Monday, October 12, 2009
Reform Your Biased Thinking on Complex Issues
What I took away from this book was new insights to my own thinking bias and when I should take the time to apply his methodology on making better decisions regarding complex issues. I expect you will find his observations and approach useful in your own decision-making challenges.
My review of his book follows.
What’s The Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.
By Greg Craven
We've all been inundated with the pros and cons of the global warming and climate change debate. And probably most of us are inclined to believe that the world will warm, polar bears will suffer, lawns will turn brown, and cars will get smaller. The breezy hillsides will become populated with windmills, the southwest desert will host large solar-thermal farms, our utilities will watch our energy use through smart meters, and new power transmission lines will link wind and solar power to our population centers. All this change will happen to run our electric cars, our virtual meetings, our air conditioning, our refrigerators, and our wide-screen televisions. That doesn't sound particularly disrupting, just a little expensive. Between that and a health care solution, we will be set for the 21st Century.
Not so fast Bubba. Have you really taken a look at the assumptions you are making and how you arrived at you conclusion? Have you wrestled with your ‘confirmation bias?’
For a lot of us, I suspect our thinking is,
`Yeah, we may get warmer but the jury is still out on how bad the impact might be even if we could do much about it. And I can hardly afford my mortgage, my health insurance, my car payment, the college tuition, my tax bill, my (taxpayer) share of all of these under-funded pension plans, and the occasional vacation to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon the way it is. I think I'll pass on most of these expensive carbon-footprint reducing actions.'
Global warming risk is not yet `in our face' - real, ugly, and frightening - so it is easy to discount the need to `really' do something about it. Something that takes conscious decisions that reduce the choices we thought we would be able to make like buying that useful SUV, acquiring that 52" LED flat panel HDTV, investing in that continuing education tuition, or expanding out of our cramped home as the kids start arriving. It's all due to a biological fault in this phase of our evolution. In the last 10,000 years our `fight or flight' quick reaction mechanism has become less and less essential to our survival. Instead, it is becoming more important to exercise longer-term planning skills that have emerged over the last thirty years. These skills include scenario planning, risk-reward analysis (expected value), real options, and systems thinking. Unfortunately, these are not nearly as natural and persuasive and suffer unexpected `long tail' effects as opposed to clear `in your face - fight or flight' decision-making.
Greg Craven addresses our shortcomings for effective long term planning to protect ourselves and, more importantly, our children and their children. He has used his own experience in teaching students about physics and chemistry to engage them in refining his `rational decision' process. One particularly helpful insight is a review of our confirmation bias and its influence on how we filter out what we want to hear. Remember those articles you’ve read about how people tend to listen to those who share their point of view and ignore those who don’t?
Mr. Craven offers a process on how to overcome our natural tendencies for bias and to sort through all of the contrary points-of-view, focusing not on searching for what is the right answer about the extent and degree of global warming risk, but rather on what we risk if we make the wrong bet. His approach is to focus on what we control - our choices - and how to bolster our ability to think longer term by framing the arguments from pro-con advocates, weighing the credibility of various spokespersons, creating a decision matrix (what Nature does vs. what We choose to do), assessing the risk-reward, and making your choice for action or not. This approach is applicable to a wide variety of widely debated issues so becoming comfortable with Mr. Craven's approach has benefits well beyond your global warming thinking and decision making.
Of course, what we as individuals do on these global community issues only has a significant impact if all of us join in. So ultimately there is the need for a social movement to create a `tipping point' for effective action. This is necessary to develop enough support to reach that "angle of repose' in which a small additional nudge creates the positive social feedback to generate self-sustaining behavioral change to deal with global warming risk - in time - to anticipate and overcome the inherent delayed responses, massive momentums, non-linear tipping points, and feedbacks in the global climate system. Mr. Craven's framework will help the proactive reader create their own story on what to believe and how to respond to these real challenges that shape our future.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
What a Bunch of Bots Might Do
by Leinad Zeraus (Daniel Suarez)
OK, I read this book almost two years ago in its first printing. You can tell by the author’s name that was on the front cover – Leinad Zeraus. The next printing in hardcover (following its success) has his proper name on the cover. I mentioned to Mr. Suarez that I planned to write review following a talk he gave at the Long Now Foundation in August, 2008. I had read the book several months previously after Peter Schwartz (GBN) recommended it to me. It was easy to become engrossed in the book and the story, particularly if you have been involved with the growth of the Internet, virtual worlds, software development, wireless technology, and, of course, video games. I could put a check mark by each of those so I naturally read the story with the skeptical eye of the ‘insider’ looking for both insights I hadn’t put together yet and the attempts to stretch the truth too far. After all, we are talking about software bots taking over a chunk of the world through the Internet. How real is this possibility, now or in, say, this century?
I’ll give you my short answer. Not Today, of course, but . . . it’s worth taking a look further out. After all, don’t we have a DOD Cyber (security) Command now?
First, I would say that Daemon is a technology tour de force in terms of the technologies that are nicely woven into the story. I took to making a list in a second reading of the book and here is a sampling –
Rootkit, Wireless Internet, Spread Spectrum RFI (radio frequency interference), Dark Net, Hack Test, Robot Humvees (think DARPA Grand Challenges as a real world – it works!), automated voice response (AVR), ULF (ultra low frequency) acoustical weapon, UHFA (ultra high frequency acoustical) pin-point sound, steganography, fuel-air bomb, fiber optic cameras, crystal door keys, SQL injection attack, UWB (ultra wideband) receiver, MRI mind mapping, multinational web crime groups, DDOS (direct denial of service) attacks, and my list goes on for another page and a half.
Second, as a technologist I found that most of the uses of technology are reasonably credible save towards the end when you must park the skeptical brain off to one side for a while. Early on, for example, you can imagine a fuel-air bomb created by forcing fuel through a lawn sprinkler system. And only a real fuel-air bomb designer could share the bits of ‘art’ that are essential to get the explosion described in the story. On the other hand, towards the end when bullet spitting robot cycles race through a control complex and attack protagonists in the open, well, maybe I’m skeptical today. But there are also numerous robot companies developing lethal autonomous-capable machines for military action, so much so, that a robot ethics code for such machines is a new topic of research. We are beyond Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws.
Third, there are parts I found intriguing like the infamous Heinrich Boerner in the video game virtual environment and how he leads our protagonist Jon Ross further into the conflict between the bots and humanity. As a casual gamer, the description of that was definitely in sync with how one might engage in a multiplayer online game. I did find some parts disturbing such as how our social media can be abused by propagating embarrassing events to a global audience. We can be cruel in our self-gratification but what is new there?
All-in-all I found Daemon to be a provoking novel about technology and mankind. If you follow Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity concept, this will give you another possible story line of how our distributed AI offspring might both bite the hand that created it and, hopefully, help us overcome our inherent bounded rationality. I recommend reading the novel and listening to Daniel Suarez’s talk on the Long Now Foundation website. And I hear there are plans for a movie. I’ll be among the first in line I suspect.
Man and Machine in Combat
– by Ed Macy
I was captivated by this true story of a British Apache helicopter pilot’s career and experiences flying missions in Afghanistan in 2006. What impressed me with Ed Macy as a person was his focus on achieving his desire to fly in the military and especially the new Westland AH Mk1 Apache helicopter. A good summary of the challenge is given by this excerpt from the front cover overleaf –
“. . . the deadliest, most technologically advanced helicopter on the planet. As strong as a tank . . . the helicopter is remarkably fast and nearly impossible to shoot down. . . . [With] weapons and cameras, the Apache pilot can spot prey from miles away . . . And it is the toughest aircraft in the world to fly – only the top 2 percent of pilots make it . . . hands, feet, and even eyes need to operate independently.”
If it wasn’t clear that this was a true story of one man’s experiences, one could easily read it as a fictional novel filled with a character with beyond human capabilities. The action is palpable and the sacrifices Mr. Macy made to be a superior pilot in the face of danger are sobering and inspirational to reflect upon.
I have to admit having a passion for the virtual worlds of video games, human augmentation, and flight simulators so it is of particular interest to me how an Apache pilot becomes one with the machine. This is essential in order to manage the complexity of the controls, split-vision monocle, and the visual sensors that include low-light and infrared imagers. The daylight camera, for example, can magnify 127 times. There are over two hundred switches many multifunctional. The monocle over the right eye forced left-right eye independence as an efficient way to cram more information into the brain. “A dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it.” This alone is a significant learning obstacle to overcome.
Note Mr. Macy’s description starting with the example of driving your car -
“After you’ve driven it for a while, you don’t have to think; you just end up at home without having thought of driving one. It was the same with the Apache, but on a grander scale. Halfway through the first tour . . . I didn’t need to think how to fly and shoot because my fingers, arms and legs were working in perfect harmony with my mind. I was no longer strapped to the Apache, the Apache was strapped to me.”
And “. . . the unimaginable demanding need to multi-task . . . only a very small percentage of human brains could do everything required simultaneously to operate the aircraft.”
The powerful imaging capability makes enemy engagement much more personal than is typical for the military aviator. Mr. Macy often could see the enemy as if up close and personal such as a sniper could. And this capability offered a similar surgical precision in limiting collateral damage.
Partially reliving Mr. Macy’s experience helps you appreciate the challenges of conflict with powerful weapons and the discipline necessary to manage multitudes of information while making instant life and death decisions. In this world with a growing cadre of unmanned, remotely-controlled, airborne vehicles [UAVs}, the video-game mind-set intrudes the perspective of the remote pilot I suspect. The personal life-death risk is much removed to be replaced by the career-risk proxy. Sure, the adrenaline may pump as in the video game, but deep down you know that you will still be breathing tomorrow. It is certainly not so for Mr. Macy with the Apache strapped to his back.
I will add this title to my collection of true military experiences that include
“Into the Mouth of the Cat – The Story of Lance Sijan Hero of Vietnam” by Malcolm McConnell and “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10” by Marcus Luttrell.
After the RESET.
I picked up “One Second After” after a quick browse caught my interest for a beach read while vacationing in Maui. Here’s the challenge – some unhappy with America group manage to launch a few electromagnetic pulse [EMP] nuclear weapons to burst high over the U.S. The resultant high energy electro magnetic pulses overload almost all of our modern electrical equipment and devices so essentially of our making-life-livable (in modern terms) devices and infrastructure are useless. Cars don’t run, electricity doesn’t flow, food doesn’t get to the supermarket, hospitals are blacked out, no TV or iTunes, forget facebook, tweeting, and email. It’s over!
So what would you do? What would the country do? And what would our supposedly unaffected neighbors like Mexico, China and Canada do –help out or take advantage? The last question is largely left to almost a footnote at the end of the book, but it seems likely to be more ‘taking advantage’ than ‘helping out’ – but that is not the point of the story.
The real point of the story is to highlight how much we take for granted. Take food for example. Recently a friend of mine mentioned that not long ago that his three pre-teen kids became aware that hamburgers and steaks came from cows. Suddenly hamburgers and steaks were no longer eatable. And I overheard a family member observe, I hope tongue-in-cheek, that we could just go to the store to get milk if the dairy farms went bankrupt. Now that does seem a bit far-fetched.
Recently I did a short research paper on the future of sustainable agriculture in the American Midwest. I came away with a dismal conclusion – the talk of locovores and year round Farmers’ Markets like that pioneered in Newbury County, Ohio, by Rob Marqusee, will run into the problems of labor shortage, incentive shortage, and the focus of local politicians on what they see as faster ways to grow both blue and white collar jobs in their community. So, in brief, it’s not so easy to go ‘back to the future’ and build resiliency in our social infrastructure should its brittleness be attacked by those who don’t like us or we simply run into a tipping point of our own making.
“In One Second After” Mr. Forstchen covers the main questions of how one fictional family deals with the instant unraveling of society, the lack of effective national and state government responses, the coalescing of the local communities to ration limited resources, fend off migrating citizens in search of a temporary home, and defending against outright raids to take anything the community might have of use.
Sometimes brutal, fatalistic, and harsh the story does cause one to reflect during this economic downturn of 2008-2009 where our real strengths are and what does it take to survive economic and social collapse. What I miss in our national discourse today is in our spirit of offering a helping hand, where is the recipient’s clarity of reciprocal responsibility to add to the strength of the community? And will we, in the pursuit of entitlements for everyone except the rich (who must pay their fair share of course), know when we have killed the golden goose? Such questions are not casual in “One Second After.”
Mr. Forstchen caused me to think about these issues and how little we appreciate the intertwined complexity of the systems that cocoon our daily lives. I’ve thought more than a bit about such a collapse catastrophe but not to the point of stocking a year’s food supply and adding an AR15 in a gun locker. You should take a look at “Patriots – A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles for that. I suspect we are more exposed to collapses of the type described by Jared Diamond in “Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” where we will foolishly just allow ourselves to clutch our lifestyles so tightly that we drive our resources use beyond the tipping point. Then we go the way of the Rapanui people of Easter Island (See Collapse, pp107-111).
How would you respond to the giant “RESET!” challenges raised by Mr. Forstchen? You will be forced to think about it – if only a bit.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Review of Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer
Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their 4th report in 2007, the influence of anthropomorphic climate warming has been made clear to many although enough skeptics remain to challenge the anthropomorphic cause. And the recent global economic recession has driven concerns about climate to around 20th on the list of the typical American’s concern. Jobs and the economy are near the top of the list as of 1st quarter, 2009.
Yet, key contributors to the IPCC 2007 reports have become even more concerned about the momentum that GHG emissions and the climate response can be. Well known scientific voices like Jim Hansen, John Holdren, and Dan Kammen (UC Berkeley) have spoken out about the need to take action even more proactively than that encouraged by the IPCC 2007 reports – the need to bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 350 ppm.
Politicians are naturally caught between the realities in our face today, the economy, less dependence on foreign fossil fuels, health care, social security, and economic migration just to name a few of the 21st Century challenges noted by James Martin and Bjorn Lomborg and the future problems of climate change. In part this reluctance to go beyond the IPCC reports is based upon the uncertainty that remains about GHG emission, climate response and various potential triggers such as methane release from previously frozen tundra and perhaps methane hydrates in the deep ocean.
I was reminded of the complexities that politicians face when reading Holmes Hummel’s dissertation on “Interpreting Global Energy and Emission Scenarios – Methods for Understanding and Communicating Policy Insights.” When you are faced with around 700 scenarios projecting GHG emissions resulting from various energy policies from many different groups around the world, with obscure data sets and differing models and an order of magnitude or more of differences – what are you to believe? So you go to the experts and trust their interpretations of limited data and incomplete models. Once a benchmark is set by the IPCC, it’s risky to challenge it.
But Mr. Dyer notes that the IPCC could only accept inputs of research material that had been peer-reviewed and published by the end of 2005. Peer reviewed work had to be submitted to the review process well before that time. Much has been learned in the past 6 years hence the current concerns by Jim Hansen and others and that has caused them to lower atmospheric CO2 targets from 450 ppm down to 350 ppm.
One lesson any broad thinker takes from these inputs is that a useful metaphor for understanding the response of the climate system is the oil supertanker. It takes miles to stop one once you decide that’s what you want to do. In climate terms, the equivalent is decades during which a number of positive feedbacks may occur that take matters out of your hands (like a sudden storm or surprising current in the supertanker metaphor).
Mr. Dyer has created a very helpful set of facts and narratives to help us better understand the climate change dilemmas that we face. He interviews several of the leading scientists post IPCC 2007 and gets their current views of what is in store for us – not only in climate change but in social stress that will accompany inevitable warming. The stresses will be larger or smaller depending upon how much warming occurs and what our responses are to mitigation, adaptation and suffering.
His review of several key aspects of climate history and science from conversations with various experts provides a foundation for speculating on the potential meaning for us and our children in the 21st century. He reminds us of the history of climate and how there have been at least five mass extinctions in the past 450 million years, and only the K-T extinction 65 million years ago seems to be related to a meteor strike. Several others seem correlated to higher CO2 in the atmosphere and possible hydrogen sulfide release from stagnating and overturning (anoxic) oceans in warming temperature (Canfield Oceans).
Mr. Dyer supplements his interviews and reviews of climate history with seven scenarios that describe events that might occur as the planet warms during this century. Although he does not explicitly identify the primary drivers, I suggest that most if not all of his narratives are basically founded on the tensions between actual climate response and our human actions with application to the issues in specific regions. What we do affects climate and vice versa – a typical feedback system reality.
Unfortunately, as behavioral economists and game theorists caution, humans do very poorly at protecting their future selves from known possible adverse consequences. So we are sobered by the challenges covered in the narratives such as: 1) who has rights in the ice-free Arctic, 2) how will India and Pakistan resolve dwindling water resources from the Indus waters, 3) what to do about economic migration from Central America into the US as drought strikes the tropics, 4) should geo-engineering attempts be initiated to make up for delayed action, and 5) what are the indicators of impending disaster – to name a few of the questions. Do we wait until disaster is in our face before taking action?
If you are concerned about population growth, over-burdened planetary environmental services, and anthropomorphic climate change, you will find Climate Wars provides provocative insights to our climate challenge of the 21st century. Have you thought about the planet that you will leave for your children?
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Review of Strategic Management Dynamics
In the research of what's current with system dynamics tools today since Jay Forrester pioneered it's development in the 1970's, I came across a different use of system dynamics that helps provide a more visual understanding of system dynamics applied to a business architecture. The key advantage is that it ties closely to the PowerPoint and spreadsheet tools typically found in the modern company's management toolkit and helps tell the story of how management decisions will influence future performance. That work has been done by Kim Warren - my review of his book on the subject follows below.
It is an ongoing task to keep abreast of the best management practices in our global economy. As a result, we are always searching for better tools to be more insightful, to be more effective, and to get better performance. When one finds a tool that seems to resonate as useful because of challenges we have experienced in the past we are motivated to add it to our toolkit and skill set. But our experience has also taught us that we tend to initially have high expectations which are typically followed by some resetting to a more pragmatic view and finally, if one spends the time becoming skilled, the new tool becomes a necessary addition to our management skill set.
I was reminded of this recently watching a baseball game in which the batter struck a sharp grounder down the third base line. The third baseman charged to his right, scooped the ball up as he dropped into a crouched slide to arrest his momentum, and then rose, right foot planted to make a hard accurate throw to first base for the out. The experienced commentator noted that in the past one was taught to first stop, turn, plant your right foot, and then throw to first base. But this slide, plant and throw scheme was definitely fast, fluid, and effective – artistic in execution. He was impressed and remarked that handling the play like he had been taught - old style, the throw would have been too late for the out. The third baseman had demonstrated this technique that set a new standard of skill and effectiveness.
This is how I would describe Kim Warren’s Strategic Management Dynamics, a new tool to add to your management ‘game’ a skill that with some practice, will lead to better insights of the dynamic architecture and future of your business. It will help you understand where past performance will likely lead in the future and how one can change that to get better future performance.
What I found resonated with my experience was the use of system thinking to take a holistic view of your company’s operation. This fits well with the sustainable management movement that is beginning to become a major part of most organizations as they remake their business for the economic realities and environmental constraints facing us in the 21st century.
Second, it focuses on the strengths of system dynamics to capture the feedback, resources (stocks) and control points (flows) of the corporate architecture. Presenting the dynamics in a graphical language helps bridge barriers to effective discussion between top-down strategists and bottoms-up, spreadsheet-focused, operational managers of the business.
Third, you haven’t lost the system dynamics insights behind a dashboard that which allows others to be unsure where the numbers come from. In Strategy Dynamics, the familiar spreadsheet view of the company is clearly evident as well as the dynamics.
Fourth, Strategy Dynamics better bridges the silo-focus that commonly exists in companies that hinders effective understanding and collaboration across business units. It is easier to see how marketing and sales initiatives dealing with intangibles like attracting and retaining customers or managing employee retention affects capabilities and interacts with product development and day-to-day business operations.
Fifth, a lot of decisions involve tradeoffs between short-term and longer-term performance. Strategy Dynamics makes those choices more tangible and sobering because it often takes a few years to see the impact of decisions that lead to success or failure. Being able to intelligently simulate those in advance just enables better decision-making.
Finally, as many organizations begin to focus on other intangibles like “how much will being ecologically proactive attract customers” or “how to understand how my corporate social responsibility program improves bottom-line performance,” the Strategy Dynamics approach helps tell the performance story to the often skeptical C-level management team and shareholders who have to keep an eye on the bottom-line.
I highly recommend Kim Warren’s strategic management dynamics enhancement of the system dynamics toolkit for enabling more insightful and effective management decision-making. It will definitely improve your management ‘game.’
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.
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.
- 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
- Aging Demographics, including: Social Security, Medicare costs and capacity, Workforce replenishment
- Clean Energy, including: Reduced GHG emissions, 80 to 100% reduction in CO2 loading of the atmosphere, Energy Efficiency
- Environmental Protection, including: Planetary capacity for humanity, Consumption and Environmental Stress, Population growth overwhelming Planetary ‘Services’ (Resources)
- Universal Health Care, including: Affordable health care
- New Technology Risks, including: Nanotechnology, Nuclear Proliferation, Biotechnology
- Pandemics, including: Global mobility enables disease diffusion, Environmental change foster wider habitats for disease
- Clean Water, including: Disappearing glaciers, Massive consumption and stress from , climate change and population growth
- Oceans Preservation, including: Declining fish stocks and disappear coral reefs – symptoms of overfishing and climate change, Increasing pollution from fertilizers and civilization’s waste
- Economic Migration, including: Poorer country citizens to wealthier countries, Business migration from high tax locales to lower tax havens
- Nuclear Proliferation & Waste, including: Inherent hazards of driving to ‘clean’ nuclear power
- 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.
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.
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.