Belt and suspenders

The American Meteorological Society ran a small workshop this week on a big topic: Earth observations, science and services for the 21st century. You can find some coverage in the previous posts here on LivingOnTheRealWorld. The sessions ran Tuesday through Thursday.

I dashed from work that last evening for a small dinner meeting at home on another topic. In the course of conversation that evening, one of the men present said he’d read an interesting article on  a survey of 1000 senior citizens[1] who had retired after successful business careers. They were asked “What would you change about your life if you had to live it over again?”

The results? Apparently the respondents emphasized three things.

[Alert to young people reading this! You can use what I’m going to say next. The rest of us can only nod our heads in agreement. So listen up!]

First, they’d be more reflective.

Second, they’d take more risks.

Third, they’d take the time to understand what really gives them fulfillment.

Worth your spending some time on, wouldn’t you agree? Take some time with what’s left of this weekend to think a bit about how you can work a rhythm of reflection into your life. Devote some of that reflection to teasing out what it is about your life that’s most fulfilling, most satisfying, and how you can reallocate your most precious resource – your time – to fulfilling your life’s purpose.

If you take these two steps, you’ll automatically take care of that third, risk-taking part.

Why? Because those seniors weren’t talking about running with the bulls at Pamplona, or sky diving or bungee jumping or hang gliding, or extreme snowboarding. They weren’t pushing unnecessary risks. They weren’t recommending that we put ourselves in danger just for danger’s sake.

Instead they’re talking about those risks that keep you and me from achieving true fulfillment. Maybe it’s sticking with your current job instead of going back to school so that you can change fields. Perhaps it’s not standing up for what you know to be right. Could be you and I are hesitating to help someone in need because we see the act as compromising our own safety or comfort. Or we’re not starting that business because we want a steady paycheck.  

And what they’re really suggesting is that if you and I take the time to understand what really gives us fulfillment (note the emphasis on understand – not just knowing what makes our lives meaningful but why), then we’ll see that the biggest risk of all is not wholeheartedly pursuing this or that different path.

But we’re digressing a bit. Back to that reflection.

And along those lines, after reflecting on the workshop in general and on the November 2 post in particular, I want to make a further point.

That post spoke to recent advances and successes in surface networks and in satellite observations for monitoring and understanding the Earth. It suggested that the two complementary measurement approaches face different opportunities and challenges. Surface networks can build on, and even foster, crowdsourcing and other emergent approaches to build capacity. Even so, they struggle to provide global coverage – over the oceans and poles, for example. Satellite-based remote sensing instruments address the global coverage problem, but struggle to measure a number of parameters and dimensions of the Earth system that matter (biodiversity, say, or conditions underground). They’re expensive to boot – and we’ve handcuffed ourselves with a restricted range of business models. We’re not allowing ourselves to be very nimble here.

Truth be told? We need both.

The situation is not unlike that the nation faced during World War II, when we sought to build the atomic bomb. Most of the legend centers around Los Alamos, but the fact is that something like 90% of the funding went to get the actual fissionable material – the uranium-235, an isotope that makes up less than 1% of the uranium found in nature.

Several methods were available in principle – electromagnetic, gaseous, and thermal. The United States was broke back then, just as it is today. But the leaders of that time didn’t decide that their greater risk was more debt. They didn’t opt for a five-year study to determine which of the three techniques might be the cheapest. Rather they decided the greater risk was losing the war.

So they opted for belt and suspenders. They pursued all these approaches in parallel, at multiple sites. And went on to win.

When it comes to the 21st century challenge, the race is not against a human enemy. It’s a race to get better at drawing resources from the Earth while minimizing any degradation of the environment and ecosystems. It’s a race to protect ourselves from natural hazards as our greater numbers, concentration in urban centers, and dependence on critical infrastructure make us more vulnerable.

But it’s a race nonetheless, and the biggest risk is not that we puncture our wholly artificially and arbitrarily constructed national-debt ceilings but that we degrade the planet’s continuing capacity to support us.

Accordingly, we should invest heavily and generously in the critical Earth observing, science, and services infrastructure to get us the answers we need in the time we need them. 

We’ll be more than repaid if we do.

Seven billion people – once they reflect on it – will thank us. We’ll have bought them time to consider what will mean fulfillment to the human race.  And then they can take the risks needed to make the same gift to the nine billion people in the generation to follow.

[1] Through the capabilities of Google I’ve made some quick progress towards identifying the source: it’s apparently work done by Richard Leider. My guess is you can take it the rest of the way.

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