Monday, May 12, 2008

A Context for Discussion of America's Priorities

We need the wiki forums of Web 2.0 to help create effective discussions that help us solve the challenges facing America – and the World. The common aspiration for many of us, to “live, love and leave a legacy” is better served by addressing these challenges in a “bottoms up” approach with discussions that are enabled via web communities. These forums are where we can better align differing opinions in the process of collaborative compromise and, as a result, foster action to achieve the agreed upon ends. Any city, state or nation, even the world, has only so many intellectual, physical and natural resources that can be applied to the end of identifying and implementing solutions. Our discussion must take this into account, to identify the most pressing issues first. For example, from my research, I believe many experts would list clean energy, climate change and sustainable societies as among the most important challenges facing the world. But an expert’s view is not always a universal perception or necessarily inspiring enough to cause grass roots social alignment for real change. A discussion among all of us as stakeholders in our future is a better way to prioritize our challenges and shape our future.

Solutions in the Larger Context
Our nation exists in a global economy and environment. This reality is readily evident today with the global discussions of climate change and the disruption of the credit markets linked to the subprime mortgage lending in the United States over the last half decade. Our financial resources are being diminished by the fall of the US dollar and the ongoing costs of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly we have suffered from our own hubris about our role and the capabilities of the United States to shape the global community whether it is in political, social, environmental or economic terms. We do not have the financial, organizational, influential or moral strengths to drive the solutions for the many challenges that face our global community and shape the context of solutions that we design for our own national needs.

The world on the one hand demands our leadership and cooperation while at the same time expecting us to also provide financial leadership for the less fortunate. We are assigned the bulk of the responsibility for green house gas emissions with no credit for the technology and economic well-being our economic growth and technological leadership has fostered throughout the world. We are castigated for the unintended consequences of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq but find qualified support for even acknowledged responsibilities of NATO to join in resisting the Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

It seems that to focus on solutions for specifically American issues such as universal health care, legal reform, aging demographics, energy independence, environmental protection, etc. will result in solutions that short change the impact of the many global demands on our available resources. We may have well-intended American solutions that cannot be funded or effectively implemented because of over arching demands placed upon us by the global community. For example, it is hard to see how Americans can continue to pay for expensive drug research through higher domestic prices while foreign governments can apply price controls for distributing the same drugs or expropriate intellectual property to permit local manufacturing for much reduced costs. It is hard to see how we can afford to make available marginally-qualified cutting-edge treatments for every disease while many foreign countries restrict those same treatments based upon documented efficacy, if they are available at all. It is hard to see how we can subsidize the costs of adaptation for climate change in less-developed countries and to be the leader in GHG emission reductions at the expense of our own economic growth while allowing, for example, the BRIC countries to catch up on a per capita emissions basis before restricting their own aggregate emissions.

Like it or not, existence on this planet is presumed to be purchased through creating value that allow ourselves and others to better “live, love and leave a legacy,” to our own pursuit of happiness. Abruptly changing the rules on how ‘creating value’ may be done is almost certain to significantly harm our ability to retain the social law and economic order that presently protects our right to the pursuit of happiness. It is also hard to see how solutions can be implemented that do not include the commitment of every human to doing their part to effect agreed-upon solutions. Disagreements are essential to avoid the traps of ‘groupthink’ but passiveness in letting others carry the burden of effecting solutions is socially irresponsible as well. For example, it is difficult to see just a relative few in this country continually returning to Iraq and Afghanistan to carry on the commitment we have to fostering stable democratic rule in those countries. They are sacrificing to keep us safe at home while at the same time the majority of us continuing to live as if we have no personal risk to share to preserve our security.

Social Messes
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the challenges that shape the global context that frame our discussion of American Solutions for real change. Robert E. Horn has described these large challenges as ‘social messes’ because they inherently are difficult to resolve given the many differing and conflicting views. These include views on what the problem is, what solutions are desired, which are affordable (against other demands for the same resources required to implement a solution), which groups benefit and which groups sacrifice, the relative value of near term solutions against longer term risks and rewards are just a few of the issues that makes consensus and collaboration difficult.

What are these social messes? There are lists complied by various individuals and organizations such as the United Nations, special study groups in the developed world, and globally known individuals such as James Martin. These challenges form the context of American leadership in the global community, where we commit our resources, how we collaborate with the global community on solutions, what trade-offs we make in our national interests and the legacy we expect to leave our children. Here is only a partial compilation from a variety of sources-not in any particular priority.

  1. Climate Change, including: Species extinction, Biodiversity threats, Adaptation to rising seas, melting polar caps and glaciers, Expanding deserts, Reduced food crops,Economic impacts of reduced GHG emissions, New legal theories of rights & responsibilities, Migration of disease vectors, Economic migration
  2. Aging Demographics, including: Social Security, Medicare costs and capacity, Workforce replenishment
  3. Clean Energy, including: Reduced GHG emissions, 80 to 100% reduction in CO2 loading of the atmosphere, Energy Efficiency
  4. Environmental Protection, including: Planetary capacity for humanity, Consumption and Environmental Stress, Population growth overwhelming Planetary ‘Services’ (Resources)
  5. Universal Health Care, including: Affordable health care
  6. New Technology Risks, including: Nanotechnology, Nuclear Proliferation, Biotechnology
  7. Pandemics, including: Global mobility enables disease diffusion, Environmental change foster wider habitats for disease
  8. Clean Water, including: Disappearing glaciers, Massive consumption and stress from , climate change and population growth
  9. Oceans Preservation, including: Declining fish stocks and disappear coral reefs – symptoms of overfishing and climate change, Increasing pollution from fertilizers and civilization’s waste
  10. Economic Migration, including: Poorer country citizens to wealthier countries, Business migration from high tax locales to lower tax havens
  11. Nuclear Proliferation & Waste, including: Inherent hazards of driving to ‘clean’ nuclear power
  12. Education, including: Effective national education (is 50% dropout real?), Effective global education, both child and adult

    Feel free to add to the list. There are many more with priorities depending upon your perspective.

Accelerating Change
The many changes we face as a global community are also accompanied by rapid change brought about through the advancement of mankind and our innate ability to develop and leverage tools that enable us to shape our circumstances, both locally and globally. These tools give us hope that we can manage our existence on our planet without pushing the envelope of our environment through some catastrophic ‘tipping point’ that destroys a substantial portion of humanity and limits our future as a species.

The progress in biotechnology, nanotechnology, electronics and information technology, and global networking through the Internet are among the main drivers of ever faster change. These add ever more complexity to our tools, our communications and our capabilities to further change our environment and ourselves. Keeping up with these changes means we are continuously adopting new tools and services along with the skills to use them. It is no wonder that minimal learning curves are essential for devices and services that help us with our many daily tasks so we have time to focus on our core interests and needs including family and livelihood.

One has to ask if there is a limit to how much change we can absorb as well as afford. There is simply a limit to our attention. This limit has not changed substantially since we moved from hunter-gathers through agrarian societies into our modern post-industrial information age. In comparison with the advancement of our tools, our brains have remained relatively the same in capability. Perhaps our intelligence has improved some through our easier access to more and better foods but not by the same scale as making tools that has taken us from stones to make hatchets to nanotechnology probes to manipulate individual atoms.

Limited Resources
When considering the global scope of our social messes, we realize that we are limited in a number of ways. We are not only are limited in our ability to adapt to accelerating change, we have limitations in the time to decide and take action, resources to use, intellectual insights, collaboration approaches for a discussion, common views of the legacy we want to leave for our children and the willingness to agree on the economic changes and sacrifices that may be needed.

I watched with interest the National Geographic shows on “The Human Footprint” and “Aftermath: Population Zero”. Both cause one to pause and reflect more on how seriously we are impacting our environment. It is easy to speculate on what metaphor is appropriate to better describe our circumstance in ways that help us appreciate the scale of the challenges we face.

Two come to mind. First, consider exponentially doubling every day lily pads in a pond that start in just a small section and over the course of a month only become alarming as they suddenly in the last few days go from less that one eighth of the pond surface being covered to completely covering the pond. The lesson is to be wary and seek to understand the implications of exponential changes.

Second, consider that in just the last century we have dramatically increased our consumption of our planets “services”, for example, clean water, natural minerals, trees, oil, etc. The metaphor I see here is like one going from the luxury of living comfortably during a cruise on an ocean liner to suddenly being faced with being adrift in a lifeboat with a number of passengers and crew. Quickly the norms of social behavior, the beliefs of what is urgent and important to focus on, the expectations of our roles and how we work to survive, and the sacrifices we are willing to make for our own benefit and for the group are subject to change. These changes can be quite dynamic as the perception of the peril evolves with time and not at the same pace for everyone. Perhaps one could expect to be saved quite quickly from a nearby ship and thus see little need for significant change. On the other, one could be in a vicious storm with any number of threats facing the lifeboat occupants. Decision making must be rapid and centralized, orchestrated by someone designated in command. Or perhaps, rescue for unusual reasons is expected to be uncertain, at least for many days, perhaps weeks. Then the hard discussions begin, decision-making may be slow and the sacrifices in personal well-being are very real. Does the television series “Lost” or the historical events surrounding the “Mutiny on the Bounty” come to mind?

We are living in a global economy and our lives are typically based upon improving our circumstance. This has generally has meant consuming more of what others produce. This gives them economic incentive to contribute and has resulted in very complex social and business networks evolving. So far, however, it seems that economic growth is accelerated when inexpensive labor is available. Note the use of slaves in the history of the world and the modern equivalent of moving manufacturing and services to the lowest labor-cost markets when possible. This benefits the consumer’s expenses side of their budget while bolstering the revenue side of the low-cost market’s laborers. That sounds like a win-win, but when both sides of each book of accounts are considered for each party, the net gain may not seem so real. Consumers may see lower wages or wage growth and lower-cost workers may find the environmental and social costs are higher than expected. Economists can show a tendency for overall economic well-being to increase, but is that also true when ‘free’ natural resources are being consumed to the point of near exhaustion?

Where this affects us today is the reality that the developed countries who are high consumers (especially the U.S.) are only a small part of our planet’s population. It is natural for less well-off to seek to enjoy many of the things that developed world consumers do. Consider the growing economies of China and India each of which today may claim a few hundred million moderate consumers out of their combined 2.5 billion people. It has been estimated that if everyone on the planet consumed resources like the developed world, we would need four planets to sustain our consumer life-styles. This may take a good part of this century to reach, but we haven’t even yet learned how to properly achieve sustainable use just our one planet’s resources. And like someone once noted – “We don’t know when we’ve had enough, until we’ve got too much” which can be inverted to “We don’t know when we’ve used too much, until we can’t get it anymore.” Hmmm. Will only our children pay attention because they have to?

Top Down Leadership, Bottoms Up Alignment
The potential for global warming and disappearing resources drive the urgency for clean energy development along with diminished use of fossil fuels and a significant reduction in coal-fired carbon dioxide emissions. But this is only one of our social messes. There are many as noted above. And our American political leaders seem to lack the ability to articulate a vision that we can align to. Perhaps this is too difficult given the broad cultural disparity in belief systems in this country ranging from differing interpretations of ‘scientific observations’, various religious frameworks and a tendency for many to eschew personal responsibility in favor of demanding others, especially the government, to provide for them. I claim no special insights here other than to express a sense of discomfort in our apparent willingness to blame others for our adverse circumstances and the inclination of the press and our politicians to dwell on trivia in what should be a serious series of discussions. In an April 2008 Fox News focus group during the Democratic presidential nomination campaigning, Frank Lutz noted that there was a trend of dissatisfaction with both Democratic Party candidates. The continual focus on Barak Obama’s Rev. Wright associations and his comments on the “bitterness of rural America” while Hillary Clinton is continually pressed on the veracity of her claims such as ‘landing under fire’ is rightly seen by most moderates as missing the point of demonstrating that either candidate has the ability to shaping a consensus for a national vision on anything.

A national vision for dealing with our social messes is absolutely essential for each citizen to both endorse as well as change their behavior. Real change will occur only if Individuals align with being a part of the solution rather than continuing to exacerbate many of our ‘social mess’ problems by pursuing the lifestyles and pursue the expectations that were the norm of the 20th century. We have seen how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have languished, in part, because only a few took ownership in sharing the personal costs and family sacrifices as well as the benefits of more personal security at home. Leaders that ignore finding the right balance of vision, sacrifice and personal responsibility in framing our expectations for the 21st century will only continue to diminish the future of our children that they so fervently argue they are focused on preserving.

I recognize that this is an extremely difficult task. Life is complex, diverse organizations and societies have many conflicting agendas in play, and the laws of physics do not work well in social management. Even human expertise and intuition fail us. Philip Tetlock noted in his book “Expert Political Judgment” how difficult it is for even experts to forecast the outcomes of our many social dilemmas and conflicts. What is sobering from his 18 year long study is how simple statistical algorithms best even the acknowledged ‘experts’ whether they be flexible thinkers (foxes) or convinced that overarching behavioral laws shape the outcomes of social conflict (hedgehogs).

Perhaps this is why the social and marketing experts in our Internet world are pioneering deep dives into data mining with many statistical tools to ferret out consumer behavior and to search to terrorist and illegal activities. Nathan Eagle of MIT (now at the Santa Fe Institute) demonstrated how the simple tracking of cell phone use could lead to predictions of 80 per cent probability what a person would do next if you know what they were doing now. He is also exploring how this knowledge can lead to better prediction of the spread of potential pandemics – another social mess we are facing.

It is likely that Barak Obama intuitively understands this importance of vision and articulates it in a way that appeals to the youth that have sustained his campaign. However, vision without the insights and tools to shape it into an effective process for addressing the social messes of the 21st century will simply add another disappointing footnote in the history of political leadership.
So is there a way forward? I think so. It resides in our willingness to change our focus outward and join in the discussions that can lead to consensus and effective action, one ‘social mess’ at a time. This, I understand, is one objective of Newt Gingrich's ‘American Solutions’ website, to encourage the discussions that lead to change and, in the words of Stephen Covey (and others), “to live, love and leave a legacy” worth striving for.