“He doesn’t know the score.” Years ago, when people wanted to belittle someone, to draw attention to his lack of awareness about what was going on around him, this is what they’d say. Back then, it was hard to be more scornful or demeaning!
You don’t hear this expression so much these days; it’s been supplanted by (the so-ooo-ooooo much pithier, but no-less belittling) “He’s clueless!”
Today, all seven billion of us share this in common. We don’t know the score. None of us. No, not one. Not even you and I. [What’s worse, we lack the self-awareness to acknowledge that ignorance, let it lead to first to humility, then to recognition of our need to work with others, then to reach out to those others. Pretty fundamental stuff.]
Oh, maybe we know how much money we have in our bank accounts. How much credit we have left on our plastic. The height-and-weight percentiles for our baby daughter. How much gasoline is in the car. The cost of a Big Mac and fries (and maybe even the number of calories!). Who won Monday night’s game between the Giants and the Cowboys. Today’s forecast high temperature for Detroit. The yards of cloth it’ll take to make that dress. How much time the Metro takes to get from home to the office. Our salary relative to that of the guy in the next cubicle. And scores of other scores.
Depending upon our profession, each of us knows a handful of scores that are more specialized, arcane. Reading skills of U.S. kids versus children in other countries. U.S. GDP and balance of trade. Our university’s B-school ranking. Which party holds the majority in the House or Senate, and by how many seats. The deadline for submitting a story for tomorrow’s New York Times. SOL’s for high-school American history. The yield per acre on our farm. The number of hits on the company website. Sales in the store’s shoe department. The population of wolves in Yellowstone. Number of ambulance trips per day in Los Angeles County. The odds of filling an inside straight at the poker table. The acceptable range for blood sugar. With seven billion of us, that’s a lot of different scores.
But when it comes to scorekeeping on the larger real world, we’re abysmally, shamefully – and dangerously – ignorant. What’s the full cost of burning a ton of carbon, with all the environmental impacts factored in? What is the value to society of so-called ecosystem services: the value of potable fresh water, say; or flood control provided by mangrove swamps or inland forests; or crop pollination; or the recreation provided by a pristine wilderness area? What’s the present-discounted risk of landslides in the Moraga Valley of California? What’s the value of peace in Somalia to the American taxpayer? What’s the cost to the world represented by displaced minority populations fleeing Myanmar? An infinity of such questions share one common trait – we don’t know for sure! In some instances, a handful of experts can make an educated guess. Or – more likely – suggest a blend of measurement and research that would reduce the uncertainty, if only we had either the money or the time.
Speaking of time, in the last two posts, we’ve talked about buying time. Important. Even transcendent! But we have only the vaguest idea of how much time we have, or might have. Our behavior reflects this ignorance. We have simultaneously mastered the art of following two separate approaches, neither particularly realistic or healthy, worlds apart: “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” and “we have all the time in the world.”
But the fact of the matter is, while all of us have some idea of the threats to continued human existence and prosperity, we have no idea which are most important, or urgent, and why, or to whom. What should we tackle first? Should we focus on reducing fossil fuel use? Disease? Natural hazards? Nuclear war? Water and food supplies? Education? Terrorism?
How are global fish stocks doing? What’s the change in forest biomass this year versus last? How about biodiversity? Are storms growing more severe or less? Which worldwide volcanoes will erupt during the coming decade? How many years of groundwater are left? Which countries will be most robust at the end of this century, and why? In fact, what statistics will fixate the world at the end of the century? Any of these? Or will we all fret about something else?
Absent such information to set bounds on the dialog, policy making is greatly diminished, isn’t it? It’s either ignored completely (one end of the spectrum) or it degenerates into a shouting match. Who can yell the loudest? Cause the most disruption? All the while, quietly, in the background, influential people and powerful interests seize the chance offered by such ignorance to pull strings, shade truth, and subtly manipulate outcomes to favor this or that self-interest. Look around you. Do those policy dynamics feel familiar?
Information is needed (1) for full-cost accounting, and (2) for triage. As for acquiring the knowledge we need, much has been written about the particulars, but more thought ought to be given to two aspects: (1) the conflict of interest inherent in acquiring information versus putting that information to work; and (2) how to overcome political barriers to acquiring the information needed. These will form the subjects of future posts.
 In the curious way these things work, most of us are unaware of the Biblical roots of this particular notion. It’s a conflation of two Old Testament verses: Ecclesiastes 8:15 “…nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” Isaiah 22:13, “…let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!” Paul (1 Corinthians 15:32) refers back to this.