What kind of world do we want?

“A world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences in fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity.” American Geosciences Institute vision statement

What kind of world do we want[1]?

The folks at the American Geosciences Institute (above, per the previous LOTRWpost) have thoughtfully constructed an answer. It’s worth parsing.

A world…To start, note that AGI articulates a vision for the world– for seven billion people, not merely for its 250,000-odd geoscientists. The vision’s not about the geosciences community’s need for more research funding and infrastructure, or freedom of scientific inquiry, or opportunities for international students at U.S. universities, or public-private partnerships, or career development for geoscientists. These and other similar needs are vital to AGI and its members, and to society – but the vision deliberately sets them aside in pursuit of the larger purpose. They may eventually be uncovered in the effort to realize the world vision – but will be addressed then and only then, as a means to a larger, and frankly nobler, end.

…that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences… This isn’t the world we know today. And such a world won’t be achieved overnight.Under what circumstances can this understanding and trust be achieved? A little thought makes the answer obvious: the world can’t and won’t “buy in” unless and until essentially everyone becomes an active participant in the science, the conversations on the implications of the science and the options for action, and the actions themselves. The starting point for all this – a necessary condition – is improved universal public K-12 education. Not just private education for a wealthy few. Not simply public education isolated to this or that better-off public school district. Not even public education confined to the developed world. And not just STEM education – education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No, to produce a world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences requires the education of hundreds of millions of schoolkids worldwide. It requires education that prepares children to live in a changing world by emphasizing critical thinking and learning-to-learn as much more than rote memorization. Education that balances the sciences with the humanities. STEM education where the geo- and social-sciences take their place alongside physics, chemistry, and biology. As children so-educated mature into adulthood, then and only then will the reality year-by-year converge on the vision.

Two asides (both analogies):


Analogy 1. universal service.

Wouldn’t have thought it, but turns out some explanation is needed here. To google this expression these days is to find that the first page of listings deal with the idea of open internet access to all, rather than a privileged few. Terrific concept – but wasn’t what you’d have found back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In those days, universal service was generally construed to mean universal military service. Young American men[2][sic] were subject to the draft, and at that time arguments were advanced favoring universal service — a system under which all male citizens (apart from specified exceptions) are required to serve a preset length of time in the armed forces. Part of the logic behind this idea is that universal service creates a public better equipped to drive national conversations and decisions with respect to national interests, especially pertaining when and why to sue for peace – or go to war. Such decisions and actions would not be made lightly – as they risk being when only 1% of a given population is in a volunteer armed services, and are isolated culturally and socially from the larger general population.

In the same way, the key challenge facing geoscientists today is that the world has become divided into a few hundred thousand experts on subjects ranging from natural resources to hazards to environmental protection, and seven billion bystanders. We need a more participatory approach. We all need to be more involved, instead of leaving that to “volunteers.”

Analogy 2. Spousal trust, between life partners.

Husbands and wives, and life partners more generally, at least those in happy, satisfying, healthy relationships, trust each other. But that trust is shaped by shared history, experience, and both partners know that trust has limits. The spouse/life partner is unable to solve every problem that comes up. The spouse/life partner can be expected to offer a different perspective on many or all subjects – and even disagree strongly on some. In the same way, trust of geoscientists here can’t mean trust without limit, or trust without some due diligence, or some back and forth. It doesn’t mean that geoscientists will always have all the answers. Generally speaking, however, life partners trust each other’s intent, that is, to have their joint best interests at heart. That trust doesn’t just happen so much as it’s built– by extensive, sustained, close collaboration.


…fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity. Fostering! 250,000 geoscientists can at best contribute to solutions; we can’t implement. That’s the role of the larger society. Creative solutions!But it’s not sufficient for geoscientists to be scolds, to confine their work to “documentation of human failure.” Instead of noting the environmental destruction accompanying natural resource extraction, we have to help identify opportunities, means, and methods for renewable resource development/use. We have to go beyond inventorying increasing losses to natural hazards, and join in the task of building community resilience. And instead of merely documenting loss of habit, bio-diversity, air and water quality, and more, we have to work with the larger society to do a better job of maintaining invaluable and irreplaceable ecosystem services. It’s tempting to settle for piecemeal approaches that give the illusion of solving of problems; rather, we have to push together toward creative solutions that make new progress, and that address simultaneously and holistically the three-fold challenges we face – and at the same time create jobs, lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, improve public health and well-being.

Bottom line? A great vision statement, and suggesting that as a community we need to (1) advance our sciences and their application. But we can’t sustain such progress unless we (2) advance public K-12 education, both generally and with respect to the geosciences in particular. The two goals are on an equal footing.

Who could ask for more meaningful life’s work?


[1]As repeated often – one of the three questions that form the LOTRWmasthead, that serve as the foundation for everything in this column.

[2]This was focused on men, and males at the time, and, by and large, still is. Like so much else in our society, could stand some reexamination.

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2 Responses to What kind of world do we want?

  1. Bill:-

    Good, per usual.

    Quick thought on “universal service.” In our too Manichaean and multi-polarized society, this could play a key role in breaking down the barriers between us. I was drafted into the Army in ’69 and – as an enlisted man – lived with all kinds of people. Some you liked, some you didn’t, but by and large it was because of their character, not their color or their culture. The more affluent got to see the problems faced by those struggling; the less affluent got to voice their frustrations and – occasionally – found solutions they otherwise might not have found. All of us developed a deeper recognition of our common humanity.

    About two years ago, I wrote (http://www.resilientus.org/crisis-of-the-middle-class-solutions/):

    “Former General Stanley McChrystal is heading up a group that aims to make “a year of national service a shared experience for all young Americans.” This excellent idea could “create a culture of service where we are all invested in our nation’s future and feel a shared sense of responsibility to our nation and to each other” – breaking down the barriers that isolate Precarians [those young people stranded by the Great Recession]. It would help the young build those informal networks that are the most common basis for getting a job. In turn, it would get them more involved in their communities and more confident that they could actually make a difference.”

    Most importantly, we might begin listening instead of shouting at each other.

  2. William Hooke says:

    Thanks, John, for this valuable set of reflections.. and for the great punch line.

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