More inaugural augury. The outlook for ethics, (and the 2017 AMS Annual Meeting).

Ethics: that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

“Most people, when they consider the boundary between right and wrong, try to stay on the right side, as far away from the line as possible. Beware of those who promise to get you closer to that boundary than anyone has gone without crossing it.” – Robert Hooke (1918-2003).

On the occasion of today’s inauguration, yesterday’s LOTRW predictions continue: ethics will be a huge focus of the national discussion.

Really, Bill? Tell us something we don’t know.

Okay, okay. Given the headlines of the past year, and especially the past two months, this seems to belabor the obvious. Whether it’s the ethics of political leadership amidst financial entanglements, or dragging reluctant publics into a post-fact world, or using executive actions to circumvent Congressional will, or broad application of the presidential pardons, or falsifying auto emissions data, or the lead content of public water supplies, or hovering up the personal data of smartphone users, our political and business leaders are preoccupied with ethical issues and beset with critics.

But ethics begins at home, doesn’t it? Literally. That’s where you and I learn about ethics and see it in the behavior of our parents and neighbors and friends, whether in the observance or the breach. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of my mathematician dad’s advice, quoted above. And he lived by that code.

For most of us, the ethics discussion starts early but feels peripheral. There’s the matter of grabbing our younger sibling’s toys. Sorry, bro – but then again, my memory is that you gave as good as you got.

But thereafter, it ratchets up, usually discontinuously. That first time someone asks you to cheat on a school exam. The day you get a driver’s license, and are suddenly responsible for the lives of others on a daily basis. When you land a government job, and take essentially the same oath that presidents take today and every four years. When you get a security clearance. When you transition from private business to public official – maybe even president. On all these occasions, your technical abilities and life skills matter, but the one that’s paramount is your integrity – and your ability to be fair and just and open despite higher pressures and stakes of your new role.

Bring it home, Bill.

Just this kind of seismic shift is underway in Earth sciences, observations, and science-based services. Think about it. Ethics don’t matter so much when the stakes are low (those kid’s toys; they matter only because those are formative years; you and I are deciding what kind of adults we’ll become). They also don’t much matter when any scope for action is trivial. But as the stakes rise, and our actions become more consequential, then ethics move to center stage. Time was, when nature’s bounty seemed limitless, when sources of food and water and energy were abundant and cheap, and where populations were scattered and rural, ethics mattered less. Today we live in a zero-margin world, where all of us are interconnected and interdependent. Living on today’s real world feels more zero-sum. The rights of the poor and otherwise marginalized are in visible jeopardy.

Also, back in the day, our meteorological and climatological predictions weren’t of much value. They were uncertain, laughably so. An example: in every sector, farmers and fishermen and business owners assumed personal responsibility for their weather awareness. They were skeptical of forecasts and relied more on their own sense of the sky and its implications for their work. Today, by contrast, our outlooks and predictions are far superior to those of the past, and are getting more reliable year-on-year. At the same time, agribusiness and energy and transportation sectors and many others have come to depend upon forecasts extending out several days. They are adept in use of probabilistic information and insist on specification of uncertainty.

In this high-stakes environment where the products and services we provide are the basis for action, ethics matter. When can and should a NWS field forecaster begin to act when numerical guidance appears to diverge from on-the-ground reality? What observations, products and services should be considered public goods? What can and should be privatized? What’s at stake with warn-on-forecast? To list these few examples doesn’t do justice to the dozens of ethical dimensions to the daily work of everyone in every corner of today’s Earth observations, science, and services community.

So expect ethics to become a greater part of our dialog over the next four years – and for decades after that. And expect professional societies such as the AMS to pay more attention to these in each Annual Meeting and other venues. Here in Seattle in 2017, there’ll be a Sunday afternoon session in Room 613 of the Convention Center, from 1:30-3:30. Tom Ackerman (meteorologist and climatologist) and Steve Gardiner (philosopher and ethicist) of the University of Washington will lead the discussion.

Later in the week, a panel of the 12th Symposium on Societal Applications: Policy, Research, and Practice, entitled Shades of Gray: A Panel Discussion on Ethics, Law and Uncertainty in the Weather, Water, Climate Community, will be held in the same room, 613. Jay Austin will moderate the panel, which will include:Paul Higgins, Director, AMS Policy Program, Gina Eosco, Risk Communication Expert, Eastern Research Group, Harold Brooks, Senior Research Scientist, National Severe Storms Laboratory, and Jason Samenow, Chief Meteorologist, Washington Post Capital Weather Gang.

Drop by both these sessions if you can. Participate!

See you there.

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The “augur” in Inauguration.

The augury determining that Romulus, not Remus, would rule Rome

Many words could have been applied to America’s four-year swearing-in ceremony for new presidents, observed once again tomorrow. Why this particular word? Hard to find any history peculiar to its choice here in the United States, but generically, we’re told it stems from the Latin augur, which refers to the rituals of ancient Roman priests seeking to interpret if it was the will of the gods for a public official to be deemed worthy to assume office. It also, in some applications, refers less to the process of determining what the omens might be saying, and more to waiting until the omens aligned favorably – picking a propitious time – before starting new ventures. The word augur can be used as a noun, to refer to the priests examining the omens. It can also be used as a verb: to divine or predict, as from omens; prognosticate.

Hmm. Substitute observations and data for omens – and that’s what meteorologists do. Perhaps meteorologists ought to be particularly interested in inauguration day, and perhaps their inauguration counsel ought to be particularly heeded by political leaders and their publics.

Dream on, Bill.

Okay, so you didn’t ask, but here’s a notional augury for the next four years. Please don’t take it as the final forecast! Instead, treat it as the opening statement in a map discussion. Contribute your own views or superior alternatives.

First, the forecast for tomorrow’s weather in DC, taken from the NWS website at the instant I’m writing this: Rain, mainly before 5pm. High near 48. Southeast wind 3 to 6 mph. Chance of precipitation is 90%. New precipitation amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch possible. Of course, this forecast is subject to change and refinement. You should look for updates here, or maybe from The Capital Weather Gang.

More significantly, U.S. weather of the next four years will affect our fortunes as individuals and a nation. Because our level of understanding is only partial – as to how that weather will unfold over this time period, and which regions will be affected, in which order, and how given patterns of flood and drought and storm and calm translate into societal impacts – we’ll struggle to see what’s really happening to us. We’ll know we’re vexed by the vicissitudes of weather, especially the extremes, but we’ll be unable to measure fully the impact on our agriculture, our energy use, and our water resources, and thus on our economy. We’ll sense vaguely that our vulnerability to hazards continues, but find it difficult to learn from experience and bring those disaster losses down. We’ll see localized, episodic degradation to landscapes, habitat, biodiversity, and air and water quality generally, but be at something of a loss when it comes to stemming the tide. And we’ll see the integrated effects of all this: slow, somewhat variable, but generally steady atmospheric and oceanic warming; rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and more.

Completing this forecast? We’re told that requires statement of the uncertainty. When it comes to the weather per se, the uncertainty is minimal. The far larger uncertainty is our response as individuals and a nation. The weather is coming, but the impacts of that weather will reflect how we choose to do business. One option? We can whine about these impacts, and keep doing business as usual, and watch the bad outcomes continue to ratchet up over the next four years.

Or – we can rise to the challenge. We can invest more in anticipating what the weather will do next, hour to hour and season to season. That’s a job for meteorologists (and for the Congress and public who fund us). As for the remaining 330 million of us, we can build resilience into every human activity – where and how we choose to live; where and how we grow our food, develop energy resources, and use water. We can reduce the footprint of our day-to-day activities and thereby slow the pace of environmental degradation. Four years from now, we can be better off in these respects than we are today. There’s great incentive to do better, from the most mercenary, self-serving of reasons to the noblest, highest motivations.

But at this inauguration, Americans shouldn’t be focused just inwardly, domestically. There’s a four-year global outlook as well. And so far as the weather itself is concerned, the story is pretty much the same – only on a bigger screen. The food, energy and water issues will be in even starker relief, especially visible in poorer parts of the world. Extremes of weather and climate will displace populations and foment geopolitical instability. Environmental degradation, much of it exported to poorer parts of the world by the richer nations, will continue. (These conditions will be worldwide, but because we’re so profoundly interconnected, they will affect all of us here in the United States.)


For there’s uncertainty here as well – and again, the wild card is not the weather, but whether we make individual and national commitments to do better. Doing better in these respects is well within our means, requiring only fractions of a percent of U.S. and global GDP. What’s required, and accessible to us, is vision and will. In the process of doing better, in partnering with the rest of the world against a common set of threats and a corresponding set of opportunities, we can build prosperity for the world and tranquility for ourselves in the bargain.

By the way, the choice to do better, to do more, is an individual choice. We don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, or wait for some signal. We decide. We can encourage others to join us. In fact, this has been the hallmark of the U.S. meteorological community for more than 100 years. For virtually all of that period, the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting provides a yearly opportunity to huddle, take stock, and then springboard into another year of work advancing the observations, the science, and weather, water, and climate services. For the 4000 meteorologists who’ll be meeting in Seattle throughout this next week – it’ll be good to see you. Blessings and safe travels.

Okay! Let’s do this! The omens are good.

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(More) remedial reading: three remarkable books, and a call to action.

“In old days books were written by men [sic] of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” – Oscar Wilde

 “That is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed with profit.” – Amos Bronson Alcott

We all struggle to find time to read – and especially to find the generous amounts of time required to read a book. Today’s culture and technology take us in the opposite direction. We swim around in a thick soup of information, fed to us in the form of small, bite-size quanta. A fact or figure here. A disconnected thought or idea there. The most important life-skill for the knowledge worker is to learn how to digest information and understanding in this form all the while stitching the bits and bytes into a coherent picture over the course of a day or year or lifetime. (All at accelerating speed, year-by-year.) Meantime, we’re coming to appreciate our desperate need in this process is to distinguish fact from fake, opinion from reality, life-giving opportunity from life-sucking distraction.

So Oscar Wilde’s observation looks spot-on today. So too the ruminations of Charles Darwin captured on the LOTRW masthead. Interestingly, their reflections were contemporaneous, made about 150 years ago, long before the arrival of today’s IT. Perhaps their thoughts are ageless; perhaps they were prompted simultaneously by the emergence of the Victorian internet – the telegraph – about that time.

Most of my reading is remedial. Perhaps this experience is universal. Seven billion people can write a lot of books when our backs are turned. It’s easy to fall behind, and then to belatedly discover books we wish we’d read earlier, sometimes years ago. For many, the chance to catch up on reading is an ancillary benefit of the Christmas season, alongside two larger opportunities – to reflect at year’s turn on our lives to date and any new directions we might like to take, and the annual spiritual renewal at the core of the event we celebrate.

In that spirit, here are three books that all pass the Amos Bronson Alcott test. All three bear a 2015 copyright; I had made a start into each earlier on, but then put them down and failed to get back to them until now (shame on me!). Reading them and finishing them up together, rather than separately, turned out to be felicitous. The whole proved greater than the sum of the parts.

Each book is a remarkable blend of extensive scholarship and marvelous story-telling (in non-fiction, the latter hinges necessarily on the former). Each was the spinoff from a Ph.D. thesis, suggesting that we can look forward to even richer works from the three authors going forward as their thinking matures and deepens.

Let’s start with


A Scientific Peak: how Boulder became a world center for space and atmospheric science, by Joseph P. Bassi (American Meteorological Society; 264 pp). Established in the 1850’s, Boulder, Colorado became the site for the University of Colorado a year after statehood, in 1877. But it was by no means foreordained that Boulder would become a world center for atmospheric research. Joe Bassi masterfully tells this story. He delves into the personalities, politics, pivotal moments and fateful decisions and weaves these into a larger national context – the influence of two World Wars, McCarthyism, and the corresponding changes in science policy (including, but not limited to, a shift from private funding for science to government support) – that led to today’s result. A real page-turner! Especially poignant for anyone like me, who arrived in Boulder in the 1960’s shortly after the events of the book but at a time when Walter Orr Roberts, Janet Roberts, Alan Shapley, and other principals were still active and on the scene. But you don’t have to have Boulder roots to profit from the book[1].

Next up is


Rational Action: The sciences of policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960, by William Thomas (MIT Press; 399 pp)[2]. For much of the period recounted in Mr. Bassi’s book, the relationship between scientists and the world were being reshaped by the exigencies of World War II. Mr. Thomas fills in some of that larger wartime- and postwar context. His subject is the blend of scientific disciplines that has come to be known as operations research (OR). OR got its start bringing to bear logic, observation, experiment, modeling and various branches of science and engineering on thorny and urgent questions of warfare, such as: what kind of firepower is most useful on military aircraft? Where should guns be placed, and how should they be used? How might the logistics supporting warfare be optimized? Etc. Mr. Thomas tells the story of the people drawn into this arena, their successes and failures, the rise of RAND and other think tanks after the War, and the extension of operations research into the Cold War. He chronicles the reach of OR into the civilian sector as well as the development of a theoretical basis for OR, and how that theory morphed into a subject for study in its own right.

Full disclosure? The book held a special magic for me. My father was a Princeton-educated Ph.D. algebraist. After the war he retrained himself in statistics and entered the field of OR, first working at the Pentagon, in the Navy’s Operational Evaluations Group, then back at Princeton, working with John Tukey and others, and eventually at Westinghouse. The stories Mr. Thomas tells spoke of people and events that had been part and parcel of dad’s dinner conversations, and eventually inspired my brother to get a Ph.D. in OR and build a distinguished career at Bell Labs. Brought back a lot of memories from those dinners and helped me connect with my memories of him, as well as the career my brother had.

Perhaps the most interesting thread throughout the book is the story of how OR went from humble, service-oriented origins (scientists doing their small bit to help a military in clear charge win the War) to a community investigating more abstract issues that could no longer be so directly tied to societal benefit, and a growing awareness that this last step required decisions and rationale outside the realm of science.

Which brings us to the third and final work


Masters of Uncertainty: Weather forecasters and the search for ground truth, by Phaedra Daipha (University of Chicago Press, 271 pp)[3]. Margaret Mead based her highly acclaimed work on years of field study in Samoa. For years, Jane Goodall observed the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, beginning in 1960. Perhaps Ms. Daipha didn’t foray so far from home as these exemplars. But by embedding herself in a New England NWS Forecast office for over thirty months off and on over a few years, she made a significant investment in time and attention that has paid off in a similar way, gaining a unique set of insights into the sociology of government weather forecasting, ranging from the engagement between forecaster and various publics, including but not limited to risk communication; the sociology of the forecast office, and the interaction between that office and the NWS hierarchy; and even the development of the weather forecast itself as a social construct. I’ve been in the field for years and yet each page of her wonderful book brought new insights and revelations. Much is being made these days of the importance of bringing the social science to bear on weather forecast development and use. This book closer to penetrating to the heart of the matter than anything I’ve read so far. And that’s before you get to the bits of the book that draw analogies to other professional fields such as medicine and finance.

A call to action.

“No two persons ever read the same book.” – Edmund Wilson

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it or offer your own version in return.” – Salman Rushdie

All good stuff! But it is the eve of 2017, and perhaps therefore a time for resolution-making. In light of Mr. Wilson’s observation, we might resolve to read a bit more – more broadly, and more extensively. And Mr. Rushdie encourages us read not just to understand the thinking of others, but to formulate thoughts of our own and share those with each other.

My prayer and expectation is that 2017 will bless you and me – each and every one of us.


[1] Here’s a link to a more thorough, better-written review. Incidentally, Professor Bassi makes no mention of his career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force; we owe him thanks for his years of service to the country.

[2] You can find a proper and more thoughtful review here.

[3] Couldn’t find a link to an independent review. Perhaps interested reader can supply one?

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Living on the Real World: The Art of the Deal.

As the 2016-2017 transitional period in U.S. politics enters its final few weeks, the nation and the world search for hints and early insights into any coming changes in policy and national priorities. These run across the entirety of the national agenda, but close to home for LOTRW readers are questions about what lies ahead for natural resources (with oil and coal extraction heading the list), hazards policy (relatively speaking, a blank slate?), and environmental protection (air- and water quality, but above all the regulation of fossil fuel emissions and U.S. participation in related global agreements).

One notion overhanging much of the discussion – again, both domestic and global – is that the new administration may be less in the business of making policy for its own sake and more likely to mix policy formulation with deal-making than its predecessor. It’s entirely possible that this view exaggerates differences between the two administrations. In the realpolitik of today’s diplomacy, for example, policy goals are translated into discrete diplomatic steps that in turn are often accompanied by arms deals, by debt forgiveness, or by removal or imposition of economic and financial sanctions. But, putting that aside, it might be useful for all parties to consider what political deal-making (in-country and internationally) could look like when it comes to natural resources, hazards, and the environment.

Where to find such insights? Here’s a possible starting point. Three decades back, in a 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump (and co-author Tony Schwartz) provided an 11-step formula for business success (aka good deal-making)[1]:

Mr. Trumps’ thinking may well have moved on. And in finance, we’re often warned that “past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future results.” But considering the source, the formula might be worth study and thought, by all parties: members of the incoming administration, members of Congress and staff, career civil servants, government contractors, NGO’s, and even the general public. The Trump/Schwartz list is long, and subject to diverse interpretations. What follows is an attempt to illustrate, through an example or two, how that framing might be used as a starting point for all participants in the policy process – whether anticipating what to expect in the years ahead, or influencing where things go, or for eventually evaluating the administration’s stewardship of its four-to-eight years. The hope is that you and many others will be find the list useful to hone your thinking, and goals, and decisions over the period.

Here are three questions for purposes of this post:

  1. What would it look like to apply this frame to natural-resource-, hazards- and environmental policies?
  2. In such light, how might past U.S. performance in this arena be judged?
  3. What differences – especially opportunities for improvement – might lie ahead if this framing or something like it were to be adopted?

Here goes:

  1. Think big. The book uses an example of forswearing a mere hotel in favor of a combined hotel-gambling casino, with its much larger revenue and profit stream. It’s similarly possible to think big about environmental issues. Following its own advice, the new administration might consider tackling the threefold problem of resources, hazards, and environment as a unified whole instead of piecemeal. Alternatively, it might set as a goal “making Earth great again.” It might seek to return the whole to an Edenic-quality as opposed to simply seeking to minimize environmental degradation, hazard losses, etc., or allocating small areas of land and sea protected status as recent presidents have done. Think big? Nothing would do more to put the Trump presidency on the map than a successful initiative along such lines.
  1. Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself. In the book, Mr. Trump asserts that his reputation back then notwithstanding, he’s no gambler. In that case, the new administration would do well to recognize the successes of the Obama administration and its predecessors, both Republican and Democrat. For thirty years the U.S. has been focused like a laser on working with other nations to minimize fossil-fuel emissions, stem the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and slow environmental degradation. These efforts have established a foundation – of science, of international collaborations and commitments, and more – to build on and to realize that desired upside potential. To fail to capture the progress already made in favor of trying some wholly new approach is to take a big and unnecessary gamble.
  1. Maximize your options. Mr. Trump stresses that most ideas for deals fall through. He argues it’s therefore important to have a large number of projects at different stages of development and fruition underway at any moment. And once a given deal gets the green light, it’s then equally important to develop numerous options for following through. If any single one encounters a roadblock, it’s still possible to make progress. In the present application, this would mean, possibly, exploring the full spectrum of future energy sources, not just fossil fuels. It would mean looking at green infrastructure to build community-level resilience to floods, drought, and other natural hazards. It would suggest fostering support nationwide and worldwide for multiple place-based, grassroots environmental initiatives, rather than focusing on a handful of top-down, command-and-control approaches.
  1. Know your market. The 2016 election results could be interpreted as affirming Upton Sinclair’s insight: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Case in point: environmental planks in party platforms resonated primarily with the well-to-do; political opponents had succeeded in framing environmental protection as competing with jobs. Yet the evidence tells a different story. In the United States and worldwide, the poor and disadvantaged suffer more immediately and more severely from environmental degradation than their richer counterparts. Political leaders not just in the United States but worldwide could use help in expanding the market for environmental protection from an elite few to the broader populace. The coming administration might be uniquely positioned to do just that.
  1. Use your leverage. In part, that’s because the contrarian theory operates in politics. For example, Richard Nixon was able to recognize the People’s Republic of China when George McGovern, had he been elected in 1972, would have found it almost impossible to do so. In part, though it’s because Mr. Trump appears to recognize just what leverage is available to the leader of the free world. The big challenge for him, as for his predecessors, will be to avoid squandering it – through either misplaced caution or in pursuit of small, self-serving (versus think–big) ends.
  1. Enhance your location. Remember the real estate adage: location, location, location? In his 1987 book, Mr. Trump tells us that one of his biggest successes flew in the face of this advice. He saw a plot of under-used, under-valued land in Manhattan and through development and marketing transformed it into a prime location. Imagine (again, thinking-big) enhancing not just a single location, but the entire Earth itself. Imagine, not just exporting pollution to out-of-sight-out-of-mind locations (mining lithium in the Andes, growing palm oil in Indonesia, etc.), but reducing pollution worldwide, improving everyone’s neighborhood.
  1. Get the word out.
  1. Fight back. 
  1. Deliver the goods. Interestingly, at this point in his 1987 narrative, Donald Trump used what he saw as the negative example of two presidents. He dismissed President Carter as failing to deliver on what he’d promised: “The American people caught on pretty quickly that Carter couldn’t do the job, and he lost in a landslide when he ran for re-election.” He suggested that the jury was still out on President Reagan: “Ronald Reagan is another example. He is so smooth and effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.” In light of those comments, and with an eye to the judgment of history, the president-elect has incentive to deliver. Environmental intelligence and environmental risk management offer an opportunity unique with respect to (1) ease of accomplishment, (2) positive legacy, and (3) low cost (conforming to element #10 below)
  1. Contain the costs
  2. Have fun

This expounding on the list of elements that make for a successful deal as they apply to natural-resource, hazard, environmental issues is quite incomplete, but you get the idea. Hopefully, you also get the second idea, which is far more important. The real purpose of this post is not to get your buy-in to any or all of the specifics. Instead, it’s to encourage you to reflect afresh on that 30-year-old list. Please identify your own takeaway, develop your own list of opportunities, maybe modify the list of eleven by subtracting one or two or adding a couple of principles or elements of your own. Contribute your thoughts to the national dialog.

Who knows? Maybe (in line with element #11) there’ll be some fun along the way.


[1] Only the headings are provided here; the book offers explanatory text and supporting examples of each bit of the formula.

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Living on the Real World: the ultimate realpolitik.

Realpolitik (from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises.


Today’s topic: reflecting on humanity’s relationship with the Earth we live on as a form of diplomacy – in this case, realpolitik.

The motivation? It’s the political context at the close of 2016. News and social media are agog about the fresh directions that U.S. foreign policy may take under the new administration. The president-elect and his team are signaling that things will be different soon. China (the president-elect’s phone chat with the leader of Taiwan has made the Chinese techy), Russia (the president-elect has been singing Mr. Putin’s praises despite the latter’s track record as a despot, clearly hostile to U.S. interests), Israel (where present and future U.S. administrations appear to disagree on Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue), and Mexico (here the subject is immigration and commerce – and maybe a wall), to name a few, have been under discussion.

Over-arching much of the talk is the idea of realpolitik, a concept that has been around forever but known under that label for only the last 160 years. We’re told the term Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a 19th-century German writer and politician, in his 1853 book Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands:

“The study of the forces that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world. The older political science was fully aware of this truth but draw a wrong and detrimental conclusion—the right of the more powerful. The modern era has corrected this unethical fallacy, but while breaking with the alleged right of the more powerful one, the modern era was too much inclined to overlook the real might of the more powerful and the inevitability of its political influence.”

The continuing, age-old conversation on realpolitik is a rich one, worth exploring, if you have time[1]. You can get started with this brief 2014 article by John Bew and this more extended 2014 discussion by Robert Kagan. For purposes here, and to keep it short, even at considerable risk of butchering the idea: in diplomacy, we can’t hope or expect to change the other party’s basic values and culture; we can only expect to accomplish more limited goals of mutual accommodation and elementary forms of collaboration. We must accept things as they are, not as we might wish them to be.[2]

Now to our relationship with the Earth we live on. Note first that the Earth and the way it works once used to be familiar to all of us. We lived on the land, and we drew our continuing existence straightforwardly from the land. Today, most of us live in one or two degrees of separation from such direct, personal experience. We live in the artificial environment of cities, and within that artificial environment, we spend most of our time in a virtual environment that makes the city itself recede into the background. The real world intrudes only occasionally, in the form of a food price spike of some type, a severe storm and accompanying power outages, or a smog episode[3]. To get in touch with this real world where everything that sustains life  comes from requires tourism (visits to the seas, the mountains, the deserts, the woods…) and establishing diplomatic relations to underpin that experience.

Note second that this relationship is threefold. Much like any diplomatic relationship with another country, we depend on the Earth for natural resources – food, water, energy, and more (in analogy to international trade and commerce). We occasionally sense the threat and suffer the hurt of natural hazards – flood and drought, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.  (Earth declares war on us). And occasionally the Earth suffers environmental degradation at our hands – wholesale clearing of natural habitat, air and water pollution, etc. (our own “military intervention” in Earth’s affairs).

So what might “diplomacy” with this “foreign” partner, the Earth look like? What are our prospects of changing its culture and values? In fact, what is that culture? What are those values? Just as we rely on intelligence to answer such questions about other countries and their peoples, so we rely on environmental intelligence to provide insights here.

That environmental intelligence remains a work in progress, but so far here is what we’ve learned. In a nutshell: this Earth we live on holds no values. It is wholly apolitical. It has no self-interest. It harbors no grudges, or animosity; nor does it show us any real love. It lacks ambition, dreams, and vision. In fact, and these are the important bits: (1) Earth is a responder, and (2) it “lives” totally in the present moment. Instant by instant, it is reacting in a self-consistent way to conditions and forcing prevailing, both locally and globally. That starts with the gravitational pull and heat and light of the sun, and the activity and impacts of all forms of life – especially, in these years of the Anthropocene, seven billion people. Of course, those conditions and that forcing are themselves the accumulated sum of all past conditions and forcing and their impacts over all previous instants, dating back to the Big Bang. So the present moment matters, but how we got to the present moment (the hysteresis of the universe, if you will) also matters.

We have some idea of what the Earth will do next, but to some extent its “intent” is mysterious. That too mirrors our diplomacy with nations. The future actions of China, or Russia, or Israel, Or Mexico are also enigmatic. But the reasons are different. As for nations, their leaders are looking at us and drawing inferences based on their own intelligence, and they act deliberately, and in some cases deliberately furtively, in ways that show free will and self-interest and are subject to change as their views of us and what best serves their purposes evolves. As for the Earth itself, it’s what scientists call a chaotic system. The smallest details (all-too-often unmeasured) determine the path of typhoon Nock-ten in the Philippines, or when and if the current California drought will end, or whether that long-dormant Italian volcano, Campi Flegrei, will catastrophically erupt, or merely simmer, and then simmer down. We don’t know what the Earth will do next, until almost the very moment it acts – not because it’s trying to hide something but just because that’s its nature.

Realpolitik teaches us this. We might wish for Chinese society to become democratic and free. We might hope that Russia would not use cyber-means to tamper with our politics. We might desire that Muslims, Jews, and Christians could find mutual acceptance across the Middle East, and that Sunni and Shia sects would get along. But we accept the fact that unless we use coercion or force, or even if we use all the leverage at our disposal, these circumstances on the ground will change on other nations’ own timing and not in response to what we want or do. What’s more, we can’t simply turn a blind eye to these international realities. We have to acknowledge they exist. Pretending that genocide is not underway in Syria doesn’t make it so. Fantasizing that China’s trade with the rest of the world mirrors the behavior and ethics of other World Trade Organization members doesn’t mean it does. Failing to recognize the dependence of aging nations of the west on immigrant labor doesn’t do away with our need for help.

If in our conduct with nations, we acknowledge and accept their culture and values as established, immutable fact, we might well do the same when it comes to the Earth itself. It does no good to complain that new floodplain maps “put our river-view and oceanfront homes in the floodplain when they weren’t before” when national flood losses continue to rise. It does little good to pretend that human beings are having no influence on climate when melting polar ice caps, sea level rise, increasing ocean acidity, and elevated global temperatures are telling a different story. At the same time, if we tried to put the carbon-dioxide genie back in the bottle, we’d find that climate still varied. It’s equally misplaced to assume that human activity is the whole climate story. And so on.

In our diplomatic relations with other countries, intelligence, though valuable, is of limited help. Others can in some cases see, and in other cases sense, what we’re up to. Even as we learn, they’re free and able to confound that learning through policy change or simple out-of-the-box action. By contrast, environmental intelligence always has a payoff. The Earth isn’t free to change its nature. The more we learn about how it works, the fewer the surprises we’ll have in store, the more time we’ll have to anticipate and to react to what’s coming.


[1]President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (pictured) certainly did.  

[2]Realpolitik even applies to marriage: “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.” – Albert Einstein (Really? I’m skeptical, but on-line sources I was able to check insisted on this source)

[3] as covered in this blog, and in the book, Living on the Real World.

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Looking for Joy – in all the wrong places?


joy-to-the-eorldAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”– Luke 2:8-12 (NIV)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 (NIV)

Joy? On the surface, joy seems out of place in today’s dark mood. The world has seen its share of tragedy and suffering in 2016. To open up the Washington Post (just the example of my local paper; you can surely say the same whatever your news source) each morning is an act of courage. The headlines bring news of death and destruction from every continent. Religions, races and ethnicities clash in-country as well as across national boundaries. Reading – the virtual experience of these realities – is itself numbing. But mere words fail to capture the real pain and despair that make up the experience of these troubles firsthand.

As a result, most of us, if we can, when we hear the words of the Christmas carol, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” we rush to shop, to decorate, to exchange gifts and spend time with loved ones. But, to our frustration, we learn those forms of joy has their limits. Even families can struggle to get along. Dysfunction and brokenness can lead to misunderstanding and flare up into anger.

Pope Francis has captured this in his message for the season. Excerpts from a Reuters summary: Pope Francis said on Saturday that Christmas had been “taken hostage” by dazzling materialism that puts God in the shadows and blinds many to the needs of the hungry, the migrants and the war weary…

Francis, leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics into Christmas for the fourth time since his election in 2013, said in his Christmas Eve homily that a world often obsessed with gifts, feasting and self-centeredness needed more humility.

“If we want to celebrate Christmas authentically, we need to contemplate this sign: the fragile simplicity of a small newborn, the meekness of where he lies, the tender affection of the swaddling clothes. God is there,” the Pope said at St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis said the many in the wealthy world had to be reminded that the message of Christmas was humility, simplicity and mystery.

 “Jesus was born rejected by some and regarded by many others with indifference,” he said.

 “Today also the same indifference can exist, when Christmas becomes a feast where the protagonists are ourselves, rather than Jesus; when the lights of commerce cast the light of God into the shadows; when we are concerned for gifts, but cold toward those who are marginalized.”

 He then added in unscripted remarks: “This worldliness has taken Christmas hostage. It needs to be freed.”

How can this season be freed? Maybe more urgently, how can we be freed?

Pope Francis has answers. But we don’t have to go that far afield. Here in the United States, for example, any of the 600,000 or so clergy who live within a few miles of you and me, and the millions in the communities they serve and lead, would happily share: it’s in fact what made that event 2000 years ago singular. Throughout all of prior history, we (more properly, our ancestors) had seen God as powerful, and remote, and disappointed in us – occasionally, maybe even often – angry. We thought to be around Him or call attention to ourselves was place ourselves in mortal danger. But through the circumstances of that first Christmas, God and the angels announced something far different: that He understood our form and our frailties[1]. That He held, and still holds, only love for us, not anger and judgment. That this was not a matter of our goodness, or our obedience or effort – but purely a matter of His grace. That He henceforth would always be present, and near, and accessible, in this different way.

(Of course, being human, we haven’t been content to go about our lives and let joy find us when and where it will. Instead, we’ve wearied ourselves to the point of exhaustion by hunting for joy, looking and up and down for it, hoping to come upon it through effort. C.S. Lewis captures the futility of such search well in his partly-autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy – worth a read.)

Immanuel – God with us.

God – the Maker of heaven and earth, nothing less.

With – not against, but with. Not far, but near. Not incomprehensible, but in a form we can understand.

Us – you and me.

Joy to the world![2]


[1] The best analogy might be this: Ants have a better chance of holding a meaningful discussion about human beings and our nature than we have of holding such a discussion about the nature of God. That is, unless He were to give us helpful hints, much as we help our children to learn – an avatar, a crib sheet, a brain implant. (Come to think of it, that’s what He did.) The coming of Christ is as if one of us assumed the form and nature of an ant to better explain things to them. (By the way, it might not be surprising if those ants turned on and killed that outreaching human-as-ant – but that’s a different part of the story.)

[2] Of course, you and I need to hear the music, even though Christmas has come and gone. Here’s Pentatonix.

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Missing these two ingredients? Then your transition document is still incomplete

Carpe diem.

Gratias tibi.

Starbucks may have switched to its holiday cups. Christmas and Hannukah decorations may be in all the store windows. Annual letters from friends are starting to fill our mailboxes (joining the catalogs that have been flooding in since September). But in Washington it’s not just the season to be jolly – it’s also the Transition Season, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post.

The post outlined something like a seasonal recipe for producing transition documents, listing essential ingredients and the thought process and procedure for putting them together. Looked at in that way, you might have thought of two ingredients missing from the transition-document recipe that you’d like to add. In the language of holiday recipes, think of these as spice, and sugar.

The spice? It’s the hinge of history.

Any election, and the 2016 election in particular, represents a critical turning point for the country. And when the country is the United States, it’s also a hinge point for the world. In a similar way, is the year 2016 also something of a turning point for the special issues and the community of interest and practice that are the focus of the transition document?

Usually the answer is yes. What makes the present moment special will vary from issue to issue and group to group. Two examples: for the aerospace industry it might be the critical need to modernize and restructure national defense occasioned by changes in world security threats, and the opportunities for doing just that as a result of technological advance. For the health care sector it might be the need to tweak (or radically change) aspects of the Affordable Care Act to raise coverage and cut costs and red tape.

What about for the Earth observations, science, and services world? Again the answer is yes. The moment to be seized? Hundreds of people are writing about it, from every angle[1]. The LOTRW post from March 23, 2016 provides just one example. You can find supporting detail there, but it describes the convergence of four trends:

1.Resource scarcity and declining margins, especially in regions of the world where resources are already scarce and margins already small. The resource challenge – most visible with respect to water, food, and energy – is global and long-term. However, the shortages don’t manifest themselves that way. Instead, they present in the form of acute local episodes – drought here, famine there, power outages or incidence of water pollution in this or that city for brief periods… our need for these elements is foundational and continual. We can’t tolerate even momentary or localized gaps or interruptions. What’s more, we all need them, whether rich or poor. Those who can afford it will pay any price to ensure continuity. The economic shocks that accompany these episodes are devastating to the world’s disadvantaged, from whatever nation.

2.The holistic nature of the resource problem. Speaking of food, water, and energy, it turns out that the three are intertwined. Just one of myriad examples: the U.S. policy shift of recent years flirting with the use of corn-based ethanol as a renewable fuel source reverberated in worldwide spikes in the price of maize. More generally, agricultural production is highly water-intensive, amounting to something like eighty percent of fresh water use here in the United States. Most fossil-fuel electricity generation makes additional water demands. Economists, scientists, and policymakers are increasingly absorbed in the task of understanding these and similar interconnections and their implications for nations and the world…

Fortunately – indeed providentially – we’re not forced to meet these future challenges armed only with today’s tools. This is where our other two big trends come in.

3.The increasing diagnostic power of Earth observations and science. Thanks to continuing investment in Earth observations and science by Congress and the American public, sustained over decades, our ability to monitor and predict what the Earth system will do next is growing by leaps and bounds. Satellite platforms combined with ingenious remote-sensing instruments now provide unprecedented global coverage, temporal resolution of environmental conditions. Drone aircraft aren’t just being used for war or contemplated to make deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online…

4.The growing reach and power of Big Data and data analytics. This emerging ability to combine high-volume, high-velocity, diverse data sets, even in its nascent stage of development – promises to be transformative. The new power to merge Earth-system data with data on the human system – populations, resource use, habitat, income level, trends and details in all these – makes it possible to contemplate modeling of coupled human-natural systems with the same skill that we once could bring to bear only on the weather alone. To imagine where these capabilities will take us? We’ve no more idea than cavemen and women who invented the wheel could visualize the link between that invention and space travel. The difference is that we’ll make this next leap in a century instead of ten thousand years.

Carpe diem! That’s the spice.

The sugar? It’s gratitude.

Jack Fellows taught me (really all of us) this lesson, back in 2001. The Bush administration was early in its first term, and it had finally selected a science advisor, Jack Marburger. (A side note: recall that history, and you might remember that the appointment took a while, for several reasons; something to keep in mind as we impatiently look for signals from the new administration on this score.)

Jack Fellows was vice president of UCAR at the time, but his background had included time on the Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow, and several years at OMB, where he worked with the federal agencies and the George Herbert Walker Bush administration to formulate the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (No mean feat!) The experience had given Fellows a unique perspective on how it felt to be at the receiving end of a blizzard of transition documents. Armed with those insights, Fellows led UCAR and the community in the construction of a two-page document that consisted of two elements: (1) thanks to the Congress and seven presidential administrations spanning every political persuasion for forty years of unflagging support for the atmospheric sciences. (2) An account of the geosciences community’s stewardship of those investments. Advances in understanding. Translation of those advances into improved forecasts and outlooks. Savings in lives and property, improved decisions with respect to agriculture, energy, water resource management, and more.

Jack then used the document to as the skeleton for conversations with Jack Marburger, staff at OMB, and staff on Capitol Hill, where he would put flesh on the bones.

Do I need to tell you that it worked?

Gratias tibi. Gratitude? Sugar?

Versus complaints about shortcomings or deficiencies in past Congressional funding levels and other forms of support? Versus skepticism about where the Bush administration night be taking us? (They hadn’t had a chance to make a move one way or the other at that time). A summary of how we spent that money, and what the nation and the world got for that investment?

What a novel idea! And what an appropriate tone for the holiday season.


A final footnote. Jack Fellows graciously played a lead role in constructing the 2016 AMS transition document; you can see his hand in the final product.

[1] The-more-than-seven-hundred LOTRW posts all touch on it, in one way or another.

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Presidential transition? Time to show spine.


“To thine own self be true” – Shakespeare (Polonius’ advice to Hamlet)

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Periodic, fair, and open elections define any representative democracy, and the United States is no exception. For all their imperfections, these regular governmental re-sets offer opportunity for reflecting as a country on where we’ve been, re-committing to, re-articulating, and on occasion re-defining our national priorities, surfacing options for how we might get there, and much more. Elections draw us all in, even those who wind up not registering, or failing to vote in the actual event. And after each election, it’s always time to move on. No one escapes. And no one dodges the consequences, good and bad. We’re truly all in it together, whether we’re “driving the car” or “along for the ride.”

With such high stakes, elections are also almost always stressful and exhausting, not just for the candidates but the nation as a whole. These days the politicking is almost unending. There’s little or no respite. Back in the day, even-numbered years were for public posturing and campaigning. Odd-numbered years were for getting things done. There’s no longer such a clear-cut distinction[1]. What’s more, elections tend to be close. And in our currently polarized, gerrymandered society, in which the country is diverse even if neighborhoods aren’t, fewer people see election choices as questions of degree. Most see the possible outcomes as radically different. Tensions are high.

Multiply all this by two if you live in or around Washington, DC. This is a company town, with the federal government as the company. Here, every aspect of life revolves around one or more of its three branches – executive, legislative, and judicial. Huge national and global businesses make their headquarters or support governmental affairs offices here. Even universities have DC offices to look after their policy and financial interests. Some 3000 or more non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) also call DC home. Although these organizations have diverse concerns, they share one common view:

The one thing standing between any incoming administration (and Congress) and their complete happiness is (our) advice.

The result? A two-year, four-year rite of passage like no other – the preparation of hundreds if not thousands of transition documents to share wisdom with the newcomers. Incoming political leaders are met with a blizzard of advice and requests on every aspect of the national agenda. Some documents speak to the well-publicized issues: jobs, foreign policy, education, health care, national security, immigration… Others speak to the less-visible detail: the needs of the elderly, pistachio growers, coal miners, patent lawyers – even Earth scientists and service providers.

Document development can begin more than a year before the election. Small writing teams are assembled, and rough out several iterations over as many months, making periodic refinements in response to broader corporate input or NGO membership.

Such teams operate under structures and procedures unique to each institution, but they share certain common approaches. They ask themselves questions such as: Who is the intended audience? (Usually, the incoming Congress and/or administration.) What is our message? What do we want that audience to do after they’ve finished reading our document? (Usually, a blend of policy decisions and actions toward certain desired outcomes for society as a whole, plus beneficence toward the corporation’s or NGO’s community.) Recognizing that the incoming political leaders and even their staff are powerful, busy people: With all the competition, how can we we get our audience’s attention and hold it? Can we keep this document under 1000 words? Or to no more than 1-2 pages?

 Of course the reality is that the inbound political teams are laser-focused on each other, and on their personal place in the power scheme that’s about to make up the new political landscape(to say nothing of more mundane matters such as finding a place to live). What’s more, an incoming group such as the 2016 crop might be forgiven for thinking they were elected precisely to ignore establishment advice. Breaking through this mindset, or for that matter getting any single NGO’s signal to stand out against the white-noise background of all the competing documents is not quite so unlikely as winning the lottery, but it comes close.

Why then, do the private sector, academia, and NGO’s devote so much energy, brain power, and effort on transition documents? One answer might lie in that idea of the “intended audience.” In reality, the “intended audience” is not just the incoming administration/Congress, but also includes the corporation’s employees, or the university’s faculty, or the NGO’s members. In light of Eisenhower’s maxim, what matters far more than the low-probability of developing some silver-bullet-message in the contest for the ear of the incoming national leadership is the sharpening or redefining of the organization’s view of its own overarching ideals and purposes. In the context of Polonius’ advice, if an organization can articulate to its satisfaction a vision of its truest self, then, as Polonius goes on to say, “it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Vertebrates, as pictured here and discussed in the previous LOTRW post, provide another parallel. Think of the 1000 words, or the page or two that comprise a transition document as the rudiments – nothing more than a skeletal framework for a national agenda, or an NGO’s functions and purposes. But as the diagram shows, skeletons reveal a great deal about vertebrates. With the skeleton alone, it’s still easy to distinguish birds from fish, or predators from herbivores, or mammals from reptiles, etc. And with the skeleton in hand, it’s possible to put flesh on the bones, and bring the vertebrate to life.

If Polonius had thought to, he could have said, “To thine own spine be true.”

Recent LOTRW posts have attempted to show how rich that fleshing out of the bones looks for the environmental intelligence community. The intelligence bits themselves indeed span hurricanes, air quality, water resources, single-point societal vulnerabilities, threats to biodiversity, but also much, much more. Hundreds of other topics could have been substituted for any one of these. The topics themselves are fractals; they can be subdivided again and again, and still reveal more environmental intelligence that needs to be gleaned. The posts also covered needs of the environmental intelligence community – for observations, for workforce education, for close collaboration with end users (America’s leaders, corporate end users, and the general public, at a place-based level). And finally, but most importantly, the narratives and the flesh on the bones reveal a connection between all that work and the larger national interest: jobs and infrastructure and health care and foreign policy and national security and immigration and all the rest.

Fact is, at an individual level, each of us in the Enterprise has flesh to put on these bones. Each of us has a unique narrative that merits the telling. And transition documents provide a framework for the telling.

What is that framework? Well, in the case of the American Meteorological Society, it goes something like this:

  • we are all about the advance of science and associated technologies and their application for societal benefit
  • we do this through public-private-academic partnership
  • that partnership exists not to feather our own nests but to serve the larger society, both domestically and internationally.

Read the AMS transition document and look for those elements. Read the Front Page commentary provided by AMS president Fred Carr and the Washington Post piece by former AMS President Marshall Shepherd. Put your own narrative on that framework. Then go out and build the relationships and trust with the new administration and Congress.

And together the United States and the rest of humanity will make a little progress on our biggest 21st-century challenge: Living on the Real World.


Read this post with a critical eye? Then you’ll have noticed that two elements that make for a successful transition document have been missing from the discussion. They merit a separate post! More next time.

[1] Much as “rush hour” seems an outworn concept for many of today’s urban commutes. Today’s traffic is snarled all the time.

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Recent environmental intelligence. Part 5. Will the world of the future lack spine?

reindeerAs documented so far in this LOTRW mini-series, environmental intelligence from the past several weeks has told us that:

  • when it comes to hurricanes and other extremes, what matters is vulnerability;
  • air pollution isn’t just causing momentary health hazards, but irreversible damage to large numbers of children to an extent that imperils humanity’s future problem solving ability;
  • single-point vulnerabilities of special societal assets pose special risks that are both difficult to anticipate and hard to avoid; and
  • coming water scarcity is of such great scale as to test societal will and attention span.

But the environmental intelligence just seems to keep coming, and taking diverse forms. For example, last month also brought word that vertebrates are declining in numbers worldwide. According to the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Report 2016,

Global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, putting the survival of other species and our own future at risk. The latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report brings home the enormity of the situation – and how we can start to put it right. The Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020 – unless we act now to reform our food and energy systems and meet global commitments on addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.

New media were quick to pick up the story. Here are excerpts from the Washington Post coverage:

According to this year’s Living Planet Report, released by the WWF every two years, wildlife populations have already suffered tremendous losses in the last few decades. Vertebrate populations have plunged by 58 percent overall since 1970, the report states. And organisms living in freshwater systems, such as rivers and lakes, have fared even worse, declining by 81 percent in the last four decades…

…The biennial report relies on data from the Living Planet Index, an ongoing project that monitors changes in more than 18,000 wildlife populations composed of nearly 4,000 animal species around the world. Habitat loss and overexploitation are the two biggest current threats to wildlife, the report suggests. And much of the problem has to do with the growing human population’s ever-increasing need to feed itself…

…In the last century, the population has grown from about 1.6 billion people to more than 7 billion today, and it’s expected to exceed 9 billion by mid-century. As a result, many of the problems facing wildlife involve being over-fished or hunted for food and losing their habitat as more and more land is cleared for agriculture. The WWF estimates that farmland already occupies more than a third of the planet’s surface

…Other growing threats to wildlife include pollution, competition from invasive species and the ever-increasing influence of climate change, which can change the temperature and precipitation patterns animals have evolved to tolerate, strain their food resources and force entire populations to migrate or face extinction.

Is this cause for concern? The answer of course is yes. But the level and nature of the concern depends on you ask. Foresters, farmers, ranchers, and fishermen are torn between a rich day-to-day appreciation for nature that those of us in urban settings can only dream about, and the interference of nature with their own managed ecosystems. For many of the rest of us, the concerns vary depending on where and how we live, etc. – in short, how many degrees of separation isolate us from direct experience of the planet we live on[1]. As for academics? Economists, trained to see everything in terms of substitutable resources, may tend to minimize the problem. Ecologists, who have had growing opportunity to investigate the delicate balances and interconnectedness that shape ecosystems, are at the opposite end of the spectrum – far more worried. Everywhere they turn they uncover hitherto unsuspected links connecting flora and fauna, including vertebrates and each other and between vertebrates and simpler life forms. At a time when the web of the Internet is thriving, ecologists see the web of life unraveling.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of detail to the sweep of the larger narrative. Here’s just one example from the past two months: Russian reindeer. Science tells us that this population numbered around one million in round numbers, but then declined to some 700,000 around 2013. And this month we learn that 60,000 reindeer starved to death as a result of a single weather event[2]:

In November 2013, 61,000 reindeer starved to death on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. It marked the largest regional “mortality episode” of reindeer ever recorded, as ecologists wrote in a new study in the journal Biology Letters. An additional 20,000 had succumbed to famine in November 2006. The immediate cause, according to the team of researchers from Europe, the United States and Asia, was an unusual ice barrier that smothered the reindeer pastures.

 Reindeer can stamp through ice about three-quarters of an inch thick, using their feet to access the nutritious lichen and plants below. But in early November 2006 and 2013, the ice was an order of magnitude deeper — up to several inches, too tough even for the reindeer’s sharp hoofs. Unable to eat, the animals died…

This particular environmental intelligence is coming in belatedly – recognized only in hindsight. For local Siberians, the problem surfaced with little warning, and the impacts were severe:

…In early November 2013, it rained for a continuous and anomalous 24 hours. After the rain, temperatures plummeted. By Nov. 10, more than 10,000 square miles of the southern part of the Yamal Peninsula were blanketed in ice. The temperatures remained below freezing until spring 2014. By that time, the scientists wrote, “the private herders who had lost most or all of their animals to starvation were functionally stranded in the tundra. With no draft reindeer to haul their camps, they resorted to full-time subsistence fishing and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds, a multiyear process.”

Two points to emphasize: Once again, it’s not the extreme event per se that matters, but the vulnerability. And second, this is just a single story: reindeer in Siberia. The population collapse of vertebrates is the aggregate of thousands of such stories, only a handful of which are widely recognized and told. Most are going unrecorded.


All of this prompts the question: will the world of the future lack spine? Some might leap to the existential issue: will the animal world of the future be returned to “lower” forms of life – with insects, say, at the top of the food chain? But there’s a shorter term human context in which this question also matters.

Trends and events suggest you and I may be called upon to display more backbone in our everyday lives in the near term. That’s not backbone as in hot-temperedly seeking, provoking, and entering conflict, but rather the simple act of remembering who we are and remaining true to our deepest values and convictions.

Social scientists tell us that to do this is hard. The phrase they use is that “knowledge is socially constructed,” but it’s not much of a leap from that to the conclusion that “we believe what the people we want to like us believe.” In the old days, this might have been called peer pressure. Most of us, most of the time, go along with the crowd.

A special degree of focus, courage and conviction is needed to work this issue in the rapid flow of our daily lives: when should we be listening, and open to reexamining and perhaps replacing old preferences and habits of thought with something new? When are events, and circumstances, and people running up against those values and beliefs that we need instead to preserve? When should we push back? And in that latter case, how should we go about that in word and deed? And in such a way that we don’t burn bridges but maintain our ability to collaborate with and even continue to pushback against those around us with undiminished effectiveness? Come to think of it, could pushback itself be overrated?

The day after Thanksgiving seems a particularly important time to bring up such questions. Hopefully, millions of us have had a chance to press the spiritual RESET button, to be more receptive to the idea that we can be people of peace, but also people of spine.

In the way life sometimes works, this topic has bearing on transition documents. That’s the subject we will turn to in the next post.


[1] Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, (AMS 2014) covers this in Chapter 3.3 The Age of Virtual Reality (pp 33-36).

[2] The original article appeared in Biology Letters. It’s available here: Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia,Bruce C. Forbes, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Roza Laptander, Marc Macias-Fauria, Pentti Zetterberg, Mariana Verdonen, Anna Skarin, Kwang-Yul Kim, Linette N. Boisvert, Julienne C. Stroeve, Annett Bartsch Biol. Lett. 2016 12 20160466; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0466. Published 16 November 2016

[3] (footnote added, from Wikipedia material). Reindeer are also known as “caribou.” The name caribou comes, through the French, from Mi’kmaq qalipu, meaning “snow shoveler”, referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food. Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep it from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as “cratering”) through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss.

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Giving Thanks? It’s not only an end. It’s also a beginning.

cornucopiaAs always, Thanksgiving promises a cornucopia. But this year the bounty is more than the abundant dinner-table spread. It extends to food for thought. News and social media have issued an abundance of material on how to talk with friends and family who may have voted differently in the national election. Unsurprisingly, the advice is all over the lot.

Truth is, this national holiday was in fact born and built into the American fabric out of a strong – even desperate – need to bridge cultural distinctions, differing goals, build communication, even end deep enmity.

Why is that?

The answer lies in logic, and in history.

First the logic. Before you and I can be grateful, we have to take stock. Just what is it we’re thankful for? In many homes, it’s a tradition to go around the table and ask this question of everyone present, from the youngest to the oldest. Answers vary from the sacred to the profane. They range from a joke, or a trivial crisis that was happily resolved, or the Thanksgiving banquet, or the warm house on a cold day, to larger things – the blessings of material wealth, or rude good health and vigor, or the meaning we’re finding in our relationships and our work, or just the joy of still being alive at the end of another year.

But in the process of building this inventory – of sharing and listening – a realization emerges. Everyone present, both the kids and the oldsters, get it. Those things we’re thankful for? We didn’t achieve them through our individual talent or skill or effort. We don’t deserve them because of any inherent special qualities or goodness. We didn’t earn them. They lie largely outside our circle of influence or control.

Instead these blessings came to us as acts of love, and mercy, and grace, from someone or something very close but yet separate. In some cases that someone is as close as the Thanksgiving table. It’s the way family and friends rallied around when we went through a difficult patch. In some cases, the gifts came from strangers. The food for the table and the energy running the house came from the effort and the sweat of the brow of countless others; so did the transportation system that got us “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” The freedom and stability we enjoy comes at the cost of sacrifices made by our military. The structure, stability, and yes, even justice, flawed though it sometimes seems, was provided by thousands of federal, state, and local government workers. The Skype and Facetime that enlarge the number of those with whom we can now share the day came from IT nerds.

Hmm. We need to give thanks.

In itself, this increased self-awareness is a huge step forward. And at a number of homes and tables, that’s where it ends. But for many, there’s a renewed understanding that all this comes through others, and circumstances, but comes from a Higher Power – that at the very core, Love, and Mercy, and Grace rule the real world on which we live. For some, this is clearly evidence-based. For others it’s a matter of faith or belief. For others, it’s no more than a hope. But at every level, with this understanding comes awe. Humility. Patience. Acceptance, perhaps even embrace, of our circumstances. An ability to forgive and put the past aside. A new appreciation, a new willingness, even determination, to make common cause with those around us. A new courage and spirit with which to do life, beginning with the coming week.

Abraham Lincoln understood all this.

Which brings us to the history. The Thanksgiving narrative usually goes back to 1621 when Pilgrims and native Americans celebrated the conclusion of a successful growing season and solemnized their common bond despite quite different histories, cultures, and circumstances. But in the early days of the United States, Federal declarations of the holiday were hit or miss.

Until the Civil War. In 1863 Thanksgiving got a big boost when President Lincoln issued a proclamation[1]. Not so well known as his others of his proclamations, it nevertheless reads well, and is pertinent to today’s political climate:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

 No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

 It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union…

Much to take to heart, even today! Lincoln was wise enough to see that if instead of focusing on our differences, we reflected on shared blessings – blessings not taking the form of some zero-sum game, but rather coming from some external yet close-by Divine Providence, and bestowed without regard or special favor toward any side or point of view, but rather out of a spirit of love and grace – we might move more toward accommodation and peace[2]. Thanksgiving has been observed every year since.

Perhaps we can all be on the lookout for these blessings around our tables today – and find new hope and shared purpose in what we see.

That’s my prayer for you. I’m thankful for each and every one of you and all you’re doing to make this world a better one.


You might want to listen to a song for the day. Here’s one: Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude” captures some of the uncertainty, tentativeness and nuance she sees in our relationship both with the Earth we live on and our Creator. You can hear it sung here, but the printed lyrics below will help you follow along:


 Send some rain, would You send some rain?

‘Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again

And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade

Would You send a cloud, thunder long and loud?

Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down

Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid

But maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to thirst for You

How to bless the very sun that warms our face

If You never send us rain


Daily bread, give us daily bread

Bless our bodies, keep our children fed

Fill our cups, then fill them up again tonight

Wrap us up and warm us through

Tucked away beneath our sturdy roofs

Let us slumber safe from danger’s view this time

Or maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

A lesson learned to hunger after You

That a starry sky offers a better view

If no roof is overhead

And if we never taste that bread


Oh, the differences that often are between

Everything we want and what we really need


So grant us peace, Jesus, grant us peace

Move our hearts to hear a single beat

Between alibis and enemies tonight

Or maybe not, not today

Peace might be another world away

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to trust in You

That we are blessed beyond what we could ever dream

In abundance or in need

And if You never grant us peace…


But, Jesus, would You please…

[You can find further Thanksgiving background for today in the previous LOTRW post.]


[1] Actually written by William H. Seward, then Secretary of State.

[2] Slavery was an evil of colossal magnitude, eroding the soul and fabric of America. The Civil War climaxed centuries of rot, and the repercussions of that rot and upheaval persist to this day. By contrast, the polarization attendant on this last election has been growing only for years, not centuries, and much less blood has been shed. We might therefore hope that this recovery could prove more swift.



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