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Myopic America

Those concerned souls who perceive the glass as half-empty are often rewarded by seemingly random events that justify their admonitions. When BP’s massive Deepwater Horizon Malcondo well blew out on May 24, 2010, followed by the Fukushima nuclear meltdown just a year later, many predictors of a dire future embraced these events as validation of earlier warnings. The same holds true with those who have amassed enormous amounts of data indicating climate shifts that will alter life on this delicate planet. So far, weather patterns have behaved as predicted and, whether causative factors can be proven, it is clear that serial 200-300 mph tornados are becoming more common, along with drought, violent storms, floods and jet stream relocation.

In the meantime, the DOW has been hovering around 15,000, consumer confidence is generally strong, and the economy is showing signs of renewed vigor, albeit weaker than hoped for in mid-2013. Judging from what I read and by studying social and market behavior, it appears that most choose to ignore negative and challenging forces, even if backed by significant scientific data and historic relevance. As noted in this space over three years ago, those now living in America don’t know truly hard times. Especially when compared to our parents and grandparents who endured the Great Depression and WWII, those of us growing to maturity since 1950 have never known true hardship. Even the poorest Americans have many options provided by non-profit organizations and public social services agencies that moderate the most serious effects of poverty. The American poor, when compared to the poor in Europe, Asia, Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, have it pretty good.

Perhaps the greatest concerns, when looking just 10 to 20 years ahead, are social, cultural and economic evolutionary patterns that indicate an almost total ignorance of trends and predictable outcomes. In their recent books, Too Much Magic (James Kunstler) and The Efficiency Trap (Steve Hallett) (both on the must read list), the authors lament that far too many middle aged and young people totally disregard historic fact and clear data and instead assume that some magic technical solution will emerge to solve every identified challenge. And, that consumption continues to outpace production and resources are being rapidly depleted. The global population is above 7 billion and remains on track for 9+ billion by 2050. Potable water supplies are rapidly declining due to drought and agriculture must compete for available water to grow crops to feed more people. The hunt for oil has assumed almost comic proportions, with idealistic and laughable assertions that we’ll never run out of oil (Charles Mann in The Atlantic, May 2013), when actual global production has not increased nearly enough to keep pace. As Kunstler notes, there is a real dilemma when young people disregard facts related to resource depletion and equate technology to energy. Technology may help create a path forward, but it cannot replace oil reserves, forests, depleted fisheries, minerals and water.

Of course, throughout history there have been fluctuations that became cycles. Today, some trends lead to predictable events and evolutionary progress while others are difficult to assign any measure of probability. My view parallels that of Tom Friedman, who, along with Michael Mandelbaum, suggested in That Used to be Us (2011) that we first must clearly define the world in realistic terms then decide exactly what we need to do to thrive in it. Second, this country has failed to deal with its biggest challenges-particularly education, debt, deficits, energy and climate change and now must deal with all simultaneously. Unfortunately, they are all huge issues and will take time, resources, and collective will, which seems in short supply when witnessing the political and economic dysfunction in this country.

As a society we are nearsighted and seemingly oblivious to spiraling trends that are leading America away from its traditional path. We have the data, ingenuity, resources, and institutions to regain our will and vision; we have the power to decide what is important and create sensible plans that will chart a new course toward a desired future. The ultimate questions pertain to whether we are too soft, too relaxed, too focused on recreation and too self-absorbed to intervene in our own misadventure. Are we still capable of such an intervention? Or will we continue celebrating the DOW, ignoring the challenges and enjoying our vacation from the truly stark realities of our time?

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.                      Evolutionary Theory

jfl-pic21With 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 government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

One Response

  1. The potential, serious problems of the future are trumped by the realities of the present, hence, the myopia. Economic dysfunction has frustrated many who try to pay bills against rising food, gas, and medical prices while bizarre, abhorrent political activities have left the public bewildered and distrustul of a federal government supposedly designed by, of, and for the people.

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