Looking ahead to America’s Real Challenge…and Opportunity

That clattering sound we all hear this morning? Congress and the President have just kicked the debt-ceiling can a little further down the road.

In and of itself, this is no reason to be discouraged…in fact, it may be just the opposite. Study American civics, or pick up any newspaper, and you’ll read, repeatedly, that the judicial branch as a whole, and the Supreme Court in particular, tend to decide all issues on the narrowest possible construction. Even when it comes to a few landmark decisions – think Brown vs. the Board of Education – they have found it most prudent to move in a series of small steps rather than attempting major interpretations or reinterpretations of law or the Constitution.

Not said so often, but similarly true, is that Congress and the executive branch, with few exceptions, also work in this same mode. Experts remind us that the function of the Congress is not to pass legislation but prevent the passage of bad legislation.

The larger real world on which we live shows the same range of behavior. At one end we find there are processes which proceed in small steps. Scientists have a name for that class of such incremental, slow processes which can just as readily be undone. We call them reversible. An example? Take plant respiration. In the sunlit hours, plants photosynthesize. They take up carbon dioxide, and give off oxygen; at night, they take up oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. They also show this same, essentially reversible behavior on a seasonal basis – showing a slight net release of oxygen and a net uptake of carbon dioxide during the growing season, and reversing that balance during the winter months. Seasonal changes in the extent of the Arctic Ocean ice pack have a similar reversible character. On a smaller scale, the propagation of waves on the open ocean, though they dissipate over time, can be modeled for many purposes as if they were fully reversible. Other examples abound.

By contrast, most extremes are irreversible. When that ocean wave finally reaches the beach, and breaks? That’s irreversible. That upheaval from an earthquake? The energy represented isn’t available days or years to trigger a later “downheaval” in the equal and opposite direction. Tropical storms, in their earliest, nascent stages, form at a certain phase of tropical waves (reversible), but as they grow quickly become irreversible. Hurricanes are not followed shortly by “anti-hurricanes.” The same holds for their impacts. All that flooding and destruction in their wake? Over the next few days, as the weather conditions “return to normal,” damaged buildings don’t spontaneously reassemble themselves.

[A pointy-headed aside…scientists track a measure of this disorder in physical or natural systems that they call entropy. In reversible processes, entropy remains unchanged; in irreversible processes, it increases. Organisms, or human society for that matter, can temporarily or locally decrease their internal entropy, but only at the expense (somewhere else) of their environment. Think of a human infant developing, gaining an education, growing up, and becoming stronger and more capable in every way. She is becoming more “ordered” in the process. But all the while that’s occurring, the entropy in the surroundings…perhaps the farmland where the food to sustain her is grown, the watershed providing her water, etc…is increasing. Think of the beautification of an urban space…and then look in the vicinity for the landfill and other signs of the degradation that made that beautification possible.]

Irreversible processes are not confined to natural hazards. Environmental degradation and resource extraction also take this form. Burn fossil fuels, instead of renewables, and the effects quickly become difficult to reverse, efforts at carbon capture and sequestration notwithstanding. Urbanize previously pristine landscape, and there’s limited chance to go back. Strip mine iron ore, and that so-called restoration of the landscape is usually an impoverished version of what was there before. Log a virgin forest? The second-growth forest which emerges presents quite a different blend of flora and fauna.  Overfish the oceans? You can’t count on simple cessation of fishing to restore the old normal. Less-desirable species may fill in the ecological niches. And so on.

To continue the analogy with natural reversible and irreversible processes…reflect on this. The debt-ceiling crisis, though an entirely human construct, built around a relatively arbitrary deficit figure, and though supposedly resolved, has contained several elements that may prove irreversible in nature. The stress and its toll on both our national leadership and the general populace have been high. That leadership is still under the gun to get the needed legislation passed. Under such circumstances, the leadership is less able to put in badly-needed time and attention on serious policy matters such as jobs, health care, education, and international concerns.  They have less energy available. They’re preoccupied placating angry constituents. The social fabric of the country frayed a bit. Tensions are high. We may be less neighborly with each other for a while.

And the outside world has been watching.  Those seven billion folks found their confidence in us a bit shaken. We may never fully regain their trust. [Or we might. Much depends upon what happens next, and when.] In any event, we can only hope the country can continue to fly on autopilot for a little while longer, until we all recover.

Another reflection…much like our hazards policy of recent years, which has had the unintended effect of exchanging many, small disasters, for a relative handful of a few very large ones…by kicking the can down the road, we may have set up another extreme event for some distant date. Suppose the select committee that Congress will establish to identify future budget cuts and (possible) tax increases finds itself unable to reach consensus, or unable to sell that consensus to the larger Congress and to the Administration. Then some months from now we will all be back in crisis mode. This time around, the defense budget is being held hostage. The prospect of draconian defense cuts is supposed to be so objectionable to all parties that such a breakdown in negotiations will not occur. However, it may be it could also have the effect of making the next crisis even more contentious than the present one.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that this is our present-day Maginot Line. The real challenges we face can’t wait. The future tests that will matter most are those dealing with the resource extraction, environmental protection, and natural hazards. Here the real world is very much operating on its timetable. It’s no respecter of our need for a breather – or a Mulligan. And it’s not issuing arbitrary deadlines or ceilings. Instead, moment by moment, it’s quietly, invisibly taking future options off the table.

The next post will return to this topic, and outline ideas surfacing within the AMS Policy Program and its larger community on how to proceed to tackle this very real challenge…and the corresponding opportunity.

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