Living on the Real World…the Basics

It’s been a while since we stepped back and looked at the overall purpose of this blog. Here it is in a nutshell:

“Living on the Real World addresses our relationship with the real world, that is, the solid Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, and the plant and animal life that enable all human affairs. That world is at one and the same time: a resource; a victim; and a threat. To live sustainably we have to master all three of these relationships: simultaneously, locally and globally, and at all times. A daunting task! The blog explores ways and means for improving our odds of success.”[1]

[Some 24 hours ago I was a little happier with this framing than I am today…the discomfort coming in part from Anteros’ comment of yesterday on sustainability, which you can find here. He makes such a great point…and I agree with him: see for example, Sustainability? An oxymoron. We can only buy time. from October 23, 2010, and related posts. But let’s accept the above statement for the moment.]


For starters, we seven billion human beings are consigned until further notice to Earth’s surface. Only a few of us are in mines (which only penetrate a few feet); another handful are in the air at any time, but those small exceptions represent “experimental error.” So we don’t live in the real world so much as we live on it.

Taking another step…although most blog readers (that is, readers of any blog) live in a virtual world 2-3 degrees of separation removed from the real world (in air-conditioned or heated buildings, or closed vehicles, and so transfixed by some computer or smartphone display as to be oblivious to even their artificial surroundings), we in fact all depend upon that Real World for energy, food, water, and much more. Because we’re relatively new at living on this Real World, our resource extraction is clumsy and ham-fisted. Wherever we look, we find we are bit-by-bit and place by place degrading the ecosystem services on which we depend. [In much of the developed world, we may no longer be doing that locally; we may be exporting environmental problems abroad, where we don’t have to confront them on a daily basis.] And we are equally blind to the disruptive threats (natural hazards, industrial accidents, willful acts of terror, pandemics, cyber threats, etc.) that from time to time put the lie to our optimistic estimates of our resilience and invulnerability. We tend not to see them coming. Besides, it’s awkward and expensive to prepare. And so we don’t.

We may be tempted to focus our attention on only one or two of these three facets to our relationship to the Earth we live on: to focus, say, on meeting our material needs and desires, and protecting ourselves from hazards, while ignoring any loss of natural habitat and biodiversity. Or to develop a brittle affluence that does us well in the short term but leaves us vulnerable to destruction from earthquakes and/or violent storms…or global financial shocks such as we saw in 2008. But the Real World insists on keeping tabs on all three aspects…locally and globally, at every instant, and for indefinite periods of time.

So with each time step – each day, or each year or decade or century – we’re challenged…we’re struggling to avoid losing a little bit of ground. We’re therefore in the business, like it or not, of trying to buy time.

How do we do this? Through continuous innovation.

The good news is, we’ve gotten better at innovation over the centuries. And the opportunities for innovation have so far, as Vannevar Bush expressed in Science: The Endless Frontier , proved indeed to be endless. But we can’t rest on our oars. We have to continue to invest in R&D.

But what should we invest in? Ideally, given there are seven billion of us, we should have seven billion sets of ideas. But billions are too poor to do more than eke out a living for the next 24 hours. Billions more are concerned with global commerce in products and services – in one or the other of the levels of that virtual world we discussed. Only a handful of natural and social scientists and engineers; farmers and other resource managers; environmentalists, and risk managers are focusing on that Real World. We’re on a steep learning curve…and even as we learn, the growth in population and the pace of social change and technological advance mean that tomorrow’s reality is different from yesterday’s. So we likely have an impoverished set of strategies. All too often we find ourselves trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools.

And the nature of our present times is this: we need strategies that are cheap, that are fast, and that work.

!!! It’s tempting to think we have no such tools. Whatever we try to do in life seems to be expensive, slow, and misdirected.

But in reality we have an entire class of strategies that meets all these tests…strategies that are emergent. Think of the internet itself. We started out sending a few e-mails here and there. But we let it grow like topsy. And in a few years, it not only spread all over the world, but it showed itself to be a culture dish that started growing activities such as electronic retailing, Google, Facebook, and all the rest.

Four candidate, emergent strategies have been discussed repeatedly in these posts:

–          Policies (formulated correctly, they foster rapid decisionmaking and action across a range of contexts)

–          Leadership development (equipping – not indoctrinating, but equipping – small numbers who can then equip others)

–          Place-based approaches and social networking (when dealing with any global problem, start locally, with a variety of independent approaches, and imitate the successes)

–          Developing a basis of facts about the natural world and about social behavior (so important to know how things really work; for example, in my field of atmospheric science, for virtually all of human experience, people thought that the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere was infinite, the climate never changed, and the weather was unpredictable. Over the last hundred years, scientists haven’t just refined these three ideas. Instead they’ve turned each on its head. More such progress is coming.)

In addition, the posts have encouraged us all to recognize that we are truly in this together. I agree with Anteros that collaboration is worthwhile only without coercion. Collaboration also doesn’t mean conformity…in fact in the present circumstance diversity is not just to be tolerated; it’s to be cultivated. It is essential. But collaboration is about love. Our greatest challenge is not any of the issues described above. It is whether we can disagree without insisting on being enemies. It is whether we can and will keep talking to each other.

Want some encouragement here?  It takes time and effort to hate. By contrast, love is about relaxation. We give up everything else – stop clinging to it, and exhausting ourselves in the process – and love is what’s left. And as much as we might like to get through life without acknowledging this truth, we’re not going to make it.

Which brings us to a small closing thought about climate change science. The scientific and technical, and social issues of living on the real world are rather broader. Climate change is an important piece of the puzzle. But as intricate as it is, it’s only one piece. It’s important to sort out the issues there and what that science does or doesn’t tell us. But as we succeed in that task, we’re also discovering there’s a lot of other stuff we need to know as well. [It may be that one of the regrettable casualties somewhere of the 1990’s was the move away from the terminology “global change,” which comprehended all the social and technological change afoot, all the changes in landscapes and ecosystems and environments, to “climate change.” ]

This broader set of issues that make up living on the real world encompass decisions and actions by just about everyone of us…not just those expert in climate science and climate processes, not just those who are Earth scientists, or social scientists, or researchers of any other stripe. Every one of us, every political leader; every person wresting a living from the Earth; or protecting habitat and the environment; or managing the risks of natural hazards; or covering that journal beat; or educating our kids, has a stake. The world’s seven billion might allow itself to view the debate on climate change as a spectator sport, but these issues of living on the real world draw each of us in. We don’t get to opt out.

Your thoughts?

[1] As expressed on the blog’s listing on Technorati, which was written perhaps a year ago.

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2 Responses to Living on the Real World…the Basics

  1. Bill:-
    What debate? The climate has changed (often, in the past), is changing, and will continue to change. How well can we predict it – not very; but we’re getting better (I hope!). Should we even be “debating” about unverified (unverifiable?) predictions based on models with fudge factors (oops! adjustable parameters)? As Judith Curry pointed out in her recent interview, we’ve hitched the policy cart to a scientific colt that’s barely newborn (BTW, you did us all a big favor by introducing us to her blog.). The debate is sort of a cosmic comedy that puts me in mind of Byron’s “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ’tis that I may not weep.” Yet again, the Common Man is probably showing greater wisdom than the uncommonly gifted – ignoring the cacophony until it sounds as one voice.
    PS. Not sure if this is his/her basis, but in psychoanalysis, anteros is the sum of all instincts for self-preservation. Seems like a good fit!

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