BC and AD: today’s new meaning for legacy acronyms?

Dionysius Exiguus

“What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”– Jesus (Luke 13-20-21, NIV)

Today’s LOTRW post celebrates Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the humble), who was born in Scythia about 470, but subsequently relocated to Rome; there he made a life’s work translating hundreds of Greek canons into Latin. Along the way, he invented the Anno Domini era, used to number the years of the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Nowadays the idea of “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” (the year of our Lord) is so deeply imbedded in our current culture and language that few give it any conscious thought,regardless of religious heritage.

In the sciences, the time t plays an unquestioned central role, but scientists feel free to establish what might be considered the starting or reference point


Cosmologists might take this to be the moment of the Big Bang (or perhaps the most recent/present Big Bang). Physicists studying simpler systems might make other choices (for example, the motion of a simple pendulum might be described adopting t=0 as the instant of release). Archaeology, geology, and some other disciplines sometimes make use of BP (that is, Before Present). Is that a less familiar one? Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Before Present (BP) years is a time scale used mainly in archaeology, geology, and other scientific disciplines to specify when events occurred prior to the origin of practical radiocarbon dating in the 1950s. Because the “present” time changes, standard practice is to use 1 January 1950 as the commencement date (epoch) of the age scale. The abbreviation “BP” has been interpreted retrospectively as “Before Physics”; that refers to the time before nuclear weapons testing artificially altered the proportion of the carbon isotopes in the atmosphere, making dating after that time likely to be unreliable.

Which brings us to the year 2020 (that is, 2020 AD). 

Current events make it tempting to repurpose Dionysius’ initials as follows: Before Covid, that is, BC; and Anno Disruptio (the year of rift) or Anno Discidio (the year of disruption), that is (AD). In the space of a few months, the world’s peoples have progressed from comfortable complacency, to awareness of a new infectious disease threat confined to China, to cowed living-at-home under the pall of a global pandemic.

At the start, the world saw this as a momentary interruption of normalcy, to be followed by a quick return to status quo.  Now many, perhaps most people would say instead that covid-19 signals a transition to a new normal. Experts point to the emergence of what some are calling a 90% global economy. But the missing 10% belies a more visible impact. In the United States, 40% of the country’s poorest prior to the pandemic are now unemployed. What’s more, the pandemic has brought the restaurant-, hospitality-, tourism-, sports-, and entertainment sectors to a standstill. That was the icing on the economy’s cake. At the other end of the spectrum, the reboot of the country’s schools (both K-12 and institutions of higher learning) in the fall also seems problematic. That’s an attack on the world’s seed corn. The word endemic (natural to or characteristic of a specific people or place; native; indigenous) is entering into the media coverage of the contagion. Covid-19 looks to be something we have to live with, rather than an aberration we’ll be able to correct: a player in global affairs for a longish time. Perhaps all that makes it appropriate to reset history’s clock to a new t=0.

Covid’s biggest impact may be as much mental and spiritual as economic. A colleague whom I admire and respect greatly speaks often in private and to public audiences about the need to balance confidence and humility. Covid-19, at this moment in history, has driven all humanity to a great rebalancing of these two mental states. With some oversimplification, 2019’s confidence (with its close cousins – complacency and overweening pride) of peoples across the developed world has given way to 2020’s preponderance of humility, or self-doubt, or actual fear. Even the best off – the fittest both physiologically and financially, are running a bit scared. Only the least imaginative, or most short-sighted, think seriously that things are better and the future looks brighter now than they last year.

Hope might seem in short supply.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. This is where Dionysius (intriguingly, Dionysius the humble) and the event he gave a name re-enter. That BC-AD transition, marking the life and ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth, really signaled, according to that Jesus, something bigger – the arrival of the kingdom of God, or, somewhat interchangeably, the kingdom of heaven, which he would invariably say was “among you,” or “at hand,” or “within you.”

Kingdom of God? Among them? At handWithin them? Jesus’ hearers were oppressed on all sides – by the hypocrisy of their own religious leaders of the time and by Roman ironfisted rule. Hope was in short supply then as well. They of course wanted more background on this good news, which Jesus supplied. For three years he spoke of nothing less than a restoration or reset of the relationship between God and humankind.

He also said, as in today’s quote, that this kingdom would spread, like an infection. But the metaphor he used was not a plague – though well-known to his audience, plagues had a negative connotation. Instead he spoke of an equally familiar – and far more positive – bacterial spread: the leavening effect of Saccharomyces cerevisiae in dough, in the making of bread. Of course he didn’t use any pointy-headed, scientific jargon, but instead the label they all knew – yeast.

Jesus’ audiences were the poor, the disenfranchised, the ill; his core group – his posse, in today’s vernacular – were no better, a ragtag, motley lot, equally poor, of no particular qualifications, and demonstrating minimal leadership potential. So his prediction (as my colleague would say) was on the bold end of the confidence-humility spectrum.

But it verified. People might disagree on whether the kingdom of God is merely an idea or an actual thing (full disclosure, I’m on the actual-thing side) – but there can be little disagreement on the way a little leaven has leavened the entire lump. In 2020, perhaps a quarter of the world’s population self-identify as Christian. 

And we should not confuse that perfect ideal (or (actual, perfect) thing called the kingdom with the demonstrable, all-too-evident faults of millions of message-bearers over two millennia. Whether “Christian” or “non-Christian,” we are all confronted daily with the hypocrisy and other personal failings of those with that label. But just as covid-19 has an identity separate from those of us responsible for knowingly or unwittingly transmitting the disease, the kingdom of heaven, with its promise of love and all the traits of equity and inclusion and relationship that stem from that love, has a reality and existence independent of the nature of those who “test-positive” as carriers of Jesus’ message. Covid-19 has arrived on the scene late, and encountered an entire population with a pre-existing condition – one that has arguably strengthened rather than compromised our immune systems. It’s stumbled on a world of hope — not a delusional, unmerited optimism, but a realistic, positive view of the present and the future that might be as important to overcoming the pandemic as any awaited vaccine.

Today as we join thousands of others home-baking bread, a rediscovered pastime that has become part of the world’s coping strategy for dealing with the pandemic, perhaps we could take a moment to reflect on that pandemic-in-the-dough itself. You might also recall the pandemic that began 2000 years ago that is now itself endemic – so ingrained it might as well be in our DNA. 

And we should therefore choose to leave the meaning of BC-AD as is.

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Seeking your help – to build the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium v2.0

“Our progress won’t be in science alone. It will also be in our ability to make sure everyone benefits from that science”– Bill Gates, (speaking of measures to cope with the pandemic), The Economist, April 25-31 print edition op-ed

The 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium[1]– coincidentally, the twentieth– will be like no other. We could use your help – not just to contribute in the usual way, as speaker or participant, but to (re-)build it. 

To see why, let’s start with today’s quote.

Mr. Gates’ thought is an important one, and apropos – but perhaps not so new. It comes exactly 400 years after this observation from the inimitable natural philosopher Francis Bacon:

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

Bacon’s language is Elizabethan – a bit flowery, to modern ears – but the idea is the same. In the four centuries since, scientists and engineers have given primacy to advancing knowledge, but have also kept one eye on application. 

Societal benefits to any such end-use of S&T begin immediately, with the early adopters, but become consequential largely to the extent they ultimately become widespread – in today’s vernacular, as they scale. (Mr. Gates knows a lot about this: the difference between Bill Gates, hugely bright but otherwise unremarkable guy, and Bill Gates, billionaire and major actor on the world scene, is in the scaling-up.)

Here’s where policy comes in. Nations and peoples find public policies important tools for scaling-up, and for realizing the fullest measure of benefit from science, innovation, and wisdom. The Ten Commandments could easily have been called the ten policies. (It’s wise to provide for parents in their old age – your children, witnessing this, will do the same for you. It’s wise to revere life; to hold marriage sacred; to respect property rights; to tell the truth; and so on. When all of us, or nearly all, buy in – when we do these things, the people are at peace and prosper. As participation declines, the benefits decrease.) The benefits of driving on the right-hand side of the road are greatest when everyone does it. Vaccinations are most protective when widely adopted. Education is most valuable when all enjoy access. Harnessing food, water and energy resources; building resilience to hazards; protecting the environment and ecosystems? These aspirations can be achieved in the face of population growth only to the extent policies foster widespread, expeditious societal uptake of new knowledge and innovation.

For nineteen years the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium has worked toward a simple goal: equip early-career scientists and engineers to be as disciplined (and therefore effective) with respect to engagement in the policy process as they are with respect to their research and development. Scientists and engineers can no longer afford to wing it. World exigencies, and need for scientific input, are too momentous, too complex, too urgent to accommodate any such happy-go-lucky, leisurely approach. Instead, scientists, political and business leaders, and the general public have to work in close, sustained coordination to agree upon and achieve favorable outcomes, anticipate and accommodate for unfavorable unintended consequences, etc. Scientists need to understand that their mathematical equations tend to be silent on how the policy process works – but that the policy process nevertheless has rules. And policymakers do best when they comfortably and intelligently tame and harness science rather than reflexively fight it. Work together, within that framework and those rules, and we can accomplish great things.  In particular, we can see our science and technology applied for widespread societal benefit. And an appreciative society will continue to provide the educational system, funding, and other infrastructure allowing science and technology to thrive.

The Colloquium has used the technique implied in its name: an annual face-to-face colloquya discussion or dialog, between a cohort of some 25-35 early-to-mid-career participants on the one hand, and a succession of speakers and panelists on the other side, extending over a ten-day period in Washington, DC. 

For the first nineteen years, the flow of information has been asymmetric. The scientists are in town to listen and understand – and not least to rid themselves of misguided stereotypes about policy, politics, and life and work in “the Washington swamp.” The speakers and panelists (drawing on years of experience working in the halls of Congress, at the White House, in the State Department, DoD, and other federal agencies, working as corporate contractors to the government, in NGO’s, etc.) are there to impart knowledge. They rid themselves of un-useful stereotypes as well. Most come away with renewed enthusiasm for scientists, especially the early-career variety. But by and large, they’re the ones who “know how things work.” 

This year is different. In prior years, despite perturbations introduced into the policy process by the events of September 11, 2001, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and political dustups accompanying changed hands in the executive branch and Congress associated with each election cycle, the machinery of the policy process could be considered “a given.”

Covid-19 has changed all that. The stress test has exceeded the elastic limit of the prevailing science policy system and process. The Washington professionals at the science-policy-politics nexus know how things once were, but they too are in the dark about how things will change and the new ways things will work going forward. Participants will be meeting with policymakers as both groups are picking through the ruins and trying to figure out what “recovery” looks like. For starters, what will the 2020 national, state, and local elections look like in a time of social distancing? Given the present polarization, will any electoral outcome go unchallenged? How will members of Congress and staff even work in the shadow of the pandemic’s possible resurgence? The nation will naturally and appropriately be preoccupied with the science and technology of disease surveillance, vaccine development, etc. What about budgets for other areas of science in the face of trillions of dollars of new debt, as whole economic sectors, state and local governments, and clamor for even more help? What is the future of the big research universities? The big federal research and science-based service agencies? What will the fall bring for K-12 and higher education? Where are the new workforce needs? What is the outlook for diversity, equity, and inclusion? If policymaking and science are all about relationships (the latter more than some might like to admit), how do we build those in a time of social distancing? These are only the minutest sample of the questions and issues out there.

As a consequence, this year’s Colloquium, more than most, will be about a “common search for truth, ideas” rather than a one-way imparting of information. Speakers and participants will be on a bit more-level playing field. The two dozen folks who’ve signed up to participate this year will be constrained to starting out virtually (we live in hope that we’ll be able to schedule 5-6 days on face-to-face sessions here in DC sometime later in the summer or in the fall, but uncertainties don’t allow fixing a date just yet).

But the potential upside is huge. 2020 Colloquium participants are in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’re going to be present at the creation – better yet, contributing to the creation – of the new post-covid-19 science-policy process. How can virtual platforms best be used to support the conversation? What should be the salient topics, and the best virtual session formats for addressing those? Virtual sessions will also allow more flexibility, better preparation, and as well as more opportunities for extended follow-through. In all these respects, we’ll be redesigning the Colloquium while we’re conducting it.

Your ideas and suggestions for topics, formats, speakers are most welcome and needed. We want input from this year’s participants and speakers: what would you find most helpful? But we also want to hear from Colloquium alumni. What have you found most useful since your participation? What do you think merits special emphasis today? Then there are those of you who haven’t yet participated. Why not? What has been missing from the Colloquia to date that would make a difference as far as you’re concerned?

Please get in touch! Post a comment here on LOTRW, or send me an e-mail. Or better yet, register and participate. It’s late, but we still have a few slots open.

Thanks in advance.

[1]Want to learn more? You’re in luck. LOTRW has focused on the Colloquium before…

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Facing the future – without that face mask.

“My good players have all broken their noses a couple of times.” Clark (Ted) Miller, while football coach at Wilkinsburg High School, ca. 1950’s[1].

a face-mask-free zone… and no social distancing

Face mask? Not talking about that cloth thing that we’re all wearing nowadaysRead on.

Every one of us wakes up each morning to confront a set of fresh and ongoing tasks and responsibilities – things that need doing. Most of us tackle and finish a handful, make a bit of progress on a few more – and kick the rest down the road, adding them to tomorrow’s list.

That said, there’s one task we cannot duck – moving another day into the future. We don’t remain in some fixed past. Not an option!

Most days, and most of the time throughout the span of our lives, that’s not a big deal. That new day and new future looks pretty much like yesterday. It’s only the slightest, merest bit different, maybe undetectably so. But our lives also include a handful of days where and when things change a lot for us as individuals. We graduate from school. We start a new job. We get married. We leave one town and go to another. We have that first child. We fall ill. We lose a loved one.

Then there are the milestones – the times when things change a lot – not just for us alone, but for everybody. The company goes into bankruptcy and half the people in town are laid off. The drought hits and the crops fail. This time, the hurricane makes landfall on our stretch of coast. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the “Big Bopper J. P. Richardson are killed in a plane crash, and “the music dies.” We go to war. Or…

…we suffer a global pandemic.

With the onset of covid-19 a long run of past weeks and months and years that had brought a stifling, oppressive sameness, a mire of meaningless routine and repetition, has been transformed – into the “good old days.” We long for that old normal. We flinch in the face of the now-uncertain future.

Flinching? Exactly what my high school’s football coach didn’t want to see[2]. Helmet face masks were a thing by the 1950’s, but in the hardscrabble steel-mill towns of western Pennsylvania not so much in evidence at the high school level. Our coach wanted players who would keep their eyes riveted on the opposing ball carrier and the ball, up to and including the moment of collision. He didn’t want them flinching before impact, turning their heads ever-so-slightly sideways to soften the blow, giving a good runner opportunity to shift stance and direction, and gain an extra yard, or elude the tackle altogether. If that meant a few more broken noses over a player’s career or a season, then so be it. (Coach Miller got results: Wilkinsburg won the Western-Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) Title for Class IV football my sophomore year.)

Football a metaphor for life itself! The future belongs to those who will embrace it.

As in embrace fully – from life’s broader aspects down to the details.

One of those details – and a place where I’ll be seeking your help if you’re willing – is with respect to the 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. More in the next post.

A (highly questionable) bonus. One person in this block of Wilkinsburg-High-School seniors from our 1960 yearbook might look familiar:

[1]Not the first time I’ve drawn on this example in LOTRW, but it’s been a while.

[2]Full disclosure: As I said back in 2010, also in a footnote, I didn’t play football at that level. I was my current height and weighed 143 pounds, and the wishbone offense was in vogue in those days. I visualized the wishbone as the defensive tackle grabbing my left leg, and the defensive end grabbing my right leg, exclaiming, “make a wish!” Basketball beckoned.

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Last chance!

not the cover on my office desk copy from back then, but good enough

“Covid-19 is not the end of the world but you can see it from here.[1]

World leaders have their hands full at the moment with covid-19. Why should they lift up their gaze and make the case for climate-change research and action? (And that’s precisely what some are doing.) Why now? Surely that challenge can wait another day.

Maybe it’s because the covid-19 experience has the feel of a preview of something bigger – a mere trailer for “Climate Change: the Movie.” 

Maybe it’s because they’re coming to grasp the meaning of “last chance.”

My own lifelong preoccupation with “last chances” came at an unlikely time from an equally unlikely and somewhat obscure source: 1979, when the eminent physical oceanographer Owen Phillips turned his attention from wind generation of ocean waves and the physics of the ocean mixed layer to write and publish The Last Chance Energy Book.

The book was short (only 142 pages) and crisp. In preparing this post I stumbled across a contemporary Air University review[2]. An excerpt: 

Our history of energy development has emphasized pragmatic concerns over either scientific or humanistic values. Phillips sees technology as a force destroying itself by the very social norms it has created; specifically, cheap energy has created a materialistic life…But since the energy sources exploited to build this ever-expanding life style are finite, an ultimate modification of this life-style is unavoidable.

But I have to confess that for most of the past forty years, I’d mislaid Phillips’ larger point. What I have remembered and thought about frequently was the argument Phillips made about our need to develop additional energy sources. He pressed the importance of making such adjustments was “while the lights were still on.” In other words, we have to develop new energy sources well before the old ones have run out.

All of us live a nano-version of this experience every day. Need to arrange a meet-up (okay, with social distancing maybe that’s no longer a thing)? Or your car broke down and you need road repair? Or you want to ask your life partner what was it again you were supposed to bring home from the supermarket? Easy, if you remembered to bring your cellphone. Easy, if your cellphone has charge. But a mini-nightmare otherwise.

Covid-19 is giving us a look at that more distant future. Inadequate education and training. A dysfunctional economy; massive unemployment and poverty. Wretched public health, and an overtaxed healthcare system. Crumbling infrastructure. Fragile food supply chains.

And focusing thought. What better time than now, while the images are fresh, and while we can still control our destiny, to begin to head off those scenarios?

To ponder such things is not to be alarmist. The brink, the edge of the cliff , the end of the road need not be a cause for fear. All of us have at some point been in that place; fact is, we’ve often sought it. The vistas have been breathtakingly beautiful. The air in our faces fresh and invigorating, uplifting the imagination, prompting new insights, expanding our mental and spiritual horizons. We’ve shared the experience with friends, built treasured memories. But all that comes from knowing where the edge is, respecting it, adopting appropriate near-edge behavior, allowing the experience to change our lives in fullest measure – not rushing blindly, unthinkingly, pell-mell toward it.

Thoughts for today. And while you’re pondering…

…In 2009, the musical group LostProphets released a single by the title “It’s Not The End Of The World But I Can See It From Here”; the sound is a bit jarring, but if you wish you can find and experience the video here.

[1]Something of a zipper quote: you’ve seen similar references to locations, etc.

[2] Air University Review, Volume 31, Issue 4. 

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Political leaders make the case for climate change.

“Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.”– Proverbs 27:2 (NIV)

Yesterday’s LOTRW post closed noting that geoscientists and their engineering and social-science colleagues currently confront a dilemma. In the face of the covid-19 crisis, how to tug at the sleeves of beleaguered policymakers, make the case that global change is a bigger problem still – an existential challenge, with multiple such pandemic-sized problems embedded in it? How to make a compelling argument that global change merits continuing attention and action even in the midst of the current worldwide disruption and dismay? How to do this without coming across as hopelessly insensitive to the needs of today, self-absorbed and clueless, jealous, and/or shrill?

(The answer? While we’re thus preoccupied, perplexed about what to do, we look up and notice, to our surprise and relief, that the world’s national and global leaders are, unprompted, making our case for us. Problem solved.) 

A few days ago, on Earth Day, the Washington Post video-streamed live a conversation between John Kerry (Democrat) and John Kasich (Republican) on Leading the Fight against Climate Change. You can find it here.

The current (April 25-May 1) issue of The Economist is running the first of a six-part series on the climate change. The entire May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled The Fire Next Time, is devoted to the subject, including a notable article by two former Republican Secretaries of State, James Baker, and George Schultz, who argue that climate change is not simply an environmental risk but also a strategic opportunity. The same issue contains a piece by John Podesta and Todd Stern, who ran the Obama climate-change portfolio. They make proposals that would reestablish America’s international leadership in the face of the challenge..

Then there’s the op-ed from Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, published in this morning’s New York Times: A Time to Save the Sick and Rescue the Planet. He makes a strong case for tackling both covid-19 and climate change simultaneously. Some excerpts:

The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest test the world has faced since World War II. There is a natural tendency in the face of crisis to take care of one’s own first. But true leadership understands that there are times to think big and more generously. Such thinking was behind the Marshall Plan and the formation of the United Nations after World War II. This is also such a moment. We must work together as societies and as an international community to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequences of Covid-19.

The impact of the coronavirus is immediate and dreadful. We must act now and we must act together. Just as we must act together to address another urgent global emergency that we must not lose sight of — climate change. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that temperatures have already increased 1.1 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels. The world is on track for devastating climate disruption from which no one can self-isolate

Addressing climate change and Covid-19 simultaneously and at enough scale requires a response stronger than any seen before to safeguard lives and livelihoods. A recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world.

Secretary-General Guterres then goes on to propose six “climate-positive actions:”

  • As we spend trillions to recover from Covid-19, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition. Investments must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy.
  • Where taxpayers’ money rescues businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth. It must not be bailing out outdated polluting, carbon-intensive industries.
  • Fiscal firepower must shift economies from gray to green, making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.
  • Looking forward, public funds should invest in the future, by flowing to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and climate. Fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must pay for their pollution.
  • The global financial system, when it shapes policy and infrastructure, must take risks and opportunities related to climate into account. Investors cannot continue to ignore the price our planet pays for unsustainable growth.
  • To resolve both emergencies, we must work together as an international community. Like the coronavirus, greenhouse gases respect no boundaries. Isolation is a trap. No country can succeed alone.

This sample, though admittedly small and biased, offers comfort. It hints that world leaders, including ours, are not myopically reacting only to the present distress. They’re multi-tasking. They retain situational awareness of longer-term aspirations and needs. They preferentially select those short-term options and fixes that at the same time ratchet governments, corporations, and peoples toward desired larger ends.

They’re doing their jobs? This frees scientists to do what we do best – gather evidence, collect data, build and test hypotheses and models, improve forecasts, and support policymakers as they do the sifting through alternative policies and actions. We needn’t over-anxiously attempt to take politics into our own (clumsy) hands… and politicians don’t need to boast about their scientific chops. (Most) politicians and (most) scientists alike acknowledge the wisdom of Proverbs 27:2 – something we’ve “always known,” most likely drilled into us by mom and dad. 

Let others be your advocates.

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You’re a scientist? Uncle Sam wants you.

And well he should.

Here’s the background.

The greatest generation was born into an era of rapid IT innovation that gave us the telephone and radio (and hinted at television). They then endured the Great Depression, a decade of hardscrabble economic times facing farmers and industrial workers alike. They earned their spurs thwarting the ambitions of despotic leaders in Germany, Italy, Japan (and ultimately, the Soviet Union) seeking to dominate a debilitated world.

The greatest generation accomplished this in great part through months and even years of unselfish military service. The true heroes were those sacrificed their lives on the front lines.

That 20th-century narrative finds a mirror in present events. Today, covid-19 confronts our generation with three daunting challenges we have to overcome simultaneously[1]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth while at the same time revitalizing global commerce; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity[2].

This time around the heroes are the world’s healthcare workers in the hospital ICU’s and ER’s. For weeks they have done their best to save lives in the face of shortages in beds, basic medicines, as well as medical gear ranging from ventilators to protective garments, face masks, etc. Their days have seen too much death and tragedy up close; their evenings have been consumed by the additional measures needed to spare their own families and loved ones any secondhand exposure to the virus. Add to them the larger group who have taken on extra risk in order to keep the food chain going from the farm or ranch all the way to the work-from–home crowd, as well as maintain the functioning of other infrastructure critical to the survival of today’s modernized, urban, interconnected world.

Rosie the riveter

Armies fought World War II, but industrial might played a large role in the outcome. American industry, protected from the worst of the conflict by two major oceans, was pivotal. And so was America’s enlistment of women  in the war effort (The conflict favored nations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion even more broadly – though not by today’s label.)

Which brings us to science and scientists.

In World War II, science and technology made a huge difference. First it was radar – pivotal in the Battle of Britain. Then the bomb – which hastened the surrender of Japan. Penicillin and anti-malarials (the latter especially in the Pacific theater) also played their part.

Expect science and technology to be even more pivotal in greatest generation – the sequel. Here’s why. 

Leaders and analysts are beginning to assess the long-term consequences of the trillions of dollars being spent now to keep nations and peoples worldwide on life support. Eye-watering levels of global debt will need to be repaid. Governments face hard choices: raise taxes; default on debts, either explicitly, or (more likely) through inflation; or grow their economies. In reality, governments will resort to various combinations of all three.

When it comes to the needed economic growth, innovation is the key. Tomorrow’s real world problems cannot be tackled successfully with yesterday’s tools. Even prior to covid-19, Americans had been spending nearly 20% of GDP on healthcare, essentially the costliest worldwide. The pandemic has only increased everyone’s desire for personal safety in the face of health threats. Expect therefore that much government investment and private-sector attention will initially focus on advance and application of IT (exascale computing, big data, data analytics, artificial intelligence) to healthcare and public health. Expect as well a rebalancing in emphasis. In recent years, innovation in infectious disease had taken a back seat to research on chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. Look now for increased attention and investment in disease surveillance and early detection, testing, vaccines, and more. 

STEM education in both K-12 public schools and in research universities needs innovation across the board. In the lingering aftermath of World War II (the so-called Cold War) Russian launch of Sputnik served as a wake-up call: American youth needed more rigorous science education. The result was the National Defense Education Act. Something similar is required today. But the NDEA fell short in a major respect. It strengthened U.S. science, but made a difference only for a relatively small fraction of the population. The outcome was a US culture in which science could become the province of a few “nerdy kids” (full disclosure: I was one) instead of something more universal.

(A digression. In recent years, the German educational system has been held in high regard globally. The reason?  It has trained and prepared virtually all young Germans to enter careers in high-tech, manufacturing jobs. This has made Germany a rich exporter, able to maintain high wages in the face of stiff competition from China and others with much lower labor costs. This time around, U.S. STEM education needs to do the same. The US, with only 4% of the world’s population, cannot hold on to world leadership unless it is also the most innovative. Virtually every U.S. economic sector, every field of endeavor, every government institution and every corporation is constrained by the shortage of professionals facile with today’s IT. The U.S. also needs to be the most inclusive; diversity, equity and inclusion have never mattered more.)

Closer to home: what are the implications of all this for Earth scientists? It’s important that in the emphasis on IT and its application to public health the Earth sciences shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. 

But to argue this now is to walk a fine line. 

The case needs to be made. Natural scientists – who study the Earth system, its physical, chemical, biological, ecological, and human and social components, who apply emerging technologies to these fields, and who provide products and services based on these sciences and technologies – have never been more needed. The world will be making massive investments – in food, water and energy infrastructure; in building community-level resilience to hazards; in protecting the environment – over coming decades. The insights our environmental intelligence provides can help ensure those investments are made productively and wisely, not squandered. Success requires rapid scientific advance; we don’t have all the science we need. Here tomorrow’s needed tools include:observing instruments of great diagnostic power; models and data analytics realizing the full capabilities of exascale computing powerpredictions comprehending the fully-coupled environmental/human system.

But in the current political climate it’s easy for such calls to seem shrill, or jealous, or self-absorbed. We need to balance our requests for more attention and funding with the strongest possible support for STEM education, for advance in IT and its applications more broadly. Otherwise, we risk looking (and actually being) self-serving in the face of bigger, more immediate world concerns.

What, then, to do? More in the next post.

[1]A recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and book.

[2]And those despots? Newly ascendant, finding opportunity and seizing extraordinary powers while the world is preoccupied with the virus. The current issue of The Economist lists leaders from Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, and Singapore, among others.

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The greatest generation, v2.0

Would you rather be part of a generation of great people, or part of a great generation?

The answer should be easy. At each point throughout history, great people are everywhere. Truth is, get to know anyone – that’s anyone – well enough, and you’ll uncover a kernel of greatness, of latent or evident potential. Might be extraordinary energy. Strength. A bright mind. Musical talent. A capacity to love. 

Greatness is universal? Yep. As in – it includes you. The rest of us see greatness in you. Don’t flinch from that. Own it[1].

Generations of great people are a dime a dozen.

But a great generation? That requires two ingredients that don’t come along that often. The first? The conjunction of a set of dire global challenges. The second? An emergent group recognition that individual self interest doesn’t conflict in some zero-sum way with the welfare of others and the larger society, but instead coincides. (We’re all in it together.)  Through conversation the development of shared vision about the jobs that need doing, the discovery that everyone has a role to play – and some clarity about and respect for what that role is. Everyone engaged; no bystanders! (Diversity, equity and inclusion not some touchy-feely nice-to-have abstraction, but desperately needed for successful outcomes.) Universal shouldering of individual responsibility – a commitment to shared goals. Millions of people – an entire generation – have to buy in.

As for that first requirement, covid-19 and the past few months have dumped just such a unique opportunity in our laps. Let’s drill down:

To start, the term greatest generation[2] isn’t new, but has been around a while. Recall how that generation earned their stripes. They faced down two global upheavals back-to-back – the Great Depression, which drove millions on every continent into poverty, followed by a sprouting of totalitarian, fascist despots, who fomented the international conflict that grew into World War II. 

We’ve honored that generation, appropriately so, for more than half a century. But as the last members of that generation leave us, can we do no better than honor and mourn the loss of that past? Might not our generation possibly make an even greater mark on history? Where and how might we contribute our talents and gifts to making a better world for ourselves and for those we love? Our children? Our grandchildren? Our friends and their families? People we don’t even know, the world over?

As recently as a few months ago, the answer was there, but obscured by the prevalent (and, in retrospect, unwarrantedly complacent) feeling of well-being. World concern about climate change was growing, but this seemed a small cloud at the horizon barely discernible against an otherwise sunny scene: a humming global economy and a culture of innovation, especially in IT. Disease outbreaks were highly localized problems that generally speaking occurred “somewhere else, in distant, poor places.” Despots seemed once again to be growing in number, but they too were “elsewhere,” – Russia, or the “stans” of central Asia, or Africa, or closer to home – in Venezuela and Brazil. Americans were living from paycheck to paycheck, but those paychecks seemed assured. Chances of our laying claim to “the-greatest generation” seemed slim indeed.

But now existential challenges are everywhere we look, staring us in the face. Covid-19 has revealed fatal shortcomings in our public health infrastructure; brought K-12 public education and higher education to a standstill; and becalmed the economy. Some 26 million Americans (16% of the workforce!) have applied for unemployment in just a few short weeks. Covid-19 has also tattered the social fabric. Shared good times – concerts, sports events, shopping, church, beach-going, happy hours, restaurant meals, you name it – all things we used to know and enjoy? Suspended until further notice. Social inequities, once papered over by favorable economic trends, now stand visible in stark relief. On every continent, autocratic leaders are flexing their muscle; this week’s print edition of The Economist speaks of “a pandemic of power grabs.” All the while, reductions in biodiversity and habitat, environmental degradation and climate change continue to grow more manifest daily.

In the pre-covid world-19, it was easy to trivialize these threats; surely our great wealth and emerging technologies would carry us through. We needed only to divert a smidgen of our attention and our resources from concerns of the moment to these longer-term issues. No chance of glory there. But now any margin our 21st-century lives might recently enjoyed has vanished. The entire human race has the shared task of lifting itself up by the bootstraps. All we have to do is recover the former stability and smooth operation of the day-to-day while addressing the longer-term, bigger concerns, and future generations will see ours as “the (new) greatest.” 

Two observations in closing. 

First, we face a set of three challenges that can’t be addressed in isolation, but instead must be resolved simultaneously[3]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth and in the process, restoring the global economy; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity.

Second: in a wondrous way, from an individual perspective the problem of playing our part in the grander scheme has become simpler. We don’t have to change fields. We don’t have to pick up stakes and move to some remote world corner. Problems and needs are everywhere. All we have to do is the job we find at hand. 

A final note. As we move forward into this future, as we discover whether we’re to become the greatest generation, or remain something less, perhaps we might call to mind an episode from professional football – one that has been immortalized as The Drive, even earning its own Wikipedia entry. An excerpt:

The Drive was an offensive series in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship Game played on January 11, 1987, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium between the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. Broncos quarterback John Elway, in a span of 5 minutes and 2 seconds, led his team 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won the game in overtime making a 33-yard field goal, pulling off a 23–20 win over the Cleveland Browns.

The 98-yard drive ranks as pro football’s prototypical clutch performance.

John Elway emerged as the hero, but one of my favorite bits of the story was contributed by Broncos offensive guard Keith Bishop, who said of the Browns at the drive’s start, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”

Covid-19? A shattered world economy? Climate change? No worries.

We’ve got this.

[1]Doesn’t mean that everything about every one of us is great. We’re also all imperfect, flawed, not just in the being, but the execution – our actions and deeds. We fall short of our potential. But don’t own that part – instead, get over it.

[2]From Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book by the same title, of course. And to forestall any charges of self-plagiary, the first LOTRW post along these lines dates back to 2011, almost exactly nine years to the day. You can find similar LOTRW references peppered across the intervening years, and in LOTRW, the book (on pages 233-237).

[3]Again, an essential starting point and recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and the book.

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Louisiana’s response to extreme weather.

Today is Earth Day – at not just any Earth Day, but the 50th[1]! A real milestone! But the backstory for today’s post goes back to a February 15themail from the eminent natural-hazard researcher (and, equally importantly, distinguished hazards pedagogue, policy maven, and practitioner) Shirley Laska. She closed this way:

I am also writing to you to tell you that I have a new book out by Springer which is Open Access (free).  It is about the challenges of Louisiana as a coastal state “ahead of the curve” in climate change.  The series editors and I agreed on “extreme weather” instead of climate change in order to encourage doubters to read the book.  I was wondering if it might be possible for you to write about it or let me tell you some of my concerns about how we approach adaptation that are reflective of the chapter themes I invited.  While it is not fully in line with you[r] themes, I think there are a couple of main commitments to thinking I have that you/your readers might find useful.  If I am piquing your interest, I know you will reply…

(and of course I did).

That was more than two months ago. I wish this post or something along these lines had appeared much sooner, and I also wish it could have been more complete. But the nature of 21st-century life is inimical to long-term projects such as reading a book (to say nothing of writing/editing one! Congratulations to Shirley and her chapter authors!). Work pressures, and covid-19 have intervened. That latter intervention is particularly ironic. What better opportunity for tackling a book than longish periods of enforced isolation? But the best I can do is provide a brief progress report, and a very preliminary one at that – and promise that more will be coming in forthcoming posts, if a bit intermittently. 

To begin: the book’s full title is Louisiana’s Response to Extreme Weather:  A Coastal State’s Adaptation Challenges and Successes. (S. Laska (ed), 2020, SpringerOpen Access.) You can gain that free access here.

As the title suggests, Shirley and her chapter authors provide a deep dive into Louisiana’s efforts to manage environmental risks. They address decades of such risk, but mostly through the lens of two events: Hurricane Katrina and (to a lesser extent) the BP oil spill. They focus attention on state–level[2]response, but connect this to local- and federal-level efforts. They also generalize to the larger challenges facing the fifty U.S. states. They make the connection to climate change, and to climate change adaptation. They offer the sobering observation that climate change adaptation is normally considered a risk management strategy, but the reality is that climate change adaptation introduces new risks of its own (an idea that seems self-evident once expressed, but essentially a new one for me). All this makes for a heavy lift! But the authors and the book measure up.

To whet your appetite, especially on Earth Day, here’s an extended excerpt, from Professor Laska’s initial chapter:

The extreme weather adaptation frame offered here combines two concepts – exceptional recovery and essential resilience(Laska 2012). [Emphasis added]

The exceptional recovery process has qualities that have been identified and developed by the authors of this book’s chapters. The recovery process must:

• Be based on a robust commitment to citizen participation

• Honor community self-determination of recovery processes and outcomes

• Have a deep commitment to social justice in the recovery processes at all levels of government response

• Expect a sophisticated recognition by government officials of historical experiences that have led to socially constructed vulnerabilities “causing” the current disaster impacts (Tierney 2014; Wisner et al. 2004)

• Appreciate the economics of the recovery process itself that do not support the enablement and adaptation of the entire community to future extreme weather but rather the interest of the corporations that are used to address the damage and of the “growth machine” (Molotch 1976) putting developer interest ahead of community residents

• Have a deep understanding of the institutionally induced harm that manifests itself in the current government-managed recovery including the technocratic framing of disaster funding as dependent upon benefit/cost and to develop recovery processes that are free of such harm

Without such a robust understanding, the recovery process will contribute to reproducing the vulnerabilities that caused the extreme weather event to generate harm in the first place through a disaster or even a catastrophe from which the community or region is now recovering. Adding the adjective essential to the sought-for resilience gives consideration to the qualities of resiliency that must be part of the outcome of the exceptional recovery. The prolific array of publications that have appeared in the last couple of decades speak to the enhancing of the qualities of the society that permit it to “bounce back” or change so that the form the community/region takes after a disaster enables life to go on effectively, e.g., “resiliently.” As has been repeatedly affirmed, such resiliency extends way beyond preventing the physical event or modulating generally what the extreme weather event can do to a community physically. The use of essential resiliency in this discussion of climate change adaptation is to encourage the consideration of what qualities of a society, of a community, are essential to the robust improvement of the community to withstand future climate change-induced extreme weather impacts[Emphasis added.] To reiterate, it is the robust, carefully considered essential improvements that redound to the benefit of all social classes, races, ethnic groups, and the social organization that supports the full community’s ability to function satisfactorily that are the requirements of successful adaptation.

[An apology; don’t look for the references here; merely indicating that the book is thoroughly annotated. For the bibliography you’ll need to go to the original link.]

Strikingly, these ideas, framed and articulated over the past few years (that is, they come from what looking-back seems a very distant, much simpler, and relatively untroubled past) remain salient in the dawn of our pandemic age (the Virucene?). They’re a useful guide/blueprint for policymakers and publics struggling to manage the current coupled public-health/economic crisis. The six attributes of exceptional recovery process, and the idea of essential  resilience, not just recovery from covid-19, but a recovery that better prepares us to manage future viral threats, need little or no editing to accommodate this current existential challenge. As a society, we have shown past tendencies to take shortcuts in the recovery process, but the authors make clear we ignore these higher standards for exceptional recovery and essential resilience at our peril.

A free book? The 50thEarth Day? Time to kill trapped at home? What are we waiting for? Let’s all continue reading…

[1]Inspired by protests of the 1960’s, then-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) suggested a “national teach-in on the environment,” which would be held annually on April 22, in order to reach large numbers of university students while still on campus.

[2]And statewide, response; they emphasize a transition in Louisiana framing of the challenge from coastal- to Louisiana-as-a-whole.

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A Brighter Light?

The covid-19 pandemic has sharpened minds. Much of the resulting thought has focused on survival and recovery – both physiological and economic, and at individual, institutional, and national levels. But the scale and magnitude of events are leading each of us into a season of deeper, more personal reflection.

Mary Glackin[1]recently circulated a set of such thoughts among a group of her friends. She later passed it along in an email. I asked (and received permission) to share it with LOTRW readers. Here it is, verbatim.

I write this post knowing I am much better off than most during this pandemic.  It is with good fortune that decisions made more than a year ago led me to be in FL vs. DC at this time.  The difference amounted to being able to go thru this event with my daughter, son-in-law and grandson vs. being alone in my apartment.  So, I know this has given me an edge on optimism.  I am extremely grateful.

However, I’ve been thinking about the good that has come out of this pandemic so far and that still to come. Will the light at the end of the tunnel be brighter in fact than when we entered?  I am choosing to think that it will even if it is just because we are more clear-eyed.  

First let me acknowledge the things that will contribute to the dimness at the end of the tunnel.  Foremost is the grief for the loss of life and impacts to health.  It is tragic. Also, we know we won’t burst out of this tunnel. It will be slow to get folks back to work, etc.  So, we all won’t be celebrating at a restaurant together anytime soon.  And, the economy will likely take years to recover.  Many small businesses will be gone despite efforts to save them.  And, — and this is the one I really hate because it is avoidable — there will continue to be strong efforts to divide people, the country and the world.  We can see in the news already the hunt to find and punish the ‘guilty’.  This includes the scientists and their models. Familiar to many in our community because they have honed their swords on climate models.  It will take a lot to overcome what I see are strong forces here – but those forces all existed before this pandemic.  The question really is how the pandemic might influence our response.  Please don’t take this to mean I’m not in favor of an assessment to learn from how we handled this experience; I very much am.

While there is much to worry about, I see things that are and will carry us through.  A crisis exposes the essence of who we really are. We have all had some time to reflect and many of us have taken action to help others beyond what we ordinarily do. I see so many acts of kindness every day.  I see people caring about folks they never met and praying for them. I see meals dropped off to family members.  I see people volunteering at food pantries putting their health at risk. I see musicians making the world sing, laugh and wonder. I believe that the number of people helping and willing to help far outstrips those that don’t care.  And that is no small thing.

This generous spirit is carrying us through.  As we get to the new normal, we need to recognize that collectively we will have done a great thing by ‘flattening the curve’ and avoiding unnecessary deaths, not breaking (for the most part) our healthcare system and workers.  If we can celebrate that the way we celebrated other major victories like WWII (and not get sucked into the hunt for the ‘guilty’) we will have a self-pride that I don’t think today’s citizens have ever had. And, we will know we can do amazing things.  That makes the sun shine for me. 

Thank you, Mary. Well said.

[1]Currently, Ms. Glackin is President of the American Meteorological Society. In years immediately prior, she had held leadership responsibilities at The Weather Company/IBM. You can learn more about her career in this LOTRW post from 2012.

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The case for a third tranche of covid-19 funding.

Hold on! The CARES Act — $2T of aid and loans to keep Americans on economic life support during the social distancing and economic slowdown necessitated by covid-19, was enacted only three weeks ago. There’s talk this funding was deficient with respect to both amount and coverage; we hear a follow-on bill is being crafted, but progress has been snarled. Each day we anxiously look for and cling to any signs of progress. Isn’t it premature to be talking about a third?

In a word, “no.”

To see this, consider Sunday’s print edition of the Washington Post, which carried a story entitled: Record debt load poses risk of fiscal “tipping point.” You can find the online version of the article here.

The main premise is simple, yet ominous. The story begins this way:

The United States is embarking on a rapid-fire experiment in borrowing without precedent, as the government and corporations take on trillions of dollars of debt to offset the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government is on its way this year to spending nearly $4 trillion more than it collects in revenue, analysts say, a budget deficit roughly twice as large relative to the economy as in any year since 1945.

Business borrowing also is setting records. Giant corporations such as ExxonMobil and Walgreens, which binged on debt over the past decade, now are exhausting their credit lines and tapping bondholders for even more cash.

To support such borrowing, the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates to zero and added more than $2 trillion of loans to its portfolio in the past six weeks — as much as in the four years following the Great Recession.

After a bit of elaboration, the author, David Lynch, goes on: 

…The reliance on so much debt also will leave scars after the pandemic passes, economists say, making it difficult for policymakers to withdraw support and leaving the economy more vulnerable than before this crisis began

The full article puts flesh on these bones, and amply rewards the read. The fear is that as a result of enforced social distancing, Americans are falling out of the habit of work, and into a trap of government dependency, just as the Nation is amassing an unmanageable mountain of debt. 

So why on earth might even more debt be a good thing?

The answer lies not in the expenditure of another $2T or so per se. Instead it depends on the sources for funds of a notional third tranche and on how and where they might be allocated. Economists and central bankers have argued ever since 2008 that monetary policy alone can’t sustainably rescue ailing economies (the 2019 link provided here is just one example of many reaching the same conclusion, though harking back to a calmer time). Politicians need to step up with fiscal measures – government outlays that stimulate the economy, that have the direct effect of putting people to work, and ultimately getting them to spend – rather than simply maintaining people, banks, and companies on life support. 

In this respect, infrastructure investment has long looked attractive. It’s needed in the trillion-dollar amounts big enough to make a difference to economies. And perhaps more importantly, targeted correctly – that is, aimed at the infrastructure needs of the future rather than those of the past – it can propel innovation and the economic growth needed to rebuild the tax base and balance budgets over the long run.

Say “infrastructure,” and most minds immediately turn to roads and bridges, the electrical grid, water supply, and such like. In the United States, after years of neglect, the need for upgrade is very real. But the global experience with the pandemic has helpfully spotlighted additional areas of major future demand. 

Several of these cluster in what, for want of a better word, might be called intelligence infrastructure. Here are three components.

A more robust and resilient system of public K-12 and higher education that raises the Nation’s intelligence. The rapidity with which the pandemic brought education to a halt, at all levels, has forcefully exposed years of underinvestment in our educational system. Children and their parents agonize as they struggle to stand up home schooling and connect to jerry-rigged, intermittent remote learning as school districts contend with decades-old technology . Young adults in higher education, on the cusp of entering the job force, have found themselves immobilized and their future prospects compromised in a similar way.  The infrastructure in question here is most fundamentally human capital. America needs larger numbers of better-equipped teachers; incentives and investment are in order. In addition, it’s clear that we’ve failed to make IT available to all students, in the same way that we’ve subsidized school lunches, for example. We need to rebuild our educational system at national, state, and local levels, in ways that not only prepare our people for tomorrow’s economies and tomorrow’s jobs, but also are resilient with respect to risks of every type. We need to harness teachers, IT, and, yes, parents, to revolutionize teaching of subject matter, to foster creativity and critical thinking; and most fundamentally to set the new generation on course to work through what it means to be responsible and independent, as well as interdependent, in modern society, to value diversity, and to grasp the true meaning and implications of “we’re all in it together.”

Epidemiological intelligence. At the same time, we’ve discovered that pandemics are the world’s Achilles’ heel,[1]a blind spot in our global and national risk management strategies. Surely one outcome of our present woes should be improved public-health infrastructure, at all levels of government, and worldwide. We should increase investment in disease surveillance, aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of new, more capable tools for testing and identification of novel public health threats. We should go further, buttressing the infrastructure for identifying needed therapies, fabricating and administering effective vaccines, and more. While, we’re at it, we could modernize the infrastructure for dealing with the non-infectious health threats (heart disease, cancer, obesity, etc.) responsible for the widespread pre-existing vulnerability to pandemic.

Before moving on the next topic, here’s a question. Suppose ten years or so ago we’d known what we do now about covid-19’s coming impact on our world. (After all, we sort of did.) For purposes of illustration, set a figure of something like 1,000,000 deaths and a $20 trillion dollar hit to the world economy. Suppose further, for the sake of argument, that with early detection of emergent viral diseases, faster development of diagnostic testing individuals for infection with those new diseases, or (following recovery) antibodies for those diseases, and faster development of vaccines, we could have forestalled virtually all of the economic disruption and reduced deaths by 70% or more. How much would we have been willing to invest each year over the ten-years to achieve that result? $200B/year (that would have produced a nearly ten-fold return)? That’s 0.3% of global GDP. Seen in life’s rearview mirror, seems like a small price to pay. 

Environmental intelligence more broadly. Building capacity in the world’s public health system at all levels is clearly needed. But to focus on this infrastructure and this threat alone risks creating another Maginot line,[2]fighting the last war. The real question is: what is the Earth we live on and utterly depend upon fixing to do next? How will it impact us? What measures can we take to mitigate damage or seize special opportunity? Again, one challenge, among several, that we can see already is global change – not just a change in climate but also a challenge to our ability to meet the food, water, and energy needs of some eight billion people. And here, as we’ve been told over and over again, the dollar sums of the needed investment are staggeringly large; we can’t simply throw money at the problem. We need to sharpen our  understanding of the probable impacts, and the value and efficacy of alternative courses of mitigation and adaptation in response.

A concluding note. Readers may recall that following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, there was a similar enthusiasm for fiscal stimulus, accompanied by the requirement that infrastructure initiatives to be funded should be shovel-ready.  The same criterion will no doubt – and should – be applied here. There’s texture in the shovel-readiness of specific projects embedded in these three general areas. But these three areas represent a point of departure for further, even more substantial future investments. And investments should be made in intelligence early on, before the human race once again falls into complacent comfort of the flying blind and ignorant into an uncertain, highly problematic future.

Bottom line? As the world and its people come off life support following our covid-19 nightmare, let’s not content ourselves with a collective sigh of relief. Let’s stimulate the economy in ways that can make us smarter and more capable, healthier, and wealthier, not just in the near term but for years to come. 

[1]Don’t know the story or the reference? Then your aforementioned educational system has failed you. You can learn more here.

[2]Another reference, this time not to Greek mythology, but to 20thcentury history. More details here.

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