The Age of Muddle?

Muddle: to behave, proceed, or think in a confused or aimless fashion or with an air of improvisation – Dictionary.com

Muddle

In a comment  to LOTRW, John Plodinec offered this alternative to  the most recent post, on The Age of Global Renewal.

Here’s what he had to say:

Nice try, and wish it would be true!

But our age will only be named after we’ve lived through it, and the way we’re going it likely will be something more like the Age of Muddle. Our political processes – bogged down in confused bickering. Our economy – a fragile yo-yo, with central bankers floundering around because they have no experience with this set of circumstances to light their way. Our society – splitting along an educational divide, with the Educated flourishing, the Uneducated living in increasing isolation, and the Great Middle muddling along.

At the same time we are warned that global warming threatens our food supply our food production is not only steadily increasing but has actually accelerated this century. While we can send messages around the world in seconds, our ability to communicate with one another is eroding. And while resources are more abundantly spread around the world than ever before in recorded history, too often we lack the will and the wisdom to use them. An Age of Muddle, indeed.

As always, hard to argue with John!

And as for muddle, perhaps we should happily settle for that. Given the complexity of the 21st-century challenges we face, perhaps “muddling along” in the sense of the definition above is a far better outcome than some of the alternatives. In fact, that label might capture the thesis of the book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet. Much of the argument there is that meteorologists approach weather prediction in the same way. Here’s the recipe for weather prediction:

  • observe;
  • make very approximate predictions;
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the predictions;
  • make new, very approximate predictions
  • repeat.

There’s an analogous recipe for dealing with any of the (other) insoluble challenges of our age: peace; jobs, poverty, disease, natural hazards, resource management, environmental degradation, privacy, and more. It goes like this:

  • observe
  • work out an approximate policy for coping
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the intended goals and the emergence of unintended consequences
  • revise the approximate policy for coping
  • repeat

In this light, “muddle” might perhaps be seen as an unnecessarily humble label for a brilliant strategy.

But here’s an (admittedly very partial) rationale for why we might realistically hope to do even better – perhaps far better. First and foremost, the pace of advance in energy technology is nothing short of breathtaking. This is particularly true with respect to photovoltaics and battery technology for energy storage on both fixed and mobile platforms.  Capabilities are growing and per-unit costs are declining rapidly. Second, climatological analyses of the availability of solar and wind power integrated across the entire expanse of the continental United States suggest that in principle the option is there for the taking and prices only incrementally greater than current energy costs – provided only that we invest in the necessary infrastructure (in addition to the solar panels, and the wind turbines, a high-voltage DC national power grid). In Africa, for example, just as nations have leapfrogged landline telephony in favor of cellphones and their much cheaper infrastructure, governments and the private sector are investing in place-based electricity generation based on renewable-energy technology versus increasing their access to and reliance upon fossil fuels.

Ample energy at reasonable prices in turn opens doors for other policy options – desalination of seawater on massive scales, for example. That in turn transforms the prospects for production of food and fiber. In the meantime, urbanization, and the conversion from national, largely manufacturing economies to global, increasingly knowledge-based economies allows for efficiencies in consumption and improved (material) quality of living.  Though none of these trends constitutes a “solution,” and each will give rise to unintended consequences, they will likely buy us time.

The key is continuing innovation and the sustained application of innovation for societal benefit.

We’re all tempted as we age to conflate wisdom with pessimism, but I’m just coming off my annual experience with participants in the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Each year I ask them: what’s the favorite activity of people my age? They always get it wrong, usually leading off with golf, bridge, reading, and other pursuits before turning hostile and suggesting bingo. No, I tell them, people my age like to gather in groups and talk about how the world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket. There’s always a flash of recognition. Participants have seen it in their parents and others of my age. But then I go on… the cure for this is hanging around this group (of early-career future scientist-leaders). And it’s true. They have so much energy and passion and intent to make the world a better place that it’s easy to realize the future is in good hands.

Others offer similarly hopeful views of reality, couched in different terms, more thoughtfully based, and more extensively reasoned and documented. You might remember (or be interested in) one example published back in April, the so-called Ecomodernist Manifesto, multi-authored, and published by the Breakthrough Institute. It speaks to a good Anthropocene. You no doubt have your even more insightful and trustworthy candidates: if so, please share your favorites with the rest of us.

By the way, John Plodinec finds time to read and thoughtfully comment on LOTRW posts, but this is only a sliver of a sideline for him. He writes frequently for the Community&Regional Resilience Institute; you can find his recent post on leadership, learning, and trust here.

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(Always gotten into trouble in the past whenever committing to future posts, but succumbing to temptation once again… as many readers may be aware, the National Weather Service is continually reinventing itself. More on recent developments in the next post. And Pope Francis is releasing his encyclical on climate change today. Perhaps you’ll find commentary here as early as this weekend. )

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4 Responses to The Age of Muddle?

  1. Hi Bill
    you might want to look at Emery’s book

    Roe, Emery (2013). Making the Most of the Mess: Reliability and Policy in Today’s Management Challenges. Durham; Duke University Press

  2. Deke Arndt says:

    Bill,

    People your age were instrumental, or more accurately, the single driving force behind taking my little church solar. It’s one of the most kick-butt thrusts of in-your-face, do-it-yourself, far-sighted optimistic investments in the future I’ve ever seen.

    Deke

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