Evolving the National Weather Service. 3. What the last fifteen years have to tell us with respect to the technology piece.

…continuing from the previous LOTRW post

Now we find ourselves in 2015. It’s Groundhog Day. Déjà vu. The WSR88D’s, once such an innovation, have themselves seen service for almost 30 years. The rotating radar mounts are wearing out. Technology is again antiquated. The NWS is engaged in a NEXRAD service-life extension program. While important, the experience of the past shows it at best only delays the inevitable: the need for a complete rework of the system. And it’s delaying a safer American future. Today’s phased-array radar technology uses digital circuitry to scan the skies vs. relying solely on physically-rotating-and-steering radar mounts. If implemented nationwide, it would offer faster scans and much-more-frequent updates on the threats posed moment-by-moment by rapidly developing storms.

ASOS, the automated surface observing system that had previously seemed so new, now needs, and is getting, a similar facelift. After many upgrades, AWIPS is being replaced by AWIPS II. Modelers at the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction once more have their hands full introducing step-function advances in numerical weather prediction. The introduction of these and other changes over the next few years will require that extensive technological advance occur side-by-side with day-to-day provision of NWS services, while at the same time reconfiguring the job of the NWS bench-level forecaster.

Thus 2015’s “evolving the NWS” looks very similar to yet another MAR, only called by another name.

Importantly, there’s much here to celebrate. Major advances in public weather services are in the offing. And important new public-private collaborations to better serve the public are waiting in the wings as well. But intermittent, crash modernizations and catch-up implementation prompt searches for be a better way. Had the past fifteen years gone differently, might not some if not most of this capability could already be in place? That had certainly been the aspiration throughout. Everyone responsible wanted to see a more orderly, continuous process of innovation and upgrades. Why hadn’t that come to pass?

Significantly, the root causes (and the fixes) lie both outside and within the agency.

Let’s start with a closer look under the hood of the last century’s MAR. Why did it succeed? Here’s one reason. By the late 1970’s, NOAA leadership recognized that it needed to develop new forecaster workstations but lacked a coherent, robust set of requirements to design against. The design of a suitable forecast workstation posed substantive research questions – not just about meteorology, but also about forecaster-human-factors, and about the technology and social science of risk communication to the public. Once that design could be determined, then taking it from research into operations (R2O) would still require additional steps. To accomplish the needed R&D, they established the Program for Regional Observing and Forecasting Services (PROFS) within the research arm of NOAA. Happily, NOAA/PROFS scientists and engineers didn’t rely on brute force to accomplish the work. They used finesse, embodied in three remarkable innovations[1].

First, they designed and built a so-called Exploratory Development Facility or EDF, which allowed different workstation configurations to be programmed up using mere software. The first such workstation took two years to build because of the insertion of this additional step, but subsequent iterations and redesigns, depending upon the nature of the changes, could be accomplished in days or weeks. In effect, PROFS engineers and meteorologists had invented rapid prototyping before it became widely known by that name in other fields of applied science and engineering in the late 1980’s.

Second, PROFS brought in groups of operational forecasters to test alternative workstation configurations and provide the feedback needed to derive a nearly optimum system. They embedded researchers with practitioners and vice versa. By blurring distinctions between the two, they not only dramatically sharpened communication and refined the final product but in the process improved the morale and sense of purpose of both groups.

Third, PROFS introduced a management innovation. Though housed administratively within the research arm of NOAA, PROFS was jointly managed by a so-called troika – the leadership of NWS, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and the National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service (NESDIS). Staff from these three NOAA Line Offices were in daily communication, and in many cases collocated for the work at hand. The three associate administrators would meet in person for two-day quarterly reviews with several levels of staff working on the project.

In retrospect, the secret sauce in all this was the choice to focus initially solely on workstation design rather than dissipate that same attention over the whole of the MAR. The forecaster workstation was both a key NWS outlet to public service delivery (especially public-safety messages) and a key customer for all the upstream observations and centralized numerical weather prediction products. It was in effect impossible to achieve success with respect to the workstation design without getting all the other links in the service delivery chain properly aligned. Management attention steadily expanded to include these larger considerations.

In the end, PROFS and its EDF shaved years off the time required to develop what would become the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) system and greatly enhanced the final result.

This background provides a partial list of teachings from the MAR that might be applied moving forward. Here’s a start (you can readily come up with your additional ideas and better formulations):

  • Accelerate and strengthen the technology infusion; be as disciplined about, and give as much priority to, R2O as to either research or operations per se.
  • As a starting point, continue to invest in the work and capabilities of PROFS – the rapid-prototyping capability developed during the late-20th-century MAR that not only greatly accelerated development of the forecaster workstation but ensured that it would be tailored to forecaster needs. Today, PROFS exists under a different name – the Global Systems Division of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory. It’s functioning well but its reach is constrained. This is not for lack of ideas but by funding and staff levels. Moreover, the multiple-line office, AA-level attention and priority given the work has fallen off its (intense) levels of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • More fundamentally, NOAA’s struggle to stay abreast of rapid advances in science and technology show the need to weave R2O capability throughout the fabric of the entire agency. Pockets of excellent R2O exist here and there across NOAA. But what’s needed is a robust R2O infrastructure connecting the successful bits and filling the gaps, and a culture of R2O guiding the whole. (In this respect it’s heartening to see NOAA leadership and Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad in particular taking a hands-on, agency-wide leadership role with respect to R2O across NOAA.)
  • Lastly, NOAA should remember that it is fundamentally a science and technology agency. Here’s an important distinction: Change – especially technological change – happens to agencies such as, say, the Social Security Administration. The technology for providing benefits to the elderly may change but not the basic purpose. By contrast, NOAA and its Line Offices are constantly reinventing themselves and what they do. That dynamic is inherent in problems like building weather-readiness and managing marine resources and monitoring the Earth. NOAA effectuates change, embodies change, even as it responds to changing external circumstances, both natural and social.

That brings us to the outside piece. NOAA cannot accomplish this alone.

This means that the late-20th-century MAR also holds lessons for members of Congress, and for other stakeholders outside NOAA and the NWS as well. The nation needs to put priority on innovation and on its application for societal benefit.

  • Most immediately, it’s shortsighted to nickel-and-dime the NWS and settle for life-extension plans for outmoded systems. Any apparent cost-savings are illusory. Instead, Congress and the executive branch should invest in the new technologies and networking opportunities. In the short term this puts Americans in both public- and private sectors to work at high-tech tasks that will build 21st-century infrastructure. In the intermediate term this creates global markets for American products and services. And in the long term it builds an America more resilient to natural hazards at home and a good neighbor when it comes to building weather-ready nations abroad.
  • As a starting point, Congress and the executive branch could accelerate the adoption and implementation of phased-array radar technology for monitoring storms.
  • Congress might also work with NWS and the Department of Commerce to develop and strengthen the modalities that allow the NWS to work with the private sector at all levels, ranging from aerospace corporations to local small businesses, to make co-production of meteorological knowledge, vigorous R2O, and continuous infusion of new science and technology across the entire government and corporate enterprise a reality, not just a mere aspiration.
  • Although much work is needed, recognition of this need is widespread, particularly with respect to development and operation of satellite-based observing systems and harnessing of so-called big data. But another starting point that merits additional attention is the so-called National Network of Networks. NOAA controls and operates only a few percent of the surface meteorological instruments across the United States. Most are operated by state and local governments and the private sector. To coordinate these observations and build a whole more effective and efficient than the sum of the parts is as much political and legal challenge as it is technical.

The next post will focus attention on the workforce dimensions of last century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring, which were profound.


[1] Much of the credit for this vision and the early implementation goes to two remarkable individuals, whose names wouldn’t be recognized by most NOAA professionals today: Donald W. Beran, who was the first director of PROFS, and David Small, who was his senior engineer. Later it would be Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald who would draw on his unique background spanning Air Force forecasting experience and meteorological research who would take over leadership of the program and really make it go.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 2. Technology and infrastructure.

“the war to end all wars” – British author H. G. Wells (referring to World War I).

“This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.” British prime minister Lloyd George, at war’s end.

wsr57 radar

(Continuing lessons from history as they inform the current NOAA effort to evolve the NWS…)

World War I was horrific in terms of casualties and geographic reach. The carnage led some to hope that nations and their leaders would forever after forego war as a means to settle differences or achieve aspirations. However, by the conflict’s end, the world had grown more cynical and less sanguine.

Something similar happened with the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring (MAR) late in the 20th century. Here’s the (greatly over-simplified) story.

One driver for the MAR – in many ways the poster child – was the need to replace the aging network of WSR57 weather surveillance radars (pictured). The designator “57” referred to the year 1957 when the network had been deployed. The technology was in reality much older still – dating back to World War II.

By the 1980’s, radar capabilities had advanced. Any replacement radars could have Doppler capability, recognized as a sine qua non for detection of thunderstorm rotation and early warning of tornadoes. All that would be required was a bit of extra signal processing electronics, representing an additional cost amounting to no more than “sales tax” on top of the cost of several million dollars for each unit. Dual polarization, which could unambiguously distinguish between hail and heavy rain – was also at hand, and would have cost no more than another $10K per unit.

But it was mere upkeep – not any futuristic vision for improved public safety – that was driving the MAR. WSR57 electronics relied on vacuum tubes. Some were so outdated that when they burned out (much like any light bulb) they had to be painstakingly dismantled and refurbished by hand; they were no longer in manufacture. Aging radar mounts were also failing. No longer able to rotate as intended, they were seizing up on their pedestals at weather stations across the nation. Radar outages could therefore be numerous and prolonged. The problem was clearly set to grow with every passing year. In fact, when NIST (yes, that NIST) did a cost-benefit study for replacement of the radars, economists were able to justify the total cost of the MAR as a whole entirely on the basis of maintenance costs saved just on the WSR57’s alone.

The NEXRAD (NEXt-generation RADar) system of WSR88D weather surveillance radars was the result – finally installed beginning in 1988, 30 years after the old system had been put into operation – with Doppler (hence the D), but lacking the additional hail-heavy-rain discrimination feature.

By the 1970’s and 1980’s, radars represented only one of many systems that had grown outdated. The NWS also needed to automate surface measurements of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and how the data were shared system-wide. In Weather Service Offices of old, the radar display might sit in one corner of the room. Satellite imagery might be coming in by fax in another corner. Products from the primitive computer models of the time would come in by fax as well. Warnings might be issued from the office via individual telephone calls to broadcast media and emergency managers who could then get the warnings out more broadly. The communication was analog. But by the 1970’s and 1980’s, computers and digital communication were making it possible and economic to automate all of this. In principle, forecasters should be able to sit at a single desk, with multiple displays integrating models, satellite, radar, and surface information, generating and disseminating warning text and products – all with just a few key clicks. The result would be development and installation of the Advanced Weather Information Processing System, or AWIPS. This became an NWS/MAR goal.

Like World War I (but, happily, with fewer actual casualties) the MAR proved wrenchingly difficult and painful for all NWS employees from headquarters down to the field forecasters. All the new technology had to be developed without skipping a beat putting out the hourly and daily forecast products – and keeping up this dual workload for something like a decade. At the same time, the new technology was enabling and also forcing changes in forecaster workload and role. During this period, the job of NWS deputy director morphed into the toughest job in NOAA. Then-NWS-Director Hallgren split that role into a deputy for day-to-day operations and a deputy for the transition, instantly creating the two toughest jobs in NOAA.

At the end, all NWS employees involved – at all levels – breathed a collective sigh of relief, and in the same breath, said, Never again! This may not have been the first NWS Modernization and Restructuring, but it will be the last!

(Unconsciously channeling H.G. Wells) This was to have been the MAR to end all MARs.

Instead (said these same NWS personnel at that time), from now on, we’ll make such draconian, disruptive, step-function modernizations unnecessary. We’ll continuously infuse new technology into services as soon as it becomes available.

But a different reality quickly set in. Before long, day-to-day operations had once again become the major focus. Infusion of new science and technology has since been continuous but slow, failing to keep pace with the boom in science and in information technology over the past 15-20 years.

Why did the outcome everyone wanted to avoid – the need for yet another technological and structural upheaval, versus a more gentle, continuous process of innovation – happen anyway?In the next post, some lessons from this narrative…


A postscript. The National Weather Service struggles of the past 15-20 years don’t reflect on any organizational lack of competence or effort, or leadership lack of vision. Nor are they in any sense unique. Instead they mirror nearly-universal travails of all large-technology-based enterprises as they try to stay current. Take, for example, the U.S. military. You can find an excellent summary of this parallel history and the transcendent stakes for America’s standing in the world in this article – Who’s Afraid of America? in the June 13th print edition of The Economist.)


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Evolving the National Weather Service? Some reflections (from a distant mirror).

The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” – Richard E. Hallgren (NWS Director, 1979-1988)




NOAA’s National Weather Service is busily engaged right now in reinventing itself – from its leadership and management to the bench forecaster, from its observations to its products and services, and from its internal organization to its relationships with the public it serves and with other stakeholders. This is no mean feat; indeed it’s akin to changing the tire while the car is moving (yes, it can be done). The reinvention is years in the making, and stressful, perhaps even exhausting for all involved… and it’s not being accomplished in isolation. NWS is attracting plenty of attention and advice from all sides, including reports from the national academies, Congressional legislation, and input from private-sector meteorologists, emergency managers, transportation officials, and many others.

All this action and the surrounding hubbub calls to mind an absolutely extraordinary book published in 1978 by the noted popular historian Barbara Tuchman (pictured above). Entitled A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, the book was written during the Cold War, at a time when people lived with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Not suprisingly, speculation about the possible consequences of such an event was widespread. Ms. Tuchman suggested that perhaps lessons could be learned from a look at the Black Death, which killed one third of the people from India to Iceland during the single winter of 1347-1348. Her book was rich in detail, and covered many topics, but one feature stood out – a shift in the balance between the supply and demand for labor. Prior to the plague, there was plenty of labor to go around, and most Europeans lived in poverty and slavery – feudal servitude to a handful of nobility. In the aftermath, labor was at a premium. People broke free of their feudal masters, formed guilds, and a middle class was born.

So – channeling President Roosevelt and Ms. Tuchman – where might we look to find lessons that history might offer to guide today’s NWS evolution and reinvention?

It turns out that we don’t have to go far afield; the so-called NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring of the late 20th century might be a good place to start. This has already been widely recognized by all parties. For example, prior to the NAS/NRC’s landmark 2012 study, Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the Academy’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate published The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: a Retrospective Assessment, looking for lessons learned[1].

And those leading that particular effort (which was most visible from the late 1980’s through 2000, but had roots extending back into the 1970’s) were in turn very mindful that their work had historical precedents as well. During the period Dick Hallgren, who masterminded the MAR and who was director of the National Weather Service from 1979-1988, would fulminate against any and all (like me), who would attempt to use the shorthand “the modernization” to refer to the process.  Every time, he’d pounce: “This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” Occasionally I’d try to argue the “10th,” accusing him of making that detail up. He’d always rattle off a few dates. And he was adamant on the “associated restructuring.” He always made sure that every listener understood the effort wasn’t about hardware alone. It was first and foremost about people and how they were equipped and organized to do the Weather Service job.

Which brings us to the current “evolution of the NWS.” NOAA and the NWS have been reaching out to stakeholders, sharing what they have in mind for this latest iteration of “modernization” or “evolution.”

The NWS approach addresses people; technology and infrastructure; management; and stakeholders. These were all features of the previous modernization and associated restructuring. As before – and this is the key point for this post — the starting point is the NWS mission, phrased this way: “evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation.” This is both motivation and guide for the entire evolution.  Demands on technology; the needed numbers, locations, organization and job skills of people; any necessary restructuring of offices; and any changes in internal and external relationships are then to be discovered in light of that mission and its requirements, not specified a priori in legislation or set as goals in and of themselves.

This mirrors a reality well understood by NWS officials during the Modernization and Associated Restructuring the last time around. Throughout the early 1980’s, NWS leaders were acutely aware of sentiment in some political quarters for privatizing weather services. They recognized that if they lost sight of their mission and mandate, outsiders might hand them (a less viable) one. Throughout, they held strongly to the core public safety mission of the NWS – an inherent government function, not easily devolved to the private sector. They resisted ideas that the NWS was solely an observational and modeling agency; they saw this as a step down a slippery slope. Absent the safety mission, financial pressures would constantly whittle away at the observational and modeling capabilities, to the detriment of public and private weather services alike. NWS Director Hallgren would consistently emphasize that the NWS would take no observation that wasn’t needed for public safety.  Of course, it was hard to find an observation that couldn’t be seen to contribute to this core goal.

Viewed in light of that prior history,“Evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation” has much to commend it. It maintains the public-safety focus, and it frames that task as a national task, not just an NWS task, or the job of either NOAA or the Department of Commerce alone.  The goal is a weather-ready nation, not just a national weather service that isn’t caught by surprise. The goal inherently  reaches outside the NWS purview, drawing in the private sector, state- and local government, and the public; and seeing warnings and emergency response as a residual part of a larger risk-management strategy, dealing only with that portion of the risk still remaining after land use, building codes, and strengthening of critical infrastructure have been tended to. It recognizes that science and technology are constantly advancing even as social change is redefining what it means for three thousand counties and countless more towns and cities to be weather-ready. Accordingly, the current NWS leadership hasn’t developed quite the circle-the-wagons approach adopted by NWS leadership in previous iterations. This time around, NWS has reached out to the National Academy of Public Administration for guidance as embodied in their 2013 report, Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service, and has also tapped McKinsey, a consultancy, to help poll and work with stakeholders moving forward.

A good start.  Future posts will examine in turn each of the four major elements of the NWS evolution strategy as reflected in that distant mirror, the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring.


[1] (Full disclosure/disclaimer). In the remainder of this post and those to follow on evolving the National Weather Service, the NAS/NRC Retrospective Assessment and other documents should be regarded as the definitive, peer-reviewed word. By contrast, what you’ll find here will be in the spirit of the Darwin quote on the blog’s masthead: mere personal views, supported by a little evidence.

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Holism: the first casualty in the climate-change war?

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – attributed to various authors

The recently-released papal encyclical on climate change calls for a holistic approach to the challenge.

(That’s holistic and holism as in considering the problem in its broadest aspects, versus isolating any particular feature; papal authorship notwithstanding, it’s not any kind of reference to the Holy See.)

A major feature of the climate-change debate (war?) is the lack of agreement even on this point. Some (a diminishing percentage of us) argue that climate change itself is a fiction; therefore any discussion of holism is ill-founded. Others might say climate change is purely a technical problem; simply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the problem goes away. A larger number would see the technical issues as interwoven with social problems. The pope adds an overlay of the spiritual dimension (in his argument, far more than an overlay; he makes a strong case that the spiritual dimension is foundational)[1].

All around us,aversion to tackling climate change holistically abounds. It’s being replaced with a cafeteria-style approach to knowledge and understanding – and, for that matter, wisdom itself. To see this, we need look no further afield than the U.S. Congress. Some in that body would have us cut back on research on the physical side of the climate problem, reducing budgets for research in the geosciences – whether in DoE, in NASA, in NOAA, and at NSF. Egged on by some outside prompting, they’re happy to hope for the best. They see us as innovating our way out of our difficulties by developing renewable energy technology, making breakthroughs in battery capabilities, and building national electrical grids. In the meantime, they say, we’re buying ourselves time by converting wherever possible from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas. Others in Congress would slash federal funding (already puny) for the social sciences.

State legislatures seem to be contemplating similar measures – with humanities as the target. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Kathryn Lynch, an English professor and dean of faculty affairs at Wellesley College, bemoans such threats, arguing that cutting the liberal arts undermines our cultural traditions. She starts out this way:

“It’s common to fret over unintended consequences. But what about intended consequences?

In Wisconsin, lawmakers are debating a proposed change to state law that would weaken tenure protections at the University of Wisconsin system’s schools. If it passes, faculty could be terminated whenever “such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision.” Twenty-one scholarly associations, including the American Historical Association, the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Modern Language Association, denounced this effort for its threat to shared governance and academic freedom. And, to be sure, those are threats not to be minimized. In the age of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” academic freedom is under siege.

Little is being said, however, about the law’s explicitly stated purpose: to pave the way for the elimination of faculty appointments in fields that simply do not seem worth continued investment, not because a faculty member holds an unpopular or controversial opinion but because he or she teaches in a currently unpopular field. The very point of this proposal is to give the University of Wisconsin system the flexibility to reduce staffing in specific areas.

What departments and programs will be on the chopping block? Almost certainly they will be in the humanities. A consultant who works with university governing boards was quoted disparagingly about “some of these liberal arts colleges . . . limping along with all this tenured faculty in German or some other language no one’s taking, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to retire.” Remove the obstacle of tenure, and voilà, instant budget savings. No need for those offending faculty to reach their natural retirement age. They are gone tomorrow.

From New York’s University at Albany to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, to the University of Virginia (my graduate school alma mater), where President Teresa Sullivan was under pressure to reduce or eliminate programs in “obscure” fields such as German and classics, humanities departments are being cut or threatened. The narrative is now so deep-seated and widespread that its appearance as part of the Wisconsin conflict seems practically unremarkable. Friends don’t let friends major in the humanities, where majors as a percentage of all degree recipients are down by half since their peak in the 1960s. Big thriving universities don’t need them, either.”

She goes on to argue “… a 2014 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that demonstrates that, during their peak earning years, graduates in the humanities and social sciences make more money than those who major in pre-professional fields. Another report, from the Association of American Medical Colleges, shows that humanities majors have higher acceptance rates to medical school than social science or natural science majors . But to focus solely on these indicators is already to concede that the chief measure of educational value can be found in the marketplace.

The humanities offer a larger and more significant value to our culture that is not captured in their pure utility. The humanities include the very fields that permit us to maintain an informed historical perspective on our lives. Without the humanities, there is no history. A German major will study Goethe; an Italian major Dante; a Russian major Tolstoy; an English major will learn the backgrounds to Chaucer (in my class) and Shakespeare (from the guy across the hall). A philosophy major will come to understand how the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle helped set the stage for the Enlightenment. The academy has provided a welcoming home to these areas of study for hundreds of years, and they have survived under its protection. It’s worth thinking about what human culture would be without guardians who dedicate their time to preserving and passing on the lessons of history and the classics of art, music and literature.”

Dean Lynch’s theme is quite broad and far-reaching. But suppose she’d have zeroed in on the recent papal encyclical on climate change. She might well have noted that it’s the humanities that best deal with the profound matters of the spirit that Pope Francis underscored and that preoccupy us all.

Many men and women, from every walk of life, would happily rise in support of Dean Lynch. Here’s a poster child from the world of business: Richard Franke. Mr. Franke is a former chief executive officer of the John Nuveen Company (now Nuveen Investments), serving in that role for the last 22 years of his four decades with that company. He played a pivotal role in building the assets at Nuveen Investments to their present value of well over $200 billion.  In 1988, he also helped found the Chicago Humanities Festival program, with this stated purpose:

… to create opportunities for people of all ages to support, enjoy and explore the humanities. We fulfill this mission through our annual festivals, the fall Chicago Humanities Festival and the spring Stages, Sights & Sounds, and by presenting programs throughout the year that encourage the study and enjoyment of the humanities.

Our Goals are to:

  • Bring the world’s best and brightest humanists together to examine and celebrate the humanities
  • Showcase the riches of the world’s cultures and their contributions to the humanities
  • Gather together new and diverse audiences to enjoy the humanities
  • Encourage and enable teachers and students in their study of the humanities
  • Draw international attention to the importance of the humanities
  • Foster collaboration, cooperation and dialogue among the artistic, cultural and educational communities that provide life and support to the humanities

The Chicago Humanities Festival is devoted to making the humanities a vital and vibrant ingredient of daily life. We believe that access to cultural, artistic and educational opportunities is a necessary element for a healthy and robust civic environment.

The Festival has now been running for more than a quarter-century. In addition, Richard Franke and his wife have endowed Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. In 2014, he wrote a small, highly personalized, and delightfully readable book on all this, entitled Books, Bonds, and Balance.

To conclude, it’s perhaps not surprising that attacks on holism are themselves compartmentalized. It’s nevertheless worth saying that since holism is required for so many of the challenges woven throughout our 21st-century world, holism needs to be vigorously defended. Innovation across the board – and clear thinking about the intended and unintended consequences of all that innovation – needs invigorating, not limiting.


[1] LOTRW – both the blog and the book – argues that climate change is merely a symptom of a much broader and more complex set of relationships between us and our planet, encompassing the Earth as resource, victim, and threat.

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Pope Francis schools the world on systems of equations.

Please let me know what you think of this analogy:

Late in elementary school or somewhere in middle school, kids encounter one several branch points that tend to separate those likely to continue in mathematics and science from those who won’t: systems of equations. The background is available on many web sites:

A system of equations is a collection of two or more equations with a same set of unknowns. In solving a system of equations, we try to find values for each of the unknowns that will satisfy every equation in the system. The equations in the system can be linear or non-linear. [emphasis added]

Here’s a simple example:

X + Y                   =   28

X + 3Y + 0.05Z =   74

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

And here’s a more complicated system of equations:


Atmospheric scientists will recognize this latter equation set immediately.

Add in an additional equation of state for an ideal gas and you have the system of equations that must be solved simultaneously in numerical weather prediction. Add equations of radiative transfer and information about the radiative properties of trace gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and you can calculate the amount of climate warming resulting from different levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

It’s tempting to physical (atmospheric) scientists to stop here. We say to the world, Job done! We’ve solved the system of equations that matters, and look out! The use of fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere to unacceptable levels. We’ve got to cut back on fossil fuel consumption.

But, going back to our simple example, it’s as if we looked only at the first of our three equations and convinced ourselves that X=26; Y= 2 was the solution. We’re saying the X factor (the physics of the challenge – the rise in global atmospheric temperature) is the only piece that matters. The social piece – let’s call it the Y factor – is merely fossil-fuel consumption and shouldn’t matter much; there are multiple alternative energy options. In view of such a great environmental threat physical scientists and ecologists might not be blamed for thinking society ought readily to find easy workarounds. (We tend to minimalize the many trillions of dollars invested in a vast infrastructure worldwide and the millions of workers extracting and redistributing this energy and keeping the world’s lights on and the world’s vehicles moving.)

Enter now the social scientists. To them, the social dimensions of the problem can’t be trivialized in this way. Instead they loom large. Social scientists offer an entirely new way of looking at climate change – as a matter of human choice. They suggest that policymakers:

  1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions. 
  1. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.
  1. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.
  1. Recognize the limits of rational planning.
  1. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.
  1. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model. 
  1. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.
  1. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation. 
  1. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

 10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making.

It’s as if they showed up with the second of our two simple equations, based on their science. Note they’ve introduced a new variable, one that the physical scientists hadn’t considered…the Z factor. For the moment let’s say it reflects item 4 in the above list: the limits of rational planning. Let’s also say that the social scientists are under the sway of economists. (With considerable – okay, probably even unfair – oversimplification) economists believe we are all rational actors and so Z must be small, so that we can throw it out.

We then have (please bear with me here – almost done) two equations in two unknowns:

X + Y   = 30

X + 3Y = 74,

with the solution X=8, Y=22.

Hmm. Rather different from the earlier surmise that X=26; Y=2.

Enter now Pope Francis, who suggests that in addition to physical and social realities (the X and Y of our story), there’s a moral element that underpins both. Let’s call it that “irrational” factor Z that we all threw away earlier. He reinserts it, telling us we need to view the issue as spiritual at its core. To him, both the physical and the social challenges stem from our willingness to objectify our natural surroundings rather than appreciate them at a deep level, to see all of creation as merely background to be exploited. What’s worse, the pope tells us, is that over time, we’ve allowed ourselves to objectify each other, especially those living in squalor a world away. We all too willingly ignore their plight, and absorb ourselves instead in a cocoon of technology and virtual reality (all this poorly articulated here relative to the encyclical, but we all get the idea). The pope tells us, bluntly, we need to get the spiritual part right, both as it operates in each of us as individuals and in the way we function as community, to have any hope of solving the climate change problem – which is only a symptom of a larger spiritual-social-physical malaise.

It’s as if he restored the factor 0.05Z to the second equation and brought the third equation to the table:

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

It’s only at this point that we finally arrive at the solution: X=10; Y=18; Z=200.

Of course the math and especially the wholly arbitrary numerical values are not what matters here. The pope is saying that we’ve incompletely specified the problem. Physical scientists are focused only on the inanimate piece of the puzzle, minimizing both social and spiritual realities. The social scientists have been punctilious in correcting the physicists, but haven’t been noticeably any more eager to embrace the spiritual part. It’s implicit at best in their ten suggestions for policymakers; more likely it’s simply missing.

The pope is saying nothing less than that spiritual part is the essential starting point. But he’s also saying that the God he worships is lord of it all – the physical, social, and spiritual part. All of it matters. In agreement with social scientists and their first suggestion, he’s looking for holistic approaches to the problem, but he wants “holistic” to be truly so, to encompass every dimension.


A footnote in closing. The pope doesn’t stop there. He goes on to assert something much more profound. He’s argues that this God factor is not zero sum: God is not simply the Celestial Scold. He is love, He wants to help, and He’s able to do so. He’s encouraging Catholic believers but really all of us to tap into this limitless reservoir of (totally renewable) energy and good will. If we are realistic (says the pope), in all senses of that word, we recognize God’s been intervening throughout human history to the benefit of both man and life forms on this host planet. We haven’t gotten this far by ourselves. If we work with Him and with each other we can make the 21st century the greatest century ever.

Of course, many might prefer instead to argue with the pope on these points – and might rather find logic to prove themselves right than be happy.

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Papal prayers on climate change.


At the conclusion of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, issued this past Thursday, he proposed “that we offer two prayers. The first we can share with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator, while in the other we Christians ask for inspiration to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus.”

Here are those two prayers, verbatim:

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle

for justice, love and peace.


A Christian prayer in union with creation

Father, we praise you with all your creatures.

They came forth from your all-powerful hand;

they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.

Praise be to you!

Son of God, Jesus,

through you all things were made.

You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,

you became part of this earth,

and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.

Today you are alive in every creature

in your risen glory.

Praise be to you!

Holy Spirit, by your light

you guide this world towards the Father’s love

and accompany creation as it groans in travail.

You also dwell in our hearts

and you inspire us to do what is good.

Praise be to you!

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,

teach us to contemplate you

in the beauty of the universe,

for all things speak of you.

Awaken our praise and thankfulness

for every being that you have made.

Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined

to everything that is.

God of love, show us our place in this world

as channels of your love

for all the creatures of this earth,

for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.

Enlighten those who possess power and money

that they may avoid the sin of indifference,

that they may love the common good, advance the weak,

and care for this world in which we live.

The poor and the earth are crying out.

O Lord, seize us with your power and light,

help us to protect all life,

to prepare for a better future,

for the coming of your Kingdom

of justice, peace, love and beauty.

Praise be to you!


Given in Rome at Saint Peter’s on 24 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 2015, the third of my Pontificate.



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Laudato si’

Pope Francis Meets The Roman Diocesans

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs   

– Saint Francis of Assisi

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

– Pope Francis

Praise be to God indeed! Thursday’s Papal encyclical on climate change breathes fresh air and spirit on a world and on a climate-change debate sorely in need of both. The depth and breadth of the discussion defy casual summary. To attempt to identify and lift nuggets from the larger whole or to pick-and-choose cafeteria-style among the arguments presented is misdirected if not futile, though we’ve seen numerous attempts in all the news and social media in the days since. What makes the nuggets truly golden are their settings – the precise wording and the carefully-woven context. That weaving is so deft and intricate that attempts to unravel particular bits from the fuller exposition leave something far inferior to the whole.

In other words, to feel the impact you and I had best read the encyclical in its entirety. That encouragement doesn’t even go far enough. To go further – not merely to feel its impact but to derive its benefit, to experience its healing – we need to meditate on it. And we’re not talking about meditating on it over a single weekend. The encyclical deserves regular revisits. Over months. Years. It’s going to stand the test of time.

Ten comments.

  1. The encyclical is more about human nature than Earth’s nature. In fact it sees the two as inextricably intertwined, inseparable. Furthermore, it sees climate change not as a separate issue, or even as an issue in its own right. Instead it’s a symptom of human failings and shortcomings: greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, mendacity, etc. You could add shortsightedness except that at several points the text notes that we’re not merely oblivious to our wrongs and how they exacerbate the problem. Our actions are premeditated. We possess the needed self-awareness, and we see the bow wave of problems we’re creating for the poor and disenfranchised, for those less fortunate – and yet we proceed anyway.
  1. It’s a Rorschach test. Scientists may be tempted to ignore the spiritual dimension, and focus on the realities of environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity. NGO’s focused on the plight of the poor, whether the poor nations or the poor within each nation, will exult over the papal support for their cause. Free-market voices of a certain stripe will decry papal attempts to “make all of us poor.” Political leaders of a certain persuasion will grouse about religious meddling in economic and social matters. Check the news summaries and the blogs. You’ll find everyone finding in the encyclical support for long-held positions and personally and institutionally-cherished preferences. (LOTRW is surely no exception; another reason you should read the encyclical from start to finish and draw your own conclusions.)
  1. It’s reality-based. In support, here’s a snippet from section 201 of the encyclical: realities are greater than ideas (the original text includes a citation to an earlier Vatican work). But (especially scientist-friends) be warned; reality here is assumed to have physical, social, and spiritual dimensions. (An aside. Some scientists make it clear that non-experts should be cautious in arguing with scientists about climate change. Understood. But we scientists ought to be equally attentive to those who’ve studied spirituality in a disciplined way when they share what their studies on such matters have revealed. And if we’re reluctant to be blindly submissive on these latter subjects, then perhaps we ought to be more respectful to those who dare question our science.)
  1. It sees these realities and our human challenges as fully integrated and inseparable. For example, the encyclical makes clear that our environmental problems stems from seeing nature and all its life and creatures as being mere objects as opposed to essential manifestations of the love and power and nature of God. It sees our indifference to the plight of lifeforms and landforms as intimately related to our disinterest in the suffering of others. It describes us as having allowed ourselves to drift into a state of slavery to technology as opposed to retaining mastery over it.
  1. It is fully comfortable with both science and faith. At one and the same time the encyclical holds true to the idea of a created universe and embraces findings of science with respect to the size of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution of life, and the nature of reality at the quantum level. It is positive about the contributions of science and technology not just to material human welfare but beauty and the elevation of the human spirit. And interestingly, it doesn’t dither over these concerns; it simply blows right through them. Surely an encouragement to the rest of us to follow suit.
  1. The moral message ought to arouse us more than the economic message. The encyclical makes much of our interest in individual material well-being as measured by conventional means. This has already come under attack from some quarters as “the pope urging us to all be poor.” But the deeper message of the encyclical is that when we enrich ourselves while turning a blind eye to the basic human needs of others – whether for food, or water, or shelter, or respect – we do great and indelible harm to our souls, and that this is the greater danger.
  1. The encyclical is more celebratory than condemnatory. Throughout – in every section and every reflection, the encyclical reminds us that the Creation is good. It sees every aspect of physical reality both animate and inanimate as carrying a message about God’s love, power, interest in our well-being, and forgiving nature. It speaks to our access to joy and peace in light of this understanding. It speaks to the possibility of building a richer, more equitable, more sustainable, future.
  1. It is a group construct. Surely Pope Francis called for it. Surely he made editorial comments as the work proceeded, and had a good deal to say about both its substance and tenor. But the encyclical clearly has as much in common with an IPCC report as it does with the prayerful reflection of a saintly, devout individual. There are frequent, quoted references to thoughts and contributions from bishops from around the world. Much as an IPCC report, the chapters and conclusions are informed by the scholarship and study of many other individuals, past and present, who are extensively and thoroughly cited.
  1. It is a valuable addition to the ongoing global dialog. While, as an encyclical, it’s intended to represent a “final” or definitive papal word in some sense, it’s not intended to supplant discussion so much as contribute to it. The latter sections of the encyclical encourage continuing dialog of all kinds: international, national and local, dialog leading to transparency in decision-making, politics and economy in dialog for human fulfillment, religions in dialog with science. In section 188, the Pope emphasizes all this:

There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.

  1. Did I say you ought to read the whole thing for yourself and draw your own conclusions? Yes. Is the encyclical the last word? No. Is it a perfect document? No. Is it something you and I would do well to discuss seriously with each other? Build on and improve? Absolutely, no matter who we are or what our role.

Let’s get at it.

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The Age of Muddle?

Muddle: to behave, proceed, or think in a confused or aimless fashion or with an air of improvisation – Dictionary.com


In a comment  to LOTRW, John Plodinec offered this alternative to  the most recent post, on The Age of Global Renewal.

Here’s what he had to say:

Nice try, and wish it would be true!

But our age will only be named after we’ve lived through it, and the way we’re going it likely will be something more like the Age of Muddle. Our political processes – bogged down in confused bickering. Our economy – a fragile yo-yo, with central bankers floundering around because they have no experience with this set of circumstances to light their way. Our society – splitting along an educational divide, with the Educated flourishing, the Uneducated living in increasing isolation, and the Great Middle muddling along.

At the same time we are warned that global warming threatens our food supply our food production is not only steadily increasing but has actually accelerated this century. While we can send messages around the world in seconds, our ability to communicate with one another is eroding. And while resources are more abundantly spread around the world than ever before in recorded history, too often we lack the will and the wisdom to use them. An Age of Muddle, indeed.

As always, hard to argue with John!

And as for muddle, perhaps we should happily settle for that. Given the complexity of the 21st-century challenges we face, perhaps “muddling along” in the sense of the definition above is a far better outcome than some of the alternatives. In fact, that label might capture the thesis of the book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet. Much of the argument there is that meteorologists approach weather prediction in the same way. Here’s the recipe for weather prediction:

  • observe;
  • make very approximate predictions;
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the predictions;
  • make new, very approximate predictions
  • repeat.

There’s an analogous recipe for dealing with any of the (other) insoluble challenges of our age: peace; jobs, poverty, disease, natural hazards, resource management, environmental degradation, privacy, and more. It goes like this:

  • observe
  • work out an approximate policy for coping
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the intended goals and the emergence of unintended consequences
  • revise the approximate policy for coping
  • repeat

In this light, “muddle” might perhaps be seen as an unnecessarily humble label for a brilliant strategy.

But here’s an (admittedly very partial) rationale for why we might realistically hope to do even better – perhaps far better. First and foremost, the pace of advance in energy technology is nothing short of breathtaking. This is particularly true with respect to photovoltaics and battery technology for energy storage on both fixed and mobile platforms.  Capabilities are growing and per-unit costs are declining rapidly. Second, climatological analyses of the availability of solar and wind power integrated across the entire expanse of the continental United States suggest that in principle the option is there for the taking and prices only incrementally greater than current energy costs – provided only that we invest in the necessary infrastructure (in addition to the solar panels, and the wind turbines, a high-voltage DC national power grid). In Africa, for example, just as nations have leapfrogged landline telephony in favor of cellphones and their much cheaper infrastructure, governments and the private sector are investing in place-based electricity generation based on renewable-energy technology versus increasing their access to and reliance upon fossil fuels.

Ample energy at reasonable prices in turn opens doors for other policy options – desalination of seawater on massive scales, for example. That in turn transforms the prospects for production of food and fiber. In the meantime, urbanization, and the conversion from national, largely manufacturing economies to global, increasingly knowledge-based economies allows for efficiencies in consumption and improved (material) quality of living.  Though none of these trends constitutes a “solution,” and each will give rise to unintended consequences, they will likely buy us time.

The key is continuing innovation and the sustained application of innovation for societal benefit.

We’re all tempted as we age to conflate wisdom with pessimism, but I’m just coming off my annual experience with participants in the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Each year I ask them: what’s the favorite activity of people my age? They always get it wrong, usually leading off with golf, bridge, reading, and other pursuits before turning hostile and suggesting bingo. No, I tell them, people my age like to gather in groups and talk about how the world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket. There’s always a flash of recognition. Participants have seen it in their parents and others of my age. But then I go on… the cure for this is hanging around this group (of early-career future scientist-leaders). And it’s true. They have so much energy and passion and intent to make the world a better place that it’s easy to realize the future is in good hands.

Others offer similarly hopeful views of reality, couched in different terms, more thoughtfully based, and more extensively reasoned and documented. You might remember (or be interested in) one example published back in April, the so-called Ecomodernist Manifesto, multi-authored, and published by the Breakthrough Institute. It speaks to a good Anthropocene. You no doubt have your even more insightful and trustworthy candidates: if so, please share your favorites with the rest of us.

By the way, John Plodinec finds time to read and thoughtfully comment on LOTRW posts, but this is only a sliver of a sideline for him. He writes frequently for the Community&Regional Resilience Institute; you can find his recent post on leadership, learning, and trust here.


(Always gotten into trouble in the past whenever committing to future posts, but succumbing to temptation once again… as many readers may be aware, the National Weather Service is continually reinventing itself. More on recent developments in the next post. And Pope Francis is releasing his encyclical on climate change today. Perhaps you’ll find commentary here as early as this weekend. )

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The Age of Global Renewal

Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration

Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration

Every generation gives a name to the age they live in.

Of course it’s not quite so simple. Generally speaking, we don’t engage in a naming contest. Rather we all live out our lives in a certain way, and according to the events and accomplishments and failures and the nature of our times, the generations who follow, looking at our impact on their lives, assign us a title. Sometimes the name is good: the Renaissance. The Age of Reason. Sometimes it’s neutral or ambivalent: the Stone Age. The Iron Age. The Age of Exploration. It can also be negative: the Dark Ages.

It’s possible, perhaps even common, for an age to have multiple names. And though we don’t get to vote for names we like, we do find plenty of suggestions on offer these days. To test this, I just googled the unfinished expression “The Age of”. Turns out that through an accident of timing, every entry on the first page referred to the movie, “The Age of Adaline.”


Ah. The second page of entries started to give me what I was looking for – a lot of book titles: the Age of Love. The Age of Empire. The Age of American Unreason. The Age of Access. The Age of Missing Information. The Age of Answers. The Age of Dignity. Dozens more appear on subsequent Google pages. Of course few, if any, of these will endure.

Here’s a candidate for you to think about today: the Age of Global Renewal.

What prompts me to put this forward despite the surfeit of alternatives? The juxtaposition of two articles in the May30th-June5th print issue of The Economist. The first was a cover story entitled The Weaker Sex: no jobs, no family, no prospects. The article tells us something that we already know: blue-collar, poorly-educated men in rich countries are in trouble. They have not adapted well to trade, technology, or feminism. Here’s an excerpt from the web version:

At first glance the patriarchy appears to be thriving. More than 90% of presidents and prime ministers are male, as are nearly all big corporate bosses. Men dominate finance, technology, films, sports, music and even stand-up comedy. In much of the world they still enjoy social and legal privileges simply because they have a Y chromosome. So it might seem odd to worry about the plight of men.

Yet there is plenty of cause for concern. Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top. They are far more likely than women to be jailed, estranged from their children, or to kill themselves. They earn fewer university degrees than women. Boys in the developed world are 50% more likely to flunk basic maths, reading and science entirely.

One group in particular is suffering (see article). Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.

Chances are, whether male or female, you’re already painfully aware of this problem. That said, The Economist provides a great articulation.

You might well be saying, Problem solved, Bill. Let’s just call this age The Age of Male Decline and be done with it.

You can certainly go that route. And history may prove you right. But pause for the moment and consider another trend, captured in another article, Rus in urbe redux.

Ignore the Latin pretensions. The article is about cities in decline. We all know that the world’s major cities are hovering up rural populations and swelling in population. But the exodus isn’t just from the countryside. It’s from also from relatively large numbers of smaller urban centers. An excerpt:

In Leipziger Tor, people are giving way to grass, flowers and potatoes. So many prefabricated 1950s apartment buildings have been razed in this working-class district of Dessau-Rosslau, a city in eastern Germany, that the plants receive all the light and rain they need. And the local planners have other buildings in their sights. Some residential blocks are half-empty. An abandoned school is succumbing to weeds. They too will probably be demolished and replaced by meadows.

Many of the world’s cities are having to cope with rapid growth. Dessau-Rosslau’s challenge is to manage decline. Since 2007 its population has dropped by almost 10,000, to 81,500. Everybody, from the city authorities to the man in the street, reckons the trend will continue. What will Dessau-Rosslau be like in ten or 20 years’ time? “Smaller,” says Rolf Müller, a longtime resident, as he carries a box of groceries out of an Aldi supermarket.  

 The condition from which Dessau-Rosslau suffers is increasingly common. From 1950 to 1955 only ten of the world’s largest conurbations lost people, according to the UN (see chart). The tally rose steadily over the next few decades, before jumping in the 1990s, as the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Russia was followed by a colossal migration. Today just over 100 conurbations are losing people. But this greatly understates the scale of urban decline. In many countries, big cities with diversified economies are growing at the expense of cities too small to make the UN’s list. Germany has 107 autonomous cities, of which 60 are expected to contract over the next five years. But almost all of the biggest cities will escape decline (see map).

 Shrinking cities can be found in the post-industrial rustbelts of the American Midwest, eastern Europe and northern England. But the phenomenon is increasingly Asian. In Japan 20 cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants each declined in population between 2005 and 2010. The two largest cities in South Korea, Busan and Seoul, are both contracting. Even rapidly urbanising countries like China and India have a few declining cities. In 2008 the UN estimated that one in ten emerging-world cities were losing people. The only part of the world where shrinking cities are almost unknown is sub-Saharan Africa. But that too will change. 

A city can lose some people and barely notice. It might even have to build more homes, since in many countries more people are living alone. But persistent decline is harmful, especially if the population is ageing as well as shrinking. As factories and homes are abandoned, the local economy can spiral downward.

The body of the article (worth the read) goes on to point out that efforts to stem such declines through the creation of special economic zones, etc., rarely succeed. However, the article cites instances in which demolition of decaying urban areas and the restoring the land to parks and more natural landscape has actually improved the prospects for the downsized urban areas remaining.

So here’s the thought. The nature of such demolition and restoration is inherently labor-intensive and physically demanding. It’s also inherently local, place-based work. It can’t be outsourced to another, distant country, as can the manufacture of textiles or computer chips. Such work is therefore in principle available virtually everywhere.

Well and good, Bill, but who’s going to pay for it? Great question. Millennials are too young to remember this, but those of us of a certain age can recall when the same question was asked of recycling. When separation of trash and recycling of paper, plastic, and metal goods was introduced in the last century few thought such efforts would pay or prove sustainable. The fact is, that the practice has spread.

There is low-hanging fruit here. We know all too well that the world’s poor are forced to live on dangerous seismic faults, floodplains, and unstable slopes. This and our practice after natural disasters of “rebuilding as before” condemns us to repetitive loss. It also perpetuates pockets of poverty: the social science shows that growing economies recover from hazards, but stagnating economies do not. Disasters aggravate pre-existing economic trends.

Nations, cities, and localities able to think long-term might therefore recognize that the cost of returning decaying urban land to nature can be recovered from the reduced future costs of natural disasters and social unrest. It’s therefore easy to imagine social engineering of this sort becoming widely accepted, intentional policy, making such restoration a way of life for, say, the rest of this century. (And, in the process, taking its place alongside rebuilding and maintaining critical infrastructure as an important societal goal accomplishing similar ends.) Note that we’re not insisting society do a 1800 turn; we’re only embracing what’s already underway here and there and scaling it up.

The Age of Global Renewal? Should have a much better ring to it than The Age of Male Decline, whether you’re male or female.

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TBD List for Colloquium alumni

This year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is a wrap. The participants have all made it home. Back at the office, we’re closing out the books and writing inadequate acknowledgments to the distinguished speakers who took time out of their crazily-busy schedules to meet with the group. We’re absorbing the feedback from participants in order to improve the experience for everyone next year. And speaking of gratitude, we’re thankful to the participants for taking ten days out of their schedules to be with us. They had many competing claims on their time.

As participants were grabbing their luggage and heading for airports, some asked about next steps. Over the years, we’ve probably paid inadequate attention to this aspect of the Colloquium. We make every effort to maintain contact with alumni and provide opportunity and venue for them to stay in touch and reconnect, particularly at AMS Annual Meetings. But we can and should be doing more. So here’s a first installment in that direction: a preliminary list of areas that merit attention and work. Though the nominal audience is the 2015 Colloquium contingent, the list applies equally well to all alumni from prior years – and, for that matter to all readers of this blog and all members of the Earth observations, science, and services community. Note the emphasis on the word preliminary. Readers are invited to enrich this list with additions and reworking of these initial ideas. Please help us tap into the wisdom of crowds!

Start with your science/profession. Stick to the knitting. Your science, your research, your day job is what got you here. You’re a graduate student? Doesn’t matter whether your research is on metallic-compound precipitation on Venus or tropical convection or squid larvae in the Pacific here on Earth. Maintain your intensity/focus. You’re working in a government agency? Move your piece of the mission forward, be it public safety, or climate services, or national security. Employed by the private sector? Do your bit to improve your product/service line, build markets and profits (all of us need to remember that “profit” is just “sustainability” by another name). Whatever your role, expand the envelope of human knowledge/capability. Doesn’t matter how incremental or narrowly specific that new bit of insight might be. Remember seven billion people are working alongside/behind you, doing their bit as well. That massive collaborative effort has the human race on a roll.

Then expand your horizons. You can do this in any of a number of directions. Let’s start with your day job. Of those seven billion people, only a handful are your nearest neighbors… the men and women working in closely allied fields. Are you merely competing with them? You ought to be communicating, collaborating. There’s more than enough work to go around. And opportunity isn’t zero-sum. Keep your ideas to yourself today, and tomorrow you’ll find you’re even more timid. And others will pick up on your negative vibe. Little by little your field will shrivel and die. But freely share what you see and know, and you’ll bring others out of their shells. Your aggregate work will grow in significance. You’ll find your work more satisfying. You’ll attract others who’ll join in. The more you work with others, the more field and scope your work will enjoy.

Or you could go in another direction. You could begin by setting aside some time each day to consider the application of your work for societal benefit. Ask yourself: why does my work matter? How might it benefit others? What extra effort would I have to make that potential benefit a reality? If I can’t do that by myself (and face it… you probably can’t) then how do I go about partnering up? How can I, and my organization, grow to be more intentional, disciplined, and effective in transitioning from science to services that change the world? And (looking beyond your own work), what about the innovation I see from others? How could their work be harnessed to manage resources more effectively? Provide for public safety? Slow or reverse environmental degradation? As an extension of these ideas, you might try developing your own “case for the geosciences and related social science.” Ask yourself why so many members of Congress seem to be content to cut funding for these disciplines. And don’t take some lazy way out, don’t just assume that it’s a matter of knowledge deficit, that if they only knew what you knew, they’d increase that funding. Instead think through what changes you and I might make in the way we do business on the provider side of geosciences and services to earn a bigger following. Share your insights with the rest of us.

Here’s a third option. Start taking what’s happening in your home city or county or state more seriously. Begin by developing your own informal SWOT analysis for the place you call home. What do people need? Jobs? Education? Better access to health care? Productivity? What’s the local conversation like on these issues? Is it non-existent? Desultory? Mis-directed? Heated and divisive? Then ask how your skill set fits in. What might you do at the grassroots level, through local NGO’s or faith-based organizations, to change the conversation, build trust, identify common ground. What small success could you and others achieve that might be a basis for building community? (To bring this down to specifics, close to home… NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation program might provide just such an opportunity.)

Don’t forget the AMS. Of course we want you to take opportunities to submit your papers to our journals, join in our meetings, and volunteer. But we also want you to let us know how we can better serve you, equip you for next steps in your career, continue your professional development.

Please stay in touch.

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