Kumbaya? Maybe…we really need to sing it. All of us. Together.

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? Easy to see. A whole bunch of people (seven billion of us and counting) are combing the surface of the Earth looking for resources to make it through the day in a rather undisciplined way. As a result we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to hazards and to localized, acute pollution crises, loss of habitat, and declining biodiversity until further notice. Resources will remain short. This is our foreseeable future.

What kind of real world do we want? Well, we are not going to get a planet devoid of climate variability and change, or a planet that is hazard-free, however much some might think they desire it. And we shouldn’t! Such a static world would also be a dead one.

But what kind of world is possible if we act effectively? Probably most of us think we can do better. We hope we can achieve, and certainly think we should seek, a future in which we are more resilient to climate variability and change, and natural hazards; a world where we are far more effective in minimizing the environmental degradation, preserving habitat, and biodiversity as we draw on the Earth’s resources to sustain our numbers and lifestyle. Can we turn things around overnight? No. But improve the trends over time? On good days, that looks attainable.

We’re not bright enough as individuals or a species to accomplish this decision by decision. What we need is a more effective framework for making all of our decisions – that is, more effective policies. Our present policies are a good start. After all, we’ve been working on them for a century or so. But they fall short. We need to keep refining them. We also need to execute with more rigor! We’ve examined some areas ripe for improvement. To begin, in addition to separate policy frameworks to treat Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat, we could use an integrated synthesis of these. We ought to hone our aptitude for learning from experience. We should keep score according to nature’s real rules, not rules of our construction that we’d rather were in force. [For example, in economics, internalizing the externalities is an option; on the real world, there are no externalities.] We need to partner up across disciplinary lines: natural and social sciences; science and practice; science, practice and policy. We could do with healthier, more vibrant, independent news media, shining a spotlight on our successes and areas where we need improvement. Robust public education would help equip society to track progress. And so on.

This last idea – partnering up across disciplines, in full view of probing journalists and an engaged public – hints at yet another policy refinement that’s needed: inclusion.

Why this additional step? Isn’t inclusion completely embodied in the notion of partnering? Not really. Because in partnering as we usually conceptualize it, we’re bringing in only a relatively small number of experts worldwide. The majority of the world’s seven billion people are along for the ride.

Why is this additional step needed? Wouldn’t it suffice for experts in climate, hazards, and other environmental matters to act as stewards on behalf of the seven billion? Isn’t that the whole point of specialization?

Yes and no. Yes, because as Matt Ridley lays out so eloquently in The Rational Optimist, this economic specialization has been the key to wealth generation throughout human history to date. It’s equally vital going forward. So, while some of our number sweat the sustainability challenge, others can work on improving health care and extending life, advancing arts and culture, etc. No, because we still lack buy-in on such fundamental notions as, is there really a problem? Are humans the cause? In what ways? What can and should we do differently?

Won’t this additional step delay action/unnecessarily prolong the milling around? Again, yes and no. Again, we need to continue acting locally (both geographically, and also in terms of content/expertise). That’s underway, and we need to keep it up! However, as an additional step, even as we’re working in small, cohesive action-oriented groups, we have to work harder at bringing more people into the discussion. Look around at all the evidence that we’re polarizing, losing mutual trust, allowing our differences to irritate, even enrage, instead of charm us. We’re not seeing ourselves as “in it together,” as interdependent. Instead there’s too much we-they.

Over the next several posts, we’ll unpack this, and consider some concrete steps we might take, and how these might been encapsulated in policy.

Our world is just a tiny bit cynical – have you noticed? So when we talk about singing Kumbaya there’s often a note of sarcasm involved. But the fact of the matter is – going back to harmonizing versus eliminating our differences, perhaps we should all join hands and sing together – and in full throat. All together, now… “Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya, O Lord, kum bay ya.”

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