Tackling the future? It’s more than just facing our problems.

Once on a plane flight from DC to Raleigh-Durham, I happened to sit next to an associate dean for minority admissions at Duke. It turned out he was a former football player. He told me his story. “In high school,” he said, “I weighed 195 pounds. I played safety, and I loved standing people up and making contact. I was so good I got a full scholarship to Duke. At Duke I weighed 195 pounds, and played safety, and I was playing against the likes of (running back and Heisman trophy winner) Herschel Walker. I learned to tackle at the waist. After college, I tried out for the Washington Redskins. I weighed 195 pounds, and played safety. In the two weeks before I was released, I learned to make shoestring tackles.”

Tackling the real-world future is like that. It’s not just a matter of keeping our eye on what’s happening. It’s tough!

Yesterday’s post looked at the range of futures available to us here on the real world. Instead of trying to leap ahead some great number of years, say a half-century or so, we pictured the future as consisting of a series of short time steps. In the first possible future, labeled for the moment, the vicious circle, we posited that each time step would be characterized by inadequate or inappropriately applied science, poor or ineffective decisions made with respect to water resources, the production of food and fiber, the generation of energy, protection of habitat and environment, benign-neglect policies with respect to the poor and disenfranchised, and so on. The debilitating effects of these destructive or behaviors during each such step would accumulate over time.

At the opposite extreme, we envisioned another possible future, in which at each time step going forward, individuals and institutions would make better decisions. We called this the virtuous cycle. The science would be salient, timely, and correctly applied. Decision makers would be making near-optimal choices with respect to public health and safety, all aspects of the economy and the environment, and the rest. As a result, society would enter each succeeding time step with improved capabilities, and the future might potentially be bright indeed.

Let’s take a moment to look at this range of futures in terms of the three driving questions of the blog:

–         What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

–         What kind of world do we want?

–         What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

Even the optimistic among us would probably concede that if we take no deliberate action, then the most likely real future world is pretty close to that described as the vicious circle. This seems to be the path we’re on!

Note (this is very important!) that this is not through intent, or deliberate decision, or malevolence on anyone’s part. There are, of course, exceptions. Recall Saddam Hussein’s deliberate torching of Kuwaiti oil wells and his release of oil into the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. (By contrast, the BP oil spill, though appalling in its consequences, was less the result of malice and more the result of cutting corners and negligence in the rush and press of achieving more positive societal goals.) We’re on the vicious circle primarily because the world is pretty complicated, life comes at us fast, only a small fraction of the world’s seven billion people are in a position to be concerned about these problems, etc.

By contrast, the future most of us would say we want, is that embodied in the virtuous cycle. But getting from where we are, with all the inertia and the compelling forces weighted in favor of deterioration, is going to be difficult. It’s going to require effort. But more importantly, it’s going to require effective effort (more about this in another post or two). We’ll be making mistakes along the way.

As a result, our realistic future, the one we’re going to achieve, is somewhere between these two extremes. Our challenge, the challenge of each generation living during of few of these time steps, is to do what we can to make that time step a positive – or to minimize the negative – and to move us as much towards the virtuous-cycle future as we can.

That is the goal of this blog.

We are shortly going to look at four tools we can bring to bear toward this goal. But before we do that, we need to consider two widening gaps that the scientists, policy makers, and practitioners laboring in this work find daunting.

The first is the widening gap between the advance of science, and society’s ability to benefit from it. Knowledge about the interplay of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land surface processes – and the response of these to human activity and intervention – is accumulating rapidly. But it’s not being put into practice. For example, we know that burning millions of years of fossil fuels in only a few centuries is having a range of deleterious effects. We also know that a variety of alternative energy sources are available in principle. But we’ve gotten too far down the fossil fuel road. Our power grid, our transportation infrastructure, took decades to put in place, and can’t be reconfigured overnight. Similar statements apply to our accumulated vulnerability to natural hazards.

The second is the widening gap between the advance of science – and the level of knowledge and understanding needed to make optimal future decisions. This is true on all scales of place and time – from wind-farm operations over the next few hours and local irrigation decisions for the next day or so to investment in water resources management for the next century. Billions of dollars of decisions are made weekly, perhaps daily, on the basis of inadequate information. (Faced with this reality, decision makers have made greater strides in the allocation of the associated risks, through insurance and various financial instruments, than in the reduction of those risks.)

The task before us is then to tackle the future’s five challenges, in the face of these two widening gaps – and tackle them on the real world’s timetable. That’s a wicked problem! Truly wicked – more in the next post.

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