The 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, 3-fold problems, and Martin Luther King

If a man is thirty-seven years old, as I am, and compromises what he believes in or knows to be true just because he wants to live a little longer or a little more comfortably, then he may live until he’s eighty-seven, but his physical death is merely a belated announcement of a much earlier death of the spirit. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca 1966)[1].

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Martin Luther King would have been 87 years old this weekend. We’ve arrived.

1966 was also the year that he set up a family residence in Chicago and continued his (ultimately successful) protests against de facto segregation and poor conditions in Chicago public schools. As part of Dr. King’s campaign he made a speech to a crowd assembled at what is now the Midway Plaisance Park area of the south side of Chicago, adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. I was a graduate student at the university then, and the chance was too good to miss. Out of curiosity as much as anything else, I strolled the several blocks to be part of the throng, and worked my way up to perhaps within 100 feet of the great man.

Wouldn’t you know it! In the middle of his compelling speech that afternoon he said this: “A lot of you are here just out of curiosity. But will you be with us tomorrow when we march on City Hall?”

Called out! I felt strongly (as did probably half the people in that crowd) that he was looking at me directly when he said that. Of course I (and thousands of others) did go that next day. The march resulted in the ouster of then Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis.

What’s that to do with the 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, just concluded? And with three-fold problems? Here’s the thread. (Please bear with me…)

One salient feature of this year’s meeting was a strong, sustained showing, and a single, compelling message, from NOAA and U.S. Department of Commerce leadership, extending up to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The NOAA team came early and stayed late. Throughout they focused on water as a defining 21st century challenge and shared with attendees the steps NOAA is taking across the board to meet the challenge. These steps started close to home – with honing NOAA observations and models for predicting the hydrologic cycle, regionally and short-range, extending out through seasonal and interannual-, and through to decadal and centennial global outlooks. But they extended to NOAA’s special responsibilities for coastal water forecasts and management, and to NOAA’s efforts to strengthen collaboration and partnerships with dozens of federal agencies, as well as hundreds of state and local agencies, international groups, and private-sector firms also working the problem.

The NOAA engagement energized the meeting. But in most sessions, the attention would quickly turn to a larger, more complicated, threefold problem: the food-energy-water nexus. The three resource challenges are joined at the hip. Agriculture requires immense quantities of fresh water, and energy in the form of fertilizers (and that needed to drive irrigation). Electrical utilities need water to cool the steam and other working fluids driving turbines. Desalination of sweater requires immense amounts of energy, and so on. We all recall from public school algebra that threefold problems such as

x +y + z = 10

x -y+2z =   9

3x +y – z = 4

must be solved simultaneously; they can’t be considered in isolation. A look at the first equation by itself might allow someone to think that maybe the solution was x=7, y=2, z=1. But the only integer solution satisfying all three equations is x=2, y=3, z=5.

This is a new challenge for humankind. (With some oversimplification – but only some) throughout the entirety of human experience until the present day, it sufficed to consider these three resource questions in isolation. The challenge going forward is, forever, far more demanding.

As highlighted in this blog, and in the book by the same name, the food-energy-water challenge is nested within a more general threefold challenge: dealing with Earth as a resource-, threat-, and victim. Meeting our resource needs? A big problem. Building resilience to hazards? Equally demanding. Protecting the environment and ecosystems? A struggle. But meeting our resource needs while building resilience to hazards and while protecting the environment and ecosystems is far more difficult than working on any of these three in isolation. In fact, in an ultimate sense, it’s an impossibility. Sooner or later, entropy wins. The best we can do, through continuous innovation, is buy ourselves time. The good news is, that much like the diabetic who relies on insulin, we’ve so far been pretty good at innovation, and so when it comes to time, we can probably buy lots of it.

This brings us back full circle to Dr. Martin Luther King, and a final threefold reality, also addressed in LOTRW, the book. It’s not enough to focus on physical realities alone: the physical sciences and technology. There’s an equally important, equally ironclad, immutable set of social realities that must be satisfied at the same time: the way our individual brains are wired and they way we engage each other in groups.

Many people try to stop there. They point to social realities as the reason science and technology fail to solve problems of poverty, disease, and hunger – and the abuse and anger and terrorism and wars they foment. They’re satisfied to first “explain” and then curse the darkness.

The power of Dr. King’s ministry to us while on this Earth was to remind us of a third set of realities: the spiritual. But there’s a unique difference here. In the earlier threefold problems, each additional consideration constrains the other, making the problem more difficult, in some cases intractable. But as Dr. King, and others, dating back to Jesus and even further, have pointed out – in this latter, transcendent threefold problem, the third spiritual factor is actually liberating, offering a way out.

Something to contemplate on Martin Luther King Day… maybe even integrating into a weekly rather than an annual rhythm. Depending upon our professions, you and I either spend a lot of time getting the physical realities straight, or the social realities straight, or perhaps muddling through a blend of both. We’d do well to balance that with equal attention to getting our heads right spiritually. We can give this a try alone, but it works better at the church, synagogue, or mosque of our choice.

That would refresh Martin Luther King’s (still living!) spirit.

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[1]See the January 17, 2011 LOTRW post for further particulars on this “quote.” I’m still searching for the source/citation. Perhaps you have it and could share! In the meantime, in one of those pranks our brains play with us, I’m somewhat sure it’s close to verbatim… but more confident of the numbers 37 and 87… though that could be wrong as well. For the LOTRW memorials to Dr. King over succeeding years, click here.

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