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Numbers Please

During a program presented at a corporate planning conference last week, I again stressed the value of first seeking a variety of data, then engaging in collaborative analysis to determine meaning and potential impact. Data by itself is merely information. We place values on it and determine its positive or negative impact on enterprise, program, or community. Like most aspects of strategic thinking and planning, the process is typically more valuable than the product. Merely getting together to review data, establish parameters, and calculate probability will pay enormous dividends. Unfortunately, far too many public leaders and government agencies neglect this intrinsic management activity.

 Let’s talk numbers. I encourage state and local leaders is to seek the best possible sources to gather data that is central to an issue. Once gathered, convene subject matter experts who focus on the community, believe in the common interest, and have the capacity to collaboratively develop remediation strategies. Below are just a few examples of numbers (there are thousands of data reports that can be used to generate thoughtful conversation). For these I offer neither analysis nor interpretation. Many don’t need much thought…they need action.

 Today, during the Meet the Press panel (Ed Gillespie, Rachel Maddow, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks) it was noted by New York Times columnist David Brooks that the federal government has had “tax revenues for the past decade of 18 percent of GDP.  That’s just the level.  We’ve had spending of about 20 percent.  After all we’ve been through in the past year and after healthcare reform, it’s going to go up to 25 percent.  We’ll just have this gigantic gap between 25 spending, 18 revenue.” Now, IF that is true and those numbers are accurate, what does this mean to future funding for state and local programs?

 Each year there are 79 million more people who need to be fed worldwide and approximately 3 billion people on the planet are consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. This is happening at a time when world grain consumption has grown from approximately 20 million tons annually to over 40 million tons and ethanol production has escalated – creating competition between fuel and food for growing populations. What happens when food AND oil prices soar and availability declines?

 Compounding the above, data from the Earth Policy Institute reveals that China and India are the world’s two largest wheat producers (the U.S. is number 3) and also dominate world rice production (Viet Nam is the number two rice exporter). Glacier melt is the principal water source for rivers in both China and India and both the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau are losing their glaciers at an astounding rate. Viet Nam is facing epic flooding due to rising oceans whereby only a 3 foot rise in sea level would destroy half the rice fields in the Mekong Delta and over half the rice fields in Bangladesh. What will this mean to global and local food availability and prices? And certainly, to the health and well-being of a billion people?

Since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded by a significant margin the number of new oil fields discovered. The latest 2008 figures indicate that the world used nearly 31 billion barrels of oil but discovered new deposits equating to only around 7 billion barrels. As noted in a recent Blog, Christopher Steiner’s new book, ($20 per Gallon, How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better), provides fairly stark but enlightening data on why gasoline prices will rise and the potential impact on American society.

 In 2008, around 7.9 billion tons of carbon were emitted from burning fossil fuels and another 1.5 billion tons were emitted through deforestation – a total of 9.4 billion tons. Since the global ecosystem can only absorb around 5 billion tons into the oceans, soil, and various forms of vegetation, the rest stays in the atmosphere and escalates CO2 levels. An untold amount of CO2 is being released from melting permafrost (Arctic and close to 9 million square miles of northern latitude soil contains more CO2 than is currently in the atmosphere), pointing to the phenomenon of ‘dynamic acceleration’ as the planet heats and frozen latitudes begin to release both methane and CO2 faster.

 We have evolved into an urban species. In 1900, only 150 million people lived in cities; a hundred years later, 2.8 billion people live in cities – over half of the global population. 2.5 billion people lack improved sanitation facilities; the EPA estimates that 680 billion gallons of potable water is lost per year  through leaky municipal water systems; half of all water in American homes is used for showers and flushing. Costs for water extraction, transport and treatment make water a critical element of every community plan. Certainly, water availability is central to economic development, health and overall quality of life.

 Much of the above is derived from the Earth Policy Institute – a non-profit organization formed to provide data and encouragement for changing the planet. Richard Florida (Who’s Your City) and Richard Register (Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature) have written extensively about the need to transform how we evaluate, plan and develop new communities. The ‘pleasure-pain’ principle is active in this Country…we resist change until the suffering is too great. Unfortunately, with the pace of change today, if we continue this course, it will be too late. Good data will inform decisions. I have found that an insufficient number of elected and appointed officials, no matter how dedicated and well intentioned, gather enough data to be 1) properly informed, 2) able to inform their communities, and 3) able to use data to drive critical political and program decisions. The admonition “Confront Reality” is appropriate. A lot is happening locally, regionally and globally. Know the numbers, discuss the potential impact and calculate probability. Then create AND implement plans to transform your communities. Those who do so will be Prepared for Challenge and will be the celebrated leaders of tomorrow.

 NOTE: Look for other relevant data in Plan B 4.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization, by Lester R. Brown, the Earth Policy Institute

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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