in We the People Series

Civic Engagement

Civic Engagement

Most of us are lifelong learning type of people, and every so often we find opportunities online that help one to think things through. Recently, I have been exploring the expansion of political engagement in the United States and discovered an easily audited MOOC (a massive online open course). For $50 you could draw down proof of purchase with an academic compliance certificate after taking an odd little quiz. The Dr. Nicholas Carnes, the author of The Cash Ceiling and White-Collar Government, offers Civic Engagement in American Democracy along with Dr. Bruce Jentleson, a seasoned historian and author of The Peace Makers. With several others on the Duke University faculty serving the Stanford School of Political Science, the course via the Coursera platform examines political structures and leadership.

If you don’t give these mostly white male academic actors their $50 you are not allowed to finish the audit and get answers to a crafty “think independently” style quiz. These disappointments are instructive of the racket that is American higher education, but that said, there are worthwhile things to share in this Duke-MOOC.

The course starts with civic engagement as a top-down prerogative found in the U.S. Constitution,  a document designed by our privileged founders in such a way that it became inclusive of all people. For that, we give them a lot of credit. The course briefly breaks down government structures while implying one central question.

Do we have political representatives that become powerful due to their response to the demands of leadership in their time, and therefore yield lessons of success and failure for serious study?

When forced to ask if there is such a thing as profiles in courage or is it more likely the practice of covering up mistakes creatively, the assumption is you can do both. Applaud and boo and hiss. This avoids one other possibility. Has America become a nation where the most important things cannot be discussed or debated. The important things go unsaid.

The Duke-MOOC’s questions about leadership reveal distinctions between the style of presidential leadership vs. the presidency as an institution. The course design implies the need for the renewed focus of political scientists on system dysfunctions, but that is not relevant, lest the core message of this MOOC goes unrecognized as follows:

Political leadership in a democracy does not have a beating heart worthy of a stethoscope unless it helps ordinary citizens discover the conditions conducive to opportunities for successful change. It must have enough force to demystify and redesign failing institutions. The institution of the presidency in this context as recognized in the laws of Congress is limited but shapeable, even flexible when it remains outside of individual leadership styles, especially those that are suggestive but not dispositive of any question such as the concepts for change made by the President of the United States, people began to experience in 2017.


Following the debate initiated in the Federalist Papers (Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay) the Articles of Confederation matured. One question was whether the national leadership should be “a President” or an “Executive Council”. The newspaper format not only established a set of values for a high quality of governance, but it also did so with transparency. The result became the separation of powers, checks, and balances. A President (Article II), a Congress (Article I) and a Judicial Branch (Article III) will rule “a Republic if we can keep it” as Ben Franklyn is described as saying. The Federalist Papers are revered because they brought to its participants a clear, well-thought-out settlement of the issues.

In this design, power and influence could shift between the Presidency and Congress (examples) however, the central governing authority gave Congress the capacity to remove a President, but not the reverse. Another is the President is the Commander-in-Chief, but only Congress can declare war. Treaties with other countries are signed and negotiated by the President, but the Senate must approve (2/3 vote). Top officials are appointed, but the Senate must confirm by a majority. Finally, the Constitution gives more power to Congress on trade with other nations and among the states. All these capacities for leadership were developed as powers vested in the Constitution and specifically designed to prevent the emergence of an autocratic and monocratic presidency.

Perhaps the most beautiful concept of the design is how it provided for a network of federal courts that could be easily replicated by the States. The Republic continued to build, first in the ratification of the Constitution and to each new State the rights to supreme power lawfully held by the people and their elected representatives. The prospect of a renewable union through elections and local, state, and presidential nominations expressed balance in its concern for the people. It holds an essential concept for change as reasonably manageable and a promise of a process for justice through law.

Enter the Great Ho-hum

In 2018, the ordinary citizen’s understanding of presidential powers is very different on issues such as war, treaties, top officials, commerce, and global trade. It appears the President is in charge of it all and when it goes bad, the question turns away from the institution of the Presidency and toward individual Presidents as powerful actors. The issues surrounding the 116th Congress Congress 1/2019 to 1/2021 are whether investigations replace legislation. Will there be an insight into the creation of law as this is their mandate? Will both houses of Congress slide into an oversight malaise? Will it provide evidence of honor or obstruct the evidence of dishonor? Will it be wrong if nothing is resolved?

Connecting the lessons of 2018 with the future (2020 and beyond) is how well the forces of civic engagement in a democracy can restate America’s vision, dreams, and tragedies. Just as these events were experienced by our Founders, they extend from every first-year student to graduating class and from elementary schools to colleges, and how this easily translates into leadership by representatives, staff, or volunteers in helping to identify, define and solve problems.

The American political system works through a set of crucial actors with varying power during specific periods of the election cycle. These components are not well known, yet they continue to build toward an “election day” and engage organized “club” voters who make decisions that will influence the electorate based on participants and issues. For good or ill this is where the heart of a democracy beats, so why is it considered boring, monotonous, dull, even deadly? One answer is the people they inject into politics don’t do what “I’m Just a Bill” says they do or what School House Rock missed. (Here).  The House website has all the details for bill making (Here). Spend a few minutes with these processes and the disconnect with local concerns is apparent, along with the tendency to make bad laws that trigger poor use of our Article III powers.

The ordinary citizen’s engagement with political leadership is rarely exposed as viable unless your subscription to Netflix is considered equivalent to your representatives’ Twitter feed. The addition of participants with the capacity to organize large sums of money and talent notwithstanding, the “up-from-the-grassroots” process is what makes the top-down behavior of congress members, senators, and judges come alive as constitutional actors. Local political clubs of ordinary people determine who runs and how. An analysis continues by district and office from local to federal that allows participants to compare incumbents who are 98% successful in defeating challengers. These clubs decide what issues candidates can speak to with credibility. They will examine records of accomplishment and coach them on the hot buttons of the day (i.e., health care costs, immigration, DACA). It is condensed to one of my favorite street phrases about modern-day political representatives – “They can talk the walk, but they can’t walk the talk.”

Once the choice of candidates is complete and aimed at the next election cycle, the value of local issues in the form of cash and vote capture is exposed. A candidate does not have to be rich to lead but improving the grassroots knowledge of the problems of wealth and government is a starting point of high value on every question related to the quality of public life and the capacity of civic engagement to get results. Comparing the percentage of contribution from ordinary citizens and public matching with the cash from PACs and other significant funding sources also compare neatly with decisions to suppress or build-up voting. In the nexus of these forces determining vote capture is where the fulcrum for change in the quality of civic engagement requires placement.

There are rules.  I cannot give my Congressional Representative that extra half-million in mattress cash, but I can run ads on TV against her opponent, which is more fun and more effective than talking up her accomplishments and general wonderfulness. Because this is a power that can only be accomplished because I am rich makes it seem unfair. The idea of constitutional power extends from “natural persons” to corporations and similar entities and that they make everyone else listen to them using TV time and campaigning more than any single person also tilts the field.

Within this broad spectrum of power and latitude lies the creative point of law, from which corporate personhood as we know it has emerged. Despite beautiful legal minds, why does the creation of this new force in society feel so haphazardly developed, contentious, antagonistic, and from which it will no doubt proceed indiscriminately? Two sources are offered for review. The first is a leader in opposing the principles presented in the Citizen’s United case by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (Here), However, going straight to the Supreme Courts Blog will offer a more direct route into the business of Constitutional Law as it is practiced today before the people (Here).

The Politics of Value
Mass Media as Sensationalist and Lazy

The information age provides a variety of translators regarding the meaning of events due to the actions of a specific interest group, a political party, a community, or a private business activity. All these actors, including those who are violent, exhibit in an environment of multiple perceptions, persuasions that communicate with documented actions. The coexistence of these views as pluralism has become corrupt due to our new world, the one that contains a proliferation of media platforms. The MOOC upon which this essay builds describes this condition with dog metaphors. It goes something like this: A media outlet can have a “watchdog” approach, always looking for an intruder or investigating one. The stories are appreciated, but their watchfulness can also be described as “lapdog” in a social or economic climate of good times and news. To attract more readers Seeing Eye Dog media envisions pathways of change to the future. Reader boredom will lead a hungry media outlet into an “attack dog” frame of mind. It will search for “man bites dog” stories. Finally, you will find Puppy dog journalism presenting cuteness as its source of attention.

A dog is an enjoyable companion, as a metaphor for media, it puts a news outlet into the retail entertainment environment. As such it will struggle to survive in a digital market that humanly speaking is a ruthless sovereign more easily than any other autonomous form. Multiplatform media is a problem if the value of political thought is to remain sustainable, in the sense that it does not cause harm in the search for our better selves in the way William Wordsworth spoke of it:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

 The Rise of Dog-Media

The value of metaphors such as doglike digital media is transparent. It provides for an analysis of categories of news activities such as politics, sports, entertainment, food, real estate, even pets. There is exchange value in the trade for knowledge in each of them. Instead of looking for attention or getting a trick or two with some treats, this digital dog media wants a complete recording of your online existence as an expression of your life. From a civic engagement point of view, the question for debate is whether it is a fair trade. The history of political accountability builds on the separation of government from the press to assure free expression, but it also leads to tough choices concerning responsibility, and rightly so.

The Federalist Papers encouraged its readers to recognize a variety of viewpoints. Still, in the framing of our Constitution, the public demand for a system of solutions had a priority, the best decision is the one that holds and controls the high ground of consensus. The proof that a process can maintain and manage events toward goal accomplishment is because they will recur. Here are two examples:

In Federalist No. 70 (1788), “The Executive Department Further Considered,” The idea of a council was proposed as an alternative to a President. Hamilton argued for a single executive. He believed it would be less dangerous to democracy because one corrupt person would be more straightforward to remove from power than bad actors in an Executive Council. Hamilton’s position prevailed on this point of recurrence, and it built on other conditions such as the speed needed for many decisions coupled with the capacity for secrecy when required. Here, the full admission of the positive and negative aspects allows a process where decisions were made final and ratified. The legacy of the papers remains well known, as challenging debate articles reprinted in news and magazine formats for distribution. That world is now a vast digital network where essential priorities can be lost. Here is an illustration of this complexity.

As the CEO of Public Radio International, Alisa Miller’s insight regarding changes in the human knowledge condition has focused on the exponential change in reporting the news in broadcast media’s super-connected world. She points to the revenue issue by comparing the number of seconds used to report events in February 2017 (Nuclear North Korea, United Nation’s dark report on global warming, flooding in Indonesia) and then points out why the death of Anna Nicole Smith received ten times the coverage of the UN report. First, it was cheaper to recycle AP and Reuters. Second, the 50% reduction of foreign news bureaus by American media outlets, and third, most people get their news from local TV stations that who spend only 12% of their time on world events, while according to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found over 50% of Americans have a severe interest in global issues. A clip of chart (below) from her TED talk illustrates this contradiction.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)

To help illustrate the rate of change since the observations made by Alisa Miller in 2008, all the above and more are available for viewing and reading across “all of your devices.” In partial recognition of this new exponent in media, the TCPA charges the FCC with making it unlawful to use automatic dialing equipment and prerecorded messages to contact consumers on their mobile devices without prior consent. Parallel businesses such as Neustar have formed to help telemarketers assure (or evade) compliance.

Other companies such as Granicus are digital communication services designed to provide sources of public data (e.g., legislation, policy changes, meetings, minutes, voting, lawsuits) for political representatives and government agency clients. The business model of both use digital platforms that integrate information and communicate content conveniently to their client’s constituents. Restrictions on telemarketing messages distributed on rapidly changing platforms inject ambiguity into the making of public policy. For example, federal government officials and agencies are not subject to the TCPA rule, but the FCC has yet to address whether the TCPA federal exemption applies to state and local governments. Since the passage of this law (2005), it remains unclear what the FCC will do.

States and local governments’ interest in citizen and community engagement is an investment in content management. Granicus is designed to serve individual households with a citizenship experience. Public agencies seek the use of digital services for meetings, data delivery, general access, and record keeping. People can sign up and get alerts straight to their inbox when minutes are digitally published or laws drafted. Digital services can help neighborhoods and communities to define and solve problems with government agencies and staff.

Location-aware, internet-connected devices in the pocket of nearly every adult and child have an enormous capacity for the provision of information from changes in transit schedules to Amber Alerts. Often touted as an integral part of the smart city or government, the public charge is to assure accountability in the provision of accurate and reliable information. While the jury is out on “smartness,” laws such as the TPCA, suggest principles that encourage transparent management of public documents. In the screaming birth stages of digital devices, growing pains are inevitable. Like an eye-to-eye handshake, paying close attention to the public’s digital face and grip has been added to the watchfulness requirement. Public website portals provide a foundation of necessary access to information, including routine evaluations of the agency’s outcomes in regular reports. Performance-based management of every public act will be known whether it is the never-ending work of street repairs to managing the legislative process, each is an act of leadership in the public interest that can be recorded.

Human Resources and the Fifth Element

On the question of human nature, Milla Jovovich, playing the role of Leeloo in The Fifth Element says, “Everything you create, you use to destroy.” Her message is one that produces a millennium of drum beats. More than the existence of earth, air, fire, and water is the reality of love in resistance to hate.

Reading the Constitution via the National Archives may be an excellent pastime on how legislative bodies can make laws but offers little insight into the processes changing a life today. In contrast, reading the debate framework of The Federalist Papers reveals reverence drawn from historical relevance, experience, and reflection. We see how the ratification of the Constitution became possible, June 21, 1788. That it took twelve years to accomplish also captures attention. The details of the entire process are available from the National Constitution Center (here).

Over a two and a half-century period, the formation of a two-party system became central to the process of American self-governance. During that period, we have watched large-scale corporations and institutions grow too complicated to comprehend fully. Imagine yourself in the expansive boardrooms of a global corporation; its glass curtain wall exposes a vast urban landscape. The ocean glistens toward sunset. The agenda in this boardroom is to review the methods underway to sustain the expansion of global market contracts for the members around the table according to earnings reports confirming another quarter of extraordinarily continuous growth. All following conversations address mitigations by staff to meet that end. These two parts – sustaining market power and mitigating threats are one in both business and politics and represent a “third party” with a global scale.

Replacing concern for two-party politics, with interest in global organizations will improve the governance of democracies.

The power and mitigations process of the two-party system is unlikely to weaken, even though 43% of the electorate prefer a focus on issues as independent thinkers, thereby expressing significant disdain for the “them vs. us” condition we live with today. In a segment of the Duke MOOC, Phillip Bennett presents a kind of hopelessness on this point. He suggests the review of many sources confirming gloom and doom and starts by calling out David Broder’s book The Party’s Over. He also recommends The Pew Research Center and Gallup tracking of this condition in reports such as “Americans Less Interested in Two Major Political Parties,” at Gallup (2015).

In contrast, Tana Johnson seems hopeful, in her book, Organizational Progeny. She presents “bureaucracy” as a tainted entity, but more importantly, she sees progress in the growth of global governance structures as bureaus. Her book draws up an index of non-state actors around the world for analysis and points to a new depth of social networks, multinational businesses, and the thousands of independent agencies working on global markets and environmental concerns. These agents are achieving steps toward parity with state actors. The consensus is on one point. National political and business self-interest practices are harmful to the well-being of the earth. The proof is forthcoming slowly on specific dangers, involving death from large groups of people to coral reefs. The framework for building this knowledge does not come from state actors, but by paying attention and understanding the expanding role of International Intergovernmental Organizations (IGO). The central idea is the so-called “international community” does not exist today, but once (or if) a common set of values are found, it could. The European Union’s efforts to improve the market conditions for trade are based on a shared interest. The EU is summarized here.

Successful organizational development design includes structures that support decisions made by those closest to the source of information on an issue, in how they address problems on the ground, evaluate causes, and recommend the next steps. A good example is represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Instead of concern for the fate of national politics and their parties, the interest of the IPCC in the global, intergovernmental system offers insight into ways to improve governance in a Democracy as a civic engagement issue.

The earliest lessons in the creation of democracy begin with the struggle for independence found in the growing respect for law as an alternative to obstruction or war. Rules that prevent the design of an IGO as a creature of a nation-state assures decision-making methods are built on majority opinion or voting among groups within their bureaus. Internal respect for mission grows by not allowing low-level hindrances such as control of individual project funding or vetoes aimed at preventing the implementation of research, or demonstration programs. Designs with co-equal parts also provide a laterally broad (vs. vertical), organizational structure with interconnected and autonomous. The injection of financial resources from related IGOs further insulates their activities from the control of an individual country, state, or powerful actor.

The experience of the IPCC in developing policies and support for initiatives to increase independence and implementation capacity is in the design of the IPCC by the Reagan Administration. It was their decision not to install mechanisms that could obstruct and this led to a variety of “unorthodox methods to intervene in the IPCC’s work” by the George W. Bush Administration many years later. It was too late to inject state control mechanisms. Why? Tana Johnson selects one word — progeny. The formation of new global interest organizations as of 2000 represents 80% of all IGO formations, and they are the progeny of existing IGO agents, not nation-states. The increase is up from 40% of new post-war IGO starts 1940-1949. The crucial element is how the organizational design is developed in contrast to a nation state’s typical imputation of controls that could be used to put a local interest ahead of global concern. IGOs with a worldwide mission framework thereby include the support of many small states. In effect, Republics are forming based on common ground issues and self-interests in global networks designed to obtain a majority vote capacity.

Funding diplomacy as a problem solver is far less costly than weapons.
Human relationships are repairable and renewable, armament is nothing more than lethal waste.

In 1971, Bretton Woods (IMF & World Bank) renewed its charge on global currency objectives amidst extensive criticism. A half-century later the subject is how the IMF and World Bank function with greater independence than imagined yet fail. War, famine, under-employment, and other deteriorating global conditions exhibit the inability to resolve past wrongs more effectively. Correcting bad decisions and weak behaviors are not functions of the fiscal discipline demanded in loan agreements. Infrastructure projects financed by the World Bank Group also draw criticisms on the ethical issues associated with funding projects that cause the displacement of indigenous people only to reflect the dominance and priority of the industrialized nations. National economic policies are predetermined under IMF G7 styled packages (20 in 2018) leads to the loss of authority to govern the economy, especially among the small states. The G7 was formed to sustain a steady flow of fossil fuels and function today without the consultation of developing countries or those that are changing rapidly due to climate change. The lack of a useful organizational design built on controls over capital alone exposes the central principle of global stewardship that one nation can never be as smart as all of them and an organizational mechanism for one has become apparent.

Given the subject, Organizational Progeny has sustained readability. In the first 20 pages, the lessons for improving the U.S. democracy tell me not to look at political representatives by a party in any nation-state, but by how many political representatives understand their bureaucracy. The proof is in the following eight chapters. Improvements in global well-being through an expansion of IGO capacity to produce a self-improving progeny is possible, but one look at the index of U.S. Bureaucracy (HERE) gives one no such hope.  Nevertheless, establishing greater international relationships through these agencies is a route well worth exploring.

The most prevalent form of presentation of over 430 American government agencies is a list organized alphabetically. (but) Perhaps, organizational design is possible in the sense that defining “a system” can only be accomplished by using an even larger and more complex one. There is no authoritative list of the vast American bureaucracy; perhaps the Federal Register index/add year is a better source. The Register allegedly updates it at the end of each month. The legislation that created the Freedom of Information Act ( is maintained by the Department of Justice]. Here, about 80 independent executive agencies with 175 executive departments are on their list.  The criteria for the selection of this number is they comply with FOIA requirements, although they are imposed on every federal agency.

Perhaps more than all the other agencies representing government largess, instrumentality, mission, or management, the people in the FOIA offices represent the rise of a specific status group. Standing in public service remains central to officeholder credibility. If the mechanisms for access to public information begin to fail, think “house of cards,” think of yourself as impressionable and incapable of independent thought because you cannot prove your sources as reliable.

Michael Lewis reports on the Trump administration’s approach to staffing the federal government in his 2018 book, The Fifth Risk. There are examples such as 1) WMDs at home going off, an attack from 2) North Korea, or 3) Iran or fundamental infrastructure failure, especially 4) our fragile electric grid. Lewis sees the fifth risk 5) as “the thing you’re not thinking about when you’re worried about whatever you’re worried about.”

He sums up that fifth thing under the heading of “project management,” and despite the public hostility toward the services of government, the battle to reduce and destroy them from the top down has accelerated under conservative leaders in Congress since Obama’s mid-second term. Conservatives project individual strength (wealth, deal-making, and skepticism with press critics who among others are openly demonized. The management practice is to weaken or eliminate service institutions, especially if not statutorily protected. These are the ingredients of authoritarian business.

One quick story that Lewis tells that sums up his main concerns with the government. Catherine Woteki is a world-class authority on agricultural science. Her responsibility at the Department of Agriculture was to manage and review research grants approaching $3 billion, much of it on examining the impact on food production in the U.S. due to extended periods of drought, heavy rain, high winds, and substantial flooding. In January 2017, Trump replaced her with Sam Clovis, a right-wing talk show radio host from Iowa. He is without a science background, but he supported Trump in 2016. I hear Trump’s voice as he says, “Call my friend Sam if you need research money.” He’s a great guy.” Clovis withdrew his nomination in November 2018 following his connection to Russian interference in the election and substantial opposition in Iowa. Lewis points out that resistance to “old boy” politics is one reason for the structure and success of the Civil Service. Have you ever heard of the Sammie Award? Have a look (Here). It is about loyalty to the United States and its people.

Given the broad historical sweep of Congressional power, the rise of public cynicism, and policy, the strongest tend to occur during periods of prosperity.  The power of the president strengthens if there is economic trouble or threats. The strength of this power is diminished as Congress responds to discontent over the Vietnam War. When the Watergate scandal erupted, it was Congress that forced people to tell the truth and that led to President Nixon’s resignation. Nevertheless, Congress’s role requires the regular citing of relevant provisions of the Constitution to sustain its power, and there stand nominations to the Supreme Court. There should be a copy in the pocket of every member of Congress. Here are some reasons.

The work of the executive branch staff works hard to put Congress, as a coequal branch, in a subordinate position. Congress will often fail to take the power the Constitution gives it when difficult questions are posed. It avoided a vote on the war in Iraq, and when that happened it became known as Congresses, “use-it-or-lose-it” power, therefore yielding to the emergence of an “imperial presidency” since it was the first attempt in the Gulf of Tonquin, Vietnam.

The 1994 midterm elections reduced Bill Clinton’s power when Republicans captured control of the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. In that year, Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-GA) “Contract with America” sought to make Congress the center of the federal government and implement significant tax cuts. Then Congress was eclipsed by President Bush due to the 9/11/2001 that allowed him to draw on the President’s role as commander-in-chief.

Since 2001, the Supreme Court has found federal laws unconstitutional 14 times. The justifications for doing so generally fall into three distinct categories described (Here)  Putting Congress on the curb allows the executive branch to stonewall its party representatives on all issues from energy to the replacement of the Senate Majority Leader (First R-TN replaces Lott (R-MS).

The power The Executive might wane with the rise of congressional “oversight” power, but the word tends to mean lack of sight and routine mistakes. It is a congressional oxymoron. When Congress finds itself boxed in by Presidential powers, it is time to sit in the Senate and listen. If there are great debates taking place with respect for facts, the country’s leadership can strengthen, if not it is every citizen’s responsibility to find out why they are not talking openly.

Finally, in the spirit of MOOCs around the world, look for the work of our youngest professionals n screaming out of the academy in search of something that stands firmly in the world, does not equivocate or sidestep the reasons we love our country and earth. All people are different yet inspired by a straightforward opportunity – to live a good life, to be unharmed yet fearless in the search for a more perfect union. Here is just one more idea of precedent among millions of other insights worthy of the few thousand others that seek the simple truth of human existence. It will come down to what humans must have to grow and change, and that is a threat to their survival. We see something on the horizon that appears to be the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of vast swaths of the Natural world.

Science as Agitator

In the five year run of the TV series Third Rock from the Sun, John Lithgow was an Alien named Dick Solomon. He gave us the opportunity to laugh at the challenge of big problems with this observation.

“Where would we be without the agitators of the world attaching the electrodes of knowledge to the nipple of ignorance?”

John Lithgow

The Union of Concerned Scientists is an international group aimed at the planet’s most pressing problems and backed by sound scientific analysis. This organization has responded well to growing resistance to decisions based on political calculation and corporate hype.  Evidence came soundly in when results of the 2018 mid-term election added ten new scientists to Congress and all seven scientists endorsed by 314 Action who were up for reelection won their races as did seven other, other incumbent scientists.  (More on the Union and 314 is in Media & Measurement)

The concrete structures of a problem become known through a set of expressions. For example, climate change expressed as extreme weather events can have a metric such as the moisture in the air, which in turn can be sourced to warming ocean temperatures and that to the increasing presence of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. In this case, the big heading is global warming. It has just one number, the “too late year” or the tipping point after which the science suggests the changes predicted cannot be reversed. As big problems are groups of small ones, it is especially tricky when they represent a change framework involving centuries. Global warming is not fast enough to be experienced by people, and an extreme weather event or fire cannot be linked to it as a cause. Big problems also live in the middle ground between fear of the unknown and confusion about science. They combine to produce apathy in an ordinary person and a career for a climate scientist.

Technological systems are available to “draw down” gases that heat the atmosphere. However, the global production of these gases is increasing at a rate higher than Nature’s service, or that technology offers to lead to a zero-sum conclusion. Furthermore, political solutions to reduce emissions require an enormous reduction of apathy regarding the issue, and greater trust in science, its disciplines, and practices. Reshaping the world or just the United States requires technology. However, the major contributor to atmospheric gases is without a technical solution.  The waste in energy use created by modern land-use patterns is the primary cause followed by the way food is produced and delivered. There is no drawdown technology for these practices; it is a consumer choice problem for policymakers that is almost impossible to explain. Here too, the set of expressions are many.  Isolated housing, auto dependency, high per capita infrastructure costs, fragmented uses, and environmental damage are all traced to a failure of urban planning, architecture, and engineering, not because what they did was wrong, it is just no longer right.

The chart below illustrates all the major sources of energy used by all the major sectors of the economy. Transportation, residential, commercial life, and industrial production are the major sectors that require electricity to function. All but the producers of electrical power (who have an efficiency of distribution problem) have a major impact on land use and food production. The current uses of land and the food energy people need are expressions of problems. Each is a clue to the concrete structure of the larger one. Energy in the use and management of land and food will require a much better vehicle for its use and best described today in one word “city,” the function and purpose of which is the most significant problem humanity has yet to face.


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