More on priorities and U.S. destiny in the 21st century

Here at the AMS Summer Community Meeting, there’s been a lot of discussion about priorities, the federal debt ceiling, and how our community should respond to threatened federal budget cuts and the like. Similar debates rage across the U.S. Every community – whether geographic or cultural or professional – today confronts the same challenge. There’s a rash of introspection and self-examination. There’s a lot of talk about doing more with less. Remarks to the effect that if we don’t make priorities ourselves, someone else (presumably less knowledgeable and less well-meaning) will make cuts for us. People struggling to craft messages to defend the importance of their work (and to defend their budgets).

Chances are, wherever and whoever you are, you’re saying “tell me something I don’t already know!” We’re all living this dream today. One data point…this morning the meteorological community heard from public-health leaders and professionals. And – guess what! – they’re constructing the same case we are for the inherent benefits of their work and the important public good that national health represents. And that’s as it should be. They have a remarkable story to tell.

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Just a word or two about some of the best parts of that public health narrative. We can start with the overall theme for the panel: one world – one health. The basic idea? That human health is tied to the health of ecosystems, and the health of the environment/landscape itself. The three systems are interdependent, not independent, and it makes little sense to consider any one of these three components in isolation from the others. Another bit to ponder? One speaker walked us through the litany of pathways by which weather impacts health. Heat waves and cold snaps. Air and water quality. The links connecting weather and outbreaks of vector-borne disease. Drought and famine. Extremes, and much more. Add these all up, he said, and you could make the case that human health was largely determined by weather. So it turns out those early Greek and Roman physicians weren’t so off the mark after all. And perhaps Dr. James Tilton, the surgeon general of the army during the War of 1812 who ordered all his physicians to start recording daily weather data, the better to understand the effect on health of the troops, knew what he was doing.

 Another inspiring piece? Hearing about an initiative to put 30-some ozone sensors in the hands of students at high schools in Colorado. Why is this interesting? Well prior to this infusion, the state itself had only had 20 such instruments for monitoring. So we have a twofer. More data will be available, and we’ll also be able to see the outcome of a social experiment: what’s the impact of increasing the data set while relaxing the quality control, and at the same time increasing public ownership of air quality monitoring? The small company pursuing this work is using both private- and public funding to carry out this and other air-quality measurements. What a splendidly disruptive idea!

Other speakers spoke to climate issues, solar UV and health, and other aspects of the problem. Discussion following the panel was animated…and resumed an hour later over lunch.

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But to get back to priorities… Tuesday’s post took an initial cut at the subject of prioritization. My point then was that as a community, our priority should be service to others, rather than self-interest. The idea…when we serve others, then over time our best interest becomes their self-interest. (Stare at that a while; it does make sense.) A far more powerful and secure position for us to be in! But that’s still not the rationale. Putting other’s interests ahead of our own is simply the right thing to do.

However, following conversations yesterday and this morning with others I respect, I realize I should have said a bit more. I should have added two points.

First, the reality is that all of us – government and corporations, small companies and global ones, leaders and managers, and even individuals – are already prioritizing. We’ve been doing that all along. Institutions, managers, and leaders continually reevaluate purpose and mission and objectives, wind down projects that have served their purpose, weed out ineffective employees and try to hire on better ones. Most knowledge workers ask every morning – what will be the most effective use of my time today? This is not something we ignore until someone threatens to cut our funding – a responsibility that we rediscover only when someone threatens us. Quite the opposite. We’re already prioritizing. All the time.

Second, we’re all responsible for prioritizing that piece of the action that’s ours: our agency, our group, ourselves. We can’t or shouldn’t self-appoint to the role of attempting to identify or enforce priorities for others. However well intended, that’s wrongheaded. At best it’s elitist; at worst it’s sinister.

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In closing we do well to step back from this chaotic discussion now underway and ask ourselves, why are we being subjected to all this? Why are the workers of America, at both federal and state levels, in big businesses and small, having these discussions instead of doing their bit to address national challenges? That’s what occupied us all only a month ago. Why the great change? Is the need to cut back, the need to throw even more people out of work, and compromise still greater swatches of the national agenda, our most important priority?

Judging from the actions of our national leadership, it is.

Shame.

Our forebears did things differently a century ago. And that’s a mighty good thing! Suppose in 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, then-President Roosevelt and the Congress had said, If only we’d been attacked in the 20’s, when we were rich! Just our bad luck to be attacked when we’re in the Great Depression. Wish we could afford to buy bullets and build tanks and fight the war. Guess that’s the end of the American era.

Not what we said, is it? No, we sucked it up, and did what had to be done.

Today, we don’t face a human enemy, as we did then. But we do face real trials (as opposed to artificial, wholly arbitrary budget handcuffs). And the foundational test of the 21st century is the holistic problem of teasing from the Earth the food, water, and energy we need while protecting the environment and guarding against natural hazards. If we solve that problem, the rest of our concerns will fall into place. History will give us a passing grade for our stewardship. If we go a step further – and solve that problem and collaborate and share solutions with the rest of the world, the 21st century, like the 20th, will be an American century.

And the world will be a better place, and we will be the better people for it.

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