“Commerce, Education…and what’s the third one there?”

Oh, yeah…the Department of Energy.

What do these three Cabinet Departments have in common? Well, for one they’re all three slated for elimination if one of the Presidential aspirants has his way…and if he can remember where he put his campaign talking points for last night’s debate.

But Commerce, Education, and Energy also contribute to a common purpose. In fact, they’re an essential aid for 300 million Americans, and seven billion people worldwide, who are Living on the Real World.

The story is a long one, and still being written. But here’s the CliffsNotes version.

Think of the Department of Commerce as the Department of Sustainability. President Clinton’s first Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, certainly did. His first day on the job, in early 1993, he stopped by the NOAA cluster of offices in the Herbert C. Hoover Building. He said to those of us who were there at the time, “I had my choice of Cabinet positions. And I chose Commerce. It’s the Department for the 21st century.”

Inspirational at the time. And still today. What a leader.

What Ron Brown saw was that sustainability was going to be the pivotal issue for the 21st century. It is vital that those of us alive today sort out the solution to the real world’s core puzzle: how to extract the resources we need for life and build our economy – while at the same time, locally and globally protecting the environment and ecosystems that we trample on daily, and sheltering ourselves from natural threats. And Ron Brown also knew that Commerce has many of these elements under one roof.

There’s NOAA to inventory those vast ocean and coastal resources so vital to our history and future; providing the weather, climate and water information essential to agriculture and the feeding of the world’s peoples; monitoring air and water quality; and warning of hazards from hurricanes and winter storms to drought, volcanic ash, space weather, and tsunamis. NIST provides wind, fire, and seismic engineering foundational to protecting shelter and critical infrastructure from hazards. Census locates vulnerable populations and tells us where the schoolkids are (teeing up the Education piece…please bear with me!). EDA rebuilds communities devastated by disaster. ITA helps U.S. industry take many of these products and services and market them abroad. And on and on.

But Commerce has the potential to do far more. Its very name invites us to see it as a natural point for reaching out to business and industry…and all the great 21st century tasks require true collaborative effort between government and the private sector. In the right hands, with the right vision, under the right leadership, Commerce can help the United States accomplish such partnership at a strategic level – the means to so many ends. [An August post from 2010 expands on this.]

The Department of Energy supplies a complementary piece of the puzzle. Energy underpins every strategy for Living on the Real World. Sustainability requires that we successfully navigate the transition from dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. DoE’s research and services help a country and a world understand the stakes involved for the planet and for ourselves. They help us catalog our options and expand the range of policies and technologies available to us. And much, much more. For example, along the way they helped unravel the human genome. Talk about spinoffs!

Back to those schoolkids. You and I understand that education of our children is inherently a family responsibility. We therefore work to achieve this at the level of our local communities. Just as a diverse population is an invaluable national asset, diverse educational models that result help make America strong. But as in other areas of life that matter to us, we want our national government – through, say, a Department of Education? – to let communities tap its vast assets to help do their job. And we know that in a future where sustainability matters, it’s vital that our schools equip tomorrow’s public with the tools they’ll need to make intelligent decisions and take effective action with respect to resource use, environmental protection, and natural hazards – at a local level as well as nationally and globally. We want our children to be comfortable Living on the Real World.

Could these three Cabinet Departments do their job better? You bet. Flaws and shortcomings seem to be hardwired into the human condition. Could they find savings within their current activities and programs? Absolutely. From my vantage point, it looks as if they’re doing that very thing every day. But the truth is you and I can also see from the sidelines that if we gave them more, they have no shortage of new ideas and actions they could take to make our world more sustainable. The same applies to their private sector partners. In every company and every business, big or small, every day, the search goes on to do better with what we have, and to expand capabilities and productivity.

Sounds like our day job. And speaking of day jobs, as I write this, the sun is coming up.

Time for you and me to go to work.


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