Reasons to be thankful on Thanksgiving

“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”   – Albert Einstein

US readers of this blog celebrate tomorrow as a special day for feasting and giving thanks. The practice goes way back! It’s found in both European and indigenous American traditions – stemming from gratitude for a good harvest. Back then, gathering enough food to last the winter was never a guaranteed thing. [And fact is, as we discussed over the weekend, for hundreds of millions of people the world over, that warm-season’s-end suspense still remains.] Americans usually acknowledge the 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts as the origin of the modern US holiday. However, the Canadian version (celebrated in October) dates back to Frobisher’s celebration of his Atlantic transit in 1578. The Virginian colony, and Spanish explorers, also celebrated earlier autumn feasts.

Readers of this blog have many reasons to be thankful. Some are universal, fundamental. But let’s postpone that discussion and today focus our attention instead on the special reasons why those of us in the business of Earth observations, science, and services, and those of us engaged in extracting Earth’s natural resources, or protecting the environment, or guarding against natural hazards, should feel beholden, grateful, appreciative.

A few hundred words can’t possibly count the ways! And each of you, with some little thought, can come up with your own, better list, or one more tailored to your experience. Please do so! It’s not just an abstract exercise. Here’s a promise. If you and I take the time to write down all the reasons we have to be thankful, then in our encounters with our families, colleagues, and friends over the ensuing hours, day or so, we’ll be engaging them out of our attitude of thankfulness, we’ll be a cheering presence, they’ll be thankful in their turn, and pay it forward to others. It’s that simple.

But back to our short list.

Our work matters. It’s not just that Earth observations, science, and services are intriguing, or fascinating, or that the process of providing these is somehow satisfying intellectually. It’s that the end product – the improved agriculture, more effective water resource management, more efficient energy development and use – benefits seven billion people. Our work saves lives. Together we make everyone around us a little better at what they do and a bit more prosperous in the bargain. We preserve habitat, and biodiversity, and land and seascape and do our part to maintain a world worth living in.

Society in turn acknowledges, cares about and supports this work and our role in it. Many of us are concerned about future federal budgets; the collapse of the supercommittee deliberations, the tumult in European financial markets, US unemployment and many other negatives cloud the budget picture. But as my former NOAA budget-analyst friend used to remark, “Here’s the way to look at budgets. Next year is a disaster. This year is better than we thought it would be. And last year was the best budget year we’ve ever had. And it’s a sliding scale.” That forecast has verified for more than three decades, through all the world’s ups and downs. Despite ClimateGate, despite the tumult over this or that environmental issue, despite jokes about busted weather forecasts, even despite some potholes in the road to establish a NOAA Climate Service, the nation is growing not just more weather-ready but more Earth-savvy generally.

We do our work in community. Observing the Earth, studying its behavior, predicting what it’ll do next, and especially when it will turn violent – we’re doing all these things together. We’re not competing with each other so much as serving a common public good. If we want a seven-day forecast for Washington, DC, we need to know the prevailing weather conditions over Siberia today – and vice versa. We have to share data! This is true across national boundaries. It’s true at the state and local level. It’s even the case across public- and private sectors. Researchers and practitioners are also on the same page. We’re in it together, and we act like it. What a privilege to be part of such a special family of professionals!

The real world is proving comprehensible. It’s yielding its secrets. The more we know, the more we realize how what we’ve learned matters, and the more we find that we have yet to learn. But with each forward step, the task looks increasingly doable and rewarding. The same advances in information technology that undergird this progress also allow us to use the information we’ve gained for practical application.

Einstein marveled at this. He realized: things didn’t necessarily have to work this way, and we didn’t necessarily have to be bright enough to fathom those workings. The whole world can marvel at this – and does. But those of us privileged to comprehend should marvel the most.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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