The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium will (help) save civilization

The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium meets this week at a Washington hotel near Union Station. That railroad station, built around 1902 and restored a few decades ago, looks good on the outside, but its interior is a strikingly lovely space.

The architect? Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), who also did the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893, the largest world fair ever held up to that time. It celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America.

Burnham is quoted on Union Station’s interior walls: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Union Station? The 1893 World’s Fair? Columbus’ voyage? No little plans here.

The Colloquium has a similarly high purpose.

Here’s the logic.

First, the times we live in are momentous. Seven billion people – a record number – needing water, food and shelter, and seeking a measure of material prosperity, have suddenly found themselves enjoying the technological and economic means for realizing these ambitions. We’re busily going to and fro on the surface of the Earth. Partly by design (in every one of us there’s a little Daniel Burnham) and partly mindlessly and by accident, we’re having an unprecedented impact.

And suddenly, life is coming at us fast. Our three-faceted relationship with the real world on which we live – the world that is at one and the same time a resource, a victim, and a threat – has picked up speed.

That matters. To live happily and successfully on the real world requires that in each decision and action we make, individually and in aggregate, locally and globally, we have to take into account and balance all three facets of that relationship.

Instead, we’re compartmentalizing our decisions. In each, we’re often taking into account only one or two of these facets, and ignoring the rest.

Some examples. We consume huge amounts of fossil fuels, which we price without considering the effects on the environment. We develop coastal zones with little thought as to the threat of storms or earthquakes, or to the ecological impacts. Or we build dams for flood protection or hydropower, without enough attention to the effect on salmon. Then we turn around and seek to protect endangered species, taking that as a goal without any regard to cost or feasibility.

Get the idea? We’re solving pieces of problems, not whole problems. And so our “solutions” are no solutions at all. We’re making mistakes. That’s what we do. We make mistakes and correct them.

But each mistake, even short-lived, even eventually corrected, costs us something. Lives. Health. Money. Fresh water. Food. Energy. Landscape and habitat. Species. When there were only 70 million of us, eking out a primitive existence, these mistakes weren’t so dear or irreversible. Today, with our numbers at seven billion, they matter, they add up. And they are driving change and often foreclosing future options more rapidly than we can comprehend.

How to turn things around? How can we start making better decisions and actions, locally and globally, and make adjustments and corrections more quickly as we go along? We need tools that are at hand and that can start working for us almost immediately and get more effective rapidly. We don’t have much time.

We also don’t have much money. The collapse of the financial sector in recent years is partly to blame, but more importantly, it exposed larger, more serious strains on the world’s economies.

But we have in fact four tools we can bring to bear – tools that can be developed quickly, and relatively cheaply, and yet make a difference beyond all imagining. They are:

Policy. Policies provide a framework for making decisions. As we hone policies and get them right, the quality control of myriad decisions and actions we take daily and annually will dramatically improve. We’ll make effective decisions automatically (just like breathing or driving a car).

Emergent behavior. Examples abound. Take the internet. By setting up an infrastructure with a minimum body of standards, and letting the system evolve, we’ve rapidly changed how the world does business, we’re generating new wealth, and new possibilities for even more. Social networking, as it gets harnessed to problem solving as opposed to letting friends know we’re at Starbucks, is having a similar impact.

A basis of fact. Getting the Earth sciences right, with all its weather, and its hydrologic cycle and biogeochemical cycles; understanding ecosystem dynamics and its biological basis; figuring out what makes us human and how we tick – the psychology and sociology behind our behavior as individuals and groups? All that self examination and self-awareness can quickly improve our success.

Leadership. Seven billion people? Takes time for that many folks to come up to speed – and get on the same page. [Not slavish conformity…just a bit more consensus.] But a smaller number of decision makers? They can get going a little quicker, and can facilitate the work of the seven billion – make that work effective. And leadership? Historically, we’ve thought of leaders as isolated figures…one here and another one there…but leadership, like the larger society, is effective only as the leaders are in community…with us and with each other.

The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium? Each year it’s bringing together scientists, each carrying a piece of that needed basis of fact. The focus? On how that policy process works. On social networking, communication, and emergent behavior. Helping future leaders find their footing, find each other, find their purpose. Not instructing them, but inspiring each to think, and play off and build upon each others’ thoughts..

(Helping – because there are many such efforts springing up worldwide!) save civilization.

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