Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are We There Yet?

By Keith McDowell

Travel with children is so much fun. You never know when or where the next bathroom break will occur or the condition of the facilities – and I’ve seen some real doozies in my time! I personally like the suspense of waiting for the Cadillac graveyard on I-40 west of Amarillo, Texas, or the billboard build up for Clines Corners in New Mexico as one travels west on the same highway. Hold on, kids! Only 300 more miles to Indian tomahawks, tom-toms, and kachina dolls. What would we ever do without such life experiences?

In many ways, the history of humankind is not unlike a journey taken with children. You have to take the good with the bad and expect the unexpected.

For example, the Twentieth Century represented the rapid and accelerated culmination of centuries of progress to form the modern nation state. Driven by nationalism, religion, economic necessity and many other factors, warfare was the standard medium to achieve domination by one nation over another. While such global war in the traditional form has in large measure been contained and hopefully eliminated due to weapons of mass destruction, regional warfare continues. Civil society has broken down in Syria and the emergence of the Arab Spring has awakened new clashes in Africa and the Middle East. Global terrorism has brought forth the possibility of dirty bombs, disruption of vital infrastructure networks, and biological agents as real threats to humanity.

In the past, government programs to ameliorate the pressure for war or social disruption spun off significant innovations that fueled global competitiveness. The Internet and the modern information age are prime examples. Some would even argue as did Vannevar Bush in his famous report after World War II that the accelerated growth of science and technology over time has arisen principally from advancing the art and practice of warfare. Hopefully, we take a broader view to global competition these days!

But whatever one’s views as to the reasons and the forces driving innovation on the grand scale, it seems clear that such innovations arise from attacking the major issues facing humanity. So, what are those issues as we pass through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century? Has anyone identified the grand challenges facing us?

Interestingly, such an accounting was generated by Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley at Rice University before his untimely death. I reproduce his list as follows:

·      Energy
·      Water
·      Food
·      Environment
·      Poverty
·      Terrorism & War
·      Disease
·      Education
·      Democracy
·      Population

Smalley was passionate about the need for society to take on these grand challenges in a big way and I agree with him. Whether you accept this particular parsing or not, we can all agree that attacking these issues is essential for the betterment of civilization.

Are we there yet?

Sadly, no! And if anything, we appear to be regressing as major components of society, including many in leadership roles, are in denial of the basic facts associated with each of these issues. Even worse, disinformation to achieve self-advancement has become an accepted practice, especially by politicians.

Take “energy” for example. As I’ve previously written, the “energy problem” – or better said, the “fuel problem” – is technologically a solved problem. It’s called solar energy. Yes, we need innovations to improve the price curve and, yes, we need a smart distribution grid system, but solar energy is capable of satisfying all of our demand for electricity and potentially all of our demand for transportation fuel. Not unlike the electrification of America or the build-out of the interstate highway system, it’s only a matter of engaging the American will power to get it done that holds us back from achieving a solar economy. Of course, our mulish insistence on subsidizing and sustaining past all bounds the oil and gas sector doesn’t help.

And what about the environment as represented by human-driven global climate change, or the insistence of some to frack our way to polluting our ground-water supply, or the chant of “drill baby drill?” Ignoring the environment on such a global scale is guaranteed to provide future generations with a reduced standard of living and to saddle our children with a doozy of a rest stop on their journey through life.

Are we there yet?

Just as children hector their parents with this repetitive question, we as citizens need to hector our political leaders and remind them that there are major issues to be addressed. Dysfunctional behavior in Washington and in our state capitals is simply not acceptable.

This morning, I voted early for President Obama. Such a vote in Texas will have no impact and is merely a statement of my own strongly held personal preference. I urge each of you to vote. And I urge you to continue asking the rhetorical question:

Are we there yet?

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