The three questions.

No one ever asks…

“What’s up with the three questions on the masthead for the blog?”

Here’s the backstory. In the late 1980’s-early 1990’s…sometime in the period…the federal agencies were formulating the U.S. Global Change Research Program, or USGCRP. Mike Hall (then at NOAA), Bob Corell (NSF), Shelby Tilford (NASA), and Jack Fellows (OMB) were the principal architects. USGS (Dallas Peck) and DoE (Ari Patrinos) would also be involved. [Note added February 9, 2013: A friend who read this post kindly took the time to note I’d omitted EPA from this brief introduction. A regrettable oversight on my part! I should have mentioned that Peter Jutro of EPA (at that time the founding director of EPA’s climate research program) had been involved in USGCRP from the earliest formative stages. You can find his brief bio here. It’s worth adding that the principals met informally for more than a year over a weekly breakfast at the old White House Connection Restaurant (near the White House itself) working out the specifics. DoE and EPA pressed for USGCRP to address impacts and adaptation and not just research on causality. Back then the White House preferred an emphasis on mitigation over adaptation and NOAA and NSF were more focused on atmospheric processes.] What they accomplished was extraordinary on several levels. On the one hand, they garnered successful and substantial budget increases at their respective agencies – totaling about $1.5B/year. Viewed another way, they established a new model for how to mount and implement meaningful multi-disciplinary, multi-agency research programs that could be sustained for a period of years. [Subsequent programs in high-performance computing, nanotechnology, etc., would follow this model for years.] Viewed through a different lens, they hijacked the federal budget process, momentarily taking it beyond the control of the political figures they worked for. For example, Manuel Lujan, then the Secretary of the Interior, found one budget year he was unable to push through his own pet initiative because this gang of career science bureaucrats had gotten to the White House first and scooped up all of DoI’s flexibility for that round.

Unheard of.

In the course of standing up USGCRP, these main players set up workshops and conferences from time to time in Washington, DC and around the country, to socialize the program, build awareness and buy-in. I’d been invited to give a small talk at one session of such a workshop, in Santa Fe.

What a beautiful natural setting! What a charming city! What a remarkable group of people! It was a privilege to have a bit part. I wanted to make a good contribution to the discussion, and so thought long and hard about what would be useful. Two points came to mind.

The first had to do with our moment in history, and the United States’ place in world affairs. (Allowing for gross over-simplification) it seemed to me that in the first half of the 20th century, the key to success was armed might and the industrial power to back that up. Two World Wars provided the test. The U.S. became a superpower in part because it combined these two skills.

The second half of the 20th century went a different direction. It was about globalization of commerce. Then (remember this was around 1990), the two countries who’d been defeated in the earlier half of the century – Germany and Japan – recognized this and became important global economic players. By contrast, two countries – the United States and the Soviet Union – were still making decisions based on the paradigm of 50 years previous. The Cold War was the result. This mis-directed priority destroyed the weaker nation, the (now-former) Soviet Union. The United States was wounded by the need to provide countervailing force.

From the perspective of 1990 or thereabouts it seemed to me that the first half of the 21st century would be about something else – for want of a better term (we’ve been over the shortcomings), sustainable development.

The second had to do with how we might expand the discussion from the group assembled in Santa Fe and the community we represented to the larger world – truly get everyone aware and engaged and talking. The year 2000 coming up in about a decade seemed to offer a unique opportunity. The year 0 A.D. had been celebrated only retroactively. The year 1000 A.D. was celebrated only in Europe and around the Mediterranean. But the year 2000 A.D. would be the first millennium celebrated worldwide. Even folks with a Jewish or Chinese calendar would be joining in. And the occasion ought to be marked by some worldwide event, greater than just the 2000 Olympics and a 24-hour round of fireworks. I proposed that we build global conversations around each of three questions:

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? [Today we’d refer to this as the business-as-usual scenario.] That was the question that could be addressed by the people in that room in Santa Fe and the community they represented. What were the atmospheric climate tendencies? The trends in water resources and global supplies of food and energy? How about social developments such as population growth, urbanization, poverty, international trade, war? And so on.

What kind of world do we want? We had tried out a world based on armed might and the industrial strength to back that up. We were toying with a world based on global commerce. How were those experiments going? What did we like and not like? What were/are humanity’s shared values? Were we content with the levels of poverty we could see worldwide? What about freedom, liberties? Did we/do we want to live in a largely natural world, or did we prefer managed ecosystems and landscape? These questions or some better framing seemed important as a yardstick for reacting to the answers to the first question. Is the future world that is likely going to be one that we like? Can we afford to be complacent? Or should we worry? Could we construct a shared ideal? At the time I pictured the United Nations convening some kind of group of thoughtful people…philosophers, historians, theologians, world leaders, representatives from civil society…not the people in the room in Santa Fe.

What kind of world is possible if we act effectively? It seemed unlikely that we’d be content with the business-as-usual world, and equally improbable that we’d be able to realize our shared ideal. But how much would we have to compromise? What options might we have? Again, at the time, I envisioned an outreach to the global business community; they were already being heard from with respect to sustainable development, following publication of the Brundtland report, Our Common Future.

The suggestion was that ten years might be just enough to structure worldwide dialogs on these three topics, get lots of input and sift and refine it. We could then celebrate the year 2000 by reporting out the findings of the three groups. [At the time, I had an idea for a venue for this reporting-out. Maybe that’ll be the topic of the next post.] The world could then look ahead to a century of developing and working through an agenda based on the results.

In retrospect these ideas seem hopelessly naïve and possibly mis-directed. For all their lip service to process and inclusiveness, to today’s ears they smack of command-and-control. They were formulated before the rise of the internet and social networking. [They came before the current view of crowd-sourcing and appreciation for the wisdom of crowds. Back then, we were still operating on Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.] In many ways, all the world’s conversations all occur with these questions as a backdrop. Seven billion of us are working out the answers to these questions every moment of every day in a great and wonderful free-for-all.

Glance toward your bookshelf. You don’t see a three-volume set with these titles, do you? Although the idea resonated with a few people in the room, it came to nought. Instead we ushered in 2000 with a laser-like focus on Y2K.

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2 Responses to The three questions.

  1. Pingback: The three questions… Case Study #1. U.S. tornadoes | Living on the Real World

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