private-sector leaders who would bear any responsibility for the weather forecast or for the emergency response.

To many in the general public, the intense coverage may have come as a relief. In the days prior, an equal amount of hype surrounded another low-air-pressure event: the New England Patriots and Deflate-Gate. Surely an actual storm, threatening a big fraction of America’s population, was a better claim on our attention than the tempest-in-a-pigskin that had preoccupied us earlier.

But to many others, the hype was noxious. Here’s an excerpt from a typical media response, posted by Nick Gillespie on Time.Com (you can find the full piece here):

“So there was no Great Blizzard of 2015, or Snowmageddon, or anything more than a routine dumping of white stuff in mid-winter over a godforsaken region of the country that people are already leaving in droves.

 The predictions for a Northeastern snow and ice storm of biblical proportions — if the Bible had snow, that is — just didn’t happen. Apart from a few Twitter jokes, what lessons should we draw from this latest media-driven anticlimax?

At the top of the list: Can we shut up about weather for a while, especially weather that is totally in keeping with the seasons in which it’s taking place? It’s only 2015, but it seems like we get storms of the century about every three to six months. Our parents famously walked three miles (uphill both ways, mind you) in sub-zero and scorching temperatures in shoes made of detergent-box cardboard while also mining coal and smoking unfiltered cigarettes by the carton. And here we are, snug in our all-wheel-drive vehicles and Gore-Tex weather wear, demanding work and school be canceled on a 40% likelihood of snow flurries…”

Blame. Of, course, since the event, media attention has been apportioned between the storm’s aftermath in New England and the finger-pointing and a few mea culpas in New York and points south (you can find just a few samples and the smallest handful of links to a much larger universe of stories here). Some of the attention focused on local political leaders. A contribution from Frank Bruni (We Dodged Icy Doom. Let’s Gripe), published in Wednesday’s New York Times, was more forgiving than most. Here are extended excerpts:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best…

…And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday…

…imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.”

However, much if not most of the criticism was directed at weather forecasters and the National Weather Service. This discussion has largely centered around presentation of uncertainty. For its part, and much to its credit, the NWS at national and local levels and to varying degrees of formality has issued mea culpas.

Hype. Blame. Repeat? Do you and I hate this cycle? Do we want to get off the hamster wheel? Then we need to pay more attention to root causes. Investing more in Earth observations , computing power, and social-science massaging of the forecasts and warnings is cost beneficial and will help. But these measures by themselves are not enough. The core problem is America’s chronic, pervasive weather vulnerability.

To see this, put your focus for the moment not on weather extremes, but on “a perfect weather day.” Not too hot, not too cold. A bit of rain (if needed), but otherwise sunshine and fair-weather clouds. Not much there for the broadcast meteorologist or the political leader/policymaker to work with, is there? Hard to say much more than “it’s a great day. Get out there and enjoy it.”

When we build weather resilience – when through land use and building codes and attention to the continuity of critical infrastructure such as roadways and the electrical grid and water supply, etc. we reduce the ways nature can hurt us – we expand the range of what constitutes “a great day.” When as a nation we’re truly prepared, everywhere, for whatever nature may throw our way, then forecasters, emergency managers, political leaders, the media, and the general public don’t need to over-warn or over-react as a safety measure.

That resilient circumstance is where hype and blame go to die.

The National Weather Service can’t achieve this Utopian ideal alone. Resilience to weather extremes and other hazards requires national priority as well as balanced attention at the grassroots, local level. It can be accomplished only community by community. That’s why the NWS has started a program by the name of Weather-Ready Nation and it is inviting all of us to join in.

Let’s accept that proffered hand.

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Schumpeter’s gale.

Slide1

A victim of Schumpeter’s Gale…                                     …and the man himself

Named tropical storms have been with us for decades; Andrew, Katrina, Sandy and other names are today not familiar only to meteorologists; they’re part of the public vocabulary. Starting in 2011, The Weather Channel began naming winter storms, although this practice has so far proved more controversial.

Which brings us to Schumpeter’s gale, a decades-long-enduring, but ever-coming storm that ought to focus the minds of meteorologists – and, for that matter, Earth scientists, and indeed earth scientists and academics of every stripe.

Schumpeter’s gale is actually better known to economists than meteorologists, and even in the social sciences and public discourse is better known by its other, generic name: creative destruction. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia link, which gives the idea:

Creative destruction (German: schöpferische Zerstörung), sometimes known as Schumpeter’s gale, is a term in economics which has since the 1950s become most readily identified with the Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of economic innovation and business cycle.

Creative destruction describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Economists would describe the collapse of former industrial giants such as Kodak and Xerox and the rise of Microsoft and Google, the outsourcing of call centers, cellphone manufacture, and many other jobs overseas, the rise of Fed Ex and other carriers to challenge the U.S. Postal Service, and much more as examples of creative destruction.

The concept originated in the work of Marxist economists, who considered such processes a necessary, and extremely negative, end result of capitalism. Here’s more from Wikipedia:

The German Marxist sociologist Werner Sombart has been credited with the first use of these terms in his work Krieg und Kapitalismus (“War and Capitalism”, 1913). In the earlier work of Marx, however, the idea of creative destruction or annihilation (German: Vernichtung) implies not only that capitalism destroys and reconfigures previous economic orders, but also that it must ceaselessly devalue existing wealth (whether through war, dereliction, or regular and periodic economic crises) in order to clear the ground for the creation of new wealth.

In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter developed the concept out of a careful reading of Marx’s thought (to which the whole of Part I of the book is devoted), arguing (in Part II) that the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism would eventually lead to its demise as a system.

Today, mainstream economists tend to see this oppositely: as a necessary but positive aspect of innovation, and as a strong positive, not just for market economies, but for societies as a whole.

It’s tempting to see creative destruction as belonging to another realm. However, much as U.S. hurricanes wreak havoc on Caribbean nations prior to their arrival on U.S. shore, the track of creative destruction is headed for our science-based and academic community. Here are a few signs (you can easily come up with your list of better examples.

Crowdsourcing science. Historically, perhaps the cheapest way to accomplish science and invention is to offer prizes. In the 1950’s when I was growing up, my father, a research mathematician, used to hold up the example of the invention of the tin can. Napoleon, he said, needed a means of preserving food for his army. He offered a prize. The can was the result. Years earlier, the British government had offered a prize for a practical means to determine longitude; John Harrison’s chronometer ultimately claimed the award. Even then my father claimed that offering such prizes might be a much cheaper, faster way of accomplishing scientific research, and that scientists might once again struggle to support themselves, much as they had during the 1800’s.

Crowdsourcing science is now on offer in our field. Here’s an example, which we’ll introduce by telling a Joe Fletcher story (yesterday’s LOTRW post mentioned Joe in a different context) that gives you an insight into the man and his thought process. Joe was telling me in the 1980’s how he had launched the so-called international Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (COADS) project, which offers gridded 10x10 marine data going back to 1800. The core task involved digitizing records from ship logs of the period. Joe first sought funds (the order of $500K) for doing this in-house in NOAA from the then-director of the NOAA Environmental Research Labs, George Ludwig. George refused, saying it was too expensive. “So”, Joe told me, “I realized that I needed to have this done somewhere in the world where scientific standards were high but labor costs were low.” He made a personal three-week trip to China, but relations between the United States and China were strained during those Cold War years. He then tried India, where he gained a welcome reception. He approached Robert White, the NOAA Administrator of NOAA at the time, for funds. Bob growled, according to Joe, that “there was nothing in it of advantage to India.” “So,” Joe said, “I went back to Boulder for a few weeks, then revisited Bob, showing him what was in it for the Indians.”

Today, Joe could have saved himself trouble and effort by going to Zooniverse. A major player in the crowdsourcing arena, Zooniverse acts as a needed middleman for such efforts. Click here and you’ll see opportunities to digitize ship data or analyze patterns in old hurricane storm imagery.

(Here’s a link to one of thousands of online posts on crowdsourcing science. Of special interest is Michael Nielsen’s TEDx lecture linked there, which gives a great success story, the Polymath Project, but discusses why crowdsourcing has been slow to take hold in science more broadly. )

Uber for experiments. This recent article in The Economist discusses innovative ways and means being explored to make major experimental facilities available for hire, much as Uber has provided a means for individuals needing a lift with nearby individual drivers willing to take them to their destination. Here’s an extended excerpt:

Most research equipment is under-used. Once it has been budgeted for, grant proposals written or fee schedules set to cover its purchase, kit costing millions of dollars can sit idle for most of the working day. This inefficiency troubled Elizabeth Iorns, a biologist from New Zealand. So she came up with the idea of a marketplace where laboratories could rent out their machines to conduct experiments for others.

Dr Iorns started Science Exchange in 2011 when working as an assistant professor at the University of Miami. She was backed by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley firm that helps startups, and she now serves as the exchange’s chief executive.

Laboratories that carry out contract research have existed for a long time. But Science Exchange is exploring a new frontier, that of the shared economy, in which the best-known examples are Uber, an app-based ride-sharing and taxi service, and Airbnb, which helps people rent out rooms. The idea is that the marketmaker shaves away the awkward bits relating to contractual, ad hoc relationships, often between parties who do not know each other, to create something fungible or nearly so.

Dr Iorns is clear that certain laboratories are demonstrably better at some things than others. Her firm takes out contracts with some of the leading ones, including facilities at Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School. It then provides ratings, reviews and other feedback, coupled with vetting, so that users can choose laboratories that can provide what they require and then compare pricing.

MOOC’s. More generally, the unsustainable rise in the cost of higher education is prompting exploration of alternatives, such as Massively Open Online Courses or MOOC’s. And when U.S. leaders start suggesting that the first two years of college should be free, as President Obama did the other night in his State of the Union address, you may be skeptical of the particulars and the political realities. But you can be equally sure that public pressures will force creative destruction of some kind.

Public-private partnerships in the provision of weather services. The weather community is currently in a great discussion of how weather information should be gathered and made available for both public and private benefit. Recent NAS/NRC reports – e.g., Fair Weather: Effective Partnership in Weather and Climate Services, and Weather Services to the Nation: Becoming Second to None – have articulated some of the issues and opportunities.

Schumpeter’s Gale is coming.

The Navier-Stokes equations are silent on this unfolding future. If you think the communication of weather impacts and risk could stand improvement, ask yourself how communication of Schumpeter’s gale and its implications for the environmental intelligence community (and our society as a whole) is going. And consider this: creative destruction here, as elsewhere, is inevitable and ongoing. It confers risks for those clinging to the past, but offers enormous benefits for those who embrace and even shape it.

So please, the N-S equations not withstanding, don’t you remain silent! Join in the discussions already underway on these matters, and where appropriate initiate side conversations of your own.

Remember… in today’s world, people aren’t satisfied with leaders who can ride out the storm. They expect their leaders to make the weather.

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Craig McLean selected as Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

“If you want to move a barge, and you kick it – you’ll just hurt your foot. But if you lean against it, pretty soon it has to move your way.” – Joseph O. Fletcher

mclean

Joe Fletcher, former NOAA OAR Assistant Administrator, would certainly have cheered yesterday’s appointment of Craig N. McLean as his latest successor in that important role. Joe was former Air Force. He flew B24’s[1] in World War II, landed on the North Pole by plane in the 1950’s and accomplished much more. He’d have approved of Craig’s nearly-25-years of duty in the NOAA Commissioned Officer’s Corps, the smallest of the Nation’s seven uniformed services. He’d have been interested in Craig’s founding of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration, and impressed by his service across several NOAA Line Offices in different roles in succeeding years. He’d cheer Craig’s background in marine resource law and management.

Joe would have especially admired Craig’s leadership of OAR for more than one extended stint in an acting capacity. No stranger to such interim roles himself, Joe knew better than most that to hold such positions in an “acting” status was in many ways more difficult than being the permanent incumbent. Adding all this up, he’d have seen in Craig someone adept at “leaning against the barge” of a bureaucracy such as a federal agency or a major corporation and getting things done.

As NOAA Assistant Administrator for OAR, Craig McLean will bear responsibility for guiding innovation and integration across NOAA’s research enterprise. A key element will be his ability to work with his peers – the other NOAA AA’s and their respective service line components – and with NOAA Administrator Sullivan, Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad and others in the NOAA front office. One major dimension currently focusing the minds of this leadership: R2O – seeing that scientific advance is harnessed to benefit and serve society.

Congratulations both to Craig McLean and NOAA on this appointment – and continuing best wishes.

__________

[1] The same stubborn, nearly uncontrollable bombers described by Laura Hillenbrand in her magnificent book Unbroken (about the life of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, and recently made into a movie by Angelina Jolie).

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Going home… again?

“Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” the author Ella Winter[1]

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Today I make passage through sloppy winter weather prevailing along on the Middle Atlantic Coast to visit my alma mater, Swarthmore College[2].  Extra credit if you can tell which of the photographs below is from my senior yearbook and which is more recent:hookethenandnowThere I’m scheduled to give an after-dinner talk to a small discussion group.  Here are the title and abstract:

How Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet:

Seven billion of us struggle daily to relate to our Earth—as a resource, as a threat and as a victim. Meteorologists are trained and well equipped to cope with chaos, disasters, and extraordinary events, but they also can take a long-term view. Bill Hooke will discuss how weather forecasting can be used to find solutions for many of our pressing 21st century challenges.

Both bits are shortened versions of what were originally proposed, and represent, depending upon how charitably disposed you might be, compromises – or maybe even egregious misrepresentations – with respect to what I’ll actually say. Many readers will recognize these as truncated versions of the title of my recent book and of the thoughts therein – forced to fit within the length constraints imposed by the marketing blurb for this year’s series of such monthly discussions. To be fair to the program organizers, I was given final say on the wording, so responsibility for that rests with me.

Indeed, that is my lifelong problem — inadequate scholarship. Fifty-four years ago, in late September of 1960, I arrived on Swarthmore’s campus to begin my freshman year. Back then the student body numbered only some 900, compared with today’s figure of slightly over 1500 (at this rate of growth, we’ll be comparable in size to today’s Big Ten Universities in, say, 200-300 years). My high school at that time had a much larger student body. I’d been a nerdy figure in that high school. If a girl approached me in those days, I knew she had a math problem. And I’d always been cut from the sports teams. But in some special mix of youthful enthusiasm and delusion in transit I had wondered at times whether I would

(a)    be one of the smarter (and more social) students at Swarthmore,

(b)    be one of the better athletes,

(c)    achieve both distinctions.

What a dreamer! At the start of my first lunch during freshman orientation in the college dining hall, it was immediately apparent that the correct answer was:

(d)   none of the above.

That incoming freshman class numbered maybe 280. Some 179 of them had earned one or more varsity letters in high school; dozens of those students had lettered in multiple sports. Class intellectual and academic achievements were totally off the charts.  (For the next four years, no one from either gender would ask for my help with a math problem.) Moreover, judging from the dining hall chatter, it felt as if everyone else already knew each other. It was time for a new goal: mediocrity/survival.

That freshman orientation was a rude awakening.  But the academic regimen was even more daunting. Standards for what constituted logic, proof, evidence seemed impossibly high. And it wasn’t enough to achieve those standards in a single subject of study. This was, after all, a liberal arts college. We were supposed to master multiple disciplines, integrate, be generalists. I was forced to confront how poorly my high school had prepared me, and how lackadaisically I’d approached my education up to then. I’d been coasting. Even worse (how did I miss getting the word?), at the time the attrition rate at Swarthmore was 25-30%[3]. Spent my four years there scrambling to avoid that fate. But another statistic was in my favor. Half the men at Swarthmore participated in interscholastic athletics. Those odds allowed me to play a freshman season of JV baseball (first base) and a sophomore season of varsity and JV basketball (bench-sitter).

Two milestones over the intervening decades of recovery? One was running across the Darwin quote you’ll find on the home page of LOTRW. The other was a seminar I sat in on while working as a NOAA scientist in Boulder. The speaker on that particular occasion was an eminent dynamicist, today a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In the course of a brilliant presentation, he paused for a moment. “I’m not going to justify this next step,” he said, “but I will tell you what I did.[4]” In each of these instances, I found a special grace. Not every statement, oral or written, had to be justified by the fullest scientific rigor. If something less, it had only to be fully and publicly disclosed for what it was. That grace has allowed me over the past two years to write a book of chock-full of such conjecture.

Now to see if this time around, that Swarthmore culture will prove equally or more accommodating!

[1] in a conversation with another author, Thomas Wolfe, in the process inspiring the title of his posthumously published book, You Can’t Go Home Again.

[2] graduated with an S.B. in Physics (Honors) in 1964.

[3] Today it’s maybe only half that.

[4] Both are described in more detail in the very first LOTRW post, dating back to August 3, 2010.

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Pushing the boundaries.

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein

This past Thursday, January 15, Will Steffen of the Australian National University and seventeen co-authors generated a bit of media stir with the electronic publication of their paper in the journal Science: Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Their paper merits a fuller read, but access to it is somewhat restricted. Suffice it to say for present purposes that the paper builds on a framework put forward in 2009 by a group led by Steffen and Johan Rockstrom from the Stockholm Resilience Center. While you can find a fuller summary of the framework in Wikipedia, an excerpt of that latter article gives the basics:

The framework of “planetary boundaries” is designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity” for the international community, including governments at all levels, international organizations, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector, as a precondition for sustainable development. This framework is based on scientific research that indicates that since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have gradually become the main driver of global environmental change. The scientists assert that once human activity has passed certain thresholds or tipping points, defined as “planetary boundaries”, there is a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. The scientists identified nine Earth system processes which have boundaries that, to the extent that they are not crossed, mark the safe zone for the planet. However, because of human activities some of these dangerous boundaries have already been crossed, while others are in imminent danger of being crossed…

The proposed framework of planetary boundaries lays the groundwork for shifting approach to governance and management, away from the essentially sectoral analyses of limits to growth aimed at minimizing negative externalities, toward the estimation of the safe space for human development. Planetary boundaries define, as it were, the boundaries of the “planetary playing field” for humanity if major human-induced environmental change on a global scale is to be avoided…

…Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be highly damaging or even catastrophic, due to the risk of crossing thresholds that trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems. The 2009 study identified nine planetary boundaries and, drawing on current scientific understanding, the researchers proposed quantifications for seven of them. These seven are climate change (CO2 concentration in the atmosphere < 350 ppm and/or a maximum change of +1 W/m2 in radiative forcing); ocean acidification (mean surface seawater saturation state with respect to aragonite ≥ 80% of pre-industrial levels); stratospheric ozone (less than 5% reduction in total atmospheric O3 from a pre-industrial level of 290 Dobson Units); biogeochemical nitrogen (N) cycle (limit industrial and agricultural fixation of N2 to 35 Tg N/yr) and phosphorus (P) cycle (annual P inflow to oceans not to exceed 10 times the natural background weathering of P); global freshwater use (< 4000 km3/yr of consumptive use of runoff resources); land system change (< 15% of the ice-free land surface under cropland); and the rate at which biological diversity is lost (annual rate of < 10 extinctions per million species). The two additional planetary boundaries for which the group had not yet been able to determine a boundary level are chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading.

The figure below is one of numerous depictions of the nine boundaries; tables and text in the Wikipedia link provide additional detail. One especially important and welcome feature is the emphasis on the zone of uncertainty characterizing the boundaries, and the careful nature of discussion of this uncertainty and its implications. The Wikipedia article also provides a portal to some of the debate that the original 2009 work inspired. In keeping with the spirit of Darwin’s quote on the home page of this blog, that debate may perhaps be the nine boundaries’ most useful contribution.

Rockstroms-Planet-Boundaries

The current article updates the status of the nine boundaries. The authors find that four of the safe boundaries have been exceeded (the 2009 work listed only three): the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;  biogeochemical cycles (in particular, the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous into the ocean); biosphere integrity (the extinction rate); and land-system change (deforestation). The authors also further develop the basic planetary boundary framework, introducing a two-tier approach to accommodate heterogeneity at regional levels; update the quantification of most of the planetary boundaries; argue that two of the boundaries – climate-change and biosphere integrity – are “core,” and more.

Reading this newest update to the nine-boundaries discussion prompts two thoughts. First, the entire paper speaks of trends but stops short of estimating a time frame during which each of the safe boundaries might be exceeded (unless it has been exceeded already). That’s undoubtedly wise in many respects. However, our community is in the business of forecasts, and we’ve learned that making forecasts has a marvelous ability to focus minds, foster accountability, make evaluation more pointed, and thus accelerate the advance of knowledge and understanding. By analogy, consider how hurricane forecasts of landfall (both location and time) drive societal response. Much of this is clearly going on across the IPCC realm, but we’re only scratching the surface; we could perhaps use such a “stretch” goal[1]. Surely it would help to have an idea, however rudimentary, of “how much time we have,” and how we might buy ourselves more such time.

Second, nine boundaries for the globe as a whole, with infrequent updates, even by a large group such as the eighteen authors of this paper, or the hundreds or thousands of contributors to the IPCC reports, leaves most of the world’s seven billion people as uninvolved spectators. When we see excellent reports such as this one, the rest of us might do well contemplate the personal boundaries that limit our own behavior or accomplishments or contributions to global problems such as this one… and explore how we might expand or push those boundaries back a bit.

[1][1]. Elsewhere in this LOTRW blog, and in the book by the same name, the suggestion is made we should follow the example set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, with its doomsday clock.

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Four metrics: four conversations.

ywawfl

Four conversations – and their juxtaposition –merit our reflection on this three-day weekend. Interestingly, each swirls around an indicator.

The first is the Dow. The Dow and other stock-market indices hit new highs toward the end of 2014, but the past two weeks have seen gut-wrenching volatility for those invested (both dollar-wise and emotionally) in financial markets. Day-to-day swings of a percent or more since the first of the year have spawned a nervous buzz: Where are the markets headed? What are the root causes for the volatility? Global oil prices? Threats to the Euro? Instability in the Crimea and the Middle East? Southeast Asia? Were last year’s advances based on fundamentals? Or merely signs of a bubble? Should I buy? Sell?

The second is “Earth’s warmest-year-on-record.” In the last day or so, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released figures for 2014 suggesting that the year was the hottest in 135 years of record-keeping, and that December 2014 was the hottest December on record. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration reached similar conclusions. Needless to say, the press releases have prompted a lot of comment. Chances are good you’ll find versions of it from whatever news source you favor. One interesting read: the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang collected responses to the news from individual, well-known climate scientists; you can find CWG’s summary here.

Financial indicators and the calculations of global temperatures have been with us a while. Over time, each has nourished a cottage-industry of analysis and interpretation. Not surprisingly, in each case the news of recent days has functioned essentially as a Rorschach test. Few minds have been changed. The respective discussions show similarities; the dialog surrounding Dow-hits-new-high, or subsequent selloffs sounds much like the debate on Earth’s warmest year of record and the so-called “pause” teased out of different segments of the record in recent years.

All this is probably a good thing. It’s not much different from any-other high consequence discussion – that surrounding a hurricane making landfall, for example. Each departure of track or timing of landfall or estimated storm surge from that previously expected generates thought, reexamination of responses either planned or already underway. That constant surveillance and reinterpretation is the key to successful living on the real world.

Which brings me to the last two indicator-based conversations. The first appeared on the front page of this morning’s print edition of the Washington Post: Most public school students now living in poverty, by Lindsey Layton. The article merits reading in its entirety, but here are some (extended) excerpts:

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

“We’ve all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it’s here sooner rather than later,” said Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noting that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. “A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school.”

The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

It also means that education policy, funding decisions and classroom instruction must adapt to the needy children who arrive at school each day…

…Schools, already under intense pressure to deliver better test results and meet more rigorous standards, face the doubly difficult task of trying to raise the achievement of poor children so that they approach the same level as their more affluent peers.

“This is a watershed moment when you look at that map,” said Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, referring to a large swath of the country filled with high-poverty schools.

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people…”

The report comes as Congress begins debate about rewriting the country’s main federal education law, first passed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and designed to help states educate poor children. The most recent version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, has emphasized accountability and outcomes, measuring whether schools met benchmarks and sanctioning them when they fell short.

That federal focus on results, as opposed to need, is wrong­headed, Rebell said.

“We have to think about how to give these kids a meaningful education,” he said. “We have to give them quality teachers, small class sizes, up-to-date equipment. But in addition, if we’re serious, we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

This brings us to the fourth conversation. This one isn’t so longstanding. It took place around the kitchen table at a friend’s house only yesterday. I was sitting in as a spectator to a meeting of our church’s mission committee with a missionary who was paying the U.S. a brief visit. The seven of us were sharing a simple meal. He reported on his work with Water for Life (WFL[1]) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in Africa. For a number of years he’s been working with in-country men and women in Rwanda to build clean-water access, primarily by capturing roof-water runoff from schools and hospitals and collecting it in cisterns. More recently his work has been expanding across Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and other portions of Africa.

At one point he brought up the subject of indicators. Can’t offer a precise quote, but here’s an (inadequate) paraphrase: “You know, when we went to Rwanda [a few years ago now], we had in mind making clean water available to 100,000 people. I think we achieved that goal. If you count only the school students and the medical patients we might be a bit under. But if you include school and the hospital staffs, and the use by the larger surrounding communities, we’re probably way over. I can’t help thinking though, that the real benefit is not in that number, but the intangibles. For example, school enrollment where’ve instituted water capture is way up. Those kids who had been spending two hours a day finding water safe to drink for their families are now spending that time in class. Their entire lives are changing; they’re finally getting the education they’ll need for later in life.[2]

Two notes in closing. First, it’s hard to escape the thought that if we make education for our young people a priority here in the United States and abroad, we will see favorable consequences for both global financial markets and global temperatures over the longer haul. By contrast, if we ignore the challenge of educating our kids, the long-term outlook for both the world’s finances and the planet’s habitability will sour. Second, the Dow and the Earth’s temperatures have the look and feel of challenges that require action from small groups of leaders, either of the financial world or those directly responsible for the world’s energy infrastructure. The majority of the world’s seven billion people are being carried along for the ride. Their fates are intertwined with macro-economic success or failure and with the use of fossil fuels, but there’s little they can do day-to-day to change matters. By contrast, public education and the contributions and threats to that arising from conditions of affluence or poverty are matters that can be addressed by the population more broadly. There all of us can take matters into our own hands, can make a difference working collaboratively and locally.

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[1] my apologies, couldn’t find a better website for this

[2] from the rest of our conversation, I’d estimate that YWAM and WFL are accomplishing this for a one or a few dollars-a-person-served installation costs.

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Fulfilling the Vision of Weather, Water, and Climate Information for Every Need, Time, and Place

A tall order? That’s AMS President Bill Gail’s theme for the 95th AMS Annual Meeting getting underway here in Phoenix, Arizona. Here is an (extended) excerpt:

“People, businesses, and government agencies depend increasingly on weather, water, and climate information matched to their specific needs, delivered when and where it is most useful to them. Businesses already receive just-in-time weather information to make truck routes more efficient and wind turbines more productive. Consumers optimize their daily routines around rain or severe weather. Such information increasingly factors into broad issues such as healthcare, as collaboration teams are discovering new ways to apply weather and climate information to advance preparedness. We are converging on a day when such information is embedded – often implicitly – within nearly every decision or action people take. New requirements and innovative use cases emerge almost daily. Yet the revolution in how weather, water, and climate information gets used is just beginning. It will make our lives safer, more productive, and more enjoyable – and produce billions of dollars of enhanced economic growth through reduced losses and improved economic productivity.

To enable this user revolution, the information we provide will be by necessity of higher quality, more customized to individual needs, and finely-tuned for each time and place of interest. Advances in observational systems, computational modeling, dissemination tools, and basic science can help make this possible. So can a growing cohesiveness of our multi-faceted community. Many challenging problems – in both research and applications – remain to be solved if we are to succeed. Further improvement to the collaboration and data sharing among our public, private, and academic/research sectors (and the disciplines within them) will also be required.

The challenge for our community is this: collaborate and innovate to develop – and ultimately deliver – actionable, user-specific weather, water, and climate information across spatial and temporal scales in support of our nation’s safety, health, and prosperity.”[1]

Today’s sessions open with the 15th Presidential Forum:

“Twenty five years hence, meteorology will be much different and expand far beyond the traditional weather forecast. Personal sensors will monitor weather nearly everywhere. Advanced computing will allow us to forecast at perhaps minute scales and kilometer resolutions, customized for each particular user. Post-mobile devices will enable instantaneous use of the information – even in remote areas of today’s developing nations. Transportation will be safer, businesses will operate more efficiently, events will automatically schedule around anticipated weather, and much more. Operational weather forecasts will be interlaced with new environmental elements that impact economic, health, energy, and security decisions. Many aspects of our daily lives will change forever. Climate change’s possibilities add a critical dimension to community resiliency. Should global weather patterns be altered, forecasting could become more challenging than today. The recent release of the fifth IPCC synthesis report has brought focus to this particular issue. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator, will lead the session with a keynote on her vision for the meteorology enterprise in the year 2040. Following her keynote, the panelists – representing different demographics and perspectives – will then provide their vision, accompanied by a moderated discussion among the panelists.”

Kimberley Klockow of NOAA will moderate the panel. Other panelists include, in addition to Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA: Bernadette Woods Placky, Climate Central; Mac Devine, IBM Cloud Services Division; and Curtis L. Walker, University of Nebraska.

If you’re here in Phoenix, get yourself going promptly and be part of the discussion in person. Not able to attend? There should be an on-line version available down the road.

But don’t settle for just being in the room. Formulating such views of the future isn’t intended to be a spectator sport. Each of us should actively participate. Take some time during this meeting and in the weeks ahead to formulate your own view, identify your piece of the action, and then dedicate yourself to fulfilling that vision over the next decade or so. After all it’s early January, a time for such resolutions.

And while you’re at it, ask yourself: What larger societal trends could foster or threaten such a vision of Weather, Water, and Climate Information for Every Need, Time, and Place?

Here are a few thoughts to set you thinking: This vision assumes that America (and the world) continues to develop a culture of innovation. That means more than just passive acceptance of the idea. It means vigorous, purposeful, sustained strategic investment in innovation across a broad spectrum of the world’s agenda. (Stop right there: all adjectives of the previous sentence matter; take a moment to reflect on each.) And this is not just about money. It means that innovation can’t become a political football. It can’t be relegated to an agenda for only one party or one half of the American people. And finally, it must be backed by a publication education system up to the task. This starts with STEM education but doesn’t stop there. The need is for an educational system that contributes to a public actively and thoughtfully engaged in a strong representative/participatory democracy.

Worth working toward.

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[1] The remainder of the theme material focuses on execution and implementation.

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“I Am”… thoughts at the transition from 2014-2015.

The ninth of Bill Gail’s ten questions in his new book is this: do we live in a special time?

He was asking of course, whether we are at a pivotal point in world history. It is tempting to see and write about history and events in such terms. One famous book along those lines is The Hinge of Fate, published in 1950 by Winston Churchill – volume 4 in his prodigious six-volume treatise The Second World War (now there was a memoir!). In volume 4, Churchill recounted events from January 1942-June 1943, a period he saw as registering a significant change in Allied fortunes. Prior to 1942, the Allies were reeling; after mid-1943, their victory was inevitable.

In a parallel way, most of us recognize several such hinge-points in our personal histories: a choice of career; commitment to a life partner; the birth of a child; a fork in the road at work; deciding where to live, an illness or setback, and so on. And the annual change of year such as today’s offers additional opportunities to take stock and reflect.

Fact is, our lives are really a continuous sequence of such hinge-points, whether we recognize them as such or not. We call this seamless succession the present, separating the past from the future.

How we view these three periods – past, present, and future – as we live out our years plays a big role in shaping our life story. It’s easy to regret the past and fear the future, but if we allow these negative memories and concerns to rule our present, it’s difficult to lay hold of what peace of mind life has to offer, and form a foundation from which we can find satisfaction and meaning in our work and circumstances.

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It has always been thus. Here’s an example:

4300 years ago, give-or-take, a Hebrew shepherd, isolated in the Midian desert, was regretting his past and fearing his future[1]. At 80 years of age, he’d had a lot of past to regret. Raised in the house of Pharaoh, he’d been frustrated by what he’d seen of the oppression of his Hebrew people by their Egyptian hosts. Once in a fit of anger he’d taken it upon himself to mete out rough justice to an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew. He’d killed the man, and had then been forced to flee for his life. He’d spent most of his adulthood in exile. And at the moment we find our shepherd, he’s having a terrifying conversation with God, who’d called to him from a burning bush. This God was sending him back to Egypt… and not just to live in the shadows. Instead, God was telling him to be bold, and visible, and to finish the job he’d wanted to do as a young man – end the oppression of his people and lead them out of Egypt. But the years of isolation and coming to terms with his earlier failings had changed Moses. They’d made him tentative, hesitant, doubtful.

He tried to talk God out of the idea, at one point even asking God His name. The answer surprised him. “My name,” God said, “is I am.[2]

As the remainder of his life unfolds, Moses is able to look back on this episode through life’s rearview mirror and recognize his conversation with God for the significant hinge-point it was. What he’d been unable to accomplish in the full vigor of his headstrong youth, he was able to achieve even as a washed-up old man – in God’s strength. The reality was that his best stretch lay ahead. Instead of having just a short time left on this earth, he had forty years to live and lead. At the end of his life and in history since, he’s been known and revered as the lawgiver, and as a man who stood up to God to plead his case – and won[3]! Talk about a comeback.

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Meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers, emergency managers, social scientists, and other readers of this blog might be identifying with Moses and his regrets and doubts at this turning point in the calendar year. In addition to our personal past shortcomings and problematic individual futures, there are our corporate, community concerns. When we look to the past, we see that more than a century of effort has not attained anything like sustainable development, hazard-resilient communities, and pristine environment. Just as Moses’ earlier, youthful efforts to rouse his people had fallen on deaf ears, so it seems that few people heed our findings and warnings, on any threat. Our observations and science tell us that ahead the challenges that have thus far defeated us will be growing ever more severe.

As Earth scientists, social scientists, and practitioners of every stripe head to Phoenix for the AMS Annual Meeting, we might therefore do well to recall the words of the late Helen Mallicoat, a poet from nearby – Wickenberg, Arizona:

i amAnd then, with these words in mind, let’s live our lives the way we approach our profession. We don’t try to predict twenty years of weather at one stroke, and then collapse in frustration at our failure.

Instead, every day, we observe, predict, evaluate, improve, repeat.

We ought to be better than anyone else at doing life this same, ultimately productive way.

Happy New Year!

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[1] Exodus3-4 tells the story.

[2] Frequently given to us today as YHWH, or Yahweh; theologians have puzzled over and written about this name ever since.

[3] That account is recorded in Exodus 32.

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