What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

To review: LOTRW posts over the past two days have noted that in the Digital Revolution, just as in the earlier Industrial Revolution, we human beings are struggling to find our place. The Industrial Revolution began with human beings servicing machines, instead of vice versa. Long days and brutal working conditions were the initial result. Similarly, in today’s Digital Revolution, as robots and computers get smarter, they’re taking on more and more of the work. Business is investing in such IT or using novel financial instruments to build profits. Unemployment, economic stagnation or deflation, and flat and declining wages for the human labor force have been the result. This is in contrast with the world we want – one in which human life is valued and respected, where interdependence is acknowledged and celebrated, and technology serves human purposes rather than the other way around.

How do we get to that world we want from here? What kind of world is possible if we act, if not perfectly, at least effectively? And more specifically, since the challenge is complex and evolving, and we lack the intelligence individually and as a society to see more than one move or so ahead on the real world’s chessboard – what’s the first step?

Here’s one answer[1]: build/rebuild critical infrastructure. A definition: critical infrastructure comprises assets essential for the functioning of a society and economy. These include electricity, energy, water, and food production, transport and distribution; highways, roads, rail, airports, harbors, and other transportation facilities; and softer infrastructure such as the public health and safety, financial, education, waste management, and public health systems. Much infrastructure worldwide is either aging or facing obsolescence because of innovation. In the U.S. alone, the ASCE estimates the bill coming due to be some 2 trillion dollars (compare to U.S. GDP, which is about $17T/year and U.S. national debt, which stands at $18T).

Here’s a short list of the benefits of such initiatives. At present levels of technology, building and rebuilding critical infrastructure is relatively labor intensive. It can’t be accomplished by IT or machines alone. Instead it puts large numbers of people to work and requires a broad spectrum of skills. What’s more, it sets the stage for increased labor productivity and economic growth – not narrowly, but across the board, for years to come[2]. Additionally, infrastructure projects remind us of our interdependence – as individuals, institutions, cities, and nations. Such projects also lend themselves to thinking globally but acting locally, in a place-based way.

Some people object to such investments now, on the basis that they require money we don’t have, and will lead to more deficit spending. But economists have a different message. They tell us that such projects actually have the greatest economical and societal benefit when they’re counter-cyclical[3]. What’s more, they reduce the risk of deflation, a great threat to the developed world today.

Note that some infrastructure spending confers more benefit than others. It’s essential to invest in the infrastructure needed for tomorrow, not that which was desirable yesterday. Some examples: As the nations of Africa build their infrastructure, they’re looking to cellphone networks, not landline communication. And they’re balancing growth in fossil-fuel infrastructure with investments in renewable energy; wind and solar energy are plentiful across the continent. Global enthusiasm for dams is declining as their shortcomings come to light.

Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) provide a unique 21st-century opportunity. Earth OSS constitutes critical infrastructure for making vital decisions with regard to Earth as a resource (food, water, energy, and more), Earth as a threat (cycles of flood, drought, storms, earthquakes, and the like), and Earth as a victim (habitat, bio-diversity, air-, water- and soil quality, etc.). Earth OSS provides necessary inputs to design, deployment, operation and maintenance decisions for all other critical infrastructure, whether for energy, food, and water supply, public health, transportation, etc. These decisions are growing more complex, and consequential with each passing year. By contrast, the Earth OSS investments required are the merest fraction of the overall $2 trillion infrastructure bill. In the U.S., they amount to $15B/year. Doubling this annual investment would not only ensure that U.S. investment in its domestic infrastructure yields greater return but also open significant new international markets for U.S. goods and services.

Human spaceflight. Which brings us full circle to the discussion that opened Saturday’s LOTRW post. Even as we lament the struggles of the underfunded human space program, we’re overlooking the fact that all seven billion of us are in fact crew on the largest space mission now ongoing in our solar system. We’re on a unique spacecraft, weighing 6×1021 tons, and in a 93 million-mile heliocentric orbit. A clever choice! It eliminates any need for an impervious outer shell to contain our atmosphere, or an internal heating source to maintain atmosphere and water in amounts and forms needed to sustain life. And by hitching a ride in orbit around this particular sun, we’ve afforded ourselves some great sightseeing around the galaxy for millions of years to come. Like most crews of spacecraft or aircraft, priority #1 is keeping all the essential systems of the spacecraft humming, especially the ecosystem services, for the duration of the voyage.

In this regard, our biggest challenge remains our humanity itself. Studies suggest that we should place a lot more emphasis on crew resources management – how we work together (especially with respect to our interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making) to ensure our safety and the safety of the spacecraft on which we rely. Investment in Earth OSS will address this need, but only partially. The biggest challenges are social and psychological. That’s the finding of NAS/NRC studies as well. For example, Safe Passage, NAS/NRC 2001 suggests from study of programs in the Antarctic and space travel to date that the stresses and tensions of such for extended periods make teamwork difficult.

Perhaps we see hints of this challenge on Spaceship Earth, aka the real world, with today’s wars, terrorist acts, and disputatious political dialog both domestically and internationally.
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[1] Neither original nor unique to me; we see calls for this everywhere.

[2] In these respects it’s superior to homebuilding, which has long been a staple of economic recovery, and remains important.

[3] This is not just a macro-economic argument; it works at the individual level as well. If you and I commute to work by car, when our car breaks down we don’t throw up our hands and say, “too bad we don’t have the money to make repairs or buy another vehicle. We’ll have to accept unemployment as our fate.” Instead we go into debt; we do what it takes to keep our jobs. On the other hand, buying a new car simply because it’s new when our current car is still serviceable confers little benefit.

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