A (well) managed planet?

Mythology tells us that Phaethon was unprepared when he took (his father) Helio’s sun chariot for a spin. Helios had done little more than anoint Phaethon’s head with magic oil to keep the chariot from burning him. This lack of planning proved tragically fatal, not just for Phaethon but for humans in all those cities destroyed by fire when the sun dipped too close.

As nature yields the reins and humanity takes charge of what Joel Achenbach and others call spaceship Earth, the outcome looks to be similarly grim.

Do we want to avoid Phaethon’s fate? Three actions will improve our odds: (1) find the Owner’s Manual for this chariot-planet of ours; (2) take a crash course (excuse the metaphor) in Drivers Ed, and (3 — a tip of the hat to Sarah Palin) man up.

1. The Owners Manual

If we’re going to make a smooth transition to a managed planet, we’ll need to know a lot more than we do now about how the Earth works. That means more observations…more parameters, better global coverage, pinpoint space and time resolution, greater accuracy. It means deeper understanding…what scientists call a predictive understanding – that is, a degree of knowledge that when applied to the observations enables us to tell reliably, usefully what the planet will do next…where and when water supplies will be ample, for example, and where and when they’ll be scant. Knowledge sufficient to predict global food supplies…and to go one better…to increase foodstocks. A heads up on the coming extremes of flood and drought, the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Insights on landscapes, habitats and natural ecosystems… which are robust and why? Which are stressed and at risk? And much, much more.

We lack the owners manual. And we didn’t simply misplace it. It doesn’t yet exist. We’re going around spaceship Earth’s control room pushing buttons and levers…Wonder what this knob does? Why are these three levers red? What does “Eject”mean? Why is there a lock-and-key cap on this panel?

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that we have some of the overview, but in a dumbed-down language. We’re missing many pages and in some instances key chapters. We’re a lot more savvy than in the days we thought all matter was composed of four elements – earth, water, air, and fire. We’ve figured out that the Babylonians struggled because their irrigation practices wound up contaminating their croplands with salt. We’ve developed a theory or two about Easter Island. The U.S. dust bowl of the 1930’s. But after a few centuries building dams and levees we’re only now fully understanding some of the limitations and the unintended consequences. We see hints of past ice ages and planetary warmings and cycles of flood and drought, but the picture is murky, clouded, shifting. And so on.

I’m reminded of my first date with my wife. I showed up at her house before she was quite ready. At the time she was a single mom and had a thirteen-year-old son. She asked if I could move the car out of the driveway and onto the street so he could get his bicycle out of the garage.

“Sure!”

Wait a minute. What’s this pedal to the left of the accelerator and the brake? What’s this big lever between the driver and passenger seats?

I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. (Blush!) Hadn’t even bothered to learn the theory. Six months of practice and one clutch replacement later, I was passable.

But I was motivated, and I was investing time, and because I was courting my wife-to-be (for the first seven weeks) and then married (!), I made learning a priority.

And the task was simple.

When it comes to running spaceship Earth are we motivated? Investing? Making learning how it works a priority? If so, why are we investing less than 0.1% of GDP to the task? And why are we cutting back on that little bit? Why are we pulling back on civilian Earth satellite missions and why is DoD contemplating getting out of the Earth satellite business? Why are we slow to refurbish our aging weather radar network with new technology that would make our nation Weather-Ready? Why undo all NOAA’s planning to establish a National Climate Service? Why scrimp on the scientific research, agency-by-agency?

And the task is by no means simple. Which brings us to…

2. Drivers Ed

It’s not enough to know how a car works, and what it needs: unleaded, not leaded gas, an oil change every three months or 3000 miles, whichever comes first; brake fluid; tires maintained at a certain pressure, rotated every few thousand miles, and replaced when the tread wears down, and so much more (my wife could tell you a few stories about my performance in this department too).

We have to know how to use it to get where we’re going, and we have to know the rules of the road…how to accommodate all those other drivers. Speed limits. Lane changes. Traffic lights and signage. Signaling our intentions.

Yielding.

The analogy isn’t perfect. You might think that managing the planet is more like an airplane cockpit. We’ve talked in other posts about what the flight community calls cockpit resource management. Two or three pilots up front? At least one has to be looking at what’s ahead at all times. Someone else, checking that problem indicated on one or more of the subsystems. Someone else, checking all the instruments and indicators that seem to be “nominal.” And so on.

Some people might have an image more like the control room of the Starship Enterprise. But it’s not just hundreds of people, all wearing the same uniform.

It’s billions. There’s not a control room per se so much as there’s a distributed network of seven billion people each making decisions and acting locally with respect to land use, building, economic activity, agricultural production, water resource management, energy delivery and consumption, environmental protection, hazards and emergencies, and so on. Seven billion agendas.

What does cockpit resource management look like at this scale?

John Plodinec hinted at some of this in his comment on yesterday’s post. The human element – factoring in all the different cultures, languages, values, hopes, aspirations, needs? Talk about convoluted. The problem is one of staggering intricacy. Rivals the complexity of the natural Earth system itself. To operate spaceship Earth requires we be as disciplined about the social sciences as we are about the natural sciences.  We want the comparable observing capability, the analogous predictive understanding of human, organizational, and societal behavior.

But it’s about more than understanding the rules of the road. It’s also how we engage one another.

3. We have to man up.

[Sarah Palin meant this in a different sense.] Here I’m talking about shouldering responsibility. Putting the safety and continued well-being of others first. Valuing a common good. Exercising self-control. Taking care of family (and recognizing that everyone we meet is “family”).

You can put in your list of values here.

In closing, since we’ve used a lot of traffic analogies today, a look at the DC commute offers hope.

“Bill, you must be kidding! The DC commute is the worst in the country. There’s nothing out there every day but man’s inhumanity to man. Road rage and worse.”

“Nope, I’ve never been more serious.”  

Actually, the DC commute is hundreds of thousands of people moving like a precision drill team, with little top-down, command-and-control, and a lot of self-policing. Only about half the rules of the road during the commute are written down; the other half is in a body of unspoken tradition that varies from intersection to intersection around the city. You see everyone making shifts and adjustments and accommodations on the fly. The road rage? It’s occasioned by the exception here or there. The person from out of town who doesn’t know the unwritten rules, or the person with the local license plate who knows the rules but either through selfishness or because the kids are late to school is violating one of the precepts.

The myth handed down is that Phaeton’s tomb has an epitaph: “Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s chariot. Greatly he failed, but greatly he dared.”

How do we want our epitaph to read?

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3 Responses to A (well) managed planet?

  1. Bill:-

    I think I could write a post (or six!) myself about this post…very thought-provoking.

    I can somewhat reluctantly buy into the vision of a managed planet (I could get a lot more enthusiastic about a cherished planet – but that would be yet another post), but it begs the question of who’s going to write the owners’ manual. Of course there would be plenty of eager volunteers (take Al Gore, please!), but until we know enough to avoid all of the potentially devastating unintended consequences (as I indicated in my comment yesterday), I don’t have faith that we know enough to truly “manage” the Earth.

    As you point out, this management is a complex omni-disciplinary task. Who among us is so arrogant as to believe that he or she is sufficiently master or mistress of enough of them to be able to even direct the effort. The balancing act entailed is monumental.

    And yet, that does not excuse us from the responsibility of trying – we may fail, but there is nobility in the attempt. I believe the right answer is to do two things:
    • Continue to repair our ignorance.
    • Concentrate – focus – do not swerve – on those actions that clearly can be effective, and that are likely to have few adverse consequences.

    For the first, a national climate service should be an important part – but only a part. If we are to prioritize actions and interests – to carry out the balancing act we both spoke of yesterday – the social sciences and non-sciences (ethics, philosophy, faith) need to focus more of their resources on a re-development of what was once called Natural Philosophy. And all of us need to build better bridges between the Two Cultures.

    For the second, how about we quit kidding ourselves that we know enough to be able to make wise policy decisions about punishing carbon emitters? In my opinion (reflecting both my scientific understanding and my sense of history and my moral values – see, I’m trying to practice what I preach), the only scientifically and ethically sound step – given our current ignorance – is to encourage “negawatts.” How about a new Manhattan Project focused on using the energy we have more efficiently – increasing the fuel efficiency of our cars, improving both the energy efficiency and the robustness of our homes, making our manufacturers more competitive by encouraging them to make both current and future products with less energy? A dollar invested in energy efficiency has an almost immediate payback – even if our investments in Solyndra and others weren’t politically tainted, do we really think we can get that kind of payback from alternative energy?

    We know we should be able to enjoy our same standard of living with much less energy use (we may be able to reduce our energy use by about 25% without impacting our standard of living). This clearly would cut carbon. In the long-term, it would mean savings for both industry and consumers. It would relieve the stress on our over-stressed transmission system. It would reduce our reliance on foreign oil. Properly done, focusing on more efficient use of energy would actually mean careers – not just jobs (and not just new jobs replacing old ones!) – for those who need them. You and I could really get excited by this, even at our advanced ages – so think what a morale boost it could be for the whole country. It could be this generation’s Moon Mission.

    OK, so I got a little carried away. I’ve probably inadvertently made my point about whose hand should be on the tiller. But the bigger point is that even in ignorance we should and can do things now – maybe even exciting things – to achieve the balance we’re all looking for, and that our Earth needs.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, John. I loved this. And I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed my invitation (click on “about” on the webpage), but I’d really welcome a piece from you on a “cherished” planet. If you’ll take the trouble to write it, I’ll post it.

  2. Pingback: I Cherish the Earth – The [Un]Movement | Living on the Real World

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